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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 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].


Integral Theory Report

Jeff Meyerhoff

Strong criticism is criticism of the kind integral theory would face if evaluated by academic scholars.

I attended the 2010 Integral Theory Conference, presented a paper and was a panelist on the “Key Criticisms of Wilber's Work” panel. Here are some off-the-cuff (hopefully not to “pop”) sociological observations of the proceedings and the integral community. The analysis is oriented toward the questions of where integralism, and specifically Wilberian integralism, finds itself and what the inclusion of previously excluded critics means.

Was the inclusion of critical voices a form of critical tokenism—a cosmetic gesture—or was it a real attempt to include strong criticism into the fold? Strong criticism is criticism of the kind integral theory would face if evaluated by academic scholars. My sense is that there is ambivalence about criticism; both a real desire for criticism and some tokenism are occurring, but the real desire for criticism is the stronger.

The real desire for criticism of Wilber's integral theory is evident in a number of ways: Sean Esbjorn-Hargens recent call for papers for a book of integral criticism; the openness to Frank Visser, other critics and I at the conference; Frank's presentation of his conclusive critique of Wilber's strange aversion to the reigning Neo-Darwinian Synthesis (certainly by Wilber's standards one of the dominant methodologies and theories of human knowledge); Frank being given an honorable mention at the awards and, what seemed to me, a sincere appreciation from Esbjörn-Hargens; and, on the panel entitled “Is Integral a Mass Movement or Elitist Pursuit?,” Mark Forman's gritty level-headedness and desire to confront the realities of integral theory in facing the real world, in contrast to Marc Gafni's impressively articulate, passionate and rhetorically effective, but unconvincing advocacy of Wilberian integralism (the audience had to restrain itself from breaking out in applause after each of Gafni's inspirational mini-oratories).

All of these actions show a real desire for the critical inquiry that integral theory needs to have a chance to become a part of academia.

On the other hand—the other side of the ambivalence—my sense was there was a desire to mitigate the impact of the criticism by interpreting it curiously as an affirmation of Wilber's position. During the panel of critics of Wilber on which I participated I countered comments that seemed inaccurate whether they were critical or supportive of Wilber. But asserting that Wilber has a response to a criticism is not that same as saying that that response is the last word. It's simply to play the game of rational argumentation in the way it should be played, which is to try to formulate argument and counter-argument as strongly as possible. The goal is not to have your side win, the goal is to have the best argument prevail. During the awards ceremony Esbjörn-Hargens, perhaps half-jokingly, exulted in the fact that even the critics of Wilber panel were supportive of Wilber and mentioned me by name. But that wasn't the case. This, similar comments, and the still yawning divide between criticism and the Wilberian integralists are evidence of the aversion to engaging strong criticism.

There's good reason to be concerned about strong criticism.

The danger is that strong criticism of the academic sort will so discredit the model that it won't survive and not be able to be a part of academia. Being a part of academia is important because if integral theory does not find some kind of institutional base in which and from which to operate it will die out. Academia is not the only institutional base there is, but it is a very important, perhaps crucial, one because the model, as presented by Wilber and most integral theorists, is, most centrally, but not exclusively, an intellectual model. If it loses epistemological legitimacy then it will fail because of the centrality of its epistemological claims. So I think the organizers of the conference Sean Esbjörn-Hargens and Mark Forman must (and are temperamentally suited to) try for this kind of legitimacy.

But I think it will fail because of the fundamental deficiencies of the model.

This is not to say that no integral theory could survive academic scrutiny. Andrew Smith's model, while not presented with the Olympian assurance of Ken Wilber (despite Wilber's occasional tentative asides), seems to be a full-fledged integral theory that substantiates itself with empirical facts: the known characteristics of physical and biological entities: atoms, molecules, cells, animals (and their social characteristics) as opposed to an organization of theories. Smith is also completely open to rational argumentation and critique. Smith's theory does seem to pass the tests that Wilber's model fails and could be, if considered by academics, an epistemologically worthwhile theory to debate. (Egon Bittner, a professor of mine during my graduate school days at Brandeis University, once asked me what I thought the purpose was of our study. I said, “To find the truth.” He said, “No, it's to become a responsible member of the debate.”)

Wilberian integralists could try to institutionalize themselves outside of academia, maybe in a think tank or a foundation or an alternative learning institution, but this would be very difficult without money. It seems that there was this possibility during the dot-com bubble of the later 90s when millions were pledged to Wilber's work by dot-com or new economy entrepreneurs, but it fell apart with the collapse of that bubble. (Joe Pietromonaco has made the interesting observation that a Wilberian integral theory appeals during boom times unlike socialism, populism, nativism or fascism which benefit from bad economic times.) Without an institutional base there are no remunerative socio-economic positions for a young, up-and-coming generation of integralists to strive for and for established integralists to work from. It would have to survive as a past-time—like political and social activism in America, and we know that they do not fare well.

Without the openness to criticism that Esbjörn-Hargens and Forman are struggling to create the main way of keeping an intellectual movement alive will be lost.

Criticism generates interest, excitement and gives the younger generation something to do in the field and pathways to advancement. Now integral theory could try to insulate itself from strong criticism, as Wilber does, only accept suitably domesticated tinkering and only give newcomers the role of appliers of the model but this wouldn't last. First, there's the problem of the institutional position from which to do the work—people need jobs. Second, even empirical applications of the model in specific areas such as the study of tribal cultures, health care or art leads to questioning the model as its found, inevitably, not to fit the varied situations it encounters. And third, intellectually and spiritually passionate people will not stand for that kind of intellectual oppression.

(Although I don't know Wilber's current position on criticism, he sanctioned the conference and, I assume, was involved in its planning and so approved, or, at the very least, tolerated the odious critics—even the previously persona non gratae Frank Visser and I were included. Did Esbjörn-Hargens and Forman have enough leverage to get Wilber to accept the banished set? Or did the dramatic drop in interest in Wilber as demonstrated by recent google search statistics presented by Frank Visser show the necessity of repairing the main rift in the community? Wilber needs second generation advocates for his integral theory like Esbjörn-Hargens and Forman and they need him, so there is an interdependency between the generations.)

Esbjörn-Hargens is in a politically difficult position. While his job is secured as a tenured professor, the theory and organization he loves is precariously situated. On the one hand there is Ken Wilber whose confident and fluid writing and baldly ambitious synthesis is inspirational to some yet who stands as an awkward absent presence over the whole proceedings and the proto-movement in general. On the other hand, two guys (maybe more whom I'm not familiar with) who are trying to confront the realities of institutionalizing an unwieldy mixture of mode of knowledge, empirical research and practice of self-development so that it can find a secure and thriving place in the real world. Wilber can continue his reclusiveness and alt-celebrity hobnobbing, but that's not what's centrally needed to establish, institutionalize and further an intellectual and practical social organization in the real world.

The grandiose rhetorical theorizing that a Wilber or a Gafni do inspires the troops and fills them with utopian ideals and a favored place in the developmental hierarchy (holarchy), but the danger is an overweening self-regard and the illusion of being a transcendent elite and social vanguard when in reality the integralists are out of touch with the realities of the real world. The differences between Forman and Gafni on the “Integral Theory: Mass Movement or Elitist Pursuit” panel were interesting in this regard. Gafni was flying high on his impressive integralist rhetoric, while Forman tried to bring the proceedings down to earth by reminding the cohort that they need to face the difficult and painful realities of the mundane world and warning of the dangers of projecting one's supposed spiritually transcendent self-regard onto the world and imagining that the revolution of the cultural creatives is imminent when in reality there is a long road ahead.

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