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INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
Reposted from www.matthewdalman.com (2006) with permission of the author.
Matthew Dallman is married and the father of four girls. He is the Executive Director of Akenside Press. His first book is The Benedictine Parish: A Model to Thrive in a Secular Era
. He has written for The Living Church
magazine. He is a trained musician who has composed for films and wedding ceremonies. He has studied poetry with Yusef Komunyakaa and Carter Revard, integral theory with Ken Wilber, music with W.A. Mathieu, philosophy with Dr Herman Stark, and theology with Fr Thomas Fraser.
ON KEN WILBER
Hopelessly New Age,
Hopeless for the Humanities
"We have so replaced [high] culture with psychology, psychotherapy, and simplistic workshops on how to fix the depressive flats of our lives that we prefer the compulsive mappings and textbook categorizations of a Ken Wilber to the poetic insights of a Jean Gebser. Wilber seeks to control the universe through mapping, and the dominant masculinist purpose of his abstract system is to shift power from the described to the describer. As an autodidact from the Midwest, Wilber wants to promote himself as "the Einstein of the consciousness movement"... This mode of scholarship is really a mode of psychic inflation and self-magnification; it is a grand pyramid of systems of abstract thought, with Wilber's kept on top. Never does one come upon a feeling for the concrete: a new look at an individual poem, a painting, or a work of architecture."
philosopher William Irwin Thompson, from Coming Into Being
"Anger has nothing on which to stand; it springs from nothing that is stable and lasting, but is a puffed-up, empty thing, as far removed from greatness of soul as foolhardiness is from bravery, arrogance from confidence, sullenness from austerity, or cruelness from sternness. The difference between a lofty and a haughty soul, I say, is great. Anger aims at nothing splendid or beautiful."
Seneca, from On Anger, book I
The Humanities are our treasure-trove of entertainment, education, and enlightenment. The works of fine art that comprise the canon have been "integral" since the beginning.
When I left Integral Institute, there was a real lack of any kind of public critical examination, professional and personal, about Ken Wilber by people who had been in his so-called inner ring. This fact has grown into the reason for this essay, so allow me to sketch relevant background. As many know, for 16 months I was associated with a startup company founded by Ken Wilber, called Integral Institute. I was asked, directly by Wilber during one of my visits to Boulder in the summer of 2003 (as part of the artist collective the "IS of Art"), and after I had submitted an essay to him for consideration, to be in charge of what he was calling the "art domain" of this university he wanted to start, called Integral University. I was honored and accepted; I was also surprised, because it all happened out of the blue and I didn't think Wilber was all the familiar with my work. It turns out (it was revealed to me later) that in fact he was familiar with it, beyond that one paper. It also turned out that what I thought was a think-tank was, in reality, a company, which went on to produce products for the marketplace like any company would. Those products include self-help DVDs, for-pay websites promising exclusive access to him, as well as expensive seminars and experiential workshops. Essentially, the whole thing is to sell Wilber as well as his model, even if advertised otherwise.
My association was largely before those products were released to the market (save for the integralnaked.org website and a couple of early seminars), and those many months were spent writing philosophy, as well as researching in order to write. It was my impression that the fundamental purpose of I-I was as a think-tank (like such think-tanks as the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, etc.) and this excited me so I gave it my full attention and effort. Hannah, my wife, can attest to my ridiculously long hours spent. This period was definitely the most-focused writing period of my life. I treated my association with I-I it as my own self-directed PhD program, in art philosophy/aesthetics particularly, and broadly, in the Humanities. Given the environment of others involved with Wilber's university project (many good souls), I rather enjoyed things, at least for a while. I had a good time of it in discussion with many people, not the least of which was Matt Rentschler, a very good soul, and also asked by Ken to be heavily involved with the art domain. Rentschler, 19 years old at the time, was fluent in all of Wilber's then-collected works. But in truth he was even less qualified to be in a position of authority on aesthetic philosophy than I was (I did posses a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing, as well as experience as a composer-in-training). Sadly, this created friction over time; from the beginning, I realized my own inexperience in the field, which in part accounted for all my hours of research and writing, to actually earn my position and earn the right to be part of a think-tank; the frustration was that I was alone in this, when it came to art.
It was my understanding, though this was never once clarifed, that "art domain" was equivalent to "art college". Thus my position was something akin to, at minimum, lead scholar, and more likely, something like a dean of a college, if you extend 'domain' to mean 'college' (which to me seemed at least a workable way of looking at things). But, I can't stress enough, nothing was ever clarified, and if anything ever approached being clarified about what exactly we were doing, it quickly evaporated. It was rather a mess, and Wilber's neurotic (with regular fits of anger), often absent, leadership style was in my view largely to blame, as well as the entire quixotic affair. I've written about the mess before, and how in my estimation, the integral university project was infected severely with philosophical groupthink, due to undisputed reverence for Wilber, near universal agreement about the validity of his speculations, and little to no actual debate where disagreements on first principles were given fair scrutiny. But that is just my opinion, and that of course includes me to some extent.
Anyway, after 16 months, a couple hundred of hours of conference calls, hundreds of emails, a turbulent attempt to donate video footage to Wilber's integralnaked.org website (a donation that my wife and I eventually rescinded), and a whole lot of stuff that would bore the pants off of any decent person, I decided to resign. I left, and I took all my work with me. After rounds of angry insults from him directed at, first, myself and then my wife (I maintain I never once reciprocated in any way; I was always respectful to him, as is to be expected), Wilber laughably attempted to claim co-ownership of my papers, and thus meaning I would have to ask permission to use them. From him! I consulted with a lawyer, and that was settled quickly, via a strongly worded letter from my lawyer detailing the basics of applicable copyright law in this country. Perhaps the scholars still in Wilber's circle must sign contracts now, because of what transpired with me. I don't know. I do know that all was settled, completely in my favor. That it left a bad taste in my already-bad-tasting mouth is probably self-evident. It also further cemented by belief that Wilber is prone to the hyberbole that substitutes hubristic, rhetorical flourish for real knowledge, in this case, of common law. And if he is that ignorant about common law, all the while feigning knowledge of it, what else is he in practice ignorant of?
