Tuesday, 16 February 2010

An Endangered Species

A recent contention that philosophy is in dire danger of eclipse from “alternative” or “new age” activities has been probed in some respectable British bookshops. The following data presents findings at an urban branch of the Waterstone’s retail chain, and located in the south-west of Britain.

In February 2010, the present writer searched for philosophy books at this outlet. I found that there was no philosophy section at all, not even the diminished single shelf showing that has become the norm in some of the more generous provincial retail outlets, who give the excuse that the subject is not commercial enough. Philosophy was extinct at this particular venue.

After an intensive search, six books on the deleted subject were located on the Mind Body and Spirit shelves, which were abundantly stocked. Those incidental books were Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Friedrich W. Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and Why I am not a Christian, plus a very selective edited volume entitled The Great Philosophers. The reductionism was arguably much too pronounced here. Rather a lot has happened since Plato, and even Russell’s industrious History is nevertheless outdated in certain respects.

Mind Body and Spirit (MBS) here comprised twelve shelves. A small proportion of the books visible here were on religion, there being no separate section on religion in that shop. The meaning is clear. At such outlets, philosophy and religion have become identified with the “new age” trend of Mind, Body, Spirit, originating in America circa 1970. I can remember the equivalent situation in British bookshops during the early 70s when this sales sector was demarcated as “New Age” or “Alternative.” Yet some of the books then visible were profound by comparison with the recent wave.

I carefully noted the contents of the current Mind Body and Spirit (MBS) shelves. There were the customary commercial topics such as tarot, psychism, magic, horoscopes, neoshamanism, crystal healing, and oracle cards. In addition, on offer was a wide selection of popular “alternative” writers such as Deepak Chopra and Neale Donald Walsch, the latter’s Conversations with God being doublestocked.

Eckhart Tolle was also strongly in evidence with such books as The Power of Now, in which he is described on the paperback cover as “a counsellor and spiritual teacher.” Hodder & Stoughton also provided the alluring packaging promotion: “In the Now, we discover that we are already complete and perfect.” The glib scenario of “esoteric” promotions is more than a little misleading, and has been considered to encourage psychological peculiarities.

Another distraction was noticeable. Closely adjacent were several shelves on Self Help, a contemporary feature which some have found very disconcerting. The most prominent books here were several by a well known entrepreneur and exhibiting titles like I Can Make You Rich.

What else was being sold to the most literate society ever known (according to some claims which are under query) ? There was an ominous row of many shelves packed with Science Fiction. A much smaller section on Popular Science could only muster a few shelves. The majority of the books here were general paperbacks, the most distinguished contributor being Professor Richard Dawkins. A further search for Dawkins revealed that he had one book in the MBS shelves, and so he too is in the shadow of magic and pop-mysticism.

There was no psychology section, and no anthropology section. Some books on sociology were found in an amorphous Education section, comprising ten shelves mainly stocked with general paperbacks. The history and philosophy of science was missing, though found elsewhere in university bookshops. The restricted category of Popular Science is not a sufficient safeguard against unrestricted fiction and fantasy.

There were very numerous shelves devoted to Fiction and Crime, with a relatively small section on real crime, meaning the historical as distinct from novelistic varieties. There were also substantial shelves on Teenage Fiction. Where are the Facts ? In very close proximity to Teenage Fiction were shelves on Dark Fantasy and Horror. The lurid covers of so many paperbacks in these sections gave at least some idea of the content, which is not educational.

Commercial trends are tending to make philosophers an endangered species. The popular Mind-Body-Spirit (MBS) category represents an aberration for more analytical dispositions. That engulfing category freely extends to crass superstition and very dubious entrepreneurialism. There is also the factor of “cult” activity that is sometimes represented. To maintain separate identity from the imposed MBS conflation, philosophers may need to adopt special measures conducive to survival.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
February 16th 2010

ENTRY no. 13

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Ken Wilber and Integral Theory

The American thinker Ken Wilber is well known for an integral approach, generally described in terms of psychology and spirituality (and formerly classified in terms of transpersonalism). He has reacted to the format of analytical philosophy (and also “continental” philosophy) associated with the universities. His outlook might be described as one form of citizen philosophy, though I have attempted to point out the substantial differences from my own version.

