Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

Jeff MeyerhoffBald AmbitionJeff Meyerhoff, M.A., L.S.W. is the author of "Bald Ambition: A Critique of Ken Wilber's Theory of Everything" and other essays on integral theory. He majored in economics and sociology and has studied philosophy, psychology, politics and spirituality. He's been employed as a social worker for the last 25 years. His weekly radio show, "The Ruminator," is archived at His blog is and his email is [email protected].



Psychological Analysis
of Wilber's Beliefs

Bald Ambition: Chapter 10

Jeff Meyerhoff


I present here a psychological analysis of Ken Wilber's theory of everything. This is an unconventional analysis, so I offer three justifications.

I present here a psychological analysis of Ken Wilber's theory of everything. This is an unconventional analysis, so I offer three justifications.

In the previous chapter I described and justified a psychological analysis of belief and used myself as an illustration. Here, the success of a psychological analysis of belief can be judged by comparing Ken Wilber's ideas and the available autobiographical and biographical material about him.

Secondly, throughout the book I have provided evidence for the contention that Wilber has not created an all-encompassing integration using an aperspectival vision-logic, but a particular perspective that meets particular needs. The profound correlations that I show in this chapter between the character of his system and his life are more evidence for that contention.

Finally, if we assume that it is the nature of reality that causes one to have a correct theory of reality, as is conventionally done, then there must be some other cause, besides reality, for an incorrect theory. I have shown the many fundamental flaws in Wilber's theory of the Kosmos. If Wilber's theory is fundamentally problematic, this suggests that it is not the facts of the Kosmos that determine the character of his theory. If Wilber's theory of the Kosmos is not derived from the actual Kosmos, from where does it derive? Why does Wilber construct this particular theory? To answer these questions I will show the way in which Wilber's theory is derived from his psychology and life. As he says "the all-important question when trying to understand artifacts is: what level of consciousness . . . produced the artifact?"[1] Since I think less hierarchically than him, I will modify his question and ask: what kind of consciousness produced the artifact that is his system?


In essential ways the Kosmos's story is Wilber's story. His life and tasks become the Kosmos's nature and purpose. For Wilber, duality, fragmentation and separation are repeatedly identified as what is problematic in the world. The dualities such as interior/exterior, subject/object, individual/social, science/spirit, Ascending/Descending, Ego/Eco must be reconciled. So too, Western history, modern life, the individual's spiritual path, conflicting psychological models and therapies, the big three and the two arrows of time are all diagnosed as being split, fragmented or separated and must be transcended. In each case the solution is integration, whether through a spectrum of consciousness, the four quadrant map, transcendence and inclusion, holons, the centaur, a marriage of sense and soul or an integral psychology. The problem diagnosed and the cure recommended repeats.

Similarly, the pattern in which problems develop and solutions are found repeats. As far back as The Spectrum of Consciousness Wilber's task has been to integrate contradictory, but true, knowledge claims. This has not been a merely intellectual issue for him, it has been essential for his psychic well-being. In an article entitled "Odyssey" published in 1982, he stated that:

Life for me was sour; it was unhappy. And in part I was obsessed with reading all the great psychologists and sages because I was searching for a way out of the sour life; reading was motivated by personal existential therapy, to put it in dry terms. The point is that I had to ‘read everything' because I was trying mentally and emotionally to put together in a comprehensive framework that which I felt was necessary for my own salvation.[2]

The phrase "necessary for my own salvation" suggests the spiritual and emotional urgency of making everything fit together intellectually. Over the course of his intellectual life, the need to integrate diverse areas of knowledge was his guiding drive. His desire for integration is evident in the series of books he has published culminating in SES, his biggest attempt to overcome duality yet. Similarly, when working on SES he "was trying to pull together dozens of disciplines in all four quadrants, and this was a seemingly unending nightmare."[3] Wilber's characteristic "unending nightmare" being one in which there is a chaos of knowledge that he must order. It is as if the world keeps confronting him as a disassembled jigsaw puzzle which he feels compelled to assemble.

I wondered about this pattern for some time. Not everyone sees the world in this way, nor experiences this as their central issue. What does it mean to him? Why the pattern of focusing on dualities and feeling driven to reconcile them? Even the ground and ever-present essence of the universe is described by him as "non-duality." Then, an image hit me and it all coalesced. Early in Grace & Grit, he and his late wife were awaiting the doctor's prognosis on her test for cancer. When told that she did indeed have cancer, Wilber says that "It felt like the universe turned into a thin paper, and then someone simply tore the tissue in half right in front of my eyes." Later in the same paragraph he returns to this image stating that "our universe had just been torn right down the middle."[4] The universe, that had been whole, was now split into two parts - a duality. This duality arose out of the prospect and premonition of a tremendous loss. Here the loss was of the person who completed him, who allowed him to go from being a part to a whole.

I will always be at home in ideas, Treya will always be at home in nature, but together, joined in the Heart, we were whole; we could find that primal unity which neither alone could manage. Our favorite Plato quote became: ‘Men and women were once whole but were torn in two, and the pursuit and desire of that whole is called love'.[5]

Surrounding the same loss we have three references to tearing. Eleven years later, in his novel Boomeritis, the protagonist named "Ken Wilber" says, "‘I wanted to feel that I wasn't being internally drawn and quartered' - that was it exactly. I kept saying that to myself all that summer - I don't want to be torn inside."[6] This image of the universe "torn in two," of being torn as the result of a horrendous loss, is the central metaphor of Wilber's work. To overcome duality and the attendant loss is his primary motivating need. Integration is the method by which wholeness is restored and duality, separation and loss are deferred.

