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].



Western History

Bald Ambition, Chapter 6:

Jeff Meyerhoff

Wilber wants a duality in Plato's thinking to be the essential duality driving Western civilization

The second half of SES is devoted to Wilber's reconstruction of Western history. While Wilber's strong background in psychology and mysticism give his views in those areas authority, his lack of background in history undermines his effort to tell a convincing story of the West. In SES, Wilber constructs his history of Western civilization, and his more specific history of Western modernity, in the same way. He finds an author whom he uses predominantly, extracts from that author's complex and nuanced work two opposing forces that drive history, and then reifies that duality into two conflictual “camps” that engage in a life or death struggle for supremacy. The strong duality is then ripe for Wilber's transcending resolution.

Wilber uses Arthur O. Lovejoy to validate his story of Western history as a whole. He acknowledges in a footnote that Lovejoy, being a rationalist with no sympathy for mysticism, is not “an authority predisposed to support my position.”[1] So Lovejoy, because he “is a hostile witness,” is not biased in favor of Wilber's position and this lends extra credence to Lovejoy's validation of Wilber's story of history. He's right that Lovejoy would have no sympathy for Wilber's Kosmic story and that this does make him a better source. But what Wilber neglects to discuss is how the biases of his other main sources influence their history writing and predisposes them to support his position. Charles Taylor, W.R. Inge and Paul Tillich share with Wilber a belief in the importance of a spiritual connection to the Ultimate and a scholarship affected by that spiritual connection. Their particular perspectives help Wilber tell a story of history in keeping with Wilber's vision of the Kosmos.

Wilber relies heavily on one source for his reading of Western history as a whole, Arthur Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being.[2] Lovejoy's book, however, does not provide enough support for Wilber's sweeping historical generalizations. Wilber's first chapter on Western history is headed by a misquotation, the nature of which reveals his overall aim. The chapter begins with the oft-quoted saying from Alfred North Whitehead that “the European philosophical tradition . . . consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”[3] I've just quoted Whitehead's actual words from Process and Reality where they first appeared. Wilber, on the other hand, chooses to broaden the quote by substituting the phrase “the whole Western philosophic tradition”[4] for the more limited “European philosophic tradition.” Shortly thereafter he refers to the Whitehead quote again, and again the range of the quote expands when he substitutes “our Western tradition”[5] for the narrower “the whole Western philosophic tradition.” Finally, three paragraphs later, the range of the quote inflates to its proper size when Wilber changes “our Western tradition” to the greatly enlarged “Western civilization.” In the space of one page we've moved from “the European philosophic tradition consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”[6] to “Western civilization is a series of footnotes to Plato.” Besides being shockingly poor scholarship, this distortion raises an interesting question: Why does Wilber distort Whitehead's quote in just that way?

The answer is that Wilber wants a duality in Plato's thinking to be the essential duality driving Western civilization; “the dualism of which all other Western dualisms are merely an incidental subset.”[7] To do that, the influence of Plato has to be inflated, hence the changes in Whitehead's aphorism. Wilber contends that the central duality driving Western civilization is between The Path of Ascent and The Path of Descent. According to Wilber, Ascenders believe that the True and the Good are otherworldly phenomena and that the goal of existence is to transcend the mundane world. Consequently, the world of material things and everyday life is devalued and seen as an obstacle to life's goal. The Descenders, by contrast, immerse themselves in the diversity of the mundane world. They see Ascenders as life-denying and celebrate the world of everyday life. The materialism of the natural sciences is an example of a descending philosophy.

Yet Lovejoy's history, which Wilber uses to justify this claim, never uses these terms and is much more circumspect in its contentions. In The Great Chain of Being, Lovejoy traces the history of the idea of the world as a harmoniously interconnected whole or a great chain of being. He starts with Plato, accurately quoting Whitehead's famous aphorism. Lovejoy agrees that Plato has had the greatest influence on the European philosophic tradition, but argues that an aspect of Plato's influence has been neglected. The modern interpretation sees Plato's philosophy as an ascending one concerned with the eternal Ideas of Truth, the Good and Beauty which transcend the temporal, mundane world. Lovejoy argues that there is another side to Plato. Plato also tried to explain the origin of and reason behind the mundane world. So Plato sought not only to explain the nature of the eternal forms which transcend the world, he also described how they are related to the ever-changing or descended world in which we live. This interpretation coincides with the story of history Wilber wants to tell in which, starting with the Platonic source, there were both ascending and descending historical forces.

