From Network, August 1996 No 61, pp. 76-78


Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: the spirit of evolution


Shambhala, 1995, 831 pp., $40, h/b. ISBN 1-57062-072-5

A Brief History of Everything

by Ken Wilber

Gill & Macmillan 1996, 339 pp., �9.99, p/b. ISBN 0-7171-2429-0

Echoing and extending the title of Stephen Hawking's best-seller, Ken Wilber's new book is an accessible statement of the arguments of his recent magisterial Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, which runs to five hundred pages with three hundred pages of notes. The less intrepid reader would be advised to start with this book before moving on to the detail of the larger work. Wilber's work is comparable in scale to that of Arnold Toynbee, Pitirm Sorokin and Jean Gebser--I can think of no other contemporary writer with such a profound understanding of psychology, philosophy, evolutionary theory, comparative religion and mysticism. The important of the longer work cannot be over-rated: I believe that his contribution will come to be recognized not only as the inheritance of Plotinus and Schelling but as equally important in the history of philosophy when it really recovers wisdom and being.

The longer book is, believe it or not, the first of three volumes. It has an incredible scope and depth, presenting a vision of the evolutionary process which integrates elements in Western thought which have been thrust apart. The shorter book takes the form of a dialogue between Wilber and himself, which he explains arises from some real life dialogues as well as questions he has often been asked about his work. The sequence exposes and clarifies the arguments rather than putting objections to his ideas, so that the effect is less dialectical than it might have been but it does result in a clear distillation of his ideas.

The central theme is the evolution of consciousness or depth, which Wilber sees as spirit-in-action unfolding itself in a creative emergence where each stage transcends and includes earlier ones. Near the beginning of the book he outlines twenty tenets which can apply to any form of evolution in a brilliant and fruitful analysis. He has no time for the notion that the whole process is driven merely by chance and natural selection. Returning to the idealist tradition, he argues that the direction or spirit of evolution (Eros) produces greater depth (consciousness) and less span; the idea of span can be understood by considering that there are always fewer molecules than atoms in a structure, than fewer cells than molecules and so on up the scale of complexity, structuration and autonomy. He reintroduces the ancient Greek idea of the Kosmos, which he defines as including the cosmos (physiosphere), the bios (biosphere), the psyche (noosphere) and theos (theosphere). He also builds on Arthur Koestler's idea of the holon, which is both a whole and a part, depending on the level of analysis--thus the heart is a whole, but also part of the body. All this produces what he calls a 'holarchy' or nested hierarchy of forms of life and consciousness. He comprehensively demolishes misunderstandings and distortions of the notion of hierarchy.

He introduces the idea of a 'four-quadrant' analysis, which is both simple and far-reaching: it refers to the interior-individual, the exterior-individual (i.e., the individual as subject and object, or the aspects of depth and surface), then the interior-collective (cultural) and the exterior-collective (social). All of this is detailed in a number of tables and is applied, for instance, to the mind-brain debate within the Enlightenment tendency to reduce the inside to the outside, subjects to objects, the I/we to the It. As Wilber puts it, 'surfaces can be seen, depth must be interpreted'--and any interpretation is, according to the insights or postmodernism, necessarily context-bound. The important point is that none of these four aspects can be reduced to another, and a complete explanation needs to take them all into account. The history of Western thought is thus, for the most part, one-sided and incomplete. Moreover, each quadrant has its own corresponding scheme of validity claim which cannot be reduced to the other, for instance truth for the objective realm and truthfulness for the subjective.

Wilber uses his quadrant scheme to show that systems theory, originating in the Enlightenment idea of the web of nature, is in fact a subtle form of reductionism since it only describes relationships from the outside and ignores the inner realm in the same way as the more familiar atomistic reductionism. So we have a new holistic materialism which, although it combats the traditional mechanistic approach, is nevertheless an expression of the same physicalist assumptions. The common link is that both materialistic schools reject the notion of any domain of existence transcending nature and are characteristic of what Wilber calls the 'descended grid' or 'flatland'. He goes on to show how one of the main conflicts and the fundamental dualism in Western culture is the contrast between the 'Ascenders' and the 'Descenders'; it is a war in which the Descenders have had the upper hand since the Enlightenment. The Ascenders move upwards towards the transcendent and other-worldly and fail to see that Nature is itself an expression of the Spirit; the Descenders, on the other hand, focus on the immanent and this-worldly, which involves the collapse of the Kosmos and interior dimensions of depth into a modern or postmodern flatland.