The loss of his wife in 1988 was probably the most horrible of his life, but the pattern of loss was established much earlier. In Tony Schwartz's What Really Matters?,[7] there are only a few pages about Wilber's background, but what is striking about them is the central theme of loss in his life. The family's losses began even before Wilber was born. His father suffered the horrible tragedy of losing both his father and mother when he was young. Wilber states that "My father was abandoned by his own father when he was four, his mother died of tuberculosis soon after."[8] Yet even with these staggering losses his father "never blamed any of life's difficulties on his father's leaving him or his mother's death." A noble stoicism, but a means of coping that suggests these tremendous losses were not worked through and so acted out. This is partially confirmed when we learn from Wilber that "My father wasn't around a lot when I was growing up."[9] A repetition of the father's loss of his father passed down to the son.

Wilber's mother had her own issues with loss which she transmitted to her son. With her husband absent a lot, Wilber "became not only my mother's darling kid but almost a substitute husband."[10] "When it came time to really let me go, that became a real problem."[11] He "felt overwhelmed. I needed to establish my own space - without feeling that I'd be abandoned [i.e. suffer loss]."[12]

For Wilber's father and mother, abandonment, separation and loss were central issues. Loss and the terror of loss were transmitted to Wilber as a child in overt and covert ways. While growing up, his father's job as a career officer in the Air Force required that "the family move to a new town nearly every year."[13] Wilber acknowledges how painful this was and recounts "sobbing continuously for several days when he had to leave one town."[14] For a child the pain of moving can be severe, Wilber had to do it "nearly every year."

While loss is a central theme in his childhood it still doesn't seem like enough loss to explain the outsized yearning for a positive wholeness that his intellectual system demonstrates. In addition, these losses were compensated for by the security and freedom that his parents provided, his exceptional abilities in academics, sports and school politics and a seemingly in-born resiliency and good humor. (Although, in Grace &Grit he attributes these childhood accomplishments to a "fear of rejection"; rejection being another form of loss.)[15] It seems like a more profound loss would better explain the outsized need to create such a vast, progressive, un-tragic system. '

With only a limited amount of information about his background I can only speculate, but one passage is suggestive. Wilber states that throughout childhood "my true passion, my inner daemon, was for science. I fashioned a self that was built on logic, structured by physics, and moved by chemistry."[16] This devotion to the natural sciences and the "self that was built on" them went through a radical change through his exposure to Eastern mystical literature at the age of twenty. "Within a period of a few months . . . the meaning of my life, as I had known it, simply began to disappear." He jokingly and ironically compares it to a marital relationship: "Oh, it was nothing dramatic; more like waking up one morning, after twenty years of marriage, with the ‘sudden' realization that you no longer loved (or even recognized) your spouse." "It was a time for separation." "The old sage [Lao-tse through the Tao te Ching] had touched a cord so deep in me (and so much stronger due to its 20-year repression) that I suddenly awoke to the silent but certain realization that my old life, my old self, my old beliefs could no longer be energized."[17]

For a "repression" to occur there must be an event that necessitated the repression. What caused that "20-year repression of Wilber's spiritual self"? What was that event that had the power to cause the baby to disconnect from his spiritual self and adopt the dramatically opposite persona of "a self that was built on logic, structured by physics, and moved by chemistry"? A dramatic shift, and one Wilber experienced as calling for "a separation," and a "repression" of part of himself.

We see this core issue of duality or separation and the need to integrate played out in many different ways. A central theme in his personal life, his intellectual project and his diagnosis of society is the split between science and spirit. Both personally and intellectually he needs to validate spirit to science. In Wilber's journals, One Taste, one of the rare negative exchanges occurs when Wilber, in his zeal to prove that higher spiritual states are scientifically verifiable, shows his guests a videotape of himself hooked up to an EEG machine which records his brain wave activity as he passes through higher and higher spiritual states. Wilber writes that his good friend Sam Bercholz "says I make a total ass out of myself by showing this, since it seems so self-serving, so braggadocio." But Wilber doesn't care because "to me it's just an objective event" and because "[i]t also convinced the soon-to-be psychiatrist [in the audience], as it does virtually every scientific type I show it to."[18] He gets to impress people with his spiritual attainment and use that attainment to convince a "scientific type" of the validity of spiritual states.

This split between science and spirit and the need to prove spirit to science we see in Wilber's intellectual project. Over his 30 year career he has tried to validate spirituality to science. The convincingness of his integral synthesis depends not on spiritual insight, but on scientific evidence and rational argumentation. In books such as Eye to Eye, Quantum Questions and many others he tries to bring spirituality into the mainstream scientific fold. His whole Kosmic synthesis in SES can be understood as an attempt to gain scientific legitimacy for spirituality and for himself. His personal task to reconcile his scientific and spiritual selves becomes his intellectual task.

This need is evidenced in a small, but telling comment he makes to his wife in Grace & Grit. His late wife quotes his reaction to someone's comment that he is considered the leading theorist in transpersonal studies. This could be received by Wilber in many ways: he could brim with pride, be modest, etc. He responds by saying that

"being called the foremost theorist in transpersonal studies is like being called the tallest building in Kansas City."[19]

On the surface this comment shows Wilber's good-natured humor and his realism in assessing the marginal status of Transpersonal Psychology. But beneath the surface is the suggestion that being the leading transpersonal theorist is not worth much in comparison to being the leading theorist in some well-regarded academic field. It would be much better to be the tallest building in New York City or London. His mammoth theory of everything, documented with nearly 240 pages of endnotes and attempting to integrate all the sciences can be read as his attempt to be the tallest building in the largest of academic cities.

