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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
SEE MORE ESSAYS WRITTEN BY FRANK VISSER
with Ken Wilber
A Plea For a Change of Discourse
My 25 years of involvement with Ken Wilber and his work have been quite a story. Let's take them decade by decade. It is a story of discovery, meeting, creativity, debate and distancing.
The Eighties: Years of Discovery
It is not difficult to initially be impressed by Ken Wilber's writings. Even his strongest critics have gone through that phase.
Back in 1982 I had just started my university studies (psychology of religion) after a trip to India (Poona), and found the academic treatment of the subject quite a hard landing. After I stumbled on Wilber's book No Boundary it immediately piqued my interest. His subsequent books were what I call a "second education", in parallel with my academic pursuits.
Especially The Atman Project (and it's companion volume Up from Eden) grabbed my attention. It outlined a path to Spirit, both in individual development and cultural history, and integrated a lot of material in the process. In subsequent years, I absorbed Wilber's books one by one, and was especially longing to see the announced two-volume transpersonal psychology handbook System, Self and Structure in print. I even secretly thought I could, with the help of that handbook, straighten out my fellow academics on the subject of psychology, spirituality and mysticism.
That, however, turned out to be quite naive.
First, the book wasn't published within any reasonably time span (Integral Psychology is supposed to be a summary of that project, but I doubt it will convince academics). Second, response from fellow students and staff at the university to my glowing accounts of Wilber was lukewarm and polite at best. Developmental studies wrestled with the classic models, not because it was out of fashion to talk about stages, but because recent studies showed that very young children were capable of holding abstract notions, which contradicted the traditional models of development. (And adults, for that matter, were found to be not that developed at all, as the models would predict. And both children and adults were found to be much more inconsistent in their behaviour).
In the eighties, some of Wilber's books were translated into the Dutch language: No Boundary, The Holographic Paradigm, and Eye to Eye. The first one is still in print, the others ended up in remainder stores. I, however, was determined to get into contact with this author hero of mine
The Nineties: A Meeting, A Website, A Book
In the early nineties, I had found work at a Dutch publisher specialized in spiritual (and integral) psychology books, so I was in a good position to follow Wilber's development as a writer closely. I could persuade my publisher that The Atman Project had to be translated into Dutch, which I subsequently did. I still remember seeing the galley copy of Sex, Ecology, Spirituality and remember the excitement it generated. However, a book this size could not be published into Dutch, because of the limited size of its market.
A Brief History of Everything was a much better candidate for translation, so I managed to translate that book as well – and lost my job as production manager in the process. Translating Brief History was a dream, and I still remember getting up a few hours before I had to leave for work at 7 AM, savouring its every word. In the meantime I had found work in the internet branch, and took over the role of webmaster for a Wilber site called "The World of Ken Wilber". That site consisted of only a dozen pages at most. At present, Integral World totals over 1.000 pages in 12 languages, all realized with no funding and as an integral grassroots phenomenon.
A visit to a transpersonal conference in San Francisco in 1995 led me on the way back to the Theosophical Publishing House in Wheaton, where I managed to get hold of Wilber's fax number (these were the pre-email days!). Upon arrival in Amsterdam I faxed a list of questions about this work, and got an immediate reply. Piles of faxes were exchanged over the years, followed by numerous emails (which we printed out carefully and filed in those days).
When in 1997 a Wilber Conference was announced in San Francisco (at the California Institute of Integral Studies) I decided to attend it, and on the way back visited Wilber at his house in Boulder. (Click here for a report of my first visit to Ken Wilber). Back home I published this report in a New Age journal and a Dutch publisher who read it asked me to write an introductory book on Wilber, which I did (the book, which appeared in Dutch in 2001, was bought by SUNY Press and published as Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion. It has now been published in 6 languages: Dutch, English, German, Spanish, Polish, Greek – translation #7, into French, is scheduled for 2009).
Researching for this book, I went back to Boulder and stayed at Wilber's home for 5 days. I interviewed him about his work so far, calling the 90-page transcript of that session "Everyone is Right" – one of Wilber's motto's. At the time, he had just published The Eye of Spirit, and was in the process of writing One Taste. My first visit to Wilber is mentioned in that book on pages 4-5 under January 14.