Wilber became famous as a writer of numerous books on psychology, therapy, and the “perennial philosophy” themes. Commencing with his The Spectrum of Consciousness (1977) and The Atman Project (1980), his output climaxed in the 1990s with such works as Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995) and Integral Psychology (2000). This led to an accolade from the Dutch partisan Frank Visser, who produced a detailed study of Wilber’s books after having personally interviewed him. See Visser, Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion (State University of New York Press, 2003).

Many readers were surprised when Visser soon afterwards became a critic of his subject. This led to an investigation of the reasons. Other converging web critics such as Jeff Meyerhoff (author of an online book) also became noted for a resistance to Ken Wilber’s worldview, which was described as being too ambitious and lacking due supporting proofs. Wilber’s Quadrant Theory aroused opposition as claiming an “Everything” scope based on metaphysical doctrines and questionable deductions. Such counters are much in evidence at the Visser mega-site http://www.integralworld.net/, which commenced as a very small site in support of the integral psychologist. Wilber in turn has strongly denounced his critics as having failed to reach the spiritual “altitude” required for the perspectives under discussion.

Wilber has the rare distinction of having his Collected Works available in a multi-volume edition. He has launched in America the Integral Institute, which has expressed elaborate objectives and an interdisciplinary scope. I am certainly not against the interdisciplinary ideal, having myself pursued a form of that ideal for thirty years. One of my objections relates to the issue of what can usefully be integrated. I am not an integralist, but an analytical commentator, though similarly independent from an academic role. That is to say, I am not actually against being “integral” in some respects, though I do not believe in reckless “holistic” approaches.

My disagreement with the approach evolved by Ken Wilber has spotlighted, e.g., the “new age workshop” issue. See section 4.15 of my web article Ken Wilber and Integralism
(2009). Cf. Wilber, Integral Spirituality (Boston: Integral Books, 2007), pp. 201ff., and referring to “Integral Life Practice workshops offered by Integral Institute.”

There is a basic disagreement about the viability of “integral” concepts in a “new age” format, however modified the latter might become (and Ken Wilber is not typical of the “new age” by any means). A presentation in terms of spirituality invites strong analytical responses. The claim to spirituality is a contemporary problem in some sectors. This does not mean that spirituality cannot exist, but the claim is no proof of competence.

Ken Wilber aroused query when he supported the controversial American guru Adi Da Samraj (Da Free John) many years ago. That deceased entity became notorious as an antinomian opportunist. See my web entry "Ken Wilber and Adi Da Samraj" (2008), which is 14.5 at Perennial Philosophy. See also Adi Da Archives. Wilber modified his enthusiasm in that direction, but continued to esteem the teaching of Adi Da. He also substantially assisted the profile of the “neo-Advaita” guru Andrew Cohen, and regularly appeared via a dialogue feature in the latter’s popular magazine What is Enlightenment ? The dialogue duo were rolecast as the guru (Cohen) and the pundit (Wilber). Cohen has since been the subject of strong criticism, with an American Professor of Philosophy describing him in terms of being “in deep need of long term therapy.” See David C. Lane, Andrew Cohen Exposed (2009).

Many contemporary confusions relate to the subject known as “perennial philosophy.” This became popular in the 1960s and later, though seldom attended by a due sense of perspective. Adi Da Samraj made some strong overtures in this direction, which critics have found unconvincing, despite the trappings of “crazy wisdom” that supposedly proved legitimacy.

Wilber was for long a promoter of perenniality, though he has since provided a more sober assessment in terms of a “post-metaphysical” exegesis. A number of his observations in that respect are quite feasible. There is still the overall question of why this fantasised subject has subsisted rather too awkwardly in contemporary alternativism when so much academic literature on the history of religion is ignored. This has been one of my own complaints, and complemented by the fact that my citizen presentation has quite frequently resorted to scholastic literature, which I do not regard as being misleading.