This personal and intellectual task becomes contemporary society's task. The need to both reconcile spirit and science, and prove spirit to science becomes the culture's need in books such as The Marriage of Sense and Soul. Historically, what Wilber repressed for 20 years is what post-Enlightenment society has repressed for 300 years and needs to recover. Like him, rational, scientific, post-Enlightenment society repressed its spirituality throughout its "childhood" and must recover its lost spirit. Wilber's main diagnosis of modern society is that it is a "flatland" society, i.e. it has no spiritual sense because of its excessive devotion to a scientific-materialist reductionism. A critique the spiritual adult Wilber could make of his former scientific childhood self.

Spiritually, each individual's mystical journey and human society's future development follow the same stages as Wilber's personal journey. As described in his article from 1982, Wilber was drawn mainly to Eastern practices. He passed through what he calls psychic, subtle, causal and non-dual stages of insight. Not coincidentally, he believes that these same developmental stages occur in all mystical traditions. More implausibly though, he contends this would be the natural unfolding of society's evolution. If all goes well, society will pass through each of these four stages of development just as it passed through the magic, mythic and rational stages. Wilber's culminating non-dual insight is the supreme insight of all the major mystical traditions and describes the essential nature of the Kosmos. It is not just what he realized through his spiritual practices, it is the Kosmos's own ground and telos. Of course, Wilber would argue that I have it backwards. He passed through those spiritual stages because everyone does, not the other way around. But this would have to be demonstrated through textual analysis and, despite Wilber's claims, this has not been done.

An example which brings together the issues of early loss of spirit, insecurity relative to the academic establishment, the need to prove to and conquer that establishment and the great attachment to themes of development and maturity can be found on the very first page of SES. On the surface it appears that Wilber is simply contrasting his work with prevailing attitudes in academia and intellectual culture. But the psychologically suggestive metaphor he chooses to depict the contrast, and his assertive, irritated and defensive tone, indicate the deeper issues that are at play for him.

Wilber asserts that in contrast to the predominant intellectual perspective which denies any larger order, meaning or pattern behind the workings of the cosmos, he believes there is something else going on behind all the appearances; some greater order and meaning. He derogatorily names his opponents' position "the philosophy of oops" because they think that ultimately everything just happens by accident: "oops." The way Wilber expresses this straightforward point is quite revealing. The central metaphor revolves around the issue of development or who is mature and who immature. He says that in contrast to those, like himself, who want to ask the big questions about why we are here?, and what's it all about?, the philosophers of oops appear "sophisticated and adult," but that their response boils down to "Don't ask!" They contend, according to Wilber, that "the question itself is...confused, pathological, nonsensical, or infantile" and that the "mark of maturity" is to stop "asking such silly and confused questions"; much like a frustrated parent to a precocious child. But Wilber turns the tables on these maturity poseurs and says that their answer to the big questions ("Don't ask!") "is about as infantile a response as the human condition could possibly offer." So it is they who are immature and infantile and it is he, in his metaphysical questioning, who is mature and adult.

Here we see so many of Wilber's personal issues being played out on the very first page of his magnum opus. By asking metaphysical questions and seeking answers in spirituality, Wilber sees himself as "infantile" and like a little boy relative to the dominant intellectuals who falsely think they are "adult" and dismiss questions such as Wilber's as "silly." He sees himself in the eyes of rational adulthood as a silly boy. But, he is able to turn the tables on this misguided skeptical rationality and see that it is they who offer an "infantile" response, and that it is actually he who is "mature" or developmentally advanced. The little spiritual boy who put his spirituality away in order to adopt a scientific and rational persona finally gets his due by devising a seemingly rational and scientific system that both includes his scientific persona and transcends it in a larger encompassing spirituality. Despite their societal legitimacy and authority, Wilber has exposed the "infantile" nature of the dominant philosophies and assumed the mantle of maturity.

We see here how he couches his struggle in terms of maturity and immaturity. When discussing individuals' and groups' level of development he demonstrates a strong ambivalence towards those on lower developmental levels whom he feels compelled to both condescend to and appreciate. And the same issue is seen in his overwhelming need to create a theory in which his spiritual attainment and intellectual synthesis are supreme. Intellectually, these psychological issues manifest in his well known pre/trans fallacy in which what is advanced and what is regressed is sorted out, and in his powerful need to see the entire Kosmos in goal-directed, evolutionary and developmental terms despite the undermining that prevailing skeptical approaches threaten. Wilber once quipped to his wife that "kids love him...because he's the same emotional age as they are."[20]

An aversion to loss, and a resulting desire for integration, accounts for Wilber's strong favoring of positive system-building theorists. Like his heroes Plotinus, Schelling and Habermas, Wilber is a positive system builder. His is a grand, all-encompassing synthesis in which nature or a deeper order advances toward greater complexity and higher inclusion and transcendence. His work is about evolutionary progress and developmental advance which, when unfolding naturally, create a more moral Kosmos. Contrary to the belief that we live in an amoral, relativistic, postmodern miasma, Wilber believes there is a moral order and we can have direct knowledge of the essence of reality through mystical practice. Humans are again on top, reversing the demotions in our standing that the Copernican, Darwinian and Freudian revolutions wrought. The evolutionary process of transcendence and inclusion means that nothing essential need be lost because the natural, social and individual structures that arise retain what is essential from previous stages. As we saw in the chapter on social evolution, the emphasis is on the negative aspects of bygone eras so that the positive aspects of developmentally later eras can be highlighted. The basic structures of past social systems are preserved in superior, superseding systems. The vast loss of cultures, peoples, languages and ways of life is neglected. It is an unrelentingly positive philosophy and affirmative history of everything.

