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.

Reposted from with permission of the author.

A Key to All Methodologies

Communion, Conflict, and Commodity
in Ken Wilber's Rhetoric of DIY Science

Daniel Gustav Anderson

Wilber takes a matter of concern, neoliberalism, as a matter of fact [and] certain matters of fact, such as evolution in biology or contingency in human history as matters of concern.

This paper concerns neoliberalism, summarized by John Frow (1999) as “the nexus of a libertarian economics, an anti-statist politics, and a psychology of interest-governed behavior, which together provide […] a 'unified framework for understanding all human behavior'” (425). All possible cultural, cognitive, or political choices are expressible through commodity choices, and therefore, any of many alternatives can be considered as equally plausible to the next in the delirium of the marketplace: evolution or creationism, critical history or reactionary propaganda passing as knowledge, as “real” history. I take this question of plausibility to be a matter of public concern, and a suitable object for critique in the context of rhetoric: How can one achieve a public good in convincing others that something is so or not so by means of reason and evidence in good faith, given that plausibility and desirability have become conflated under neoliberalism?

In reviewing his own critical project, social constructivist Bruno Latour (2004) claims he “intended to emancipate the public from prematurely naturalized objectified facts,” doing the good deed of willingly bearing useful news no one wanted to hear, but has found in the instance of climate-change denial that “dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives” (227). Even the most radical of skepticisms can become the basis of a counterproductive plausibility. Latour decides that the purpose of critique must be “no longer to debunk but to protect and to care” (232)—contesting not matters of fact but matters of public concern (231), which is to say an activist intellectual practice, one intended not as an academic specialty but as an endeavor available to nonprofessionals (239). Latour proposes, then, a participatory and purposive practice of making verifiable knowledge about things that matter to many people, to groups of people, or to the totality of animated life. This recalls the role of lay knowledge or vernacular science in some cultural studies and science and technology studies projects, the canonical cultural studies example most significantly for present purposes—the category of experience in the historiography of working class movements (Thompson, 1963) and related claims for history as an oppositional, lay, and scientific practice (summarized in detail in Anderson, 1980). Lay knowledge is outsider knowledge, alternative to the methods and findings of institutional and mainstream science.

It is not the only such alternative. Andrew Ross (1991) observes a related claim made among New Age circles in the 1980s: “[o]n the horizon lies a rapprochement […] between a metaphysics that is no longer anti-science and a scientific rationality that is no longer impersonal and alienating” (41). A perception of undesirable impersonality in or of the scientific method and the matters of fact they produce (some of them perhaps useful, some of them perhaps contestable) is found problematic to the point of producing an alternative kind of science, a new method, by which it is acceptable to evaluate scientific research not according to the rigor of the experiment or the reason of the analysis, but true to neoliberal form, by the personal or consumer desirability of the content of these findings: these “facts” are selected over “those” by a sovereign consumer as a set of plausible alternatives, announcing themselves eventually as certainties, new matters of fact, as I will show.

Ken Wilber
Ken Wilber

I propose to demonstrate this manufactured controversy and consequent rhetoric of certainty through an examination of the means of knowledge-making proposed by New Age culture's most public theorist, Ken Wilber. Wilber takes a matter of concern, neoliberalism and its effects in everyday life, as a matter of fact—in no uncertain way as an organizing principle of the cosmos and all reality, as God in the form of a self-seeking sovereign consumer. Further, Wilber takes certain matters of fact, such as evolution in biology or contingency in human history as matters of concern, much as some American religious leaders on the extreme political right do (Forrest & Gross 2004), in Latour's terms opening an “artificially maintained scientific controversy” (226) to more plausibly announce an alternative theological explanation. It follows that the cultural studies mainstay of critique as the “debunking” of implausible claims may yet have a role as a means of discerning contestable matters of concern (such as neoliberalism and its attendant logics) by means of rigorous analysis from useful matters of fact, such as materialist social history or biological evolution.

In Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality, marketed as Wilber's “magnum opus” and “one of the most significant books ever published,” Wilber claims his purpose is to develop an explicitly scientific model that demonstrates his theological aspirations—in his words, to save God and the Cosmos from

postmodern cultural studies, where the common tone is rancorous, mean-spirited, arrogant, and aggressive […] a relentless onslaught of anti-Western, anti-male, anti-culture, anti-almost-anything rhetoric that was some of the most toxic and venomous writing I have ever seen, and which reduced cultural studies to this or that pet theory and narcissistic display of self (xxiii).

Wilber cites no examples of such cultural studies projects in Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality in support of this claim, but he does show a concern with the political implications of critical thinking in the humanities and with foreclosing it. Specifically, Wilber rejects materialist accounts of history such as those put forward in cultural studies out of hand (without citing an example of one), demonstrating what Latour (2004) calls “an excessive distrust of good matters of fact,” as I will show the scientific matters of fact of social history, as though they are “bad ideological biases” (227).

To this end, Wilber announces his own theory in admittedly polemical diction: “universal integralism,” which “stands on the brink of even higher developments” than the liberal pluralism he attempts to subsume under his big tent, and

which directly disclose[s] the transpersonal and spiritual realms—developments wherein the postformal mental gives way to the postmental or supramental altogether” (xi).

Wilber is trying to say that he seeks to prove through his methodology and through reason that God exists and that his prescription for attaining communion with this God is scientifically valid—and that he personally is capable of justifying the ways of God to men, taking the anachronistic rhetorical position of a postmodern vates. More than anything else, this gesture functions as a form of marketing, given that Wilber's spirituality is currently available through a variety of commodity forms such as distance education, retreats at yoga resorts such as Kripalu Institute, internet discussion fora and “webinars,” and books and recordings, including a collection of instructional DVDs called The Integral Life Practice Starter Kit (retailing at $189.95 in April of 2010 at “Universal integralism” is presented as a scientific practice anyone can master at home, by consuming it.

But this method of inquiry is deployed not to learn new things but to put forward already-given, apparently self-evident Truths that are readily branded as unique and packaged for mass consumption, as though they are matters of fact. In Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality Wilber posits that certain claims can be uncritically taken for granted as true across many academic disciplines, assuming that said disciplines embody relatively static sets of consensuses of knowledge, like items on a retail shelf as of the inevitably always-already poststructural middle 1990s (at best an idealistic fiction), and from this shaky premise proposes:

if we take these types of largely-agreed-upon orienting generalizations from the various branches of knowledge (from physics to biology to psychology to theology), and if we string these orienting generalizations together, we will arrive at some astonishing and often profound conclusions, conclusions that, as extraordinary as they might be, nonetheless embody nothing more than our already-agreed-upon knowledge (5).

The reader may be comforted by this prolix promise of nothing challenging to one's prejudices—and by the appeal to an assumed but not demonstrated consensus as a measure of any given claim's validity (forgetting that even legitimate consensuses can be wrong or incomplete). Methodologically, this practice of stringing together a set of truisms costumed as contested or contestable knowledge may appear to contradict Wilber's own anachronistic polemic against the “flatland” habit of organizing all forms of knowledge into a coherent and systematic key-to-all-mythologies indigenous to the nineteenth century (428). As it happens, the distinction Wilber makes between his own integral project and the methods of Enlightenment thinkers he objects to is not methodological so much as topical; if the content of one's conceptual map is complete by Wilber's criterion of having remembered to include “depth” and “height,” that is if it explicitly addresses matters spiritual in a way Ken Wilber might recognize, this selected object or product of analysis verifies (for Wilber) the validity of the method of analysis that brought it forward (425). If it seems to have found the desired and valued thing we just knew was out there anyway, it must be a good method of inquiry—such is the logic.

This confusion of categories, of plausible causation, and even of self-contradiction inheres throughout Wilber's treatise.

