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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 Philosophy

Bald Ambition: Chapter 8

Jeff Meyerhoff

Orienting Generalizations

The appeal to authority is not the only problem with Wilber's scholarly method... the greater problem is with his usual method of argumentation.

In Wilber's diagnosis of contemporary intellectual life, modernity's rational level of consciousness contains both a positive respect for other perspectives and a negative postmodern relativity of perspectives. This rational consciousness does not have the capacity to transcend and integrate the multiple perspectives of our increasingly interconnected world. An intellectual and social fragmentation results and the danger of directionlessness and relativism. To combat this fragmentation of knowledge and society, and the resulting relativism of postmodernity, Wilber proposes an integration of knowledge which transcends and includes the welter of perspectives in the natural, social and spiritual sciences. He acknowledges that the sciences appear to be an irreconcilable series of specialized debates, but asserts that behind the disagreements within diverse fields of knowledge are, what he terms, orienting generalizations.[1]

Orienting generalizations are the "already-agreed-upon"[2] knowledge that debating scholars take for granted to be true as they debate the relevant issues in their fields. For example, in developmental psychology debates rage about the details of the developmental stages that people go through as they grow to adulthood, yet the fact that people do develop, and the general stages they pass through, is largely agreed upon, says Wilber. He contends that there is a great deal of this already-agreed-upon knowledge in the diverse debates throughout academia. He will gather these orienting generalizations or partial truths and weave them together to show that they create a consistent developmental-evolutionary story of the Kosmos. He claims he is inclusive, in that he respects all perspectives, but also critical, in that he sees that each perspective is partially false as well as partially true. The method of orienting generalizations is the most important way that Wilber will validate his evolutionary theory and is the central methodological point that he makes in his introduction to Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (SES).[3]

In the preceding chapters I demonstrated that Wilber does not use the "simple but sturdy"[4] and "already-agreed-upon" knowledge of the natural, social and spiritual sciences. He does not really use the orienting generalizations of knowledge and as a consequence an ad hoc methodology results. Instead of the orienting generalizations of knowledge, the reader is often told what famous writers say. Wilber makes statements of fact and validates them by attributing them to a few great thinkers. The assumption is that if a great and influential thinker asserts something, then it should carry authority. For example, Wilber uses Ferdinand de Saussure's distinction between the signifier and the signified without any mention of Derrida's critique of the distinction, nor other approaches to the sign which followed Saussure's. The assumption appears to be that if a great thinker like Saussure says it, that's validation enough. In another example, he spends an entire page convincing us of the precocity, brilliance and great influence of the German philosopher Friedrich Schelling, as if these traits have some bearing on whether what he said was true or false. The same is done with Jurgen Habermas, A. O. Lovejoy and Charles Taylor. It's a curious pre-Enlightenment way of validating statements by reference to authority and is contrary to Wilber's post-Enlightenment desire to rely on science as the arbiter of truth. Reputation replaces orienting generalizations because the method is unworkable.

The appeal to authority is not the only problem with Wilber's scholarly method. While he's been criticized by others for many missed ellipses and rearranged and unattributed quotes,[5] the greater problem is with his usual method of argumentation. Anyone who reads a lot of academic writing develops straw man radar. The reader senses when the arguments attributed to the author's opponents are being weakly formulated. With Wilber, weak formulations of opponents' views are common. What he typically does in SES is: refer to some general group of authors such as "the ecophilosophers" or "the multiculturists," caricature some part of their views he doesn't like, and then repeatedly "prove" that they are wrong about the caricatured point. While reading these pages, the reader wonders who these people are and do they actually believe such simplistic things? Most of the time, after pages of debate, the reader never learns the names of Wilber's opponents, the books they've written, nor reads their own words.

If Wilber does not use orienting generalizations then how does he determine what will go into his synthesis and what will not? He must use the ongoing academic debates in diverse fields of knowledge to determine what is true. But it is the participants within those debates who are trying to determine what is true by debating. By not knowing the details of the contemporary intellectual debates on which his synthesis depends, he tramples on the very debates that determine the truths he needs to construct his integration. His actual practice is to reach into a debate, pull out the work of an author he can use, and then neglect the thicket of ongoing arguments and counter-arguments in which the truths he needs to build his system are being thrashed out.[6] Instead of an integration of the already-agreed-upon knowledge in each field of study, he ends up taking one side of an ongoing debate and so builds his synthesis with debatable and debated knowledge. The result is that Wilber's method of inclusion is actually a practice of exclusion; an exclusion of all the perspectives and facts which do not fit into his synthesis.