Looking back on it, the reason I got involved with his work, not to mention the "university" project, was my hope that it held a fresh take on the Humanities, beyond the inadequacies of the French school of deconstruction, and secondarily, the Frankfurt School of disembodied "critical theory", both of which have nearly destroyed the humanities education in America. The Humanities are our treasure-trove of entertainment, education, and enlightenment. The works of fine art that comprise the canon have been "integral" since the beginning, evoking a timeless spectrum of perception in all shades and gradations. The lack of proper training of, first, Humanities teachers, and, subsequently, Humanities students over the last 30 years is a crime that will take a generation to fix. We ought start now. Many have already started; I and others thought Wilber was one of those. I no longer think he is, or ever was.
Thus I resigned in part because the real effort of Wilber became clear. He wanted to be a trickster figure that messes with people's minds, to trick people to enlightenment. It is my suspicion (time will bear this out) that we can add a third school to the list above. The Wilber school. It is the school of hubris, of inflated emphasis on psychology as the alpha/omega, of occasional insight, of maddening long-windedness, of superficial scholarship, of the cult for the spiritually disillusioned creative class. Or, in a word, Wilber's spectacularly awful and useless book the Wilber school is the school of Boomeritis. I have said for sometime that Wilber, to put the absolute best spin on it, is no more than a psychological speculator, a writer on theoretical psychology. His recent work, both in print and on his blog, confirms he is not what I had hoped, a true warrior for the humanities. He advertises himself as one of "America's preeminent philosophers". That advertising is false.
Part II: Obstructing the Humanities
Real scholarship, the only kind that stands a chance of restoring the Humanities in popular imagination, is not done by forming a Hollywood cult.
To defend the value and restore the humanities to their richly deserved spot at the root (radically) of common imagination requires real interdisciplinary (or transdiscisplinary) work that, in the words of Paglia, is done "reading and writing at home or in the library", and then passionately teaching in a classroom or in public lectures. It is slow work; no real scholar writes quickly, it is as much soul work as anything; one must absorb, not skim over, the Humanities across the ages. Any real contribution is interdisciplinary. Compare Wilber's work to that of Paglia, Gebser, Brown, Freud, Jung, Fiedler, McLuhan, Pater, Harrison, Neumann, and so many more figures in the art/aesthetics realm of the Humanities thinkers who are versed in art, lyric poetry, drama, music, and more, and this learning comes out in their writing. There is a tradition one must learn through and through in order to say anything of value to the Humanities. I believe this tradition's newest name is "the integral tradition", but that is a temporary name, at best. Nonetheless, in this integral tradition of the Humanities, there is no progressivism or romanticism. Renewal is the operative dynamic. Real scholars write for the future, not the present. Real scholarship, the only kind that stands a chance of restoring the Humanities in popular imagination, is not done by forming a Hollywood cult, or pretending to rationalize disgusting and irrelevant behavior such as Wilber's. We cared about this because we tolerated the P.R., under the assumption more was under the surface. We knew now that what is under the surface turns out to have been laughably narcissistic and woefully empty.
To the extent we, in the post-Hollywood world (which from the moment of its inception in the American 1950s, leapt beyond the implications of European thought) need any kind of deconstruction, it is only of the psychedelic variety, not theoretical psychological as is Wilber's real daemon. We don't need "theory" of any kind unless the very strict conditions of mastery of the history of philosophy and aesthetics is first exhibited beyond doubt. He has not done so, thus we can rightly see his "theory" as generally useless wind (with occasional insight). Do the insights outweigh the wind? Not a chance. Quadrants, levels, lines, states, types squashed by the power of renewal in any full-fledged member of the Canon. Nothing of the French, Frankfurt, or Wilber schools can hold a candle to authentic works of art, nor the thinkers I've named. Nor, interestingly, have these schools demonstrated any feel for interpreting art. The French school disqualified itself with its silly "there are no facts", lack of understanding of nature, and demonstrable eros-killing; the Frankfurt school is lost in abstraction (cf. Danto); the Wilber school is nothing but needless "theory of criticism", divorced from the task at hand much like the Frankfurt school, with the bulk of its emphasis (described in this essay epigram) on the "describer" and not the "described", a fatal misplacement. All three feature game-playing wordplay by twits who mutilate language to laughably hair-splitting extremes. Wilber's so-called literary theory is specious. My god Paglia (in 1991!) already outlined everything needed for interpreting art through various perspectives: an updated and reabsorbed New Criticism (with its oft-maligned formalism) that included psychology, social history, popular response, and yes, some deconstruction, but used for a real purpose. And the ancient system of four-fold analysis (Literal, Tropological, Syntopical, Anagogical) is as useful as it ever was. Deconstruction, when it helps, has, at best, only limited value, and can be discarded after repeated exposure to the Canon. This limited value is to allow us to shed preconceptions and be able to suspend disbelief as we absorb aesthetic, philosophical, and everyday experience. Genuine artists makes things (namely, their art) which accomplishes this for us: we must work to open our perception, to clarity, to disbelief suspended. Deconstruction is always in service of illumination and illumination alone.
