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Jeff MeyerhoffBald AmbitionJeff Meyerhoff, M.A., L.S.W. is the author of "Bald Ambition: A Critique of Ken Wilber's Theory of Everything" and other essays on integral theory. He majored in economics and sociology and has studied philosophy, psychology, politics and spirituality. He's been employed as a social worker for the last 18 years. His weekly radio show, "The Ruminator," is archived at His blog is and his email is



and Postmodernism

Bald Ambtion, Chapter 7

Jeff Meyerhoff

Poststructuralism is a multifaceted critique which throws the essentials of Wilber's entire system into question.

Wilber's integral project can be read as a reaction to what he sees as the fragmenting effects of poststructuralism and postmodernism. Wilber tries to create one great Kosmic narrative which incorporates poststructural truths, while not succumbing to the relativism and nihilism he diagnoses in extreme postmodernism. In contrast to his attempt to create one, great, all-encompassing story, poststructuralists emphasize that essential differences between people and ideas are effaced through totalizing historical metanarratives such as Wilber's. By extracting some concepts which can be associated with a poststructural perspective and incorporating them into his integral synthesis, Wilber avoids the fundamental challenges that poststructuralism poses to his system and to knowledge acquisition in general. Wilber's depiction of postmodernism is more varied than his picture of poststructuralism, but it too is limited. He sketches a view of postmodernism as dominating academia and culture which I show is not the case.


Poststructuralism is a broad term for a loose agglomeration of theorists and ideas which arose in the mid-sixties as a reaction to the prevailing intellectual approach of structuralism. The structuralism of Claude Levi-Strauss, Louis Althusser and Jacques Lacan, was itself a reaction to the subject-centered philosophies of phenomenology and existentialism. Structuralism is a social scientific method which uncovers the universal individual and social structures that people unconsciously enact in their everyday behavior. For example, the myths told within given societies can be broken down into their elemental parts and the relationship between the parts mapped. These maps can then be compared cross-culturally and the deep structures of the psyche of humanity revealed.

Jacques Derrida became a central figure in the poststructural reaction to structuralism with his critique of Levi-Strauss.[1] His deconstructive method takes the very idea of “a structure” and shows how it is built on contradictions that it represses in order to appear consistent. The concept of “structure,” like all concepts, derives its meaning not from a self-identity or a one-to-one correspondence to what it describes, but from its subterranean relationship to what it is not. Structures are supposed to be fixed, motionless and synchronic as opposed to their opposites such as events, play, systems and the diachronic. But, Derrida would contend, “structure” derives its very sense from both what it is and what it is not. It is dependent for its meaning on the other.

Derrida's anti-method method, i.e. a method that is used to show what is problematic in other peoples' methods, does not provide a clear-cut positive program to replace what has been deconstructed. Likewise, Michel Foucault, in his poststructural phase, used a method of social history writing that told a version of the past while simultaneously raising the question of the very possibility of history writing. He adapted Nietzsche's concept of the genealogy to trace the convoluted twists and turns that particular ideas and practices go through as now this or that group appropriates them for their differing needs. The idea of history as genealogy undermines the positive evolution and developmentalism that Wilber promotes.

The poststructural critique asserts a number of radical propositions: differing perspectives are not reconcilable into some larger scheme; no unproblematic intellectual foundations validate knowledge-claims; the natural sciences offer no epistemological certainty; words themselves – the tools of thinking and writing – are not transparent windows on reality; our eras taken-for- granted humanism which places “man” at the center of all things is an intellectual and historical fiction; and meta-narratives, which attempt to describe the history of humanity or existence, crush differences and are exclusive while trumpeting integration and inclusion.

Wilber sidesteps this critique and reduces it to the idea that poststructuralism essentially agrees with his holarchic view because “a close look at their work shows that it is driven precisely by a conception of holons within holons, of texts within texts within texts (or contexts within contexts within contexts), and it is the sliding play of texts within texts that forms the 'foundationless' platform from which they launch their attacks.”[2] Wilber's “contexts within contexts” refrain undermines the radicality of the poststructural critique. Poststructuralists aren't just showing that there are always contexts within contexts. Poststructuralism is a multifaceted critique which throws the essentials of Wilber's entire system into question. His system exemplifies the intellectual excesses that poststructuralism arose to attack: the centrality of Man; the simplistic historical story-telling; the unproblematic use of language as transparent conveyor of truth; the purported creation of an inclusive system of integrated partial truths which denies profound differences; his unexplained role as teller of the Kosmos's story; the essentializing of the subjective realm in the face of the decentering of the subject in structuralism and deconstruction. All of this cuts to the heart of Wilber's project, but when he periodically mentions poststructuralism he repeats a “contexts within contexts” mantra and counters any relativistic difficulty by saying these “sliding contexts” slide in regular patterns.