An illustration of how Wilber's apparently neat integration of major contemporary intellectual perspectives is actually a fundamentally problematic disregard for the integrity of each perspective occurs in the following passage. He is describing how diverse approaches to knowledge can be integrated by being contextualized, one within another:

the autonomous ego of the Enlightenment is not that autonomous because it is actually set in the context of its own organic drives (the psychoanalytic critique of the Enlightenment), and these previously unconscious drives must be integrated for true autonomy to emerge. But even the entire integrated and autonomous person of psychoanalysis is not really autonomous, because that individual is actually set in contexts of linguistic structures that autonomously determine meaning without the individual even knowing about it (the critique launched by structuralism, archaeology). But linguistic structures aren't really that autonomous, because they exist only in the context of pre-articulate worldviews that use language without language ever registering that fact (the critique by Heidegger, Gebser). But further, worldviews themselves are merely a small component of massive networks and contexts of social practices (in various ways, Marx, Habermas, the later Foucault). And further yet, theorists from Kierkegaard to Schelling to Hegel would insist that those social practices only exist in and because of the larger contexts of Spirit. [7]

Yet, wouldn't the autonomous ego of the Enlightenment defend its autonomy against the psychoanalytic unconscious by arguing that psychoanalysis is unscientific and unproven? And doesn't the integrated ego assert its autonomy against the supposedly determining linguistic structures by continually creating novel linguistic structures? Do "linguistic structures...exist only in the context of pre-articulate worldviews" or does the idea of "pre-articulate worldviews" require linguistic structures even to exist, since a worldview cannot exist prior to linguistic structures? Is Spirit the "larger context" or an epiphenomenon of an essentially naturalistic world? And aren't the first mentioned "organic drives" what evolutionary psychologists take to be the crucial determining context structuring the character of human individual and social life? Each perspective is a different world-view that constructs the world in different ways. Wilber neglects these differing perspectives by assuming there is one world - which happens to be the one he sees - and that they are all describing different aspects of it. But to take them seriously, to plumb the depths of their thought, to formulate them as powerfully as possible and to not efface their fundamental differences, we need to keep present before our minds the problem of relativism or perspectivalism. Wilber thinks he is creating an integration that extracts what is true from differing perspectives, but he is actually disrespecting the profound differences in radically divergent constructions of "reality" and avoiding the great intellectual problem of our time: difference.

Hiding behind Wilber's belief that all partial truths must fit together is the debatable assumption that all the partial truths correspond to one true world. If all the truths of all the sciences can form a coherent whole it is because they share something in common. That common thing is the world, reality, the way in which things are. Yet the philosopher Nelson Goodman has made a strong argument that there are contradictory truths which cannot be assimilated into one coherent picture of the world.[8] Goodman uses the example of the sun's motion. The statements "the sun moves through the sky" and "the sun is stationary" are both true. The first is easily verifiable by our daily observation, while the second is a cornerstone of our heliocentric understanding of our solar system. The clever response that from one perspective the sun moves, but from another perspective it is stationary appears to set things aright. But Goodman then asks, what is the sun's motion apart from all perspectives? What is its motion like in and of itself? The mind goes blank. There is no one way the sun is independent of all perspectives, as far as we can tell. There is no one world guaranteeing the coherence of all true versions, as Wilber assumes; or if there is, we cannot demonstrate when we are in contact with it. The philosopher Andrew Blais has elaborated Goodman's work and argued that there is a plurality of actual worlds.[9] This is not a dominant view in philosophy, but the power of this kind of argumentation gives us an indication of the problems with the philosophical underpinnings of Wilber's project.

Throughout this book I have shown that Wilber does not use orienting generalizations. But here I argue further that the orienting generalizations methodology is unworkable at all. The methodology is unworkable because "simple but sturdy" background knowledge that the participants in a given academic debate presuppose, appears "simple but sturdy" only because the participants in that debate do not happen to be debating the validity of that background knowledge. Why aren't they debating that knowledge? Because it's not their job; it's the job of other scholars in some other academic discipline to debate what their colleagues are taking to be true.

Let's take the important field of developmental psychology. The participants within the debate assume that there is a process of development and it does follow identifiable and relatively invariant stages. But that's just because they don't happen to be debating those assumptions or orienting generalizations at the moment. It doesn't mean they are not debatable. In Value Presuppositions in Theories of Human Development,[10] some of the most respected names in academia - Jerome Kagan, Jerome Bruner, Carol Gilligan, Richard Bernstein and others - debate the values lodged within developmental descriptions of cognition, and whether it is valid to speak of stages and structures at all. Needless to say, no consensus is reached. Although, the participants do assume, as an orienting generalization, that their words represent reality. Is this a piece of "simple but sturdy" knowledge? Not according to contemporary debates in epistemology where the representational theory of truth is criticized quite vigorously. And on it goes; one person's orienting generalization is someone else's point of contention.

