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].


What's Worthy
of Inclusion?

A Reply to Mark Edwards

Jeff Meyerhoff


Mark Edwards is one of the most knowledgeable commentators on Ken Wilber's work, so it's disturbing that he's so critical of central parts of my book, Bald Ambition: A Critique of Ken Wilber's Theory of Everything. In “Meyerhoff, Wilber and the Postformal Stages,”[1] Edwards contends that I mar my own work with gratuitous ad hominem attacks; that I fundamentally misunderstand Wilber's methodology; and that I actually confirm, when trying to criticize, Wilber's use of postformal research which Wilber uses to validate his conception of vision-logic. He pronounces his negative assessments with a thunderous certainty: “Meyerhoff fundamentally misunderstands this point,” “Meyerhoff's proposition…not supported in any way,” “Meyerhoff…completely unconvincing.” It appears that the only positive thing that can be said for me regarding “Meyerhoff, Wilber and the Postformal Stages” is that at least I get top billing. Edwards extensive knowledge of Wilber's work, his Masters Degree in developmental psychology and his research in postformal studies should mean that his negative assessments of my work prevail, but, as I demonstrate in the following essay, it is not authority or status or credentials that determine what's right, but the strength of the better argument. Upon reflection, investigation and the incorporation of Edwards' good points, I think my arguments carry the day.


Edwards starts by criticizing my ad hominem or critical personal arguments and comments about Wilber. He says they detract from the good argumentation I do present. Edwards himself has shown an admirable restraint in the face of Wilber's shortness and dismissiveness towards him. And even though Wilber can be mean at times, that's no reason to return the favor; much better to maintain one's composure and take the high road, sticking to the facts and arguments. Sometimes this is the best course to take, but in this case I don't think so.

The criticality in the title of my book, Bald Ambition, suggests a personal element in my critique. This personal element arises from my interest in the relationship between peoples' psyches and their beliefs, the strong personal element that comes through in Wilber's writings and the frequent jibes Wilber makes towards those who disagree with his beliefs. In chapter 9, entitled “A Different Path,” I justify the examination of how one's psychology and beliefs intertwine and, in my next chapter, I use Wilber as an illustration of this. Wilber has written two books and one article that combine personal material with his theories and there is a revealing portrait of him by Tony Schwartz.[2] I also show the way Wilber's psychological issues cause, what I call, textual symptoms, in his text.[3] So the ad hominem comments that occasionally appear in my book originate in a larger interest that is explained and illustrated in the book.

I chose the title “Bald Ambition” not to make fun of Wilber's being, as Edwards humorously puts it, “follicly challenged,” but because of the way he, or his publisher, deploys his bald head. Baldness used to be judged a negative attribute (except for Yul Brenner, the exception that proved the rule), but these days a shaved head can be a fashion statement. And Wilber looks the opposite of unhandsome in the pictures of him that appear on several of his books. His bald dome, penetrating stare and finely chiseled features arrest the reader's attention and are a part of the aura that has been constructed around him. The dust jacket to my copy of One Taste reproduces a series of Warhol-like images of Wilber's head as part of its design. SUNY Press enlarged Wilber's face and head so that only the right side of it fits on the cover of Frank Visser's Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion. We're supposed to wonder: Who is Ken Wilber? What is going on in that powerful mind? How does he hold that encyclopedic knowledge? What mystical depths has he plumbed? There's an air of mystery that surrounds that image and I wanted to subvert it by using it to describe a shadow feature of Wilber and his theory of everything: his grandiosity. Hence the title: Bald Ambition.

Edwards complains that “Meyerhoff's arguments are so steeped in completely speculative conjecture about Wilber's psychological motivations that it becomes very difficult to deal with the substantive arguments that he is trying to make.” But my observations are not “speculative conjecture.” I've used Wilber's own works which contain personal information, his intellectual writings which unwittingly reveal personal information and others' writings about Wilber's personal life, to build a psychological interpretation of Wilber as a person and intellectual and show the relationship between Wilber's psyche and the grand theory he needs to have be true. (Interestingly, Frank Visser too felt compelled to incorporate Wilber's personal life into his excellent survey of Wilber's work.) I also give an argument for why this is a good thing to do and claim it can be done for anyone, not just Wilber. Finally, I've been a mental health clinician for 13 years and have spent nearly 25 years “having my head examined” in a variety of psychotherapies and so know a lot about how the psyche speaks both overtly and covertly. Edwards implies that my saying that Wilber sometimes “unwittingly disguises” what he's really doing is an oxymoron because a disguise is presumed to require intention. Yet, it's a fact of life that we all spend a lot of time unconsciously presenting a mask or false self to others and ourselves.

Edwards finds “it ironic that Meyerhoff should criticize Wilber for arguing in an ad hominem style when his own writings are so very full of such rhetorical devices.” But there's no irony here because there are different kinds of ad hominem arguments, some good and some bad. I can distinguish four types: the “avoidant ad hominem,” the “displaced ad hominem,” the “psycho-diagnostic ad hominem” and the “rebuking ad hominem.” An example of the avoidant ad hominem argument is in my chapter on vision-logic. There I criticize Wilber's ranking of his critics' levels of consciousness and argue it is actually a way of avoiding criticism by rating the consciousness of the critic as inferior.

In my chapter on the relationship between Wilber's psyche and his beliefs,[4] I say that I usually like zesty polemics, and the ad hominem comments they sometimes include. But I criticize Wilber's odd, misplaced ad hominem attacks and argue that they serve as displacements from Wilber's real concern: the threat that those critics' ideas pose to his system. I quote Wilber being nasty about the pragmatist-postmodernist, literary critic Stanley Fish. Stanley Fish has probably never even heard of Ken Wilber, and from what I've read of his writings he doesn't make ad hominem attacks on people. Why is Wilber getting his panties in a bunch[5] over Stanley Fish, whom he refers to as the “dimmest of postmodern dim bulbs?”[6] It's so misdirected. He takes responsible criticism as an attack, and so imagining he's been attacked, attacks back. Constructive critics like Christian De Quincy and even Mark Edwards bend over backwards to express their appreciation for Wilber's work and the important role it's played in their intellectual and/or spiritual development and he responds with an array of negative comments ranging from derision to dismissal. He's the 800 pound gorilla in the integral world and he uses his size to step on and exclude other people. This irks me and I felt like giving back to him some of what he has dished out. Firm limit setting can be a good therapeutic intervention for grandiosity. So while it's true that these personal polemical elements can hinder debate, it doesn't appear that being nice to the big guy has created a flourishing debate in the integral world either.

