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

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Sara RossSara Ross is an independent theoretical and action researcher/practitioner, spiritual director, and in her past life an accountant. For almost 20 years she has designed, led, and taught transformational group processes for adults and adolescents in the contexts of spiritual development, leadership, public issues work, and research. Living near Cincinnati, Ohio, she is a member of the Integral Institute's Integral Politics Branch, the Institute of Noetic Sciences, the Society for Research in Adult Development, and the International Society of Political Psychology. Responses can be sent to:

On Criticism, Integral Theory, and
the Nature and Utility of Scholarly Discourse


By Sara Ross


Casting my thoughts back on the West's long tradition of respect for Socratic dialogue,[1] my purpose in this very brief essay is to invite others to join me in some serious reflection on Wilber's recent recommendation for how theorists should write about his work.[2] He begins that essay by saying that theorists should "try to separate two very different tasks: (1) presenting their own good ideas in themselves, and (2) criticizing [his]."  

In at least three ways, this anomaly of a recommendation was striking, given the prospect of an upcoming Integral University with a curriculum I presume will be premised on integral theory. First, the recommendation promotes separation, not integration. Second, it embodies a contradiction, as though we can express criticism without expressing our “own good ideas.” Third, its essential meaning comes across as a recommendation to abandon critical thinking, the cornerstone of scholarly thought and its discourse. 

How many high school and college instructors work tirelessly to develop their students' capacities to do both of Ken's (1) and (2) within one essay? Whether expressed in the form of one sentence, one paragraph, one essay, or one book, a “complete thought” embodies the basic formula of a) expressing a view, b) explaining why the view has merit, and c) supporting that assertion through further reasoning and/or citing other credible sources. In our 30-second sound-bite world, we're easily conditioned to forget that a) must be followed by b) and c) in order for us to consider its merits.  

An Integral University's curricula will surely not only encourage critical thinking about integral theory, but also depend upon it. For a discipline or field to be recognized as such, there is a body of scholarly discourse that continues to evolve with it. The nature and history of that discourse is a core component of a curriculum. If integral theory has no published, scholarly discourse, and whatever discourse taking place does so "in house" rather than in the public domain, and work of "outside" scholars is ignored or dismissed as "false," then what is there? An ideology? Scholars outside of an inner circle bring an essential and independent voice to academic discourse. How might there ever be a professional journal of integral theory if there is no such discourse going on within the field? In this sense, I suggest that Mark Edwards and others are performing a foundational and utilitarian service that I hope Ken and the new Integral University come to view as such.  

If it were possible to separate the two tasks Ken describes, would we classify such writing as scholarly? Consider how Mark Edwards' essays here on the Visser site have been illustrating qualities of scholarly discourse. Such discourse examines published work. It explores the reasoning used by other(s), analyzes it, detects questionable or competing assumptions, illuminates blind spots, praises, introduces (an)other perspective(s), criticizes, and often offers new syntheses, fuller explanations, and/or constructive new considerations, along with pointing out where more thinking or research is needed.  

No academic fields of endeavor got where they are today without such published discourse. And that's the good news, because when their professionals engage in it, the discourse keeps them in the process of constructing and sharing new knowledge, keeps them moving toward more expansive worldviews, keeps them grappling with the tensions within the discourse, all of which keeps them and their readers evolving. As a result, they and their field eventually get much better at what they're trying to articulate, study, and apply.  

Another part of Ken's piece gives us the opportunity to take further this brief discussion of the nature and utility of critical discourse. It affords us a practice session to think critically about the nature of critical thinking. On his second page, he supplies a transcript we're given to understand as representative of the sorts of discussions he has with critics in which such "dialectical exchanges" occur. Did we, as critical readers, accept that characterization of the conversation, once we had read it? What criteria do we use to assess the "dialectical" nature of a spoken or written discourse? In what way is dialectical thinking a form of critical thinking? And why should we care about dialectical thinking, anyway?  