Natural scientists might object that this is true for the "soft" social sciences, but not true for the "hard" natural sciences. The natural sciences definitely have more agreement about facts, explanations and methods. Scientists do not debate whether biological evolution occurs. It does; it's a fact. They do debate the details of how it occurs, but this we can envision them coming to agreement upon in the future. What they will not come to agreement upon is what it means that it occurs. And this is the kind of question that Wilber needs to answer if he is going to weave together disparate fields of knowledge and tell a coherent story about the evolution of matter, life and mind. This is because to move from describing facts to telling a story is to move from facts to values.

Hayden White, in his book The Content of the Form,[11] shows that telling a story necessarily entails having a moral or values. Without the moral, one's facts are just a list; what historian's call a chronology of events. This is why historians cannot avoid having values infuse their history writing. Wilber does not want to just catalogue human knowledge and say there is similarity here and dissimilarity there, he wants to tell "a brief history of cosmos, bios, psyche, theos,"[12] or "a chronicle of what you have done, a tale of what you have seen, a measure of what we all might become."[13] Of course, it's fine to tell a story, but if you want your story to be sanctioned by the orienting generalizations of the natural sciences, you are going to have a problem because the facts and explanations that science provides do not tell you how to put those facts together into a coherent narrative. For that, as White shows, one needs values, a morality. And as the thousands of pages expended on moral philosophy attest, a consensus on morals is not coming any time soon. This is why I claim there are no natural scientific orienting generalizations that tell you what ought to be.

In the introduction to SES Wilber calls the orienting generalizations "beads of knowledge."[14] All we have to do is string them together to get a grand synthesizing necklace. Nice image, but where do we get the thread? In what order should the beads go? Why a necklace and not a beaded curtain? Contrary to the popular maxim, the facts do not speak for themselves. Likewise, orienting generalizations do not speak for themselves; we must interpret what they say.

I think Wilber sensed these difficulties because he says in his introduction to SES that "In addition to being composed of broad orienting generalizations, I would say this is a book of a thousand hypotheses"[15] Yet instead of informing the reader what parts are the "simple but sturdy" orienting generalizations and what parts make up the "thousand hypotheses," he then says that "I will be telling the story as if it were simply the case (because telling it that way makes for much better reading)."[16] Much better reading, but much worse scholarship; for how is the reader to know what parts are the "simple but sturdy" knowledge, and what parts are the "hypotheses"?


The method of orienting generalizations is Wilber's way of gaining valid knowledge in order to counter what he sees as a rampant relativism. He also confronts relativism directly in several different contexts, but his argument against it is quite weak. This is due, in part, to his crude formulation of the relativist position. In Wilber's mind, relativists make an absolute statement saying there are no absolutes, all is relative. Wilber then condescendingly states over and over - sometimes three times within the same discussion - that this is a contradiction because the relativist's statement that "all is relative" is stated absolutely and so is self-contradictory. In reply to simplistic formulations of relativism such as this, Richard Rorty states that "no one holds this view. Except for the occasional cooperative freshman, one cannot find anybody who says that two incompatible opinions on an important topic are equally good."[17] This is why Wilber never quotes any of his so-called relativist opponents actually asserting the view. While Wilber never ceases to delight in chopping his straw man relativists down, the reader grows frustrated having to sit through such a self-serving display. The problem is, as Rorty says, that "such neat little dialectical strategies only work against lightly-sketched fictional characters."[18] I referred to this weakness of argumentation as a problem, but it is only a problem for those serious about argumentation. For Wilber it is not problematic, but functional. By deploying his self-contradiction argument he can avoid the real difficulties that serious scholars present for his position.

The philosopher Michael Krausz has edited two well-regarded texts on relativism and published, with Rom Harre, Varieties of Relativism.[19] Harre and Krausz survey the whole philosophical debate between absolutism and relativism and state that, "In no case do we think that we have found arguments of overwhelming strength on either side of the debate. Perhaps there is no final resolution in rational terms of this great schism in people's attitudes to existence, knowledge, meaning and values."[20] Yet Wilber resolves the "great schism" in one simple stroke. In contrast to Wilber's easy dismissal of relativism, Krausz and Harre write that the

diversity [of relativisms] will serve both to cure anyone of the idea that relativism can be defended or attacked briefly and easily, or on one basis alone, and to define the complex challenge to provide an adequate exegesis and commentary on the gamut of philosophical considerations that have or could be adduced in defence of or attack upon this or that variety of relativism.[21]

Varieties of Relativism is a condensed catalogue of the wide variety of relativisms and their intricate arguments with a wide variety of opposing absolutisms.