My ad hominem arguments regarding Wilber are of the psycho-diagnostic and rebuking kind. The example Edwards refers to, where I explain Wilber's ranking of critics' consciousness in order to avoid their criticism, is an example of a psycho-diagnostic ad hominem. The few times in Bald Ambition where I criticize Wilber for sloppy scholarship are of the rebuking type of ad hominem. These kinds of comments and arguments appear occasionally in my book and are a result of not liking Wilber's behavior towards scholarship and imagined opponents, and a desire to reveal the real reasons behind some of his arguments and his ad hominem criticisms.

Recently, I have had the honor of becoming the object of an ad hominem argument by Wilber:

The importance of including altitude or levels of development—and the fact that some critics aren't at the appropriate altitude to make cogent criticisms (Ken's example: Meyerhoff). Due to this difference in altitude, there is nothing you can say to satisfy such critics. You can, of course, always learn something from any criticism, but that's not the issue.[7]

Well, despite being altitudinally-challenged, I think I do make cogent criticisms, in fact, the more cogent the criticism the more there is a need to avoid them through avoidant ad hominem arguments like the one above. Perhaps these uses of “altitude” and “levels of development” herald the advent of a new Wilberian, integral tenet: transcend and exclude.


Edwards contends that my criticism of Wilber's method of using orienting generalizations is fundamentally mistaken. He rightly states my position that Wilber does not use orienting generalizations and that the method is unworkable at all. Edwards contends that this is not the case because Wilber's orienting generalization method is like the methods successfully used in a variety of systems sciences, such as general systems theory, cybernetics and the Gaia hypothesis. Edwards then proceeds to cite a number of different practitioners of the systems sciences, describes their methodologies and likens Wilber's methodology to theirs.

Since systems theory can have an obscure, abstract air about it, a general description might be helpful. Lars Skyttner gives a useful summary of general systems theory, a central type of the systems sciences. He writes:

General Systems Theory was founded on the assumption that all kinds of systems (concrete, conceptual, abstract, natural or man-made) had characteristics in common regardless of their internal nature. These systems could serve to describe nature and our existence. General Systems Theory is, however, not another discipline – it is a theory cutting across most other disciplines….GST uses various ways in classifying different types of systems – most of them offering an intuitive classification of systems ranked in increasing order of complexity. Here each level include, in some way, the lower levels but have its own, new emergent properties.[8]

Edwards explains that “systems theorists identify isomorphic patterns and commonalities between systems to develop theoretical frameworks that can be applied across a diverse range of scientific disciplines.” It is “about identifying innovative ways of connecting the insights of multiple communities of researchers and using those generalizations…across multiple theories and conceptual frameworks.”

Edwards' emphasis on the role of the systems approach in Wilber's methodology has been a helpful corrective to my too-narrow a focus on Wilber's stated method of using orienting generalizations. I can be excused for not appreciating the role of the systems sciences in Wilber's methodology because when Wilber is describing his methodology he never mentions the systems sciences. When describing his methodology at the beginning of SES, Wilber says he will be using the “orienting generalizations from the various branches of knowledge.”[9] He explains that each field of knowledge has its debates, but while the participants in those fields are debating their current issues, they are also implicitly agreeing upon some background knowledge. An orienting generalization is the “already-agreed-upon knowledge”[10] in each discipline which is “simple but sturdy”[11] because accepted by the participants in the debate. Wilber will collect these orienting generalizations and weave them together into a systemic whole. He uses the three basic stages of progressive moral development as an example of an orienting generalization. People debate the details, but the basic pattern, he contends, is agreed upon.

When Wilber does discuss the systems sciences they are treated like just another field of knowledge from which Wilber will cull his orienting generalizations. Wilber writes that,

It is not…that systems theory is wrong; it is that, ironically, it is incredibly partial and lopsided. And so we will begin, in this chapter and the next, to redress some of these partialities and imbalances. And we will see, as this book progresses, that systems theory, in and by itself, is not a force of healing and wholing the planet; rather, we will see, and again ironically, that systems theory (in all its many variants) is part of the flatland paradigm that is still contributing to the despoliation and devastation of Gaia.[12]

Similarly, in Jack Crittendon's essay explaining Wilber's orienting generalizations – an essay Wilber liked so much he reprinted it twice[13] – he never likens the method of orienting generalizations to that of the system sciences. Crittendon lumps “chaos theory and the systems sciences” into a long list of other fields which Wilber has mined for their “truths.”

Despite this, as Edwards explains, a systems approach is a part of Wilber's methodology, and not just used for its content. Wilber uses a systems approach in that he takes a larger view of things and tries to see recurring systemic patterns in various domains of knowledge and their phenomena. As Edwards says, and I agree – despite Edwards' contention that I believe otherwise – Wilber wants to preserve the integrity of individual areas of knowledge and their phenomena while seeing how they interrelate and cohere, working as a whole while maintaining their parts.

But in contrast to Edwards, I contend that while Wilber does use a systems approach, the method of orienting generalizations is not the same as a systems approach. Edwards tends to equate the two, yet the difference between them creates a fundamental contradiction which goes to the heart of Wilber's method.

