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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Scott Parker is a philosophy student and writer. In university, his honors thesis, Synthesizing the Kosmos: A Critical Study of Ken Wilber
, was a close reading of Sex, Ecology, Spirituality.
He writes: "Most of the essays on IntegralWorld attempt to engage Wilber on a serious level. It is only by critiquing, clarifying, and offering alternatives that we can pursue the truth."
For Wilber, who wants to be taken seriously as a scholar, this false-dichotomy between the fan and the critic is a detriment to his quest.
If you're a fan of Ken Wilber, you know who you are. You've read some of his books, agreed with a number of his arguments, and often agreed with his major underlying, if not explicitly stated, belief that he is the most important philosopher in history (due to his privileged position in it). If you know who Ken Wilber is and are not a fan, you're a critic. In not actively naming him the most important philosopher in history, you say, quite clearly to some, that he certainly is not history's most important philosopher.
With regards to Kant, we say things like, “I disagree with his moral arguments,” or, “I agree with what he says about the limits of reason,” all the time. We treat Kant (or, Kant's writing) as a collection of ideas to engage with, learning from this, accepting that, rejecting the other. Rarely, in our readings or discussions of Kant, does intellectual discourse devolve into slurs or invectives, and when it does we acknowledge our missteps and return to rational exchange. Even with a more controversial philosopher, such as Richard Rorty, with whom we may have strong disagreements, we do not resort to derogatory gestures without regretting it soon after.
Yet these are precisely the kinds of rhetorical games employed by and about Wilber. His defenders inevitably refer to themselves as “fans,” as if they are rooting for the home team in a crucial game against their cross-town rivals. Those rivals, of course, being the “critics.” With the sides exclusively drawn, the Integral conversation shifts from a dialogue, where we can engage and learn from one another, to a debate, where we can have only one winner.
For Wilber, who wants to be taken seriously as a scholar, this false-dichotomy between the fan and the critic is a detriment to his quest, but it is something he has done everything in his power to perpetuate. Wilber is notorious for his confrontational manner with critics, treating them as if they are heretics by the fact of their having written any criticism at all, no matter how prescient it might be.
With the Integral conversation becoming increasingly polarized, it is becoming a kind of game now between the fans and the critics.
The fan, however, is treated as a noble defender of the truth in a world of doubters. And if these sound like religious terms, they are. Over the last several years, Wilber and his fans have become so fluent in the language of Integral, Integral-this and Integral-that, that they have effectively created an in-group/out-group scenario reminiscent of the blue meme's good and evil, that they are so (rightly) critical of. You're either for Integral or against it. (And if you have a different definition of Integral, it's wrong.) With the Integral conversation becoming increasingly polarized, it is becoming a kind of game now between the fans and the critics, with each side hoping to land a powerful blow to the opposition and end the debate for good. The fans want to shut the critics up and the critics want the fans to become critics.
Or, at least that's how the fans seem to see it.
The critics, to their credit, have more generous intentions. In the world of ideas, it is through dialogue that theories are refined, adapted, and improved. Wilber, in the abstract, supports such exchange, but rebukes the method when it is applied to his work. This is a debilitating mistake on his part. Contra Wilber and his fans, the critics who write about his work are not sadistically rooting for an Integral demise. Most of the essays on IntegralWorld attempt to engage Wilber on a serious level. It is only by critiquing, clarifying, and offering alternatives that we can pursue the truth, which at the end of the day, is what we're after.
Unfortunately, instead of engaging critics and showing some humility, Wilber is further insulating all things Integral.
That people would spend the time to read Wilber's work and write careful responses out of jealousy or maliciousness, as has been suggested, is a bizarrely narcissistic claim to make. No one has much of anything to gain by discrediting Wilber. That so much time is put into reading, and responding, and responding to responses, and blogging, and so on, is testament to how much interest people have in what Wilber says. Unfortunately, instead of engaging critics and showing some humility, Wilber is further insulating all things Integral. And the whole movement around him now appears destined to become, isolated as it is, a cult, and soon after, lose whatever relevance it may have had in the scholarly world. In light of some of the recent criticisms, particularly Jeff Meyerhoff's Bald Ambition, it is imperative that Wilber, in a last-ditch effort at self-preservation, defend his positions or accept the criticisms, not hide away in an Integral bubble.
A more likely rebound for Integral will take place by the work of others, taking what of intellectual value can be found in Wilber's writing and removing it from the tragic context of the Integral movement. Integral-with-a-hyphen must be rebranded or debranded, losing the gimmicky marketing ploys altogether. Perpetuating this fanciful game of critics against fans, rather than acknowledging the role of the fan-critic in the truth quest, will only further obfuscate what once could have been a luminous philosophy.
