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An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
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Dr. Hartelius is involved in promoting transpersonal psychology, a transformative psychology of the whole person in intimate relationship with a diverse, interconnected and evolving world. He has participated in defining the field and developing a Handbook (The Wiley-Blackwell handbook of transpersonal psychology) that covers much of its topic area. In addition, he has helped to resurrect and develop one of the field's scholarly journals, the International Journal of Transpersonal Studies (www.transpersonalstudies.org). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Startling New Role for Wilber's Integral Model
Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Perennialism
(A Response to Abramson)
Critics of Ken Wilber's work are unfailingly charged with misunderstanding his views. In a recent paper by John Abramson (2014), published in this journal under the title, “The misunderstanding and misinterpretation of key aspects of Ken Wilber's work in Hartelius and Ferrer's (2013) assessment,” Hartelius and Ferrer's paper, “Transpersonal Philosophy: The Participatory Turn,” appearing as Chapter 10 in The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Transpersonal Psychology, has met with this same charge. What Abramson (2014) has done is (1) to attempt to inflate semantic issues into the appearance of substantive ones, (2) to conflate Wilber's assertions with the logical arguments that would establish those assertions, (3) to critique the authors for using points made by Wilber himself, (4) to subtly assert the rightful primacy of Wilber's model by implying that any debate about it should take place on the territory of its assumptions, (5) to lodge complaints that the authors have failed to co-create some compromise between participatory and integral approaches, and (6) to hold out the prospect that a full account of Wilber's work would “comprehensively dispel” (p. 4) the misunderstandings to which Hartelius and Ferrer (2013) are allegedly subject. Through this retort, Abramson (2014) has attempted to create the appearance that Wilber's work remains a viable framework for enterprises such as transpersonal psychologysomething that seems highly unlikely. This paper argues that Wilber does not offer a grand scholarly theory of everything, but a problematic metaphysical theory that may nevertheless continue to serve a limited popular audience.
"Being participatory" is not some new "thing," some new transpersonal cult, but a call to move beyond transpersonal cults.
When I was in my late teens, I became curious about religions other than the one in which I had been raised. I pondered how fortunate I was to be born into the “right” tradition, and wondered what would have happened had I been born into some other spiritual community—would I have believed as ardently that it was the correct way? Which one of these possible versions of myself was right? In the midst of these ruminations, I found a magazine on a coffee table while waiting for an appointment, and flipped it open to a figure that illustrated Fritjof Schuon's (1953/1984) perennialist model: six traditionslabeled Hinduism, Buddhism, The Chinese Tradition, Judaism, Christianity, and Islamwere represented as vertical wedges of a triangular mountain, and halfway up the mountain's flank was drawn a horizontal line. Below the line, where the traditions diverged most widely, was the word exoteric. Above the line, where they converged into a single point, was the word esoteric. I took it in in a glimpse, and the vision seized me. Later I listened to lectures by the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell (e.g., 1949/1968), which seemed to affirm my earlier conversion to what I did not yet know to call perennialism.
I found comfort and meaning in the simple affirmation that those of other spiritual traditions were walking a path that led where mine led. It seemed humane, kind, honorable. It felt deeply true. I could respect a God who looked at the heart, and did not quibble over outer forms of practice. Then I went to graduate school, and saw for myself that however appealing a perennialist model might be, its metaphysical claims would not stand up to critical scrutiny and its attempt at inclusiveness held the seeds of hierarchical dogmatism. Schuon's simple model served me well as a first approximation, but I gradually relinquished it in favor of participatory thought, which seemed to accomplish similar ends in a manner better suited to the needs of a transpersonal approach to psychology.