Dealing with your shadow, Wilber's favorite little game, has value, especially in a private, therapeutic environment (are you taking any clients, Mr Wilber?) and none in the public sphere. We need to passionately advocate from the tops and bottoms of mountains for people to dig into the primary sources of the world's art, philosophy, religions, and literature. We need no such "theory" of these artifacts; we need to invite people to them. These contain all necessary sexual, psychological, and spiritual insights, or their seeds, that we need. The rest is fulfilled by extended families and simply adapting and reacting strongly to everyday life. Don't buy any pre-fab, readymade, non-thinking conclusions about anything in the Humanities unless you have checked it our first for yourself. Me and many others have waited for Wilber to get his act together, to use his position to work in this direction. Our waiting is done. He was supposedly erudite. I've actually slept in his library at his old mountain house. But he skims, which is not the recipe for learning (more on that later). He obviously never intended, or saw the value, of being a warrior for the Humanities, in the first place; he will always be in the "transpersonal" field. Real work is human to human. His is but lip service to the "good, the true, the beautiful", serving but his model, his theory, those in his audience who think superficially, and his scholarly presumptions (more on that below) and no more. Unless one desires a new kind of American guru (all the benefits, none of the responsibility), Wilber can basically be ignored in the pursuit to restore the Humanities to its rightful level of respect, central to common imagination without the thick filters of Wilber, Frankfurt, or French theory (or "WFF" What Fucking For? theory).
I parted ways completely with I-I, its cyber-netic mess of mid-career scholars and newbies alike, and did so as the lead scholar of integral art, at least as those involved with I-I were concerned. Regardless of what the titles given me actually meant, I was in fact the lead scholar of art/aesthetics, given the sheer amount of scholarly pages generated, graciously acknowledged by everyone involved to be of overall high quality. Sean Esbjorn-Hargens, an associate of Wilber, called my work "deeply integral" and I very much appreciated that. I always thought that integral theory was basically a superficial lens by which to attain access to depth of perception to, in my case, art and aesthetics. I took "deeply integral" to mean that I had, in whatever small way, penetrated the superfice of mere "theory" towards a place whereby insights left to us by the Humanities are given timeless, sustainable platform for continued learning and absorption.
Be that as it may, now on my own, I continued all of my work in art/aesthetic philosophy. In fact, my sheer output doubled, because I felt far freer to experiment without "wondering what Wilber would think", whether my work was conforming to what some within I-I were calling "the literature", as a lame inflation of Wilber's collected works, or any kind of company line about art/aesthetics. All of what I developed before and during my time in Wilber's circle was amplified and given hearing through my website. This continues to this day, and for the foreseeable future as far as I can tell. (Maybe after 7 years I'll hang up my philosopher hat in favor of full-time composer, since music is a better, more unconscious, and less-offensive form of philosophy, anyway.)
Part III: Absurdities & Superficialities
In Wilber, I have never met a more brilliant-sounding person. I have also never met a more self-absorbed person. Perhaps the two go hand in hand...
So that takes me to now, and the particular things I want to say about Wilber, as far as my feelings towards him and his work go. I get a fair amount of flack about my handling of his work, and even my handling of him, the person, as far as I know him. So I'm going to try to express where I'm at.
So let me start this way. I have met brilliant people. In Wilber, I have never met a more brilliant-sounding person. I have also never met a more self-absorbed person. Perhaps the two go hand in hand, and I'm open to the possibility of that necessity. He did, after all, write the book on "boomeritis" as well as the book on "integral psychology", which is clearly speculative-based but in likelihood will be influential in some manner, at least as a conversation-starter (like beer with guacamole). I am also quite sympathetic to the defenses a person has to install in order to enact any kind of change in the world, as quixotic as those may be, even those defenses that, to some, seem extraordinarily off-putting and mean. And I'm quite sympathetic to frustrations of dealing with New Age thinkers, which Wilber has done for quite some time, because it is at worst infuriating, and at best, infuriating. I'm actually sympathetic to quite a bit about Wilber, including the need to be inflammatory once in a while in order to stir things up from natural inertia. I'm not alone in sharing that sympathy; near everyone I conversed with in his circle held it to some degree or another. All apologized in varying degrees for his oft-obnoxiousness, given what they held as its counterpart, namely his so-called philosophical brilliance.
I do think his work, in parts, can be put to use. His early work No Boundary is well-esteemed, and for good reason. The hyperbole is kept to a minimum. But the usefulness of his work has diminished since The Eye of Spirit. Since then, he has espoused (sometimes subtly, sometimes not) a hero journey of sorts, in a journey of his own making. He is the hero, out to save us from fragmentation, fundamentalism, or whatever. His book Marriage of Sense and Soul is perhaps the most blatant, but it is also in all over Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality. To the extent there is propaganda in his recent work, it has to do with this hero journey against convenient enemies where he hasn't demonstrated clearly that there is one that isn't already been dealt with in any and all of the human disciplines that he attempts to thread together. That, and you know, the messiah of integral consciousness is coming (and is bald, even naked) the not-so-subtle implication of all of his marketeering.
That said (there is more to say, but that is the overall cut of it), all of his books contain ideas, sound bytes, and commentary on certain matters that are inspired and insightful. An arcane but useful example is the essay from Collected Works IV about an integration of transactional analysis and gestalt therapy. It was a radical yet common sense approach, at least to my untrained estimation. Again, it is an early work of his. Some of his descriptions of basic meditation practice helped support my own (as well as many others'), and his capacity to spot nihilism within certain strains of culture are, though not at all original to him, forcefully re-framed by him. The five elements of his recent model/system "AQAL" form a useful outline for points to touch when dealing with psychology and psychological aspects of other fields. And he brings a certain moxie to discussions of current events that have a lot of charisma about them, and thus inspire to a certain extent due not to the content of what he says, but rather that moxie.
