Andrew P. Smith, who has a background in molecular biology, neuroscience and pharmacology, is author of e-books Worlds within Worlds and the novel Noosphere II, which are both available online. He has recently self-published "The Dimensions of Experience: A Natural History of Consciousness" (Xlibris, 2008).
A Review of Jeff Meyerhoff's Bald Ambition
Andrew P. Smith
So what is the university context, and how does it differ from Wilber's? In the university, philosophers and other scholars are expected not only to criticize, but be criticized.
Ken Wilber, it says right here on Frank Visser's website, is the most widely translated academic author in the world. This assertion, like so many that Wilber himself makes, is a seductive mixture of verifiable fact and arguable assumption. We can easily determine how many languages each of Wilber's books is available in, and compare that to the output of other writers. The debate arises when we ask ourselves just what an academic author is, and whether Wilber qualifies as one.
This point might seem to many to be... well, academic. Wilber's scholarship is prodigious. He is quite possibly the most widely read person on the planet, and his books engage, criticize and attempt to synthesize the ideas of hundreds or thousands of other authors. He is famous for his footnotes, which sometimes run longer than the text they support. How much more academic can an author be?
Unlike most women and men we call academics, however, Wilber is not associated with a university. He does not regularly report to an office on some campus, where he is expected to teach classes and sit on committees as well as do scholarly research and writing. He works out of his own home, supporting himself through the sales of his books. This may seem like a trivial point; indeed, many would argue that his unaffiliated status allows Wilber to be more independent in his thinking than conventional academics ever can be. But independence, in the postmodern view that informs much of Wilber's recent writing, is an illusion. Every author works in a context, Wilber as much as the university scholars he so frequently criticizes.
So what is the university context, and how does it differ from Wilber's? In the university, philosophers and other scholars are expected not only to criticize, but be criticized. When they submit an article to a professional journal, that article is subjected to peer review, a process in which other scholars raise possible points of objection which the author must address. When academics write books, a similar peer review is usually required, and even if it isn't, the author will usually take it upon himself to seek the opinions of others. And most important, if the university scholar expects to be promoted, and eventually be granted tenure, she must justify her program to a committee of peers.
Wilber works mostly free from this ordeal. Though he occasionally publishes an article in some professional journal, the great bulk of his work appears in books that are handled by commercial rather than university presses.. Getting a book published commercially, as every struggling author like myself knows, is no picnic; the would-be author is just as much at the mercy of some audience as a university professor is. But the audience for commercial publication is quite different. It doesn't necessarily demand intellectual rigor: impeccable logic, accurate citations, evenhanded treatment. People may have a great many different reasons for buying a particular book: that it gives them hope or inspiration; that it articulates views they themselves have; that it appears novel and original; that it provides an alternative to a more widely expressed view they are dissatisfied with. Whatever the intellectual rigor of Wilber's books, many people undoubtedly read them for reasons like those just enunciated. Most commercial publishers, particularly in America, are not so interested in truth--if they even believe in such a concept--nor in facts that they will let such considerations stand in the way of profits.
Ken Wilber, therefore, writes on a sort of honor system. It's largely up to him to get his facts straight, his ideas coherent, his citations accurate, because no one really holds his feet to the fire. Other, more conventional scholars are of course free to criticize his work, but relatively few seem to do so. Why they don't is a very interesting question. One reason, most likely, is Wilber's emphasis on higher states of consciousness, which relatively few mainstream scholars have probably experienced and take seriously. A second reason may be that many of these scholars, expressing a mixture of justifiable suspicion and deep-rooted prejudice, simply don't trust authors who sidestep the academic review process and take their case directly to the public.
Given the substantial distribution of these books Wilber is kidding himself if he thinks his ideas need more publicity.
Ken himself, however, seems to think a large part of the problem is that he's not well enough known. One of the major purposes (if not the only purpose) of the Integral Institute he recently founded is to promote his work in ivory towers, and he points proudly to graduate programs in a few North American and European universities that now make use of his books. But given the substantial distribution of these books--they are found in college town bookstores all over the country, if not the developed world--Wilber is kidding himself if he thinks his ideas need more publicity, that the problem is simply that most scholars are not aware of them. If Al Gore has read Ken Wilber, and Oprah Winfrey has had him on her show, it's safe to say that most university philosophers have heard of him. And they have pretty much made up their minds where they stand.
Several years ago, I submitted an article critical of Wilber's four-quadrant model to the Journal of Consciousness Studies. I felt there could hardly be a more appropriate forum for such criticism. The journal is, or claims to be, interested in all kinds of approaches to consciousness--artistic and literary, for example, as well as philosophical, psychological and neurological--and is read and contributed to by a wide variety of individuals, many of whom, like Wilber, are not affiliated with any academic institution. Moreover, Wilber originally published his four-quadrant model in this journal, and he is a member of its review board. But the journal declined even to consider my article. A review board member explained to me, in all seriousness and without a trace of embarrassment, that members of the editorial board fell into two main camps: those who were highly supportive of Wilber and who would not welcome such criticism; and those who thought so little of Wilber that they saw no point in even discussing the model.
So Wilber is no secret waiting to be discovered by mainstream scholars. On the other hand, if his efforts through II actually do succeed in making some headway in academia, he might come to regret it. The surest sign that scholars are paying attention to your ideas is that they give them the one thing Wilber has a history of avoiding, denying and ignoring: criticism. Though few academics are willing to take Wilber's ideas seriously enough to engage them, visitors to this site are well aware that many non-professionals have tried to take up the slack, only to be greeted with deafening silence. That silence was surprisingly broken a few months ago, when Ken took the time to make a blanket dismissal of all the articles discussing his work at this site, describing them as "the greatest concentration of distortions of my work that I am aware of". He insisted that none of the contributors to this site was capable of understanding his ideas well enough to criticize them effectively and competently--that only those in direct dialogue with him could do so. So it seems that Ken regards not only his system of thought as radically different from any in the academic mainstream, but so also the rules for engagement with that system.
To be fair, Wilber has argued that he is too busy to address all his critics, and that he would rather spend his time on those who publish in print, and thus are more widely read and influential. It's true that some substantive criticisms of Wilber have emerged in some published articles and in passages of a few books, and Wilber has taken the time to respond to them. A few years ago, a book honoring Wilber, Ken Wilber in Dialogue, collected the views of many of these critics, allowing Wilber to engage them all. But I found it illuminating that he did not concede a single substantive point to any of these critics, and that he identified a single writer out of them whom he felt completely understood his system--the only writer who made no real criticisms of his system at all.
If he really wants to be discussed widely in universities, he needs to learn that "you just don't understand my ideas" is not an adequate response to critics. It certainly doesn't apply to Jeff Meyerhoff.
Disagreeing that We Agree
What I find makes Jeff Meyerhoff's approach unique and valuable is that he questions the entire edifice that Wilber has erected.
Most of Wilber's ignored online critics have concentrated on a particular aspect of his system. Ray Harris, for example, writes extensively about the role of integral thinking in political change. Mark Edwards describes himself as highly supportive of Wilber's theoretical system, but feels that some of its most important implications have been neglected or even denied. I have intensively criticized the four-quadrant model. Still others, many of whom have published in print, have taken issue with Ken over such features as his stages of consciousness (Stan Grof, Michael Washburn), his views of earlier civilizations (Gus DiZerega), his ecological stance (Michael Zimmerman), and his views on gender (Joyce Neilsen). What I find makes Jeff Meyerhoff's approach unique and valuable is that he questions the entire edifice that Wilber has erected. No one else, to the best of my knowledge, has attempted such a complete evaluation.
Meyerhoff begins his online book, Bald Ambition, by describing Wilber's methodology and philosophical assumptions, raising some fundamental issues that he will return to again and again throughout the book. He then provides a detailed critique of Wilber's, work, with separate chapters on holarchy, development/consciousness, vision-logic; mysticism; social evolution; Western history; and poststructuralism/postmodernism. Meyerhoff also offers a psychological analysis of Wilber, and concludes his book with his own integration of Buddhist and Marxist thought.
