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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].



Social Evolution

Bald Ambition, Chapter 5

Jeff Meyerhoff

Wilber's characterization of the magic, mythic and rational stages often veers into caricature.

According to Wilber, human society is evolving in a sequence of stages from simpler social formations and world views to more complex. The developmental pattern of transcend and include is as true of human social history as it is of the physical and biological worlds and individual consciousness. The earliest human tribes were hunter-gatherers and foraged for food; they are associated with a cultural world view termed archaic. Their primitive world-view is animal-like in that the sensory and perceptual structures hold sway. Humans, at this stage, are motivated by survival instincts and urges and consciousness is “largely undifferentiated, global, fused, and confused.”[1] The development of sensory and perceptual skills is crucial for further human development; these structures endure and are integrated into the next developmental stage. But the undifferentiated world view is transitional and is surpassed in the next stage. This level of development would correspond to the infant at a pre-linguistic stage of development.

The magical world view transcends and includes the basic structures of the archaic view. Here symbols and images hold sway in consciousness. There is no clear delineation between self and community or between the human and nature. Animism is one example of a world view in which inanimate and natural objects have living spirits which must be appeased in order to live successfully in the world. An autonomous ego has not differentiated itself from the body and, what Freud terms, “a bodyego”[2] characterizes the magical self-identity. The communal identity is characterized through kinship and sharing common ancestors.

The mythical world view arises as magical kinship groups coalesce into larger social groupings. A new basis for social cohesion arose with a new social consciousness which bound individuals not to a kinship group but to a role in society and a place within a larger order that had a connection to God through the ruler. The individual identity has the capacity for concepts and rules, but the formal rules for manipulating those concepts have not yet developed and there is a tendency to accept the reigning order because of tradition and the mythology that the order is ordained by God. Greek, Roman and Christian myths are examples of explanatory stories which characterize the consciousness at this stage.

As empire building occurred across the globe the mythic societies met, dominated or were subjected to other mythic societies. A clash of mythic divine truths occurred. This prompted the need to justify divinely given truths and so a new mode of consciousness arose which allowed people to now apply formal operational principles - reasoning - to the concepts and rules which characterized the mythic consciousness. The rational world view arose and brought with it new ways of organizing and justifying the social order. A new way to maintain social cohesion arose that was not dependent on the mythic stories, but on political philosophies which articulated the ideas of individual rights, the rule of law, and secular government. These attributes characterize modern advanced, industrialized societies.

In SES, Wilber uses Jurgen Habermas as an exemplar for most of this story of social development. Habermas is a great scholar and his depiction of social evolution is a compelling one, but it is not a summation of the orienting generalizations of the field. In fact, just the opposite is the case. Michiel Korthals, who's favorably disposed to the idea of societal development, assesses the status of the idea in the collection entitled The Philosophy of Development:

The idea of societal development has often been connected with the idea of progress, for better or worse. Both ideas have met with severe criticisms, especially in anthropology and sociology, and it would be an understatement to say that in the present intellectual climate the very notion of a universal, progressive, cumulating development of society is not very popular.”[3]

In reference to the part of Habermas's work most used by Wilber, Thomas McCarthy, a sympathetic interpreter of Habermas's work and someone Wilber respects and quotes, states:

The critical queries to which Habermas's conception of social evolution gives rise are legion. They begin with questions concerning the status of the ontogenetic theories upon which he draws, for the work of Piaget, Kohlberg, and the others is itself fraught with difficulties relating to fundamental concepts (for example, 'stage'), to fundamental assumptions (for example, that ontogenesis follows a developmental logic), and to methodological procedures (for example, the extent to which these approaches incorporate a substantive, culturally rooted bias); and they extend to questions concerning the applicability of ontogenetic models to social systems... [4]

Charles Tilly, the great sociologist and historian of modern Europe, includes stage theories in his list of “the four pernicious postulates” held over from 19th century thinking. His post-mortem describes “The general abandonment of optimistic development theories in the face of political criticism, of empirical disconfirmation, and of the elaboration of counter-theories featuring dependency and/or world-economic processes [all of which have] hastened the discarding of stage theories.”[5]

