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.

Of Truth and Falsehood
in a Spiritual-
Materialistic Sense

A Response to Sean Esbjörn-Hargens'
Proposal for True But Partial

Daniel Gustav Anderson

“Disappointment is the best chariot to use on the path of the dharma. It does not confirm the existence of our ego and its dreams.” Chogyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism

In his recent call for contributions to his proposed volume of critiques of Ken Wilber's thought, Esbjörn-Hargens also proposes a future trajectory for scholarship in and on integral theory as a whole. I bring unwelcome and inauspicious news: on inspection, this trajectory is found to be unnecessarily problematic. My comments here are intended to diagnose this problem, and to contrast it against an alternative proposal for making integral theory's future (“Integral Theory After Wilber”), as an direct and honest friend would. I show this by working through some of the unstable or unaccountable assumptions that underlie Esbjörn-Hargens' gestures in his call for papers, with the aspiration to bring some clarity to the present situation and future possibilities for integral theory as such, for which Esbjörn-Hargens's proposal offers an opportunity.

In the interest of fair and reciprocal exchange, but with much skepticism regarding the merit of my person or my reflections, I offer this brief Personal Reflection: behind these words lies a soulful engagement with the striking legacies of Lenin and the Situationists and the situational logic of the Lotus Sutra's pedagogy, with the delicious alliteration of L and S these lovingly serve. If there can be an elegant way to blurt out a rude expostulation, may this be it. Listen:

Assumption: Integral Theory is Reducible to Studies in Wilberology

Esbjörn-Hargens frames his project to assume that integral theory and the work of Ken Wilber are synonymous, or at least to limit the archive of the project to Wilber's work (specifically a tiny slice of it, of which more in a moment). This assumption may serve the pedagogic purposes and profit-motive of (for-profit) Integral Life and the (for-profit) Integral Institute and its affiliated graduate program at the John F. Kennedy University. It is without doubt true that most work in integral studies is at a minimum influenced by Wilber's intervention, or is proposed in direct response to it; much of it is done in a spirit of application of Wilber's thought, or even in imitation of it. This does not mean, however, that all or even most of the productive work done in integral theory at present is Wilberian; that is a contested and debatable point. So it is not clear how this a priori equation of integral theory with Wilber's intervention into integral studies, or exclusive study of Wilber's iteration of integral theory, in the first instance corresponds to reality or in the second promotes good-faith dialogue and critique among contemporary integral theorists.

Assumption: A Very Narrow Archive Must Suffice

Esbjörn-Hargens, in a moment of extended personal reflection (remarkable in a succinct genre not famous for diffuse persiflage of this nature, the call for papers), laments a lack of credible and inspiring criticism on Wilber's oeuvre. He decides that this is at least in part because, so far, critics have not yet come to terms with Wilber's most recent reinvention of his project, “phase V” (the reasonability of this schema of successive waves of Wilberism, self-consciously numbered like Led Zeppelin albums, should itself be an object of analysis but I will follow Esbjörn-Hargens' lead and bracket this question for now). Consequently, in Esbjörn-Hargens's proposal, a very slender selection of Wilber's methodological work is made available for analysis: “Excerpts A-D & G, and Appendix II from Integral Spirituality.” This is problematic because much of the arguments on which AQAL, for instance, is predicated (in Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality, for instance) is wholly disregarded here. Esbjörn-Hargens' proposal excludes in this way any fundamental critique of many of the presumptions behind AQAL, which are among AQAL's conditions of plausibility. Much of the earlier critique Esbjörn-Hargens alludes to makes extensive reference to this work because it is profoundly problematic in its social and political consequences and in its means of making knowledge, as I have suggested elsewhere (“Sweet Science”).

