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.


and Perennialism

Some Reflections on Wilber-5

Frank Visser

In his earlier work Ken Wilber has been a "staunch defender" of the perennial philosophy (PP). He never committed himself to any schools or authors, but used it as starting point. Although in his debut The Spectrum of Consciousness he referred to the PP, it wasn't until he discovered Huston Smiths summary or the traditional outlook (Forgotten Truth) that his model took shape. Smith outlined four levels of "being and knowing" — body, mind, soul, spirit — found in all religions. Wilber used this scheme to flesh out a detailed model of human development, both personal and transpersonal, both individual and socio-cultural (wilber-2). Wilber also subscribed to some notion of involution: the logical condition for evolution. In his first book he explicitly calles the PP "nonspeculative" and based on experience — important to note.

In his recent writing, most notably in the interview "On the Nature of a Post-Metaphysical Spirituality" (2001), wilber looks back on this period and rejects most of the PP because of it's speculative, metaphysical and mythical nature. We need to reinterpret the mystical experiences of the past in a modern/postmodern framework, and leave behind the mythic contexts it arose in, he contends. No metaphysical outlook on life can survive the modern/postmodern "survival pressure". He mentions the difference between the mythic belief in Christ as savior and the mystical experience of Christ-consciousness. In his opinion, only the latter is an example of deep science.

In the interview, originally published in a german transpersonal magazine, Wilber explicitly refers to the work of Jurgen Habermas, much admired by him, who promotes a post-mythical, rational-worldcentric wordview. Wilber agrees with much of Habermas' analysis of the New Age as a closed, mythic worldview, and seems to put the PP in that same category.

To contrast his new view favorably (wilber-5) with the one he held before Wilber highlights some aspects of the PP:

  • the perennial philosophy is mythical
  • the perennial philosophy is metaphysical/speculative
  • we need a post-rational, mystical reinterpretation of the PP.

This can be questioned. Perennialism has a universalizing tendency that sets it apart from mythic belief systems (which are allways etnocentric in nature). Perennialism tries to conquer the human tendency to overestimate the value of one's own culture and religion, by encouraging comparative study of religions. The result can be a set of beliefs shared by all great religions, without priviliging any one of them.

How the PP can universalize mythic belief system can be illustrated as follows. A typical mythic believer in the afterlife will say: only true believers, members of my particular sect, go to heaven. It is an etnocentric belief, often full of superstitions, such as rites, customs, dogmas, particular to a certain religion. The PP would counter this belief by saying that all beings possessing mind go to heaven (heaven being the mind-world!). Regardless of the content of one's belief system, it is the state of miind and character built up in a lifetime that determines one's fate after death. This makes the belief in life after death at once more reasonable and rational. It has even been the subject of careful scientific (though clarivoyant) research.

Second, the PP isn't a speculative philosophy proper, it's aim is to know higher reality instead of just believing in it, by the use of special experiential modalities (mystical experience, clairvoyance, inspiration, etc.) It certainly cannot be categorized as speculation just like that. Wilber acknowledge the experiential nature of the PP in his earlier works, but now seems to stress the need for confirmation/rejection by contemporary researchers/meditators. (this assumes we moderns can fathom the depth of the ancient philosophy — it might be reasonable to not reject these philosophies if we can't verify this at the present moment.) So the spirit of the PP encourages experience, as opposed to dogmatic acceptance of beliefs.

And third, comparing mythic beliefs to mystical experience overlooks a couple of things. Wilber states mythic belief is immune to verification, and only mystical experience can be verified in a reconstructive science. This overlooks that mythic religious experience can be deeply experiential, and as such has it's own means of verification. Millions of born-again Christians in the US would point to their own emotional conversion experiences as basis for their belief. It's not that mythic belief lacks an experiential basis, but that basis is shallower then that of mystical belief. What is more, mythic, etnocentric belief systems should be compared to universalized belief systems of the same category (cf. belief in life after death). Modern man rejects most of the traditional mythic beliefs because they are so etnocentric, not because they are inherently unreasonable. This is all the more true as not more than 2% of the US population is ready for mystic transformation — following Wilber's calculations. We have to offer something to the remaining 98% poor souls, i believe.