The way negative Kosmic occurrences are understood reinforces the positive view. Wilber acknowledges that things can go wrong with development, but the problems of ecological devastation, resource depletion, nuclear war, or a corporatized globalization are rarely mentioned. They are deployed to show his awareness of them and that his system is not deterministic. The horrors of earlier historical eras are used to defend his contention that past eras were worse than ours and so ours can be seen as a developmental advance over them. However bad the social structure or regrettable the suffering of the past, it was the best that humanity could manage at that stage of developmental advance. Negative occurrences are labeled regressions or pathologies and their status within his system is ambiguous. According to tenet twelve, physical, biological and mental systems are pulled towards actualization or development; the natural tendency of things is to advance. But if this is the case, how do we understand regressions and pathologies? Are they not intended by the larger order? Are they mistakes or chance occurrences? If things go right and greater complexity unfolds through the process of transcendence and inclusion according to the twenty tenets then things have unfolded according the way the Kosmos is set up. But how are we to understand things going wrong as when destruction, devolution and extinction occur? How are we to understand the increasing simplification of some species, the destruction of the dinosaurs, the daily extinction of species or the probable cold death of the universe? Because Wilber's system is fundamentally positive, negative occurrences are unexplained.

The positivity of Wilber's history of everything and his idiosyncratic universalism can be seen clearly by placing it within Hayden White's typology of history writing. In books such as The Content of the Form[21] and Metahistory,[22] Hayden White has demonstrated how history writing, because it is a narrative or story, is forced to commit itself to the literary forms and values that narratives must assume. While Wilber wants his history of the Kosmos to be as inclusive, aperspectival and universal as possible its narrative form betrays its bias. Narrative differs from a chronicle, or a list of dates and facts, in that it is tied together with a moral. No moral, no story. Value presuppositions must infuse all history writing written in the story form. Each form of history-writing commits itself to a particular narrative structure which is chosen not based on the facts of the matter, but on the values that matter to the writer. The narrative type in which history is written prefigures the "facts" and the world "represented" by the writer. Because Wilber is writing "a brief history of cosmos, bios, psyche, theos - a tale"[23] he commits himself to one of the types of narrative structure that White describes. By examining Wilber's historical style we can see the particularity of his purported universality. In juxtaposing his style to other possible narrative styles we can see the options Wilber rejected and the other ways we can write the history of the Kosmos.

The first aspect of narrative that White describes is what he terms the narrative's type of "emplotment." The four main types of "emplotment" are Romance, Comedy, Tragedy and Satire. "If, in the course of narrating his story, the historian provides it with the plot structure of a Tragedy, he has ‘explained' it in one way; if he has structured it as a Comedy, he has ‘explained' it in another way."[24] By unconsciously choosing one plot structure over another the writer has determined the meaning of history. "The Romance is fundamentally a drama of self-identification symbolized by the hero's transcendence of the world of experience, his victory over it, and his final liberation from it - the sort of drama associated with the Grail legend or the story of the resurrection of Christ in Christian mythology."[25] While the story of Wilber's personal journey could be fashioned in this way by reference to his spiritual achievements, it is not the mode of emplotment of his history of the Kosmos. Wilber's history follows the Comedic mode in that it

suggest[s] the possibility of at least partial liberation from the condition of the Fall and provisional release from the divided state in which men find themselves in this world. . . . In Comedy, hope is held out for the temporary triumph of man over his world by the prospect of occasional reconciliations of the forces at play in the social and natural worlds. . . .The reconciliations which occur at the end of Comedy are reconciliations of men with men, of men with their world and their society; the condition of society is represented as being purer, saner, and healthier as a result of the conflict among seemingly inalterably opposed elements in the world; these elements are revealed to be, in the long run, harmonizable with one another, unified, at one with themselves and the others.[26]

For Wilber, a non-dual society is far off in the future. Unlike the Romantic Marxist vision we will not be enjoying a classless, communist utopia anytime soon. For now, we can hope that the "divided state in which men find themselves in this world" and "the conflict among seemingly opposed elements" - the dualities - will result in "reconciliations" - new integrations - in which the "seemingly inalterably opposed elements" of science and spirit, the big three, etc. will be transcended and included and "revealed to be in the long run, harmonizable with one another, unified, at one with themselves and the others" in a centauric evolutionary embrace.

Confirming my characterization of Wilber's work as positive, is his distance from the two negative modes of emplotment, Tragedy and Satire. "In Tragedy, there are no festive occasions, except false and illusory ones; rather, there are intimations of states of division among men more terrible than that which incited the tragic agon at the beginning of the drama. . . . .The reconciliations that occur at the end of Tragedy are much more somber; they are more in the nature of resignations of men to the conditions under which they must labor in the world."[27] Wilber's work does have some tragic elements, as in his view that the conflicts and challenges humanity confronts become greater as we evolve, but they play a small role in his overall vision.

Satire, the most negative mode, plays no role in Wilber's vision. Satire views "the hopes, possibilities, and truths of human existence revealed in Romance, Comedy, and Tragedy... ironically, in the atmosphere generated by the apprehension of the ultimate inadequacy of consciousness to live in the world happily or to comprehend it fully."[28]

The second aspect of White's typology of history writing is the four forms of argumentation. Unlike the modes of emplotment, Wilber's argumentative approach falls exclusively within only one of the four forms. The four forms are the Formist, Organicist, Mechanistic, and Contextualist. Wilber uses the Organicist form which White explains this way:

Organicist world hypotheses and their corresponding theories of truth and argument are relatively more ‘integrative' and hence more reductive in their operations. The Organicist attempts to depict the particulars discerned in the historical field as components of synthetic processes. At the heart of the Organicist strategy is a metaphysical commitment to the paradigm of the microcosmic-macrocosmic relationship; and the Organicist historian will tend to be governed by the desire to see individual entities as components of processes which aggregate into wholes that are greater than, or qualitatively different from, the sum of their parts. . . . historians working in this mode will be more interested in characterizing the integrative process than in depicting its individual elements. This is what gives to the historical arguments cast in this mode their ‘abstract' quality. Moreover, history written in this mode tends to be oriented toward the determination of the end or goal toward which all the processes found in the historical field are presumed to be tending.[29]

Written five years before the publication of Wilber's first book in 1978, this reads, with minor emendations, like a summation of Wilber's central view.