This confusion of categories, of plausible causation, and even of self-contradiction inheres throughout Wilber's treatise, which is in the end not a systematic exposition but an idealistic good guys against bad guys narrative of European intellectual history, emphasizing the worldviews of philosophers and scientists as determinant agents of causation and assuming thereby a particular theology of historical change, a Hindu-flavored treatment of Hegel's philosophy of right. For instance, Wilber attributes the miseries of modernity to the interventions of Enlightenment thinkers who had a different research agenda from the medieval scholiasts who put their faith in the Great Chain of Being, and different ontological assumptions:

the depths that required interpretation were largely ignored in favor of interlocking surfaces that can simply be seen (empiric-analytic)—valueless surfaces that could be patiently, persistently, accurately mapped: on the one side of the objective strainer, the world appeared only as a great interlocking order of sensory surfaces, empirical forms, process its (sic) (428).

Wilber assumes that if a researcher finds value in surfaces, or worse, is remiss in describing God or any psychology of redemption, that researcher necessarily subscribes to an absolutely determining worldview that will not allow him to value himself or others, and consequently, world culture following this soulless monster's intervention must necessarily lack values as well. A willingness to talk about spiritual realms in ways recognizable to Ken Wilber as “depth” and “height,” then, is a guarantor of value not only for the researcher but also for all of mankind. In this way, Wilber is able to reassure those who consume his commodities of conviction that they are on the right side of history, identifying with the only means of making knowledge that claims to set the world-historical crisis it imagines aright.

Wilber's implausible theory of determination coincides with the transformative aspirations of New Age culture in the U.S. Andrew Ross observes the conviction that “[a]ny secular end to this process of personal transformation depends upon the naïve assumption that changing the self will change the world, an equation that might point to the lack of available languages for linking subjectivity with larger social or structural change” (68) such as a materialist account of history is intended to offer (Anderson, 1980).

This selfsame assumption characterizes the whole of Wilber's theology of history and causation, expressed as the transformations of the minds of authors of Great Books into the phenomenal realities of everyday people. On this ground, what are often taken in cultural studies as material consequences of changes in regimes of accumulation in historical time—globalization and reified subjectivity (Luxemburg, 2003; Aglietta, 2000; Harvey, 2000)—are taken instead to be strictly problems of consciousness produced not in the whole of society but instead by those authorized to make and implement paradigms. Descartes did it—along with a canon of accomplices, figures Wilber calls “Descenders.” These are

dangerous people [who] mistakenly destroy all higher in a frantic attempt to embrace the lower […] in their attempt to make this poor finite world into a world of infinite value—and every Descender does exactly that in a thousand different ways—then slowly, painfully, inevitably destroy this very world” (351).

Wilber does not intend “value” in this sense to imply the value accumulated as capital when this poor world is drawn up into capitalist relations of production; he seems to mean instead that empiricism, in valuing matter, values matter incorrectly. Further, this ideational structure Wilber attributes to the early scientists “produced the atomization of the self” that in Wilber's view characterizes contemporary subjectivity (440), with contemporary scientists guilty by association. The transformations wrought on the planet and in the person by material, social, and economic practices and conditions, forces of material history, are here imagined to be the direct handiwork of such dangerous persons as seventeenth-century geometers.

On the same principle of causality, Wilber claims that the advent of empirical research introduced some serious problems for Godhead—

these physical sciences […] were largely responsible for […] the reduction of the Great Holarchy of Being to the dumbest creatures on God's green earth, and for leveling a multidimensional reality to a flat and faded landscape defined by a minimum of creativity (and thus a maximum of predictive power)” (56).

Here, canonical authors are taken to have such ontological force as to not only justify the ways of God to men but to conjure God and dismiss Him from being, speaking as if actual violence is being done to an actual spiritual order in practical scientific research—as if Bacon and Boyle literally killed God, and that the omnipresent Spirit that Wilber posits is one that can be raised and lowered like a flag by any significant writer, where significance is measured by canonicity. Consequently, rationalism and empiricism (put forward by the Descenders) literally ruined everything Wilber values most, starting with the authorial rhetorical position he claims for himself:

in throwing out a prerational, anthropomorphic, mythic God figure, the 'modern West' also tossed out any transrational, nonanthropomorphic, superconscient Godhead. Gone was a mass of bathwater; gone too precious a baby” (405).

Given the power he imagines the author to wield, it is no wonder Wilber seeks to clothe himself in its Miltonic mantle.

