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Posted by Robert McDermott on Apr-13-01 10:20am on the Wilber Forum.

Original article by Ken Wilber

Response to Ken Wilber

Robert McDermott


10 April 2001

Dear Readers of the Shambala Ken Wilber Website,

In connection with the seminar on the thought of Ken Wilber, taught by Sean Kelly and Jorge Ferrer, that I am auditing this semester, I sometimes ask myself, "What must it be like to be Ken Wilber--to be so smart, so generative, so controversial?" I ask this question perhaps more often than others do because for most of the nine years that I was president of CIIS I was repeatedly asked a similar question, one that took a form something like: "What must it be like to be in your position, to be the object of so much projection, positive and negative, far beyond what a person can be expected to absorb?"

For many years I had considered marriage and the raising of children to be the most challenging test of a spiritual discipline but serving as president of a volatile new paradigm graduate school presented challenges for which the life of a husband, parent, friend, and college professor (for twenty five years) simply did not prepare me. The difference, of course, was to be caught in aspirations and fears, sympathies and antipathies, of colleagues near and far, friendly and hostile. In the process, as a result of painful experiences, I learned to take attacks seriously but not personally—at least not necessarily or entirely. I also tried to learn to check my memory, seek out the other side of the story, and to give the benefit of the doubt. I wish Ken had taken similar steps before posting his latest attack on me and on CIIS as part of his response to Christian de Quincy.

Ken Wilber is praised, it seems to me, in excess and comes under attack, often in excess. Like the president of an institution, he is the object of projections. I really do sympathize with him on both counts: excessive praise is seductive and destructive, excessive blame is demoralizing and exhausting. When I was asked by Donald Rothberg and Sean Kelly to submit to Revision an essay on Ken’s published writings from the perspective of philosophy as spiritual discipline (the title of an essay I had published in 1989), I was uncertain but hopeful that Ken and I could bring to the fore something new and productive about the spiritual character of philosophizing, and especially philosophizing in dialogue. Although our dialogue was not particularly successful, I thought that considering the risks involved, we both survived as well as could be expected. I felt reassured when, in January 1999, Ken invited me to contribute an essay to his forthcoming volume, Kindred Visions. I immediately sent Ken my acceptance and promised to write an essay especially for this purpose. We agree that I would write on classical American thought and Rudolf Steiner, both in a way that would be relevant to his thought.

On January 5, 2000, now sixteen months ago, I sent Ken my finished essay by mail as well as by email; neither was returned to me. At the same time I sent copies to several of Ken’s colleagues. I also sent the following cover letter:

Dear Ken,

I am sending you the essay I promised to write a full year ago. I have no reason to believe that the opportunity you kindly extended to me is still open but as I was unhappy with myself for not having sent you an essay as I had promised, at the first available stretch of time at my disposal, I wrote a version with which I am satisfied. Of course, if it is not too late, and if you find it acceptable, I would be delighted.

By way of explanation for the full-year delay of my submission, I am embarrassed to admit that I wrote three quite different versions, none of which seemed to me acceptable. These earlier versions, separated from this one by about nine months, were variously complicated, stilted, and a bit argumentative—perhaps unconsciously in relation to one or another of the controversies that have swirled around your published works. I felt that these versions, despite some fine passages, did not have the right tone and did not serve either of us.

As I appreciated the graciousness of your invitation, and as I was eager to be included in a "kindred visions" section because my work really is kindred to yours, I took up the challenge again once my sabbatical and a move took effect. Now that I am removed from the stress of office, with the novel luxury of spending many days in succession reading and writing, I have been able to focus with a degree of equanimity all too rare while holding an administrative appointment.

I would be grateful for any comments or reactions to this essay you might want to share with me. If you or your editor want some revisions, I will be eager to cooperate.

I hope that if this essay is too late for publication in your Collected Works,that we might yet collaborate on another project.