After the Millennium: Debate and Distancing
Wilber's stance towards these Integral World essays has frankly always surprised me. So defensive.
Around 2000 several authors started to submit essays to the "World of Ken Wilber" website. Among the first authors were Mark Edwards, Ray Harris, and Andy Smith. All three would write around 30 essays on Wilber, some of them very lengthy, all of them thoughtful and carefully written. I also tried to facilitate a debate between Wilber and his critics (e.g. Alan Combs, Peter Collins, John Heron) on the site. I also offered the site to Spiral Dynamcs and Don Beck, who's Stages of Social Development is still one of our all-time classics. Kofman's essay on holons (which was approved and submitted by Wilber) "Holons, Heaps and Artifacts" sparked a veritable chain of holon debates, offering fresh and fruitful perspectives on the topic. For Wilber, the whole notion of holons was unproblematic (until, that is, the recent book Integral Spirituality, in which he has distinguished quadrants from quadriviums and subdivided the four quadrants into eight primordial perspectives).
Wilber's stance towards these Integral World essays has frankly always surprised me. So defensive. In those days, nowhere in the offline or online world was there any substantial and sustained critical debate about his work (and this holds true to this very day – though we now also have the more academic Integral Review). My Wilber website was virtually the only place in the world were people took the time and the effort to apply the tools of reason to Wilber proposals. Wilber only complained that these "critics" misrepresented his work – which struck me as rather convenient. And he never really took the trouble to substantiate this claim. Far more important, in my opinion, is that these critics – who by now form a spectrum of critics who range from strong positive to strong negative – hold Wilber's ideas and claims to the light of rationality, come up with counter examples, check his sources and offer alternative interpretations, express their doubts about some of his more confident assertions, etc. etc. The very essence of rationality.
Around 2004, Wilber urged me to change the name of this website "The World of Ken Wilber" to something else, unrelated to his name, since he no longer felt his work was accurately reflected by this website. I complied and subsequently chose "Integral World", which is now its current name. I had no problem with this change other than that the focus of the site would still be the work (and person) of Ken Wilber. I am of the opinion that, though there are and have been other integral authors, Ken Wilber is the most relevant at the present moment in time. For this very reason, criticizing his work is a prime necessity. I see no sense in moving on to alternative integral authors, past or present. I do see a lot of sense in holding Ken Wilber accountable for his often over-confident statements and confronting him with alternatives to his work.
In the same year Wilber submitted a statement to the Reading Room of Integral World, called "A Suggestion for Reading the Criticisms of My Work". He stated that only critics who are in personal contact with him have a chance of understanding his work correctly, and therefore have the opportunity to criticize it, if at all. He also suggested critics would focus on their own ideas, instead of criticizing Wilber's. This obviously violated the rules of public debate, in which one develops one's own ideas while criticizing those of others, as Mark Edwards and Ray Harris were quick to point out. Besides, what about Wilber's own track record in criticizing other authors: has he been in personal contact with any of the hundreds of authors he has so freely criticized? I don't think so.... Has he understood the authors he has critized? Who can tell, other than a community of specialists?
Other authors started publishing on Integral World. One of them, Jeff Meyerhoff, had written a book-length critique of Wilber called "Bald Ambition". I liked the careful way in which Meyerhoff took up several topics from Wilber's work (mainly Sex, Ecology, Spirituality) and went back to Wilber's original sources, often coming up with interesting alternative interpretations of them. He also – as a good postmodernist – pointed out symptoms displayed in Wilber's main work, tensions unnoticed by other reviewers, which point not only to inconsistencies of Wilber's theory but also to insecurities on his part as to the conclusiveness of his arguments.
Now here is the interesting point: both Wilber and Meyerhoff argue that the Upper-Left quadrant perspective, that of the individual-interior, should be added to any integrally informed analysis of Wilber's work – but in a very different way. Wilber argues that he knows best what he means with his own theories. Fine. But even Wilber once wrote in The Eye of Spirit: "Artists are not always the best interpreters of their own works" as Edward Berge perceptively pointed out in his essay "Who Decides What Wilber Means?". And Meyerhoff, especially in his chapter "Psychological Analysis of Wilber's Beliefs" argues that Wilber might not be aware of all of his motives when writing his work, which makes sense even according to Wilber's own AQAL model. That is independent of the equally important question of whether Wilber's ideas are valid or not.