How valid, though, is Lovejoy's interpretation of Plato? In an analysis of Lovejoy's history of the great chain of being, Edward P. Mahoney concludes that “there seems little justification for turning Plato's Form of the Good into a God from whom all things flow, unless one wants to reaffirm Neo-Platonism or a variant of it. Lovejoy's reading of Plato's Republic and the Timaeus is simply mistaken.”[8] This reaffirmation of Neo-Platonism is, not coincidentally, an interest of both Wilber and Lovejoy.

Wilber takes this duality of ascending and descending and reifies it, turning this contradiction of ideas into a battle of historical actors. He writes, “The Ascenders and the Descenders, after two thousand years, still at each other's throat - each still claiming to be the Whole, each still accusing the other of Evil, each perpetrating the same fractured insanity it despises in the other.”[9] But does Lovejoy's text support this hyperbolic historicizing? Lovejoy does say that “the cleavage… between otherworldliness and this-worldliness” is “the deepest and farthest-reaching cleavage separating philosophical or religious systems,” but he is much subtler than Wilber in his assessment of the effects of this cleavage. Lovejoy refers to otherworldliness as the

'official philosophy'….because nothing, I suppose, is more evident than that most men, however much they may have professed to accept it, and have even found in the reasonings or the rhetoric of its expositors a congenial and moving sort of metaphysical pathos - which is partly the pathos of the ineffable - have never quite believed it, since they have never been able to deny to the things disclosed by the senses a genuine and imposing and highly important kind of realness.[10]

Instead of the “Ascenders and the Descenders…still at each other's throat,” Lovejoy suggests that “otherworldliness” (or ascension) was “never quite believed” and acted as an “official philosophy.” Lovejoy's nuanced and sober discussion of the main cleavage in “philosophical and religious systems” is transformed by Wilber into Western civilization's “battle royale” in which

warring opposites….ascetic and repressive and puritanical Ascenders, on the one hand, who will virtually destroy 'this world' (of nature, body, sense) in favor of anything they imagine as an 'other world'; and, on the other hand, the shadow-hugging Descenders, troglodytes each and all, who fuss about in the world of time looking for the Timeless, and who, in trying to turn the finite realm into an infinite value, end up distorting 'this world' as horribly as do the Ascenders, precisely because they want - and force - from 'this world' something that it could never deliver: salvation.[11]

This kind of overheated rhetoric would make the prudent Arthur Lovejoy cringe.

The second quote heading the chapter on Wilber's history of Western civilization is also suspect. It is a quote from Plato's Seventh Epistle or Letter in which Plato says that insight into the Absolute is ineffable and so “no treatise by me concerning it will exist or ever will exist.”[12] Wilber interprets the quote to mean that Plato's message is an essentially spiritual one. He wants this Plato to exist because he wants the history of Western civilization to be a spiritual story in which two spiritual forces battle for supremacy. This aspect of Plato's thought is important because Wilber wants to counter the heavily intellectual Plato that dominates Western philosophy. It is also a side of Plato that Arthur Lovejoy emphasizes in his book The Great Chain of Being. The quotes tendentiousness is further evidenced by its doubtful authenticity. In the most recent edition of The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy[13] Richard Kraut, in his entry on Plato, states that “the authenticity of the Seventh Letter is a disputed question.”[14]

Lovejoy's history arises from a particular perspective. In a sympathetic review of “Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being after Fifty Years,” Daniel J. Wilson, referring to Lovejoy's critics, acknowledges that

by pointing to the emphasis on creation and the crucial importance of the Romantic period to Lovejoy's own thought, these critics have uncovered the source of the blinders Lovejoy wore when he approached certain texts….When Lovejoy read Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas or any of the other thinkers whom he discussed, he was prepared to find in their work the unresolved, because irresolvable, contradiction between the two conceptions of [an otherworldly and this-worldly] God as creator. We should not be surprised that so careful a scholar as Lovejoy found what he was looking for.[15]