The third aspect of White's typology is the ideological implications of the historian's style. The four are: Anarchism, Conservatism, Radicalism, and Liberalism. Classifying Wilber here is trickier. One clue is what White terms the ‘elective affinities' between modes of emplotment, argument and ideological implication. Particular types tend to go together and it so happens that the Comedic mode and the Organicist mode are most commonly affiliated. Interestingly, though, the type of ideology that they have an affinity to is the Conservative. Wilber's politics are a liberal and conservative mix, but I won't examine those here. For now, we see that Wilber's unconsciously chosen narrative style creates a positive view of history and holds at bay negative views - no less valid - which see history as Tragedy or Satire.

By delineating Wilber's particular type of history-writing I undercut his claim to greatest inclusiveness or universality. The narrative form by its very nature imposes upon the historian choices of which he or she is usually unaware. Wilber likes to think that discoveries in the sciences impel him and us to adopt a vision like his own, but, as White shows, this is not the case. The facts do not tell the historian what mode of emplotment to adopt; it is a value judgment. Wilber's selection of the Comedic mode, and his avoidance of the Tragic and Satirical modes, results from his need to tell a positive and progressive story of history, not from the determining weight of historical facts.

poetic structure

Source: Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1973.
[Grey areas relate to Ken Wilber's position]


The most salient quality of Wilber's work is its grandiosity. It is grandiose according to the two definitions of the term. It is enormously large in scope and, because it is fundamentally flawed, it is incommensurate with reality. Mistakenly maintaining that one has a valid theory of everything is a sign of personal grandiosity. The great danger for the grandiose person is deflation by the intrusion of the real. For the theory and psyche that are inflated to the breaking point like a balloon every criticism looks like a sharp pin. This ever-present danger of deflation results in a shadow insecurity. The job of the grandiose psyche is to keep from awareness those aspects of reality which could threaten the grandiose vision. Consequently, maintaining a positive, progressive, Kosmic system which redeems all loss is difficult; it requires a lot of mental contortions in order to avoid seeing its flaws. This causes a number of textual symptoms to appear in SES. Textual symptoms are places in the text where the psyche of the author inserts itself to inhibit rational argumentation and keep the system afloat. These textual symptoms redirect the reader's attention away from the content of the book and call for some sort of explanation.

The repetitiveness of SES is quite striking. This is not the repetitiveness that sometimes occurs over the course of a long book. This is a repetitiveness which occurs within single sections in which a single point is being made. Wilber simply repeats the point he is making over and over. His tone of absolute conclusiveness is belied by his inability to conclude. There are many examples of this in SES. For example, he repeats over and over that those who reject value hierarchies presuppose a value hierarchy.[30] The point is simple, yet he beats it to death. It is similar to the point he makes against so-called cultural relativists who contradict themselves when they assume that their view - that all views are of equal validity - has superior validity. That point is made at least three times over the course of the book and rephrased a number of times within each of those discussions. Wilber is a clear writer, yet he seems to think that the point has not been made. Later in the book, four pages are devoted to repeating that the Romantics made nature the source of spirituality. He seems to think that if he repeats the point in different ways he makes it stronger.

Since this happens many times over the course of the book I started to wonder why. I concluded that despite the tone of conclusiveness, there is an unacknowledged doubt that his argument is conclusive. Because he cannot admit to himself that he has not conclusively won his point, he is compelled to repeat it over and over in a futile attempt to be victorious by other means. But as we know from psychology, repetition compulsions never satisfy because they do not get to the root of the problem. The root of the problem for Wilber is that he is doubtful about the validity of his own points because somewhere inside he knows that he is arguing against a caricature of his opponent's position and will never gain the victory he craves.

This repetitiveness is one symptom of an overall insecurity which results from the impossible position in which he finds himself. On some level he knows that he is not living up to his own standard of using orienting generalizations and so is never really making his case with the all-inclusive conclusiveness that he desires. The fundamental flaws that I have pointed out in the course of this book must be kept out of consciousness and these textual symptoms act as a defense mechanism. He fools himself into believing that repeating a point over and over again is making the point.

Another technique of avoiding threatening counter arguments is the caricaturing of opponents' positions. In the chapter on methodology I note the lack of citations and quotes of opponents, lumping people together in large categories like "the ecophilosophers," "the multiculturists," "the retro-romantics," etc., and using simplistic formulations of opponents' positions.

Sometimes Wilber's insecurity drives him beyond repetitiveness and caricature to the sarcasm and snideness for which he has been criticized. This rudeness has become a topic of debate.[31] Some think it inappropriate. I happen to like polemical invective when used against people who have acted cruelly or hypocritically and are not recognized as such. But Wilber works himself up into a lather against scholars who, to my mind, haven't done anything heinous, like Morris Berman, Steven Katz or Stanley Fish. Yet others with whom he also disagrees aren't treated derisively. Wilber is respectful of Stanislav Grof, Francisco Varela and others. I puzzled over this for quite awhile. Why condescend to one set of scholars yet treat another set with respect, even though you have disagreements with both? Was it the degree of disagreement, with those who disagreed most getting the most abuse? That didn't seem to fit because Morris Berman's views seem similar to Wilber's, yet he is treated derisively. I finally realized that it is not degree of disagreement with himself that Wilber dislikes, it is a thinker's degree of negative critique.

