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

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Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY 2003Frank Visser, a psychologist of religion, founded in 1997 (back then under the name of “The World of Ken Wilber”). He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. He is the author of the first monograph on Ken Wilber and his work: “Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion” (SUNY Press, 2003), which has been translated into 7 languages, and of many essays on this website.


A New Phase
of Integral Theory?

Impressions of the 2nd Biannual Integral Theory Conference
at JFK University, July 29 - August, 1 2010

Frank Visser

Instead of seeing things as Wilber sees them, the needed shift in focus is to look at Wilber and his philosophy. Not looking AS Wilber but AT Wilber.

I attended the 2nd Biannual Integral Theory Conference at JFK University in Pleasant Hill, near San Francisco, with the intent to connect with the integral community as it had grown up around this academic milieu. I also wanted to transcend the polarized culture of Wilber/Integral versus his online critics, that had culminated/escalated in the infamous Wyatt Earp episode in the summer of 2006. And I looked forward to meeting in person some of the Integral World authors who had contributed essays to that website (Meyerhoff, DiPerna, Wallis, Augustine, Ross, Piacenza, Murray, Martin et al.), as well as make new integral contacts. Besides, I love to be in San Francisco.


I was scheduled to give one presentation ("The 'Spirit of Evolution' Reconsidered", now available on Integral World—which received an honorary mention in the Constructive Criticism category) and participate in two panels (on "Key Criticisms of Wilber's Work: The Achilles Heel of Integral Theory" and "Is Integral a Mass Movement or an Elitist Pursuit?"). Further, I attended sessions on global warming (Zimmerman), ethics (Roger Walsh), spiritual development (Dustin DiPerna), progress in evolution (Steve McIntosh), states and stages (Terri O'Fallon) and the meta-theory panel (moderated by Tom Murray).

As mentioned, the polarization between the integral establishment and Integral World seemed to have run its course. At the time of Wyatt Earp, the academic initiatives headed by Sean Esbjörn-Hargens and Mark Forman were getting underway (leading to an online integral university program, an academic journal and the integral theory conferences). By actively inviting critical voices to these conferences, it's organizers intended to build bridges burnt in the past. I welcomed this gesture, and meeting these two guys in person only strengthened my confidence that much could be accomplished in the future.

In their opening speech they outlined a trajectory of integral discourse, that went beyond what they saw as the "Wilber-dominated" or "Wilber-centric" phase of 2000-2005 (as part of Wilber-V). Refering to the first Integral Theory Conference of 2008, they stressed that at that time the panel discussing the vexed question "Does Wilber Equal Integral?" unanimously answered this question with a resounding NO. Wilber and integral should be decoupled, was the general feeling at the time. My own feeling at that time was (perhaps surprisingly to many), that even if many past and present models and views could be called "integral", to me Ken Wilber was still the biggest star in the integral universe. To all practical intents and purposes, integral theory is very much Wilberian theory. So a focus on Ken Wilber would still be highly relevant to me. How would we have to characterize that focus?

It's perhaps instructive to look at the beginnings of academic psychology, at the days when Freud started his psychoanalysis, both as a theory and a movement. As long as Freud was the only game in town, Freud equalled psychoanalysis. But as soon as other competitors entered the scene (Jung, Adler, etc.), it became necessary to specify which blend of psychoanalysis one was referring to. The Freudian theory at any rate could no longer be designated as "psychoanalysis" pure and simple. Perhaps the integral field should wait for its Jung, to clear this semantic confusion. In the meantime, integral very much equals Wilber, although many feel that some amount of distancing is necessary to make a more academic approach feasible. But how?