Whatever Wilber might think of Bald Ambition, if he actually took the trouble to read it, he could not honestly argue, as he does so often with his other online critics, that Meyerhoff misrepresents his views. Meyerhoff has not simply pored over many of Wilber's twenty or so books, but unlike most other Wilber critics, has taken the trouble to check out many of Wilber's original sources. Thus when he turns the table and accuses Ken of misrepresenting or ignoring other thinkers, Meyerhoff's point carries considerable weight.
Again and again, with I think great effect, Meyerhoff calls our attention to statements by authors Wilber has quoted in support of some idea that at the very least suggest Wilber has considerably oversimplified their views. Perhaps his most devastating example of this is directed at Wilber's famous attack on relativism as self-contradictory. Anyone who has read even a little Wilber has probably heard him say three or five or twenty-five times that philosophers like Rorty (who, by the way, prefers the label "pragmatist" to "relativist") make an absolute statement when they assert that all is relative. Quoting Rorty, Meyerhoff assures us that no relativist actually holds such a simplistic view, and scathingly adds, "This is why Wilber never quotes any of his so-called relativist opponents actually asserting the view."
Meyerhoff is also uncommonly sensitive to nuances in Wilber's language, which he calls textual symptoms: "places in the text where the psyche of the author inserts itself to inhibit rational argumentation and keep the system afloat". As examples, Meyerhoff notes the repetition of certain phrases or buzzwords calculated to ridicule opposing views (Flatland comes immediately to mind to readers of SES, and I suspect "wet noodle" is a close second); the lumping together of complex, diverse views (“ecophilosophers”); the use of certain words that seem to modify or ameliorate points he feels otherwise won't be acceptable (as when he describes things as "relatively better, all the time"); and discussions that seem inserted as a direct response to certain critics (as when he takes pains to insist that hierarchy is not rigid and linear). Though I think Meyerhoff sometimes goes overboard in trying to read certain intentions into Wilber (never more so than in the chapter on psychological analysis), many of them do ring true.
Closely related by Meyerhoff to this issue of rigorous scholarship is Wilber's concept of "orienting generalizations". These are defined as the already agreed-upon assumptions that debating scholars assume to be true as they argue over the relevant issues in their fields. As Wilber himself describes this method, it assumes that in all the great ongoing scholarly and scientific debates, everyone is partly, or in a limited arena, right. It's only necessary to put together all these partial truths to create a larger synthesis which honors and includes every view, yet is not limited or restricted to any particular one. Meyerhoff strongly contests this approach, arguing that Wilber's selective use of references and quotations within those references paints a picture of far greater consensus on major issues than is actually the case. While I don't always agree with Meyerhoff on specific issues--he holds, it seems to me, a somewhat extreme and rather pessimistic position that sees almost no agreement on any issues anywhere--I think he does succeed in demonstrating that establishing a consensus is a greater problem than Wilber implies. At the very least, Wilber appears biassed towards painting the rosiest possible picture of agreement in a field where considerable dissent may in fact remain. At his very worst, he may be totally selective:
His actual practice is to reach into a debate, pull out the work of the 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.
These, then, are some of the foundational criticisms that Meyerhoff makes of Wilber's system, which he then applies more specifically to particular areas of that system. I will now turn to a discussion of a few of these areas.
Everything is Permanent, Everything is Transitional
it bears repeating that Wilber, for all his selection and personal bias, is still one of the most inclusive of all thinkers.
Wilber's developmental model, in which he describes humans as maturing through a series of stages of consciousness, is the aspect of his system that is perhaps most dependent on the research of others. He first presented it in The Atman Project (subsequently significantly revised, of course), where he described his creation as a simple process of adding the conventional stages of development to those higher levels suggested by his readings of mystical literature. To support his case, he cited a large number of conventional developmental models, such as those of Piaget and Kohlberg.
Meyerhoff opens his discussion of this model with a very brief sketch of it, portraying it as a three-part system: the basic waves or levels, which are permanent; the developmental lines or streams which are transitional; and the self-system. The basic levels--the enduring contribution of The Atman Project--constitute Wilber's familiar hierarchy or holarchy, which in other work he broadens to include all forms of existence. There is considerable scientific support for a hierarchical view as applied to what Wilber would call structures or exteriors (atoms, molecules, cells and so on), but the notion of a hierarchy of consciousness, according to Meyerhoff, is more controversial: Echoing one of the themes he introduced in the opening chapter, Meyerhoff charges that Wilber engages in selective scholarship:
Wilber presents his model as if the consensus of scientific opinion supports it, but this is not the case...Wilber's version of individual development is not a valid generalization of scientific findings
To substantiate his charge, Meyerhoff refers to the work of a number of modern developmental scientists. He argues that not only is there considerable disagreement over the validity of specific models of development, such as Piaget's and Kohlberg's, but indeed, that not all researchers in this field even accept the notion that development occurs in a purely hierarchical or holarchical manner. For example, he points out that Howard Gardner, whom he describes as the source of Wilber's "new wave and stream terminology", has proposed a model in which development may return at some point to lower levels, something like that proposed by another Wilber critic, Michael Washburn. While there is certainly room for arguing over the details of various theorist's views, Meyerhoff's conclusion strikes me as quite fair and restrained:
Wilber does cite legitimate sources to validate his belief in Kohlberg's model, but he neglects to inform his readers of other sources that validate the opposite view, leaving the reader with the impression that his view is the consensus in the field.
So one of Meyerhoff's points is that Wilber is guilty of poor scholarship. He selectively cites authors who agree with him, neglecting not only others who don't, but even passages in the books he does cite that suggest the issue is more complex. Of course, even if we accept that Wilber is playing a little fast and loose with his references, this doesn't necessarily invalidate his views. Just because there is more disagreement with Wilber's ideas than Wilber himself is willing to admit does not establish that Wilber's ideas are wrong. In another review of Bald Ambition, Jan Brouwer offers this defense of Wilber:
Wilber never said he would take all perspectives into account for that is precisely the train of thought (postmodern relativism) he is opposed to. He does not consider all perspectives equally valuable. Within the perspectives offered he is looking for the ones with the highest quality. He is well aware of the debate going on about these perspectives, but as a thinker he is bound to make choices.
This seems reasonable enough, until we remind ourselves that Wilber is not presenting himself as just another thinker, competing for attention in the marketplace of ideas. His very strong claim is that his system of thought is special, indeed absolutely unique. What makes it so, according to him, is in large part that it takes all the other systems into account. (The other validating strand of Wilber's system, according to Meyerhoff, is spirituality, which I will discuss later). Wilber claims to be incorporating all the partial truths of other thinkers into a higher synthesis, something none of them does or can do. This is the whole purpose of identifying and using orienting generalizations. As Meyerhoff puts it:
Whereas most researchers assert the truth of their view within the context of the debate in which they are engaged, Wilber tries to assume a position above the debate through the device of the orienting generalization. This device makes it appear as if he is neutrally reporting the findings of all the members of the debate and causes him to make grandiose claims...
In other words, Wilber wants us to accept his system not because, as we might do in the case of any other philosopher, we happen to like the particular choices "he is bound to make". We are supposed to accept his system because that system is built on a foundation that is guaranteed to avoid the problems with all other systems. His system exhibits universal tolerance, enabling it to take an objective view of every other theorist. Of course, we can accept Wilber, as Brouwer apparently does, because we do like his choices. But once we admit this, Wilber's system seems to lose its uniqueness. It is just another system, maybe more comprehensive than others, broader in its scope, but nonetheless erected on the same principle--what one man chooses.
Wilber is fond of saying "everyone is partly right" or "everyone deserves a place at the table". What Meyerhoff is charging is that Wilber doesn't really believe this. Indeed, Meyerhoff goes even further, arguing that the nature of knowledge makes it impossible to take this approach. In taking this stance, I'm sure he would find a great deal of sympathy from many of those academic philosophers that Wilber's II is trying to court. In fact, a very similar view was expressed by Austin Cline, a reviewer of Wilber's book The Marriage of Sense and Soul. Cline did not find Wilber neutrally combining orienting generalizations concerning religion. Wilber's bias seemed quite transparent to him, and he concluded:
I still find it incredibly arrogant for someone to go around claiming that one person's religiosity is less "authentically spiritual" than another person's religiosity.