Wilber claims that postmodern relativism results from the valuable postmodern insight that everything is contexts within contexts. There is no autonomous God, no autonomous ego, no autonomous ground of knowing, nothing without a context. The postmodernists, though, carry this too far into relativism. Wilber's solution is to acknowledge that everything is contextualized, but not in any old way. "Thus, that everything is relative does not mean nothing is better; it means some things are, indeed, relatively better than others, all the time."[22] But this is mistaken. If something is "relatively better" that means it can also be relatively worse. If one wants to contend that the relatively better cannot be seen as relatively worse from some other perspective, then one would have to show how it is always relatively better; but if it's always relatively better, then it is absolutely better. The whole point of qualifying "better" with the word "relatively" is because it is not "absolutely better." The awkward inclusion of "all the time" at the end of the previous quote suggests the need to bolster the problematic point. If it is relatively better "all the time" then it is absolutely better, not relatively better.

Wilber offers an example to support the point I just quoted, but instead illustrates the problem I am describing. He writes,"Neither atoms nor molecules are final or ultimate constituents of the universe; nonetheless wherever they appear, molecules always contain atoms in a deeper embrace."[23] But that fact does not prove that molecules are "better" than atoms. "Better" is a value judgment not a statement of fact. We have seen that Wilber does have a reason for calling a molecule better - greater depth and inclusion - but that value system does not stand on a firm foundation.

I think that Wilber unconsciously understands that he has not subdued the relativist menace. For all the bluster with which he confidently declaims his self-contradiction riposte, the fact that he repeats it over and over, even though the point is abundantly clear, indicates he doubts his own argument.

Wilber's Standpoint and the Validity of the System

Wilber's oft-repeated exposing of the relativist's supposed self-contradiction raises a problematic question: How does Wilber think he escapes relativism? How does he absolutely or objectively validate his intellectual foundations using reason? Where does Wilber stand intellectually in order to give us a broad orienting map of existence and distinguish true from false?

There are two avenues to truth claimed in Wilber's work: a pragmatic avenue based on the agreement of the expert community, and a realist avenue that justifies truth through contact with "the pre-given," reality, or the world as it is in itself. Neither of these is extensively argued, nor do they provide the philosophical foundation which would validate Wilber's system. The pragmatic avenue is described in Wilber's three strands of knowledge: first, the injunction or directions for attaining knowledge; second, the apperception or seeing for oneself using the injunction; and third, communal confirmation or the validation of the knowledge by the members of the relevant community.[24] The dominant criterion of validity for Wilber is the degree of agreement among the experts. We look to the already-agreed-upon knowledge of the community of inquirers and extract what they agree upon.

Even the spiritual sciences use this approach. A mystic has an overwhelming insight into the truth, but that is just the second or apperceptive strand of determining validity. The apperception has to be validated by the relevant community. Although, while the mystic's relevant community may agree that the mystic did experience the Absolute, other communities who also deal with reality - philosophers let‘s say - may not agree. Wilber would say that they have not followed the injunctions and had the apperception; but they would critically question the injunctions and their effects on the apperception. The community of philosophers have a different mode of investigating reality and so have different criteria they apply. They would use the criteria of rational consistency, logic and evidence. What if two communities disagree? Who decides? Which community's criteria will prevail? Wilber could try to argue that widespread agreement among the major mystical communities is confirmation of the validity of an individual's mystical insight, but then he would have to engage those who disagree that there is such widespread agreement. I show in Chapter 7 how his arguments against the constructivists - who argue there is disagreement among differing mystical traditions - fail.

Orienting generalizations would be the knowledge confirmed by the relevant expert communities. This pragmatic avenue, acceptable to Richard Rorty and similar to Stanley Fish's "interpretive communities," is as acceptable to certain relativists as it is to Wilber. So it cannot be a foundation for knowledge which distinguishes Wilber's system from the relativists.

The realist avenue is argued in a couple of uncharacteristically convoluted footnotes in which Wilber appears to be saying that there is a way to know reality because there is a "pre-given" world and an "immediate touching" which guarantees contact with this world. His arguments, though, are contradictory and take no account of the extensive history of philosophical debate which addresses these questions and has come to no satisfactory resolution.[25] In the first footnote, Wilber asserts that humans do have a way to connect to a reality beyond language and conceptuality. He writes: "the general features of the sensorimotor world are ...already laid down by evolution prior to the emergence of rational reflection" and "fundamental aspects of sensorimotor holons are ‘pregiven.'"[26] But in the very next footnote he contradicts this by stating that "‘rational commonsense' took entirely for granted, and thus it failed to see that its ‘common and obvious' world supposedly open to simple ‘empirical viewing' was in fact a particular and generated worldspace" and "The intersubjective created worldspace, which itself allows the disclosure of individuated subjects and objects, was ditched in favor a [sic] mindless staring at the end result (mistaken as pregiven)." So in the first footnote there is a pre-given which we have access to before interpretation intrudes and in the second footnote "The intersubjective created worldspace...allows the disclosure of ...subjects and objects." This contradiction appears irremediable.