Participatory philosophy has been well received by some as a cogent, alternative transpersonal framework within which to consider human spirituality (e.g., Dale, 2014; Daniels, 2005; Ferrer, 2002; Heron, 2006; Lahood, 2007). In this stance, the world is an open-ended living system that is continuously co-creating itself (cf. Varela, Maturana, & Uribe, 1974). Building on insights from romantic philosophy (cf. Sherman, 2008; Tarnas, 1991), a participatory view holds that the mind is not separate from the material worldit is not in some other dimension, nor is it sequestered from a separate objective reality (Skolimowski, 1994). Instead, mind and nature are woven from the same fabric (cf. Bateson, 1979)mind is made of the same stuff as the world, and consciousness in some form penetrates through all of physicality (Chalmers, 1995; De Quincey, 1994; Heron, 1992). When a human mind knows the world, it is not peering in from another sort of reality: it is a located aspect of the world that is engaged in knowing itself (Velmans, 2008). Because the knower is always located (cf. Haraway, 1988), and because whatever spiritual forces may be abroad in the world exist in this dimension and not some other, each spiritual encounter is also a situated event (Ferrer, 2008)and therefore by definition likely to have its own specific character (Kripal, 2003; Irwin, 1996). The diversity of human spiritual experience, then, does not reflect imperfect interpretations of an encounter with the same transcendent reality, but personally or communally shaped understandings of distinct spiritual encounters (Dale, 2014; Ferrer, 2002; Irwin, 1996, 2008). Participatory thought does not attempt to impose a rubric to which all such events must conformhowever awkwardly; instead, it seeks to outline a philosophical context within which the diversity of spiritual traditions, experiences, and phenomena can be accepted and celebrated while simultaneously offering grounds for critical discernment regarding spiritual phenomena (Duckworth, 2014; Ferrer, 2009; 2011b; Ogilvy, 2013).
Until the arrival of participatory thought in the transpersonal field just after the turn of the century (Ferrer, 2002), Ken Wilber's evolving philosophical framework was at times seen as the primary philosophical foundation of transpersonal psychology (Rothberg, 1986). In the 1990s, serious critiques of Wilber's model were published first in the journal Revision, and later collected into Rothberg and Kelly's (1998) book, Ken Wilber in Dialogue. Ferrer (1998) wrote a review critical of Wilber's (1998) book, The Marriage of Sense and Soul, and then published a paper outlining shortcomings of a perennial philosophy (Ferrer, 2000)an approach that Wilber had explicitly employed in some of his work prior to that date. Ferrer's work met with some resistance from Wilber, who reportedly made efforts to impede its publication within transpersonal literature (Ferrer & Puente, 2013); shortly thereafter, Wilber announced his departure from the transpersonal movementlikely for complex reasons.
Given the prominent role of Wilber's work within transpersonal psychology, and the at times heated scholarly debate that surrounded the introduction of participatory thought as an alternate philosophical frame, it seemed fitting that the chapter on participatory philosophy in The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Transpersonal Psychology (Friedman & Hartelius, 2013) briefly reprised this history and both recounted and extended some major critiques of Wilber's work from a participatory perspective (Hartelius & Ferrer, 2013). Abramson's (2014) response to this work purports to outline “the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of key aspects of Ken Wilber's work” by the authors of that chapter.
There is a goal that Ferrer and Hartelius share with Wilber and Abramson, namely the development of ways to situate the study of the whole person, including human spirituality. What is perhaps most troubling, both in Wilber's work and Abramson's (2014) arguments, is that despite this commonality the tenor of discourse appears to have more in common with political debate than with scholarly argument. That is, Wilber and Abramson have attempted to score rhetorical points in ways that at times seems disingenuous, rather than engaging forthrightly. One problem with this style is that refutation of such arguments requires going through the issues with considerable care and detail. This could give a casual reader the very impression that Abramson (2014) has expressly set out to convey: namely, that the critiques offered by Hartelius and Ferrer (2013)most of these stemming from the work of Ferrer (e.g., 2000, 2002, 2011a)are complex and subject to technical debate, rather than simple points that strike at the root of Wilber's system.
A second unfortunate element is the repeated charges that Wilber's points have been overlooked, misunderstood, or omitted, and that the offered accounts of his work are inaccurate and misleading. Ferrer has responded to Wilber's work at length both in his 1998 review and extensively in his 2002 work, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory (e.g., pp. 66-69, 179-181, 223-226). After nearly a decade of silence, Ferrer (2011a) dedicated an entire essay to respond to Wilber's most recent revision of his model (Wilber-V), concluding with an explicit call to dialogue. Wilber has not responded to any of these rejoinders or invitations to clarify his perspectives. Abramson's (2014) tut-tutting about Ferrer dropping the dialogical ball is misplaced and seems an attempt at discrediting a critic. In addition, Abramson's arguments are insubstantial, and the outcome is that the case he has made against these critiques of Wilber is very thin indeed.
