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

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Zoltan BrysThe following article is based on of the reflections which Zoltan Brys and Petra Bokor received on their critical essay addressing Ken Wilber's Integral Psychology. Submitted by Zoltan Brys. (The original critical essay: Z Brys P Bokor (2013): Evaluation of Ken Wilber's Integral Psychology From a Scientific Perspective, Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, 15:1, 19-33.)

Social Scientists
on Ken Wilber's
Integral Psychology

Zoltan Brys (Ed.)

A critical essay on Ken Wilber's book titled Integral psychology: Consciousness, spirit, psychology, therapy (2000) had been published early 2013 in the Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health. Though it is somewhat unusual to criticize a book more than ten years old, the authors believe that the recent psychotherapeutic interpretations (Ingersoll & Zeitler, Forman, Marquis) makes their critical paper relevant. It also might be questionable if based on only one book, Wilber's contribution to spiritual psychology can be evaluated (e.g. Wilber recently just wrote about semiotics, which in many way interconnects with psychology via psycholingusitics.) Yet as the critical essay addresses many fundamental elements of Wilber's ideology, it might be worth to share its basics thoughts along with the criticism the critical article received so far.

The article gets off the ground summarizing the traditional critics following the footsteps of Bartha (2009):

[C]ritiques of WIP [Ken Wilber's Integral Psychology based on his book published in 2000] center around five main points:
  • (a) Westernization (“McDonaldization”) of spiritual models;
  • (b) methodological concerns, mainly the unpublished integration/comparison methods;
  • (c) pathologically interpreted regression;
  • (d) rationality of the model (neglecting postmodernism); and
  • (e) creating a spiritual hierarchy” (citation from the original article)

The paper explicitly aims to add new “scientific/experimentalist” critical considerations from a somewhat mixed viewpoint of hard science and social constructivism, but it is mainly trying to evaluate the usefulness of Wilberian thoughts for Cartesian scientific research. Again it is important to note that the paper only focus on Wilber's book Integral psychology.

The article states that Wilber's work has a philosopichal/metatheoretical nature (unfortunately they mix these two connected, yet distinctable notions, while Mark Edwards clearly defined that Wilber is a metatheorist). Brys and Bokor emphasize that Wilber's work is way too abstract to be validated scientifically. Also, they highlight that Wilber sees development as a key element in his spiritual psychology. As researchers they strongly agree with Stanislav Grof, emphasizing the crucial relevance of testing Wilber's speculation against clinical data (Grof, 1996). (Both of the authors are researchers: Brys is in the field of applied social network research, Bokor is a transpersonal psychologist researching Ayahuascha.)

A long section criticizes the missing “operative integration” of social psychology from the book. In recent years cognitive studies seem to support and prove the explanatory and predictive power relying in the cited social cognitive theory (Bandura), in social learning theory (Miller, Dollard, Bandura) and in natural pedagogy theory (Csibra and Gergely). Studies in communication (e.g. James, Herman, Buda, Durham, etc.) probably also should have been added to this section. Yet when Wilber wrote the book, less evidence supported these social theories, and cognitive social science was not a dominant trend in science.

The authors refer to George L. Engel's (1977) bio-psycho-social medical model, which later was extended with the spiritual dimension. Their paper cites it as a concrete and established concept and blame Wilber for missing to address/integrate it, yet it is important to keep in mind the incredible hiatus between rhetoric and practice. Especially in the spiritual dimension. The book titled Oxford Textbook of Spirituality in Healthcare (2012) is a exhaustive book on these topics, but still admits that we are in the phase of vibrant discussion and debate here.

Probably the most valuable part of the critical essay is its last part, where fundamental concepts of Wilber are being addressed. So far mostly transpersonal psychologists and other spiritual philosophers addressed Wilber (Grof, Rothberg, Goddard, Ferrer, Walach, etc.) and these young researchers bring a new perspective to the table.

In relation to the concept of holons, bringing a biochemical example (Ganti's chemoton theory), the authors illustrate the perilous nature of any “holonic”-categorization. the paper considers quadrants as a legitimate and provocative categorization, but only in the field of the sociology of science, with a noted potential epistemological value. However it is questionable that Ernest Sosa or even the Navya-Nyâya school epistemologist would either agree or disagree with Brys and Bokor on this matter.

The article further notes with high regards Wilber's suggestion of the independent development streams of the self, yet they harshly criticize the uncritical integration of Spiral Dynamics. The authors are claiming that Spiral Dynamics is rather a dogma involving strong indoctrination, than an ethical, and open science. In this part it is hard to contradict them, yet they probably should have written more on Big Five personality traits and the ongoing debate around it. (E.g. industrialization has fundamentally changed attitudes, behaviour, and the complicated self-system). The paper criticizes in a subtle, but strong way the word usage of “power” in Spiral Dynamics. Here a more detailed elaboration on the power concept of Spinoza, Weber, Lukes, Foucault, Mann might had been useful.