Edwards thinks that Wilber is involved in the innovative theory building that the systems sciences engage in, so “An orienting generalisation is not some bland lowest common denominator that everyone working [in] a field can agree upon.” Yet Wilber himself uses exactly the same phrase that Edwards uses – “lowest common denominator – to pejoratively describe the systems sciences. Wilber refers to systems theory as a “lowest common denominator approach”[14] and writes that

Systems theory – precisely in its claim and desire to cover all systems – necessarily covers the least common denominator, and thus nothing gets into systems theory that, to borrow a line from Swift, does not also cover the weakest noodle.

And the weakest noodles, the lowest holons, have the least depth, the least interiority, the least consciousness – so that a science of that is correspondingly a weakest noodle science. It is a science of surfaces.[15]

The systems sciences that Edwards champions Wilber says will only take you so far and he is quite critical of system theory's limitations, saying that it's fine for explaining the physical world and for some of the living world, but that they tend to be reductionistic and so bring things to the “lowest common denominator.”[16] While systems theory is fine for constructing his twenty tenets, Wilber will have to do more to create his integral synthesis.

That something more is his concept of the orienting generalization. As he says, the orienting generalizations are the beads of knowledge which only need to be strung together to create our Kosmic necklace.[17] While Wilber doesn't say it when describing orienting generalizations in SES, I think its accurate to say that the systems approach is the thread upon which the beads are strung.

Now here is where the contradiction occurs. The orienting generalizations supposedly tell you the agreed upon knowledge of the various sciences. The systems approach identifies the recurring patterns and the interrelationships between different knowledges and sciences. What happens if the orienting generalizations don't fit into the pattern? Does one then alter the pattern to fit the orienting generalization or does one alter the orienting generalization to fit the pattern? Wilber opts for the latter. What I show, in most of the domains of knowledge Wilber uses, is that the facts are made to fit the model. This is part of the reason why, in a later chapter, I consider the psychological reasons that Wilber is so keen on this particular model being true, since the facts don't confirm it.[18]

One example of an orienting generalization which Wilber uses that is not “largely-agreed-upon”[19] is Piaget's basic stages of cognitive development. All children who develop normally are supposed to go through these basic stages. Piaget's theory of cognitive development is central to Wilber's description of the individual's interior development. Yet in my chapter on individual development I cite five professors of psychology, all with concentrations in developmental psychology, assessing their field thusly:

The “neo-Piagetian, theory-based, and information-processing approaches” current today “have proved to be inconsistent with a great deal of data.”[20]

"each wave of incoming research delivers a new flotsam of increasingly divergent claims about almost any developmental milestone one might care to mention."

“Clearly something is seriously amiss. How could research into questions as fundamental as when persons first acquire a sense of self or learn to reason transitively yield up answers that are seemingly so far apart? How can it be that experts who hold to such radically different views appear to be so unruffled by this same divergence of opinion? Where is the collective embarrassment one might reasonably expect in the face of such wholesale disagreement?”

“the problem appears to be getting progressively worse rather than better.”[21]

"In the wake of the collapse of Piagetian theory, cognitive development has been a bit of a mess, with almost theories, half theories, pseudo-theories, and theory fragments floating about in the sociological ether."[22]

"Recent empirical work in infancy and early childhood has led . . . to the rejection of the central tenets of Piaget's theory: cognitive development does not depend on action, there are complex representations at birth, there are no far-reaching domain-general stage changes, young children are not always egocentric, and so on."[23]

Wilber, writing a few years after these negative assessments, writes that “as for the cognitive line itself, Piaget's work is still very impressive; moreover, after almost three decades of intense cross-cultural research, the evidence is virtually unanimous: Piaget's stages up to formal operational are universal and cross-cultural.” [24]

Compared to Wilber's other orienting generalizations, Piaget's stages of development are actually relatively sturdy. Let's take a crucial, but much weaker, orienting generalization: social evolution. In my chapter on social evolution[25] I give evidence for the lack of agreement upon, and the lack of validation for, the idea of social evolution. Very few scholars in sociology and history believe in social evolution. Michiel Korthals, who's trying to resuscitate the idea of stages of societal development, assesses the scholarly status of the idea in 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.”[26]

Yet humans' social evolution is a prominent part of the entire lower half of Wilber's four quadrant model. On the one hand, you have the lack of an orienting generalization, but on the other, you have the needs of Wilber's systemic model which requires there be a stage-like social evolution towards an endpoint. So what will win out, the orienting generalization or the systems theory? In example after example it is the requirements of Wilber's evolutionary/developmental system that wins out. But in doing so he violates the requirements of the method of orienting generalizations which both he and Jack Crittendon tout as his method. He won't let the fact of a dramatic lack of consensus in the fields of sociology and history stop him from creating his evolutionary/developmental system. This is one reason why Edwards and Wilber try to insulate fields of study from outside criticism using the nonexclusion principle, which I explain below.

Edwards mentions Wilber's distinguishing of the “interior-exterior dimension” of all holons and likens it to “the seminal work on organisational science by Burrell and Morgan.” Wilber wants to defend interiority or subjectivity against the materializing of everything by the flatland ontologies of the natural sciences and most systems theories. To that end, he sets aside the whole left hand side of his four quadrant model for the interiors of individual and social holons. But is the postulation of an interior dimension or subjectivity to all holons an orienting generalization of the sciences? Even Wilber is responsibly cautious in his discussion of this controversial postulation,[27] yet this awareness of how un-agreed-upon such an idea is doesn't stop him from giving it a fundamental role in his integral system. Again, the requirements of his preferred system take precedence over the existence of a consensus in any of the sciences around this issue.[28]

Another area whose validity could be questioned is the systems sciences themselves. Edwards presents a glowing description of the systems sciences, presenting them as a robust theoretical field, but my sense of the current status of the approach is different. My impression is that these systems sciences – general systems theory, cybernetics, information theory – arose with some promise in the nineteen-fifties, had their heyday in the sixties and seventies, and then started to decline after that. Professor Lars Skyttner is an enthusiastic supporter of the systems sciences, yet acknowledges in his useful introduction to the field, General Systems Theory, that “the future of Systems Thinking seems bleak.”[29] Now this could be due to ostracism by the normal natural sciences – in other words, politics; but it may also be due to a lack of results. For some reason, to be explored, the great promise of these sciences has not been fulfilled.