Thinkers can be divided into two groups: system builders and system underminers. Wilber's favorites like Plato, Plotinus, Schelling and Habermas, are positive philosophers who build intellectual systems. What Wilber hates are negative thinkers whose basic approach is critical such as Stanley Fish, Georges Bataille and Steven Katz. These thinkers undo systems and dismantle foundations. He has a strong aversion to thinkers who are essentially critical. He equates this with nihilism and it corresponds to those who believe in the "philosophy of ‘oops'" which is that "the universe just occurs, there is nothing behind it, it's all ultimately accidental or random, it just is, it just happens - oops!"[32] Later in the book Wilber angrily denounces "‘tenured radicals,' who want to deconstruct all forms of accepted knowledge" and who only have "the wits, as it were, to tear down but not create: deconstruction exhausts the limits of their talent."[33]

Psychologically, these thinkers say to Wilber, "You can't repair the universe. You have to live with loss. You can't have your big integration." Wilber cannot stand hearing this, so he avoids their arguments by caricaturing them and then repetitively "proving" that the caricatured argument is wrong.

Derrida and Foucault are considered negative thinkers, but Wilber generally treats them favorably. An apparent anomaly, but easily explained. They have achieved such a level of fame and their work is so influential that a person such as Wilber, who wants to claim inclusiveness, must incorporate them into his synthesis. He does this by extracting something from them that agrees with his view, thereby misrepresenting them in the process. Another reason for Wilber's respect for famous negative thinkers is that he tends towards hero worship and so their fame alone insulates them from the derogatory treatment that less famous, but no less negative, thinkers have to endure.

Wilber has defended his snideness and sarcasm by saying that it was a conscious strategy to shake up the most important critics of his system: the postmodern, poststructural and the politically correct who he perceives as having taken over academe. I find this unconvincing. As I asserted in a previous chapter, a stronger case can be made that these postmodern enemies have not taken over academe. And his tone in SES does not suggest calculated derision, but a release of pent up anger.

For a better explanation of his negativity I look to a personal comment he made in Grace & Grit: "In my case, when I become afraid, when fear overcomes me, my ordinary lightness of outlook, which generously might be referred to as wit, degenerates into sarcasm and snideness, a biting bitterness towards those around me - not because I am snide by nature, but because I am afraid."[34] In SES, fear causes the degeneration into sarcasm and snideness which results from the threat posed by others to the fragile coherence of his grand integration. It is a way to hold at bay those who do not think things ultimately cohere, who see the profound loss and sadness at the heart of life, and who think it illusory to try to affirm an essentially positive telos embedded in nature.

Towards the end of the book these textual symptoms escalate. The first 450 pages of the main text have 140 pages of footnotes, while the last 70 pages require 96 pages of footnotes. Footnotes that were merely long in the first 5/6 of the book became short essays in the last 1/6 of the book. It seemed that Wilber just could not bring himself to finish the book. Exaggerated statements and verbal attacks also escalate. It's as if Wilber senses he is not going to make a conclusive case that he has integrated all knowledge and resorts to extreme claims and insults to make what he says so. On page 492, we learn that "The Big Bang has made Idealists out of virtually anybody who thinks about it, and the result is that most philosophers of science now openly admit - and even champion - the fact that evolution has some sort of self-transcending drive" It has?! They do?! On page 722 we get childish name-calling directed at "Stanley Fish, that dimmest of the postmodern dim bulbs." On the final page of the main text Wilber tries to prove by fiat what he has not proven through argumentation: "if today is rationality, tomorrow is transrationality, and there is not a single scientific argument in the world that can disagree with that, and every argument in favor of it."[35] There is a crazy desperation in a statement like that. He cannot admit to himself that he is not confronting the reality of his opponents' positions. This is why he lumps them into big categories like "the ecophilosophers," "the heterarchists," "the multiculturists;" generally doesn't name and quote individuals; and turns his opponents into simple-minded straw men who hold intellectual positions it is hard to imagine anyone with any brains holding.

While much of himself can be found latently in his system, conversely, Wilber is silent or evasive about the overt place he as creator occupies in his own system. In SES, he is the Kosmos's describer, explainer, integrator, and the embodier of its highest spiritual attainment, yet he never acknowledges it. He displays a healthy sense of shame in his discomfort with his role and uses a variety of techniques to avoid it; the most common being omission. In SES, this omission would always become noticeable to me when he was repeating his argument against the poststructuralists and relativists. He would accuse them of being self-contradictory because they say that all views have equal validity while assuming their view is superior to all other views. I would always wonder on what basis he feels that his view is superior. Of course, he can appeal to the coherence of his entire system, or the orienting generalizations, or its agreement with scientific evidence, or its superior inclusiveness, but none of these satisfy the philosophical demand for a foundation to knowledge, the absence of which makes relativism seem like a valid conclusion. Without it, Wilber is in the same boat as the relativist, except that he does not admit it to himself.

Other examples in SES of Wilber's silence about his own position relative to his system come when he repeats the poststructural insight that the world is made up of a dizzying array of contexts within contexts within contexts. He incorporates this insight into his system, but he never contextualizes himself. The contextualization of the author and the author's standpoint are two of the central poststructural contextualizations, yet Wilber simply ignores this and assumes some unexplained standpoint from which to map the Kosmos. To grasp the whole and produce a "theory of everything" he must have a position outside or above it, yet nowhere does he explain it. I assume he believes he has achieved the position of aperspectival vision-logic like Hegel, Habermas and Foucault, but nowhere does he state that. And that position is not really outside or above since it is just one developmental stage within the system.

