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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".
Mark Edwards has an M.Psych in Developmental Psychology and a PhD in organisation theory from the University of Western Australia. He now works at Jönköping University in Sweden where he teaches and researches in the area of sustainability and ethics. Before becoming an academic he worked with people with disabilities for twenty years. He is the author of Organizational Transformation for Sustainability: An Integral Metatheory
and the Post-formal Stages
Introduction and some contextual asides
I have read with considerable interest Jeff Meyerhoff's criticism of Ken Wilber's work and I would like to take up one of the issues that he has raised in Chapter 3 of his critical work on Wilber, “Bald Ambition”.
I have two reasons for wanting to respond to Meyerhoff's piece on postformal reasoning. First, my background in developmental psychology gives me a special motivation to contribute to this topic of postformal development. Given that my Masters thesis had the (mouthful of a) title, “Postformal Reasoning, Task Complexity and Stereotypic Bias in a Social Judgement Task” I might as well enter the debate right here. The more general reason for contributing at this point is that I want to promote the whole critical discussion of Wilber's ideas and integral theory and this naturally means looking seriously at the work of the “critics”.
Before setting out on this response to Meyerhoff's work, I also want to say that, while I think he raises important issues that are worthy of further discussion and debate, I do find that his ad hominem (against the man) style of criticism detracts greatly from the clarity of his critical ideas. This issue has been raised before in the response by Jan Brouwer (2004) and I concur with many of the statements made by Brouwer about Meyerhoff's style of writing. Much of Meyerhoff's critique is immersed in an ad hominem reaction to Wilber's ideas that simply does not add to his arguments in any rational and rigorous manner. For example, there are many passages in Meyerhoff's writings that are similar to the following:
Ironically, Wilber, who has personally had such a profound non-dual insight, is so locked into the paramount epistemological duality of absolutism vs. relativism that he cannot see beyond it. It causes him to say things like, “That all perspectives interrelate, or that no perspective is final (aperspectivism), does not mean that there are no relative merits among them.” Yet how does he determine relative merits except through his perspective, which he unwittingly disguises by thinking of it as a transcendent aperspective?
There are probably many other passages that provide even clearer examples of Meyerhoff's polemical style of arguing but this one will suffice to make my point. This passage might well be making an argument that could form some reasonable basis for discussion. But it is so couched in ad hominem terms and loaded with intentional assumptions that it makes any progression of rational argumentation extremely difficult. To support his views in this passage Meyerhoff, with no reference to any evidential argument, asserts that Wilber is “locked into” a “duality”, that Wilber is incapable of seeing “beyond” this dualism, that his blindness has “caused” “to say” things, and that Wilber is so unaware as to act “unwittingly” while, strangely enough, being so devilishly cunning as to deliberately “disguise” his theoretical intentions. All these rhetorical and polemical ad hominem assertions detract considerably from Meyerhoff's arguments.
I find it ironic that Meyerhoff should criticise Wilber for arguing in an ad hominem style when his own writings are so very full of such rhetorical devices. The title of his book on Wilber, “Bald Ambition”, exemplifies the ad hominem theme that runs throughout Meyerhoff's work (I can smile at the punning nature of this jibe directed at his follicly challenged target, but as a title for a serious piece of criticism!). Meyerhoff sees his work as “making arguments, asking questions and producing evidence" and that he wants to forward the “rational discussion” of Wilber's work. While I do believe that his critical views have value in this regard, Meyerhoff's arguments are so steeped in completely speculative conjecture about Wilber's psychological motivations that it becomes very difficult to deal with the substantive arguments that he is trying to make. Take the following for example.
Wilber's argument here is so weak that another explanation has to be found for why he's asserting it. It's obvious to me that this is a transparent, and somewhat sad, attempt to avoid criticism by devising a rationale that invalidates the criticizer. (Meyerhoff, 2006, para. 27)
Such statements do not do justice to the serious tasks of debate and reflection that Meyerhoff evidently wants to engage in. However, despite the speculative assertions, the polemical style and the unrelenting ad hominem elements present throughout his work, Meyerhoff's writings do contain many points that are worthy of consideration. The issues that I particularly want to look at in the following are orienting generalisations and postformal reasoning.