While Lovejoy's text does the bulk of the work in legitimating Wilber's history, he sometimes lets Wilber down. Lovejoy “passes over those systems - such as that of Plotinus,”[16] so Wilber uses a scholar sufficiently appreciative of Plotinus and continues constructing the history that fits his model. Wilber relies almost exclusively on W. R. Inge's Philosophy of Plotinus[17] which was published in 1918, thereby disregarding the 75 years of Plotinus scholarship published since then. Adam Fox, in his biography of Inge published in 1960, acknowledges that, “In the last thirty years more has been learnt about third-century philosophers than Inge could know.”[18] Wilber has described why he chose Inge's translation of Plotinus texts,[19] but he does not inform his readers that Inge was an unusual Plotinus scholar. He was unusual in that he was a mystic and a disciple of Plotinus.[20] Fox comments on “the discipleship which is so manifest in the author's attitude to Plotinus the master, as expressed in many places [in Inge's The Philosophy of Plotinus].”[21] Of course it is fine to choose scholars who are predisposed to validate your perspective, but when you hope to write an aperspectival integration of knowledge it vitiates your results, making them not aperspectival but decidedly perspectival.

Wilber spends three pages straining to convince us of Plotinus' importance. He gushes that: “No other mystical thinker even approaches Plotinus;”[22] “Even Saint Augustine stood back in awe;”[23] “the superlative 'most divine' was always reserved for Plotinus.”[24] Yet everyone knows that Plotinus is important, so why does he strain to convince the reader? It is because Plotinus' character, philosophy and spiritual attainment are Wilber's ideal, and it is not enough for him that Plotinus embodies that ideal; Wilber needs Plotinus' life and work to be The Non-Dual Integration of The Duality of Western Civilization. Wilber's reasoning appears to be that if Plotinus is the greatest then his accomplishment is the greatest. If that accomplishment can be described as the integration of a great dualism in Western civilization, then that dualism can be seen as the greatest dualism in Western civilization. Since convincing the reader of his interpretation of Western history would require a great deal more documentation, Wilber resorts to quoting some selected scholars saying that Plotinus was exceptional. But the fact that Plotinus was great and that his Neo-Platonism was very influential doesn't mean that Western civilization is essentially a titanic struggle between Ascenders and Descenders.

The way Wilber uses the concepts of Ascenders and Descenders creates a strange reification of ideas which sharply contrasts with a history-writing that regards individuals and social groups as the historical actors. This reification of ideas is one of the main symptoms of viewing history from above and effaces the lives of flesh and blood people in favor of the bloodless interaction of rarified ideas. For example, take the rise of reason and science in opposition to the dominance of Christian religion and faith. Enlightenment reason and science are examples of descending approaches while Christianity is an ascending path; a seemingly classic example of Wilber's central dualism. But is the nature of the conflict between these two sides essentially a battle between ascending and descending with all other differences “incidental subsets” of that main duality? Was the power struggle and conflicting interests between differing political-economic groups an incidental subset of the larger duality? What of the role of population movements from the country to the city? Or technological changes? So much more goes into historical changes then is summed up in whether belief-systems can be characterized as this-worldly or other-worldly.

The difference between the other world and this world, or the sacred and profane, or ascenders and descenders is certainly one useful way of interpreting the history of Western thought, but Wilber needs to have it be the duality of Western civilization so that he can justify his spiritual retelling of history and anticipate a transcendence which integrates the Ascenders and Descenders.

With the rise of Enlightenment reason and science in the 18th century, the Descenders win out over the Ascenders. The other-worldly, the Transcendent and paths beyond this world are labeled superstitions, myths and illusions. Two descending approaches to self and world arise and dominate. Wilber names them “the Ego” and “the Eco.” The Ego refers to those lines of thought that remove the ego from the rest of the world and then use that disengaged ego to gaze upon the world with an objective, scientific eye. The scientific eye sees the world as a causal mechanism with interacting parts. The world is explainable and controllable through rational means. The ego is a free, rational entity able to control its destiny amid the mechanical world of things in which it exists. The relationship between this free ego and the determined world remains problematic.