Wilber also neglects to mention dissenting views of Habermas's own colleagues. William Outhwaite notes “the failure of [Habermas's] Starnberg colleagues…to get anything useful out of a Piagetian analysis of law”[6] which would be an important part of a theory that asserts the parallel development of individuals and societies. Wilber quotes approvingly Habermas's description of the movement from tribal-magical organizations to mythic organizations and notes his collaboration with Klaus Eder. But at the time of Wilber's writing, Klaus Eder, whose work Habermas relies upon, had already abandoned Habermas's assertion of an automatic link between learning processes and social evolution in order to focus on the empirical reality of historical individuals and groups.[7]

There is ample evidence of the highly debatable character of Habermas's work, but showing that Wilber does not use the orienting generalizations of academia is not the same, however, as showing how what Wilber says is wrong. I will therefore examine the validity of his conception of social development.

Wilber's characterization of the magic, mythic and rational stages often veers into caricature. This is because he makes facts fit a particular theoretical mold to preserve his theory. The theoretical mold requires that each later stage be progressively better than all previous stages. For example, when describing the morality and cognition of mythic society he emphasizes the most intolerant and aggressive aspect of it. He then contrasts this with the egoic-rational stage's world-centric morality of toleration. Wilber writes that for mythic-members “that others would not buy their God sends agonies of proselytizing fury through their souls; infidels are intolerable, and can actually be killed in order to save them.”[8] Yet the historical record provides examples of mythic societies that did not find that “infidels are intolerable.” In Charles D. Smith's Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict we learn that beginning in 638 A.D., Palestine under “Muslim rule was generally unobtrusive, to the point that construction of new churches and synagogues was permitted. Friction among the religious communities and the official sanction of violence against one group or another were infrequent.”[9] So too, the subsequent “Ottoman society was pluralistic, similar in its inclusion of different peoples and faiths to its Byzantine and Arab predecessors but on a larger scale.”[10] Smith quotes Braude and Lewis's Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: The Functioning of a Plural Society in which the authors write that “For all their shortcomings, plural societies did allow diverse groups of peoples to live together with a minimum of bloodshed. In comparison with the nation-states which succeeded them, theirs is a remarkable record.”[11] Here we have large-scale, mythic cultures in which the society was more religiously tolerant than the supposedly more advanced “nation-states which succeeded them.” Contrary to Wilber's assertions religious intolerance is not a necessary attribute of mythic societies.

The last part of Wilber's quote above which says, “infidels are intolerable, and can actually be killed in order to save them,” is reminiscent of the famous quote from an American military officer in Vietnam who said that they had to “destroy that village in order to save it.” That war, managed by “the best and the brightest” members of the egoic-rational stage, is just one example of the proselytizing democratic fury which was used to justify horrifically destructive campaigns by Europeans and the U.S. throughout the Third World in the 19th and 20th centuries. And regarding democracy, the supposedly more morally primitive, tribal societies actually had more democracy than our advanced industrialized societies, as long as we define democracy as actual participation in the distribution of resources and group decision making. The anthropologist John Bodley notes that “When the scale of human societies increases, at least five things are likely to happen” one of which is that “democracy declines, because decision making becomes more cumbersome and more concentrated.”[12]

Degree of violence is another way of comparing the relative moral superiority of differing types of societies. Comparative studies of warfare in human history let us make some general statements about the levels of violence of different historical epochs. Since that is a debate in itself, I will choose a source which would be more likely to support Wilber's position that the more primitive the society the more violent it is. Patrick Frank summarizes Lawrence Keeley's research by stating that “there doesn't seem to be much to distinguish the willingness to go to war among human societies of whatever level of organization.”[13] Keeley, in his book War Before Civilization, which is presented as countering the prevailing “pacification of the past now epidemic in anthropology”[14] states that “the larger sample of ninety societies…indicated that the frequency of war increased somewhat with greater political complexity” and concludes this comparison by stating that “obviously, frequent, even continuous, warfare is as characteristic of tribal societies as of states.”[15]

In SES we so often hear of the “warm embrace,” “the relations of self-esteem,” the universalizing tolerance of the egoic-rational societies as compared to the domination and suppression of dissenters in the mythic cultures. Conversely, someone defending the opposite thesis would speak of the stability, social cohesion, and small village life of the mythic societies and contrast that with the greed, alienation, world war, genocide, and eco-cide of the egoic-rational societies. When evaluating such large diverse historical categories as the mythic and the egoic-rational a writer can make history do what he or she needs it to do to suit his or her ideological interests. Wilber wants there to be progressive social development, and to that end offending facts are ignored or stated in such a way that their import is diffused.