People like Cline--who represent a substantial portion of the population--are turned off by Wilber precisely because they don't like his choices. Like Brouwer, I myself agree with many of Wilber's choices, including, to some extent, what he considers to be "authentically spiritual". So personally, I disagree with Cline. His criticism, though, like Meyerhoff's, illustrates that the process of putting together partial truths is highly subjective. It involves much more than just collecting them all together and extracting the core or residue ideas that seem to be consistent with all of them.. Clearly, everyone does not have a seat at Wilber's Integral table, and mere attendance, let alone how much anyone attending will be allowed to speak, has already been decided beforehand. It is precisely because of such choices that so many academics and interested intellectuals can't be convinced of the power of Wilber's system.
The corollary of this, though, is that one can accept at least some of Wilber's ideas while being highly critical of his ways of arriving at them. I just pointed out that I accept Wilber's choice of what aspects of religion or spirituality to emphasize, even though I might find his purely philosophical justification for this wanting. Meyerhoff expresses a similar affinity for Wilber here. Despite his attacks on the scholarship underlying Wilber's developmental model, Meyerhoff is not entirely critical of the model itself. He likes the fact that the levels/streams view combines both rigidity and fluidity, universals and particulars. He praises Wilber for "loosening" the original model, giving it more flexibility to better fit the numerous differences in developmental patterns suggested by the work of various researchers in the field:
On the one hand, Wilber retains the universal levels of development which unfold in a progressive, cumulative developmental sequence. On the other hand, he has opened his model up, loosened its rigid linearity and allowed it to be more usefully descriptive. This effort has led to a less goal-directed model.
Still, Meyerhoff argues that this combination also reflects a tension in Wilber:
The tension comes because this move to a less goal-directed model conflicts with his desire to show that there is a direction to development and a way of ranking levels of advancement.
The tone with which he tried to elucidate the differing parts of consciousness demonstrate the degree to which he is trying to shake the criticism that his model is a rigid, linear stepladder of development.
Meyerhoff finds the ultimate source of this tension in the problem of value. On the one hand, Wilber bases his holarchy on science, very hard science in the case of the lower levels, and psychological research in the case of human development. This science is meant to validate the model, and to support his contention that the model is universal, applicable in some general way to all human beings, and at the appropriate level, to all other forms of existence. On the other hand, Wilber wants his system to be able to rank, or value, different individuals, societies, or most generally, holons. For without some sense of value, the model can be of little use to those who struggle over social, cultural and political issues.
But the problem, as Meyerhoff sees it, is that these two aims are inherently incompatible. Any value system is inconsistent with claims for universality, a model based on hard science. Indeed, there are many scientists who now recognize hierarchical development within a certain area of study, such as a cell, an animal society, or some evolutionary process. But most are reluctant to generalize the notion to all of existence, just because to do so seems to imply a ranking or valuing of some things over others. Meyerhoff concludes:
He presents his model of development as if it is what has been discovered by science and so is a reflection of what is, but all developmental models are value-laden and so they tell us different ways people develop depending on the psychologist's belief about how people should develop.
Ultimately, I think this criticism of Meyerhoff's comes down to the same point that he made about orienting generalizations: that Wilber is not just bringing all these partial truths together, but is engaged in a highly subjective selection process. . In other words, he is doing pretty much what every other philosopher does. There is nothing wrong with this, but to repeat, it does undercut Wilber's claim to have a radically new methodology, or an approach that is more objective or more impartial than that of other thinkers. His merit should not be judged on that basis.
Having said this, it bears repeating that Wilber, for all his selection and personal bias, is still one of the most inclusive of all thinkers. He is constantly adding new concepts and ideas to his system, with the result that the system has grown and changed remarkably over the years. If he seems to exclude or ignore certain ideas that don't fit in with his scheme, we must remember that the net he is casting is a much larger one than most thinkers use. Wilber is, after all, trying to achieve some kind of synthesis of all knowledge, and it would be astonishing if not unthinkable that he could treat all ideas equally fairly or impartially.
But this raises another, quite opposite problem, one that Meyerhoff does not discuss. It is potentially a source of great power to Wilber's system if it incorporates an ever-widening circle of new data, new concepts, new partial truths. The system will certainly be more valuable, more useful, and most of us would say, more valid, if the ideas are truly integrated within the system, synthesized with other notions. But far too often, and I would say almost always in recent years, Wilber fails to do this. When he comes up with some new concept--one he has usually borrowed from some other theorist--he doesn't fit it carefully into his model. He simply tacks it on to the existing edifice, adding to rather than refining the structure. The result, to my eyes, at least, is that his system becomes increasingly unwieldy.
An example is provided by Wilber's distinction between permanent and transitional structures, which we have just seen is central to his developmental system. Meyerhoff describes Wilber's rationale for making this distinction as follows:
Piaget's level of sensory-motor development doesn't disappear at higher levels, otherwise we wouldn't have the basic capacities to deal with matter, sensation and perception which we develop through that level. Conversely, when we reach Kohlberg's conventional level of development on our moral line we don't simultaneously act from the preconventional moral level we have already developed past.
In other words, Wilber believes such a permanent/transitional distinction is necessary in order to include both Piaget and Kohlberg. Some structures, such as Piaget's, are permanent, while others, such as Kohlberg's, are not. But is this really the case? I would argue no. Wilber thinks it is because on the one hand, he overestimates the importance of :"lower" sensorimotor behavior, while on the other hand underestimating that of "lower" moral behavior.
Consider the sensorimotor aspect first. It certainly is true that we make use of particular structures that we share with lower animals, when we interact with the physical world. But a great deal of our life in societies does not involve that much interaction with the physical world. Of course, we have to navigate through physical space constantly, but most of this movement and positioning is carried out below the level of our attention if not awareness. What does get a lot of our attention is our relations with others, and these involve the use of our higher brains, through feelings and beliefs. These higher structures tend to dominate those controlling the sensorimotor, sometimes to an unhealthy degree. This is one reason why there has been so much modern interest in physical exercise, bodywork, yoga, and so on. The sensorimotor structures are always there, but in many people they are seriously neglected, and probably in most of us they aren't very well integrated.
Now my claim here is that the same is true for the structures for morality. To be sure, most modern adults are capable of morality that goes beyond the preconventional level. But we don't always act this way. Most of us have known times when we descend to the preconventional level, for example, in moments of great frustration, when we "throw a tantrum" or "lose our cool". (Perhaps also when certain writers hurl insulting invective at one another!) Such displays show very clearly that while this lower form of morality may be infrequently expressed, the structure is still very much present and capable of being exercised. There is nothing "transitional" about it. It's just that like sensorimotor behavior (which in fact it is intimately related to), it is neglected much of the time.
At this point, many readers might argue that preconventional morality differs greatly from sensorimotor behavior in that it is not only unnecessary for our survival, but is pathological; its expression is a sign of regression. But many examples show that this view is a great oversimplification. As I noted earlier, preconventional morality tends to be evoked in moments of great frustration or stress, and often it is quite appropriate. Anyone in a life-or-death situation (in “Over the Rainbow”, I discussed the example of individuals trapped in the WTC during 9/11) needs to act preconventionally. At such times, the lower structures kick in, and act to save our skins--which is all we care about then. In situations like these, preconventional morality--me first!--is not only understandable, but appropriate.
But even ordinary people in ordinary circumstances may exhibit preconventional morality. I like to do things in the outdoors, like fishing and camping. When I'm alone in the wilderness, away from social interactions, much of my behavior becomes preconventional--centered on the self, without much regard for others. By others, I mean not just other people, but other organisms and objects in the environment. While I show them some respect--a sign of conventional or post-conventional morality--I don't regard them as my equal. I regard myself as much more important than they are, and if a situation should arise in which I had to choose between my own well-being and some sort of compromise between that and the well-being of nature, I would unhesitatingly take the former. And my point is, there is nothing at all wrong with this. It's the appropriate way to act in these circumstances, just as the sensorimotor brain is the appropriate brain through which to interact with the physical world.