Wilber extracts one piece of the poststructural critique – the contextualized nature of knowing – and reinterprets it in such a way that he can use it as an authoritative source to confirm an aspect of his system. This gives the impression that he is integrating another partial truth into his inclusive synthesis. He thereby avoids the most difficult philosophical questions in contemporary thought.

Constructivism and Mysticism

The poststructuralists' emphasis on the mediation of knowledge by language has engendered an intellectual approach called constructivism. Constructivism suggests that if language mediates our knowledge of the world and is a historically contingent, socially constructed, cultural variable, then we can conceive of our knowledge of the world as a construction rather than as a discovery of what is simply there. This is why Wilber sometimes refers to “creating/discovering” knowledge. The use of the word “creating” is his nod to the poststructural critique.

Constructivism creates a great obstacle for Wilber. He needs to be able to argue that mystical insight delivers knowledge of the spiritual core of existence. This Spirit is the animating force and telos of the Kosmos. Humanity is on an evolutionary journey to the realization of Spirit. Spirit's revelation and embodiment by man would be the culmination of the Kosmos's unfolding. The most advanced four stages of consciousness are the proper unfolding of human spirituality culminating in the realization of the non-dual essence of existence. This deepest of human insights into the nature of Reality is confirmed to be as Wilber describes it because the separate mystical traditions have all found the same Truth at the core of existence. This belief in a common core to mystical experience is the part of the perennial philosophy to which Wilber still adheres.

The philosophy of mysticism was dominated by the perennial philosophy view for many decades. With the rise of the linguistic turn in the 20th century, deconstruction and constructivism brought a new critique and understanding to the philosophy of mysticism. Steven's Katz's Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis[3] from 1978 is the best-known collection of constructivist or anti-perennial philosophy views. Constructivists argue that it is language that allows us to have a conscious experience of what we conceive of as reality. Language arises from socio-cultural contexts, one aspect of which is religious traditions. Mystical practices are embedded within the particular world-views of these religious traditions. These contexts determine the content and form of the mystical experiences that spiritual practitioners have. In contrast to the perennial philosophy, which sees the similarities between seemingly different mystical traditions, constructivism demonstrates the essential differences between differing traditions through a close analysis of the writings of mystical practitioners.

Within academia, while Katz's book was being published and the philosophy of mysticism was moving away from the perennial philosophy tradition, outside academia, Wilber was just making a name for himself with his updating of the perennial tradition in his successful first book, The Spectrum of Consciousness. Part of Wilber's task in that book was to resurrect the perennial tradition by arguing that the differing experiences of Reality reported by the world's mystics are actually pointing to the same Reality and so serve to confirm their individual approaches. If all the major traditions keep seeing the same Reality, that is evidence for the scientific validity of the approaches. Katz et al.'s constructivism stands in the way of Wilber's validating mysticism as an actual perception of Reality and as the pinnacle of evolution's movement towards manifesting Spirit.

In two long footnotes Wilber tries strenuously to defeat the constructivists. In so doing he twists himself into such an intellectual tangle that it is hard to disentangle his thinking. This in itself is an indication of trouble because Wilber is generally a clear and consistent writer; if his writing is this confused then something probably isn't working. Wilber's initial statement of Katz's position is mostly accurate. All experiences are mediated by language, cultural background, mental concepts etc. Since all experience is mediated it cannot be claimed that mystics attain a direct, unmediated, experience of Reality. Wilber quotes Katz: “'there are NO pure (i.e. unmeditated) experiences.'”[4] Wilber misleadingly omits that Katz states that the previous statement is his “single epistemological assumption.”[5] Katz does not claim it is an absolute truth. By failing to mention this, Wilber can later claim that Katz contradictorily states that it is absolutely true that there are no absolute truths and gets caught in the relativist self-contradiction paradox.

Wilber also overstates the degree to which Katz et al. do not allow for cross-cultural similarities. He describes their position as “there can be no commonalities (or cross-cultural similarities) in mystical experiences.”[6] This is too strong a statement of the constructivist's position. They can certainly allow “similarities.” It is identities that they would say we cannot be sure of. Wilber needs to exaggerate the constructivist position on this point in order to catch them later through an argument he has devised to counter the “no commonalities (or cross-cultural similarities” position they have tendentiously been assigned.