This is not to say that AQAL or “phase V” Wilber is somehow above critique as Esbjörn-Hargens frames it. To start with, Wilber's idealistic account of the role of religious practice under conditions of globalization in Integral Spirituality is among the least plausible; the curious reader can contrast it against the much more rigorously argued and better-informed work of Mike Davis in Planet of Slums. Further, as I have pointed out (“Such a Body”), claims for Wilber's late work to be plausibly understood as “postmetaphysical” fail on definitional terms. It is not at all clear that any of Wilber's phases is in toto postmetaphysical, or that any one element in any of those phases that one may point to as postmetaphysical is consistently so, or that Wilber maintains even a consistent definition of the postmetaphysical in his own oeuvre (if one can demonstrate these in a rigorous way, one will have accomplished something significant). To cite the much more important and symptomatic example of Wilber's institutional and entrepreneurial practices: I would like to know how one can subsume an earnest spirituality or an attempt at critical pedagogy, much less both at once, to the profit motive, as Wilber has clearly done with Integral life, on the model of for-profit education centers such as the University of Phoenix and corporate trainers and consultants continue to do under neoliberalism, in good conscience and without doing violence to critical thinking and conditions for spiritual living. As a thought experiment, one can recall the pedagogy celebrated in Boomeritis, in which marks passively endure the same predictable spectacle of PowerPoint presentations and trite lectures over and over until they “get it”, and contrast this to the critical pedagogies of Paulo Friere, Ivan Illych, or the under-esteemed Tsunesaburo Makiguchi. Can Appendix II of Integral Spirituality be understood completely (or integrally) outside this context of its transmission, the teaching situation? No, it can only be partially understood if one intentionally ignores its material conditions, its rhetorical and commercial position, and the structured relationships it presumes (between teacher and student, between the Great Mind and the reading consumer, between the Spiritual Master and the aspirant in the marketplace, and between tradition and transaction).

It may not be obvious to everyone that for-profit proprietary education, a clear symptom of the retreat of the state from the public good for the private gain of a few so characteristic of neoliberalism, is inherently problematic. This is not the place to demonstrate such a claim exhaustively, but because this practical matter of the teaching situation and the production of knowledge is of great significance to integral theory and integral studies, I will point out one way in which Wilber's proprietary pedagogy is on principle gravely flawed. Imagine: a traveler surveys a landscape, and identifies in its diversity certain elements one could (with hired help) extract and reshape into a uniform salable commodity, be it bananas, bags of magic beans, or, perhaps, copies of “the most important spiritual book in postmodern times.” Whatever use one may put this produce to is irrelevant to our traveler's purpose in the end. This landscape does not belong to our hero; he has no legitimate claim to it; he proceeds anyway, inventing or acquiring as he goes some figleaf of legitimacy (a colonial charter, say, or special permission from the state in a development zone, or just the public performance of piety or goodwill; the form varies historically). Our hero extracts from the world's wealth, from products of geological and biological history and the totality of the world's known-to-him cultural and spiritual labors, and bangs something together from all this not for the sake of the world or its inhabitants or to repay the debt he owes the creatures he just stole from, but for the sake of accumulating capital for himself to enjoy, which quantifies his ability to express his will-to-power. This is the “metaphysical” or “fetish” quality to the commodity described in the early pages of Das Kapital. Now, if one assumes for the sake of argument that Wilber's products do reflect some semblance of traditional Buddhist or Hindu or any other tradition of teachings (parenthetically, I would instead argue in the case of Buddhism that Wilber tends to abandon the Middle Path for the extreme view of eternalism, so his claims on emptiness as somehow fungible to “Spirit” in Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality are sadly misleading), then on must conclude that Wilber is extracting raw wealth from these traditions themselves, transforming them into capital, and keeping that capital for himself, an act of epistemic violence against these traditions he claims to reflect or transmit to whatever extent. In Mahayana terms, one may say Wilber's project usurps the bodhisattva aspiration to selfless service for a self-aggrandizing, self-enhancing profit motive in the last analysis, a problem for which Trungpa devised the diagnosis of spiritual materialism. I think this pattern is a problem; I choose not to repeat it so far as I am able, and I encourage others to abandon it as well.

Assumption: There is an Unspoken Achilles Heel in Phase V

I think the most interesting assumption Esbjörn-Hargens makes in his call for papers lies behind this comment: “These will be the critiques that really identify an Achilles heel in Integral Theory as it is currently understood and practiced.” Esbjörn-Hargens assumes, in short, that integral theory as he has defined it is fatally flawed (recall that Achilles is mortal and will inevitably die because of his heroic flaws and a lacuna in the magical protection his mother provided for him). However, no fatal flaws are specified in Esbjörn-Hargens' proposal, and none of the serious problems with Wilberian integral theory diagnosed over the years and made rather obvious to all in the so-called Earpy Episode, are referenced. Two questions emerge: if you know there is a problem, or even multiple problems, and these problems are more real or more compelling or more problematic so to speak than the ones diagnosed by those “outsiders” in the period ending in 2005 (interestingly, the Earpy Episode dates to 2006, again outside Esbjörn-Hargens' temporal frame), then why not mark those fatal flaws? Alternately, if you do not know for certain there is a problem, then why assume such a problem (or a problem of such magnitude) exists?