Moreover, even if in many cases we do regard preconventional morality as inappropriate if not pathological, the same can be said of sensorimotor behavior. For example, when we encounter someone who is, as we now say, differently abled, or perhaps ravaged by some hideous disease, we make a strong effort not to register the impressions that our sensorimotor brain takes in. Many people may act in this way when confronting someone of a different race. When we interact on a purely physical level with such a person, the message presented to us is inevitably: this person is very different from me. Like preconventional morality, this is a primal response that was vital to us earlier in our evolutionary history; we needed to be able to judge immediately who or what was like us and who was not. In modern societies, however, this message is considered unacceptable by our intellect, and the intellect struggles not simply to understand the person as similar to us, but not to see the differences.
So I claim that the stages of morality, like those of perception, cognition or any other form of behavior, are permanent. The appropriate structures have not been lost; they have just been overgrown by newer, higher ones, which sometimes make it difficult for us to see or appreciate the lower ones. What we can say is transitional is the stage at which a particular kind of structure dominates. What makes that stage transitional, rather than permanent, is not the transitional existence of its corresponding structure, but the appearance of new structures that come to dominate our behavior.
Another example of how Wilber's division between permanent and transitional structures causes problems I discussed in “The Stage-Skipping Problem”. Wilber's model seems to imply that people of earlier civilizations could not have experienced higher consciousness, because they first would have had to develop through the stages of rationality that, according to him, most people had not yet reached by that time. In order to address this problem, Wilber brings in the concept of states, claiming that a person at a particular stage or level can nevertheless access many different states. This again is a distinction between something permanent and transitional.
As I argue in that article, Wilber's concept of states doesn't work, because if one follows out all the consequences of that line of thought, other inconsistencies arise. In fact, I find the whole idea of states useless, unless it is understood that they correspond in a one-to-one fashion to structures. What Wilber calls a state is just a manifestation of a particular structure; any state he cares to identify--dreaming, waking, drug-induced, whatever--is associated with a different structure. Ironically, his four-quadrant model, where every exterior is supposed to be associated or correlated with some interior, implies this. Failure to appreciate this simple point once got Wilber embroiled in a confusing and unnecessary argument with Alan Combs, with one man arguing many states can be associated with a single structure, and the other arguing that many structures could be associated with a single state.
In conclusion, Wilber's entire distinction between permanent and transitional arises because he is trying to place into his system two phenomena which a superficial view of suggests reflect somewhat incompatible bases. Had he thought about them a little more deeply, so goes my argument, he would have seen that both phenomena can be explained by one concept. I have pointed out elsewhere other examples of Wilber's failure to truly synthesize data or ideas. Indeed, I could include the four-quadrant model itself on this list. Wilber's failure to recognize the emergent properties of societies leads him to make an unnecessary division in his scale of development, and the error is compounded by his conflation of social holons with the social properties of individual holons. In most if not all these cases, I think the failure results from his overzealous desire to fit into his system all phenomena or ideas that strike him as true, significant and needful of explanation. Just because he casts such a wide net for new ideas, he tends to leave himself little time to think very deeply about how they might all fit together. Or to put it in terms he likes, his system has a great deal of span, but at the expense of depth.
Finally, Wilber's desire to be all-inclusive also leads him to make, at times, what I consider some bad choices.
Finally, Wilber's desire to be all-inclusive also leads him to make, at times, what I consider some bad choices. He puts into his system ideas I think he would be better off leaving alone. A good example of this is Rupert Sheldrake's theory of morphogenetic fields. This theory seems to have some natural affinity for Wilber's holarchical model. As proposed by Sheldrake, the fields are, or certainly can be conceived to be, holarchical. Atoms are associated with such fields, as are molecules, and cells, and so on. Moreover, the presence of such fields, and the shaping power on material, biological and psychological phenomena that Sheldrake proposes they have, might seem to help account for development in the holarchy. For example, if the first molecule of some kind was formed by the chance association of atoms, the resulting new morphogenetic field, according to Sheldrake, would increase the probability that more atoms associated in this way. We seem to have an important driving force for hierarchical evolution.
As I have discussed elsewhere (Worlds within Worlds), though, there are many problems with Sheldrake's theory. The central one is simply that there is no direct evidence for the existence of such fields. Sheldrake cites numerous phenomena he suggests can be explained only by the presence of such fields, from the folding of proteins to the spread of learned behavior in birds. But all these phenomena have perfectly good scientific explanations. They don't demand that we postulate fields that no instrument has ever detected. This is not to say that the idea of such fields should not be considered, only that it does not yet belong in a serious theory of existence. Obviously, Sheldrake's theory does not fit the criteria of orienting generalizations.
Higher but not Better?
Let's keep in mind that the ability to see multiple perspectives is in fact a property of rationality.
Of all the stages of consciousness that Wilber maps out, vision-logic is likely to be of the most interest to his readers, because this is claimed to be the next step for humanity, beyond rationality. Before considering Meyerhoff's critique, I want to point out that despite the immense importance Wilber attaches to vision-logic, I have never understood just what he means by it. An obvious question: is it supposed to be the same higher state of consciousness that meditators realize? One the one hand, some of Wilber's descriptions of it, such as its aperspectivalism, or ability to hold in view multiple perspectives of the world, certainly make it sound like this higher state. On the other hand, when Wilber says that large numbers of people (in an absolute if not relative sense) have realized this state, and when he predicts that ultimately all of humanity will follow, it doesn't sound like the higher state of consciousness realized by mystics. In any case, I will return to this point later.
Meyerhoff's main challenge to Wilber is not that there is no such thing as vision-logic, but that there is no way to establish that it is superior to rationality, the preceding stage. Here Meyerhoff echoes Stanley Katz, a prominent poststructuralist critic of mysticism:
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.
Meyerhoff's primary contention is that in maintaining vision-logic is a superior form of consciousness, Wilber is following circular reasoning. On the one hand, he makes it very clear that vision-logic is the state of consciousness that enables us to see the holonic nature of existence:
The aperspectival mind, in other words, is holonic through and through...every structure of consciousness is actually holonic (there are only holons), but vision-logic consciously grasps this fact for the first time.
But on the other hand, we have to have the holonic view in order to conclude that vision-logic is in fact superior to rationality:
Wilber argues that vision logic is superior because it transcends and includes rationality; it is developmentally later and so more advanced; it explains more since it integrates all that has come before. In each instance vision-logic's superiority is dependent upon the validity of the integral theory. Even when Wilber states that because vision-logic sees that "consciousness is actually holonic" we know "its own operation [is] increasingly transparent to itself,", this assumes that the holonic way of looking at consciousness is correct.
It's like saying "I know I'm right because I have the best faculty for judging rightness. How do I know it's the best faculty for judging rightness? Because it judges things rightly. How do I know? Because it is the best faculty for judging rightness.
So Meyerhoff here is again using the earlier argument against orienting generalizations. He's contending that Wilber's vision logic does not emerge automatically from the synthesis of partial truths, but rather requires some assumptions:
His contradiction is that, on the one hand, he wants to claim that he is practicing a non-reductionistic, aperspectival synthesis of the partial truths of knowledge while, on the other hand, he is actually using an unacknowledged perspective and criterion of truth in order to decide what will count as truth. He uses the fiction of the orienting generalization and its purported sanction of what he considers the facts to promote as universal his highly partisan and and selective vision of what's true for all.
In attempting to refute this pessimistic assessment of Meyerhoff's, Jan Brouwer appeals not to theory but to practicality:
Vision-logic is a superior kind of knowledge because the quality of consciousness gets better when the ability to consider different perspectives is increased. Why so? Let's take a look at the daily practice of psychotherapy. There a patient is encouraged by the therapist in objectifying his/her thoughts and thoughts-emotions. When progress is made in objectification, then slowly and step by step the patient is encouraged to disidentify with these thoughts and look at his psychic life from a different (a higher and more distal) point of view. This is a very difficult path for a patient to follow, but though results are not obtained in a fortnight, practice is always rewarded. The patient learns to see that his view on life is not the only outlook possible, but that there are numerous perspectives available. When the insight dawns onthe patient he becomes more capable of disidentifying with his hangups. A process of healing is initiated with this widening of his consciousness. His own very narrow perspective is given up or integrated, the mind loosens up and is given space.
Brouwer provides another example at the social level, and concludes:
For a philosopher it is very difficult to understand that there is a possibility to 'stand outside of a thing called rationality'. For him there is nothing possible outside or beyond the mental. A mystic knows that there is consciousness beyond rationality.