In sum, what I claim and demonstrate throughout my book is that in each of the areas Wilber writes about, his orienting generalizations are not the “already-agreed-upon,” “simple but sturdy,” truths of their various disciplines. In cognitive and moral developmental psychology, evolutionary biology, social evolution, western history, mysticism, postmodernism, philosophy and even in Wilber's own integral holonic theory, there is disagreement about the very ideas Wilber calls orienting generalizations – the “largely-agreed-upon” ideas – which are supposed to be the building blocks of his map of the Kosmos. This is why I say that Wilber does not use his own method of orienting generalizations.


This explains why I say that Wilber does not use his own method of the orienting generalization, but why do I go on to say that the method of the orienting generalization is unworkable at all? It is because in the social sciences and the humanities we cannot get the level of agreement Wilber needs. The nature of the subject matter of the social sciences and the humanities doesn't yield it. To understand why, we need to look at the discipline that studies this, the philosophy of the social sciences. Ironically, we could say that there is a negative orienting generalization in the philosophy of the social sciences. Alex Rosenberg, in a survey article on the field in a standard reference work, writes that

The adoption of methods from natural science by many social scientists raised another central question: why had these methods so apparently successful in natural science been apparently far less successful when self-consciously adapted to the research agendas of the several social sciences?[30]

He then gives the main responses to this “central question” which are the main positions in this field's debate. While some say the social sciences will achieve the level of agreement of the natural sciences in the future, others say that the nature of the subject matter – humans – will not allow that level of agreement. I side with the latter group because the subject matter of the social sciences – people – can, unlike the subject matter of the natural sciences, comprehend the descriptions, explanations and predictions made about them and their behavior and choose to be and act differently. This is why I say the method of the orienting generalization is unworkable at all. The orienting generalizations in the social sciences and the humanities simply cannot have the level of agreement to make them sturdy enough building blocks for Wilber's system. There will always be more debate.

We saw an example of this in my discussion of Piaget. Even the supposedly “simple but sturdy” four stages of cognitive development “have proved to be inconsistent with a great deal of data,” (Siegler) and produces “increasingly divergent claims” (Chandler and Chapman) so that we can speak of a “collapse of Piagetian theory” (Gopnik and Meltzoff). Of course Wilber, and perhaps Edwards, disagree, but even if they do, there is obviously going to be a very spirited debate on the subject which itself indicates that these are not orienting generalizations, i.e. “already-agreed-upon knowledge.” And even if there were agreement in developmental psychology on the four stage sequence, if the ideas of stages or development themselves are then taken as topics of inquiry, we see that they too can produce a fruitful debate, in opposition to the general consensus required for those ideas to be considered orienting generalizations. The book Value Presuppositions of Human Development[31] is a spirited debate among leading developmental psychologists and others on the validity of concepts such as stage and structure. Or, from a more politically and socially conscious vantage point, all of developmental psychology can be criticized as in the collection edited by, noted postformal theorist and Wilber source, John Broughton, entitled Critical Theories of Psychological Development.[32] So I say the notion of orienting generalizations, and so Wilber's methodology, is unworkable at all because, in the social sciences and the humanities, every agreed upon understanding can be taken by someone else as their topic of debate. And if something can be debated it is not “already-agreed-upon;” it is debatable.


Edwards contends that my criticism of Wilber's belief in a stage of development beyond Piaget's formal stage, called vision-logic[33] (or, in academia, the postformal stage), is not valid for the following reasons: I only cite one author who differs with Wilber's view, Helena Marchand[34]; she has a bias; she is not a postformal researcher and so cannot comment on the results from postformal studies according to Wilber's principle of nonexclusion; there is an “immense” amount of research demonstrating the existence of a postformal stage; and, to top it off, I admit that she does support Wilber's basic position that there is a broad consensus among postformal researchers. While appearing to be an impressive list of criticisms, I show that only one of them has merit, and so correct it.


Edwards describes Wilber's principle of nonexclusion and uses it to argue that we should not use scholars outside of a field of knowledge to judge the results of scholars within a field of knowledge because the scholars within the field are the experts.[35] In Wilber's language, the scholars within the field have followed the injunctions, or the methods for looking at their field's object of study; had the apprehensions, or perceived (or didn't perceive) what is (or isn't) there; and, checked with the community of inquirers who have followed these three strands of knowledge acquisition and had their results confirmed by that community. Nonexclusion is the idea that differing fields of knowledge study differing phenomena in ways particular to their field, so that people outside the field, who study different phenomena with different methodologies, can't usefully comment on what goes on in another field. All the people studying in all the differing fields are seeing different aspects of reality and all should be honored.

The first problem with this line of argumentation, as described by Edwards, is his indiscriminate use of terminology to describe different domains of knowledge. Edwards speaks of “fields,” “areas,” “disciplines,” “a disciplinary matrix,” “communities of researchers” and “paradigms.” It's not clear what these many terms designate and it is important to be clear about this because depending on the degree of difference between two research specialties we can either agree or disagree with Edwards and Wilber's assertion of the principle of nonexclusion. Wilber, in his statement of the nonexclusion principle, is somewhat more disciplined than Edwards because he sticks to a smaller array of terms – “paradigms,” “fields,” “paradigms of a field” and “data domains.” Still, some greater clarity needs to be brought to the terminology for the principle to be useful.

