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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.
What "is" the différance?
Ken Wilber and Jacques Derrida's metaphysics
Note: This essay is edited and truncated material from my posts in the IPS thread by the same name. There is a lot more information and references in that thread. The term metaphysics in the subtitle refers to the study of first principles. Whereas the terms metaphysical and postmetaphysical have more specific and limited meanings.
Wilber is guilty of what I call metaphysical (aka dualistic) nondualism which arises in formal operations.
It struck me that Derrida's descriptions of khora and différance sound reminiscent of Wilber's description of consciousness per se (CPS) in Integral Spirituality (2007). For example Wilber says in Chapter 2:
"This happens to fit nicely with the Madhyamaka-Yogachara Buddhist view of consciousness as emptiness or openness. Consciousness is not anything itself, just the degree of openness or emptiness, the clearing in which the phenomena of the various lines appear (but consciousness is not itself a phenomena; it is the space in which phenomena arise)" (66).
Compare with this from Deconstruction in a Nutshell (1997):
“But something like khora is 'indeconstructible' not because she/it is a firm foundation, like a metaphysical ground or principle... Rather her indeconstructibility arises because she is...the space in which everything constructible and deconstructible is constituted, and hence...older, prior, preoriginary. Far from being a likeness to the God of the monotheisms...[it] is better compared to...the incomparable, unmetaphorizable, desert-like place without properties or genus....which is not be to confused with the Eternal, Originary Truth...of the intelligible paradigms above" (97-8).
Wilber is guilty of what I call metaphysical (aka dualistic) nondualism which arises in formal operations, whereas Derrida's khora is a postmetaphysical nondualism arising in postformal operations. For example, when Wilber discusses the two truths in Excerpt G (see citation below) he says they "are of radically different orders" (Part II). And lest we forget, Integral Spirituality is full of the same type of metaphysical descriptions. As one example of several see Appendix II, “The sliding scale of enlightenment”:
“Enlightenment is a union of both Emptiness and Form, or a union of Freedom and Fullness. To realize infinite Emptiness is to be free from all finite things, free from all pain, all suffering, all limitation, all qualities—the via negativa that soars to a transcendental freedom from the known, a nirvikalpa samadhi beyond desire and death, beyond pain and time, longing and remorse, fear and hope, a timeless Dharmakaya of the Unborn, the great Ayin or Abyss that is free from all finite qualities whatsoever (including that one).”
Another example from Integral Spirituality, Chapter 5, "Emptiness and view are not two":
"When one is in deep meditation or contemplation, touching even that which is formless and unmanifest—the purest emptiness of cessation—there are of course no conceptual forms arising. This pure 'nonconceptual' mind—a causal state of formlessness—is an essential part of our liberation, realization, and enlightenment.... When it comes to the nature of enlightenment or realization, this means that a complete, full, or nondual realization has two components, absolute (emptiness) and relative (form). The 'nonconceptual mind' gives us the former, and the 'conceptual mind' gives us the latter."
How does Wilber interpret the above as postmetaphysical? In Appendix II of Integral Spirituality he notes that there is no fundamental, pregiven world apart from all perception of it. There are only perspectives in relation to each other. Thus we need to establish this relation via a kosmic address, which includes the altitude and perspective (aka quadrant or quadrivium) of both the subject and the object. Perspectives in relation to each other without the myth of the given reflect a postmetaphysical approach. But he does slip up in this section and admit that perspectival addresses only refer to the "manifest world.” Which goes with what he said above about the radically different realms of emptiness and form.
Let's return to the above referenced section in Integral Spirituality on consciousness per se (66). CPS is the contentless measuring stick of altitude, using the metaphor of inches. The difference is that inches are a "relative" convention constructed to provide useful grids to accomplish practical functions. But note that for Wilber CPS is not a convention, i.e., it is the absolute from which the relative depends. In itself CPS (yes, the thing in itself, the “given”) has no qualities, being formless and timeless. And this ultimate realm is directly contacted-experienced in nirvikalpa samadhi practice. So the problem is how to relate this metaphysically derived model of two realms from a "completely different order." Somehow (magically? but it seems such a skyhook is required) the unqualifiable becomes a qualified measuring stick. The formless, measureless consciousness experienced in nirvikalpa samadhi is the measure of the relative altitude in any kosmic address. And this is "post" metaphysical?
One might also consult with Heron's (2003/2005) similar concerns in “A tangle of lines and levels”:
“The independent spiritual line is primarily contemplative/ meditative.... [yet] it cannot be the business of just one of those independent lines to define in advance by what stages all the other lines will reach their top ends.... how can a contemplative line, which by definition is independent of the other lines, be a valid source for categories which prescribe the higher levels of these lines in which it has no competence?”
So let's see how Derrida might be different. “Let us then, like the fool...ask 'what' différance 'is,' in a nutshell....[it] doesn't 'mean' anything at all” (DIAN, 99). After that quote Caputo launches into a discussion of linguistics, about how any word can only be defined in context with other words, and how that definition will change depending on the context of different words around it. In that sense meaning is all within relative context, and yet that differential between meanings, that space or interval in which meaning takes place, is itself not part of the context or meaning. Thus there is not one essential meaning of any word because it is contextualized within this play of differences, the play itself being a groundless ground in which meaning takes place.