Orienting Generalisations and the Construction of Theory
Throughout his book Meyerhoff contends that Wilber's method of using orienting generalisations to build up his integrative framework is simply not possible and not actually used by Wilber. He uses the topic of postformal reasoning as an example of Wilber's misuse of this type of generalising method. Meyerhoff's argument is that Wilber does not accurately represent the true state of consensus in the postformal reasoning field and that this is an example of the “unreliable” nature of Wilber's “reporting of the results of scholarly research”. So, before looking specifically at this postformal issue, we need to consider Meyerhoff's criticism of Wilber's method.
Meyerhoff argues that Wilber's method of “orienting generalizations is not possible and not done by Wilber”. Meyerhoff is arguing two things. First that Wilber, “does not actually use the method of orienting generalizations” and second that “any such method is unworkable”. Meyerhoff is not convinced that Wilber's methodology is possible and, even if it were, he asserts that Wilber doesn't even use that methodology. He is saying that it is simply not possible to make the kinds of broad generalisations in any field of science that would meet Wilber's conceptual needs. Meyerhoff goes further in his criticism and says that, even if such broad generalisations and orientations were possible, Wilber does not actually apply such a methodology in his work and that Wilber selectively picks out ideas from disciplines to support his own contentions and theoretical perspectives. As Meyerhoff puts it,
[Wilber's] actual practice is to reach into a debate, pull out the work of the author he can use, and then neglect the thicket of ongoing arguments and counter-arguments in which the truths he needs to build his system are being thrashed out. (cited in Smith, 2004)
So these are Meyerhoff's two basic concerns with the integral methodology of orienting generalisations, i) that it simply “is not possible” and ii) that it is “not done by Wilber. I'll comment on each of these points in turn.
I agree with Meyerhoff that the issue of methodology in the development of integral theory is a crucial one and it is something that I have commented on in my own critical essays on Wilber's work. There remains much work to be done in describing more rigorously an integral method that makes explicit the logical rules by which an integrative research method can be performed. However, I strongly disagree with Meyerhoff's view that an orienting generalisation method is “not possible”. In fact, such an approach has been very much part of the theory building methods used in the social science for many decades now. One obvious example can be seen in the development of general systems theory (Koestler & Smythies, 1969; Schedrovitsky, 1982; von Bertalanffy, 1968) and in the attempt to apply generalised concepts across very different scientific domains. Systems approaches draw parallels between the behaviours of organic and inorganic systems and those of human social systems. In the same way that Wilber uses his “orienting generalisations” to develop integrative explanatory principles (such as the dimensions of the AQAL matrix), systems theorists identify isomorphic patterns and commonalities between systems to develop theoretical frameworks that can be applied across a diverse range of scientific disciplines. As Connie Gersick puts it in her discussion on various theories of organisational change:
There are important commonalities in the way many systems, including human systems, change and … we can benefit by comparing research findings from disparate areas because different facets of kindred processes may come into focus as the methodology and level of analysis vary. (Gersick, 1991)
Another example of how orienting generalisations are used to construct conceptual frameworks is seen in the seminal work on organisational science by Burrell and Morgan (1979). Their method is similar to the orienting generalisations approach of Wilber in that they attempt to identify the basic sets of assumptions that underlie particular scientific paradigms. As they put it, they attempt to
conceptualise social science in terms of four sets of assumptions related to ontology, epistemology, human nature and methodology. (Burrell & Morgan, 1979, p. 1)
Their innovative work in the field of multiparadigm theory building has become a recognised methodology in the organisational sciences (Gioia & Pitre, 1990; Lewis & Kelemen, 2002). Interestingly, the model that results from the generalising arguments of Burrell and Morgan is a quadrants model that includes a subjective-objective dimension and a transformational dimension. As Wilber was not aware of their work in the development of his AQAL model the multiparadigm framework of Burrell and Morgan seems to be an independent confirmation of some aspects of Wilber's AQAL framework (specifically his interior-exterior dimension and his transformation-translation dynamics).
Both general systems theory and the multiparadigm approaches employ theory building research methods which are entirely consistent with Wilber's orienting generalisations method. They all employ multiparadigm theory building methods to identify conceptual themes that can be used to connect the contributions of multiple paradigms. This is not a method that seeks to assimilate a large number of views together into a bland eclecticism. Commenting on Jack Crittenden's introduction to “The Eye of Spirit” my colleague Ron Cacioppe and I have made the point that (Cacioppe & Edwards, 2005, p. 240) ,
Integral methods are “the opposite of eclecticism”. It is not their aim to synthesise bits and pieces of other models and fields of enquiry into some synthetic blend of ideas. In this sense, “Integral” means situating the valid discoveries and insights of various schools of thought within a broader framework that continues to recognise their individual contributions. The Integral endeavour is not an assimilative process.
While an integral methodology does need much further development it is not the case that such methods are not possible as Meyerhoff asserts. In fact, the idea of an “orienting generalisation” lies at the very heart of the theory building process. It is not only possible to use the method orienting generalisations in theory building, it is essential that such methods be pursued for the cumulative development of scientific knowledge. In my opinion, far too much of what happens within the social sciences is concerned with theory testing, i.e. with the evaluation of the reliability and validity of specific theories. Theory testing is crucial but it inevitably leads to the specialisation of knowledge. In the current situation where we have the social sciences generating a plethora of contending theories, not enough attention is being given to the theory building side of the cycle of knowledge development (see Figure 1). This is why integrative frameworks such as Wilber's, which use generalising methods to develop connections and relations between theories, are so clearly needed. It is within such theory building endeavours that unpopular questions about the present adequacy of social theory are asked - its scope and applicability, its relevance to different aspects of life, its power to include neglected human concerns, and its capacity to evoke meaning and hope in social contexts.
Referring to Figure 1, the conceptual task of developing orienting generalisation, as a research method, belongs to the left hand side of this knowledge development process. It belongs to the theory building endeavour that Wilber is engaged in and, as such, it is an essential element of his integrative purpose. It is very often the case that individuals who are interested in issues of science, including those from within academic institutions, do not value or even acknowledge the crucial role that the theory building dimension plays in the development of knowledge. When we think of science we mostly think of the theory testing arc of the scientific cycle. We tend to neglect the fact that theory building is as much a part of the scientific process as hypothesis testing, experimental design, data collection, analysis, and so on.
Theory building is inherently innovative and frame-breaking. In Kuhn's terms, the construction of theory, and theory building methods such as orienting generalisations, are, by their nature, part of the revolutionary wing of scientific research. They do not belong to the normative form of science where theory testing and conservative theoretical consensus predominates. An orienting generalisation is not some bland lowest common denominator that everyone working is a field can agree upon. Meyerhoff fundamentally misunderstands this point. Wilber's method of orienting generalisations is not about finding a general consensus that can be used as a summary across many different disciplines. Theory building is about identifying innovative ways of connecting the insights of multiple communities of researchers and using those generalisations to across multiple theories and conceptual frameworks in provocative, revolutionary and confronting ways. If orienting generalisations as a method were only ever about finding broad agreement among communities of researchers it would be doubtful if it could ever actually contribute to the development of knowledge.
Orienting generalisations are closely associated with the concept of non-exclusion that forms a central part of Wilber's Integral Methodological Pluralism. The principal of non-exclusion is often equated with Wilber's statement “everybody is right”. However, a more accurate understanding of the concept can be found in the following quote from Wilber:
Nonexclusion means that we can accept the valid truth claims (i.e., the truth claims that pass the validity tests for their own paradigms in their own fields, whether in hermeneutics, spirituality, science, etc.) insofar as they make statements about the existence of their own enacted and disclosed phenomena, but not when they make statements about the existence of phenomena enacted by other paradigms. (Wilber, 2003, para. 52)
With reference to the issue of postformal reasoning, nonexclusion means accepting the truth claims of those who are intimately involved in postformal research. It does not mean accepting the truth claims about postformal issues of those who belong to other research communities in developmental psychology or associated disciplines. We often see debate and disagreement in scientific communities and those debates often occur between communities which operate out of very different methodological and ontological paradigms. Developing orienting generalisations among such groups is probably not possible, definitely not desirable, not is it the goal of an integral methodology to try to do so. Again, Meyerhoff misunderstands this fundamental point and that he does so is evidenced in his treatment of the postformal reasoning topic.
The Stage of Postformal Reasoning
This brings us to Meyerhoff's other main contention regarding orienting generalisations – that Wilber does not actually use such a method and that he selectively chooses bits and pieces of theory that conform to his pre-conceived theoretical notions. Meyerhoff presents his discussion on postformal reasoning as an example of Wilber's unreliable and selective “reporting” of the general findings of a particular field of study.
Wilber's unreliable reporting of the results of scholarly research is one central feature of my critique and this same problem arises … when he justifies vision-logic by citing scholarly research. (Meyerhoff, 2006, chap. 3, para. 17)
To support his claims Meyerhoff uses quotes from one single writer in this area - Helena Marchand of Lisbon University. The article he quotes from is the major journal of the Jean Piaget Society – the journal “Genetic Epistemologist”. Marchand is not a postformal researcher and has published only one or two conceptual papers in that area. She writes from a Piagetian perspective, i.e. a perspective that lies outside postformal research community. However, even Marchand makes it clear that she thinks that most postformal researchers agree that there is a fifth postformal stage of reasoning. She says that “the bulk of theorists” who work in that field propose that there is a stage “beyond the formal”. Let me repeat this point. Marchand is claiming that the bulk of researchers in the area accept the existence of postformal stages of reasoning. This means that Marchand is in agreement with Wilber's orienting generalisation that there are postformal stages of reasoning. Even Meyerhoff sums up her assessment of the postformal research by saying that:
[Marchand's] statement confirms Wilber's claim that there is a broad consensus within postformal studies regarding what postformal theorists agree upon. (Meyerhoff, 2006, para. 19)
So, we have a situation where Meyerhoff and his quoted authority are confirming as correct Wilber's orienting generalisation about the status of postformal reasoning among those who work in the field. The point Meyerhoff is trying to make, however, is that Wilber is ignoring the debate that exists outside of the postformal research community. But again Meyerhoff misunderstands what orienting generalisations (and the associated principle of nonexclusion) are really about. These methods try to find some general statement of truth from within communities of research and practice and not from those who come from a different disciplinary matrix or paradigm. Orienting generalisations are propositions that draw on the insights of those who know, those who use the appropriate methods to disclose the relevant data, those who are respected researchers from within particular areas of research. In the case in point, if you want to summarise our knowledge of post-Piagetian research, don't simply ask one Piagetian. This is Meyerhoff's method for claiming Wilber is being selective and consequently, I find his arguments unconvincing to say the least. We could, instead, ask the researchers that both Marchand and Wilber recognise as leading authorities in the field of postformal research – Michael Commons of Harvard Medical School and Francis Richards of the Department of Education, Rhode Island. Here is what they have to say about the existence of a postformal reasoning stage (Commons & Richards, 2003):
In earlier work (Commons & Richards, 1984a, 1984b, Commons et al., 1998) we have argued that this kind of reasoning represents one of several proposed new adult stages. Both empirical and analytic evidence for these stages has been presented. The existence of such reasoning demonstrates that development continues beyond adolescence and into adulthood, into the postformal realm. A number of different postformal-reasoning theories have been described, including those of Arlin (1975, 1984), Armon (1984), Basseches (1980; 1984) following Riegel (1973)., Benack (1984), Commons and Richards (1978, 1984a; Commons, Richards, & Kuhn, 1982 ), Demetriou (1990; Demetriou & Efklides, 1985), Fischer, Hand, and Russell (1984), Kohlberg (1990), Koplowitz (1984), Labouvie-Vief (1990; 1984), Pascual-Leone (1984), Powell (1984), Sternberg (1984), and Sinnott (1984). All argue in common that postformal behavior involves one or more of the following: perceiving, reasoning, knowing, judging, caring, feeling or communicating in ways that are more complex or more all-encompassing than, formal operations.
The amount of research on the existence of postformal stages of development is immense and has developed beyond the simple debate as to whether it exists or not. Marchand's paper that Meyerhoff quotes from is actually more concerned with whether we should regard the postformal stages as 'hard' or 'soft' stages and is not essentially questioning the data disclosed by the postformalists. Meyerhoff's proposition that Wilber is developing unreliable generalisations that selectively manipulate the research in this field is, in my opinion, not supported in any way by any of the arguments or evidence or literature that he puts forward. In fact, a closer reading Meyerhoff's sources tells us that they actually support Wilber's views on these matters and not his.
The following questions and their respective answers are intended as a summary of the central issues raised by Meyerhoof in Chapter 3 of his critical book on Wilber's ideas.
- Does the method of orienting generalisations exist? Contrary to Meyerhoff's assertions I have argued that such methods do exist and that there are many examples of theory building methods such as orienting generalisations being used in the social sciences (I'm using a very similar method my doctoral research).
- Does Wilber actually use the method of orienting generalisations in his development of integral theory? I believe he does because the descriptions he provides of his methods conform to those of other theory building techniques. His writings also provide ample evidence that he draws on this conceptual research method to develop his propositions (whether one agrees with these propositions or not is another matter).
- Does Wilber reliably use his orienting method to develop his theoretical propositions in the field of postformal reasoning? From my knowledge of the research in postformal reasoning, I conclude that Wilber accurately and reliably develops orienting generalisations that inform his theory of developmental a post formal or vision logic stage beyond formal cognition.
For these reasons I find the arguments presented by Meyerhoff in support of his claim that Wilber has not reliably represented the literature on postformal stages to be completely unconvincing. Now, of course, none of this means that I agree with all of Wilber's theoretical generalisations. In fact I believe that there are significant branches of developmental psychology that Wilber has not as yet integrated into his framework. But as to Meyerhoff's substantive points on the issues raised in chapter 3 of his book “Bald Ambition”, I would say that, in contrast to Meyerhoff's contentions, Wilber does has a very sound theory building method available to him, that he does use this method consistently, and that he has reliably used that method with regard to the area of postformal reasoning research.
Brouwer, J., 2004, 'Review of Jeff Meyerhoff's Book on Ken Wilber' [Online], Available from: http://www.integralworld.net [March 26, 2006].
Burrell, G. & Morgan, G., 1979, Sociological paradigms and organisational analysis, Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH.
Cacioppe, R. & Edwards, M. G., 2005, 'Adjusting blurred visions: A typology of integral approaches to organisations', Journal of Organizational Change Management, 18, 3, 230-246.
Commons, M. L. & Richards, F. A., 2003, 'Four Postformal Stages', in Handbook of adult development, J. Demick & C. Andreoletti (Eds.), Springer, New York.
Gersick, C. J., 1991, 'Revolutionary Change Theories: A Multilevel Exploration of the Punctuated Equilibrium Paradigm', Academy of Management The Academy of Management Review, 16, 1, 10.
Gioia, D. A. & Pitre, E., 1990, 'Multiparadigm Perspectives on Theory Building', The Academy of Management Review, 15, 4, 584-602.
Koestler, A. & Smythies, J. R. (Eds.), 1969, Beyond Reductionism : New Perspectives in the Life Sciences, edn, Hutchinson, London.
Lewis, M. W. & Kelemen, M. L., 2002, 'Multiparadigm inquiry: Exploring organizational pluralism and paradox', Human Relations, 55, 2, 251-275.
Meyerhoff, J., 2006, 'Bald Ambition: A Critique of Ken Wilber's Theory of Everything' [Online], Available from: http://www.integralworld.net/ [March 25, 2006].
Schedrovitsky, 1982, 'Methodological Organization of System-Structural Research and Development: Principles and General Framework', General Systems, 27, 75-96.
Smith, A., 2004, 'Contextualsising Ken: A Review of Jeff Meyerhoff's Bald Ambition' [Online], Available from: http://www.integralworld.net/ [March 26, 2006].
von Bertalanffy, L., 1968, General Systems Theory, New York.
Wilber, K., 2003, 'Excerpt B from the Kosmos Trilogy, Vol. 2: The Many Ways We Touch -Three Principles Helpful for Any Integrative Approach' Available from: http://wilber.shambhala.com/html/books/kosmos/excerptB/intro.cfm/
© Mark Edwards, March 2006