What Abramson (2014) has done is (1) to attempt to inflate semantic issues into the appearance of substantive ones, (2) to conflate Wilber's assertions with the logical arguments that would establish those assertions, (3) to critique the authors for using points made by Wilber himself, (4) to subtly assert the rightful primacy of Wilber's model by implying that any debate about it should take place on the territory of its assumptions, (5) to lodge complaints that the authors have failed to co-create some compromise between participatory and integral approaches, and (6) to hold out the prospect that a full account of Wilber's work would “comprehensively dispel” (p. 4) the misunderstandings to which Hartelius and Ferrer (2013) are allegedly subject. His purpose seems to be to deflect or dilute these critiques and demonstrate “to those with only an acquaintance with Wilber's work that Hartelius and Ferrer have a case to answer” (p. 4). Through this retort, Abramson (2014) has attempted to create the appearance that Wilber's work remains a viable framework for enterprises such as transpersonal psychologysomething that seems highly unlikely.
The first part of the following response is organized in the same manner as Abramson's (2014) paper: six sections and a conclusion, each addressing the corresponding section in Abramson. This is followed by a discussion section that examines the issue of whether the charge that Wilber has been misunderstood is valid or whether this can more coherently be understood as part of a strategy to deflect legitimate criticism. A concluding section considers the possible future role of Wilber' s work.
1. A Single Nondual Reality
Abramson (2014) opened with an assertion that Hartelius and Ferrer “appear to have overlooked” Wilber's rejection of criticism that “his work involves a perennialist version of a single nondual ultimate reality” (p. 4). As evidence for this position, Abramson began with a quote from the fictional character Joan Hazelton, drawn from what appears to be a section of writing that did not make it into Wilber's (2002) novel, Boomeritis: “I don't know a single major theorist who actually believes that” (Wilber, 2007b, p. 6; cited in Abramson, 2014, as Wilber, 2002c). While it seems unusual to use the dialogue of characters in a novel as evidence for scholarly argumentand it should be noted that despite this, Ferrer (2011a) has responded briefly even to this obscure passagethere are problems beyond this fact. First, the character quoted in this case is not speaking about a perennialist version of a single nondual ultimate reality, but characterizing “'an increasingly intense commitment to a single absolute universal truth” (Wilber, 2007b, p. 6; cited in Abramson, 2014, as Wilber, 2002c). The issue of whether or not there exists universal truth is distinct from postulations of an ultimate nondual dimension. Second, even if this bit of dialogue did reflect Wilber's position on the somewhat different matter of a perennialist ultimate, an assertion of this sort would not change the fact that his model is dependent on a nondual dimension that is entirely indistinguishable from a perennialist ultimate.
Abramson did also provide a quote in which Wilber (2000) argued against critics identifying him with perennialist philosophy by claiming, in Wilber's words,
the only item of the perennial philosophy that I have actually defended is the notions of realms of being and knowing … . Most of the other aspects … such as unchanging archetypes, involution and evolution as fixed and predetermined, the strictly hierarchical (as opposed to holonic/quadratic) nature of reality etc.I do not believe are universal or true. (p. 158)
This claim is problematic. First, the issue here is not what Wilber has defended, but what his proffered model necessarily relies uponand his model relies upon a nondual ultimate that, as noted, is very much identical with a perennialist ultimate. Second, the “other aspects” referred to by Wilber (2000), such as “unchanging archetypes, involution and evolution as fixed and predetermined,” and “the strictly hierarchical … nature of reality” (p. 158) are not, in fact, characteristic of perennialist approaches other than earlier versions of his own work. Read literally, this is not even a direct denial by Wilber that his work is perennialist in nature, much less a substantive defense against the simple observation that his model remains essentially perennialist in structure.
Abramson (2014) continued with the claim that Wilber's work does not postulate a single nondual reality. This is an inflation of semantic differences, playing on an extremely minor point. Abramson again cited from a sidebar to Wilber's (2002) novel to demonstrate Wilber's position (2007a) that “ultimate reality is nondualit is 'not two, not one'” (p. 15), a position consistent with the traditional teachings of Advaita Vedanta (e.g., Whitfield, 2009). The issue is clearly directed at reference to a single nondual reality. Yet this was merely to distinguish Wilber's position from the ontologically pluralistic views of Ferrer (2002, 2008, 2009, 2011b). That is, within Wilber's thought it is the nondualwhatever its naturethat is the only final or complete destination for all humankind, even if most spiritual traditions remain unaware of this. The particular phrasing did not reflect a failure to understand that such a nondual dimension could be described as neither one nor two, or from either an absolute or relative point of view. Abramson might as relevantly have complained that the title of Wilber's 1999 book, One Taste, should actually have been, Not One Taste, Not Two Tastes. To attempt to parlay this very small matter into some substantive point of misunderstanding is misleading.
