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.



Frank Visser

Integral Philosophy tries to strike a balance between the claims of Perennialism and those of Postmodernism. This actually consists of a spectrum, with extreme and moderate variants on both sides. Integralism often compares its own standpoint to variants of perennialism or postmodernism, often bordering on charicature. Understandable as this may be, i want to argue for a more nuanced approach. In this essay, we will explore the many color nuances of this spectrum of beliefs. As in the color spectrum, it will not be easy to set clear boundaries, but seen from a distance, certain basic colors will stand out. Let's start with a few definitions first.

Extreme perennialism Moderate perennialism Integralism Moderate postmodernism Extreme postmodernism


Perennialism is often associated with the belief that "All religions say the same thing". Given the manifold expressions of the religious impulse throughout history, many find this hard to believe. Do all religions talk about God? What about Buddhism? Do all religions preach individual salvation? What about Judaism? Do all religions teach reincarnation? What about Christianity? It is obvious that on the level of content, the perennialist claim is difficult to defend.

Therefore, perennialists often make a division between exoteric and esoteric religion. Exoteric religion is culturally conditioned, specific, local, dogmatic -- esoteric religions is cross-cultural, generic, global and tolerant. Exoteric religions are the cause of much strife and war in the world, since essentially exoteric religion cannot conceive religious truth to be anything else then it's own particular doctrine. Only true believers (in that particular doctrine) go to heaven; "non-believers" (in that particular doctrine) can be killed even for their own sake. (This may sound pretty medieaval, but then again, we see it played out even in the world of today).

Contrary to that, esoteric religion points to the futility of all this religious fighting over doctrines, for the mystical core of all exoteric religions speak of wisdom, compassion, tolerance and salvation for all, which can never be the cause of war. (As we will see, here again we run into difficulties when we focus on the content of mystical belief systems). Perennialism stands for universalism, it tries to see the forest first, trees second. It's danger is that it tries to overgeneralize and ignore individual differences.

While extreme perennialism may try to claim all religions say the same thing, a more moderate variant of perennialism might point to the fact that it is actually the differences between religions that are essential. This does not contradict the perennialist belief in tolerance and brotherhood between religions, if we look at the metaphor of an orchestra. A violin is meaningful in an orchestra precisely because it does not sound like a contrabass; a contrabass is meaningful in an orchestra precisely because it does not sound like a tuba, etcetera. But take together, all instruments form one big harmony. Likewise, religions can be seen as religious instruments in the cosmic orchestra, where each contributes unique values: Christianity points to the value of solidarity and charity, Buddism points to the value of respect for life and compassion; Judaism points to the value of the community and social life, etcetera.

Perennialists differ to the degree in which they look for universality in formal or material aspects of religion. Formal similarities between religions often seem to strand on huge material (content related) differences. For example, many religions may hold on to the doctrine of a Holy Trinity (a formal similarity), but exactly how does the Second Person of Christianity relate to the Second Person of the Egyptions, the Hindus and the Parsis? Ingenious proposals have been made suggesting that behind these concrete manifestations of religious belief, abstract universal principles reign, which we can contact if we can see through the particulars. For example, some perennialist schools hold that the various Trinities in the World religions (Father, Son, Holy Ghost in Christianity; Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, Nirmanakaya in Mahayana Buddhism; Kether, Chochmah, Binah in Kabbalism; Shiva, Vishnu, Brahman in Hinduism) reflect the universal spiritual principles of Will, Love/Wisdom and Manifest Activity.

On a sidenote, in its search for universals, perennialism can side with science, which by definition tries to understand princples of nature and culture that are universal. Take the example of human language. All human cultures show the existence of language, spoken or written. Even though there is no Universal Language, translation between language is possible to a very high degree (except where a certain language is idiomatic. Specific sayings and proverbs in a given language are notoriously hard to translate).


Postmodernism has taken a deep interest in the phenomena of language and culture, precisely to demonstrate that it is not in any human universals but in the particulars of a certain culture that we come to understand ourselves. Here again, extreme and moderate positions are possible. Extreme postmodernism denies that there are any universals in the cultural world, especially in the realm of content. Everything we think, experience and aspire to has been handed to us by our culture. It is often very illuminating to realize that in a Christian culture, nobody is looking for Nirvana, where in a Buddhist culture, nobody is accepting Christ as his/her saviour. All our deepest religious notions have been introduced in our minds through religious upbringing and conditioning.

This leaves cultural science the task of just cataloguing the manifold ways human beings behave culturally. As postmodernist Lyotard phrased it: we can only "gaze in wonderment at the diversity of discursive species". However, this analogy to evolutionary theory opens the door for universality again: biology does not stick to cateloguing animal species and subspecies; it also tries to reconstruct their common history and ancestry. Species have evolved from common ancestors. Likewise, cultural beliefs and practices the world over might have common foundations and histories. Commonalities between cultures have been explained by cultural transference: contact between cultures over the centuries has resulted in the exchange of beliefs and practices. On the other hand, commonalities can also be explained by universal structures that are present in the human mind itself. These common structures explain the formal similarities between cultural concepts, not their material differences.