If two approaches to knowledge – to pick a neutral term – are far apart then it could be the case that, as Wilber says, members of the two groups will talk past each other and not have a productive debate. As I argue in my chapter on mysticism, different fields can have such different criteria of validity that they will simply talk past each other. There I use the example of the Western philosophic method of studying consciousness versus the Eastern, practice-based study of consciousness.[36] While some Easterners, like the Tibetans, can have long, sophisticated debates about the nature of consciousness, others, such as Zen practitioners, will eschew the rational debates of Western thinkers as a fixation on the pointing finger at the expense of the moon. The Zen master will deploy words with the goal of enhancing experiential insight, not to perpetuate the futile desire to get all our concepts to cohere. In psychoanalysis, some argue that, despite Freud's desire to have psychoanalysis be a science, it's unproductive for psychoanalysis to use natural scientific methodology to judge its validity. Although, even here, they will be affected by the arguments from an alien discipline and be forced to formulate their conception of psychoanalysis as an interpretive science in reaction to it.

In contrast, there are separate fields that are either close enough for someone to become knowledgeable in both or that share attributes that lend themselves to seeing each other in new and productive ways. Just off the top of my head, three examples come to mind of scholars making important contributions to areas of knowledge different from their own. And these three scholars are farther from the areas they comment upon than my postformal critic, Helena Marchand, is from postformal studies. The British, logical atomist philosopher Bertrand Russell published two papers on American pragmatism criticizing some of its key assertions and made an important contribution to pragmatism's development. In 1966, Jacques Derrida, perhaps best described as a phenomenologist at the time, delivered his seminal paper criticizing Levi-Straussian structuralism that had important consequences and launched the movement called poststructuralism. And the linguist Noam Chomsky vaulted to prominence with his 1959 critique of Skinnerian behaviorism.

The point in my chapter on Wilber's methodology is that the validity of any orienting generalization, except for some natural scientific facts or laws, is open to critical questioning whether from within its community of acceptance or without. And depending on the strength or weakness of that questioning the orienting generalization will have its validity thrown into question or not. For example, ordinary language philosophers, as well as logical positivists themselves, dealt logical positivism a fundamental blow by their critiques of the dominant paradigm. In sociology, the reigning Parsonsian structural-functionalism was criticized by upstarts in phenomenological sociology, ethnomethodology and Frankfurt School Marxism. These criticisms pointed out value-laden assumptions, biases in methodology and revealed facets of individuals and groups that structural-functionalism occluded. So here are examples where differing scholarly communities had very relevant things to say to the reigning paradigms and prompted major changes in the intellectual landscape.

A larger question that this discussion raises has to do with a great dichotomy that goes back to the rise of the Enlightenment. Will our first criterion of acceptable commentary be authority or equality? Who you are or what you know? Your status or your reasons? If we are following the Enlightenment ideals, the first thing we should want to know when someone asserts a view, whether inside or outside a particular area of knowledge, is what is the quality of their argument? We have blind submissions to academic journals because it is supposed to be the quality of the argument and not the status of the arguer that determines whether they have something relevant to say. It may be, in any given case, that insiders have the requisite background to make the better contribution, but since this is not necessarily so we must look at the quality of the arguments and the evidence adduced regardless of who offers them. A beautiful illustration of this comes from Noam Chomsky who relates a story describing the differing receptions he receives from mathematicians and political scientists:

In my own professional work I have touched on a variety of different fields. I've done my work in mathematical linguistics, for example, without any professional credentials in mathematics; in this subject I am completely self-taught, and not very well taught. But I've often been invited by universities to speak on mathematical linguistics at mathematics seminars and colloquia. No one has ever asked me whether I have the appropriate credentials to speak on these subjects; the mathematicians couldn't care less. What they want to know is what I have to say. No one has ever objected to my right to speak, asking whether I have a doctor's degree in mathematics, or whether I have taken advanced courses in the subject. That would never have entered their minds. They want to know whether I am right or wrong, whether the subject is interesting or not, whether better approaches are possible – the discussion dealt with the subject, not with my right to discuss it.

But on the other hand, in discussion or debate concerning social issues or American foreign policy, Vietnam or the Middle East, for example, the issue is constantly raised, often with considerable venom. I've repeatedly been challenged on the grounds of credentials, or asked, what special training do you have that entitles you to speak of these matters. The assumption is that people like me, who are outsiders from a professional standpoint, are not entitled to speak on such things.

Compare mathematics and the political sciences -- it's quite striking. In mathematics, in physics, people are concerned with what you say, not with your certification. But in order to speak about social reality, you must have the proper credentials, particularly if you depart from the accepted framework of thinking. Generally speaking, it seems fair to say that the richer the intellectual substance of a field, the less there is a concern for credentials, and the greater is concern for content.[37]

The insecure social scientists emphasize credentials – who you are – because they feel their status as legitimate scientists to be questionable; in contrast, mathematicians and some natural scientists have largely agreed upon methods, laws and proofs and can rely upon the superior argument to weed out the inferior.

The good thing about Enlightenment rationality is that it is a great leveler. This is in keeping with the Enlightenment championing of democracy and equality. If you can muster the arguments and the evidence then, theoretically, you should have a hearing and if your views can prevail, so much the better for reasoned debate.


I presented Helena Marchand's survey of postformal studies as evidence that there are grounds for debate regarding the legitimacy of a postformal stage of development. Edwards tries to disqualify her from commenting upon postformal studies using Wilber's principle of nonexclusion and notes that “She writes from a Piagetian perspective, i.e. a perspective that lies outside [of the] postformal research community.”

Yet many inside the postformal research community follow in the Piagetian tradition, such as Michael Commons and Francis Richards[38], whom Marchand thinks are the best in the postformal field and whom Wilber refers to several times. So we have, on the one hand, Marchand, a Piagetian, who is not convinced there is a postformal stage and, on the other hand, Commons and Richards, who are referred to as Post-Piagetians, i.e. believers in the Piagetian stages plus one. Are postformal studies so alien that any developmental psychologist who is not a postformal researcher can't even comment on them? Is a Piagetian who does not believe in a postformal stage really from a “different disciplinary matrix or paradigm,” as Edwards contends? That's carrying the principle of nonexclusion to the point of exclusivity.

