TRANSLATE THIS ARTICLE
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
The 123 of
I have been deeply disappointed about Ken Wilber because he has't lived up to the generally accepted standards of debate and dialogue that are common to all good science and philosophy.
A few weeks ago I stumbled on the website Beams and Struts, and discovered it was full of content similar to Integral World, though much more Web 2.0 savvy in using blogs and Twitter and less critical of Wilber in tone. The website studiously avoids to identify itself with Wilber, and even prefers the term "post-postmodern" to the conventional but controversial term "integral", but essentially the postings are inspired by Ken Wilber's writings or by those of his closest colleagues (Gafni, Cohen, etc.).
Further, two postings on this website, written by Juma Wood and Cris Dierkes—both under the title "The 123 of Relationship to Ken Wlber"—struck a chord in me, and apparently in many others as well, considering the online responses. They have recently been posted with permisson of the authors on Integral World. Both authors discovered Wilber's work at the beginning of this century, came to it from different life-story angles, and reflect on the three phases they have roughly gone through in their relation to Wilber as person, the integral scene around him and his writings. They encourage others to describe their own patterned relationship to Wilber—so here we go.
Briefly, Wood describes his personal process as having gone through the phases of (1) romance, (2) rebellion and (3) appreciation. Alternatively, Dierkes describes these phases as (1) childhood, (2) adolescence and (3) "mature sweetness". Wood's needs at the time were for a comprehensive outlook on life, having dropped out of the conventional academic world, Dierkes came from a spiritual background, and even experienced a deep mystical state after finishing Wilber's main work Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. Disregarding individual differences, both found intellectual and spiritual guidance in Wilber's writings, and are grateful for that, even if they (still) disagree with (or even detest) certain aspects of the integral cultural scene—especially its emphasis on cool, juvenile talk and marketing integral as a life style product.
Both share the common feeling that initially, they have been infatuated with Wilber's writings, then got disillusioned for various reasons, but now they have reached a more "mature" or "appreciative" stance in which they see Wilber's lasting value and contribution more clearly. Interestingly, Dierkes' initial encounter with Wilber's work was one of "loathing, disgust"—actually quite similar to Jeff Meyerhoff's account of his first encounter with Wilber's writings. For Wood this was not the case—but both were taken in greatly with Wilber's ideas. Apparently, things can go either way Wilber-wise, depending on what you are actually looking for at the time you first start reading Wilber.
Joe Perez commented on these postings on Integral Life that these reflect, knowlingly or unknowingly, Marc Gafni's three "stations of love" called submission, separation and sweetness. Also he feels they are still "overly focused on Ken Wilber" and he would love to see other people report on how integral philosophy, and not Wilber as person, has changed their lives. This is perhaps a separate discussion, relevant to Integral World as well, for my focus on Wilber's person and writings over the years has been questioned by some (and favored by others). But obviously, some very general relationship dynamic is involved here.
Note that Wood and Dierkes don't attempt an "3-2-1" analysis of their relationship to Wilber as advocated in Integral Life Practice as shadow-work, to solve issues you have with a person. This would have been illuminating in it's own right: (1) speak about Wilber in 3rd person language ("he's like this, he's like that"), (2) speak to Wilber in a face-to-face situation and bring up your grudges, and (3) imagine being Ken Wilber himself, with all his qualities and faults. Try then to discover which of these qualities and faults you unconsciously share with him.
Meeting Wilber in January 1997
I have written about my—by now—30 years of involvement with all things Wilberian some years ago, in "The Trouble with Ken Wilber", and summarized my involvement with Wilber as "a story of discovery, meeting, creativity, debate and distancing"—please check out that report, so I won't have to repeat it here. The title of the essay referred not only to the Wyatt Earp episode that had occurred in 2006—in which Wilber had shown his true colors when it comes to responding to his online critics, mostly on Integral World and especially myself—but also to what I felt was the biggest problem facing Wilber on the road to academic respectability: "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."
A dialectic solution
Perhaps it's time to update my stance on Wilber? After 20 years of thesis, and 10 years of anti-thesis, now a synthesis? My thesis-phase covers everything from discovering No Boundary back in 1982, reading and digesting his subsequent works as they came out, through meeting Ken in 1997 twice and publishing my book Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion in 2001 (now out in 6 languages, with Chinese to follow this year). This was truly a wonderful period, in which Wilber's ideas made eminent sense to me, though I did not feel up to the task of assessing their validity in all the various fields he touches. In my anti-thesis phase, I turned to challenging these very ideas—for in an intellectual sense, isn't Ken Wilber the philosopher best served by being challenged?
In this, I went further than anyone else with including the likes of Lane, Meyerhoff and Falk as strongly negative critics in my hermeutic circle. In that endeavour of building the Reading Room of Integral World, I felt largely alone, at a time that a new and mostly younger generation started to discover Wilber. So be it. I felt it just came with the territory of making integral theory transparent to criticism from all possible corners. It's a logical step in the philosophy of science: bold conjectures should be followed by stong refutations. That, basically, remains my object with Integral World to this day. It has nothing to do with growing up, or "separating" from a loved one.