In a rather more surprising twist, Abramson (2014) claimed that “Wilber's and Ferrer's position on a single truth … is very similar” (p. 5). As evidence for this, Abramson offered a 36-word quote from Ferrer (2002), which he compared in a strained way with his interpretation of Wilber's thought. Yet any wider reading of the two theorists will quickly demonstrate that it is futile to argue that an ultimate nondual realityfrom whatever perspectiveis somehow the same as ontologically rich multiplicities of embodied enactions. This argument fails entirely.
Abramson (2014) then turned to Ferrer's (2002) treatment of Murti (e.g., 1955/2013), offering short critiques of Murti's critics such as Streng (1967), Richards (1978), Tuck (1990), Huntington (1989/2007), and Garfield (1994)several of which are lacking in his reference section. A complete consideration of these debates is well beyond the scope of this response, but Abramson's purpose here is to suggest that Murti has contemporary supporters, and that some of his critics have misunderstood him. What can be said is that Abramson (2014) pursued these arguments in much the same way as those illustrated above, basing broad conclusions on very limited samples. He is correct in noting that there are a few contemporary supporters of Murti's absolutist perspectives, but this does not mean that the issue is an open one within wider scholarly circles any more than the fact that the existence of climate deniers is evidence that the reality of global warming is still up for any real scientific debate.
2. Wilber's Division Between Subject and Object
Abramson (2014) claimed that Hartelius and Ferrer (2013) have overlooked Wilber's statements that subject and object are not necessarily separate. In fact, the relevant passage draws on Ferrer's (2002) critique of perennialism. Ferrer pointed to the simple and logical fact that a perennialist model requires an objective, transcendent ultimate that is apprehended deep within personal subjectivity. That ultimate must be objective in order for it to be the consistent destination of all traditions. However, if that ultimate is objective in nature, then by definition it is distinct from the subject who perceives it. If Abramson does not believe that Wilber's work is perennialist, then this critique would not apply to Wilber's work. However, if the structure of Wilber's work is indistinguishable from the structure of one or another version of perennialism as outlined by Ferrer (2002), then Wilber's assertions alone are not sufficient to change the fact that it can legitimately described as perennialist, nor to override the shortcomings of such a model.
There is a slightly different facet to this issue also. What Hartelius and Ferrer (2013) pointed out was that it is through Wilber's postulated nondual ultimate that his subjective and objective quadrants are unified. If Wilber's post-metaphysical has truly moved away from a metaphysical ultimate, then the nondual can no longer serve as the unifying dimension out of which both subjective and objective quadrants equally arise, and one is back to the overtly Cartesian situation in which these two domains are entirely distinct; in this situation the subjective will again be devalued in a modernist context. In other words, without a nondual dimension that serves to place subjective and objective quadrants on equal ontological footing, Wilber's AQAL model does not redeem the reality of the interior quadrants from a modernist stance. On the other hand, if the nondual is retained as the vehicle for resolving this issue, then Wilber's system is still deeply metaphysical, as well as remaining subtly Cartesian (cf. Ferrer, 2002). Neither strategy fully resolves the problems inherent in the Cartesian dynamics of modern philosophy, and one has the additional handicap of resting on a metaphysical base.
3. Wilber's 2002 Critique of Ferrer
There is a complaint expressed by Abramson (2014) that Wilber's 2002 critiques of Ferrer have not been addressed. The first problem here is that the section quoted as Wilber's (2007b) words are again the dialogue of the fictional character, Joan Hazelton, who does not name Ferrer at all. To suggest that this outtake from a novel is critique of Ferrer that requires a specific scholarly response is mistaken.
Yet since Abramson (2014) has raised the issue, it is possible to set aside the unusual provenance of this quote and respond to the argument. What Wilber (2007b) wrote was that “pluralism plus history is genealogy,” suggesting that pluralism itself is static, that history “moves beyond pluralism,” and that genealogy “transcends and includes” pluralism (p. 9). However, even if a reconstructive genealogy of history and worldviews might be able to situate various types of pluralism or universalism, there are a number of competing genealogiesof which Wilber's is just one. The implication here is that Wilber's genealogy is the actual genealogywhich is another way of saying that a pluralistic system is only meaningful if it is situated within Wilber's integral model. This is not a substantive critique, but the imposition of a meta-narrativea Wilber genealogywhich the narrating fictive character has just said that one should not do.