Compare Wilber with the following from DIAN:
“When we think of Plato we think of the two worlds or regions allegorized in the cave: the upper world of the intelligible paradigms, the sphere of invisible and unchanging being in the sun of the Good that shines over all, as opposed to the sensible likenesses of the forms in the changing, visible world of becoming.... When presented with a neat distinction or opposition of this sort—and this distinction inaugurates philosophy, carves out the very space of 'meta-physics'—Derrida will not, in the manner of Hegel, look for some uplifting, dialectical reconciliation of the two in a higher third thing, a concrete universal, which contains the 'truth' of the first two. Instead, he will look around—in the text itself—for some third thing that the distinction omits, some untruth, or barely remnant truth, which falls outside the famous distinction, which the truth of either separately or both together fails to capture, which is neither and both of the two.
This is drastically different than Wilber's metaphysical ground wherein all forms arise. The latter seems much more like Plato's archetypal realm of Ideal forms that step down into the sensible world and “in”form it. Granted Wilber doesn't see the Ideal as pre-formed but rather much more amorphous involutionary and morphogenetic potentials. Still, it seems this is part of the involutionary versus evolutionary dualistic scheme with one side being origin and absolute, with the other being result and relative. Derrida's differant khora is simultaneously both/and and neither/nor, not taking sides, as it were, but providing the stage upon which they play out their differences and similarities.
The distinction is further highlighted in John Caputo's (2009) interesting review of a book about a debate between Millbank and Zizek. Here is a relevant except:
"The core theoretical debate in this book goes back to Hegel, about which Milbank and Zizek share considerable agreement. For Hegel, the fundamental motor of time and becoming is dialectical reconciliation of the members of a binary oppositional pair in virtue of which each one tends to pass into the other on a higher level. But Zizek rejects Hegel's invocation of 'reconciliation' of opposites in a happier harmony. For Zizek the next step, the negation of the negation, does not mean a step up (aufheben) to a higher plane of unity but instead a more radically negative negation in which we are led to see that this mutual antagonism is all there is and that we are going to have to work through it. The unreconciled is real and the real is unreconciled. The only reconciliation is to reconcile ourselves to the irreconcilable, to admit that there is no reconciliation, and to come to grips with it. The negation of the negation leaves us with a deeper negation, not with an affirmation. It is not that the spirit is first whole, then wounded, then healed; rather such healing as is available to it comes by getting rid of the idea of being whole to begin with. The antithesis is already the synthesis.”
Hegel was of course an influence for Wilber, especially in the way described above, as we can see in his dualistic nondual resolution of absolute and relative. As Zizek and Caputo note though, the negation of the negation of khora is not that. Two negatives make a positive assertion in a roundabout way, but one that remains spectral, one that never quite comes into being or fades completely away into nonbeing. Desilet (2007) makes similar points in “Misunderstanding Derrida and Postmodernism”:
"But by embracing any form of absolute transcendence in his philosophical outlook, Wilber necessarily retains traditional metaphysical distinctions between emptiness and form, the real and the manifest, and Being and time."
Desilet gives Wilber credit for his exposition in Integral Spirituality (Appendix II) on the relative side of the coin and agrees with much of it. But Wilber still maintains an absolute in clear distinction with the relative and his nonduality is a higher synthesis and reconciliation between the two. Whereas for Desilet (and Derrida):
"Time (as difference or change) and Being (as sameness or permanence) interpenetrate each other all the way through and at every point....At certain places in his discussion Wilber seems to grasp the postmodern approach to oppositional tensions as interpenetrations simultaneously essentially different and essentially related."
And in other places Wilber maintains the divide with his absolute Spirit apprehended via nirodha meditation as the other side of the equation. Wilber's version of the myth of the given only applies to the relative side. Desilet foregrounds this in discussing “witness consciousness” (aka CPS). It is distinguished from the ego in that the latter is again only relative whereas the witness is pure, absolute consciousness. Particularly relevant to this discussion is that Derrida's "undeconstructable" (like khora) should not be confused with the likes of this transcendental absolute:
"Every instance of consciousness...is necessarily already divided. Consciousness and Being are split by difference all the way to the core.... The 'other' functions as an 'absolute' for Derrida only in the sense of presenting an absolute 'opening' as the 'yet to come' (what Wilber might regard as the 'unmanifest'). The 'yet to come,' as that which can potentially come into awareness and experience, cannot be absolutely alien to the self yet neither can it be absolutely known or comprehended at any moment in time. As such, the 'yet to come' retains a quality of essential difference from and essential relation to 'what is.'”
Granted Wilber does in some ways move away from traditional metaphysics, at least on the relative side of the street. But he still retains it for the absolute, which is dualistically juxtaposed and integrated with the relative. Whereas with Derrida these oppositions are nondually held in constant and unresolved tension, and given that relation take on different, postmetaphysical meanings. Surely this is a difference that makes a world of différance?
 For a detailed analysis of formal and postformal operations relating to meta- and postmetaphysics see the Integral Postmetaphysical Spirituality thread “Real and false reason.” I may follow up with an essay on this from the thread.
Caputo, J. (2009). Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, review of The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? Accessed 3/28/12 from http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/24179/?id=17605
Derrida, J. and Caputo, J. (1997). Deconstruction in a Nutshell (Fordham University Press)
Desilet, G. (2007). “Misunderstanding Derrida and postmodernism.” Accessed 3/28/12 from http://www.gregorydesilet.com/code/Derrida_Ken_Wilber_and_Postmodernism.html
Heron, J. (2003/2005). “A tangle of lines and levels.” Accessed 3/28/12 from http://www.kheper.net/topics/Wilber/tangle.html
Wilber, K. (no date). “Excerpt G: Toward a comprehensive theory of subtle energies.” Accessed 3/28/12 from http://wilber.shambhala.com/html/books/kosmos/excerptG/part1.cfm/
Wilber, K. (2007). Integral Spirituality (Shambhala).