Quest Magazine - January 2006.
Among the numerous epithets applied to Ken Wilber are: “spiritual and philosophical genius,” “the most comprehensive and passionate philosopher of our times,” “the pundit of transpersonal psychology,” “the Einstein of consciousness research.” In Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, Frank Visser offers the first full-length study of the profound and wide-ranging work of this highly lauded scholar/practitioner of the wisdom traditions, which in printed form alone consists at present of nineteen books and many articles. Visser characterizes Wilber as an author who works in seven disciplines: as a theorist, synthesist, critic, polemicist, pandit (spiritual intellectual), guide, and mystic. Wilber's expertise bridges East and West as he investigates and integrates, among others, such domains as philosophy, religion/spirituality, psychology, sociology, science, culture, and art.

Visser rightly sees the great chain of being—evolution proceeding from and through matter, body, mind, soul, spirit (with refinements and elaborations of this basic pattern)—as central to Wilber's analysis of the human unfolding, both collective and individual. And although he does treat Wilber's contributions in term of integrating the various strands of human experience and knowledge, he fails to sufficiently highlight the uniqueness and vital significance of Wilber's broad and thoroughly integral model, as well as Wilber's insistence that only integral studies is adequate to the richness and complexity of human experience. Wilber works with the principle (perhaps with tongue in cheek) that no one is bright enough to be wrong all the time, and therefore he attempts to find that which is authentic and of value even in views that may seem outlandish. It is this approach that enables him to establish harmony between religion and science in his The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion.

Foundational to Wilber's integral approach is the quadrant labeled AQAL, which stands for “all quadrant, all levels, all lines, all states, all types.” The four blocks in the quadrant are: Upper Left (Individual Interior, Mind, Intentional, etc.), Upper Right (Individual Exterior, Brain, Behavior, etc.), Lower Left (Collective Interior, Culture, Art, etc.), and Lower Right (Collective Exterior, Social, Government, etc.). Wilber argues that any integral and therefore adequate account of the human situation must honor each of the quadrants, ignoring or minimizing none. The “levels, lines, states, and types” represent developments within the Upper Left quadrant, Wilber's area of special interest and expertise (see, for example, his Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy). Wilber believes that psychospiritual maturation (Upper Left) has positive manifestations in the other quadrants even as it is open to their influence.

A single example of Wilber's many clarifying and synthesizing principles is what he calls the pre/trans fallacy, mistaking that which is prepersonal for that which is transpersonal, and vice versa. According to Wilber, Freud fell victim to this fallacy by equating mystical experience (transpersonal) with regressive oceanic feelings (prepersonal). Similarly, “Jung occasionally end[s] up glorifying certain infantile mythic forms of thought[;] he also frequently gives a repressive treatment of Spirit.” A trenchant criticism of the New Age movement can also be leveled using the pre/trans fallacy. Wilber contends that many New Agers equate “spirituality with magical thinking, mythological fables, and [exhibit] a narcissistic concern with . . . [their] own spiritual well-being.”

Wilber's scholarly output, undeniably vast and profound, has been crucially informed by his many years as a regular meditator. Wilber claims, rightly, that the insights and levels of realization of which he writes are available only to those who undertake the arduous discipline of neutralizing and transcending those inevitable factors in the mind that keep one bound to suffering and discord, namely and briefly, greed, hatred, and delusion (to use a Buddhist summary). He writes: “The whole thrust of my work is to make spiritual practice legitimate, to give it an academic grounding so people will think twice before they dismiss meditation as some sort of narcissistic withdrawal or oceanic regression.”

Visser has rendered invaluable service to anyone wanting a careful and comprehensive overview and analysis of Ken Wilber's massive output. His is itself a scholarly presentation, represented not only by the quality of the text but also by the many charts and diagrams, by the complete bibliography of Wilber's publications, and by the extensive notes and index.

--James E. Royster
The reviewer is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Cleveland State University