The essay points out that in Wilber the integrated cognitive models keep developing via realizing and overcoming their mistakes. Wilber's “final” integration can barely cope with this development. The article cites the amazing findings that 7 months old infants do have representational capacities (MA Kovacs et al.), which fundamentally challenged Piaget's model. If we “hyperbole” this “developmental” argument, than Wilber's integration of cognitive development models is not more than a dogmatization of universal errors. Yet even then it holds value, just in the opposite way it was proposed: pointing to the universally wrong doctrines. We obviously cannot state that Wilber's model is wrong in all matters, but we cannot state that it is right in all matters either. The major problem – as also Brys & Bokor and others pointed out – is relying in the missing way for the external validation of Wilber, which makes further development impossible, and incarcerates it to be an explicit ideology. Yet ideologies can hold value, but not in a scientific/philosophical context.

A long section analyzes Wilber's views on psychotherapy, yet again the authors miss the fact that in 2000, many of the referred studies and books were not written, and so Wilber had no chance to study them. (e.g. common factors of psychotherapy, placebo/nocebo-research, modern social influence theories, spectrum approach of mental diseases, mentalization, attachment theory, internal representations, etc.) Brys and Bokor highlight that the theoretical bases are way less important in the positive effect of psychotherapy, than it was believed 20 years ago. Following Buda's work, the article argues that the human personality and psyche is just unmodellable, and probably will remain unmodellabe for more decade due to methodological issues.

After a section on network research and a short one on the current usage of Wilber's ideas in psychology the conclusion of the critical essay goes as follows:

WIP [Wilber's Integral Psychology] is not a scientific endeavor. WIP coherently integrates the underlying philosophies of various psychological and spiritual traditions and theories into a modern perennial framework in which development is a key element. However, WIP also integrates the errors and mistakes of these theories. One of its key elements (Spiral Dynamics) imposes a strong limit on the usefulness of WIP...” (citation from the original article)

The article is a well-cited, probably there is only one academic paper on Wilber, which the authors missed to cite: (1) Saiter, S. M (2009) Universal Integralism: Ken Wilber's Integral Method in Context published in The Humanistic Psychologist (Vol. 37, No. 4, 307-325). However, ideas from the Andresen and Forman book (Cognitive Models and Spiritual Maps) and from Zygmunt Bauman book (Culture in a Liquid Modern World) could have also extended the scope of the critical essay.

Though in some places the essay is not fully and easily comprehensible and not perfectly argued, all together the critical essay might help to untangle Wilber's excessive, probably impossible, but certainly brave attempt to „catch God's fingerprint”.


Saiter, S. M. (2009). Universal Integralism: Ken Wilber's Integral Method in Context, The Humanistic Psychologist, Vol. 37, No. 4, 307-325.

George, A (2002). A Theistic Perspective on Ken Wilber's Transpersonal Psychology. Journal of Contemporary Religion Volume 17, Issue 2, pages 165-179

Jennifer M. Gidley (2007) Educational imperatives of the evolution of consciousness: the integral visions of Rudolf Steiner and Ken Wilber, International Journal of Children's Spirituality Volume 12, Issue 2, 2007 pages 117-135

JH Buchanan: Whitehead and Wilber: Contrasts in theory (The Humanistic Psychologist Volume 24, Issue 2, 1996) Notable books related to the critics:

Bartha, P. D. (2009). The most influential approaches in the present development of transpersonal psychology. Pszichoterapia, 18, 251–260.

Cobb, Puchalski, Rumbold (Eds, 2012): Oxford Textbook of Spirituality in Healthcare, Oxford Textbooks In Public Health

Michael Mann (1986, 1993, 2013): The Sources of Social Power: Volume 1,2,3

Ernest Sosa (2011) :Knowing Full Well, Princeton Univ Press

J Andresen & RKC Forman (Eds, 2000) Cognitive Models and Spiritual Maps : Interdisciplinary Explorations of Religious Experience, Journal of Consciousness Studies, (Book 7), Imprint Academic

Zygmunt Bauman (2013): Culture in a Liquid Modern World, John Wiley & Sons

Edwards, M. (2008). Evaluating integral metatheory: An exemplar case and a defense of Wilber’s social quadrant. Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, 3(4), 61–83.

Engel, G. L. (1977). The need for a new medical model: A challenge for biomedicine. Science, 196(4286), 129–136.

Fonagy, P., Gergely, G., Jurist, E., & Target, M. (2002). Affect regulation, mentalization, and the development of the self . New York, NY: Other Press.

Kovacs, A. M. (2010). The social sense: Susceptibility to others’ beliefs in human infants and adults. Science, 330(6012), 1830–1834.

Buda, B. (2004). Psychotherapy, Akademia.

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