In beginning his response, Wilber surprisingly tries to out-constructivize the constructivists by asserting that they do not go far enough. They, he says, make a distinction between raw experience and how it gets mediated by language, culture etc. But since “every holon – and therefore every experience – is always already situated, mediated, contextual”[7] the whole experience/meditation dichotomy breaks down. “Everything is always already a context in a context.”[8] Wilber appears to be saying that by even using the concept of experience the constructivists undermine their assertion of total mediation because it is all mediation. This kind of radical deconstruction is quite suggestive, but it is not a position that Wilber adopts.

Wilber then launches into a convoluted argument which ends in a contradiction. After having said that “every experience – is always already situated, mediated, contextual” and “It is not that 'original experiences' arrive to be reworked by mental concepts; the original experiences are not original,”[9] he then says, a page later, that “In short, experience is immediate prehension of whatever mediated contexts are given, and that is why all experience is both pure (immediate) and contextual”[10] Wilber is contradictorily asserting that, on the one hand, experience is wholly mediated and, on the other hand, has elements of mediation and unmediation.

Wilber seems to think that mediation means separation and that if all is mediated we could not know anything without a point of immediacy or touching. He writes, “At the moment of touch, there is no mediation; if there is mediation, there is no touching.”[11] But mediation needn't be thought of like this. Mediation is generally understood as the way in which we know or touch things. For example, the mass media is the filter through which we get the news and is simultaneously what keeps us from knowing what is really going on.

Wilber then leaves off with this line of attack and returns to his old standby the self-contradiction argument. “Katz claims that all experience is mediated and that this is true for all cultures . . . thus he is claiming to be in possession of a non-relative truth that is true cross-culturally and universally”[12] Wilber concludes that Katz, like all strong constructivists contradicts himself. This argument is easily countered though. Matthew Bagger argues[13] that Katz's “assumption” or “intuition” need not be understood as an a priori assumption or absolute proclamation made before the facts. It can be understood as an a posteriori working hypothesis which will rely for its validity upon the empirical evidence Katz adduces in support of his view. The works he has collected in his three anthologies of writing on mysticism are, in part, an effort to show the efficacy of that assumption for mysticism studies. If a scholar wants to argue against the constructivists view he or she must show how these empirical analyses of differing mystical texts are faulty.[14]

Wilber then twists the argument in a strange way in order to attribute an even more extreme claim to the constructivists. Through a number of unjustified leaps in argument he claims that the constructivists are in the position of denying that “individuals from different cultures (or even the same culture) . . . [can] even talk about anything.”[15] Because the constructivists must claim that there are no 'transcendental signifieds,' i.e. no shared supra-linguistic understandings that transcend the signifiers we use in spoken and written communication, they cannot account for the fact that people communicate at all, claims Wilber. In other words, there must be some trans-linguistic common ground that people share – i.e. a transcendental signified – in order for people to be able to translate their language into another person's language. In support of this, Wilber claims that even Derrida, the intellectual father of constructivism, admits there are transcendental signifieds. This is surprising because it runs counter to Derrida's famous statement: “there is nothing outside the text” – no signifieds that escape the play of signifiers. Wilber's even able to find a quote where he thinks Derrida affirms the existence of the transcendental signified. However, in the quote and its context Derrida is clearly arguing for the opposite of what Wilber says he is. He quotes Derrida and adds in brackets: “this does not prevent it [the transcendental signified] from functioning, and even from being indispensable within certain limits. For example, no translation would be possible without it.”[16] Derrida appears to be arguing for the necessity of a transcendental signified, but when the relevant page in the book by Derrida from which Wilber quotes him is consulted we find that the “it” which Wilber says refers to “the transcendental signified” actually refers to “this opposition or difference” between “the signifier and the signified.”[17] Derrida is actually showing his agreement with Katz when in the same section he writes “a 'transcendental signified,' . . . in its essence, would refer to no signifier, would exceed the chain of signs, and would no longer itself function as a signifier.”[18] In other words, it's outside the verbal loop. There is no way to refer to a transcendental signified because there can be no signifier attached. This is the same argument that mystics make when they say their transcendent experiences are ineffable. Their transcendent experience cannot be put into words; their transcendent signified has no signifier. Katz writes: “it is not being argued either that mystical experiences do not happen, or that what they claim may not be true, only that there can be no grounds for deciding this question, i.e. of showing that they are true even if they are, in fact true.” The mystics may be touching Reality, but we linguistically-bound beings cannot know whether they do or not.

On two other occasions Wilber will use Derrida to counter Katz and make reference to this one misinterpreted quote as his justification for doing so.