The errors of Wilber that trouble me most are three-fold, with a fourth having to do with his disgraceful public behavior towards those critical of his work, and a fifth having to do with his entire attitude towards art (which I will elaborate upon in a subsequent draft of this essay). These lead to other errors or misguided analysis that requires something of a book to demonstrate. I hope that book is written (attempts towards it are already unfolding, by others). My hope is that the causality of these errors (i.e., what they lead to if logically followed) cited here can be seen, at least through consideration of them over time. While these may appear itemized, in truth each are related.
One is that, for practical purposes, it is quite clear that, contrary to his supposed premise, everyone is not right. He has said, "I have one major rule: everybody is right. More specifically, everybody including me has some important pieces of the truth, and all of those pieces need to be honored, cherished, and included in a more gracious, spacious, and compassionate embrace." This is pure Romantic sophistry. Wilber's is a political statement, not one based in the search for truth through real discourse and real distinctions. This "rule" is simplistic thinking, and doesn't hold up even within his own work. He essentially grants truth, a priori rather than arriving at truths through slow, soul-work practice of reasoning. There is no demonstration of how this "rule" is actually helpful to distinctions we must make in order to better understand the world and ourselves. How does it function better than traditional, informed, dignified debate and investigation through reasoning in successive articles, papers, and books, where arguments are presented (arguments based upon knowledge and research) and the results of the exchange considered by all present to hear it? That there are shades of grey in our understanding of truth was settled in antiquity. If he is making a back-handed claim that truth can come from anywhere, in principle, that is something I might accept, depending upon the argument.
That is the difference between deducing truth, and merely presupposing truth. Wilber is guilty of the latter; whereas we must strive for the former. His "rule" further confuses a potentiality with useful pragmatics. Truth could come from everywhere and everyone, which is why an open-mind is always important. But that is a far cry from assuming beforehand that it does; that is rather a flimsy mind. Wilber's rule sounds nice, and it doesn't offend, empowers those who feel ignored, but it also clouds useful debate. It is gooey with "let's all feel good" New Age residue. To say that everyone is right brings fog when it is clarity of distinction that we need, which includes, even in simple terms, right and wrong. Truths are always provisional. We arrive at them knowing ambiguity is a permanent condition of truth to some extent. Truths are a work in progress in whatever field, beit the Humanities, the Sciences, Politics, or whatever. Everyone is not right. Some people are quite wrong sometimes, or follow misguided thought processes. Some people carry deluded falsehoods with them through their lives. And that goes for everyone, myself and Wilber included. It is called being human. Pluralism (the result of global media-based intimacy with cultures that used to be far away) means we are open to truths from new sources, outside of our strict cultural traditions; it doesn't mean we simply grant others as having a claim to truth without debate and dignified back and forth. Truths requires common playing fields, common premises, common contexts. And as that ground is agreed upon, it is quite proper to (compassionately, but directly) show and tell someone that they are wrong on whatever we are talking about, if they indeed are wrong. This also saves from needless hair-splitting. Wilber says this is his "one major rule". It is useless in practice. What is his work without it, I ask.
An Integral Theory of Consciousness
Two is that too often it is not clear from what context, or grounding in reality, Wilber speaks. Context is required to tether our statements and keep them from becoming so much as guesswork, or hot air. Even Wilber says that truth is context-bound, always and every time, and by that logic important concepts of his start to ring false. For example, what is the context of his famous four quadrants diagram, the one present in all work since Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality? What is the single occasion that these four perspectives illuminate? What stance does one assume to perceive, by turns, the four spectrums installed in this famous diagram? Or simply, what are these four aspects of? I ask because Wilber has demonstrated, through a persuasive argument, no such thing. The only possibility he offers (from his paper, "An Integral Theory of Consciousness") is that the occasion is "existence". He likes to say how he arrived at the four quadrants (by filling notebooks with various hierarchies) but that is not making a fallible case, through arguments, reasoning, and an arrived-at conclusion. He claims he demonstrated a "data search", to which I reply, where? He claims the four quadrants represent "an a posteriori conclusion, not a priori assumption." I say, based upon what actual, quadrants-related support? What papers? Furthermore, when one considers the Koestler term "holons" with regard to Wilber's four quadrants diagram, one asks, if this is a diagram of a holon, does that mean "existence" is a holon? And, then, is "existence" likewise a "whole" and a "part"? If so, then in what possible way could existence be a part of some larger whole? That is absurd on its face. Natural existence, or reality, defies Wilber's version of it.
The “quadrivium” of arithmetic,
music, geometry, and astronomy
Thus, Wilber's famous four quadrants diagram is a philosophical falsity. This is no small criticism. His famous quadrants diagram, and the thinking that went into its creation, is the cornerstone of his work. (I note that in my own work, I use the quadrants not in Wilber's famous version, but rather as a general "concept" to illuminate various aspects of reality in the art world, from artists to art objects to art institutions to art interpretation (see "Art in Broadband"). This concept is a lens, and a lens only. Such a usage had been generally missed by Wilber. He has recently added the term "quadrivium" as an after-the-fact band-aid to part of the problem I've cited; but "quadrant" and "quadrivium" is a distinction without meaningful difference, and its very existence highlights one of Wilber's problems sloppiness. He introduces something that confuses more than edifies. You can take the same quadrant lens to a person, place, or thing. No hair-splitting necessary. And besides, let "quadrivium" mean what it was intended to mean: the Medieval educational approach that focused on arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. No thievery with the Humanities, please.)