I agree very much with that final statement, though I think it applies less to Meyerhoff than to most other philosophers. But in any case, I don't think it negates his criticism of Wilber's vision-logic. As I said earlier, I'm unclear whether vision-logic is intended to describe the same state of consciousness that meditators attempt to realize. If it is, however, I would strenuously argue that submitting to psychotherapy, by itself, is not a path to vision-logic. Psychotherapy is about changing our thoughts and feelings, not transcending them. Does the patient stop thinking and feeling, eventually realizing a state where he just watches mental events float by without identifying with any of them? I won't say positively, absolutely never, but surely in the vast majority of cases the answer is no. The therapy is considered successful if the patient learns to substitute different thoughts for the old "hang-ups". We consider these "better" thoughts and feelings for the same reason that pragmatists like Rorty call some ideas better than others. Because they work, which in this case may mean the patient experiences more positive emotions (more positive in relation to other emotions), is able to hold a job (which most people consider better than not being able to), and so on. We are still firmly entrenched in the relational world, where everything is in a context, and is judged by its relations with other ideas, emotions, and so on.
Let's keep in mind that the ability to see multiple perspectives is in fact a property of rationality. Ken has made this point very elegantly. What rationality is unable to do is treat them all equally. As a rational being, I can recognize that my perspective that favors John Kerry for President is not the only one possible. I know that some people support George Bush, and I can even understand why they do--in the sense that I can identify reasons that such people might give. What I as a rational being can't do, at least not very well, is imagine myself in that person's head and preferring George Bush to John Kerry. As a rational being, I can't feel, at a very deep level, that voting for George Bush is an equally good choice as voting for John Kerry. (Of course, some rational people can do this, but that's because they can see the two as more or less equal according to some standard. The essential point is that we all have some standard of comparison, and some choices always appear better to us by this standard than do other choices).
So if a patient undergoing psychotherapy is a valid example of vision-logic in the making, then vision-logic is still very much in the rational, relational world, a world where some things are better than other things. I might very well agree with Brouwer that the patient is better off having undergone the psychotherapeutic process, but he is better off not because he has realized a superior form of consciousness, but because he has been shown how to apply rationality to his problem. This problem is not an external one, the kind all of us routinely use reason to solve, but an inner one involving thoughts and emotions. But the principle is the same. To apply reason in this way is not to "objectify" these thoughts and emotions, because rationality itself is a thought process. To think about thoughts through the process of other thoughts is not an objectifying process. All philosophers recognize this, and this is precisely why they are so suspicious of the notion that there could be any form of knowledge or consciousness beyond rationality.
Yet there is something beyond rationality. Like Wilber and Brouwer, I recognize such a higher consciousness, regardless of whether we call it vision-logic or anything else. And I agree with Wilber and Brouwer that this form of consciousness does not simply see different perspectives, but truly transcends them. It can hold them all in its view without favoring one over the other. Doesn't this make it superior to rationality, which is unable to do this? Haven't I admitted as much by describing this consciousness as "higher" and "beyond"?
The problem here, I think Meyerhoff would say, is that we need rationality to make any sense of the concept of superiority. To a higher form of consciousness, nothing--visible to reason, anyway--is superior to anything else. For example, for someone in this state, it really shouldn't make any difference who the President is. From one perspective, Bush is the choice; from another, Kerry. How can we say that one perspective is better than another? If we are observing our thoughts objectively, by what process except reason do we say that some are to be preferred to others? To do this, we have to pay attention to content, and as Brouwer recognizes, the essence of higher consciousness is that it is content-free. If there is anything that a philosopher really has problems understanding, it's the notion that there could be consciousness without content.
Brouwer might concede all this, and still argue that by realizing higher consciousness, and seeing all these perspectives, we are in a better position to make rational judgments about them. So even though these judgments don't directly make use of higher consciousness, the fact that we have accessed higher consciousness has broadened the space within which reason can operate. If, as a result of this, we make choices that by the various social criteria are considered better, doesn't this constitute a powerful endorsement of higher consciousness?
Well, I would agree with Brouwer that it does, but again, Meyerhoff is not saying that Wilber is wrong, or that higher consciousness is not superior to rationality. He's just saying that in order to come to this conclusion, we must operate within the world of reason, and this in turn requires that we make certain assumptions. Higher consciousness, I think Meyerhoff would concede, is or could be aperspectival--at least with respect to any and all perspectives that might be open to reason--but it doesn't follow from this that a model which incorporates higher consciousness is. He puts it this way:
The only different criteria of knowledge that vision-logic employs is the experiential... Although one can come up with reasons why it is better, one isn't ultimately convinced by reasons. If one only has reasons then the new centauric consciousness is relying upon the criteria of rationality, i.e., giving the most compelling reasons. The rational mind will question those reasons and vision-logic will become entwined in rational debates which leave out the crucial difference of vision-logic: that it is a different way of being as well as thinking.
This may seem like quibbling to practical individuals like Brouwer. If philosophers want to argue endlessly over whether higher consciousness is superior, let them; we'll just seek it because we know in fact that it can help us create a better life. But I think the debate has major consequences for our understanding of the relationship of higher consciousness to our everyday lives. Though Wilber presents vision-logic as the latest stage in a developmental and evolutionary progression in which it bears the same relationship to the preceding stages of consciousness as they do to their predecessors (transcend and include), there is another perfectly valid way of looking at it. One could argue that while all these earlier stages have evolved/developed in some kind of sequence, higher consciousness is something very different, not just the latest stage to develop.
One reason for adopting this view is because there is evidence that people of earlier civilizations, people who according to Wilber were at a lower stage of consciousness, nevertheless sometimes did seem to realize higher consciousness. It seems that they had to skip some stages or levels to do this. While Wilber has tried to account for this by his distinction of structures/stages vs. states, as I noted earlier, his argument has serious flaws.
A second reason for questioning Wilber's view is that the relationship of higher consciousness to rationality seems quite different from that of rationality to the stages that Wilber says preceded it. The evidence of history indicates that when people's consciousness underwent major transformations, it did so more or less inevitably, and often naturally and effortlessly. In the Industrial Revolution, for example, roughly the period according to Wilber when rationality began to arise, (most) everyone's worldview changed, swept along by the great social and technological changes that were occurring. Likewise, when a child moves through the stages of development that Wilber defines, she does so inevitably. Barring the rare pathological case, she is guaranteed to reach stages like formal operation, given only that she is embedded in a certain culture.
In contrast, all the evidence indicates that higher consciousness does not come to individuals effortlessly. We know of no children that keep developing beyond the highest stages recognized by conventional models of consciousness, and we know of no societies where everyone is transformed to this state. All the evidence suggests that realizing a higher consciousness is a highly unnatural process, one in which an individual must make enormous efforts over a period of many years. While some might argue that these individuals are the vanguard, and that later humanity will be able to follow much more easily, this view doesn't fit easily with what we know about the human brain. As far back as 100,000 years ago, when humanity according to Wilber was stumbling through the archaic stage, it seemed to have all the structures necessary to develop automatically to the highest conventional stages. Take any child from any culture and place her in Western culture, and she will develop the consciousness of modern Westerners. The great efforts required by meditation argue strongly, it seems to me, that the brain does not come equipped with the structures necessary to realize higher consciousness, no matter what the social environment.
So according to one reasonable point of view, higher consciousness does not follow the rules that other stages have followed. It's certainly an open question whether large numbers of people, let alone all of humanity, are likely to realize it. This does not mean it is not superior in some sense to rationality, but it does illustrate some of the problems that arise in basing this conclusion on a holarchical model. Some theorists, like Gus DiZerega and Mark Edwards, go even further and argue that in fact none of the so-called lower stages can be considered inferior to modern, Western consciousness. I think as a minimum, we can conclude that higher levels can't be considered superior to lower levels by any ordinary definition of superior. This follows from the principle that higher levels by definition can't be judged by the same standards that lower levels are.
In other words, if you want to make your life better, go to a psychotherapist. If you want to redefine what life means, start meditating.
The Truth We Don't Know
So any philosopher who attempts to bring some discussion of mysticism into his system is setting himself up for problems.
Earlier, we saw that one of Wilber's main claims for validation of his system is through orienting generalizations, and that Meyerhoff finds that the evidence for such generalizations is often very weak. According to Meyerhoff, though, Wilber uses another claim. In addition to "a pragmatic avenue based on the agreement of the expert community", he identifies "a realist avenue through contact with 'the pregiven' or world as it is." Meyerhoff refers to a somewhat similar distinction when he says that Wilber appeals to both thinking and being. On the one hand, he wants his arguments to be accepted by, or at the least not refutable by, reputable philosophers; thus the orienting generalizations. On the other hand, Wilber argues for a form of consciousness, and experience of the world, that puts us in touch with a kind of knowledge not accessible to the academic approach.
Wilber is not the first philosopher to appeal to a higher form of consciousness, of course, but it is probably a more important part of his system than has been the case with any of his predecessors. One might describe Wilber's entire project as an attempt to demonstrate that higher consciousness not only is real and a valid form of knowledge, but that it must be appreciated for the rest of our knowledge to make sense. Meyerhoff speaks of it as the anchor to Wilber's system, the ultimate defense against relativism.
Yet the two inevitably conflict. "These two sides of thinker and mystic," says Meherhoff, "exist uncomfortably within him." Nothing surprising about that. They exist uncomfortably in anyone who is fortunate enough to have developed both sides. Mysticism and intellectuality don't mix very well. At best, the intellectual understands that some things are beyond all rational thought, and thus may seem paradoxical, while the mystic recognizes that rationality is an essential tool for understanding and adapting to the everyday world. At worst, though, the intellectual may try to explain away mysticism, while the mystic becomes anti-rational.
So any philosopher who attempts to bring some discussion of mysticism into his system is setting himself up for problems. The central problem, which Meyerhoff focuses on, is that of validation. How do we know that a mystical experience is genuine? Wilber, possibly uniquely in the history of philosophy, has claimed that mystics can validate their kind of knowledge by a process much like that by which scientists or philosophers validate theirs. They are given an injunction, telling them to behave in a certain way (as scientists do when the perform an experiment, or philosophers do when they follow the consequences of some train of thought); they have an apprehension or experience as a result of this specific behavior (the result of the experiment or the conclusion of the thought process); and they confirm that this experience is similar to what others have had (the experiment is reproducible; the train of thought is logical).
One problem with this, Meyerhoff points out, is that if the genuineness of mystical experience can only be confirmed by the community, "that means it can be argued that what the community says goes." We seem to have a relativist position, in which there is no objective truth but simply notions that we can agree on. Wilber' system loses its anchor.
Not all philosophers are relativists, however. Some, such as John Searle, recognize the validity of the scientific method, and still contend that there is an objective world that may be revealed by our consensus, but is not created by it. It seems to me that Wilber is probably viewing higher consciousness more along these lines.
Such philosophers, however, would probably agree with a second problem Meyerhoff raises, when he questions whether mystical experience can even in principle be validated in the same way that other forms of knowledge are. Can our experience of a higher state of being be compared in this sense to our experience of some common object in the world? Meyerhoff seems to accept Wilber's claim that all experiences, even in the ordinary state of consciousness, have an ineffability to them, but argues that only in the case of mysticism is the ineffability the central issue. For example, when I see a dog I have an ineffable experience, and I have no way of being certain that it is the same experience that you have when you see a dog. But it is not necessary to establish this for us to agree that there are dogs in the world and that we both see them. Our knowledge about dogs--and atoms and molecules and cells and stars, as well about ideas--abstracts something from the ineffable experience.
In contrast, if I have a mystical experience and you have a mystical experience, in both cases it might involve a scene in which a dog is present, but our confirming that would not confirm that we both had a similar mystical experience. The mystical experience seems to involve something beyond content, and this makes any communally confirmable reference to it problematic.
Mysticism, which claims knowledge of an absolute beyond language, will hinder its cause by trying to fight on a linguistic terrain. It will always find itself drawn into a quagmire of interminable debate which draws its participants further away from a way of being most conducive to realizing the insights that mystics are advocating.
So Wilber, I think Meyerhoff might say, is caught on the horns of a dilemma. If mystical knowledge can be verified much as other forms of knowledge are, then many would argue that is a relative form of knowledge, and cannot serve as the objective anchor for Wilber's system. Wilber might escape this charge by contending that mystical experience is objective in the same way that some thinkers believe scientific knowledge is. Yet it differs fundamentally from scientific knowledge in its ineffability, which seems to frustrate any way to validate it.
This is a fundamental problem that will arise again in the discussion of other aspects of Wilber's system. While many of the criticisms that Meyerhoff raises of Wilber's system one might dismiss as largely theoretical--for example, the importance of impartially representing the ideas of other theorists--this one hits home in the strongest possible manner. To me, it is perhaps the most difficult problem that Wilber's system confronts.
Why? Consider our situation. Higher consciousness is an immense, largely unexplored frontier. A few individuals have ventured out into this territory, and still fewer have tried to describe what they encountered. Since we are claiming that these experiences are ineffable, all desciptions are mostly useless, anyway. How, then, can we validate them? If someone has a very profound experience but can find no mention of it the literature, nor can he find any other practitioner who has had a similar experience, is this person supposed to conclude that his experience was not real, not valid? That might in fact be the case, but might it not also be simply that no one else has yet ventured this far, or in this direction? How can we tell?
Meyerhoff, I think, recognizes that the communal validation process, for all its faults, has the very important advantage of helping to weed out false experiences, those claimed by people who are either deluded in some manner, or who are intentionally trying to defraud their followers. If there is no such validation process in place, than anything goes. "This is an excellent response," he concedes, "to those who ignorantly assert that mysticism is just mental fuzziness." But if we depend too heavily on the communal process, we run the risk of the sort of social conformity that in fact has been the fate of so much of organized religion. Established churches, to differing degrees, tend to tell their followers what they can and can't believe, and what they might and might not experience. In such an environment, the truly exceptional individuals or experiences are likely to be stifled.
I'm not sure there is a neat solution to this problem that can be summarized in any philosophy. Perhaps the best we can do is introduce these two poles--the communal validation and the individual ineffability--and let individuals and communities work it out for themselves. But it won't be straight-forward. Brouwer argues that language is very flexible, and that communal confirmation can become very creative:
but these "words or pictures" representing the states can work as symbols that can re-enact the mystical experience again. When a mystic speaks, he or she can use symbolic language like poetry or can use artful representations of mystical states that can provoke the same experiences or feelings in the listener or the reader.
This sounds nice in theory, but I have seen too many best-selling books in which the authors say all the right words about higher consciousness, but still leave me with the impression—based on my non-communally confirmed experiences—that they really don't have a clue. Classical spiritual literature, and its modern interpretations, are so widely known and available today that anyone can parrot words of wisdom and sound as if he has had a profound experience. The problem is not simply that some of these individuals may intentionally be practicing deception. Given that all our experiences are to some degree ineffable, it is very easy to convince oneself that a particular experience is much more profound—much more ineffable--than is actually the case. How many people have claimed they have experienced the connectedness of everything? How many of those were actually realizing a higher state of consciousness?
So I agree with Meyerhoff when he states that “Wilber greatly exaggerates the ability of mystics to confirm each other's experiences“. And the consequences of this over-exaggeration are not limited to particular individuals; it has important implications for society. Wilber has described "studies" showing that such-and-such a proportion of the population has reached a certain stage of consciousness, as if we can easily validate this. He seems to think the validation problem has been solved, and we can now follow, using conventional social science surveys, the progression of humanity to higher levels of development.
A similar belief—I would call it a delusion--also encourages brain scientists, who may not have thought about the philosophical implications of this issue very carefully, and assume that the door is now open to identification of physiological correlates of higher consciousness. A recent book, Why God Won't Go Away, presented a study of Buddhist monks, in which changes in imaging of specific areas of the brain were correlated with the process of meditation. The authors accepted, without debate, that the monks were in fact in a higher state of consciousness, and that therefore any changes in their brain physiology were true correlates of this state. There was a time, when he wrote Eye to Eye many years ago, when Wilber--very wisely, I thought--exposed the fallacy of using physiological measurements as indicators of spiritual development. Just how much his views have changed since then is shown by his well-known recent interview when he used a demonstration of his brainwave pattern to show that he had realized a high state of consciousness.
I find this profoundly silly. There is no way that we can identify physiological correlates of higher consciousness until we can validate that any particular person is in fact experiencing higher consciousness. Laboratory scientists certainly can't do this. It's highly questionable that anyone can. Unfortunately, Meyerhoff himself falls into this trap, as he apparently accepts without argument that Wilber has reached an advanced state. Even the sharpest intellectual critics seem willing to concede possibilities without any evidence for them.
Taking Contexts out of Context
Meyerhoff argues that Wilber oversimplifies and at times caricatures poststructuralist thought.
Meyerhoff's chapter on poststructuralism/ postmodernism is perhaps his best effort, because this is the area where he is clearly most at home and comfortable in the debate. He knows the issues very well, and where some might argue that his philosophical criticism leaves something out, or even misses the point, when directed at certain other aspects of Wilber's system, here it is clearly the appropriate tool.
Echoing a central theme that we have seen recurs throughout his critique, Meyerhoff argues that Wilber oversimplifies and at times caricatures poststructuralist thought. A particularly devastating example of this appears in a quote from Derrida, where a term Wilber puts in brackets, according to Meyerhoff, is not at all what Derrida meant. Wilber uses the quote to demonstrate that Derrida believes in the existence of transcendent signifieds as having a role in verbal discourse. In other words, experiences of higher consciousness can be used to buttress philosophical positions. Meyerhoff, upon a careful reading of the passage in question, concludes that Derrida was making precisely the opposite point:
Like Wilber's mistaken reading of Morris Berman, his transformation of Derrida into an intellectual ally against the evidence of the very quotes he's using to make his case shakes one's confidence in Wilber as a scholarly reporter.
Meyerhoff shows us some more of these misrepresentations, and concludes mercilessly:
Wilber resorts to these silly kinds of 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.
What are these problems, according to Meyerhoff? He highlights one of them in a discussion of Nagarjuna, the great Indian philosopher whom Wilber especially admires. Noting that Wilber makes extensive use of Murti's translation/interpretation of Nagarjuna, Meyerhoff argues:
[Wilber], 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.
Nagarjuna is noted for his dialectical method, intended to show that all conceptions of reality are fallacious, or “empty”. For every argument in favor of some concept of reality, Nagarjuna offers a counter-argument demonstrating that it is logically inconsistent. This could possibly suggest an extreme relativist view. Murti's interpretation of the philosopher, however, rescues him from this fate, by finding in his thought an Absolute that can be used to anchor our thinking. Meyerhoff counters that this is a very selective reading of Nagarjuna; later interpreters of him deny that he meant this, putting him firmly in the relativist camp. As in other arguments, Meyerhoff's point is not fatal to Wilber's system, but it does show that he has taken a highly selective approach, emphasizing what seems to be a minority and somewhat outdated view that supports his own.
The heart of the problem Meyerhoff is raising is, as we have seen earlier, the apparent incommensurability of mystical experience with language. If the experience is ineffable, how can we language-bound beings say that anything is there? This can be considered one response of poststructuralism when it confronts mystical experience. We have seen earlier that philosophers like Katz, taking this approach, don't deny that there might be a truth beyond words, only that we can't know this. There is an alternative poststructuralist approach, however, which attempts to bring mystical experience within the realm of language:
The rise of the linguistic turn, deconstructionism and constructivism brought a new critique and understanding to the philosophy of mysticism... Constructivists argue that it is language that allows us to have a conscious experience of what we conceive as reality. Language arises from socio-cultural contexts... 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, the constructivist demonstrates the essential differences between differing traditions.
This poststructuralist or constructivist view is just as problematic for Wilber, because it threatens to relativize the mystical experience. Wilber's response to this is a classic both-are-right position, co-opting the view but arguing that it is a partial one. He accepts the universality of contexts, but claims that there is still something outside them:
experience is immediate prehension of whatever mediated contexts are given, and that is why all experience is both pure (immediate) and contextual.
Meyerhoff denies this:
Experience is either wholly mediated or has elements of mediation and unmediation. It can't be both.
I'm not sure I agree with Meyerhoff here. Using his own example of the mass media filtering news, we could say we have an immediate experience as we watch or hear the news, even though the content of this news is filtered through various contexts. While probably most philosophers would argue that even the immediate experience is not completely pure, because any stimuli we encounter are always subject to processing in the brain, Wilber's position is at least coherent and arguable. I don't think it is logically impossible as Meyerhoff implies.
The more fundamental criticism here, I think, is: so what? So what if we have an unmediated experience of a context? This just resuscitates the fundamental problem of content vs. content-free experience. The contexts are the content, while the “immediate prehension of whatever mediated contexts are given” is the content-free or pure experience. Wilber is perfectly free to assert this distinction, and people can decide whether they agree with him, but he must still make an assumption that philosophers will find not simply unproven, but unprovable.
To conclude, Meyerhoff is again claiming that Wilber's orienting generalizations don't really represent a true consensus; that the contexts of poststructuralism can't be incorporated neatly into his system as orienting generalizations. Indeed, if I understand him correctly, he is going further, and saying that there is a consensus of sorts, but that Wilber is badly misrepresenting it. However, there is an alternative criticism one could make of Wilber here, and I'm a little surprised that Meyerhoff has missed it. Even if there were none of the problems that he cites between poststructuralism and Wilber's system, poststructuralism itself hardly qualifies as an orienting generalization. Despite sweeping statements Wilber makes, like “it is now widely recognized that everything exists in a context”, not all philosophers accept this view. As I noted earlier, John Searle believes in an objective world independent of ourselves, one we can explore and validate through the use of our senses, but which exists regardless of whether we do or not. An atom is an atom, in this view, independent of any context.
Meyerhoff does conclude, though, that even those views of poststructuralists or postmodernists that virtually all scholars now do accept are perspectives, and that Wilber accepts them along with everyone else:
He says that vision-logic privileges no perspective just like postmodern thinking, it just adds them up into an integral aperspective. Yet Wilber's integral synthesis privileges key ideas that are central to the postmodern critique: evolution, progress, a telos, anthropocentrism, a non-dual essence, the division between inner and outer, realism and a vocabulary that is binding on other time, person and places.
Wilber as Microcosm
Not content with demonstrating flaws in Wilber's system, Meyerhoff wants to trace the source of these flaws to flaws, or deficiencies, in Wilber's personal life.
Though supporters of Wilber will find Meyerhoff's critique of his Integral system annoying at the least, they are likely to go ballistic when they come to his psychological analysis of Wilber. Not content with demonstrating flaws in Wilber's system, Meyerhoff wants to trace the source of these flaws to flaws, or deficiencies, in Wilber's personal life.
There is an irony here that reflects on both critic and criticized. On the one hand, what Meyerhoff does in this chapter amounts to an ad hominem attack, focussing on his subject's personality and character rather than on his ideas. In the Western tradition that Meyerhoff abundantly demonstrates he respects and adheres to, this is supposed to be a no-no. It is, according to the standard rules, at the very least, unfair; probably irrelevant; and in any case, downright rude and insulting. But Meyerhoff argues that Wilber's own approach not only allows it, but even demands it:
the all-important question when trying to understand artifacts is: what level of consciousness... produced the artifact?
More specifically, we have seen that vision-logic, according to Wilber, is precisely that level of consciousness that is able to grasp the holonic nature of the universe. So is it not reasonable, asks Meyerhoff, to delve into Wilber's personal life and see just how his level of consciousness is related to his ideas?
Under cover of that rationale, Meyerhoff thus digs into what information is publicly available about Wilber's early life--quite a bit more, it turns out, than I would have thought. A central theme he believes runs through it all is "loss and fragmentation". As an Army brat, Wilber had to move frequently, uprooting relationships with peers. His father was gone much of the time, and his father's parents he never knew. He quotes passages from Wilber suggesting that the latter was somewhat alienated and lonely as a child. From out of all this--a childhood that tens of millions of American kids today would probably have little trouble identifying with--Meyerhoff concludes that Wilber had a deep psychological need to create a system of thought that unified what he saw as a divided and fragmented world.
The little spiritual boy who put his spirituality away in order to adopt a scientific and rational persona finally gets his due by devising a seemingly rational and scientific system that both includes his scientific persona and transcends it in a larger encompassing spirituality.