The problems Derrida poses for Wilber go beyond his mistaken interpretation of Derrida's words. At many key points in the text, Wilber relies on Saussure's distinction between the signified and the signifier, assuming the distinction is unproblematic. But one of the crucial deconstructive moves that Derrida makes is to deconstruct that very distinction. Derrida writes, “if this difference [between signified and signifier] is never pure, no more so is translation, and for the notion of translation we would have to substitute a notion of transformation: . . . We will never have, and in fact have never had, to do with some 'transport' of pure signifiers from one language to another, or within one and the same language, that the signifying instrument would leave virgin and untouched.”[20] In other words, the spoken and written words we use always leave their marks on the translations made and we never gain a pure unmediated idea of what the linguistic other says. Just as Katz argues.

Derrida's poststructural critique of Saussure is problematic for Wilber in another way. His deconstruction of the very distinction between signifier and signified that Wilber uses demonstrates that the two are not really distinct entities but necessary ingredients of each other. Can we imagine a signified – a pure concept – by itself? Think of the signified “dog.” Isn't there always the signifier – the image or word – “dog” present? Alternatively, can there be a signifier without a signified? One might say yes, there are many signifiers – heard or written words – of which we don't know the meaning or signified; they are signifiers without signifieds. Yet when you look that word up in a dictionary, of what does its definition – meaning or signified – consist, but a bunch of signs – signifiers and signifieds – strung together? So that meaning or signified you don't know is actually a bunch of signifiers and signifieds and not a pure, isolable meaning. It's just a trick of language that makes you think it is because we commonly say “I don't know what that word means (don't know its signified).” This is Derrida's critique of Saussure's description of the sign and just one of the problems Wilber will encounter if he uses it.

Wilber's transformation of Derrida into an intellectual ally against the evidence of the very quotes he is using to make his case shakes one's confidence in Wilber as a scholarly reporter. Wilber unconsciously manifests his displeasure with his own arguments when he keeps repeating them and resorts to silly invectives. In summing up Katz's position in general and his relation to Habermas in particular, Wilber writes that

Katz's position is a blunder of half-baked neo-Kantian aphorisms, pressed into the service of a deconstructive atmosphere of self-contradictory (and self-congratulatory) rhetoric. It is shot through with aperspectival madness, the dominant form of intellectual insanity for the postmodern mind. As therapia, let Katz answer Habermas; we'll talk with the winner.[21]

But not if it's Katz, him we'll misrepresent to serve our own purposes. A similar example occurs towards the end of the book. Wilber refers to the poststructural literary critic Stanley Fish as “that dimmest of the postmodern dim bulbs.”[22] People call Stanley Fish a lot of names, but I have never heard anyone, not even those who strenuously disagree with him, call him a dim bulb. He may be wrong, but he is brilliant.

Wilber resorts to these kinds of silly statements because he senses that he really can't defeat his opponents with superior arguments. He hides, from the reader and himself, behind a discourse of confident triumphalism as the deep problems poststructuralism poses for his thinking are denied. The questions and problems raised by the poststructural critique go to the heart of Wilber's synthesis: Can one speak truth to power if truth is a construction of power?, Should the social and natural sciences be seen as discovering or creating knowledge?, In what sense are differing world-views of historical epochs incommensurable with each other?, How do we legitimize truth-claims when there appears to be no foundation from which to legitimize truth?, How is the idea of the subject a social construction?, and, Are meta-narratives defensible anymore?

Wilber's use of Nagarjuna offers an important illustration of a number of the problems with advances in poststructuralism that I have just explained. Alongside Plotinus in the West, Nagarjuna in the East stands as an exemplar for Wilber of both mystical insight and philosophical excellence. Of Plotinus and Nagarjuna Wilber writes:

Thus, around the world, East and West, North and South – it is only a slight exaggeration to say that all Nondual roads lead to these two most extraordinary souls, world heroes in the truest sense.[23]

As is often the case with Wilber, the scholar he uses to derive and justify his interpretation is problematic. Wilber uses T.R.V. Murti's study The Central Philosophy of Buddhism as his authority on Nagarjuna. Murti's study was published in 1955 and belongs to what Andrew Tuck, in his study of Nagarjuna scholarship,[24] places in the second of four phases of western Nagarjuna scholarship. Wilber extols Murti's study as “generally regarded as the finest treatment of Nagarjuna in English.”[25] While he does acknowledge drawbacks and some disagreements with Murti's interpretation, he neglects to inform the reader of the large debate surrounding Nagarjuna interpretation. In Tuck's study we learn that the type of interpretation that Murti and those like him practiced has been criticized by recent poststructural interpreters. These recent interpreters point directly to an ambivalence and contradiction in Murti's Nagarjuna, centering on the very point that Wilber accepts uncritically from Murti. That point is the status of the Absolute in Nagarjuna and its relation to the relative or conventional world of everyday life.