It was therfore interesting to see that at the present conference, Esbjörn-Hargens and Forman proposed a "new phase of integral theory", which they curiously still termed "Wilber-based". Just a little bit more liberal then "Wilber-centric", but not much. This was visualized with the image of a tree, with roots, trunk and branches:

  • Branches: Applications and Criticisms of integral/Wilberian theory
  • Trunk: Wilber's integral philosophy (AQAL)
  • Roots: Wilbers forerunners, sources of inspiration and ideas

The idea of this new phase of integral theory seemed to be to place Wilber's work in a historical/intellectual context, both to give his views more academic credibility and to evaluate his proposals in an academically responsible way. Effectively, the new approach to integral theory would still very much be Wilber-oriented (no complaints here), but we should be very careful in defining these various fields of research. Instead of the decoupling of Wilber from integral, it is our identification with the Wilberian perspective that should be loosened. In other words, instead of seeing things as Wilber sees them, the needed shift in focus is to look at Wilber and his philosophy. Not looking AS Wilber but AT Wilber—the familiar quadrants/quadrivia distinction.

For with this scheme, we could still go two ways. Teaching Wilber's ideas to students or putting Wilber in perspective?

A strictly Wilber-based perspective would trace the many sources Wilber has used to construct his integral models, catalogue the many applications that are in the works, as well as the way Wilber's views have been received, both in a positive and a negative way. Problems arise when Wilber's perspective on things is transferred to this academic approach to integral theory. Students would then learn the concepts of AQAL, are encouraged to apply these concepts to as many subjects as possible, and regard criticisms of integral theory with suspicion. Looking through the "Masters of Arts in Integral Theory" brochure and the 3-year course description for the online Integral Theory programme at the JFK website, this is exactly what students will learn: "a practical and theoretical foundation in all important aspects of the Intgral Model". None of the 37(!) courses offered through the online training program explicitly mention a critical appraisal of the integral philosophy—as far as I have been able to tell from the documentation.

Now, while there's obviously enough integral material available to fill a 3-year course, the academic spirit requires that students can also keep a critical distance from their subject of study. It goes without saying that possible criticism should not be discussed in the Wilberesque way of "Let's show how wrong the critics are—and make fun of them!", nor even in an apologetic sense ("What to say agains critics of integral?"), but in the Feynmanian sense of "bending over backwards to show how you may be wrong". This is no minor issue. It is the test case for scientific credibility.

This neglect of criticism is understandable from the official "integral" perspective. For if integral theory "integrates more truth than any other system in history" (as Jack Crittenden opined in his forword to The Eye of Spirit), any criticism could only be the result of shadow issues on the part of the critic, which was pretty much the upshot of Wyatt Earp. (Funny aside: Meyerhoff returned the compliment by arguing that there's a psychological basis to Wilber's beliefs.) Jack Crittenden confidently declared back in 1997: "Wilber has not been believably criticized for misunderstanding or misrepresenting any of the fields of knowledge that he includes" and "nobody... has yet presented a coherent critique of Wlber's overall approach."

Those days of Wilber-adoration are truly over. Wyatt Earp was a turning point for many in the integral field, though an honest discussion about this "integral family secret" is still challenging. It was discussed during one of the presentations—though I don't know in what spirit—but unfortunately I missed that session. And it was frequently mentioned in private conversations. What is more, I was approached by a professional mediator who wanted to investigate this troubled episode of integral history. And, there's even talk about an Integral Ethics Review Board. In all, that seems to be a healthy sign of a community which is trying to growing up.

At the time of the conference, Jeff Meyerhoff's book Bald Ambition: A Critique of Ken Wilber's Theory of Everything was released as hard cover. In the book, it is precisely Wilber's overall approach that is critiqued in a rational and responsible manner. Meyerhoff covers many of the areas that Wilber has integrated into his theory—such as psychology, mysticism, philosophy, methodology, social evolution, Western history, postmodernism and systems theory—and highlights many areas of scholarship an academic approach to Wilber's offerings could benefit from. Bald Ambition has not yet received the attention it deserved as a pioneer study in this new field of Wilber studies. It can undoubtedly be improved and elaborated upon (for example, I covered Wilber's statements on evolutionary theory in my conference paper). But the scope of Meyerhoff's treatment exceeds the usual focus on AQAL theory applications in an instructive and refreshing way.

