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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Jeff 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 www.wmfo.org. His blog is www.philosophyautobiography.blogspot.com and his email is [email protected].
Bald Ambition, A Critique of Ken Wilber's Theory of Everything
There have been mild, piece-meal criticisms of Wilber's work, but there is no sustained book-length critique that examines closely his scholarly sources and arguments.
Ken Wilber's reputation ranges from laudatory assessments which describe him as “The Einstein of Consciousness” to derogatory dismissals that see him as a New Age pseudo-scientist. What is the validity of his contribution? In the 1970's and 80's he established himself as a leading theorist of Transpersonal Psychology by integrating prominent western psychologies and eastern spiritualities into a spectrum of consciousness. In the 1990's he amassed an impressively diverse array of scholarship in the natural, social and spiritual sciences to create an integral synthesis of knowledge which he only half-ironically refers to as a “theory of everything.” Wilber's eight volume collected works were recently published and his books have been translated into 30 languages. Academic recognition has come from Charles Taylor, Michael Zimmerman, Robert Kegan and in the form of a book-length survey of his work. The growing disenchantment with postmodern and poststructural thinking makes Wilber's integral synthesis look more attractive to those outside and inside academia.
Wilber is a savvy propagandist. Five websites are now devoted to his work. He has founded an “Integral Institute” with leading scholars which promotes research from the integral perspective and offers integral consulting services. An Integral University plans to offer accredited courses. While his theory predicts a developmental transcending of the postmodern culture now ensconced in academia, he knows that intellectual hegemony comes not just from the strength of the better argument, but from getting a younger scholarly generation to cudgel for his views and gain a foothold in academia. Wilber's growing popularity, networking, influence and reputation make it a good time to evaluate his views.
There have been mild, piece-meal criticisms of Wilber's work, but there is no sustained book-length critique that examines closely his scholarly sources and arguments and offers a response from a strongly formulated critical, rational, postmodern and spiritually-informed position. I examine the major areas Wilber weaves together into his integral synthesis and demonstrate the problems (and strengths) of his arguments, methods, underlying philosophy and use of sources. A cornerstone of postmodern understanding is that an overarching integration of knowledge of the kind Wilber attempts is not possible and that a radical plurality of perspectives is a fact of contemporary life. A type of perspectivism and relativism prevails which Wilber believes he has transcended, but which my analysis shows he has not. As an alternative, I describe an alternative spiritual and psychological path of knowledge and provide an illustration of the psychological path with a psychological analysis of the basis of Wilber's beliefs.
Wilber has complained many times about critics misrepresenting his work and in order to avoid this I have tried to formulate his theory as strongly as possible. His magnum opus Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (SES) is the basis of my interpretation, but its version of his theory was supplemented when needed by older and newer versions. Wilber's introduction to the revised second edition of SES is helpful in pointing out that text's limitations. I examine his views of philosophy, integral theory, methodology, the character of the natural world, individual and social development, mysticism, western history, and postmodernism. The areas of male/female relations and ecology have been examined by others and will not be examined here.
Wilber's integral synthesis is an evolutionary-developmental theory that tries to connect the subject matters of the natural, social and spiritual sciences. Using a model derived from the new sciences of complexity, he describes an evolutionary process in which self-organizing physical, biological and human social and individual systems aggregate into increasingly complex forms and create novel, emergent evolutionary properties. The Big Bang set in motion a cosmic evolutionary process of aggregation, integration and emergence. Subatomic particles aggregated into atoms which then aggregated into molecules, creating the stars, planets and the other physical contents of the cosmos. On Earth, molecules aggregated into more complex forms allowing the emergence of living matter or organisms; this began a gradual biological evolution creating more complex and diverse forms of life. Emerging from this biological evolution were human beings and their unique form of consciousness. Human beings are a living embodiment of the inclusive complexity of the cosmos. Inclusive because within each of us are atoms within molecules within cells within tissues within organs within the body. Each level of existence both transcends and includes all lower levels forming a natural hierarchy within the still more encompassing purview of human consciousness.
Human consciousness continues this developmental process both individually and socially. Wilber uses the work of Jean Piaget and other developmental psychologists to chart the course of individual development. He combines this with Jurgen Habermas's model of social evolution to describe a parallel development of society through history. The rational mind is presently the most advanced developmental stage of consciousness as it is embodied in the people and societies of the industrialized West. Transcending the rational, Piaget, Kohlberg and Abraham Maslow studied and theorized higher stages of consciousness. Wilber uses these authors and the spiritual sciences of disciplined introspection described in mystical literature to argue for a further unfolding of increasing consciousness. In contrast to mainstream Western intellectual opinion, the mystical practices and literature of both the East and the West constitute a rigorous, detailed and empirical description of the contents and the development of consciousness through the disciplined use of contemplative and meditative practices. This literature claims that there are levels of consciousness beyond, but inclusive of, rational thought which provide an even greater integration of matter, life and mind. Wilber creatively integrates this work into his larger evolutionary synthesis.