This Promethean theory of determination and authorial power is fitted to an ideological problem in and of New Age-ism, one that also characterizes Wilber's theology of history. According to Ross, “[t]he New Age, as it is conventionally presented, stands breathlessly on the brink of a collective leap in evolution—a major upgrade for the species as a whole. How to accelerate this evolutionary leap without violating the 'natural' way of things?” (48). Evolution is taken here not to signify a biological process comprehensible to materialists and institutional scientists, but instead a particular interpretation of divine providence that ordinary people can identify with, where yoga is understood as a means to accelerate a process already and inevitably underway, that of world-spirit coming to increasing self-consciousness through the worldviews of advanced souls—this according to Aurobindo Ghose, the Indian philosopher through whom Wilber learned his Hegel (Anderson 2008). In Wilber's iteration, by consuming the proper paradigm for the job, one discloses to oneself the real Agent of historical change and thereby making this momentous leap to an Aquarian worldview.

Driving this teleology is a compulsion or imperative on the part of the phenomenal world for consummation with the spiritual One that Wilber posits:

Evolution seeks only this Formless summum bonum—it wants only this ultimate Omega—it rushes forward always and solely in search of this—and it will never find it, because evolution unfolds in the world of form. The Kosmos is driven forward endlessly, searching in the world of time for that which is altogether timeless. And since it will never find it, it will never cease the search (325).

Wilber's God is a bad day's shopping; his history is a series of episodes in which God (as Spirit manifesting as Evolution) ignorantly chases after Himself in the role of the Absolute One, prey to a fundamental ignorance of His own true nature or a compulsion to keep shopping for the Best and the Brightest, a New Age and neoliberal rehash of the Hegelian world-spirit evolving greater self-consciousness through the worldviews of great thinkers. This picture of incompetence and neurosis—God as a foppish flaneur endlessly drawn by the spectacle of the commodity, seeking Himself in it but failing to recognize Himself in the neoliberal way, as his own brand preferences—is the final-answer ontology on which Wilber predicates his rhetorical position and distinguishes good science from science determined to destroy the phenomenal world as such as well as all the Good and Wholesome Values one could imagine in the Marketplace of Ideas.

Since it claims some purchase on matters of public concern, that of public knowledge, debunking the matter-of-fact-ness of Wilber's rhetorical position is itself a critical act.

Works Cited

Aglietta, Michel. A Theory of Capitalist Regulation: The U.S. Experience. Second Ed. New York: Verso Classics, 2000. Print.

Allen, Barbara L. Uneasy alchemy: citizens and experts in Louisiana's chemical corridor disputes. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003. Print.

Anderson, Daniel Gustav. “Such a Body We Must Create: New Theses on Integral Micropolitics.” The Integral Review 4.2 (2008): 4-70. Print.

Anderson, Perry. Arguments Within English Marxism. London: NLB, 1980. Print.

Forrest, Barbara, and Paul R. Gross. Creationism's Trojan horse: the wedge of intelligent design. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004. Print.

Frow, John. “Cultural Studies and the Neoliberal Imagination.” Yale Journal of Criticism 12.2 (1999): 424-430. Print.

Ghose, Aurobindo. The Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo's Teaching and Method of Practice. Twin Lakes, WI: Lotus Press, 1993. Print.

Harvey, David. Spaces of Hope. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000. Print.

Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 30.1 (2004): 225-248. Print.

Luxemburg, Rosa. The Accumulation of Capital. Trans. Agnes Schwarzschild. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Murphy, Michelle. Sick building syndrome and the problem of uncertainty: environmental politics, technoscience, and women workers. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006. Web. 10 May 2010.

Ross, Andrew. Strange Weather: Culture, Science, and Technology in the Age of Limits. New York: Verso, 1991. Print.

Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage Books, 1963. Print.

Wilber, Ken. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. Revised Edition. Boston: Shambhala, 2000. Print.

Wynne, Brian. “May the sheep safely graze? A reflexive view of the expert-lay knowledge divide.” Risk, Environment, and Modernity: Towards a New Ecology. Ed. Scott M. Lash, Bronislaw Szerszynski, & Brian Wynne. London: Sage Publications, 1996. 44-83. Print.

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