We see an example of diffusing the import of offending facts when Wilber describes the development from a mythological to a rational world view. According to Wilber, the establishment of the modern state and the global market economy while “grounded in universalistic reasons” was “still tinged, initially, by remnants of imperialism, which indicated not an excess of reason but a lack of it.”[16] The words “tinged” and “initially” are needed to minimize the imperialistic depredations of the Third World which have been an integral part of the rise to prominence and worldwide dominance of First World powers, allowing them to extract the resources they need to maintain their high standards of living. The economist Rajani Kannepalli Kanth summarizes the high costs to the colonized by the exploitative practices of the colonial powers, their moral superiors according to Wilber.[17] The extensive literature on the underdevelopment of the Third World demonstrates that the rise to power of the Western industrialized countries was causally intertwined with the impoverishment of the Third World countries.[18] The colonialism and imperialism characteristic of egoic-rational societies in the 19th and 20th centuries is conveniently ignored when Wilber compares the mythic and the egoic-rational.

Another example of diffusing offending facts occurs when Wilber acknowledges what humanity has lost over the centuries. He acknowledges that “Mythic-membership does indeed provide, or can provide, an intensely cohesive social order” but, we learn, that is “principally because it can export disorder and excommunicate unbelievers.”[19] So, although “it will appear that the emergence of rationality was somehow a massive loss of cultural meaning and social integration,” that “is only true from an enthocentric (or mythic-membership) bias.”[20] A bias, we may assume, to which Wilber, ensconced in a rational-egoic society, is not subject.

Biases are hard to spot, the more so for those who have them. Wilber's world-centric (rational membership) bias is glaring to anyone who can step outside of it. A few examples demonstrate his stunning lack of political self-awareness and manifest the larger moral and theoretical beliefs that skew Wilber's view of social evolution. Writing of contemporary society Wilber states that

the transformation from mythic-membership to egoic-rationality (and its perils) is already open to China, Cuba, Libya, Iraq, North Korea, Serbia, and any other social holon that wishes to surrender its mythic 'superiority' and join the community of nations governed by international law and mutual recognition, that wishes to cease dissociating and splitting off from the free exchange of planetary consciousness, that wishes to reintegrate into a common world spirit and collective sharing of reason and communication and vision.[21]

Is it a coincidence that each of these countries was, at the time of Wilber's writing, an unofficial enemy of the U.S. and demonized by the U.S. as an outlaw or “rogue” state? Another view, not so credulous when it comes to the information gained from our “free exchange” of ideas, understands that from the point of view of the international community, powerful military nations like the U.S., Israel and others are the world's flouters of international law. Cuba, for instance, while politically repressive internally, has been a leader of Third World nations for decades, all the while bearing the brunt of the U.S.'s international-law-defying terrorism against it.[22]

Of course, as a good liberal, Wilber acknowledges that “the United States, Japan, and an ominously emerging 'fortress Europe' [?]...are still distorting supranational exchanges for their own particular interests” and that these distortions do “not prevent or relieve them from continuing to search for more reasonable and equitable exchanges with the world community.”[23]

Continuing to search?” Is that what the world's most powerful nations have been doing? It is if you see the world with a First World bias. The Third World understands that the most powerful nations want exchanges that favor them, and the degree to which they get them is a measure of their power. If the U.S. doesn't like something that the U.N. or World Court decides, they ignore it. Why? Because they have the power to do so. Beyond the myths of world-centrism this is how the real world works. And is it “equitable exchanges” that the U.S. has been seeking through the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Former World Bank senior vice president and Nobel Prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, exposed the destructive policies imposed by First World countries upon the Third World for the wealthier countries benefit.[24]