4. The Universality of Wilber's Kosmic Habits
In this section, Abramson asserted that Hartelius and Ferrer (2013) were incorrect in claiming that all of Wilber's kosmic habits are universal. In fact, Hartelius and Ferrer made no such claim. The phrase quoted by Abramson as evidence for this complaint drew on Ferrer's (2002) description of a general type of perennialismstructuralist perennialismthat could be applied to systems other than Wilber's as well. Abramson (2014) then went on to acknowledge that in Wilber's model, some deep structures are universalwhich is precisely the mark of structuralist perennialism. However, Hartelius and Ferrer did not make any claim that all of Wilber's kosmic habits are universal. It is not clear how Abramson arrived at this objection.
The larger issue here is not whether all of Wilber's kosmic habits are universal, but whether any of them are universal. A system in which the actions of some individuals or groups can, through their repeated actions, create some sort of deep structure that now must be navigated by all humans (cf. Ferrer, 2011a; Rowan et al., 2009) reveals the persistence of the subtle Cartesianism that has been Ferrer's (2002) consistent critique of perennialist systems. If even some cultural habits become kosmic habits that others are required to negotiate, then these habits are not merely ontologically real, but objectively real in a Cartesian sense. Ferrer (2002, 2011a) acknowledged that cultural habits may create new options or pathways for cocreative participation, but explicitly rejected the notion that any of these new potentials can become mandatory. The fact that Wilber has introduced more flexibility into his system by allowing that “kosmic habits can be local rather than universal” (Abramson, 2014, p. 9) does not solve the deeper issues associated with the subtle Cartesianism inherent in the structure and assumptions of his model.
5. Wilber's Kosmic Habits and the Upper Left Quadrant
Here Abramson (2014) reported that Wilber “is incredulous that Ferrer … can deduce that he has shifted the ontological status of kosmic habits to the inner realm (upper-left quadrant) of an individual” (p. 10). This complaint is highly disingenuous, almost to the point of dishonesty.
As context, the issue here is that when Wilber described the deep structures of reality leading to Gebser-like stages of civilization as pre-given ontological structures, these so-called deep structures were rightly critiqued as metaphysical. In order to protect them from this critique, Wilber replaced these pre-given ontological structures with levels of being that are collectively constructed by humans. It would seem that this necessarily moved such structures from the right-hand quadrants (objective) to the left-hand quadrants (subjective).
The veracity of this observation is further reinforced by a passage, cited by Hartelius and Ferrer (2013) from the most recent major Wilber (2006) book, in which he stated,
The Great Chain of Being … which represents the essence of those premodern traditions, is actually dealing with realities and phenomena that are almost entirely in the Upper-Left quadrant. (p. 44, emphasis in original).
There are three reasons to read this as Wilber's own opinion, and notas Abramson (2014) has claimedreferring to how premodern traditions assigned themselves. First, Wilber has made a direct claim here about the status of premodern traditions. Second, his language is very particular, claiming that such phenomena are almost entirely in his Upper-Left quadrant. Surely, no premodern tradition made any claims about being “almost entirely” within individual subjectivity; this is Wilber's assignment. Third, Wilber (2006) continued on, saying, “This [referring to the Upper-Left quadrant assignment] is not a negative put-down, but a positive address: these folks were consummate phenomenologists” (p. 44). It is clear that, within the constraints of maintaining his position that all phenomena occur in all four quadrants, Wilber has placed these phenomena “almost entirely” within the quadrant representing individual subjectivity.
In fact, Hartelius and Ferrer (2013) were careful to stop after this point and offer a more generous reading of Wilber, suggesting that since the quadrants are interconnected or perhaps even entangled through the nondual, it seemed possible that assigning a particular phenomenon to a quadrant does not necessarily reduce it to that quadrant. There are problems here, however. First, Wilber has not himself suggested such an interpretation, and second, if assigning spiritual phenomena “almost entirely” to the Upper-Left quadrant is not a reduction, then it is hard to see how modern science is reductionistic by assigning reality only to the right-hand quadrants, as Wilber has frequently claimed.
In the end, Wilber cannot have it both waysat least not within the structure of his AQAL model that, for all its revisions, remains subtly Cartesian (cf. Ferrer, 2002). By simple logic, either his Kosmic Habits (deep structures) are subjectively constructed, and therefore not metaphysical, or else they are assertions about the objective nature of reality, and therefore metaphysical. In the first case they are reduced “almost entirely” to the left-hand domain of subjectivity; in the second case, they are unacceptable in a modern scholarly contextas Wilber has himself acknowledged.