A truly academic approach would be to take each and every one of Wilber's proposals, and carefully place these in an academic context. As I wrote some years ago, "The trouble with Ken Wilber, that, for all his academic phraseology, he is not embedded in a corrective academic community." A new academic approach to integral theory could remedy this predicament, by providing that missing academic context again—but without the Wilber-complex (unconsciously assuming Wilber's word is truth) many Willber admirers (myself including) have been suffering from. Compared to the more "religious" Wilber-centric phase 1—integral as panacea for all world problems—this new phase 2 of integral theory would actually be nothing less than the proper academic, objective and detached assessment of Wilber's philosophy.

If anything, we should shake that Wilber tree!


We don't develop because of gravity, nor do stars and galaxies form because of love.

Moving over now to some of the sessions and panel discussions I attended, unforgivably selective and brief.

Zimmerman's presentation on the climate crisis was at the top of my list. It was interesting, personal and thought-provoking. He argued that an emphasis on the reduction on CO2 emissions would lead to a lowering of the economy and subsequent further increase in poverty. It also wasn't a message the Third World countries would be willing to accept: stay poor. Instead, he proposed to shift our attention to the energy crisis, and hope for breakthroughs in energy technology (current alternatives are not enough to support our energy consumption level).

Unfortunately, he could not point to any future technologies that would be able to take the place of fossil fuels. He also argued that alarmism never works (he had his share of Cold War, acid rain, limits to growth doom scenario's in his life, none of which turned out to be realistic). Instead, we should focus on smaller targets, which had a bigger chance of success, such as clean water for everybody. Doom scenario's only paralyze, where realistic targets motivate.

The subject is vast, and nobody seems to be widely read in all relevant climate change fields. Zimmerman mentioned Climate-gate, but did not specify if the consensus on the causes of global warming had simply evaporated, or had just dropped from 90% to 75% or such, which would make a big difference. While he mentioned peak oil in passing, he did not engage the literature that says industrial civilization is simply not sustainable and future shortages of cheap energy will have massive social impact. (See as only one example: "Global Warming: How Do We Move Forward?") Any resistance to further economic growth Zimmerman's seemed to consider as shadow projection (in his personal case this was true, his father worked for a major PVC plant), which to me smacks like psychologization.

Incidentally, is there such a thing as "the" integral view of global warming? Or is Zimmerman just an integralist who happens to know a lot about this particular subject?

Incidentally, a former integral initiative called with a planned Climate Summit seems to have been put on hold, due to disappointing "critical mass of receptivity" (Garrison). In the past I have called Wilber's comments on the climate crisis ("alarmists are nature-religionists and science will come up with an answer") "a convenient truth". Clearly, the answers are not yet in. If you ask me, it makes a lot of difference if one is a pessimist or an optimist by nature, in terms of what literature or initiatives seem convincing and conclusive.

The panel that was expected to be the most important of the conference was to discuss "Key Criticisms of Wilber's Work: The Achilles Heel of Integral Theory". To put this topic on the agenda is surely a sign of courage on the part of the conference organizers. Several of the panel members had their own take on this issue, ranging from integral theory not being a proper theory, to Wilber having overstated his case by claiming consensus where in reality there's a continuous debate. My take on this issue was that the shadow of integral is its outsized selfregard, coupled with a disregard (or worse) of critics coming from outside of the integral community. I've seen an intense preoccupation with the question who qualifies as a critic, compared to just hearing what they have to say. In the new phase of integral theory, hopefully this attitude will be abandoned, to open the field up to free inquiry.

A hilarious moment occurred when Jeff Meyerhoff, the archetypical "bad critic" in the Wilberian scheme of things, started to defend Wilber against Sara Ross' accusation that integral theory isn't a proper theory, full of category errors (A theory of everything is a theory about nothing), but rather a way of classifying everything under the sun. Meyerhoff replied that Wilber's theory is about a lot of things, from the Big Bang to the present. However, in my opinion, the problem is, that the theory that explains the Big Bang is not the same as the theory that explains human development. We don't develop because of gravity, nor do stars and galaxies form because of love.