In contrast to the Ego, the Eco criticizes the Ego as too detached. The Eco says that the Ego reduces nature to a mechanical thing and represses the life forces of sentiment and imagination surging through both nature and man. The Ego's view represses emotion in the name of reason and cuts European humanity off from its proper place within the flow of life. This historical split plays itself out today in the conflict between those who champion instrumental reason and technology, and those who believe a new ecologically connected outlook is needed to solve the problem of humanity's relationship to nature.

Wilber's story of modern Western history is largely derived from Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self[25] and the first chapter of Taylor's Hegel.[26] In the course of his larger study, Taylor does refer to what Wilber makes the central duality of modernity. Although Wilber doesn't quote the following passage from Taylor, it sums up Wilber's argument quite well. Instead of Wilber's neologisms Ego and Eco, Taylor uses the conventional categories of instrumental reason and Romanticism respectively. He writes that,

although the Romantic religions of nature have died away, the idea of our being open to nature within us and without is still a very powerful one. The battle between instrumental reason and this understanding of nature still rages today in the controversies over ecological politics…. One sees the dignity of man in his assuming control of an objectified universe through instrumental reason…..The other sees in this very stance to nature a purblind denial of our place in things….The battle between these spiritual outlooks, which starts in the eighteenth century, is still going on today.”[27]

Taylor's Sources of the Self is a brilliant historical work lauded by secularists like Quentin Skinner and Richard Rorty. The general view that the modern world has been characterized by a loss of religiosity, if not spirituality, seems undeniable. So why is Wilber's telling of modern history problematic if he relies on Taylor? It's because Wilber wants to use Taylor to say more than Taylor's work allows. Problems occur when Wilber goes beyond Taylor's more modest assertions and tries to use Taylor to validate his vision of modern Western history. There are three main problems. First, Wilber extracts this one duality between the Enlightenment and Romanticism and promotes it to the great dualism of the modern Western world. These two already large categories are subsumed within the even larger categories of the Ego and Eco respectively. His overheated rhetoric turns them into the battling titans of modernity. “They were in fact locked into a battle royale that, in many ways, was the archbattle, and remains the archbattle, of modernity and postmodernity.”[28] “The two camps, in other words, were completely and mutually incompatible (this they both happily - and aggressively - acknowledged).”[29] “The Ego camps and the Eco camps lined up as mortal enemies, each accusing the other, once again, of being the essence of Evil.”[30] This attempt to create a dramatic antithesis between the “two camps” contrasts sharply with scholarship that questions the division between the Enlightenment and Romanticism and the idea of a monolithic Romanticism. The historian Crane Brinton writing in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy[31] on “Romanticism” says,

both Enlightenment and Romanticism shared much - a belief in process, change, if not actually progress, a belief in the possibilities of manipulating the environment, indeed a fundamental and very modern relativism never really transcended in the search for eternal verities. Both, whatever their metaphysical position on the problem of determinism, in practice displayed a firm conviction that things not only change, but that they can be changed by human effort. Of many specific doctrines - primitivism, for instance, or individualism in ethics and politics - it is hard to decide whether they are more characteristic of enlightened or of romantic thought.[32]

In politics Brinton writes, “Probably in the balance Romanticism has worked toward…much… that gets its start from the rationalists of the Enlightenment.”[33] More recently, in his introduction to Romanticism[34], Aidan Day writes that “many of the preoccupations that are frequently associated with Romanticism - a perception of the stultifying effect of an unthinking imitation of tradition, the emphasis on the political rights and the psychological capacities of the individual, the emphasis on feeling not to the exclusion of but as well as on reason, the emphasis on primitive simplicity and naturalness, on the importance of nature itself - were fundamentally Enlightenment preoccupations.”[35] Day also cites approvingly Wilber's purported source for his history of Ascenders and Descenders, Arthur O. Lovejoy, who, in his article “On the Discrimination of Romanticisms,” counters the idea of a monolithic Romanticism when he writes 'that any attempt at a general appraisal even of a single chronologically determinate Romanticism - still more, of “Romanticism” as a whole - is a fatuity.'[36]

The second problem with Wilber's Ego/Eco duality is his reification of these abstract categories. After setting them up as mutually exclusive concepts, they then take on the characteristics of living beings. We learn: that “the Ego and the Eco battle for the good life, doomed as they are to mutual repugnance”[27]; that it is “small wonder that both the Ego's view of nature as the fundamental reflected reality and the Eco's attempt to glorify nature as spirit would both meet in an absolute obsession with: sexuality;”[38] that “[t]he Ego and the Eco . . . will remain forever the great Devil in the other's eyes;”[39] and “[h]owever much they went at each other's throats, they were still fighting over the same anemic territory, the territory they both called 'nature.'”[40] When even a large conceptual category like Romanticism, which is a subset of Eco, contains many conflicting tendencies, how can one speak of something like Eco and Ego as having any sort of unified motivation or concerted action? It is a strange, grandiose anthropomorphizing of conceptual categories.