6. Wilber's Definition of Integral Post-Metaphysics
There is something refreshingly revealing about Abramson's concerns that a specific passage of Wilber was omitted from Hartelius and Ferrer's (2013) paper. It is true that the paper omitted Wilber's definition of integral post-metaphysics. This was not an extensive account of every aspect of Wilber's integral post-metaphysics, and the particular passage offered by Abramson was not quoteda passage deeply embedded within the technical concepts of Wilber's complex worldview that would scarcely be accessible to anyone outside of Wilber's adherents. This is a lucid example of how Wilber and his supporters insist that the debate with Wilber's ideas be conducted within a comprehensive understanding and presentation of Wilber's writings. That is, any discussion of Wilber's work should be situated on the cartography of Wilber's worldviewan apparent attempt to dictate that, in order to debate with Wilber, one must be familiar with all of his writings, up on his very latest change of opinion, and that one must cite and address everything that Wilber or any of his supporters believe should be cited or addressed.
To demand that any debate about Wilber's work be situated within Wilber's model is to assert by implication that Wilber's meta-narrative has superior legitimacy. This is foundational to Wilber's work, for he seems to have positioned himself as one of the “few people” (Abramson, 2014, p. 11) who can legitimately talk about nondual reality. He is among those few who are at a higher evolutionary level, and whose narrative is therefore privileged beyond that of those whose misfortune it is to be classified, in Wilber's system and by virtue of their disagreement with him, as on a lower rung, or at the level of an inferior meme. While every reasonable effort should be put forward to understand Wilber's writings within the larger context of his model and his contemporary thoughtwhich changes more rapidly than that of most writersthe meta-narrative that Wilber's work cannot be critiqued except by readers who agree that it says what Wilber claims it says, is one that deserves to be rejected.
In his conclusion, Abramson (2014) suggested that there should be some co-creative participation between Ferrer and Wilberapparently Abramsontl transpersonal version of pleading for everyone to just get along. Although dialogue between diverse viewpoints is commendable and Ferrer (2011a) explicitly offered three specific directions to move forward the dialogue with Wilber, co-creation does not imply compromise with every unworkable alternative. “Being participatory” is not some new “thing,” some new transpersonal cult, but a call to move beyond transpersonal cults. It especially does not mean that an approach eschewing ultimate knowledge needs to come to terms with one that asserts itself as the ever-changing vehicle of unchanging ultimate knowledge.
In fact, the point of a participatory approach is precisely not to engage in competitive debates about ultimate reality, but to largely set such debates aside in favor of an avowedly limited perspective that allows for the legitimacy of spiritual experience without resorting to absolutist claims (Ferrer, 2002; cf. Friedman, 2013); given his reflections on Murti and Wilber, it seems that Abramson would deem such absolutist claims licit. Participatory is not vying with Wilberwhether or no his works are perennialist in either claim or substancefor being the top dog in defining ultimate reality within a transpersonal or integral community. In my view, it is proposing a framework within which transpersonal work can move forward to do good scholarship and research on spiritual, mystical, and other exceptional human experiences within a scientifically-informed society, free from the impediments of metaphysical claims to privileged knowledge about ultimate reality.
Has Ken Wilber Been Misunderstood by Hartelius and Ferrer?
Hartelius and Ferrer (2013) argued that Wilber's work continues to be perennialist in its structure; to degree that Abramson (2014) accurately reflects Wilber's views, his paper supports this claim. For example, Abramson attempted to defend Murti's (1955/2013) absolutist, essentialist model of ultimate reality, explicitly equating this perennialist-like ultimate with Wilber's view. Abramson (2014) cited Wilber as suggesting that the “Mystery” has no specific qualities, then described Wilber's nondual as having the very specific qualities of the Self of Advaita Vedanta; Abramson then equated this same Mystery with the quite different but also very specific quality of Buddhist dependent origination known as Emptinesswhich is precisely a perennialist strategy. He acknowledged that Wilber's model sees some deep structures of reality as universal, which is both a metaphysical assumption and characteristic of structuralist perennialism.
