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INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
On Joining the
My Journey to the First
Integral Theory Conference, August 2008
ITC-08 marked a sort of coming of age of the community of integral theory and practice.
Though I had already read a couple of Ken Wilber's books, my deep interest in integral theory started in late 2003 when Michael Herrick invited me to join a recently formed integral theory study group. That group, whose core members were Michael, Zak Stein, Judd Levy, and myself, and included a variety of other drop-in participants, met weekly in our favorite Northampton café for three years until some of the core members, sadly, relocated. As we pondered the readings from our own version of the canon of integral authorities and discussed the online and offline gossip about the integral world's personalities and events, each five hour session flew by in a delirious joy of intellectual camaraderie. As is that case for many attracted to integral theory, it was, for all of us, a joyful rediscovery, re-articulation, and expansion of preexisting wisdoms and inklings (not to mention sheepish amusement with integral world gossip). Eventually I started writing papers, reaching out to others in the (loosely defined) integral community, became involved with Integral Review journal, and met dozens of others involved in integral thought and practice through email and phone conferences.
Along with the excitement of joining a new intellectual community (my enthusiasm for the academic community I had associated with for two decades was waning), I also felt a tinge of regret that I had missed out on the heyday—the exciting emergence—of the integral community. I heard numerous stories of meetings in Wilber's loft, gatherings for the formation of the Integral Institute, the early days of Integral Review. They had an air of magic and nostalgia about them...and it seemed that I had missed that exhilarating time of genesis. But then came the first Integral Theory Conference at JFK in August of this year.
First and foremost, the conference (and Next Step Integral's Integral Education intensive during the prior week) was an opportunity for me to meet face to face with so many that I had developed virtual relationships with over the previous two years. I looked into their eyes, shook hands and exchanged hugs, and allowed the information of embodied expressions to create their deeply satisfying impressions within me. The conference was a new beginning for me in my journey from peripheral participation to full membership. And, from my limited perspective as one person among 500 moving through the buzz of sessions (ten at a time in parallel) and conversations (I could only have one at a time, unfortunately) it was a new beginning for the integral theory community as well.
Many of those drawn together by the themes of integral approaches (including systems and trans-disciplinary studies, transpersonal and spiritual human potentials, and developmental and evolutionary approaches) struggle with the considerable influence of one man and his perspective (or "theory") upon this emerging fielda field that one could argue he founded as a coherent approach to all of the above themes. Whether one is identified with one "side" of the questions "Is integral about Ken Wilber" and "Is Wilber's Theory valid?" or the other, or caught in the middle of others' strong opinions about these questions (as I have at times), all can agree that our common inquiry can mature fully into a field of study, an academic discipline, or a community of practice, only if the tethers to a particular scholar (and a particular Institute) are sufficiently relaxed.
And so this gathering, held far from Boulder, with Wilber absent (for health reasons, I believe), and which cultivated dialog, critique, and alternative views, was an important and very exciting step. Though most of the presentations drew from the shared body of concepts and themes that, together, comprise Wilber's AQAL model, many of the presenters (most that I personally heard) had no intention of adhering to the AQAL model per-se. For example, separate presentations by Reams and Roy discussed problematic implications of Wilber's metaphysics (does mind emerge from body, as some of Wilber's work suggests, or vice versa?). Mark Edwards proposed that Wilber's spotty reception in academia is due in part to his not adhering to established academic methods in meta-theory. And several panels supported a wide variety of perspectives on controversial topics. Conference hosts Sean Esbjörn-Hargens and Mark Forman offered, in speech but also in my observation, in body and spirit, a clear and open invitation to respectful, open, and critical dialog. The general tone of presentations and hallway conversations was very open to any and all opinions. There were no sacred cows but individuals were treated with a sacred respect (which at the graceful extremes, was even mooooving).