Wilber is left with communal confirmation and the orienting generalizations that supposedly follow from it. My examination of the major areas of knowledge Wilber employs shows that the sciences do not agree as Wilber contends: that there is disagreement where he suggests there is agreement; that there are facts and alternative interpretations which do not fit his map; that if he insists on trying to validate a mystically infused, but rationally argued vision of the Kosmos, he will be subject to the criteria used in rational argumentation and that his vision's validity will be undermined; and that his effort to reconcile all perspectives into one big map of the Kosmos will be dashed upon the ultimately irreconcilable, irreducible difference of perspectives.

Thinking vs. Being

Another way Wilber tries to validate his system is based on a distinction between thinking and being. The thinker uses the criteria of reason to evaluate claims to validity and asks: Does the claim correspond to the evidence?, Does it cohere with other things we know?, Is it internally consistent? These are the criteria I use in this book. The mystic, who is primarily interested in an alteration in being, will use words to express his or her insight, convince others of its validity and help others to gain the insight for themselves. The validity of the mystic's insight rests on the convincingness of the experience and on the confirmation of the insight by the mystic's teachers or sacred texts. If an analytic philosopher poked holes in the mystic's assertions regarding the nature of reality, the mystic should be unaffected since the truth of his or her insight rests in the experience, not the conclusiveness of the argumentation. It's the mystic's seeing through all conceptuality - conceptuality being the philosopher's stock in trade - that leads to the mystic's insight.

Wilber is a mystic and a thinker and so inhabits both worlds. The bulk of his written work uses the criteria of the thinker: arguments and evidence. But his vision and its understanding of the Kosmos' goal is inspired by his experience of and faith in the mystic's insight. These two sides of thinker and mystic exist uncomfortably within him, as my chapter on his psychology describes. This uneasy alliance is also present in his recent use of Spiral Dynamics which has its origins in the work of Clare Graves and has been popularized by Don Beck and Chris Cowan.[27] The question raised is: what criteria are we going to use to evaluate the validity of Wilber's view? Wilber is of two minds. On the one hand, he uses a phalanx of footnotes and the idea of orienting generalizations to legitimate his assertions; but, on the other hand, in his book A Theory of Everything, he acknowledges that the nature of his system makes this kind of rational, academically-oriented validation problematic. He states that "many arguments are not really a matter of the better objective evidence, but of the subjective level of those arguing." Because of the differences between subjective levels, "‘cross-level' debates are rarely resolved." As a consequence "nothing that can be said in this book will convince you that a [theory of everything] is possible, unless you already have a touch of [transpersonal insight] coloring your cognitive palette."[28] More recently, Wilber has asserted this view more strongly and described it with the concept of altitude.[29] In other words, having an advanced consciousness is necessary to gain greater intellectual insight into how the Kosmos works. By allowing a superior vantage point, it allows a superior seeing of the whole. Rational argumentation is not enough.

This is a problematic conflation of intellectual and spiritual insight. Wilber uses Spiral Dynamics and his own developmental scheme to merge intellectual and spiritual attainment. But what of thinkers like Habermas, Max Weber, Foucault and Piaget? Did they have any distinctive spiritual attainment? Not that I know of. And what of contemporary spiritual adepts like Ramana Maharshi, Ramesh Balsekar or Poonjaji? Did they create great social analyses? No. Profound spiritual adepts do not necessarily have superior social scientific theories. This assumption of a confluence between superior thinking and spiritual attainment is the reason Wilber advances Plato, Plotinus and Aurobindo as individuals and scholars. He implies that the validity of their philosophical work is connected to their spiritual attainments, but there is no necessary correlation between the two.

This problematic way of thinking has its dangers. For on what basis does one accept Wilber's ranking of levels of consciousness in the first place? Is the ranking accepted because of its accuracy validated by arguments and the evidence, or is it accepted because the system intuitively appeals to the hearer? If it is appealing to the hearer, then the hearer is one of the spiritual elite (or an elite wannabe); if it doesn't appeal to the hearer, the system will be dismissed. This threatens to make it a closed system. Those who "get it" will work within it and not question the foundations. By getting it, one joins the spiritual-intellectual elite and, as Wilber's critiques of those lower on the developmental hierarchy shows, condescension is an easy option. However, those who don't "get it" will ignore it, unless it gets too powerful to ignore. Wilber implicitly understands this, as his savvy strategic use of his own work indicates. He repeatedly condenses his ideas into user-friendly forms which help to promote them widely, even awkwardly inserting them into his heart-wrenching book about his wife's death. And, in his attempt to set up an Integral Institute in which young scholars taken with his system can get money to employ and promote it, he shows that he understands that new intellectual ideas often prevail by replacing, rather than proving wrong, reigning intellectual perspectives.