A MEYERHOFFIAN TURN
I consider the distinction between fan and critic from firsthand experience. For years I was a fan of Ken Wilber, with emphasis on the word fan against another, preferable word: student. Instead of reading Wilber, a la Kant, as someone with ideas to be considered and argued with, I came to read him as the definitive authority on reality.
The sequence of events for how this came to be for me was typical: I started reading Wilber's books, was impressed by them, adopted a Wilberian viewpoint, and held it quite proudly.
What drew me in was the possibility of a comprehensive worldview. I was unaware that I craved such a view, but once I had it, it became enormously helpful. After my initial acceptance of Wilber's view, I clung to it, and in a sense staked my identity on it. This is how I knew the world to be, and if I was wrong about the world, I could be wrong about me. I did this because it made my life so much more navigable when I knew with certainty how the world was. It gave me a context in which to orient everything I came across in my studies. It became a lens through which to see the world.
In university, I brought Wilber into discussions and defended him in all cases, without pausing to consider my interlocutors' points. I started seeing dangerous green-memers all around me. I began to see these bogeymen not only in my sociology classes (where they may have in fact been), but also in my English, philosophy, and even psychology and biology classes. It was a convenient strategy to know what my professors would say before they said it. It saved me the trouble of having to listen to them. I see this now as a moronic approach, but at the time I was justified in my arrogant sophia by Wilber's authority. He was the world's greatest philosopher. If he said it, it had to be true. I was a fan. Now, by the very fact of having written these words, I will have transformed myself, in the eyes of fans, in my old eyes, into that other thing, the abhorrent, the critic. And I will have done so regardless of what value I still see in Wilber's work. I have admitted doubt and am cast from the faithful.
It began to look to me like Wilber was cherry-picking his sources to support a particular story he wanted to tell.
The process of developing that doubt was slow for me, much slower than my acceptance of Wilber had been previously. As these doubts first began to develop in me, I had a hard time admitting to myself that I was having them, so sincere was my devotion. With time, as the intellectual counter-arguments mounted, I had to face my psychological resistance to change. If I rejected (or at least took a step away from) Wilber, I would be left without the comprehensive view that had been such a comfort to me. I'd have to rethink everything I had come to know, redefine my place in the world. It was intimidating to relinquish that certainty, that confidence. Still, my doubts proliferated and were accelerated by criticisms I began to read and agree with, particularly those that brought Wilber's scholarship under heavy (and unanswered) question. It began to look to me like Wilber was cherry-picking his sources to support a particular story he wanted to tell, not using the method of orienting generalizations as democratically as he professed.
For whatever reason, I needed a comprehensive view of the world, which Wilber offers, and rightly points out is a comfort to postmodern fragmentation. But comfort is a psychological issue, not a philosophical one. Whether we accept or reject postmodernism or metaphysics, what Wilber provides is a description of reality. The comfort to be gained if Wilber's version is accurate does not outweigh the burden on him (or someone else) to prove that it is.
What interests me, personally—and this is the Meyerhoffian turn—is what were the psychological reasons that I was so strongly drawn to Wilber's work and is my present skepticism of Wilber due strictly to shortcomings in his work or also to a deeper skepticism of comprehensive worldviews in general, discomforting as it may be to wonder? I ask (though I don't answer) these questions publicly, because I suspect that what drew me to Wilber is what draws most people and what turned me away is what is turning many away today.
WHAT IS INTEGRAL AND WHERE IS IT GOING? – A QUESTION
To answer the question of where to go from here, we first have to ask where we are. Speaking for myself, I don't know what Integral philosophy is, let alone where it stands, apart from Wilber's shadow. I don't think it is a question that has been adequately answered yet. And it is not the kind of question that can be answered in declaration by any among us.
It is because everyone is flawed, Wilber and his critics, that the appropriate method for philosophy is dialogue.
If we learn anything from Wilber and his defensive Wyatt Earp diatribe, it should not be that his philosophy is flawed. This, we already knew in principle even if we failed to recognize it in practice. Everyone is flawed and if Wilber's flaws weren't apparent, they would be eventually. Instead, the primary lesson should be methodological: that it will no longer do for a didactic celebrity to dictate Integral as dogma. It is because everyone is flawed, Wilber and his critics, that the appropriate method for philosophy is dialogue. Dialogue is what separates philosophy from dogma. This is what keeps our beliefs open for debate and reconsideration. It is the method that has given us Meyerhoff, Falk, Edwards, Smith, Visser, and others who have helped us to understand Wilber and view his work more clearly. It is only through a continuation of this process that they have begun that we will eventually answer questions like what Integral is and where it is going.
RESPONSES TO SCOTT PARKER'S ESSAY: