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

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Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY 2003Frank Visser, a psychologist of religion, founded in 1997 (back then under the name of “The World of Ken Wilber”). He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. He is the author of the first monograph on Ken Wilber and his work: “Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion” (SUNY Press, 2003), which has been translated into 7 languages, and of many essays on this website.



Frank Visser

Adapted from: Ken Wilber: Denken als Passie [Thought as Passion], Rotterdam, Lemniscaat, 2001.

Because the sequence "body, mind, soul, spirit" forms the backbone of Wilber's system -- as it is of the perennial philosophy itself -- it stands to reason to organize the many voices of criticism this system has received (or should have received) around these four broad categories. This gives us the opportunity to see which areas have not yet been covered. It will become clear, that a systematic review of Wilber's works has not yet attempted.
This sequential presentation has another advantage: it enables us to form a spectrum of criticisms, ranging from the most severe to the more speculative.


In one of his most insightful asides, Wilber has remarked "spirit is the least of my worries". What does worry Wilber, is that contemporary culture does not acknowledge the inner domain in toto, from mind to soul to spirit. Of course, materialistic science is always pointed at as proof for the non-existence of interiority. Those sceptical of the inner domain ask the rethoric question: "Does it make any sense to talk about a "soul", when such a term is as outdated as Zeus or Thor...?" (David Lane).

If we restrict our conception of science to third-person science, then these critics seem to have a point. Noone has ever seen, and will never see, a soul. If however, we grant first person science some credibility, things are not so clear anymore. It can even be countered that the burden of proof does is not on those defending the soul, as materialists like Dennet hold, but on those who deny subjectivity any real existence -- as those who deny the soul do so by excercizing their very powers of subjectivity.

When psychology decided to reject evidence from introspection, and opt for behaviorism, this was in part understandable. Studying the behaviour of all human beings except oneself seems more promising for the science of psychology than concentrating on one's own private thoughts and emotions. However, to account for human behaviour, we do need concepts of thoughts and emotion as explanatory concepts. If the causes of behaviour are demanded to be material also, then then damage done to psychology is irrepairable. And this is the course scientific psychology has taken in this century, although there is no good reason to do so -- because materialistic science cannot account for subjectivity as such.

Therefore it can not pretend to have explained consciousness at all Wilber has argued to give third person science and first person science at least an equal footing. Much discussion in this field has yet to take place, but things are hopeful, considering recent publications in the philosphy of mind. In any case, materialistic sceptics should not feel too confident when dismissing introspective accounts of human consciousness from the start. The case for introspection is strenghthened even more so, when we take into account the fact that the Eastern traditions have a large and systematic body of knowledge based on introspection, which no philosophy of mind deserving that name can afford to neglect.

In this category we can also place Wilbers stern remarks vis a vis attempts to link modern physics to eastern mysticism, or consciousness as such, or his doubts about basing a holistic worldview on materialistic science alone -- as New Age authors from Capra to Wolinsky have tried to do. In all these attempts, human subjectivity seems to evaporate.

We can also place here those critics of Wilbers view of evolution, who state that evolution can be seen as an accidental process, forming ever more complex organisms, leading up to the human organism. What evidence do we have that complexity alone is sufficient to account for subjectivity? Does evolution have an inner drive, pushing its way up from plants to animals to humans? Human beings are not only the most complex organisms in a material sense, but even more so in an inner sense, as their inner life contains emotions, thoughts and intuitions found nowhere else in nature (notwhithstanding those who turn to trees for help on theire personal problems or to dolphins for spiritual guidance...)


If the existence of an inner domain is made plausible, at least in a rudimentary way, how can we best conceptualize this interiority? If there is an inner domain, how is it structured? As third person science cannot help us here, what can we learn from introspective approached to consciousness like phenomenology? Is the "concept of mind" as ridiculous as Ryle would have it?

Do developmental psychologists have amassed enough evidence to state that the human mind is a layered phenomenon? Is development essentially a process of climbing the different levels of the mind? The concept of development (not in a biological but in a psychological sense) as come under attack, even among developmental psychologists (who run the risk of loosing their very discipline, as psychology itself has become a shadowy enterprise when understood in a behavioristic framework).

Here the sensitive issue of the surplus value of mind over body has to be situated. For if we acknowledge the mind as a principle in its own right, how do we have to assess the many examples of the suppression of the body (or nature as such) by the mind? Most critics of the "culture over nature" view have reacted rather allergically to the view that the mental is more valuable than the physical, because human beings have often mistreated the bodily realm (cf. nature religions were suppressed by historical religions -- rightfully so?). Here Wilber has suggested a way out of this dilemma by differentiating between a healthy and a pathological view of "mind over body". The fact that mind transcends the body does not automatically imply the body/nature should be mistreated or suppressed. On the contrary, in a healthy development, the body is integrated and included in a higher unity.


The foregoing all pertains to the personal realm, and does not touch on spirituality. Transpersonal psychology has grown out of the feeling among some noted humanistic psychologists, such as Maslow, that the spiritual dimension is a legitimate field of study for the science of psychology. Inspired by mystical or esoteric views of human nature, the first transpersonal psychologists have speculated the inner domain is not exhausted by the emotional and the mental realms, but includes a spiritual element (traditionally called the "soul"). Where is this soul-element located in the human make-up?

Could we, as Wilber has done, fruitfully postulate layers of the mind beyond the purely mental/rational, which can therefore be called "transpersonal", and which transcend the personal mind as the personal mind transcends the prepersonal body? Wilber has taken pains to demonstrate that the spiritual element of human nature should never be confused with the realm of nature, the body, the unconscious or the emotions, as many contemporary advocates of New Age spirituality are eager to do (this is his famous "pre/trans fallacy, on the understanding of which hinges the understanding of Wilber's philosophy as such).

Within transpersonal psychology, two camps seem to stand opposite to eachother. It is rather telling, that most of his transpersonal colleagues who are sceptical of his hierarchical view of human development and spirituality, take depth psychology as basic framework (e.g. Stan Grof, Michael Washburn and others). Contrary to these voices, Wilber has pioneered into a "height psychology", which distinguishes sharply between the lower and the higher domains of human consciousness.

Where Jung (and Freud) seem to be the forerunners of most transpersonal models working within the limits of depth psychology, the Italian psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli is the (lonely) forerunner for this "height psychological" model of human nature. The "spiral view" of human development advocated by depth psychologists is contrasted by the "ladder view" of the height psychologists -- much of the misunderstanding between these two camps can be solved by looking at the possibility of a height psychology as alternative to depth psychology.

Here again, the integral view of human nature includes both elements: while the height dimension in itself has nothing to do with the depth dimension, in a healty individual both domains are integrated. Postulating a height dimension in human nature, where the "soul" or spiritual element can be found, in no way legitimizes any attempt to downplay or denigrate the personal sphere -- as postulating the mind as a principle in its own right does not give a the right to mistreat the body. Here again, a healthy view of human development is possible, in which the transpersonal transcends but includes the personal, as the personal transcended and included the prepersonal.

Does Wilber hold that mystics first have to be intellectuals, as we all must pass through rationality to reach spirit -- as some of his critics have argued? Or is his proposal more modest, claiming that a mature spirituality can only flourish when a post-conventional sense of individuality is established?


This brings us to the more speculative aspects of Wilber's model, which have their roots in the esoteric or metaphysical religion. From his very first publication Wilber has made clear that he is a metaphysical psychologist, for "there is no science of the soul without a metaphysical basis to it" (Schuon) was the first sentence he wrote in his published books. If the individual dimension is transcended (covering both the personal and the transpersonal) where does this lead us?

How are we to conceptualize the universal aspects of existence, as God, Goddess or Godheid? And what can we confidentially say about the levels of existence or "spheres" which we pass when we develop from the personal to the transpersonal (and beyond)? Do these levels have an existence separate from our own consciousness? In most versions of the esoteric philosophy (to one of which Wilber subscribes, basing himself on Sri Aurobindo and the Tibetan tradition), the levels of existence are described as ranging from the physical to the Divine, traversing seven or more levels.

Do Western traditions like Theosophy have anything to contribute to a better understanding of these levels as such? In Wilber's system, science and religion, matter and spirit, are integrated in a delicate manner, in which both enterprises are left untouched, but at the same time form the flesh and bones of existence. Metaphysical religion provides us with a framework -- i.e. the levels of existence -- into which the many pursuits of human knowledge find shelter.

(c) 1998 Frank Visser

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