This distinction between thinking and being raises a more subtle point regarding Wilber's entire project. While he wants his thinking to validate and promote an essentially spiritual insight, all of Wilber's work takes place in the realm of thought. The writings are ideas written in language and argued with reasons. He argues for a spiritual insight that grasps the essence of existence, yet the arguments and the whole of his system is a thought which owes its existence to the realm of thinking. While Wilber uses language to claim that spiritual experience grasps the whole, it is, in practical reality, his thinking which attempts to grasp the whole in the form of his system. Without the printed page, the spoken word, the thoughts that create them and the language that allows them all to exist, there is no integral synthesis, no understanding at all. In Wilber's work it is mind that grasps the Kosmos not spirit.

Values and Hierarchy

The values underlying Wilber's system are often assumed rather than argued. If, as he says, "some things are, indeed, relatively better than other things, all the time," what is the criterion of value that determines better and worse? Oddly, for all Wilber's emphasis on higher consciousness, fact/value connectedness, and the qualitative uniqueness of subjectivity, his criteria of better and worse is quantitative: more is better. The more emergent properties a holon embraces the more complex it is. The more complex a holon is, the higher or better it is in Wilber's holarchy. Increasing complexity is claimed to be nature's evolutionary tendency. The molecule includes the atoms within it and adds new properties; it is therefore more complex. The cell does the same to the atoms and the molecules within it. Why is more better? There is no explanation; it is just assumed. This assumption does not say anything about the Kosmos, but it does tell us about Wilber's bias. By valuing in this way, human beings are judged to be the most advanced entities in the Kosmos. Wilber's criterion allows him to mold, out of the vast multiplicity of evolutionarily created entities, a vision in which it appears that the whole Kosmos is geared towards producing us humans. It seems an incredible coincidence that out of the millions of types of entities that exist, the ones who are constructing the value scheme for placing everything into a hierarchy happen to determine that they themselves are highest on that value scheme.

In addition to his species bias, Wilber's criteria of valuation also imply a positive valuation of his project and of himself. If largeness of inclusion is the standard by which one judges what is better and worse, then Wilber's intellectual project - a theory of everything - is the greatest project to attempt and to have accomplished. The same goes for Wilber's spiritual accomplishments. As described in his journals, he has tasted, and mostly resides in, the highest, most inclusive state of consciousness. So by his own standard of inclusiveness, his intellectual work and his level of consciousness are the greatest to do and to be.

Values and Developmental Models

Values are also latent in the developmental approach that Wilber uses. Models of individual and societal development appear to be purely descriptive and so appear scientific and value-neutral. But every model of human development carries a prescriptive aspect within its descriptions. Since any phenomenon to be studied is a variegated multiplicity, any developmental model must abstract from this multiplicity those aspects of interest to the researcher. The aspects of interest must then be linked together and seen as unfolding in a developmental pattern. The most important aspect is the goal or final stage of the developmental sequence which organizes the selection of phenomena to be included or excluded from the model. The model itself is an abstraction from the actual multiplicity of empirical reality and implicitly becomes a norm of development. In defining the developmental pattern, the researcher implicitly labels those aspects of the phenomena that do not follow the pattern as precocious, regressed, stagnated or anomalous. Yet precocities, regressions, stagnations and anomalies are only seen as such in relation to the developmental norm, which was defined by what the researcher chose to abstract from the multiplicity of phenomena in the first place.

Wilber's ignorance of the value-laden character of all developmental models is demonstrated in his most famous paper, "The Pre/trans Fallacy."[30] In that article, Wilber distinguishes the pre-rational spirituality of children, primitives and those immersed in mythic religion from the trans-rational spirituality of mystical adepts. Wilber argues that pre-rational and trans-rational states have been confused, resulting in either a reduction of the trans-rational to the pre-rational, as in the "oceanic feeling" of Freudian psychoanalysis, or an elevation of the pre-rational to trans-rational status, as in aspects of Jungian psychology. In the introductory section of that article Wilber writes:

since the world of time is the world of flux, all things in this world are in constant change: change implies some sort of difference from state to state, that is, some sort of development; thus all things in this world can only be conceived as ones that have developed. The development may be forward, backward, or stationary, but it is never entirely absent. In short, all phenomena develop, and thus true phenomenology is always evolutionary, dynamic, or developmental"[31]

These sentences contain a subtle and problematic shift. Change, a fact of existence, is equated with development, even though the word development has the connotation of directed or patterned change through time. Change and development cannot be equated because we can certainly imagine random change, such as the change in numbers that a random number generator creates, which show no development. We are told that development can be stationary; and while there can be stationary development, can there be stationary change? It sounds like a contradiction in terms. This difference between change and development is due to the value-laden character of the word development which suggests a change over time, the character of which is deemed to advance, regress or stay the same. All things change as Wilber says, but to assess development we need some criterion of advance and regress in order to make a value-judgment.[32]


Orienting generalizations are the already-agreed-upon background knowledge that scholars in specific fields take to be true as they debate the issues on which they differ. Wilber claims that his integral synthesis is constructed out of this "simple, but sturdy" background knowledge and so has the validity that the natural, social and spiritual sciences can provide. The research in this book demonstrates that Wilber does not use the orienting generalizations of the sciences as he claims. As a replacement method he quotes some great names of science. Because he does not have the authority of the orienting generalizations, Wilber tends to caricature perspectives different from his own and thereby not confront the problems they would pose were they strongly formulated. He creates his synthesis by weaving together the ideas that he finds congenial to his outlook and fits them together to make his synthesis. This is problematic because his synthesis is supposed to be a transcendence of all less inclusive correct views, yet actually excludes those that do not fit his particular integration.