Nagarjuna used skeptical questioning and argumentation to demonstrate the inadequacy of all views of the nature of reality. He showed that the world of conventional reality which we all share and the absolute world claimed by mystics to be hidden behind it, are both empty of inherent existence or essence. Nagarjuna did not assert the view that there was nothing there, for this would be another view. He claimed that all existent things are empty of a persisting substance including the very emptiness used to describe reality's essence. Left with no thing to grasp, nor even an idea of nothingness to grasp, the spiritual practitioner is freed from the delusion of a view or substance to hold onto. The experience of freedom from such attachment is the way to Buddhist liberation.

Wilber, who says he has an experiential insight into the non-dual or empty nature of reality, is at great pains not to reify that insight and to convey how it is unutterably unlike what words can express. He, like Murti, wants to fully appreciate the ineffability of the Absolute, but still wants there to be some sort of transcendental something that can act as a referent or Ultimate. But influenced by Murti, and with his own need to have the mystic's transpersonal experiences thought an advance over the personal experience of the modern consciousness, he still preserves the non-dual as a something that provides a foundation and a telos for his intellectual project. This use of Murti ignores the large Nagarjuna scholarship of the last 55 years and misleads the reader by making it seem as if the weight of academic scholarship supports Wilber's position. But when we consult that recent scholarship we find subtle interpretations of Nagarjuna's philosophy deeply influenced by the very poststructural thinking that Wilber criticizes and, supposedly, integrates. This contemporary scholarship comes to the surprising conclusion that Wilber's spiritual and philosophical exemplar propounded a non-self-refuting relativism.[26]

Tuck explains that Murti was caught in a dilemma. He wanted to rescue Nagarjuna from the charge of nihilism that the scholarship previous to his had leveled at Nagarjuna's philosophy, but he also wanted to be true to the radically skeptical nature of Nagarjuna's argumentation. While Murti could claim that Nagarjuna asserts no view of his own, he had to argue, to counter charges of nihilism, that there was some sort of absolute in Nagarjuna's philosophy. Wilber follows Murti in asserting that there is an ineffable something which one realizes as the empty essence of reality, while trying his hardest not to turn it into a thing. Later Nagarjuna scholarship, however, influenced by contemporary analytic and continental philosophy, feels no compunction in dispensing with talk of an absolute because they have no fear that nihilism need result. But this scholarship, not averse to relativism like Wilber, can acknowledge Nagarjuna's relativism.

Spiritually, Wilber basks in the paradoxical nature of Nagarjuna's philosophy and realizes fully that any description of the Absolute, even a negative one, deludes as it seeks to clarify. But intellectually, he feels the need to defeat what he sees as a rampant and destructive relativism and so must rail against it while having no way to avoid it since the bases of his intellectual system are as subject to it as any intellectual system. Jay Garfield's interpretation (as well as others)[27] demonstrates that a poststructurally informed interpretation can realize the relativistic qualities of Nagarjuna's thought, without the dire consequences that Wilber imagines.


Poststructuralism is one aspect of what may be a larger societal shift called postmodernism. Postmodernism is a new cultural, social and economic shift in Western societies in which fundamental aspects of the older modern world have changed to such a degree that a new historical world is upon us. That the phenomenon of postmodernism even exists, let alone what its nature is, is highly debatable and it has spawned an enormous literature mainly in social and cultural studies. Wilber takes for granted that our current social world is postmodern, but, unlike those who try to describe and explain this world, he tends to think of postmodernism as naming a world-view or, more specifically, a belief about the nature of knowledge. For him the “ism” on the end of the word postmodernism suggests a belief-system like the words Marxism or Judaism. While postmodernism is not such a belief-system, it is true that accompanying the reports of a change to a postmodern culture are descriptions of a change in philosophical assumptions about knowledge. It makes sense that Wilber would see this one aspect of postmodernism and emphasize its importance. His project is defined as an attempt to weave together the world's scientific knowledge and create a vast integral synthesis. So his concentration on postmodernism as a kind of knowledge makes sense. However, since he's also trying to describe a societal shift as a shift in consciousness he needs to appreciate the current understandings of what society is like. This may be what he will do in volumes II and III of his Kosmos Trilogy. For now, his understanding of postmodernism is quite thin and is designed to make it fit within his larger vision regardless of whether it captures postmodernism or not.