The third problem with Wilber's history is his de-spiritualization of Romanticism. He wants to see the Enlightenment and Romanticism as descending philosophies that have forsaken any ascending or transcending paths. Their abandoning of ascent leaves them with “flatland ontologies,” i.e., no conception of transcendence. While it does appear true that the Romantics did not have Wilber's version of spirituality, in which we develop through levels of consciousness and finally embrace the All, is that the only spirituality worthy of the name? Richard Tarnas writing in his The Passion of the Western Mind states that

religion itself was a central and enduring element in the Romantic spirit, whether it took the form of transcendental idealism, Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, pantheism, mystery religion, nature worship, Christian mysticism, Hindu-Buddhist mysticism, Swedenborgianism, theosophy, esotericism, religious existentialism, neopaganism, shamanism, Mother Goddess worship, evolutionary human divinization or some syncretism of these. Here the 'sacred' remained a viable category, whereas in science it had long since disappeared. God was rediscovered in Romanticism - not the God of orthodoxy or deism but of mysticism, pantheism, and immanent cosmic process. [41]

Tarnas is saying that Romanticism included the very same types of spirituality that Wilber regards as countering the flatland ontology.

Bernard M.G. Reardon summarizes his study of Religion in the Age of Romanticism by stating,

that the essence of romanticism - if determination of its 'essence' be possible at all - lies in the inexpugnable feeling that the finite is not self-explanatory and self-justifying, but that behind it and within it - shining, as it were, through it - there is always an infinite 'beyond', and that he who has once glimpsed the infinity that permeates as well as transcends all finitude can never again rest content with the paltry this-and-that, the rationalized simplicities, of everyday life. As William Blake puts it:
To see a world in a grain of Sand,
   And a heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
   And Eternity in an hour.

Again and again in Romantic thought we encounter this sense of the coincidence of the finite and the infinite. In all things finite the infinite is present, latent, and the part is meaningless without the whole.[42]

While perhaps not reaching the transcendent heights that Wilber requires of it, Reardon's study demonstrates how integral an ascendant spirituality or other-worldliness was to Romanticism's great interest in nature and history's this-worldliness. This directly contradicts Wilber's characterization of it as mired in “flatland ontology.”

Wilber's need to de-spiritualize the modern Descenders causes him to make statements that contradict his main source's central contentions. Whereas Wilber contends that the modern Descender's “holistic flatland world left no point of insertion for the subject with depth (no room for interiors, for I's or we's, for genuine depth in any holons anywhere, animal, human, divine, or otherwise),”[43] Charles Taylor charts the historical growth of individual inwardness and the great self-exploration and discovery of depth that the unfolding of our modern history has allowed. Taylor writes that “only with the [Romantic-] expressivist idea of articulating our inner nature do we see the grounds for construing this inner domain as having depth, that is, a domain which reaches farther than we can ever articulate, which still stretches beyond our furthest point of clear expression.”[44] Because this inner depth and self-exploration was not directed towards the only spirituality worthy of the name, all the depths of self which Taylor so patiently charts, culminating in the modern Romantic-expressive self, is dismissed by Wilber as mere flatland ontology, no depth.