Edwards' observation that Marchand writes from a “Piagetian perspective” and his noting that her article appeared in “the major journal of the Jean Piaget Society” implies a bias on her part. This is a good point to make, but suspiciously, Edwards does not inquire what the biases of Commons and Richards and other postformal researchers might be. Commons and Richards are presented as the highest authorities whose views we should accept because of their favored position in the field. What bias would postformal researchers have? The same as all academics: career furtherance, tenure, pride, institutional power, grant money, salaries and the investment of a whole career in the legitimacy of their area. Just as we should be aware that Marchand may be biased by an allegiance to a traditional Piagetian model, we should also be aware of the biases possibly lurking behind the statements of postformal experts.

An indication of a bias in Commons and Richards and Edwards himself can be observed in Edwards' essay. Edwards suggests we “ask the researchers that both Marchand and Wilber recognize as leading authorities in the field of postformal research” for a summary of our knowledge of post-Piagetian research. Well, that will certainly give us one perspective on that research, but it will come from people personally and professionally invested in the validity and institutional longevity of that research. That doesn't necessarily mean that they will be biased, but it certainly is a possibility to look for, just as it is a possibility to look for in postformal critics like Marchand. Edwards quotes Commons and Richards for an authoritative statement of the true condition of postformal studies. They say that “Both empirical and analytic evidence for these [postformal] stages has been presented.” Yet why do they and Edwards neglect to mention the four studies that Marchand cites – “Demetriou, 1990; Kallio, 1995; Kallio & Helkema, 1991; Kohlberg, 1990” – which she says do not confirm Commons and Richards results? Merely an oversight, or do those studies conflict with a particular picture that the top researchers in postformal studies want to portray? Could it be a bias in favor of the validity of a postformal stage that caused the omission of empirical studies that do not confirm their results?

While citing the empirical research that does not confirm Commons and Richards hypotheses, Marchand does note that there is a very broad consensus regarding three features of a postformal stage:

it is possible to identify in the diverse descriptions of postformal thought (cf. Kramer, 1983, 1989) some features which would be specific to this level: (1) the recognition and understanding of the relativistic, non-absolutist, nature of knowledge; (2) the acceptance of contradiction to the extent that it is part of reality; and (3) the integration of contradiction into comprehensive systems, i.e., into a dialectical whole ( Kramer, 1989).[39]

Edwards pounces on my admission that Marchand acknowledges a broad consensus in postformal studies. (This in contrast to Edwards' omission of Marchand's citing of the studies that do not confirm Commons and Richards' theories – perhaps when she says something positive about postformal studies she's more reliable than when she says something negative.) But agreement among participants in a field does not equal validity for the idea agreed upon. The members of the field could all be wrong about what they agree upon. The concept or framework agreed upon could be the working assumption that the members of the field use to organize agreeable facts and weed out offending facts. Or, the orienting generalizations could be nutty: I'd guess that all members of the Flat Earth Society agree that the earth is flat.

There is a tautological element to any claim that in-group agreement alone confers validity upon the idea agreed upon. Here's the tautology: To be a member of a group one has to believe in the idea that makes one a member of the group. Once one stops believing in that idea one is no longer a member of the group. All groups are self-selecting around the belief that makes one a member of the group. If you stop believing, you are out of the group. So consensus alone is not a good enough criterion for validity. Of course, Edwards and Wilber agree that practicing the three strands of any valid knowledge quest is necessary to constitute the kind of group they are interested in. But even allowing this, we're back where we started from because it is in-group community consensus, the third strand in any valid knowledge quest, which determines whether members have valid knowledge.


Edwards makes the stronger point that I only cite one scholar to counter Wilber's orienting generalizations of postformal research. He's right; ideally we want a broad range of opinion. I thought that because Marchand's piece was a relatively recent survey of the whole field of postformal studies, was well-researched and measured in tone, it did the job of indicating that there was room for debate regarding the validity of the conclusions of postformal researchers. But Edwards point is well-taken.

In order to support my contention that postformal studies, like developmental psychology as a whole, does not have the “largely-agreed-upon orienting generalizations” that Wilber and Edwards say they have, I offer the following indicators of the debate from both inside and outside of postformal research.

K. Helmut Reich, a longtime postformal researcher, provides a short survey of the field of postformal studies. In the introduction to his recent book on postformal thinking he recounts the history and assesses the discipline's state:

In the early 1980s, a category of more highly developed thought, called 'postformal operations', became a topic of interest to a small group of psychologists (e.g., C. N. Alexander, P. K. Arlin, Ch. Armon, P. B. Baltes, M. A. Basseches, A. Blasi, J. M. Broughton, M. J. Chandler, M. L. Commons, C. Gilligan, H. Koplowitz, D. Kramer, G. Labouvie-Vief, E. J. Langer, F. A. Richards, J. D. Sinnott). A number of volumes on that subject were published in fairly rapid succession (e.g., Commons, Richards and Armon 1984; Commons, Sinnott, Richards and Armon 1989;Commons,Armon, Kohlberg, Richards, Grotzer and Sinnott 1990; Alexander and Langer 1990). But those publications appear to have dwindled to a trickle (e.g., Sinnott 1998) without having resolved the central issue of the distinguishing characteristics of postformal operations and their relations with Piagetian formal operations. No consensus currently exists regarding those characteristics and relations.[40]

Unlike Marchand – the Piagetian – who thought there was a very broad consensus in postformal studies, Reich – a postformal researcher – believes that postformal studies have not “resolved the central issue of the distinguishing characteristics of postformal operations and their relations with Piagetian formal operations. No consensus currently exists regarding those characteristics and relations.”

