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, 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

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