This problem with the method of orienting generalizations goes beyond the improper use of the method; the chapter shows that the method cannot work at all. This is because the already-agreed-upon background knowledge of the diverse scientific disciplines is only agreed upon to be true by those within the given discipline. There can always be other academics in other disciplines who take as their problematic debating point the agreed upon knowledge in a neighboring discipline.

On an even more fundamental philosophical level, Wilber assumes that all true statements should fit together. This assumption presupposes that all true statements share something in common, such as a connection to the world as it is in itself. But it's clear that there are true statements that contradict each other and are not reconcilable by appeal to some larger more inclusive perspective.

Wilber collects the agreed upon knowledge of the sciences to tell the story of the Kosmos. To tell a story a moral is always required. The facts of science will not tell their own story and so the value system of the teller must be brought to bear. Wilber acknowledges the role of values in his integral synthesis, but gives the impression that his story gains its legitimacy from the weight of scientific knowledge and that the value-system he uses arises from the facts. This is important to Wilber's entire project because he is offering his integral synthesis as a transcendence and inclusion of the partial truths of all the scientific disciplines. While the partiality of all other disciplines is subject to the undermining effects of relativism, Wilber's integral synthesis is offered as a solution to relativism. The traditional solution to relativism is some kind of absolute knowledge. Wilber tries to incorporate the true part of relativism by offering a relatively absolute knowledge as a synthesis.

The idea of relatively absolute knowledge is found to be contradictory and his criticism of what he takes to be the implications of relativism is shown to be weak. His method of validating knowledge using communal consensus is no different from a pragmatic justification of knowledge agreeable to a Richard Rorty or a Stanley Fish - thinkers who Wilber would say have succumbed to the contradictions of relativism.

The question of values is as vexed as the question of knowledge within the synthesis. The fundamental value underlying Wilber's criteria for determining differing levels of advancement in his integral hierarchy is a simple one: more is better. The more emergent features that a holon has, the higher it is in his hierarchy. Yet it is never explained why more is better and suspiciously leads to a supreme valuation of humanity.

Unacknowledged values are embedded in all developmental models. Values do not arise from the facts and impose themselves on the theorist as Wilber implies. The theorist's values come first and allow the theorist to organize his or her developmental scheme and decide what is normal, abnormal and anomalous development. This fact of developmental models is hidden within their scientific-sounding jargon and undermines their claims to value-neutrality.

An alternative criterion of validity is found in Wilber's assumption that increases in the development of one's consciousness or being allows a superior vision of how things work. Yet the criterion for distinguishing superior from inferior visions must still be determined by deciding which vision is most correct using the standard criteria of rational argumentation. Wilber offers no new criteria. That a person has a more advanced consciousness does not mean their understanding of the world is superior.


In response to my criticisms, Wilber has implied that the method of orienting generalizations has been superseded by his new Integral Methodological Pluralism.[33] He doesn't defend the assertion (making it difficult to respond to), but I will say that in the latest version of his theory he asserts the validity of the four-quadrant (AQAL[34]) model first elaborated in SES, which I've examined here.

In excising the concept of orienting generalizations from his most recent theory, the question arises as to how Wilber constructs and justifies the AQAL model. We're told that "AQAL, then, is a metatheory that attempts to integrate the most amount of material from an integral methodological pluralism, thus honoring the primary injunction of an integral embrace: Everybody is right."[35] "Everybody is right" means that every perspective, that's not purely idiosyncratic, has some truth that needs to be acknowledged and integrated. The "Everybody" refers to "the ingredients of the AQAL metatheory [which] are the phenomena (subjective, intersubjective, objective, and interobjective) enacted and brought forth by literally dozens of time-honored methodologies, injunctions, paradigms, and practices."[36] The missing piece, however, is how the many results from the "time-honored methodologies" will be culled to separate the truths from the falsities and so construct his AQAL model. This is the work that the method of orienting generalizations did in the SES-era or Wilber-4. We still have the familiar AQAL, four-quadrant model, but have lost the methodology supposedly used to construct and justify it.