Since the german interview mentions Kant several times, it is worthwile to go into this a bit further. Kant declared pure reason to be limited to what sensory experience could disclose. This excluded knowledge about the soul, God, the afterlife. However, practical reason could not do without these concepts — in daily life we can't rely on science alone. During Kant's life one of the greatest clairvoyants was Emanual Swedenborgh, who claimed first hand knowledge of the other worlds. Kant wrote a small pamplet about Swedenborgh called "Traume Eines Geistersehers" (Dreams of a Spirit-seer) (1766), claiming the knowledge Swedenborgh possessed could not be possible. What Kant overlooked was the possibility, demonstrated by Swedenborgh and other clairvoyants, of widening the domain of sensory experience to the field of ESP. Clairvoyants see more of the world around us, report on the beings and colors they see, and have generated a completely new phenomenology. Kant's principle that pure reason should be based on experience is NOT violated here. In Wilber's terminology, clairvoyant research can be seen as a "deep science", a wider empiricism that deserves the qualification "science".

Wilber's call for a "post-metaphysical study of consciousness and spirituality" is strange for another reason too. Since psychology emancipated itself from the constraints of philosophy and theology, it has been "post-metaphysical" ever since. Psychology as a science is neutral to ontological issues, or at least should be — although it looks like it seems to opt for a materialistic outlook. But philophy, and especially integral philosophy, cannot afford to ignore these questions. It needs to reflect on the ontological status of the realities disclosed by the experiential modalities we have at our disposal — sensory, intellectual, spiritual, clairvoyant. To label the integral approach as "post-metaphysical" is to play into the hands of flatland, which is "post-metaphysical" by definition. Integral philosophy might better be called "post-materialistic", to differentiate it sharply from mainstrain modern science.

When Wilber applauds modern tibetan gurus such as Trungpa for their modernization of tradition, by seeing the buddhist realms of existence as psychological states of living human beings, we may ask how far we can go here? If integral philosophy has to adapt to the constraints posed by modernity/postmodernity, what does it have to offer that isn't already within these limitations? This position is incoherent, for if we don't adopt a purely this-worldly attitude — heaven is the state of being happy during this life — then we need to think about the possibility of our minds surviving the death of our bodies in a space of their own (the "mind-world"). What we don't need is discrediting the belief of the ancient in a heavenworld populated with beings talking to eachother, as wilber has done.

When Wilber is relying on the PP in his works, especially within the context of body, mind, soul and spirit as the four levels of being/knowing, all he wants to acknowledge is the universality of the four states of consciousness: waking, dream, sleep and turiya. This differs dramatically from his earlier use of these terms, which provided him the backbone for his developmental model (Wilber-2), and the solution of his theoretical crisis in the preceding years. Body, mind, soul and spirit were the steps of the Ladder of Development. Equating body with waking, mind with dreaming and soul with sleep seems odd, for mind first and foremost is related to thinking, and soul to wisdom and compassion, qualities that can be developed in the waking state.

Wilber has described the move from perennialism to integralism as three easy steps: the naturalistic turn, the linguistic turn, and the integral turn. The first step consists of seeing the physical level not as the lowest of the worlds, but as the experior component of all inner states of consciousness. The other world is not so much the higher world as it is the inner world. Whatever metaphor we chose to use, this does not solve the mystery of the precise nature of interiority and consciousness. It is only a change of metaphor. We can use both, or none, but we don't need to set them up against eachother. Our interiority is not just the "inner" part of our material brain, its represents a completely different, "vertical" dimension.

When Wilber argues for the rationality of the integral view of things, he claims that according to the traditional view of things (feelings are higher/deeper then matter) the feelings of a worm are higher then the complexities of the human brain, a view he calls "odd" or even "goofy". I dare to disagree here. Feelings are a notorious problem to explain in the philosophy of mind. Complexity itself is not enough, as Artificial Intelligence has demonstrated (or else the Pentium 4 processor with it's 42 million transistors on a square inch would by now be conscious). He also claims that, contrary to the perennial view that the higer reality is divorced from matter; the integral view sees matter as being an integral part of the human makeup. However, in the traditional view, all planes of reality interpenetrate, so "we are on all planes at all times" (Annie Besant).

In summary, though Wilber has made use of essential elements of the perennial philosophy in his earlier works, he now distances himself from that tradition, using arguments that are questionable. I agree with most of what he affirms, but not with what he denies. I agree with the fact that we should leave behing mythical belief systems (as Habermas argued), and that mystical religion should find its rightful place in our outlook on life, but what i disagree with is that we can do without reflection on the nature of interiority, philosphically understood. Integral philosophy that limits itself to psychology is incomplete.


Ken Wilber, On the Nature of a Post-Metaphysical Spirituality,

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