While Wilber's source disagrees with him on the previous point, Wilber and Taylor do share an affinity of perspectives which the historian Quentin Skinner describes. After listing some of Taylor's secular solutions to our modern ills such as “reaffirming the values of everyday life,” “the 'epiphantic' powers of art and literature,” and “committing ourselves to a life of public and political activity,” Skinner writes that:

Taylor's diagnosis of our ills, however, enables him to insist that none of this will be enough. As long as we limit ourselves to values and projects of this character, we shall still be operating entirely within the framework of 'a stripped-down secular outlook' (p.520). This will prevent us from seeing that life is a quest, and that what we are in quest of, as part of 'our telos as human beings', is a scale of values that will 'command our awe', not merely our admiration or respect (p.20). As Taylor repeatedly puts it, what we are looking for is something 'incomparably higher' than we can hope to find in any of our individual or even our communal enterprises.[45]

Taylor's spiritual aspirations do not leave his telling of history unaffected, “he incorporates the need for just such a theistic solution into his way of describing our civilization and its discontents.”[46] Skinner writes that “it is sometimes hard to resist the suspicion that Taylor is prompting his leading characters to speak the lines that the thrust of his narrative imposes on them.”[47] Since Taylor thinks a “theistic solution” is necessary for our contemporary society he, according to Skinner, secularizes Locke and Rousseau, two of the main originators of the descended Ego and Eco perspectives, in order to dramatize the contrast between a secular past and its effect on the present, and our need for Taylor's “theistic solution.” Correcting Taylor's secularization of Locke and Rousseau, Skinner writes that:

As Locke explains at the start of the Two Treatises, his own view of how we learn our moral duties is that we do so by consulting the law of nature, the normative force of which is said to derive from the fact that it is also the will of God. Consider, similarly, Taylor's treatment of Rousseau, whom he presents as the leading harbinger of the romantic view that 'the inner voice of my true sentiments defines what is the good' (p.362). Rousseau would surely have been no less horrified by such an interpretation, especially as the Savoyard Vicar expends so much eloquence in seeking to persuade us that the only reason why the voice of sentiment can hope to guide us is that it is at the same time the voice of nature and of God.[48]

Skinner also describes Taylor's “account of evolving consciousness”[49] in which history's

“story is one of 'epistemic gain' (p.313). A declared foe of relativism, [Taylor] goes so far in the opposite direction as to insist that the proper attitude to adopt in the face of our own moral evolution must be strongly affirmative. Despite the barbarism of the present century, we should recognize that we have built 'higher standards' into 'the moral culture of our civilization' than ever before (p.397).[50]

Just as Taylor believes that “the fullest 'affirmation of the human' can only be achieved with the aid of the divine,” Wilber believes that it is the loss of any connection to the divine or ascension that has caused the Ego and the Eco camps to be mired in their “flatland ontology” which offers only the descending manyness of this-world, without the ascending oneness of the other-world. And, like Taylor, Wilber believes it is part of our “telos as human beings” to see “life as a quest” for spiritual realization. Wilber describes the evolution of consciousness and is a foe of relativism who uses Kohlberg and Habermas to affirm a “strongly affirmative” vision of the West's moral culture. These affinities of perspective mean that in Taylor, as in Lovejoy in a different way, Wilber will find the history he is looking for.

This perspectival bias for a progressive history that Wilber and Taylor share results in the loss of loss. Wilber's history-telling, while not deterministic, is strongly affirmative. The West's egoic-rational culture is, despite its faults, the morally highest development of human culture. It is a transcendence and inclusion of the essential social structures of the past. In Wilber's history you do not get the impression that anything essential was lost. It is a very un-tragic view of history and reflects Wilber's aversion to negativity and loss in general. Charles Taylor shares similar historical assumptions. Quentin Skinner contrasts Taylor's mode of intellectual history with a different mode of history that describes “the causal story.” The causal story describes why particular conceptions of the self and morality lost to other conceptions not because of a progressive developmental logic, but because it was in the interests of certain social actors that they do so. Skinner uses the example of “the triumph of 'everyday' values centering on family life and the ethic of work”[51] which Taylor describes. Skinner describes how this shift of interest and values to the private sphere of home and family allowed absolutist rulers to concentrate more public power in fewer hands. On this view, new moral values win out not because they are better, but because they meet the interests of those with the power to put them in place. The whole “Clausewitzian story of conflict”[52] is lost in Taylor's story-telling and Wilber's use of it allows him to depict Western history as a transcendence and inclusion of all that came before. Skinner concludes that the causal story of history

makes us aware of just how much was lost as well as gained in the course of that process itself. Far from being 'distinct' and 'independent' in the way that Taylor maintains, the causal story tends to undermine the very moral he wishes to draw from his own account of evolving consciousness.[53]