It is here that the need for independent research into the value of Wilber's work comes to the fore very clearly. Otherwise, academic discourse will be tied up in all kinds of irrelevant you-need-to-be-in-personal-contact-with-Wilber cultic arguments. The essence of scientific debate is that it is public. That we correct each other's unavoidable misconceptions and respond to our more thoughtful critics, especially when they devote whole monographs to criticizing one's work – instead of dismissing them as "altitudinally impaired", as Jeff Meyerhoff humorously expressed it.
A Change of Discourse
When it comes to the evaluation of Wilber's work, Wilber himself obviously cannot be the one in charge.
As I said in "Talking Back to Wilber": "The integral field could use some dialectic – to put it mildly." But what soon followed on that statement, was not exactly what I had in mind.
In 2006 Wilber's exasperation with the Integral World critics exploded during the Wyatt Earp episode, in which Wilber insulted his critics, degrading and dismissing them by basically stating that he was smarter then everybody else. Now one wonders, from what kind of altitude does that urge to finally silence all debate actually come? That, as one critic remarked, did more damage to Wilber's academic reputation than anything that any critic could ever have done. This stance towards criticism – dismissive, contemptuous – is really sub-standard. Another attempt at starting a debate with Wilber, this time on his views of biological evolution got aborted due to the highly charged, aggressive atmosphere of the exchange. Jeff Meyerhoff, in his "Dismissal vs. Debate" essay, called it a "sorry performance". It ended my faith in Wilber as someone who could really make a difference in the world of science and spirituality.
From then on, I noticed the style of discourse in integral circles changed more and more in the direction of sales language, political slogans and repetitive "arguments". The Integral Institute looks to me like a verbal Hall of Mirrors, where integral is confirmed by integral is confirmed by integral...
To my taste, Wilber hides too much within his Institute, instead of taking his stand as a spiritual intellectual (or pandit, as Wilber likes to see himself) on matters of science, society or religion. If one subtitles one's major work "The Spirit of Evolution", one should at least have the details right when it comes to evolutionary biology, which is definitely not the case. If one claims to have integrated science and religion, why be virtually silent on the Intelligent Design debate which captures the imagination of large portions of the population? – except perhaps in an odd footnote or angry blog posting? If Integral Politics is so high on the integral agenda, where are the solid integral accounts of Iraq, the Middle East or even the upcoming US elections?
The trouble with Ken Wilber, if you ask me, is that, for all his academic phraseology, he is not embedded in a corrective academic community. Instead, he has created a community of admirers of his own, in which he rules supreme. As King in his Integral Castle, his stance is isolationist, aloof, authoritarian – integral ideology is then just around the corner. And I don't mean by "embedded in academia" loading your books with academic endnotes, or teaching integral ideas to the younger generation, or offering accredited courses in some universities such as JFK, let alone starting a university of your own (Integral University). I mean opening up your own views to specialists in the various fields (postmodernism, evolutionary biology, political science – anything) who can reflect and respond to your proposals. When it comes to the evaluation of Wilber's work, Wilber himself obviously cannot be the one in charge. A strong urge to promote a certain view of life doesn't go very well with objectivity.
For that, a different type of discourse is needed – based on quiet reflection and an open mind that is eager to learn and not only to justify its own beliefs, a mind that listens to critics (e.g. Meyerhoff), and even to sceptics (e.g. Falk). Yes, especially to those who disagree. A mind which can acknowledge mistakes and can backup confident assertions with solid arguments. All set within a free communication and discussion of ideas, in the public sphere. But that – obviously and unfortunately – is still an integral bridge too far.
It is not difficult to initially be impressed by Wilber's writings. Even his strongest critics, including Falk, have gone through that phase. It is much more difficult, but eventually more rewarding, to give Wilber a second reading – a more critical, close reading – in which "every sentence has to be earned". That has been the aim of Integral World over the past decade.