He doesn't explain his standpoint because he feels embarrassed by the exalted position he occupies. This embarrassment is apparent when he does make reference to his place in his system. He often uses self-deprecating humor to deflect attention. For example, he was asked by an interviewer his level of consciousness according to an eight stage model he was using. He jokingly says, "I'm trying to work my way up to beige [the lowest level]."[36] Or, he implies his position without saying it directly as, in Grace & Grit, where he states that there are "two types of people who believed in universal Spirit - those who were not too bright (e.g. Oral Roberts), and those who were extremely bright (e.g. Einstein). . . . Treya and I believed in God . . . which meant we were either very bright or slightly dumb."[37] Guess which. And being "very bright" they were in quite good company, Einstein no less. A recent interview he entitles "On Critics, Integral Institute, My Recent Writing, and Other Matters of Little Consequence" (italics added). His joking self-deprecations are the outward manifestation of an outsized self-regard.

Another way in which Wilber demonstrates his discomfort with his position is in his awkward ambivalence when discussing those lower than him on his value hierarchy. He wants to both respect lower developmental stages as appropriate to their time or place and yet judge them as inferior relative to higher stages. At one point in Grace & Grit he digresses to insert a distinction between different New Age types. He is part of the 20% that is transrational or transpersonal and not the 80% that is prerational or prepersonal. They are the ones who make people think that he is flaky or goofy, when in reality he is beyond the rational, not below it, as they are. Although these prerational, New Age types use "magical and narcissistic" thinking, Wilber and his transrational ilk "are not against prepersonal beliefs," its just that it is such a chore because "[i]n the field of transpersonal psychology, we are constantly having to deal as delicately and as gently as we can with the prepersonal [or pre-rational] trends."[38] His whole discussion here is an uneasy mix of smug superiority and a congratulatory tolerance for the less advanced.

Another example comes from a recent interview[39] in which Wilber talks about "green memes." This is a social category describing people who have achieved the highest level of social and personal development below a transpersonal breakthrough. The green memes are sensitive selves who mistrust cold reason and emphasize feeling. They are against hierarchies of all kinds and exalt a pluralistic relativism. They are responsible for political correctness and conduct codes, and champion egalitarian and multicultural politics. These are the people most angered by Wilber's nasty endnotes in SES, yet they are the group most ready to be shepherded into the transpersonal stage. In a number of interviews Wilber's ambivalent attitude towards them is evident in his movement from superior mocking of this less advanced group to respectful enumeration of their positive qualities.

While Wilber omits himself from his theory, there are ways that he unconsciously inserts himself back into the text of SES. Trying to hold at bay the many contradictions and counter-arguments, these unconscious insertions come in the form of a self-critique. It is as if Wilber's psychic shadow had to be given its say through these textual symptoms. Wilber projects this shadow onto his subject matter and unwittingly criticizes his own project. Projection occurs when one projects one's own views onto others and believes that those others actually hold those views. This is how most of us live up to the New Age dictum to create your own reality. Wilber does this a number of times during the course of the book and it gives a very interesting insight into him when they are decoded.

Early in the book Wilber warns us about the concept of wholeness: "‘Wholeness' - this is a very dangerous concept . . . dangerous for many reasons, not the least of which is that it is always available to be pushed into ideological ends. Whenever anybody talks of wholeness being the ultimate, then we must be very wary, because they are telling us that we are merely ‘parts' of their particular version of ‘wholeness,' and so we should be subservient to their vision - we are merely strands in their wonderful web."[40] Of course he argues that he avoids this danger, but for those of us who disagree this is an excellent description of a problem with Wilber's grand synthesis. Whole fields of knowledge, distinct spiritual states and vast historical epochs find that they are "merely ‘parts'" in Wilber's "particular version of ‘wholeness.'" This might feel to them like being "subservient to [his] vision . . . merely strands in [his] wonderful web."

Later in the book, Wilber unwittingly describes my analysis of his ignorance of his own psyche and the intellectual consequences of it. He writes, "I believe it is a profound truth of human development that one can fully transcend any level only if one fully honors it first (thus allowing embrace/Agape). Otherwise one's ‘development' is simply a reaction to, a reaction against, the preceding level, and thus one remains stuck to it with the energy of disapproval - Phobos, not Eros."[41] This is a good description of what has happened to Wilber himself. He has not worked through and embraced his own psychological issues and so acts them out in his thinking, writing and behavior. His aversion to loss (Phobos) is transformed into a positive, constructive system-building and is a "reaction against" negative or critical thinkers rather than an "allowing embrace." His unresolved issues with maturity and immaturity come out as a strongly developmental and progressive program with himself at the spiritual pinnacle, i.e. the most mature. His fear of being a big fish in a small pond or merely the "tallest building in Kansas City" pushes him to grandiosity. And the insecurity he feels about keeping his big synthesis afloat is compensated for by his repetitive, incantatory and defensive argumentation.

Wilber describes his own shadow methodology when describing the early Christian scholar, Origen's method of interpreting Christian myths. Wilber writes that,

The brilliance of this scheme is that it takes a prerational myth (literal) and reworks it at both a rational (ethical) level and a transrational (mystical) level, so that ‘the myth' can be made to say whatever it is necessary to make it say, quite regardless of how its originators actually meant it. In other words, the interpretation takes the myth quite beyond itself - first into the space of reason, and then into the space of spirit. The myth is thoroughly preserved - and utterly negated.