Those last questions are not rhetorical, but rather my suggestion of indispensable questions for each of us to answer for ourselves. I will share here, however, my personal answer to the last question. In my view, the vital reason to care about dialectical thinking is that today's terribly complex issues and questions, which integral theory can inform, require it. In that vein, another reason might be to encourage Integral University – and all learning environments! – to offer a course in it as part of the core curriculum. And, since well-developed dialectical thinking is a hallmark of metasystematic reasoning capacities, it may be of interest to folks who wonder what "yellow" or "second tier" thinking is like.  

I encourage readers to use this occasion as a catalyst to practice or learn more about dialectical thinking and scholarly discourse. The following are among some readily accessible resources I used last year for a mini-session on the subject.

  1. The Empty Board: The Dialectic of Go, by William Cobb
  2. Insights and Outlooks: Criticism from the Inside Out, by Benita Wolters-Fredland Discourse in Music,v.4, no.1 (Fall 2002)
  3. Excerpt from Hegel for Beginners
  4. Student Information Sheet: Dialectical Thinking Model , Methods of Testing Viewpoints to See How Good They Are, Problem Solving Model, Decision-Making Model, Conflict-Resolution Model

To further develop our critical awareness of steps along the way to dialectical thinking, I include as an appendix a short discussion of the gradual transitions from a relativistic epistemology (i.e., systematic reasoning, or “green”) to a metasystematic epistemology. That appendix includes a list of the 24 schemata that the Benack & Basseches research[3] suggests as acquired through phases in the long process of developing mature, dialectical thinking. Basseches' fuller discussion[4] of this kind of thinking is beyond the scope of this little essay, but I encourage further study of it, because it supplies the thorough explanations that cannot be captured in the descriptions I supply here. Armed with such information, along with that available from such resources as I offer above, we'll be much better equipped to analyze the discourses that we encounter, and elevate the quality of our own.

Any field of endeavor or community of people will thrive all the more when its members' thinking is welcomed and engaged. Without feeling attacked, but rather welcoming the broadening and deepening – also known as learning – that accompanies critical feedback from our peers, it's valuable to consider the personal, social, and professional utility of critical discourse. It also represents the recognition that there's enough strength and substance in our work to merit serious thought on the part of others. May there be more of it, and may the culture support it!


  1. See, for example, Plato's Apology
  2. His March 23, 2004 A Suggestion for Reading the Criticisms of My Work on Frank Visser's “World of Ken Wilber” Site, in the Reading Room
  3. Benack, S. & Basseches, M. A. (1989). Dialectical thinking and relativistic epistemology: Their relation in adult development. In M. L. Commons, J. D. Sinnott, F. A. Richards, & C. Armon (Eds.). Adult Development: Volume 1. Comparisons and applications of developmental models, pp. 96-109. Westport, CT: Praeger.
  4. Basseches, M. A. (1984). Dialectical thinking and adult development. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex Press.

Appendix: The Development of Dialectical Thinking

Information here is taken from the Benack & Basseches discussion in the work cited above. Following this introductory – and perhaps somewhat dense – discussion is the charting of the phases in developing dialectical thinking. That thinking is described as a

postformal stage of thought at the metasystematic level of cognition. It is organized by the concept of dialectic, in which the process of developmental transformation of forms is understood and explained in terms of interactive and constitutive relationships. [It] is operationalized in the Dialectical Schemata Framework [which] consists of 24 schemata or “moves in thought” that dialectical thinkers tend to make. The schemata orient thought toward noticing and describing motion, relationships, and forms, and toward integrating the notions of motion, relations, and form in a model of dialectical evolution.

Although each of these schemata describes a distinct cognitive ability, they are not in themselves dialectical thinking. Dialectical thinking is an organization of the 24 schemata into a structure equilibrated by the idea of dialectic. One can use many of the particular “moves in thought” associated with dialectical thinking, then, without exhibiting the equilibrated structure of thought that is meant by “dialectical thinking” (p. 96).