Neither Wilber nor Abramson (2014) seem prepared to accept the notion that if one makes perennialist claims, it is reasonable that one's work will be characterized as perennialist. True, Wilber (1997) has distanced himself from traditional perennialism, but this is not the same thing as being non-perennialist. Wilber (1997) has clearly articulated what has been aptly characterized as a neoperennialist stance (Ferrer, 2002); while the latter is perhaps more apt as a term, this does not in any way detract from the critique by Hartelius and Ferrer (2013) that his work is perennialist in nature, and subject to the limitations of such systems.
Wilber's protestations about having his work identified as perennialist deserve careful attention. This strategy is similar to that used by President Bill Clinton when he stated emphatically he had not had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. As he later acknowledged, he took the position that if she orally copulated him, it was her who was having sexual relations with him, not the other way aroundeven though in any conventional understanding, Clinton was in fact plainly involved in sexual relations with Lewinsky. His statement appeared to convey a plain and simple message that was contrary to the actual facts. Though the context is philosophy and not sexual misconduct, Wilber has similarly denied that his work is perennialist on the basis of his own narrow and unconventional technical definition of perennialism. In any ordinary usage of the term, his system is accurately and usefully described as perennialist.
The same can be said of Wilber's claim that he is post-metaphysical. Ferrer (2011a) has demonstrated in detail the manner in which Wilber has defined metaphysical in a very limited way, so that he can claim to be post-metaphysicalwhile his postulated nondual dimension remains clearly metaphysical to any informed reader not looking through Wilber's customized lens. Though it is entirely valid to create and use technical definitions for specific terms or constructs, Wilber has complained that his work is misunderstood whenever critics employ commonly ascribed scholarly meanings, rather than using his own idiosyncratic definitions.
If Wilber's unique definitions were superior for advancing scholarship, then his concerns might be more worthy of a hearing. Because they are unconventional in a way that seems designed merely to turn aside critiques of his work, they fail to convince. There are undoubtedly occasions on which Wilber's work has been legitimately misunderstood, but upon careful review it does not seem that there are significant instances of this by Hartelius and Ferrer (2013). There are clear points of difference on assumptions, definitions, and conclusions, but these do not appear to be misunderstandings.
Given the frequency of this charge of misunderstanding, it seems fair to ask whether supporters of the Wilber model are actually requiring something more than understanding. The fact that Wilber has rarely accepted critiques openly (Ferrer & Puente, 2013; Rothberg & Kelly, 1998; Rowan, Daniels, Fontana, & Walley, 2009), has been perceived as intolerant of the opinions of others (e.g., May, Krippner, & Doyle, 1992), and has attempted to block publication of work by critics (cf. Ferrer & Puente, 2013) suggests a stance in which perhaps anything short of agreement will be characterized as misunderstanding (cf. Rothberg & Kelly, 1998). While it is impossible to know all of the motivations for the claims that Wilber's work is misunderstood, the patterns of response are consistent with a belief that if only a reader understood Wilber's model in its entirety, they would surely find it compellingly true; conversely, if there is disagreement, it must be because the model has not been understood in its fullness, in its latest iteration, or through the lens of some obscure passage.
While Wilber and his supporters seem to hold a peculiarly adversarial stance toward critics, Wilber's model has nevertheless proven inspiring for thousands of readers. Perhaps it is time for the integral model to be considered in a different light.
A Startling New Role for Wilber's Integral Model
Wilber's model was and is a developed version of what Ferrer (2002) has called structuralist perennialism. When the model was met in scholarly circles with critiques that it relied on metaphysical assumptions such as an objectively real nondual ultimate, Wilber began what has been a series of maneuvers to position his work in ways that side-stepped this and other critiques. This has complicated what was otherwise a rather straightforward way of representing a number of personal, social, cultural, and natural-world variables in a simple and concise mannereven if it fails to integrate them as well as it purports to do. Yet the new and convoluted version is no less perennialist than the simpler onethis being said with the disclaimer that the term perennialist is being used in its broader and more conventional sense rather than in Wilber's specialized sense. While a perennialist model has certain necessary shortcomings relative to applications within modern psychology or religious studies, it is still perfectly serviceable as a meaning-making frame.
In fact, there is something intuitively attractive about the notion that a person from a different spiritual tradition is involved in a process very much like one's own quest. It is an easily-grasped approximation that allows the individual to feel resonance with those of other paths within the simple language of lived experience. In this first-approach application, perennialism is a humane and relational alternative to prejudice, orthodoxy, and religious extremism. With its postulated nondual dimension it is an affirmation of the value of lived experience, of interconnectedness, of spirituality. Relieved of the notion that his work will usher in an entirely new era, Wilber's model is a sophisticated version of perennialism that serves these worthy human purposes quite well.