Wilber describes three insights of postmodernism which when taken to extremes create problems. He tries to incorporate these insights while identifying and criticizing the extremes, and offering a remedy through his integral synthesis. First, postmodernism has shown us that reality is a construction as well as something that is given. Its emphasis on the degree to which interpretation affects our description of reality is an advance over modernity's unthinking realism. This emphasis on interpretation has countered the subtle reductionism of modernity's emphasis on the right hand side of the holarchy, thereby promoting the integrity of the left hand side, the knowledge which is dependent on interpretation to be known. This insight into the constructed nature of knowledge Wilber terms constructivism.

The second insight of postmodernism is that the meanings that we interpret to understand the world are context-dependent. Language and its meaning are not simply derived from a one-to-one correspondence with the things in the world. Meanings are intersubjective creations which arise from nested contexts of personal, social, cultural and material contexts. There is no ultimate context which is the guarantor of the one proper meaning because these contexts are boundless. Wilber terms this truth of postmodernism contextualism.

Thirdly, because no context is ultimate there is no one perspective that is ultimately privileged. A particular type of relativism prevails. Wilber sees one of the great achievements of postmodern consciousness as pluralism or the respect for multiple perspectives. So in postmodern thought there is a great emphasis on difference and the need to respect the other. He terms this integral-aperspectivalism borrowing the term from Jean Gebser.

Each of these understandings is an historical advance over the modern rational consciousness and allows a further advance in consciousness beyond the postmodern. But postmodernism has a dark side. Each of these three advances has been taken too far by some and the resulting extremism has dire consequences for society's evolution if not corrected.

Constructivism, or recognizing the role interpretation plays in our knowledge of the world, has been taken to extremes by those who say there is nothing but interpretation and deny reality to the right hand side of the holarchy. Wilber writes that “objective truth itself disappears into arbitrary interpretations.”[28] An example of this is Derrida's famous quote about there being nothing outside the text.

Contextualism, or the boundlessness of contexts, can combine with the insight into the relativity of perspectives and lead to a destructive relativism and nihilism in which no perspective is thought to be any better than any other. The aperspectivalism which recognizes the legitimacy of all other perspectives degenerates into an “aperspectival madness” in which it is thought no ranking or hierarchy of perspectives is possible. This extreme relativism effaces all depths because the depths of one perspective can be seen as the mere surface of another. For example, the depths of individual consciousness can be seen as a socially created illusion of modernity and nothing more than crisscrossing societal forces. When everything known becomes a linguistic construction everything is reduced to the surface of the text. Just as modernity effaced individual depths through scientific reductionism, postmodernity effaces depths through a linguistic reductionism.

There are a number of problems with this critique of postmodernism. Wilber accuses extreme postmodern thinkers of denying reality to the objective world and for asserting that no view is better than any other, contradictorily assuming that their view is better then all others; yet he never quotes any postmodern thinker asserting these extreme views. In a New York Times op-ed piece after the 9-11 attacks, Stanley Fish – a prime example of an extreme postmodern thinker – explicitly denies anti-realism and moral relativism and explains why. He writes that “The only thing postmodern thought argues against is the hope of justifying our response to the attacks in universal terms that would be persuasive to everyone, including our enemies.”[29] Wilber, commenting on that op-ed piece, lazily reasserts his relativist self-contradiction criticism and conveniently avoids Fish's quite reasonable distinctions.[30] Wilber needs these “extreme postmodernists” to exist in order to have a societal pathology which his synthesis can remedy, but because no established thinkers actually hold these views he cannot quote anyone asserting them.

Wilber contends that extreme postmodernism completely denies reality to right hand objective facts. The postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty should qualify, but if so, what do we make of his arguments for a “non-reductive physicalism”[31] in which the reality of causation and the language of the natural sciences are preserved without reducing the mental to them? As for relativists' supposed loss of objectivity, Fish notes that Rorty “is fond of saying, 'Objectivity is the kind of thing we do around here.'”[32] The difference here hinges on the meaning of the word “objectivity.” If objectivity refers to a demonstrable relationship to some ahistorical epistemological ground, then no one is objective, for no one has yet provided such a ground. But if objectivity is what Rorty says it means which is the validity-criteria discussants share, then objectivity is the kind of thing these so-called “extreme postmodernists” do around here. This is true of Wilber himself. As I pointed out in the discussion of his three strands of knowledge, Wilber, like Rorty, makes “community consensus” the arbiter of valid knowledge and claims for his system a relative, as opposed to an absolute, objectivity.