A few years ago Scott Parker pointed on Integral World to the same dynamic, in his perceptive essay "Winning the Integral Game?". Writing candidly about his own infatuation with Wilber's writings during his university years as a student, he acquired, through reading the various available criticisms of Wilber, including those published on Integral World, a more reserved stance towards Wilber—for which he coined the term "the Meyerhoffian turn". (Parker ended up publishing Jeff Meyerhoff's book Bald Ambition as a hard cover a few years later.) But his plea was essentially for a third option, beyond the critical phase: instead of being an uncritical "fan" of Wilber, or an equally dogmatic Wilber-critic, we should try to be a "fan-critic", avoiding the two extremes of polarization. This dialectic solution more of less sums up my own feelings about how I relate to Ken Wilber.
Dierkes replied to Parker's essay saying that, while there may very well be psychological reasons for someone to accept Wilber's ideas as the Truth, this can also be said for those holding a critical view towards Wilber. What psychological motives do they harbour? Accross the board, critical postings on Integral World have met with a lot of suspicion from integral quarters (echoed by Wood, where he calls these contributors "detractors"). Of course, it's then only a small step towards Wilber's suggestion, messaged as Wyatt Earp that, since there's in fact no real reason to criticize his supposedly flawless ideas, all criticism must by its very nature be shadow-based. And that's, effectively, the end of all debate.
As I have mentioned on many occasions, criticism is the life blood of all good science and philosophy. That goes without saying.
One can even speculate there must be psychological reasons for "coming to terms with Wilber", when all is said and done, in any of the post-critical phases Wood and Dierkes suggest. But with that, the psychological viewpoint falls out of the equation alltogether, because all this psychologizing says precisely nothing about the validity of Wilber theoretical proposals. It only tells us to what extent individual, layman seekers for Truth can extract meaning from Wilber's semi-academic writings. Nothing but a team of specialists can assess the theoretical soundness of them. Meyerhoff's effort to do that single-handedly in his monograph on Wilber's "theory of everything" Bald Ambition was therefore no less than heroic.
But anyhow, at the end of my Wilber-addicted years, which lasted close to two decades, when I published Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, my main aim was to present Wilber's main ideas to a critical, if interested and informed audience (the book was published by a University Press for no other reason). However, at precisely that time (2001)—when Integral Institute was founded, Integral Naked was launched, Integral University was planned, etc.—things started to go in a totally different direction.
Instead of offering his ideas to the forum of academia, Wilber started to contemplate a University of his own (which after many years of preparation, happily imploded under it's own self-imposed importance.) Instead of answering critical questions from his students, they were referred to this Integral University, whenever it would be launched. And instead of at least taking a friendly and respectful stance towards the many online critics that appeared on the scene—who else in the world at large bothered about Wilber?—Wilber met them with half-a-decade of silence followed by a pathetic attempt to silence them forever. This resulted in a crisis of trust, from my end, in which he basically lost all credit. And believe me, he had a lot...
And even if it were true that his online criticis did not "get" Wilber; it's equally the case that Wilber did not "get" his critics, did not engage them in a way that did justice to their points of contention. Even his own integral theory of literary interpretation could have told him that the meaning of an intellectual work is more then just what the author has in mind, as Edward Berge so ably pointed out. At any rate, a free exchange of ideas between Wilber and his online critics has never happened—for reasons I still can't quite fathom.
With Wilber's writing programme practically ended, and the Integral Studies courses at JFK unexpectedly terminated, what can we expect of the future? Will a "second wave" of integralists do any better? When i speak of disappointment, is that a matter of having cherished unrealistic expectations? I don't think so. Have I been critical of Wilber, because he wouldn't play the role of intellectual Saviour for me? Rather, I have been deeply disappointed about Ken Wilber in the past decade because, to me, he has't lived up to the generally accepted standards of debate and dialogue that are common to all good science and philosophy—in my case, epitomized in Wilber's treatment of evolutionary theory.
When it comes to that, the silence in integral quarters has been deafening.
Moving on: Big History
Ironically, pursuing this very specialized field of evolutionary theory turned out to be immensely rewarding for me, in that it re-aligned me with the field of science. Instead of covering the past 5000 years of cultural/spiritual evolution, evolutionary theory goes back 500 million years when it comes to complex life, and 3,5 billion years when bacteria are included. It has been said that when the history of life is written up in a book of 400 pages, the time span of the written history of mankind covers the width of the dot at the end of the last sentence. Some perspective indeed!
For me, the scientific validation of spiritual experience—which was my agenda thirty years back when I went to university and Wilber's agenda throughout his whole career—pales compared to those vast dimensions. Evolution's Arrow by Joh Stewart offers more solid ground then Wilber ever did; without invoking transcendental interventions to explain evolutionary progress. Has it never occurred to anyone how little Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution actually told us about evolution? Nay, even about sex we are left in the dark! Why it exists, how it arose during evolution, bringing life and death in it's wake... Not to mention the vast topic of the history of the cosmos at large, about which Lawrence Krauss has recently written such a marvelous book: A Universe From Nothing. No transcendental Eros here pushing elementary particles around, but gravity doing its work.
At the moment, this gives me thrills compared to those Wilber's books once gave me in the early eighties of the last century. But that is, most problably, just a phase...