Check out my review of Ken Wilber's latest book Finding Radical Wholeness

Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY 2003Frank Visser, graduated as a psychologist of culture and religion, founded IntegralWorld in 1997. He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. Books: Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion (SUNY, 2003), and The Corona Conspiracy: Combatting Disinformation about the Coronavirus (Kindle, 2020).


Integral Bridges

Response to Forman and Esbjörn-Hargens

Frank Visser

My recent essay "Assessing Integral Theory", which mentioned in passing—though somewhat provocatively, I confess—the upcoming Integral Theory Conference scheduled for this August, invoked a reply by its two organizers Mark Forman and Sean Esbjörn-Hargens: "The Academic Emergence of Integral Theory". I welcome this reply, because of its tone of open communication and mutual understanding. Here is my brief reply.

To my satisfaction, they affirmed some of the concerns I voiced (and have voiced over the years) as to the difficult relatIonship between Wilber and the world of academia—and as a direct consequence of this, the slow acceptance of integral ideas by mainstream science. Also, they shared as their feeling that a critical reflection and application of integral theory is "much needed and arguably far overdue". We are definitely on the same page here.

Their reply was informative for me when they listed the number of scholars currently involved in integral studies. Myself not being a professional academic and living outside the USA, I have no easy access to these sources. Their vision of slowly building an integral school of thought within the academic environment—by starting a journal, organizing a conference, setting up graduate programs, etc.—is honorable and worthwhile. So is their effort to "decouple Wilber and integral theory"—though in practice that will be very difficult indeed.

Having two keynote speakers (Roger Walsh and Susanne Cook-Greuter) openly tackle the issue of the role of the shadow and of narcissism within the integral community is courageous and deserves respect. By all means, let's talk about the Mean Yellow Meme! (Ehm... I mean, Teal. ;-) Very few words have been spent on that one, compared to the Mean Green Meme. That would be a fantastic subject for reflection the discussion of which is "arguably far overdue" as well. And especially when it is conducted within the hermeneutic circle of the integral community itself.

Incidentally, Wilber once mentioned this Mean Yellow/Teal Meme in "On the Mean Memes in General", one of his very few postings on Integral World:

One of my biggest problems is that, alas, I haven't the time to address all these issues adequately. Some critics infer that if I haven't emphasized a particular quadrant or level, it is because I am actively devaluing it, whereas all it usually means is that I haven't had time to address it. This is particularly true for healthy green, for unhealthy yellow (yes, there is definitely a MYM), and for economic-political factors in the social system or lower-right quadrant. I have a lot to say on those items, hopefully some of it useful, and I look forward to being able to share these thoughts soon. (emphasis added)

Actually, I myself have never seen a problem in this website being "Wilber-centric", as Forman and Esbjörn-Hargens called it in their reply. Since Wilber's literary output has been enormous, as has been his current influence on alternative sections of our culture, maintaining a strong focus on Wilber has seemed obvious to me from the start—even if only for pragmatic reasons. Covering both the man and his ideas is a full time job.

But, though it may have started as a fan-site (see: "A Brief History of Integral World"), this website very soon developed into an open forum for debate about Wilber and his works. It was only when these debates turned decidedly critical that Wilber objected to the name "The World of Ken Wilber" of this website, so I was more or less forced to change it. As "Integral World", however, it continued with its focus on Wilber's writings.

But not to simply repeat his statements, but to reflect on them.

That happens to concur with my personal interest, as well as those of many others. Since we are all readers of Wilber's writings, every one of us has experienced second thoughts about what he writes—and how he says it. Giving Wilber a close (read: critical) reading is one of the first steps in getting a debate on integral matters going. Looking for alternative interpretations of the sources he has used and referenced comes next naturally.

Forman and Esbjörn-Hargens make much of their point that only a large group of integral scholars-practitioners can hope to validate integral theory. But they also acknowledge that criticism from "outsiders" will always be necessary, and even healthy. Understanding what Wilber writes, might involve putting him within contexts he may not himself have covered well.

As he wrote himself once "Artists [authors] are not always the best interpreters of their own works". Edward Berge concluded his essay "Who Decides What Wilber Means?" in which he elaborated on this quote from Wilber:

This essay suggests that while Wilber's—and his inner hermeneutic circle's—interpretations of his work are absolutely necessary in this endeavor, they are not enough. The other contexts above, including Edwards' and Harris' contributions [and those of many others], must be included and considered equally constitutive of Wilber's meaning.

Some critics, most notably Jeff Meyerhoff, have even included Wilber's psychological mind-set (better known as his Psychograph) in their interpretive efforts. This has often been mistaken as a ad-hominem attack on his person, but again, these could very well be defended and justified as an "integral" analysis, i.e. including the Upper-Left quadrant within an integral interpretation. Based on Wilber's own autobiographical statements!

Even Wilber's strongest critics—especially Geoffrey Falk and David Lane—only have taken Wilber to task for his misrepresentations of current science—evolutionary biology being the prime example—and factual inaccuracies in his reporting on research. I do take it that integral theory in the end should conform to these facts, no matter how "petty".

Forman and Esbjörn-Hargens also challenged me by rhetorically asking why none of the Integral World critics had sent in a paper for the Conference, which had explicitly invited "Critical Views of Integral Theory (e.g., limits of current interpretations, missing components, and textual analysis of Wilber’s writings)", as the Call for Papers had phrased it. I can only speak for myself, but having published "critical views of integral theory" for almost a decade now, I had become so accustomed to the icy silence coming from Integral Quarters that I perhaps had turned deaf to this invitation.

To my taste, there's still a strong current of "evangelical integralism" in all these efforts to let integral theory "make strong inroads into the academic world". I have grown suspicious of this, given Wilber's own past of bragging about how many scientists are already supporting his work. Assessing integral theory is difficult in a culture that is so accustomed to thinking up new paradigms and explaining them to students of a self-created University.

Validation is very much the opposite: inviting criticism and feedback, actively welcoming this. From explaining to exploring is a subtle but meaningful shift—as Scott London so accurately pointed out in his review of One Taste long ago.

To that extent, I heartily welcome a change of culture and discourse. Discussing the nature of the integral shadow will provide illuminating insights into the often frustrating path to an integral debate. Publishing critical essays on Wilber has often felt as effective as pushing against a door that reads "Pull".

I appreciate, once again, that the Integral Theory Conference organizers have opened that door a little bit wider.

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