Mark Edwards has made a different and more effective critique of Bald Ambition.[37] He points out that Wilber's methodology is that of systems thinking and evokes the tradition of systems theory. In my reply to Edwards, I accepted the correctness of his point that the systems framework crucially informs the construction of Wilber's model, despite Wilber's not explicitly acknowledging the methodological role that systems thinking plays in his work, treating it instead like another type of knowledge to be integrated. Wilber's use of Arthur Koestler, Erich Jantsch and Ervin Laszlo demonstrates the structuring role that systems thinking plays in the construction of his four-quadrant model. I added, however, that the method of orienting generalizations is also used and that the two methods are in conflict. The evolutionary-developmental systems framework is assumed even when the orienting generalizations from academia don't support it. I offered as one example the lack of scholars who believe in the kind of human social evolution which is crucial to Wilber's model.[38]


[1] In response to my critique, Wilber implied that the method of orienting generalizations has been superseded by his new Integral Methodological Pluralism. In an afterword to this chapter, I explain why I think the method of orienting generalizations remains relevant.

[2] Wilber, Ken, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (SES), (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1995), p. ix.

[3] In addition to the importance attributed to the method in both editions of SES (1995, 2000), Jack Crittenden extols the method in his laudatory foreword to Wilber's The Eye of Spirit, (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1997). Wilber then reprints Crittenden's foreword in his journals entitled One Taste: The Journals of Ken Wilber (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1999).

[4] Wilber, SES, p. ix.

[5] Wilber, The Eye of Spirit, p. 354.

[6] My description of his actual scholarly practice coincides with Wilber‘s own description of his reading habits. He says, "I usually try to go through two to four books a day, which means I skim through them very quickly, making a few notes where necessary. If I find a really important book, then I'll slow down and spend a week or more with it, taking extensive notes. Really good books I'll read three or four times." (One Taste, p.122.) I surmise that Wilber skims a lot of books looking for the ones that agree with his intellectual preferences. He then studies those books carefully and fits what they say together to create a picture of the world to his liking.

[7] Wilber, SES, pp. 72-73.

[8] Goodman, Nelson, Ways of Worldmaking, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1978), pp. 2-3.

[9] Blais, Andrew, On the Plurality of Actual Worlds, (Amherst: UMass Press, 1997).

[10] Cirillo, Leonard and Wapner, Seymour, eds., Value Presuppositions in Theories of Human Development, (Hillsdale, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates, 1986).

[11] White, Hayden, The Content of the Form, (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1987).

[12] Wilber, SES, p. viii.

[13] Wilber, SES, p. xi.

[14] Wilber, SES, p. ix.

[15] Wilber, SES, p. iv.

[16] Wilber, SES, p. x.

[17] Rorty, Richard, Consequences of Pragmatism, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1982), p.166.

[18] Rorty, Consequences, p. 167.

[19] Harre, Rom and Krausz, Michael, Varieties of Relativism, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996).

[20] Harre and Krausz, Varieties of Relativism, p. 33.

[21] Harre and Krausz, Varieties of Relativism, p. 23.

[22] Wilber, SES, p. 202.

[23] Wilber, SES, p. 203.

[24] The three strands are examined more fully in Chapter 4.

[25] Richard Rorty gives an account of this debate in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979).

[26] Wilber, SES, p. 653.

[27] Beck, Don and Cowan, Chris, Spiral Dynamics, (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Business, 1996).

[28] Wilber, Ken, A Theory of Everything, (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2000), p. 14.

[29] Wilber, Ken, "What We Are, That We See. Part I," at

[30] Wilber, Ken, "The Pre/Trans Fallacy," ReVision, vol. 3, nr. 2., 1980, pp. 51-73.

[31] Wilber, Ken, Eye to Eye, (New York: Anchor Books, 1983), p.202.

[32] Wilber and Michael Washburn have debated the merits of Wilber's idea of the pre/trans fallacy. See Ken Wilber in Dialogue, edited by Donald Rothberg and Sean Kelly, (Wheaton IL: Quest Books, 1998).

[33] As Wilber colorfully states: ‘Hey, did you see the one where a critic said that my methodology consisted of "orienting generalizations," and then attacked the shit out of orienting generalizations? Or rather, gave a really embarrassing, green, performative-contradiction attempt to do so. I wonder if his [sic] guy has ever heard of Integral Methodological Pluralism, which uses at least 8 different methodologies.' Ken Wilber, "What We Are, That We See. Part I," at

[34] Wilber defines ‘AQAL (pronounced ah quil), which is short for "all quadrants, all levels, all lines, all states, all types."' "Excerpt B: The Many Ways We Touch. Part I" at

[35] Wilber, "Excerpt B."

[36] Wilber, "Excerpt B."

[37] Edwards, Mark, "Meyerhoff, Wilber and the Post-Formal Stages," at

[38] Meyerhoff, Jeff, "What's Worthy of Inclusion?," at

© Jeff Meyerhoff 2006

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