An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

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Daniel Gustav AndersonDaniel Gustav Anderson is presently a graduate student in Cultural Studies at George Mason University. His interests include critical theory, ecology, and European and South Asian traditions of dialectical thinking. He is the author of "Of Syntheses and Surprises: Toward a Critical Integral Theory", "Such a Body We Must Create: New Theses on Integral Micropolitics" and "Sweet Science:” A Proposal for Integral Macropolitics", which have been published in Integral Review.

“But what about...”

Responses to Frequent Criticisms

Daniel Gustav Anderson

The main reason why Wilberism as it stands today will not be a legitimized academic discourse... is because of the problems in the way Wilber proposes to make knowledge, which is basically cultish.

I am occasionally approached by readers by email or even in person with questions on how or if my thinking has been influenced by particular books or writers, or more directly regarding the legitimacy and usefulness of what I have attempted in work I have published formally and informally. Here are some examples that may shed light on what I have tried to accomplish, and what is yet to be done, insofar as they represent some typical challenges and mutual misunderstandings.

Question: Did you read Slavoj Zizek's book The Parallax View, which presents a description of consciousness that looks like yours, and attempts to construct a materialist theology... from Hegel? If Zizek is correct on this point, are you not sunk?

Answer: No, I had not read any of that book until the spring of 2011, and I have not yet finished it (or, for that matter, Alain Badiou's Being and Event). I do not understand Zizek's great big book well enough yet to evaluate the similarities and differences between the parallax and the view I have proposed. Now, to your more pointed question: If one accepts Zizek's argument, then my position will definitely need to be reconsidered. But if this is so, and if your intention is to use Zizek's parallax reading of Hegel to defend Wilber's Hegelianism against my critique of it, then proceed with caution. The Parallax View also advances a reading of Hegel and Schelling (look especially around page 65) that is very much at odds with the one Wilber puts forward in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. That is to say, if one accepts Zizek's argument, then Wilber and I are both in different kinds of trouble and for different reasons: Wilber for the content of his historicism, which Zizek would dismiss as a “cliche” or worse, and myself for throwing the word “Hegel” around carelessly, without adequate attention to its content (an error I have owned up to elsewhere).

Question: There is nothing new in your work, Mr. Anderson, in spite of your claims to novelty. Are you not merely translating Wilber's concepts into a new diction? I see a straightforward algebra where holon equals coherence, holarchy equals totality, and so on.

Answer: Totality is not a different word to express the relations that prevail in holarchy. It is not a cypher for “holarchy,” nor is the coherence a one-for-one translation for “holon.” These concepts are an attempt to represent actual relations more adequately for purposes of transformation than the idealist presentation of holarchy in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality does. My essay “Sweet Science” is intended to show the distance between material history and the idealist historicism of holarchy. I suggest you have a look at it.

Question: How is this not just a bunch of dismal postmodern hate for the spiritual realities of the Kosmos?

Answer: Do not confuse public criticism of your understanding of “spiritual realities” as you have applied them to public problems with “hatred” for religious discourses or spiritual practices, even if this means you no longer get to hide behind a charade of victimhood. You asked if this is a “modern” or “postmodern” view I have taken. I think these sorts of taxonomic questions are irrelevant until one specifies just what is meant by the categories “modern” or “postmodern,” and I do not see a consistently specific definition in the way these terms are put to use in integral studies. To my mind the better question asks just what the postmodern might be as a product of history, if such a question is still interesting to readers. I do not think that David Harvey's The Condition of Postmodernity or Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism have been superseded on this point. So, read those books and find out for yourself if my work is plausibly “postmodern,” or if Wilber's is for that matter, and what that might mean.

Question: You have been quick to mention that integral theory as presented by Ken Wilber is currently marginalized in academic discourse if it is recognized at all, and cannot become a legitimate academic discourse as it is. That is a debatable point for sure. But the alternative you are proposing is just as marginal even though it avoids using directly theological words such as Spirit. Are you not simply doing what you criticize Wilber for doing, which is to produce your own private religion and call it something else?

Answer: The main reason why Wilberism as it stands today will not be a legitimized academic discourse except on the edges looking in is because of the problems in the way Wilber proposes to make knowledge, which is basically cultish. I have described this at length elsewhere in publicly available work. While I admit it may be problematic in a number of respects, what I have attempted to put forward is something quite different. I am encouraging an authentic pluralism of inquiry. I am proposing recourse to material and social history, rather than a historicist theology. I have called for the rejection of reductive and, frankly, ridiculous taxonomies such as the vMemes of Spiral Dynamics, which impede academic discourse across disciplines. Now, my use of Marxist concepts may seem anachronistic or worse in some corners of the academy. I think they are warranted because they have descriptive power, and insofar as they do, readers should find them useful. And there remain academic disciplines, including Cultural Studies, history, and sociology, in which Marxist categories are one of many mainstream approaches. Careful readers will notice I celebrate the liberatory legacies of Budapest, Prague, and Santiago, which present oppositional moments against capitalist social relations and the hegemony of the old state capitalism of Comintern: I am not calling for the gulag, nor defending the errors of the Soviet period; neither am I willing to reject out of hand the Soviet experience as an archive of cultural memory on which integral studies can draw productively.

Question: You keep going on about collaboration and dialogue, but you are clearly working outside the mainstream of integral studies, self-consciously crying in the wilderness and eating your locusts and wild honey or whatever. Do you imagine you are having any kind of impact like this?

Answer: I do not imagine I am having any kind of impact, but I have reason to think there are researchers in integral studies are reading my work and taking it seriously. Let me qualify this by stating outright that, just as you should never get advice on buying a car exclusively from a Fiat dealer, so you should not let a writer be the final authority on the impact or value of his or her writing. That said, I think that concepts I have proposed are clearly visible in recent work, such as one or two of the essays in Esbjorn-Hargens' 2010 volume Integral Theory in Action. I am not praising or blaming these essays, merely showing that someone is reading and using this “outsider” material, even “insiders” to Wilber's project, and even in the context of a project the editor of which shows such determination to define integral theory around AQAL alone. To take a different approach, my work is dialogic even when I write only under my own name. Look at my method: I start with the “negative” task of critique of a particular object (in this instance, integral theory), which means I cannot begin working on a “positive” task without engaging with a problem not of my own creation. Finally, I would like to point out that when I say that I look forward to a time when these essays have been superseded by more comprehensive and more probing work, I really mean it.

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