Another example is his acceptance of what the Buddhist "Two Truths Doctrine"; that there is both absolute truth as well as relative truth. There is truth about form and formal awareness (this is relative) and there is truth about formlessness and emptiness (this is absolute truth). Again, what is the context or stance one adopts in order to make this claim? There isn't one. Such a claim defies any grounding whatsoever. It is context-free, the red flag of spuriousness. As a long-time meditator, I am quite sympathetic to discussions, taken lightly, about meditative awareness. But I stress, discussions and taken lightly. Assertions absolute truth of any scale beyond the intuitive or fundamentally provisional is far more than a slippery slope to meaninglessnessit is straight down. There is awareness beyond language, but asserting "absolute" truth about that awareness blows it far out of proportion. People can usefully talk about meditative/contemplative awareness and get something out of the discussion, but to assert a "Two Truths Doctrine" lacks necessary grounding in real context, context required to anchor any truth, no matter the kind. This is not to dismiss the practice meditation, and what it offers, but it is argue against the inflation of its perceptive space into something beyond its own britches. This renders much of Wilber's endless Romanticism of spirituality to be speculative, at best. Why read his "Simple Feeling of Being" stuff when time-tested religious texts from around the world can be studied as part of a rigorous, thorough curriculum, even self-directed?
Three is complicated. It starts with the accepted truth that Wilber is notoriously superficial about various fields of thought, and notoriously prone to collapse of various fields into some "meta stance" that is, in practice, an escape hatch from actually dealing with the thorny issues of a particular field. The devil is always in the thorns! This is a long-held criticism by many, so I encourage others to explore these criticisms. You might start with the excellent and researched essays/book chapters by Geoffrey Falk. There are other critics, of course, that are not hard to find. For my part, it is simple to demonstrate that even though Wilber has several essays involved with his version of "integral art", the fact that his so-called "inclusive" theory of art neglects any substantial discussion about John Dewey, Marshall McLuhan, Camille Paglia, Norman O Brown (all heavyweights on contemporary art philosophy), or, frankly, most every major thinker and issue in aesthetics found in common surveys of the field. He cites Freud's analysis of da Vinci apparently without realization that it has been thoroughly discredited by Meyer Shapiro (in the very book Wilber purports to love). Wilber borrowed insights from Terry Eagleton (the proliferation of schools of interpretation) and Shapiro (critiquing Heidegger's famously strange analysis of a Van Gogh painting) without real credit to the extent of the borrowin; better to just read Eagleton and Shapiro. He presented Gebser's notion of consciousness structures through epochs to the world of art so sloppily so as to have no demonstrable, practical, or poetic import for working artists. By his own acknowledgment, he has written very little about art, at all. What he has focuses on the psychology of the artist, which is to be expected from a speculator in theoretical psychology, which Wilber is, but how is this actually in touch with the realities of the artist? Where or where is any emphasis on the fundamental requirement for the artist to be commited to discipline and learning, day in and day out? So much for Wilber being even marginally inclusive with the field of art. And he is obligated to be, for the simple reason that his websites advertise "integral art" in several places, and in no uncertain terms imply, perhaps with plausible deniability, he is responsibile for the thought behind it.
My problem here is that, as I have witnessed in the integral blogosphere and other place, is the growth of superficial thinking about matters of the world. Contexts are smashed together and collapsed. Entire fields of thought are skimmed over. As an example, "worldview philosophy" is treated like a set of labels, whereas it is actually a far deeper and nuanced field of thought, and far more controversial than Wilber fans generally think. In Gebser, worldviews are poetic, not scientific. In Foucault, worldviews ("epistemes") are rendered utterly simplistic and non-nuanced. It is the height of absurdity to claim, as Wilber does, that "Never has the social construction of reality found a more persuasive advocate than Foucault". What? Never mind that this assertion is never demonstrated in any way, shape, or form by Wilber. Foucault is "unrelenting and meticulous". What is Wilber smoking? His love of Foucault blinds him to the fact that Foucault, as Paglia demonstrated irrevocably, is applicable only in the context of French language and its inherent restrictions (which need "deconstruction" as it were) and no where else. Again, Wilber operates context-free.
Further, with Wilber, there is the quick answer to everything. "It's worldviews! It's levels! It's lines! It's states! It's shadows! It is IAMness!" He dismisses critics not through arguments, but because he thinks they do not have enough cognitive "altitude". Part of that is simply being in an intellectual field, and thus by nature being prone to rationalizing and over-rationalizing. The intellectual can talk himself or herself into or out of anything. He is excellent at fancy dancing, of making things up as he goes. Skimming is the order of the day with Wilber's layfolk fans. Skimming articles, criticisms, and even his work, offering the now cliche "at first glance" introduction to their responses. Since Wilber avowedly skims, that makes a kind of sense, though I think people ought be able to say to themselves, "am I really retaining what I just skimmed?" and "am I really qualified to offer judgment based on a mere first glance of the material?" Skimming is not a humble act; it is rather an act of ego. It says "I will not surrender to your ideas, slow down or suspend disbelief." It is impossible, by nature, to learn anything from skimming. Instead, it reinforces preconceptions.