One way to explain if not resolve the dilemma Esbjörn-Hargens has set up for himself is to reconsider his insistence on only enlisting critiques from those persons with significant experience in applying AQAL to an object or a problem in a practical way. In order to apply AQAL, it follows that one must not have rejected it to begin with; that is, one would have inspected it (or reserved the right to do so), and found it seaworthy before consenting to work with it in a professional way. These are persons for whom whatever fatal flaw there may be in AQAL is either not visible, or not problematic (“Sunny Second Coming”). Those who have examined AQAL and found it unsuitable for any practical work, those who indeed identified one or many fatal flaws in it and let it die in their hands, are taken in this proposal as “outsiders” who have nothing to contribute to the conversation in integral theory; those who have by definition accepted it (even uncritically, as an article of faith) are assumed by the criterion of experience with it to have something to contribute to the same. Neither of these positions is necessarily tenable, but each may be true, at least hypothetically. My point is that Esbjörn-Hargens' proposal is suffering from a crisis of identity: by insisting on the kind of person who can participate in this volume, he is prioritizing fidelity to the program ahead of critique, the characteristics of one's person ahead of the qualities of any given proposal.

Assumption: True but Partial?

The title to the proposed volume, reflecting the “true but partial” doctrine that is woven throughout Wilber's oeuvre, itself excludes the possibility of something being wrong, deluded, even intentionally distorted (ideological in the Althusserian sense). I submit it is possible for a truth claim to be not just partially true but wholly and demonstrably false, and this category of bad-faith discourse is an important tool in critical work, particularly in social, political, and cultural matters. To rehearse an example few seem interested in discussing any longer, in 2003 the administration of George W. Bush and the government of Tony Blair colluded to advance their intended invasion of Iraq on false pretenses, to the great suffering of many people, to great loss of life, and to the great shame of the United States and Britain. The “Downing Street Memos” among other things prove they intentionally lied to accomplish a particular rhetorical task. The discourse that convinced enough Britons and Americans in the rightness of this invasion was not “partially” true. It was a lie, remains a lie, and should be called out as a lie, as falsehood passing as a truth claim, regardless of anyone's developmental status or the “vMeme” to which one identifies. And this falsehood that was taken by some as a truth, if an incomplete truth, has had very sorrowful consequences. This is not an exercise in self-fulfillment, nor is it merely academic. The political work done by the doctrine of “true but partial” must be reconsidered with much greater care; one accepts it at face value only at the risk of being duped.

I would suggest that Trungpa's model of cutting through spiritual materialism, or of rigorous ideology critique as developed in the Frankfurt School and in the wake of Althusser's intervention, offer less problematic alternatives for evaluating truth claims in an integral context. Put differently, Nietzsche was correct to scrutinize truth claims and their means of production (will-to-power); the value of his insight is not qualified, limited, or increased by his own objective madness. Yet again differently: for the sake of argument, assume that Aurobindo Ghose was in fact a great saint and the finest of Anglophone poets since P. B. Shelley (defensible assumptions). Even so, Aurobindo's purity and puissance of soul did not prevent him from repeating some very “partial” truths that were of political use to Empire, later repeated in certain aspects of Wilberian doctrine (“Of Syntheses,” “Sunny Second Coming”), and although these two positions may be in tension they do not necessarily contradict or cancel each other. A madman (Nietzsche) or a murderer (Althusser) can sometimes produce more impartial, more complete truths, in fact point out the falseness of truth-claims circulating as verities and the political work they do, than the sunniest of saints, and without anyone needing to make any assumptions or inferences about their levels of spiritual development. They worked methodically and got something right, and that is enough. By contrast, a scholar-saint (Aurobindo or his imitators, Wilber among them, for instance) can sometimes mistake a falsehood for an Eternal Cosmic Truth (“Sweet Science”). Coincidence is not causation: specifically, one's experience with this or that spiritual practice or in Aurobindo's case spiritual attainment does not guarantee a foolproof critical capacity, nor is the capacity to think critically absent in those who lead lives that may seem repellent to conventional mores and morals (this constitutes another argument against leaving the “outsiders” out of the conversation).