The other panel in which I participated, "Is Integral a Mass Movement or an Elitist Pursuit?", more clearly highlighted a division in the integral culture, between a more religious and a more scientific approach to this body of knowledge. When taken as a form of life style or even spirituality, integral appeals to many people, giving them a chance to practice spirituality in a supposedly scientific way. This presupposes taking Wilber's work as truth, and—as I quipped—SES as the Bible, hoping that integral will be the state religion in the near future. The term "integral church" was even mentioned by one panelist... Or even stronger: "God exists and Ken Wilber is his Prophet. And let's slay the infidels, because they are Green!" That mentality—slumbering in my Blue integralists.

Others would say Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995)—Ken Wilber's magum opus—is a master piece only at a first reading, and that the whole game changes when Wilber's texts are really put to the test of scholarship. It seems impossible to build a conference that would satisfy both of these groups. According to the received integral view, integral ideas will first be adopted by a minority of second-tier pioneers, before they will trickle down in the larger culture, causing a cultural movement that will change the face of the earth. This (r)evolutionary pathos is not shared by everybody, and least by me. I see integral still struggling to get a foothold in the world of academia, which is a daunting task in itself and worth pursuing with diligence.

My own attempt at critically contributing to a transparent integral debate was a paper on Wilber's dealings with neo-Darwinism over the three decades of his writing career. These have been no less then disastrous, in my opinion. Using arguments that even Intelligent Design proponents would no longer care to use, Wilber has tried to debunk evolutionary theory and promote his own version of "spiritual evolution", misrepresenting a major field of science in the process. Paraphrasing one of the first books from the Intelligent Design front, I could have called the presentation "Wilber on Trial". (cf. Philip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial, 1991).

Using quotes from Richard Dawkins to counter Wilber's opinion that the scientific view of evolution proposes random chance as sole explanatory principle, I argued that this view is precisely what is rejected by Dawkins, from his earliest works on. Instead, both random chance and non-random natural selection are supposed to explain the emergence of complexity in organisms and their organs. This may seem implausible to the layman, to whom Wilber caters with his popularized works, but is the consistent finding of those who spend all of their lives studying evolutionary theory (echoed by the many popularized books on evolution that have appeared in last year's Darwin-bicentennial). The paper also highlighted the extreme difficulty of getting a debate going on this topic in the past decade. Hopefully, the new phase of integral theory will be more open to these issues.

The last panel which I attended was called "Meta-theory: How Do We Construct and Apply Sound Meta-theories?". Perhaps my expectations were unrealistic, or the pannel was handicapped a bit by the absence of both a strong metatheorist such as Mark Edwards or an equally strong AQAL-savvy integralist, but to my amateurist ears the discussion went nowhere. I had liked to heard answers to the questions:

  1. Does Ken Wilber offer a metatheory?,
  2. If so, does he do a good job?,
  3. If not, are there better alternatives around?

I guess I need to do more extensive reading in this field to catch up with the highly abstract nature of these reflections. The panel members, at any rate, seemed to have a good time. Given the concerns voiced by some critics about integral theory not even being a good theory, answers by these specialists would really be welcomed by the integral community.

Finally, the conference organizers envisioned a new phase of integral theory, in which more differentiation was allowed (version 2.0), which unavoidably had to be followed by a phase of integration (version 3.0), but I am not sure if the growth of scientific knowledge really works in that Wilberian way. Perhaps we need a couple of years to freely express our takes on all things integral and Wilberian, to get a clearer grip on what the future may hold. As said, the ideas I heard and the people I have met look very promising to me.

The fact that my evolution paper was awarded with a honorable mention was as much a personal triumph as testimony to the healthy independence of the Conference organizers.

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