Wilber's construction teaches as much by where it falls short as by where it succeeds. For example, the moment the shared spiritual goal of humanity is characterized in any wayeven as nondualthis seemingly inclusive model immediately transforms into a hierarchical ranking of different spiritual paths (Ferrer, 2002). This suggests that articulating any specific universals in human spirituality may be quite difficult indeed. Even if the ultimate spiritual goal is ineffable but remains factually the same for all traditions, it must be in some sense objective; this in turn requires that it must have specific qualities that would confirm some spiritual paths as actually superior to others. Furthermore, if the qualities of this goal can only be perceived within the deep interiority of great mystics or saints or synthesizers, then spirituality is necessarily authoritarian in structureemancipation, liberation, or redemption requires submission to a spiritual reality defined by others. One might say that Wilber's model has shone a light on perennialism in a way that shows the need for a philosophy that would go quite beyond both postmodernism and perennialisma need that might go unrecognized without the work that Wilber has done.
Something similar is true of states of consciousness, for if attainment of spiritual goals involves the achievement of a particular state, then a perennialist frame permits no diversity of phenomenology (Ferrer, 2011a); it imposes an arbitrary conceptual framework on phenomenological experience that necessarily claims to supercede any traditional interpretation, while simultaneously denying that a framework is being imposed. It discounts contradictory data as evidence of faulty interpretationmeaning that the interpreters are not using the designated perennialist frame. Perhaps more seriously, any description of an ultimate state will necessarily be simplified and generalized so as to fit with the descriptions of multiple traditions. In this case, it may become more difficult to distinguish simple embodied states from those that may require many decades of intensive spiritual practice to achieve, if they are achieved at all. This, in turn, may inflate the descriptions of easily accessible states in such a way that beginners who achieve them may think that they are much farther along the spiritual path than they actually are (e.g., Blackstone, 2006; Krystal, 2003). In this way a perennialist approach to ultimate states may foster spiritual inflation and discredit more credible research on such phenomena.
Wilber's body of work also demonstrates that any model overtly situated on a metaphysical claim is unlikely to be suitable for the purposes of contemporary scholarship or science. Metaphysical systems are currently out of fashion because there is no way to support them with publicly observable evidence. Once hidden causes or concealed dimensions of reality are called on to account for how the world appears to external senses, it is difficult to offer anything other than verbal arguments that the nondual is a better causative agent than the caprices of Zeus or Baal or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. This fact does not prevent people from many cultures and levels of education from believing in and acting based on providence, luck, small superstitious practices, or the blessings of saints. Yet the context of scholarship, specifically, does not allow for metaphysically-based systems. Nor does Wilber's (e.g., 1990, 1995, 1997) proposal for his version of a radical empiricism solve this, for it does not meet the standards necessary for a credible research method for obtaining information from inner domains (Ferrer, 2002).
As critics have pointed out, Wilber's model is imperfect in a variety of ways (e.g., Ferrer, 2000, 2002, 2011b; Lahood, 2010a, 2010b; Rothberg & Kelly, 1998). A number of the basic representations of facts in science and research are more flawed than should be acceptable from even a popular author (Falk, 2009). As Hartelius and Ferrer (2013) observed, it is still thoroughly metaphysical and perennialist in its structure, which makes it of minimal use in a scholarly context. But as an approximation for a popular audience not overly concerned with philosophy, conceptual consistency, or accuracy in every detail of scientific fact or theory, it does offer an inspirational vision that promotes the validity of inner experience and human spirituality, and espouses the relatedness of various spiritual traditions.
Wilber's integral model is a myth for the modern worldin the best sense of that term. It draws on the language of science and psychology, but it is not scientific, and it is not a psychology in any conventional sense. As a philosophy it is unique but not novel. As a guide to spirituality, it is more conceptual than practicalyet it does convey the passionate effort of one man to make meaningful sense of life within modernity. It is no shame that Wilber's model falls short on the likely-impossible task of providing a valid theory of everything (cf. Wilber, 2000). Rather than attempting what it does poorlysuch as convoluting itself to try to be many things that it is notperhaps Wilber's integral model should embrace what it does well, and leave it at that.
I wish to thank Jorge N. Ferrer for generous assistance in the preparation of this manuscript. I also wish to thank Michaela Aizer for her contributions to the paper.
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