This allows Origen to put into the myths whatever meanings from a higher level he wishes to put into them, so that he can both claim scriptural authority and basically ignore it at the same time.[42]

This is an excellent description of what I claim Wilber is doing with his story of the Kosmos. Wilber takes the "literal" knowledge of the sciences and "reworks it" on a "rational (ethical) level and a transrational (mystical) level" to make everything make sense. Through selective scholarship the knowledge "can be made to say whatever it is necessary to make it say." The knowledge is "preserved" in that it lives in Wilber's new synthesis and yet it is "utterly negated" in that it is ripped out of the academic debates in which it is situated and given its larger validity. Wilber's method of culling preferred pieces of knowledge from diverse sciences allows him to give his story of the Kosmos "whatever meanings from a higher level he wishes to put into them." He "can both claim scriptural authority" (by saying he is using our taken-for-granted knowledge and by having 238 pages of endnotes), and "basically ignore it at the same time" by only really using a select few scholars and misrepresenting those who disagree.

Finally, Wilber describes the damage done by the Ego (Enlightenment Rationalist) and Eco (Romantic) camps and it doubles as a compelling, unconscious self-description. Of the Ego camp he writes:

The rational-ego, hyperagentic and hyperindependent, took its own relative autonomy (which had indeed increased significantly), and blew it up to absolute proportions. In understandably wanting to increase freedom and liberty, it paradoxically left massive road kill everywhere on the highway to rational heaven.[43]

While ostensibly a description of a historical consciousness it doubles as a critique of Wilber's own approach to writing SES. Wilber, in his efforts to construct a rational all-encompassing synthesis, raises himself up to an extraordinary height - a "rational heaven" - with no sense of his own contextualization or how it affects his supposedly neutral, aperspectival, "hyperindependent" viewing. He tells his story of matter, life, mind and spirit and thinks that it is the Kosmos's own story i.e. "blew it up to absolute proportions." "In understandably wishing to increase freedom and liberty" he leaves "massive road kill everywhere on the highway to rational heaven" when he caricatures opponents, uses knowledge selectively, and claims an inclusiveness that is not there.

Wilber's description of the Eco camp's damage to the world is also an acute self-critique. He writes:

But the same paradox of damage beset the Eco camps. In starting out with the express intention of decentering the Ego, of inserting it back into the larger currents of Life and Love, the Eco camps ended up - inadvertently, paradoxically - championing modes of knowing and feeling that were supremely egocentric and flagrantly narcissistic. In wishing to overthrow the Ego - and still being stuck, with their opponents, in monological flatland - the Eco camps introduced the modern world to a glorification of divine egoism: the outrageous return and exaltation of that which it expressly set out to overcome.[44]

Wilber's personal Eastern mystical practices had "the express intention of decentering the Ego," or "overthrow the Ego," but, in the search for a theory of everything "ended up - inadvertently, paradoxically - championing modes of knowing and feeling that were supremely egocentric and flagrantly narcissistic" and so we witness the "outrageous return and exaltation of that which it [his mystical practices] expressly set out to overcome": "a glorification of divine egoism".


Ken Wilber's personal experiences of division and loss are compensated for by grandiosity represented in his overwhelmingly positive and massive theory of everything. This in no way undermines the validity of his theory, but it does complete the picture of its perspectival nature which has been demonstrated in previous chapters. It also provides another illustration of my thesis in the previous chapter that there is a psychological origin to our beliefs by showing the psychological origins of his view of the Kosmos.


[1] Wilber, Ken, "On Critics, Integral Institute, My Recent Writing, and Other Matters of Little Consequence, part II," at, p.7.

[2] Wilber, Ken, "Odyssey: A personal inquiry into humanistic and transpersonal psychology," Journal of Humanistic Psychology , vol. 22, nr. 1, p.60.

[3] Wilber, Ken, One Taste: The Journals of Ken Wilber, (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1999), p.122.

[4] Wilber, Ken, Grace & Grit, (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1991), p.34.

[5] Wilber, Grace & Grit, pp. 307-8

[6] Wilber, Ken, Boomeritis, (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2002), p. 31.

[7] Schwartz, Tony, What Really Matters?, (New York: Bantam Books, 1995).

[8] Schwartz, What Really Matters?, p.347.

[9] Schwartz, What Really Matters?, p.350.

[10] Schwartz, What Really Matters?, p.350.

[11] Schwartz, What Really Matters?, p.347.

[12] Schwartz, What Really Matters?, p.350.

[13] Schwartz, What Really Matters?, p.347.

[14] Schwartz, What Really Matters?, p.347.

[15] Wilber, Grace &Grit, p. 240.

[16] Wilber, "Odyssey," p. 58.

[17] Four quotes from Wilber, "Odyssey," p. 58.

[18] Wilber, One Taste, p.76.

[19] Wilber, Grace & Grit, p. 22.

[20] Wilber, Grace & Grit, p. 73.

[21] White, Hayden, The Content of the Form, (Baltimore : John Hopkins University Press, 1987).

[22] White, Hayden, Metahistory, (Baltimore : John Hopkins University Press, 1990).

[23] Wilber, SES, p. viii.

[24] White, Metahistory, p. 7.

[25] White, Metahistory, pp. 8-9.

[26] White, Metahistory, p. 9.

[27] White, Metahistory, p. 9.

[28] White, Metahistory, pp. 9-10.

[29] White, Metahistory, pp. 15-16.

[30] SES, pp. 25-27.

[31] McDermott, Robert, "The Need for Philosophical and Spiritual Dialogue," ReVision, 19(2).

[32] SES, p. vii.

[33] SES, p. 662.

[34] Wilber, Grace & Grit, p.152.

[35] SES, p. 524.

[36] Wilber, "On Critics, Integral Institute, ....part III.

[37] Wilber, Grace & Grit, p. 21.

[38] Wilber, Grace & Grit, p. 268.

[39] Wilber, "On Critics, Integral Institute, ....part II.

[40] SES, p. 36-37.

[41] SES, p. 375.

[42] SES, p. 397.

[43] SES, p. 457.

[44] SES, p. 457-458.

© Jeff Meyerhoff 2005, 2007

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