Telling the history of Western civilization is a daunting task, even for a team of historians; so it's not surprising that Wilber's account should be problematic. While the division between this-world and the other-world, or the sacred and the profane, is a useful duality for characterizing opposing forces in history - and more commonly in anthropology - the documentation that Wilber provides falls far short of proving his case that the conflict between ascending and descending forces is “the dualism of which all other Western dualisms are merely an incidental subset.” In addition, the reader's doubt is enhanced by the reification of this duality into strange, personified forces which are said to be “fighting” “a battle royale” for supremacy. Wilber's hope for a grounded spirituality which integrates ascending and descending approaches is attractive, but he hasn't demonstrated that Western civilization is driven by those forces and heading towards that resolution.


[1] SES, p. 628, n.1.

[2] Lovejoy, A., The Great Chain of Being, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 1964.

[3] Whitehead, Alfred North, Process and Reality, (New York: Macmillan Press, 1929), p.63.

[4] SES, p. 319. Although it's true that many misquote Whitehead in this way.

[5] SES, p. 319.

[6] SES, p. 320. These misquotations are retained in the 2nd edition of SES.

[7] SES, p. 321.

[8] Mahoney, Edward P., “Lovejoy and the Hierarchy of Being,” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 48, issue 2 (Apr. - Jun., 1987), p.229

[9] SES, p. 521.

[10] Lovejoy, Great Chain of Being, p. 26-27.

[11] SES, pp. 320-321.

[12] SES, p. 319.

[13] Audi, Robert ed., The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1996.

[14] In Audi, Cambridge Dictionary, p. 624.

[15] Wilson, Daniel J., “Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being after Fifty Years,” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 48, issue 2 (Apr. - Jun., 1987), pp. 195-196.

[16] SES, p. 628.

[17] Inge, William Ralph, Philosophy of Plotinus, 3rd ed., (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1929).

[18] Fox, Adam, Dean Inge, (London: J. Murray, 1960), p. 137.

[ Wilber, Ken, The Eye of Spirit, (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1998), pp. 355-358.

[20] Inge, Plotinus, Vol. II, p.219.

[21] Fox, Dean Inge, p.135.

[22] Inge quoted by Wilber in SES, p. 331.

[23] SES, p. 331.

[24] SES, p. 331.

[ Taylor, Charles, Sources of the Self, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989).

[26] Taylor, Charles, Hegel, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975).

[27] Taylor, Sources of the Self, p.384.

[28] SES, p. 433.

[29] SES, p. 432.

[30] SES, p. 432.

[31] Edwards, Paul ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1972).

[32] Brinton, Crane, “Romanticism,” in Edwards, Paul ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. VII, p. 207.

[33] Brinton, “Romanticism,” p. 208.

[34] Day, Aiden, Romanticism, (New York: Routledge, 1996).

[35] Day, Romanticism, p. 76.

[36] Lovejoy, Arthur O., Essays in the History of Ideas, (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1948), p. 252.

[37] SES, p. 433.

[38] SES, p. 472.

[39] SES, p. 472.

[40] SES, p. 468.

[41] Tarnas, Richard, The Passion of the Western Mind, (New York: Ballantine, 1993), p. 372-373.

[42] Reardon, Bernard M.G., Religion in the Age of Romanticism, (New York: Cambridge U. Press, 1985), p.3.

[43] SES, p. 431.

[44] Taylor, Sources of the Self, p.389.

[45] Skinner, Quentin, “Who Are 'We'? Ambiguities of the Modern Self,” Inquiry, 34, p. 146.

[46] Skinner, “Who Are 'We'?,” p. 146.

[47] Skinner, “Who Are 'We'?,” p. 136.

[48] Skinner, “Who Are 'We'?,” p. 136.

[49] Skinner, “Who Are 'We'?,” p. 143.

[50] Skinner, “Who Are 'We'?,” p. 143.

[51] Skinner, “Who Are 'We'?,” p. 144.

[52] Skinner, “Who Are 'We'?,” p. 142.

[53] Skinner, “Who Are 'We'?,” p. 145.

© Jeff Meyerhoff 2006

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