As I said earlier, Wilber's admirers are sure to get quite upset reading passages like this. Brouwer says of such writing that "the vilefulness [sic] and spitefulness of Meyerhoff's analysis reaches almost paranoic heights". I think there is a much more sober, and to-the-point, response to Meyerhoff's critique: so what? Even if we grant that Wilber had an unusually difficult and unhappy childhood--I don't really believe this, but for the sake of argument let's assume he did--couldn't we find his accomplishments all the more remarkable for what he had to overcome? I mean, does anyone belittle the six consecutive Tours de France that Lance Armstrong has won, arguing that Armstrong's near-fatal battle with cancer produced a deep psychological need to be the best in the world at stage racing?
I suppose we could imagine an ideal world in which all the great accomplishments of men and women resulted purely from a drive to know the truth, with no messy contributions from other factors in their life. But that is rarely, if ever, the case. Of course there are personal factors that can have a tremendous influence on the direction we take. And in the case of those of us who turn towards mysticism, many of those factors are necessarily negative. Precisely because mysticism is about being, experience, a powerful drive leading us towards it is dissatisfaction with our personal lives. It might sound wonderful to imagine that we can unemotionally come to an understanding of what meditation can do, and therefore simply do it. The reality is that emotions always play a large part in the process.
Meyerhoff can argue, as he does on other issues, that this is all beside the point. The point is that Wilber's system is supposed to be built from orienting generalizations that anyone can verify. Therefore, it should not need, nor should it include, personal factors. But these themes of loss and fragmentation are not just personal; for those turning to mysticism, they are universal. In The Master Game, Robert deRopp has described the incredible unhappiness and meaninglessness that seekers often endure before they find a new life. Indeed, the process of meditation is so difficult that arguably only someone who has reached the point where he no longer believes he has anything to lose can begin. Just because Wilber experienced fragmentation and loss in his own life does not mean this theme is idiosyncratic to his system. It would be rather like criticizing a scientist's theory because he was obviously influenced by his desire to understand the world.
So what has Meyerhoff accomplished here? Beyond questions of the accuracy of his analysis, or the wisdom of attempting it, he is concerned here with the source of Wilber's values. As I discussed earlier, Meyerhoff finds a tension in Wilber's holarchical model, between Wilber's desire to show that it's based on hard science, on the one hand, and his intent to apply it to questions of meaning and value, on the other. If we grant that Wilber's system does embed certain values—a claim Meyerhoff further buttresses in this chapter with his interesting narrative analysis of Wilber—then an obvious place to look for them is Wilber's early life. Values, for most of us, are strongly shaped at this time.
I can accept this. I can't accept that they make the system flawed, at least not beyond the sense that any system that contains values is not completely objective and just a sum of partial truths. To the extent that having values is a weakness of Wilber's system, it's a weakness of any other system, and we should start probing into the early lives of other philosophers as well. It may make for interesting history, but I don't think it strengthens our analysis.
Careful What You Wish For
What Meyerhoff says—and yes, how he says it—is very representative of the kind of discourse that actually takes place among academics today.
During the many years that I have been familiar with Ken Wilber's writings, I have often wondered what a trained academic philosopher would make of them. While a few of them, such as Charles Taylor, have spoken favorably of Ken, most seem to have remained silent. With Bald Ambition, we finally have a detailed answer to this question. Though Jeff Meyerhoff is apparently not a professional philosopher, I think the quality of his ideas as well as their presentation is up to academic standards, and I'm quite sure that many academic philosophers would agree with much of what he says. I feel his book deserves to be published, and it's a sad commentary on certain parts of our system of intellectual discourse that it hasn't been and probably won't be.
Though Meyerhoff makes a great many criticisms of Wilber's work, I think most of them boil down to just two, one methodological, the other conceptual. The methodological criticism, as we have seen, is that Wilber uses poor or careless scholarship to create in his readers the perception that there is a much greater consensus on certain issues (the orienting generalizations) that are critical to his model than is actually the case. Having done this, he can then argue that the model is validated to a large extent by an established body of research, when in fact many scientists, social scientists and philosophers might disagree over key aspects of it. Indeed, whatever one thinks of Meyerhoff's views, the very fact that he--along with some others in the Reading Room--disageee with Wilber on many of these issues is itself a sign of discord in the ranks. If there is such a strong consensus among thinkers, what can Wilber say about those of us on the outside? Unless one believes we are all ignorant--as Wilber has certainly stated on several occasions--or that we are engaged in a personal vendetta, the criticisms of Meyerhoff and others must indicate that agreement falls considerably short of universal.
The basic conceptual criticism Meyerhoff makes is that the ineffable nature of higher consciousness precludes its use as an ultimate base or anchor for Wilber's system. This point, I think, lies at the heart of Meyerhoff's attacks on vision-logic, on Wilber's incorporation of poststructuralist ideas, and of course on his use of the three-strand validation process for mystical knowledge. It's also a criticism, I'm quite sure, that a great many, if not a majority, of academic philosophers Wilber now seems to be courting would make of his system. As Stanley Katz has taken pains to emphasize, one can accept the possibility of genuine mystical experience and still argue that it has no relevance to any system of knowledge based on language.
Though I disagree with Meyerhoff in some of his specific targets of these criticisms, I think that overall he has made a convincing case that they are problematic for major aspects of Wilber's work. I'm less sure, though, that they are fatal to the system, or even do major damage to it. As I have pointed out earlier, the fact that Wilber overestimates the amount of agreement on certain issues doesn't prove that his take on these issues is wrong or not useful. What it does do is undercut his claim or implication that his approach is radically different from that of other philosophers, a possibility he is no doubt loathe to concede. But dispensing with the myth of Wilber as Philosopher-God might be a good thing for him as well as for the rest of us. If Wilber were willing to admit some uncertainty into his system, and begin to debate more with his critics instead of claiming they don't understand him, academics would probably increase their respect for him.
The criticism that higher consciousness has no place in a system of knowledge I think is also a useful corrective. This is not to say that I believe that it has no place. What makes Wilber most different from other philosophers, living and in most cases dead, is that he not only acknowledges the importance of mystical experience, and brings it into his system, but wants to base that system on it. It is the highest form of being and the highest form of knowledge. I think he is absolutely right in doing this, but at the same time I recognize that this position can never be acceptable to those unfamiliar with this experience, and perhaps even to some who are. This will remain the case until some kind of genuine validation of higher states become possible. Until that day, which I don't expect to see in my lifetime, this aspect of Wilber's system needs intense, unrelenting self-criticism, a sort of apology for proceeding in this manner even as we do. Without such criticism, many philosophers, even if they can forgive the gaps in his scholarship, simply won't take him seriously.
Even those who disagree profoundly with Meyerhoff's analysis of Wilber should recognize that he provides valuable insight into how much of academia at this point probably regards Ken. What Meyerhoff says—and yes, how he says it—is very representative of the kind of discourse that actually takes place among academics today. Wilber and his supporters in the Integral Institute may not like it, but if they are really serious about getting beyond what is looking more and more like a cult surrounding Wilber, they better get used to it.
1. All quotes, unless otherwise indicated, are from Meyerhoff's book or from Jan Brouwer's review of that book in the Reading Room.
2. Cline, A. “The Marriage of Sense and Soul (A Book Review)
3. In his recent post in the Reading Room, Wilber—quoting a phone interview he provides as an example of direct dialogue with him--suggests he might finally have noticed this conflationary position. As before, he describes quadrants as “dimensions” that all (sentient) holons have, but he also implies (without saying so in so many words) that particular holons can't be assigned to particular quadrants. If he has finally noticed the problem and is attempting to correct it, this constitutes a quite significant, and as far as I can tell, completely unacknowledged, departure from his earlier view, expressed in SES, for example. It now appears that his four-quadrant model is not a map of all forms of existence, but rather a way of looking at each individual holon. In fact, he seems to have adopted Mark Edwards' view of the four-quadrants as a “lens”, for he adds to the description of quadrants as 'dimensions” the term 'perspectives”, just as Edwards suggested in a series of recent articles. Regardless, he still maintains a fundamental division between individual and social that is not hierarchical.