But part of it, the bigger part, is that, given what I believe is a choice on the part of Wilber to create a language around his work (as well as a community, network of websites, a pseudo think tank, university, and Hollywood buzz, and perhaps even a new religion with its own mortar church), a person can easily just substitute in stock ideas of Wilberian philosophy to almost any situation. They "ditto" Wilber. It becomes an "in-town, in-crowd" jargon of the knowing, much like a gang, fraternity, or even a cult. Got a problem? Meditate. Feel stuck? Start an integral life practice via his integral operating system. Angered with things in culture? Blame the vMeme involved. Wondering about an application of integral? Just ask "What would an integral __________ look like?" (Can't tell you how many times I've read a version of that question). His fans repeat Wilber's words all the time on blogs and online forums, shallowed whole, without any questioning of the assumptions that his views are in fact correct or accurate. Wilber acts as if he is right, does so with his version of "passion"; apparently that is enough for some; Wilber himself thinks truth is in fact passion, "shouted". He apparently disagrees with the import of the maxim to speak softly and carry a big stick.
Pop psychology is in full effect for fans of Wilber, and Wilber himself... People say "you are just projecting!" rather than make a coherent counter-argument.
Perhaps most deviously, there is the inclination, fully supported by Wilber's own public statements, that people, everyday people who read Wilber's work, are somehow now equipped with the tools of psychology and can assess the psychological constellation, or "psychograph", of people around them, or even people in far off lands, or in public office, or of entire organizations or cultures. Pop psychology is in full effect for fans of Wilber, and Wilber himself. It's "shadow" this, "underlying motive" that, "level of consciousness" him, "real, real level of consciousness" her. People say "you are just projecting!" rather than make a coherent counter-argument. It is lazy narcissism. Even Wilber, not trained in psychology (or anything relevant to what he writes about, much like Chomsky in this way), pronounces psychographs as easily as he pronounces, coughs, and speed-talks. He assesses people from a distance, even people who are dead.
All of which is to conclude that saying that everyone is right, operating context-free, and using superficial thinking based upon "passion" alone gets us no where. And that is precisely what the world does not need right now. The world needs humility, careful consideration, useful contemplation and action, and efficient innovation through involved research. And the world needs fresh ideas, aimed to help the world and not their creator's model. In Europe and America, and the rest of the world, we need a renewal of the impulse towards education based on primary sources, erudition, towards comparative world religions, a canon of the acknowledged art and literature that has inspired through the ages, a renewed curriculum in the history of ideas. The world needs a lot of things, but it certainly needs these things. I'm unconvinced it needs what Wilber is peddling. Wilber, himself, is everywhere in his books since Eye of Spirit. In works of authentic scholarship, the author rightly disappears. That never happens with Wilber anymore. The reader is constantly pounded on with "integral"-this and "AQAL"-that. Recently, he's advertised that he has analyzed the "psychographs" of the major terrorists of the last 50 years, and turned it into his "analysis" of terrorism. What impossible absurdity for a man who doesn't leave Denver much.
Part IV: Let Me Set the Record Straight
Integral is more than creating straw man political, academic, and cultural figures... It is more than creating self-serving institutions around speculative philosophy.
I think integral is more than Wilber thinks it is, and more than a basis for intellectual property so as to generate revenue streams. I think it is more than superficial renderings of fields and domains of thought that others devote their lives to studying. It is more than assessing the tone and shadows of others. It is more than creating straw man political, academic, and cultural figures. It is more than cozying up with Hollywood celebrities. It is more than agreeing with everyone. It is more than creating self-serving institutions around speculative philosophy. It is more than finding political reasons to showcase people on income-producing websites. It is more than using them for selfish gain in the name of revolution and once in a lifetime opportunity. It is more than marketeering for the self-help and actualization movement. It is more than leveraging the well-intentioned volunteer or low-compensated energy of his 20-something employees.
Integral is something I find useful for the task of artistry, but have been profoundly disappointed in its public (that is to say, online presentation) outside of the people I regularly link to on my blog, and a couple others here and there. In Wilber and the rest, integral (for them it is capital I Integral) sounds like a silly, self-involved game that certain people play. It sounds like a pseudo religion. It sounds like people full of themselves, proud of being able to say that you are projecting and I am projecting and (holy wow) that is so beneficial to the search for truth, isn't it? It sounds like people who just can't stop talking about themselves, and all their subpersonalities and subdramas in sub-pop. It sounds like people out of touch with both the real world and out of touch with regular, non-jargon modes of communication. It sounds like a self-singing choir for the few and the self-proclaimed elite. It sounds like people just repeating verbatim the pronouncements of its central author. It sounds like people who never question the assumptions and pronouncements in Wilber's work. It sounds like people not reading primary sources slowly, but rather thinking skin-deep, except when it comes to meditation, which is the solution to end all solutions. It sounds like people who believe that their contemplative practice allows them instant authority to speak on almost any issue or question. For those reasons, integral can sound a lot like a cult, in the negative sense of the term. Wilber and certain of his fans, taking after his cues from his books, sound like martyrs, "against the world" be it the world of "first tier thought", "postmodern academia", the various colored "vMemes" save their own, "boomeritis", "flatland", and other terms that, in fact, sound kinda creepily sci-fi. Integral, in the hands of the people responsible for most of its online presentation, has come to be hopelessly new age. Because Wilber either directly or indirectly orchestrates his online presentation, or is sympathetic for political purposes, my conclusion applies to him, as well Wilber, I'm sorry to say, is hopelessly new age.
Integral is more than that. Integral is an archetype, with semiotics that go far deeper than quadrants, levels, lines, states, or types. It is not born of a philosopher, just like pluralism didn't come from a philosopher, nor rationalism, mythicism, magicism, or survivalism. Integral is already out there in the world, and has been for decades. Anyone who thinks with more than one perspective, but doesn't get caught in analysis paralysis, is for all intents and purposes thinking and living integrally. Anyone who can learn from any source is learning integrally. Anyone who makes things that works on various planes of meaning and response is making things integrally. Anyone who perceives in the world several ways of looking at something is perceiving integrally. Anyone searching for fullness, something done since antiquity, is searching for something integral.