With best wishes for you and for your important work,


Robert McDermott

I did not mind, and did not think it strange, that I did not receive acknowledgement from Ken or from his publishers. I knew from Ken’s friends, several of whom had read one or another of the unsuccessful versions, that the book was stalled. About six months after I submitted my quite lengthy essay to Ken, I shared it with Ralph White, the editor of Lapis, while we were at a conference. At Ralph’s request, I published "Anthroposophical and Transpersonal Worldviews," accompanied by the following note: "This essay is a revised version of the fourth section of an essay entitled "My Transpersonal Worldview" written for a forthcoming volume in The Collected Works of Ken Wilber with the working title, Kindred Visions (Quest Books).

I not only didn’t refuse to contribute to Kindred Visions, I sent him a carefully written essay. Similarly, there is plenty of evidence that in my dealings with Ken, and in my comments about Ken within the CIIS community, I am neither hostile nor part of a collective opposition. In the seminar on his thought that I attend weekly, I recently presented on Ken’s Integral Aesthetics. As many mutual friends will attest, I applaud his intellectual brilliance and productivity and regret only that he feels himself to be under attack while he exhibits so little understanding of the ways that he has contributed to the controversies and misunderstandings that attach to him and his work.

As I read the part of Ken’s letter to the Shambala website which accused me and CIIS of vilifying him, I surmised that Ken must be getting increasingly entrapped by the projections piled on him by his readers, and particularly by his critics. I am not blaming him for this perfectly understandable reaction. I am, however, urging him, as good friends urged me while I was president of CIIS, to seek and implement the advice of counselors who are wise with respect to living and working under constant scrutiny. I can only assume that Ken’s renewed attack on me and on CIIS comes from his confronting widespread and sometimes vociferous responses to his words and deeds, and no doubt, to his purported motives. Those of us who are or have been in a position in which it is necessary to receive wave upon wave of projection over a number of years surely recognize both the difficulty in such a situation and the karmic appropriateness of being in that position. Thomas Merton quoted Cyprian: "Let that which wounds you be your cure."

I believe that the task of an institution of higher education, particularly one dedicated to the search for spiritual insight, is to create and sustain a culture that is restless for deeper and wider understanding and yet safe for disagreement. This is exactly what Ken would observe if he were to audit the seminar devoted entirely to his writings, and if he were to eavesdrop on the many references to him and his work throughout the year. A wide range of opinion is addressed to Platonists and Hegelians, Sri Aurobindo and the Dalai Lama, Jung and Grof, eco-feminists and romantics, evolutionists and perennialists. More controversy attaches to Ken and his work than to those who espouse these positions because he has so often met questions and criticism with acrimony and accusation. Anyone whose writings are seriously and honestly discussed in a graduate school such as CIIS should be pleased—and at a minimum should not publish complaints about the institution that sustains such discussions.

For myself, I have no need to add to the chorus of complaint concerning Ken but I do want to recommend that everyone in the transpersonal/integral community involved in disagreements with or concerning Ken simply lower the degree of certitude, reduce the rancor, and guard against inflation. I especially urge Ken to stop attacking the California Institute of Integral Studies, an institution with a deliberately wide array of perspectives. CIIS has long included students and faculty members who are critical of Ken and his writings, but no more so than he has been critical of them—and, it seems to me, rather less so. CIIS also includes faculty members (particularly Sean Kelly, Jorge Ferrer, Stan Grof, Brant Cortright, Kaisa Puhaka and myself) and at least twenty students who study his writings and discuss his ideas in ways that are serious, respectful and, as is academically appropriate, in varying degrees of agreement. As former president, I can assure Ken and anyone interested that at CIIS there is no orthodoxy—except perhaps anti-orthodoxy; there is no opinion police.

What other institution offers a graduate seminar dedicated solely to Ken’s writings? In addition to this course, the Wilber Discussion Group is the only group not officially part of the Institute that is given space in the building for its regular meetings. Despite repeated criticisms and accusations in his published writings and now on his website, CIIS as a community and institution remains positive to Ken Wilber and to his work--and earnestly requests that Ken begin to respond more appropriately.

With respect for Ken and his contribution to contemporary philosophy and psychology, and with hope for a more positive relationship in the future,


Robert McDermott
President Emeritus
Professor, Program in Philosophy, Cosmology and Consciousness

Read also: Ken Wilber's response to McDermott

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