Another postformal researcher has a more ambiguous assessment of the field than Reich. Eeva Kallio, and her colleague Anna-Maija Pirttila-Backman, see the field this way:

Generally, there seems to be a tendency to accept a schematisation of the concept of postformal thinking as a description of adult cognitive development, and the concept of “relativistic dialectical” thinking has been used interchangeably with it to refer to the ways in which thinking develops in adulthood (e.g., Yan & Arlin, 1995). However, there is considerable disagreement about the empirical status of the postformal stage of development. For example, there is the contradictory evidence presented by Commons, Richards, and Kuhn (1982), the failure of replication in Europe (Kallio, 1995; Kallio & Helkama, 1985), and the critical evaluation of this replication attempt by Commons et al. (1995). There have also been critical analyses of the concept of postformal thinking itself (e.g., Kohlberg, 1990; Kramer, 1983; Marchand, 2001); some of the questions raised in these articles have remained empirically and theoretically unanswered. See Kallio (1998) for a theoretical metaanalysis of the heterogeneity of the concept, but also Yan and Arlin (1995), for empirical support for a common statistical factor in some models of postformal thinking.[41]

Orlando Lourenço and Armando Machado are two Piagetians more critical than Marchand of the notion of a postformal stage. Citing relevant postformal literature they contend that,

With respect to the nature of the various postformal stages, the whole issue remains controversial because these stages have not been defined with sufficient clarity as to yield a consensus among developmental psychologists (see Commons et al., 1990; Kohlberg, 1990). However, there is some evidence that such a stage is not structurally superior to the formal stage: [If] postformal reasoning constitutes a stage at all, it is not logically superior to formal-operational reasoning (Linn & Siegel, 1984, p. 244). Rather, the postformal stage may constitute a form of cognition parallel to formal thought, albeit with a practical, contextual, and meta-reflexive character (see Chandler & Boutilier, 1992). For instance, after assessing college students in a variety of formal and postformal tasks, the authors of a recent study concluded that subjects showing full formal operational reasoning were not more likely than those showing early formal operations to be scored postformal (Kallio & Helkama, 1991, p. 20). Similarly, a study designed to analyze how formal thinking relates to Kitchener and King's (1981) level of reflective judgment, nominally an indicator of postformal competencies, found that formal operations do not account for differences in epistemic assumptions [reflective judgments] (Kitchener & Brenner, 1990, p. 225). Taken together, these results indicate that the postformal “stage” may not be stronger than the formal stage.

Additional evidence questions whether we need a postformal stage in order to explain adult achievements such as wisdom (Sternberg, 1990), expertise (Baltes, 1987), and especially the stage's most distinctive features—the acceptance of the relativistic nature of knowledge, the acceptance of contradiction, and the integration of contradiction into a new whole. Fakouri (1976) and Kramer (1983) , for example, have argued that these features may be derived from, and hence explained on the basis of, formal operations. Kohlberg's (1984) extensive research on postconventional moral development also supports this conclusion because, in terms of cognitive development, only the formal stage is required to attain Kohlberg's postconventional stages.[42]

And finally, I cite a postformal theorist whom Wilber uses as a source, John Broughton. Commons and Richards quote Broughton's assessment of whether postformal theories are proceeding in terms of some sort of structure-of-the-whole. This central, and debated, concept of Piaget's describes the process by which cognitive elements come into relation with each other to form a new stage or structure-of-the-whole. Commons and Richards writing in 2002, years after what Reich sees as, the boom and bust in postformal research, still see it as an open question and cite Broughton's negative assessment from almost 20 years earlier. They write that

The question remains whether the growth of postformal theories is itself proceeding in terms of some sort of structure-of-the-whole.  Broughton (1984) argues that this is not the case and suggests abandonment rather than revision.[43] 

That is “abandonment” of the project of bringing some unity to the postformal field. Of course Commons and Richards see things differently, but their inclusion of Broughton's assessment suggests the degree of debate surrounding the question.

Having cited researchers both inside and outside of postformal studies, a case can be made that the results of postformal research do not constitute orienting generalizations. There is room for debate on all aspects of the postformal including: whether it is a higher stage, what constitutes the stage and whether there is even a postformal stage at all.

The debatable nature of the postformal research hasn't stopped Wilber from referring to his work with the term Commons and Richards use to name the highest stage of postformal development: “cross-paradigmatic.” He states simply, “I am presenting a cross-paradigmatic model.”[44] Yet even Commons and Richards acknowledge that this hypothesized, highest postformal level “has not been examined in much detail”[45] and has not been confirmed empirically.


I've argued that my occasional ad hominem comments and arguments regarding Wilber are different from his because they are justifiable as a way to reveal the whys of some of Wilber's assertions and to rebuke him for his sometimes nasty and dismissive treatment of critics. Wilber's personal writings – unusual for a scholar – and my interest and expertise in the relationship between a person's beliefs and their psychological makeup also serve to justify my ad hominem insights. But Mark Edwards might be right that it is better to take the high road and maintain one's scholarly comportment; the reactions to my work will decide the issue. But the fact that these kinds of comments mar Edwards' reception of my arguments will be considered.

Also well-taken is Edwards elaboration of Wilber's methodology, even beyond Wilber's own methodological explications. But lurking within Wilber's stated method of orienting generalizations and his use of systems thinking is a contradiction. When the orienting generalizations contradict the integral system it is the orienting generalizations that are modified or mangled. Regardless of what the diverse natural, social and mystical scientific disciplines agree upon, all knowledge is made to fit into Wilber's vast evolutionary/developmental four quadrant model.

Mark Edwards again is right that one developmental psychologist contradicting the results of postformal research is not enough. So I offer researchers both inside and outside of postformal studies to show that there are fundamental questions regarding the character of the stage, whether it is superior to the formal stage and whether there is a postformal stage at all. In addition, whatever, if anything, is agreed upon within postformal studies is not valid for that reason. Consensus is not enough.

Finally, I argue that Wilber's principle of nonexclusion, which both Wilber and Edwards use to insulate certain disciplines from outside criticism, is mistaken when used in that way. Any person, regardless of credentials or status, can make cogent comments about any field of study. No identifying of their allegiances is necessary, only an examination of their arguments and an assessment of their argument's worth by those with the time and inclination to participate in the discussion are needed.


