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

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Edward Berge has been studying all things integral since 1998. He graduated summa cum laude with a BA in English Literature from Arizona State University and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa National Honor Society. By profession he has been a massage therapist and is currently a professional liability insurance underwriter focusing on medical malpractice. By avocation he is dancer, researcher, writer, and art and literary lover and critic.

Who Decides
What Wilber Means?

Edward Berge

While Wilber's—and his inner hermeneutic circle's—interpretations of his work are absolutely necessary in this endeavor, they are not enough.

In his Reply to Edwards, Wilber states that there are many integral models of which his is only one version. This might be true but he fails to take into account his significant impact and contribution to the integral movement in general. While Wilber's model isn't the only one it is probably the best known and no doubt the one most investigated and quoted. Wilber is known as the "Einstein of consciousness" for good cause and such luminaries as Huston Smith, Roger Walsh, Frances Vaughan, Michael Murphy, Larry Dorsey and Jack Critteneden sing his accolades, again for good cause. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality is aptly labeled "one of the most significant books ever published." So it is perhaps forgivable if one is to compliment Wilber's model as the integral model. No one has done more to bring these ideas to the public with such grace and eloquence. While Wilber's isn't the integral model, his work must certainly be taken into account in any discussion of anything "integral." To not do so is negligent and tantamount to discussing relativity theory without Einstein, existentialism without Nietzsche or the Captain without Tennille.

How then are we to take Wilber into account when discussing integral models, especially his own? Wilber, in his Reply to Edwards, says that if one is to criticize his version of integral then one must first understand it in a manner that "ken wilber agrees is actually ken wilber's model." Wilber notes that only those who have first stated his position correctly have subjected his work to valid criticism. Wilber further points out that the best way to understand someone's work is to discuss it with the author in person or by phone. He notes that critics like Edwards or Harris, not doing so, badly distort or misrepresent his material. Wilber maintains that his work has evolved via authentic criticism with those who have done so with him in person.

Chapters 4 & 5 of The Eye of Spirit ("Integral Art & Literary Theory") will be used to provide a background context for an analysis of Wilber's above contentions. Granted this might not be Wilber's latest view on the subject, as it was printed in 1997. These chapters were offered on Integral Naked recently though, along with the Wachowski interview on the meaning of The Matrix, so one might assume it was put there as a current reference guide to artistic and literary interpretation. Note that direct dialogue with Wilber was not involved in writing this essay. Therefore one who accepts Wilber's above premises might dismiss this as being another of those invalid criticisms based only on his written work. Keep in mind, however, that the above referenced chapters contradict Wilber's contentions in his Reply to Edwards.

EOS notes that integral artistic and literary interpretation must be approached from a number of contexts that include the artist's intention, the artwork itself, the history of reception and response, and the economic, linguistic, technical and cultural contexts in which the work arises. Due to these various contexts for interpretation

"there is no single correct interpretation because no holon has only one context (p. 134)."

The first assumption in Wilber's contention is that one who interprets his work must be in agreement with him as to its original meaning. This appears to be based on the context of the maker's intention as the meaning of work. As seen above, this is only one of several contexts that must be taken into account in interpretation.

"All of the definitions that attempt to limit art to the original intention and its expression have failed in very significant ways. The reason, of course, is that the primal holon is a whole that is part of other wholes (p. 116)."

Interpretation must include the intention of the maker but cannot be limited to it alone, as "there is no single correct interpretation."

Another assumption is that the maker of a work is conscious of all his or her intentions and thereby the only one qualified to decide the meaning of the work. Various symptomatic theories posit that the maker is often unconscious of many of his or her intentions or motivations. The psychoanalytic interpretation, for example, finds the above true due to various personal complexes and often finds conscious and unconscious motivations are at cross-purposes. In this view it certainly requires a disinterested person or people outside the individual to analyze and interpret many meanings not readily available to the individual. Disinterested literary critics would include those that are not first required to be in agreement with the maker about his intention, just as a psychoanalyst isn't required to first agree with the patient's personal interpretations. In fact a therapist's purpose is not to agree with a patient but to achieve a therapeutic perspective and provide insight beyond the patient's limited view of himself. The same dynamic is applicable to literary criticism and interpretation.

The latter point is pertinent in Wilber's notion that he has accepted valid criticism from those with whom "ken wilber agrees is actually ken wilber's model." That is one valid context, combining the maker's original intent within a closed hermeneutic circle. And given Wilber's stature, and that of his inner circle of critics, this view is one that must be given serious consideration in any integral, interpretative approach. But there are many more contexts outside this circle that are equally valid and must be included. For a more detailed explanation on closed hermeneutic circles and their limitations see Peckinpah's essay. For valid points on a necessary, broad-based, scholarly discourse and academic peer review, see Edwards', Harris' and Ross' essays.

A work can also be interpreted by examining the work itself, in this case Wilber's written texts. This context explores the relationships between the elements that make up the work with criteria like coherence, consistency, completeness and harmony. This context maintains that

"if the artist had intentions that didn't make it into the artwork, well then, the artist has simply failed in that regard"


"artists are not always the best interpreters of their own works (p.120)."

In this regard Edwards criticisms are relevant, as he provides valid questions as to the above textual elements in Wilber's written works. If Wilber intended something other that what he stated in his texts, or if those texts are unclear, then "the artist has simply failed in that regard." And if the artist isn't always the best interpreter of their own work then it's up to others to take up the slack, both within an inner circle and in a broader scholarly discourse and review.

Reception and response theories find the nature and meaning of a work to be in the responses of the viewers themselves.

"When I view an artwork, it has meaning for me. Each and every time a viewer sees a work and attempts to understand it, there is what Gadamer so unerringly calls a 'fusion of horizons'—as I would also put it, a new holon emerges, which itself is a new context and thus carries new meaning (p. 127)."

This was highlighted in Wachowski's interview about The Matrix on Integral Naked. Wachowski noted that he doesn't give his own interpretation so that it won't become the only dogmatically correct interpretation of the film. He wants the audience to think about it for themselves and arrive at their own meanings. These meanings are as much constitutive of the work as the maker's original intentions.

Valid interpretations are also derived from the cumulative history of viewers' responses within a broader cultural background. This lineage was heavily influenced by Heidegger's notion of the historicity of truth. Truth is not found in objective facts as much as within changing historical contexts.

"The artwork is not something that exists by itself, outside of history, isolated and self-regarding, existing only because it looks at itself; rather, the only way we know the artwork is by viewing and interpreting it, and it is those interpretations, grounded in history, that constitute the overall art (p. 112)."

These backgrounds include economic and cultural factors. For example, Marxists point out that the work will reflect various economic factors of which the maker might be unaware or enmeshed within. Ray Harris has also validly pointed out that some of Wilber's assumptions might be particular to a distinctly American interpretation.

An integral approach to art and literary interpretation must include the various contexts above but transcend each one's inherent limitations and prejudices. EOS notes that

"each context will confer a different meaning on the artwork (p. 112)"


"each is true when highlighting its own context (p. 113)."

The problem arises when a theory tries

"to make its context the only context worth serious consideration (p. 113)."

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, must be included and considered equally constitutive of Wilber's meaning.

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