Developmental and evolutionary psychology try to understand these universal human mental structures. It does not explain the various abstract ideas human beings have thought up in different cultures, but it focusses on the very power of abstract thought itself, which is a universal, at least potentially, in all human beings. Issues of value differences between cultures, which are notoriously difficult to argue for if we want to avoid etnocentrism, are solved by pointing to these univeral mental structures. When magical culture gives way to mythical belief systems, development occurs -- according this theoretical approach -- and human beings can explore a wider universe.

Postmodernists cultivate a healthy scepticism towards any easy value judgement as to the value of other cultures. However, it also sometimes considers these judgements to be inherently impossible, given the culture-bound nature of all our knowledge. If the West has declared some human rights to be "universal", how do we know these rights are not very much particular to Western culture itself? Imposing our Western cultural values upon other cultures, often guised as idealistic efforts "for their own good" and "to export democracy", would violate cultural values held sacred by other cultures. Again, a developmental outlook would solve this by saying that in Western culture, several developmental accomplisments have been reached -- science, democracy, individual freedom, emancipatory movemens -- which would benefit all other members of the human race. The fact that these developments historically occured first in Western culture, this culture cannot be blamed for.

It would be wise to listen to postmodernist objections when trying to construct quasi-universal theories of human and cultural development. What implicit values are involved here? Is the notion of human development itself not very much an example cultural conditioning? On the other hand, extreme postmodernism would result in the denial of all contact, not only between members of different cultures, but between members of the same culture as well How do we make contact at all? How is it possible that we can understand eachother at all, in a given culture or subculture? This topic of intersubjectivity is studied deeply by integralism.


Ken Wilber has written extensively on extreme postmodernism, most notably in his recent "novel" called Boomeritis. At the same time, he has accepted general postmodernist notions as valuable and incorporated them in his system,such as: the constructive nature of all knowledge, the contextuality of all meaning, and the fact that no perspective can be privilidged over all others. What is involved here is the tension between human universality and diversity. Exactly to what degree do we share common principles of thought and behaviour with other human beings? As our social psychology textbooks phrased it quite succinctly: "In some respects we are as all other human beings, in other respects we are as some other human beings, and in another respect we are like nobody else" (I paraphrase from memory). This statement beautifully unites the notions of human universality, cultural specificity and individual uniqueness (about which science can say allmost nothing).

As to perennialism, especially in its more mystical manifestations, Wilber has made a valuable theoretical suggestion to understand the commonalities and differences between mystical doctrines. Contrary to the popular notion that "All mystics say the same", he has defended the idea that there are at least four different classes of mysticism: nature mysticism, theistic mysticism, non-theistic mysticism and nondual mysticism (see A Sociable God for an early example). What is more, he relates these four schools of mysticism in a developmental scheme, where nature mysticism, theistic mysticism, non-theistic mysticism and nondualistic mysticism progressively disclose deeper leves of divine reality. Of course, this thesis involves value judgements that will be opposed by adherents of the various mystical schools who see their own specific doctrine as the highest and truest vision. Wilber has tried to formulate his value judgements without any cultural or religious bias as much as possible.

Recently he has turned his attention to perennialism, as a standpoint he once defended, but does not want to be associated with anymore. Again, what version of perennialism is intended here, extreme or moderate? It is interesting to see how Wilber's relationship with perennialist thought/thinkers has never been really deep. In his earlier works he often started his argument with a general exposition of the traditional worldview, without committing himself to any specific doctrine or school (most often, he took Huston Smith's version found in Forgotten Truth, or pointed to A Guide for the Perplexed by E.F. Schumacher -- without mentioning any of its contents however).

Integralism has taken from perennialism its search for quasi-universal insights into the nature of human consciousness and development. It specifically rejects the deeper aspects of perennialism which speak of deeper and/or higher realities which transcend the world of the physical senses. This Wilber now regards to be the mythical or metaphysical "baggage" of perennialism we have to get rid of to get a hearing at all for perennialist concerns from the sceptical modern and postmodern crowd. For who would believe in heaven and hell in our "enlightened" times? (I do!) Here and there, Wilber flirts with esoteric topics such as subtle energy, auras and reincarnation, but usually he keeps these subjects out of his public presentations -- and quite understandably so.

However, integralism has to confront deep philosophical questions as to the nature of our experience: sensory, mental and spiritual. What does it mean that we touch Reality with such diverse avenues of knowledge? Why has modernity priviledged knowledge based on the phsyical senses -- resulting in the physicalist worldview held sacred by many in the modernist and postmodernist world? And when we undo this restriction, and open ourselves up to knowledge gained by other means than the senses, such as interpretation (eye of mind) and spiritual realization (eye of spirit), what does that tell us about the Kosmos we live in? If flatland denies interiority, what does rehabilitating interiority (or consciousness) mean in terms of formulating a view of reality at large -- otherwise known as ontology?

June 2004.

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