There are non-postmodernist's who deny reality to the objective world. They can be found in mainstream American and British philosophy departments and methodically use the tools of analytic philosophy to argue for, what's currently termed, anti-realism.

In addition to his caricature of imaginary extreme postmodernists, Wilber also exaggerates the extent that extreme postmodernism has taken over the university and culture in general. He adopts wholesale the picture of the university and culture concocted by cultural conservatives for political purposes in the late 80's and early 90's. He claims that:

At this point in Western history (basically, an amalgam of traditional, modern, and postmodern currents) – and specifically at this time in America (circa 2000) – we are going through a period of an intense flatland cascade, a combination of rampant scientific materialism (the orange meme) and the "nothing but surfaces" of the extreme postmodernists (the green meme)[33]

In making the culturally relative surface features the entire story, extreme postmodernism (and boomeritis) has devastated human and spiritual understanding, which often includes a universal/transcendental component.[34]

the green-meme dominates virtually all of conventional academia AND countercultural academia.[35]

In contrast, Russell Jacoby charts the course of a different and more important trend in university education.[36] That trend is away from degrees and classes in the humanities and social sciences and towards degrees in business, accounting, communications, computers and marketing. This is a fundamental and pervasive shift away from the traditional idea of a liberal education that teaches critical thinking, to a vision of college as vocational education. In addition, the cultural courses that students do take are predominantly introductory courses in which students probably never even hear of postmodernism, relativism or multiculturalism. Stanley Fish notes that the English Department of Duke University – thought to be a hotbed of postmodernism -

requires a major author course in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, and Pope, a specified number of courses in literature before 1800, and an introductory course in the techniques of literary analysis, New Critical style. There are no multiculturalism requirements (perhaps there should be), no seminars in sensitivity training, no harassment of instructors presenting traditional courses in traditional ways (if there were, I would be one of those harassed).[37]

Wilber has adopted a convenient conservative fiction regarding the university instead of doing the important sociological work of uncovering what is really going on beyond the fashionable cultural politics and sensationalized news stories.[38]

Wilber's characterization of modernity is on firmer ground than his critique of contemporary postmodernism. According to Wilber the most important achievement of modernity is the distinction between the “Big Three” spheres of existence: the “I” or the subjective, the “We” or the intersubjective, and the “It” or the objective. He contends that this differentiation allowed the end of slavery, the rise of feminism, the establishment of liberal democracies, advances in medical sciences, and ideals of equality, freedom and justice. While a simplification, it is plausible to contend that these increases in individual liberty were dependent upon the delineation of the three separate spheres of value each with their own integrity. Wilber, following Weber and Habermas, also describes modernity's dissociation, disenchantment and the dominance of a scientific materialist reductionism. These negative aspects are what Wilber calls “the flatland ontology” of modernity. To support these claims Wilber refers to Weber and Habermas, but gives no citations. In checking Habermas's major work on this question,[39] we find that the extraction of the Big Three is a fair interpretation of Habermas's gloss on Weber, although Habermas's discussion is much subtler and more complex than Wilber acknowledges.

While his use of Habermas here is defensible, Wilber's periodization of modernity and postmodernity is confusing. He states that we can date the beginning of the “postmodern mood” to Hegel,[40] presumably because Hegel used history to contextualize earlier epochs, showed the constructed nature of knowledge and used vision-logic to create an all embracing system. But if Hegel, at the start of the 19th century begins the postmodern mood, then what are we to make of historical periodizations of postmodernity that date it from the mid to late 20th century and routinely refer to late 19th and early 20th century thinkers such as Nietzsche and Bataille as proto-postmodernists? Adding to the confusion is the constructivism of Hegel's predecessor Kant who created his influential rendering of human subjectivity by seeing it as constitutive of the spatio-temporal world. So either we accept Wilber's broad definitions of constructivism and contextualism which lead to an odd overlapping of the modern and postmodern, or we reject these definitions as too general which requires a wholly different way of characterizing the differences between modern and postmodern thought.

This confusion of modern and postmodern thought is mirrored in Wilber's description of modern and postmodern social changes. He contends that the strength of postmodernism is pluralism, multiculturalism, and the respecting of all voices.[41] Yet isn't democratic pluralism, minority rights, public discussion, free press and religion, and the rational assessment of views a pluralistic part of modernity? The political theorist Robert A. Dahl published his famous theory of democratic pluralism, Who Governs?, in 1961, well before most periodizations of postmodernism. The strengths that Wilber assigns to postmodernism could easily be seen as the strengths of modernism. By misattributing qualities to postmodernism that could just as easily be seen as aspects of modernism, Wilber avoids the stronger and more undermining aspects of postmodern thought. He says that vision-logic, like postmodern thinking, privileges no perspective and weaves them together into an integral-aperspective. Yet Wilber's integral synthesis privileges key ideas that postmodern thought criticizes: evolution, progress, a telos, anthropocentrism, a non-dual essence, the division between inner and outer, realism and a vocabulary that is binding on other times, persons and places. He never adequately confronts the fundamental problems that poststructuralism and postmodernism raise for his theory of everything.