Ken Wilber is unusual for having defined his intellectual career in terms of successive phases. He has enumerated Wilber-1, Wilber-2, and so on. The latest is Wilber-5, concurrent with “integral post-metaphysics.” This recent phase has expanded his Quadrant Theory, declaredly comprehensive, and is expressed in such terms as “the Integral Approach involves the cultivation of body, mind, and spirit in self, culture, and nature” (Wilber, Integral Spirituality, 2007, p. 26).

The writings of Wilber have provided a focus for discussion and extensive disagreement. This is probably what was needed in the contemporary “alternative” conceptual mix that is still associated with the “new age.” Themes commonly found, such as “raising the level of consciousness on this planet,” are subject to much confusion, and frequently defy suitably rational criteria.

Ken Wilber stresses a spiritual altitude relating to “levels of consciousness” signified by spectrum colours. Via Integral Life Practice, Wilber partisans are supposedly participants in the favoured zone of turquoise to Clear Light. Critics require a more convincing exposition that does not lead to “workshops” and bizarre gurus whose followers have so often defected.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
February 6th 2010

ENTRY no. 12

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Independent Philosophy

I am sometimes known as an independent philosopher, meaning one outside the academic sector. My citizen curriculum has permitted me a degree of freedom in study pursuits and writings.

My early studies included Zoroastrianism, an ancient Iranian religion frequently debated by specialist scholars. I have recently updated one of my manuscript articles as the first item on a new website. See Zarathushtra and Zoroastrianism (2009).

The legendary ancient prophet Zarathushtra was known to the Greeks as Zoroastres, a name later becoming Zoroaster in more familiar European parlance. There are two basic versions of Zarathushtra: the conventional Zoroastrian portrayal, and the Greek extensions and fantasies facilitated by the Macedonian conquest. Scholars generally favour the former, the latter being considered unreliable.

Classical writers of the Greek and Roman worlds confused Zarathushtra with astrology and magic. These very misleading preoccupations accompanied Greek enthusiasms about the still basically obscure magi of the Zoroastrian priesthood. However, the ancient prophet of Iran was also tagged by Greek sources as the “first philosopher.” The accuracy of this theme is open to question, though it is difficult to decisively negate the proposal in view of a lack of historical detail. “Classicists have tended to treat the philosophical attribution flippantly” (Shepherd, Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One, Cambridge 1995, p. 234).

The history of philosophy conventionally begins with the era of Thales and Pythagoras, and the Iranian prophet may have substantially antedated such figures. Pythagoras also became legendary at what appears to have been an early stage in the Pythagorean cycle of reference. Philosophy in those times was nothing like the contemporary format now visible. Empedocles has been described in terms of combining “the temperament of a prophet” with a scientific disposition (F. M. Cornford, From Religion to Philosophy, London 1912, repr. Princeton University Press, 1991, p. 150).

There have been different modern reconstructions of Zarathushtra, which tend to be closely oriented to the verse compositions in ancient Avestan known as the Gathas. These display an intricacy that has evoked arguments as to meaning and context. There is also an elaborate legend in the Zoroastrian sources, and this too has received differing assessments.

Such reconstructions are quite different to the idiosyncratic presentation of Friedrich W. Nietzsche (1844-1900) in his Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra). Being familiar with philology, Nietzsche correctly employed the antique Iranian name in preference to the far more widely used designation of Zoroaster. Yet his “prophet” projection amounted to a philosophical novel about supposed self-mastery relating to his disputed concept of “superman.”

Nietzsche was antagonistic to the Judaeo-Christian worldview, a preoccupation which strongly coloured his writings. Nietzsche declared the death of God, and made clear that he was concerned to negate the moralism of the archaic Zarathushtra, who was to him a mouthpiece for atheistic philosophy. Another contradiction is that Nietzsche was not a superman, but instead suffered insanity in his final years.

Also Sprach Zarathustra (1883-85) appeared during the decade when Nietzsche was an independent philosopher after the termination of his academic career. Independence can result in very different orientations and forms of expression.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
February 1st 2010

ENTRY no. 11

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.