There are four phases identified in the long developmental process of operating with a fully developed metasystematic structure of reasoning (pp. 96-98). The “early foundations” of this thought appear in some of the schemata in Phase 1 and can be present within some formal or concrete cognitive operations. According to the authors, Phase 1 schemata “capture fundamental, unelaborated notions of motion, relationship, and form that are not necessarily postformal.” Phase 2's schemata, appearing less often, seem to function as a bridge in the shift from formal to postformal thinking. The “transitional dialectical thinking” of Phase 3 is evidenced by three somewhat independent clusters of schemata, characterized respectively as follows. Cluster I's “critical advanced schemata” identify “the limitations of abstract, formalistic analyses.” Cluster II has “constructive advanced schemata that provide models for the evolution of systems, the interactions of multiple systems, and the evaluation of multiple systems.” The last transitional Cluster III is comprised of two “value-oriented advanced schemata that integrate the notion of value into the dialectical model.” In the fourth phase, the process of dialectical development completes with “advanced dialectical thinking [where] the notion of motion, form, and relationships are organized into an equilibrated thought structure centered on the concept of dialectic. This phase is marked by the use of schemata from all three advanced clusters and by the appearance in some subjects of schemata 21 and 22.”

Among developmentalists, there is consensus on the general nature of the shift from formal operations' dualistic epistemology to the (first) postformal relativistic one. The authors describe the formal stage as one where a person holds the “dualistic view that knowledge consists of isolated facts whose truth can be ascertained with certainty, and that truth is independent of the subject” (p. 98). When persons develop beyond that way of knowing, they view knowledge as “embedded within systematic subjective perspectives [and] truth is seen as relative to the perspective from which one evaluates” (p. 98). While the authors' subsequent discussion of research and how the relativistic thinking transitions into dialectical is worthwhile reading, it is beyond the scope of this appendix, which concludes with reproducing, with permission, the Basseches charting of the four phases discussed above.

Possible Phases in the Development of Dialectical Thinking

Phase I-Early Foundations
Schema 1- Thesis-antithesis-synthesis movement in thought
Schema 2-Affirmation of the primacy of motion
Schema 6-Affirmation of the practical or active character of knowledge
Schema 9-Location of an element or phenomenon within the whole(s) of which it is a part
Schema 10-Description of a system in structural, functional, or equilibrational terms
Schema 12-Assertion of the existence and/or value of relations, the limits of separation
Schema 16-Location of contraction or disequilibrium within a system

Phase 2-Intermediate Dialectical Schemata
Schema 3-Recognition and description of thesis-anti thesis-synthesis movement
Schema 11-Assumption of contextual relativism
Schema 16-Recognition of limits to the scope or durability of a system

Phase 3-Elements of Several Clusters of Advanced Dialectical Schemata Appear. but Some Cluster Is Underrepresented
CLUSTER I-Critical advanced schemata
Schema 4-Recognizes correlativity of a thing and its other
Schema 5-Recognizes ongoing interaction as a source of movement
Schema 7-Avoids or exposes objectification, hypostatization, and reification
Schema 14-Describes two-way reciprocal relationship
Schema 15-Asserts internal relations
Schema 23-Criticizes formalism based on interdependence of form and content
Schema 24-Multiplication of perspectives to preserve concreteness/inclusiveness

CLUSTER ll-Constructive advanced schemata
Schema 8-Understands events or situations as moments of a process
Schema 17-Understands resolution of contradiction as movement in developmental direction
Schema 19-Evaluative comparison of systems
Schema 20-Attention to problem of coordinating systems in relation

CLUSTER Ill-Value-oriented advanced schemata
Schema 13-Criticism of multiplicity, subjectivism, pluralism
Schema 18-Relates value to developmental movement or stability through developmental movement

Phase 4-Elements of All 3 Clusters Above Well Represent[ed]; Schemata 21 and 22 Appear
Schema 21-Describes open self-transforming systems.
Schema 22-Describes qualitative change as a result of quantitative change in a form

Note: From Adult Development (p. 97), by M. L. Commons, J. D. Sinnott, F. A. Richards, & C. Armon (Eds.), 1989, Westport, CT: Praeger. Copyright © 1989 by Praeger Publishers and the Dare Association, Inc. Reproduced with permission of Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., Westport, CT.

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