[1] Derrida, Jacques, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” in Writing and Difference, translation and introduction by Alan Bass, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).

[2] Wilber, SES, p. 38.

[3] Katz, Steven, ed., Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, (New York : Oxford University Press, 1978).

[4] SES, p. 599.

[5] Katz, Steven, “Language, Epistemology and Mysticism” in Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, p. 26.

[6] SES, p.599

[7] SES, p. 600.

[8] SES, p. 600.

[9] SES, p. 600.

[10] SES, p. 601.

[11] SES, p. 600.

[12] SES, p. 601.

[13] Bagger, Matthew, “Ecumenicalism and Perennialism Revisited,” Religious Studies, 27, pp. 399-411.

[14] A recent entry into this debate which should be of interest to those wanting counterarguments to constructivism is Paul Marshall's Mystical Encounters with the Natural World, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). Marshall bypasses Wilber's and the Constructivist's use of mystical texts and instead uses accounts of spontaneously occurring spiritual experiences of bliss, expansive love, Oneness and the like. He sees a commonality among these experiences as suggestive of the validity of the perennial philosophy's emphasis on a common core to mystical experience, but claims they avoid social, cultural and historical mediation because the people having these experiences were not doing any spiritual practices and had no knowledge of mystical traditions.

[15] SES, p. 601.

[16] Quoted with bracketed clarification by Wilber from Derrida, Jacques, Positions, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1981), p. 20, in SES p. 602.

[17] Derrida, Positions, p. 20. Just to be clear the entire quote reads: “nor is it a question of confusing at every level, and in all simplicity, the signifier and the signified. That this opposition or difference cannot be radical or absolute does not prevent it from functioning, and even from being indispensable within certain limits – very wide limits. For example, no translation would be possible without it.”

[18] Derrida, Positions, p. 19-20.

[19] Katz, “Language, Epistemology and Mysticism,” p. 22.

[20] Derrida, Positions, p. 20.

[21] SES, p. 603. The last sentence was excised in the 2nd edition of SES.

[22] SES, p. 722. This line too was removed from the 2nd edition.

[23] SES, p. 639, n.7.

[24] Tuck, Andrew, Comparative Philosophy and the Philosophy of Scholarship, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

[25] SES p. 630, n.2.

[26] See chapter 9 with my views.

[27] Garfield, Jay, Empty Words, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). See also Huntington, C.W., The Emptiness of Emptiness, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989).

[28] Wilber, Ken, Integral Psychology, (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2000), p. 163.

[29] Fish, Stanley, “Condemnation Without Absolutes” (op-ed), New York Times, 10/15/01, Section A, p. 19, col. 2.

[30] Wilber, Ken, “The Deconstruction of the World Trade Center,” part III, section entitled “Boomeritis Uber Alles, at

[31] Rorty, Richard, “Non-reductive Physicalism,” in Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

[32] Fish, Stanley, “The Ignorance of Our Warrior Intellectuals,” Harpers Magazine, 7/02, p. 33.

[33] Wilber, Ken , “Waves, Streams, States, and Self – A Summary of My Psychological Model (Or, Outline of An Integral Psychology), Appendix C: The Death of Psychology and the Birth of the Integral,” at

[34] Wilber, Ken, “Endnotes to Boomeritis,” Chapter 9, at

[35] Wilber, Ken, “The Cultural Creatives and the Integral Culture” from “On Critics,… part III, at

[36] Jacoby, Russell, Dogmatic Wisdom, (New York : Doubleday, 1994), pp. 8-10.

[37] Fish, Stanley, There's No Such Thing as Free Speech… and it's a Good Thing, Too, (New York: Oxford University Press), p. 54.

[38] John K. Wilson's The Myth of Political Correctness, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), demonstrates the mythical nature of what Wilber assumes to be facts.

[39] Habermas, Jurgen, Theory of Communicative Action, translated by Thomas McCarthy, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984).

[40] Integral Psychology, p. 274, n.10.

[41] Integral Psychology, p. 159.

© Jeff Meyerhoff 2006

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