Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Scott ParkerScott F. Parker is a writer and editor whose books include Coffee - Philosophy for Everyone: Grounds for Debate and Running After Prefontaine: A Memoir. He has contributed chapters to Ultimate Lost and Philosophy, Football and Philosophy, Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy, Golf and Philosophy, and iPod and Philosophy. He is a regular contributor to Rain Taxi Review of Books. His writing has also appeared in Philosophy Now, Sport Literate, Fiction Writers Review, Epiphany, The Ink-Filled Page, and Oregon Humanities. In 2010 he published the print edition of Jeff Meyerhoff's Bald Ambition: A Critique of Ken Wilber's Theory of Everything. For more information, visit

Synthesizing the Kosmos?

Scott F. Parker

Author's Note: As an undergraduate philosophy student, I was discouraged from submitting an honors thesis on Ken Wilber, with whom my advisors were not familiar. Devoted as I was to Wilber's work, their caution only encouraged my efforts to enlighten them of its merits. The thesis I submitted, Synthesizing the Kosmos: A Critical Study of Ken Wilber, was 190 pages of fawning commentary on Sex, Ecology, Spirituality followed by a dozen or so pages of moderate criticism, from which the following is drawn.
I am pulling this out of the file drawer all these years later because 1) the criticisms still apply to Wilber-IV; and 2) the early limning of Wilber's place within his system anticipates the concerns of my accompanying essay, “You Are What You Hate: Wilber and a Post-Truth World.”

The ontological status of Wilber's quadrants.

The problem of self-reflexivity as it relates to Wilber's model is that a map cannot contain its own maker.

For a holon to exist in all four quadrants, as Wilber claims, it must have ontological status within each quadrant. But a holon is a concept, not a thing in the world. Even if it is a useful concept, its usefulness does not justify the assertion that it therefore refers to something real. The quadrants themselves are subject to the same objection. It may be useful to think in terms of the Four Quadrants. This does not mean they exist anywhere in the world apart from our conceptions of the world. If everything is a holon, and if every holon participates in all Four Quadrants, this is only because it is how Wilber has defined his terms.

Sex, Ecology, Spirituality

When we forget that we are talking about a description of things and not the things themselves, we risk shaping the territory to the map instead of the map to the territory. Such reification can lead us, for example, to trust that levels in the Upper Right Quadrant necessarily correspond to levels in the Upper Left Quadrant, and therefore to postulate subtle bodies corresponding to inner psycho-spiritual development, even though the Upper Right aspect of a holon should be accessible by empirical study.

What's more, if a holon did have some ontological status, each of the quadrants would be a perspective of the holon. Yet, again, only the individual subject of the Upper Left, presumably, is capable of taking a perspective. The confusion between a conception of things and things themselves leads to this privileging of the Upper Left among what are supposed to be quadrants of equal status.

The ghost in Wilber's machine.

The problem of self-reflexivity as it relates to Wilber's model is that a map cannot contain its own maker. As soon as the mapmaker tries to account himself he divides subject and object, thus requiring a new, more encompassing map to contain this new mapmaker. And so on, ad infinitum.

Wilber's problem becomes his reader's. The self, whether or not it is “real,” is an individual subjective experience. It belongs, therefore, to the Upper Left Quadrant. The reader who internalizes Wilber's worldview places it, as if a lens, over his own experience. The quadrants, then, exist within the Upper Left, and to be self-aware is to be self-aware with respect to the quadrants. The Upper Left has correlates in each of the other quadrants. Taken as a set, these four can only be held in the mind of another self. This runs quickly to an infinite chain of Russian dolls of self. It seems impossible for Wilber or his reader to fully objectify subjectivity.

A possible way around this problem would be to distinguish between identity and self-identity. If we identified pre-reflexively (or even trans-reflexively) as holons we would not face the infinite regress of self-awareness. But then we wouldn't be self-aware, so what would “identity” really mean? We cannot identify as something without a sense of ourselves as things that can identify.

Is Wilber an idealist? Should he be?

The equal status Wilber assigns to the Left Hand and the Right Hand of the quadrants would seem to preclude idealism. Yet a latent idealism does rear up whenever Wilber gets mystical. The dualism of the quadrants, Wilber tells us, applies only to the manifest, while the unmanifest alone is real. It would seem, then, that in tracking the unfolding of the quadrants we have gone to a lot of trouble for little reason—but what else can we conclude?

We return to the tension between subject and object. Experience is subjective. The external world is only known internally. What we call “objective” might be real, but it is always experienced and therefore secondary to the subjective. Consciousness is the only thing we cannot deny. A view is always from somewhere.

Idealism has the advantages of coherence over materialism and of parsimony over dualism. Once we introduce language we invite the reflexivity considered above. But one thing language can do is foresee its limit and posit a noumenal reality, into which mystics like Wilber tell us we can and must step.

An explicit embrace of idealism might be Wilber's best—not to mention his only—intellectual move, if he is going to maintain the mystical component of his work. It is, after all, his theory of everything that gets him in trouble. When he forgets about everything, there's only nothing left. And about nothing he has always had something to say.

Comment Form is loading comments...