Integral is not a magic potion. It is not a spell we weave. It is not something, like rain in a drought, that we need to make dances for. It is not something any of us can control. The world requires that we look at it with many lenses, so we do. The less we talk about it and the more we simply do it without need for self-esteem-inducing flattery, the better. It is not rocket science to see that thinkers and philosophers have been using the term "integral" for over a hundred years, with the implied meaning used in ancient Greek thought, to describe the basic injunction towards simple, but comprehensive, whole living. Any archetype is something better considered, forgotten about, then considered again at a later date. And then repeated all again and again until there is no reason to read about integral when integral has penetrated your bones and guts. The point is to learn and burn. And then it is to jump on the back of intuition and let it guide you through whatever you are doing in your life, via inspiration and insight. Thinking and being inclusively becomes a habit.
I realize that I face no small sticky wicket in this critique. Wilber's writings as a spiritual theorist have garnered a rather large following. Included in that following are people of various degrees of seriousness, scholarly experience, exposure to philosophy, sober analytic skills. He draws from both New Age as well as academic crowds. He is smart enough to know the buttons that lure divergent demographics. He is excellent at taking full advantage of the plausible deniability built into every aspect of his work. I might be wrong, but to me he assumes that people won't read the various primary sources he uses to make his assertions. I believe his aims include being a special kind of contemporary guru: all the comforts, none of the responsibility. Many things over the years that he said he was NOT going to do he has done: from creating a Hegel-like system, to becoming a de facto guru, to coordinating an outfit equivalent to EST or Landmark Education Forum. I believe for his next trick, he will for all practical intents and purposes attempt to create a new religion.
I can't say enough that he offers plenty of insights through his consciously-redundant writings (I've read them all), and I believe he deeply wants to help the world. Being the epitome of a narcissistic Baby Boomer (we all know plenty of these), you feel sympathy mixed with revulsion, annoyance, and lots of head-shaking. He hyperbolizes, bends facts to fit his aims, and gets basic things dreadfully wrong (see G. Falk's work). Wilber is best taken in very small doses and extremely lightly. It is therefore ironic that both are entirely against the grain of his obsession for self-promotion (never to be underestimated), and his team of marketeers who push his stuff like crack for the disillusioned creative class. His "integralnaked" website was consciously marketed to early 20s men; it's early communications were soft porn. [Full disclosure: I was the first composer featured on that site, but any reference to me was removed after I resigned from IU.] You'd never guess that for most of his public life, he was along on a mountain, ordering lots of books, skimming them, and then writing books that were (I think) unable to be vetted or QC's by editors at his primary publisher, the heavily New Age Shambhala, due to the sheer enormity of his undertaking. Or maybe you would.
Wilber is New Age to the core, hopelessly so in my view. In other words, everything is tainted by its analytical failings. New Age is that unfortunate mix of romanticism (self-dissociation from the world by thinking you are a genius, misunderstood by everyone) with eclecticism (the impulse to reconcile surface features of the world's religious, faith, and scientific systems) and narcissism (the hubristic self-absorption that, ultimately, results from the bombardment of global media consciousness of the last 100 years). Online, he is a cartoon character. That doesn't mean you can't consider, absorb, or even apply certain of his insights. But it does mean that, on the whole, to take him seriously, as a serious thinker who doesn't simply aim for the esteem of public admiration, and to be thought of as the "guy with the answers", is folly. Any real teacher is someone abundant in their help; in my experience, and according to accounts of several long-time associates, Wilber helps no one unless it serves to help him and his reputation.
Part V: Suggestions for Renewal
'Integral' predates Wilber and has been abused by him in order to develop a brand appropriate to his market.
I want to rescue 'integral' from permanent association with him. I propose that his work no longer be called "integral theory", but rather "Wilberian philosophy". Let's also end the practice of capitalizing the word 'integral', unless it begins a sentence. Wilber's is one voice among many, and hardly the most enduring in my opinion compared to, say, the writings on art by John Dewey, as integral as anything ever written. 'Integral' predates Wilber and has been abused by him in order to develop a brand appropriate to his market. Furthermore, it never was supposed to mean what he has implied it must. The foundation of his theory is integral with the meaning of "inclusive of all known truths from all major fields" but he has demonstrably failed, and the entire aim frankly quixotic. We rightly cherish the pragmaticism of Peirce in allowing various fields of human thought and discipline to live and breath distinctly, and with conceptual assertions tethered to the conceivable bearings upon those fields and disciplines. The open secret about Wilber is that, contra the marketeering, he mainly operates in the realm of theoretical psychology, inclusive of religious practice. His move is to inflates psychology to be the alpha/omega of all (thus for Wilber, "ecology" becomes the psychology of ecology; medicine becomes the psychology of medicine, politics becomes the psychology of politics, and so on).
Let me propose the beginnings of a different approach, one that allows the insights of real psychology as necessary yet avoids the trappings of pop psychology. This approach is actually best framed by McLuhan:
The artist is the man in any field, scientific or humanistic, who grasps the implications of his actions and of new knowledge in his own times. He is the man of integral awareness.