This insight is brilliantly linked to spiritual traditions, where the path from the Many to the One is that of 'ascent' to wisdom, and from the One to the Many the 'descent' to compassion. It goes without saying that Wilber's thesis claims that we need an integration between these two polarities or tendencies. He points out that, contrary to popular belief, they were in fact integrated in Plato and even more systematically in Plotinus, where the manifest world was seen as an embodiment of the Good. For Plato 'the way up is the way down--flee the Many, find the One; having found the Many, embrace the Many as the One'. For Plotinus the fall is a reversal of forgetfulness ('Remembering is for those who have forgotten!'), and the sin is not the world, but rather forgetting that this world is the radiance and Goodness of the Spirit: 'Spirit not only engenders all things; it is all things' (p. 335). From such statements it is easy to see why Plotinus so vigorously attacked the Gnostics, archetypal Ascenders who deny the divinity of the world. He asserts that this world cannot be separated from the spiritual world--it is all a matter of one's perception. Distinguishing, dissociating and divorcing what Plotinus brought together has led us astray for over 1,700 years!

One part of the disaster and dignity of modernity is the development of the autonomous, internal and disengaged ego. The Enlightenment achievement of a differentiation of what Wilber calls the Big Three--self (I), culture (We) and nature (It) becomes a dissociation expressed in a sense of alienation and uprootedness. The slogans were 'No more myths!', 'No more ascent!', 'No more dominator hierarchies!'. Moral freedom and autonomy is vindicated in Kant's philosophy, but the negative side of this process, also indicated by Richard Tarnas in his Passion of the Western Mind, is that the disengaged subject disenchants the world--'it is precisely by disenchanting the world that the knowing subject liberates itself!' (p. 439). This translates into 'domination over an objectified external nature and a repressed internal nature'. The irony is that 'reason itself destroys the humanity it first made possible'.

The key integrating Enlightenment figure is Schelling, who well understood the necessity of differentiating mind and nature but saw that the transcendental and unifying ground of both had been forgotten. He goes further by insisting that Spirit is the only reality: 'Spirit descends into manifestation, but this manifestation is nevertheless Spirit itself, a form or expression of Spirit itself'. Nature is 'God-in-the-making', the processes of nature are themselves spiritual processes expressing the drive of Spirit toward Spirit in which Eros is the driving force or Spirit-in-action. Each stage of development 'is thus Spirit's knowledge of itself throught the structures (and limitations) of that stage' (p. 487). Wilber sums this up by stating that 'Spirit knows itself objectively as nature; knows itself subjectively as mind; and knows itself absolutely as Spirit--the Source, the Summit and the Eros of the entire sequence'.

With Aurobindo he goes beyond Schelling in his understanding of the transcendence of the mind itself through the creative emergence of non-dual consciousness which is both its source and goal. It is a process which, as he says, goes from pre-personal to personal to transpersonal, from bisophere to noosphere to theosphere, from subconscious to self-conscious to superconscious. This dialectic was misunderstood by Schelling's pupil, Hegel, and was not pursued to its logical conclusion by Idealism. Wilber suggests that the failure of Idealism was due to the fact that it provided no transpersonal practice or injunctions consonant with its insights and because it burdened reason with a task it could never carry. This part of the book is the clearest and most succinct account of the evolution of consciousness which I know, and will appeal to anyone trying to formulate a constructive postmodern world-view.

Wilber's remarks in the final chapter on eco- philosophy and environmental ethics are both instructive and controversial. As might be guessed from my account of subtle reductionism above, he traces the roots of eco-philosophy to the Romantic movement, which itself was a feeling reaction against the rational mechanistic impulse of the new science. Their mistake, according to Wilber, is to reject transcendence as ruining nature instead of realizing with Schelling that nature is an expression of the Spirit. Thus they recommend a regressive return to an earlier form of society, which is itself romanticized. I found his criticisms appropriate in the light of his theses, and would encourage eco-philosophers to re-situate themselves within a Schelling metaphysic: we are not just parts of the web, but, at a deep level, we are an expression of the web itself.

Wilber's ideas on environmental ethics are based on his distinction between ground, intrinsic and extrinsic values: all holons have equal ground value as manifestations of the same spirit; every holon has the intrinsic value of its own wholeness and depth; then each holon has an extrinsic, instrumental value for other holons. This leads to the injunction to protect or promote as much depth or consciousness as possible. Deep ecology tends to conflate these three values while Wilber's distinctions can bring greater clarity to ethical discussions, especially those involving relationships between different species.

Wilber is without doubt one of the most significant thinkers of out time and brings a fresh understanding to our cultural situation and the prospects for an integral world-view in the next century. He displays a staggering erudition (the notes are another book in themselves!), a profound intuitive understanding and a highly developed analytical capacity. The combination is breathtaking: the long book demands close and detailed study and reflection. As I said at the outset, The Brief History is an excellent and accessible introduction to his latest thinking before embarking on the longer work. Any thinker concerned with the big picture will find Wilber's work a gold-mind of insights which make compulsory reading for the 21st century. I look forward with an eager anticipation, tempered by a concern for the time required to read them, to the appearance of the next two volumes of the trilogy.