As in any community, there was some emergent sense of "who we are" and "what we value," which left some ideas in the shadow of taboo and probably left some participants feeling excluded. And though there was a clear invitation for critique and academic rigor, the overall attitude was one of "isn't it great to see everyone here" and "let many flowers bloom" more than "let's hammer out the details, take a close look at the differences, and do the hard theoretical work of refining and integrating." Perhaps it was a bit of a "love fest," but it was not a "Wilber-fest" as some had feared. Yet, for those who know Wilber (I do not) as a person of generous spirit, rigorous thought, endless curiosity, and wise compassion, the spirit of that man coursed through the conference. And for those who see Wilber as a manipulative and hypocritical charlatan, or an emotionally crippled genius, that specter of that man (if such exists) seemed rather absent.
Given the many perspectives on integral that I have encountered in written form that I judge to be either overly critical of or insufficiently critical of AQAL and Wilber's work, I was not expecting the considerable degree of like-mindedness and like-heartedness that I found at the conference. Prior to the conference much of my experience with the wider integral community (apart from my work with Integral Review journal) was from on-line articles and postings, so I was expecting more in the extremes of contemptuous critique and dogmatic ideology. Online expression tends to exaggerate the judgmental through hyperbole within an individual's expression and because within a group there is more motivation to post the more extreme opinions. And at the other extreme, the audio lecture and interview formats now widely available online have either a super-friendly collegial affect and/or a promotional spin. Even though I found practically every integral theory community member that I had met or spoken with before the conference to be both discerning and simpatico, for some reason I expected less at the conference. But, of course, real people are inevitably more nuanced, whole, and (usually) likeable than their written artifacts. (With these important benefits of F2F, let us hope, as was done through the conference, that we can continue to find ways to minimize or "offset" the "carbon footprint" involved in face-to-face meetings in this international community.)
Admittedly, my evaluation of the event is distorted by the fact that I was just happy to have been there and a bit intoxicated with new friendships. I sought presentations that I would enjoy and learn from, rather than those I would argue with. Surely there were participants who thought that the 500-headed beast that was ITC was sappy and uncritical, or dry and academic, or self-referential and self-congratulatory. Those tales are told elsewhere.
So, now I find myself feeling that I was around for a key moment in the genesis of the community of integral theory and practice. And I know more now than before that I "belong" in and with this loosely defined community. (I also found that the respectful but objective stance that the Editorial Board of Integral Review takes with respect to all things Integral-with-a-capital -I was more welcomed than I had expected.) From where I stand, ITC-08 marked a sort of coming of age of the community of integral theory and practice—a major step into claiming collective ownership of the inquiry that brings us together.
There are many steps left in the formation of a sustainable community of inquiry, including: more clarity about the key questions driving our inquiry; moving further away from a focus on a model (i.e. AQAL) and toward shared methods of inquiry and validation; moving away from the strong "packaging" of a set of principles that the single-model approach cultivates and toward an articulation of a flexibly combined family of principles that can be critiqued and extended individually; and of course, a furthering of independence from particular personalities and institutions toward a collective interdependence. I also think that for the field to mature into more than one person's theory or a very loose collection of related interests, we will have to develop more satisfactory methods for dialoging about meaning-generation .
ITC-08 was a small but confident step in all of these directions.
 What integral theories create, over and above the particulars of the many disciplines that they try to integrate, are ways of seeing or sense-making, ways of interpreting diverse claims, questions, and methods in relationship with each other. As such integral theories are, for the most part, not things that can be empirically validated. Integral theories point to empirical claims, and members of the integral community engage in empirical research, for which standard empirical methods of validation easily apply. The main claims of integral theory are not empirical, they are more philosophical. Yet, as an emerging (or potential) discipline integral theory is more pragmatic, while still more elusive, than philosophy. It shares many methodological problems with disciplines like political science and cultural theory, which can be seen as disgorging an endless sequence of impossible-to-validate theories (in faddish waves of over-confidence). To move forward with clarity and confidence as a community we need to be able to bracket questions of the "truth" or empirical validity of claims, and evaluate validity in terms of the potential for meaning-generation or sense-making. This is a tall order that no discipline has accomplished to date.