How different from Wilber! And without the need for the capital I, not to mention confusing headache of some context-free map or content-free model of signifiers built upon plausible deniability and lowest-common-demoninator generalizations. This alternate approach allows a historical continuity across the ages of efforts to grasp implications and new knowledge in one's time, an ambition hardly confines to our times. Doing so, and understanding how to do so, presents certain problems to clarify and untangle there is still room, in other words, for philosophy and the proposals of theory. Yet, because pop psychology is seen as an impediment rather than some sort of aid, integral of this kind doesn't lead to the problems that Wilberian philosophy has, in practice, including what I've described in this essay.
So, I say use his work as a bibliography of primary sources. If anything, learn from his general method and not his conclusions. He is potentially open to truth from any source; he reads a lot; he prays/meditates; he is conversant in pop culture; he seeks continuity from ancient life to the present. All good things. Yet integral, in other words, is something that is far different than Ken Wilber's espousal of it. Don't stop with him, only start! Integral is not something you pay $3000 to be absorbed within when the meat of it lies everywhere, in places that don't require or even want a new language, jargon, or created code. And it is not something you create a university around, for the same reason that we did not create a university around pluralism, around rationalism, or any other worldview. We create universities for the purposes of in-depth debate and consideration. We don't create it to instill a philosopher's place in history, or as an echo chamber to attempt prove, prove, and reprove his model simply through repetition of a new jargon.
If it is not already clear, I used to respect him. I used respect his work. He wasn't one of my heroes (Camille Paglia and W.A. Mathieu suffice in that regard) but we was definitely someone I was awed by, and was very eager to meet and very grateful to have opportunity to talk one on one with. I used to tell all of my friends about him and his work. I told it with pride and too much excitement. But I no longer recommend Wilber to anyone. No "hey, check this crazy shit out", no "you gotta read this". And if you know me, I'm the sort of chap who loves to rave about things, especially what I'm reading.
Even though I was personally insulted/offended by Wilber, and even though I haven't recommended him to others in a long time, I still think that he has deep insight to offer, expressed in his books and through considered writing, not hyper-pumped out writing on the now-diagnosed schedule of the self-help industry, about every 18 months, else you risk losing the attention-deficient New Age readership. I think there is still, well, good in him. Take that for the obvious implication and reference.
Integral is fullness, based on known parameters of "what is full"; not a commodity, secret, cult, model, approach, theory, or object for self-gratification. Call it an idealistic archetype, if you like. In other words, it is the air we breathe when we engage the world on its own terms, with our senses open, our mind prone to truth from any source. Nothing more, nothing less. It is not a journey we need to join, an adventure we have to sign on for. We are already on it, and it is where we are going whether we like it or not. It is called "living fully in the world today". It requires nothing but a healthy amount of assumption questioning mixed with an understanding of the history of ideas.
So I can say that I am now done with this part of my history/relationship with Wilber. He will still come up in my writing of art philosophy, but it will primarily be in order to give context, example through negation, or alternative view. Consider this a formal declaration. I am officially interested in a "post-Wilber integral", or even a "non-Wilber integral"; or better, an art philosophy realigned to rake rightful lineage in the North American philosophical tradition (Emerson, Peirce, James, Dewey, McLuhan, Paglia, and more). And so shall it be. But I shant stop laughing at how absurd his entire online presentation is, and how false his scholarly bravado and moxie ring; because it is pretty funny if you ask me. It is best to laugh off unrepentant hubris rather than get angry or tense, right? That, and the best revenge is a good life, and so on and so forth.
Part VI: Epilogue
Let me put all this in another way. Here is a poem I wrote in mid-2005.
Allure of a shiny progenitor blurs play in common
If you job fully, meet ends with humble means, hold
a family house, touch unsurreal life, kneed classical, dig skindeep
magazines, kiss off pretense, breath a state of yo & vary the sundry
hip hap, you mist the authentic while his vapor bags ideate
fictions of human potential & damn folklore with
dams of salvation.
Integral is archetypal & not brand equity. What is theory
but a goose to sing? Mines of image re-tap your digits. Just-intoned
vocals meat a lattice within. Whereas dude's boxes beckon internal ? oiled
in ripped jeans, white-feathered boa, and samsara pecks. A mystery
& controversy swaddle its new age corpse. Rubber loves a
bumpy road & you burn the infernal score & must
let her rip the kosmos electric.
Perception tempers song: a frame of included worlds.
In canon: dude's is a camera with wicked zoom lens; dude's fuses
brand commodity; dude's steams moral absolution; dude's is shot-thru
scholar leit in rhythm of self ejaculation; dude's gives God head;
dude's trips overspirited material; dude graphs the wacked
psycho of its primal heart; dude is a lie.
Pluralistic in polysemy, a hooked edge of recognition:
Folks chant thank you sir may I have another. Folks run knotted walks
swayed in any dimension available. Folks void in surmounted
preclusion. Folks sweat the lingo.
Integral noodles a worldview. Done & done. Il conto, per favore?
Each riff lasts hundreds or thousands of years in cleared inner acreage.
Theory abstracts intuition midwifed by generations & for fuck's sake not
in reverse. Dude's maps molten tendency & popped long before
boomers decided in mass to shave heads, read Piaget &
understand the media.
Sleepovers spawned a newborn identity of consciousness
& found a zen while anon self tetragasm waned in multiple alchemy.
Jesus crossed signs for Shiva within Shakti as Buddha witnessed Muhammed
testify in panentheistic refrain. Our currents are electrowaves of one's
owntime to spark naked wetness, outward in harmonic bow
to whisper sweet nothings & spread ourselves
Meantime, if before breakfast your brain groks a homeopathy
of breath-oriented silence & your body spins in humoured discipline
you, my friend, might just grok integral & marry the courage you crave
to radically imagine within masks a time-meet-timeless crown
of transparented tone in outrageous flow.