Even if the reader disagrees with my alternative take on international relations, it is clear that there is a different view and that the view one holds depends upon one's values or bias. Another example demonstrates even more startlingly Wilber's bias because it so flies in the face of his humanitarian impulse. He is trying to show that “in the noosphere, right makes might” and says that “a war fought in part for antislavery motives [i.e. the Civil War] would grind up as many men in single battles as were lost in all of Vietnam: 51,000 were killed in three days at Gettysburg alone.”[25] This is accurate, except for the small matter of the 1.5 million Southeast Asians who were killed by the “right makes might” capital of the world, the U.S. Wilber goes on to inform us that Gettysburg was “fought because the nation was 'dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.'” “All men,” except for those “gooks” who could be killed in their own countries and not be counted as part of the “men” who died in “all of Vietnam.” It's a testament to the political biases embedded in the U. S. doctrinal system that a good person like Ken Wilber would not even see the bias in these examples.

Lastly, to illustrate how development occurs in which wholes become parts within larger wholes while retaining their basic integrity, Wilber uses the example of Hawaii. Before it became a state and a part of the United States it was a whole unto itself with all the prerogatives of sovereignty. After statehood it was no longer a sovereign nation, but it was preserved within the larger sovereignty of the United States. Fortunately, as Wilber states, all of its “basic structures were preserved in the new Union; none of them were destroyed or harmed in the least.”[26] And this is certainly true as long as we maintain Wilber's big view of history. Unfortunately, those native Hawaiians who suffered military occupation, colonization, economic exploitation and de facto second class citizenship may not have the requisite level of consciousness to understand the big picture as well as Wilber can.[27]

In all of these examples it is the yellow, brown and black people of the Third World who are forgotten; and this by a non-racist man with good intentions. This bias determines the content of Wilber's developmental story. While it appears as if the movement from archaic to magical to mythic to egoic-rational is a developmental progression, this is only true if you have already decided that the egoic-rational stage should be the destination point. Wilber's analysis is made to sound like a neutral description of the traits these diverse types of consciousness and associated moralities exhibit, but it's actually, when shorn of its false value-neutrality, an analysis which asks the question: In what ways are previous world views not yet like ours? Or, to phrase it differently, given that we are morally and cognitively superior, what are they lacking and what kinds of changes were required for them to eventually become like us?


[1]Wilber, Eye to Eye, (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1983), p. 275.

[2] SES, p. 165.

[3] Haaften, Wouter van, et al editors, Philosophy of Development, (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997), p.163. An exception to the overwhelming trend is Michael Horace Barnes' Stages of Thought, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[4] McCarthy, Thomas, The Critical Theory of Jurgen Habermas, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985), p. 261.

[5] Tilly, Charles, Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons, (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1984), p.41.

[6] Outhwaite, William, Habermas: A Critical Introduction, (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994), p.62.

[7] Outhwaite, Habermas, p.62.

[8] SES, p. 243.

[9] Smith, Charles D., Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001), p. 9.

[10] Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, p. 10.

[11] Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, p. 10.

[12] Bodley, John H., The Power of Scale, (Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2003), p. 66.

[13] Frank, Patrick, “Whence the 'Noble Savage,'” Skeptic, vol. 9, no. 1, p.55.

[14] Keeley, Lawrence, War Before Civilization, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 23.

[15] Keeley, War Before Civilization, pp. 32, 33.

[16] SES, p. 178.

[17] Kanth, Rajani, Breaking with the Enlightenment, (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1997), pp.2-3.

[18] See classic articles by Paul Baran and Andre Gunder Frank in Kanth, Rajani, editor, Paradigms in Economic Development, (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1994).

[19] SES, p. 242.

[20] SES, p. 242.

[21] SES, p. 204.

[22] See Noam Chomsky's Rogue States, (Boston: South End Press, 2000), especially the chapter entitled, Cuba and the US Government: David vs. Goliath.

[23] SES, p. 204.

[24] Stiglitz, Joseph, Globalization and Its Discontents, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002).

[25] SES, p. 389.

[26] SES, p. 52.

[27] Laenui, Poka, “Colonization in Hawaii,” Fourth World Bulletin, Vol. 2, No. 3, July 1993

© Jeff Meyerhoff, 2003, updated 2006

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