The Punchline:

A few days before Esbjörn-Hargens' call for papers was published at Integral World, my own proposal for integral theorists to assess the state of the discipline with an eye toward crafting a future after the impact of Wilberian theory and pedagogy found print at the same site: “Integral Theory After Wilber.” These proposals work from different premises, seem to advance different goals, and imply very different outcomes (one an extension of Wilberism, the other moving on from it in new directions). I think both should be taken seriously, contested, and examined on their merits (this is my main purpose in the present writing). This moment marks a transition in integral theory.

As it happens, a well-timed, well-regarded anthology of essays can indeed define a discipline or a field as a pedagogic tool (Glotfelty's Ecocriticism Reader is a ready example), so Esbjörn-Hargens has good reason to think his volume can do the same for integral theory. I very much hope Esbjörn-Hargens succeeds in his aim of producing the “best…ever” anthology on the matter, and more to the point, I hope he finds the questions that will properly frame the project and drive the inquiry and the conversation forward. At the risk of offering uninvited advice, here are some questions that may redirect Esbjörn-Hargens' project closer to his stated aim:

  • What goals are we advancing, why these and not others, and on what grounds? To what purpose in the last analysis?
  • What is the object of our inquiry? Is it integral theory itself, and if so, how is this most responsibly defined? Is it the application of integral theory, and if so, how is this most responsibly evaluated? Is it the history of integral studies or any one canon of integral thought, and if so, what definitions are warranted for each?
  • What specifically do we want to learn from this object or about it? What kind of knowledge can we reasonably expect to produce about this object?

This seems a more constructive place to begin thinking about a project such as the one Esbjörn-Hargens has proposed than a matrix of unfounded or at best shaky assumptions, a muck of unresolved identitarian and canonical issues, trying to sort out in advance whose knowledge counts and what texts are worth considering, or dating the phases of a more or less unsatisfying catalogue of Wilber scholarship or the Wilber canon itself.

I recognize and apologize for the impertinence and arrogance inherent in making this set of criticisms and concomitant recommendations publicly, an unsavory task for the writer and presumably for many readers too. Obviously, I am willing to behave boorishly and embarrass myself like this in the hope my actions may be of use. I hope the intention to prevent future difficulty for all involved and strengthen the work at the outset justifies the intervention I have made here.

Warmest regards,

Daniel Gustav Anderson,
in the role of the insufferable pedant


Attentive readers have objected to two points of substance in my reading of Esbjörn-Hargens' proposal. These are important and warranted in my view. I am responding to them in a postscript, rather than revising the above response, to give an object lesson in how stupidity can be a precondition for making knowledge. It is not as though self-evident or inborn truths become less partial as experience opens; it is instead that working through stupidity, ignorance, mistakes, and delusions produces clearer and sharper knowledge. Ignorance is a precondition of learning and of science, a point on which the methodologies of Lenin and Chih-i (great applied dialecticians both of them) agree.

The first of my known mistakes in this essay relates to Esbjörn-Hargens' claimed editorial practices and policies. Esbjörn-Hargens does in fact state that work from “outsiders” will be considered for inclusion in his proposed volume, that potential “authors should demonstrate a familiarity” with non-Wilberian integral theory, and that his project is “not about Wilber as much as it is about Integral Theory.” I neglected to account for these gestures. Consequently, my claims above on the Wilber-exclusiveness of this project are overstated and may be completely wrong; or, Esbjörn-Hargens has contradicted himself in his definition of the object of study, a confusion I have responded to in a one-sided way; or both these alternatives may be true. I remain convinced that my response to Esbjörn-Hargens' proposal is more reasonable and internally coherent than is the proposal itself in spite of my overreaching polemic, and that a much clearer and more consistent definition for what integral theory is and does, informed by a critical examination of the history of its interventions, is in order to prevent further mistakes of the type I make here.

My second error is one of inflection. In this critique of Esbjörn-Hargens and in “Nonviolence of Nonmetaphysics,” an interview that anticipates much of my commentary in the present writing, some of my statements seem to some readers to imply that JFK University is a for-profit institution of learning. To the best of my knowledge, this is not so: JFK University is in fact a private, non-profit institution, I might add with an admirable history of working with marginalized learners so often left behind by traditional institutions. My intention is to provoke the question of how for-profit models and operations such as Integral Life and Integral Institute interface with traditional institutions and traditions of pedagogy (public institutions, cultural traditions and transmissions). I apologize for any confusion or harm that may have arisen due to my carelessness in this regard, and I thank my interlocutors for drawing my mistakes to my attention.

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