To construct his integration Wilber uses the scholarship of academia. He bypasses the ongoing debates in the fields of study he integrates by using what he calls the orienting generalizations in each field. As the participants within each field debate the relevant issues over which they disagree, they also presuppose background points of agreement or orienting generalizations. In each field of knowledge Wilber culls this already-agreed-upon background knowledge and constructs his integral synthesis.
This integral synthesis takes the form of a map of knowledge. Within this map Wilber finds a place for the natural, social and spiritual sciences which study different sides of individual and social entities. Each individual and social entity has both a subjective or interior and objective or exterior side. For example, phenomenology studies individual human subjectivity or the interiors of individual consciousness; the history of consciousness studies the consciousness or “subjectivity” of social groups through time; physics studies the individual and social exteriors of matter such as sub-atomic particles and galaxies; demographics studies the exterior or objective aspect of human social aggregates. Each established science gives us information about a part of the larger whole.
Wilber's method and model also attempts to respond to and integrate the contemporary extreme postmodern relativism which sees no way to rank differing worldviews and sciences, and has left contemporary knowledge and society directionless and fragmented. Wilber's model strives to preserve the unique truths of disparate disciplines, while integrating them within a hierarchical model that identifies the natural evolutionary tendencies that characterize the development of matter, life, mind and spirit. In this way his integral vision is an advance over postmodern relativism and the fragmented specialization of the contemporary academy.
The book examines his work in two ways. First, I make good on my claim that he does not actually use the method of orienting generalizations by providing the evidence that in each of the subject areas that Wilber discusses - the natural sciences, developmental psychology, social evolution, western history, postmodernism, mysticism - the orienting generalizations are highly debatable and have widely varying degrees of validity. By examining his sources such as Piaget, Habermas, Charles Taylor, Jacques Derrida, A.O. Lovejoy and the fields in which they participate, I show the extensive and contentious debates surrounding the supposedly already-agreed-upon knowledge that Wilber uses to construct his integral framework.
Showing that the pillars of his integral framework are not the orienting generalizations of the major scientific disciplines is not the same as showing that they are false. So secondly, I examine the validity of the arguments Wilber derives from his sources in each of the major areas he discusses. The focus here is on the evidence for his assertions, the logic of his arguments and the assumptions and problems of evolutionary and developmental models.
My critique of Wilber's synthesis then examines his methodology. I claim that he does not actually use his own method of orienting generalizations and I describe the actual method he uses in its stead. I further show why any such method is unworkable at all. In the philosophical section, I explicate Wilber's unstated philosophical assumptions and show how they are both problematic in themselves and prejudiced against differing philosophical commitments which, because they contradict Wilber's assumptions, are excluded from his inclusive synthesis.
After demonstrating the problems with Wilber's sources and arguments, I then present a different path available to those who esteem both rationality and self-development. One part of that path follows rationality to its limits and suggests that this is an avenue to non-dual truths. Another part of the path explores the psychological underpinnings of belief and shows how that exploration can alter truth and objectivity, and has the potential to create more successful debate and self-knowledge.
I then illustrate this examination of the psychological causes of belief by asking why Wilber constructs the system that he does. If, as I have shown, it does not fit the facts and so does not derive its existence from what is the case, from where does it come? Using Wilber's journals and other sources I examine the psychological causes of his particular take on reality and the psychological purposes it serves. This provides insight into how intellectual blind spots operate and what perspectives get left out of his synthesis as a result. A conclusion assesses the positive and negative aspects of Wilber's thinking.
 Visser, Frank, Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, (Albany: SUNY Press, 2003).
 Ken Wilber, “Do Critics Misrepresent My Position?,” at www.shambhala.com.
 Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1995). Will be referred to as SES throughout the book.
 See Michael Zimmerman, “A Transpersonal Diagnosis of the Ecological Crisis,” ReVision, 18(4) and “On Transpersonal Ecology,” ReVision, 19(2). Also P. Wright, “Gender issues in Ken Wilber's transpersonal theory,” ReVision, 18(4) and “Difficulties with integrating the feminine,” ReVision, 19(2).
© Jeff Meyerhoff, 2003