[1] Edwards, Mark, “Meyerhoff, Wilber and the Postformal Stages,” at All quotes from Edwards are from this article.

[2] Grace & Grit, (Shambhala Publications, 1991), One Taste, (Shambhala Publications, 1999), “Odyssey: A Personal Inquiry into Humanistic and Transpersonal Psychology,” (Journal of Humanistic Psychology, vol. 22, no. 1), What Really Matters, Tony Schwartz, (Bantam, 1996), pp. 347-350.

[3] See “A Psychological Analysis of Wilber's Beliefs,” in Bald Ambition at

[4] Meyerhoff, “Psychological Analysis.”

[5] For Edwards, an Aussie, it's “getting his knickers in a knot,” and for the Brits it's “getting his knickers in a twist.”

[6] Wilber, Ken, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (SES), 1st ed., (Shambhala Publications, 1995), p. 722. This comment was mercifully removed from the second edition of SES. Although Wilber's characterization of scholars of mysticism as “a bunch of disengaged dunderheads” in the first edition was retained in the second edition (SES, 2nd ed., p. 651). Perhaps “a bunch of disengaged dunderheads” was judged to be a more sober assessment than “dimmest of postmodern dim bulbs.” Thanks to Trevor Wills for alerting me to the change in the Fish quote.


[8] Skyttner, Lars, General Systems Theory, (World Scientific, 2002), pp. 36-37.

[9] SES, p. ix. All references to SES will be from the 1st edition unless otherwise noted.

[10] SES, p. ix.

[11] SES, p. ix.

[12] SES, p. 80.

[13] Crittendon, Jack, “What is the Meaning of Integral?,” Foreword to The Eye of Spirit, by Ken Wilber, (Shambhala Publications, 1997), pp. vii-xii; and in One Taste, by Ken Wilber, (Shambhala Publications, 1999), pp. 15-19.

[14] SES, p. 117.

[15] SES, p. 116.

[16] Frank Visser alerted me to this material which I hadn't appreciated.

[17] SES, p. ix.

[18] Meyerhoff, “Psychological Analysis.”

[19] SES, p. ix.

[20] Siegler, Robert S., Emerging Minds, (Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 10 and 11.

[21] Chandler, Michael and Chapman, Michael, eds., Criteria for Competence, (L. Erlbaum Associates, 1991), all three quotes from p. viii.

[22] Gopnik, Alison and Meltzoff, Andrew, Words, Thoughts and Theories, (MIT Press, 1997), p.49.

[23] Gopnik and Meltzoff, Words, Thoughts and Theories, p. 2.

[24] Wilber, Ken, Integral Psychology, (Shambhala Publications, 2000), p.23.

[25] Meyerhoff, Jeff, “Social Evolution,” in Bald Ambition, at

[26] Korthals, Michiel, “Societal Development,” in Philosophy of Development, edited by Haaften, Wouter van, et al., (Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997), p.163. An exception to the overwhelming trend is Michael Horace Barnes' Stages of Thought, (Oxford University Press, 2000).

[27] SES, pp. 109-112.

[28] See Andrew P. Smith's clear and methodical investigation of this issue in “Why It Matters: Further Monologue with Ken Wilber,” Dec. 2001, especially the section entitled “Interior/Exterior” at, and his “Who's Conscious?: Agency/Communion and Access to Interior Experience in the Holarchy,” Feb. 2001, at

[29] Skyttner, General Systems Theory, p. 440.

[30] Rosenberg, Alex, “Social Science, Philosophy of,” in A Companion to the Philosophy of Science, edited by W.H. Newton-Smith, (Blackwell, 2001), p. 451.

[31] Cirillo, Leonard and Wapner, Seymour, eds., Value Presuppositions in Theories of Human Development, (L. Erlbaum Associates, 1986).

[32] Broughton, John M., ed. Critical Theories of Psychological Development, (Plenum Press, 1987).

[33] Meyerhoff, Jeff, “Vision-Logic,” in Bald Ambition, at

[34] Marchand, Helena, “Some Reflections on Postformal Thought,” The Genetic Epistemologist, Vol. 29, Number 3, 2001, at

[35] Wilber, Ken, “Excerpt B: The Many Ways We Touch,” at

[36] Meyerhoff, Jeff, “Mysticism,” in Bald Ambition, at

[37] Chomsky, Noam, Language and Responsibility, (Pantheon, 1979), pp. 6-7. Based on conversations with Mitsou Ronat. Translated by John Viertel. [French original: Dialogues avec Mitsou Ront. Paris: Flammarion, 1977]

[38] Richards, Francis A., and Commons, Michael L., “Postformal Cognitive-Developmental Theory and Research: A Review of Its Current Status,” in Higher Stages of Human Development, edited by Charles N. Alexander and Ellen J. Langer, (Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 140.

[39] Marchand, “Some Reflections.”

[40] Reich, K. Helmut, Developing the Horizons of the Mind: Relational and Contextual Reasoning and the Resolution of Cognitive Conflict, (Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 2, at

[41] Kallio, Eeva and Pirttila-Backman, Anna-Maija, “Developmental Processes in Adulthood—European Research Perspectives,” Journal of Adult Development, vol. 10, no. 3, July 2003.

[42] Lourenço, Orlando and Machado, Armando, “In Defense of Piaget's Theory: A Reply to 10 Common Criticisms,” Psychological Review, vol. 103, No. 1, January 1996, pp. 143-164.

[43] Commons, Michael L. and Richards, Francis A., “Four Postformal Stages,” in Handbook of Adult Development, edited by Jack Demick and Carrie Andreoletti, (Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, 2003), p. 209.

[44] Wilber, Ken, “Waves, Streams, States and Self,” fn. 4, at

[45] Commons and Richards, “Four Postformal Stages,” p. 208.

© Jeff Meyerhoff 2006

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