Friday, June 02, 2006

Boldness Revisited

What I liked about Wilber is his boldness; what I currently dislike about Wilber is his boldness. Let me explain.

When I first encountered Wilber's writings in the early eighties, I immensely liked the way he took up one discipline per book (developmental psychology, anthropology, therapy, physics), gave both an overview of the field and added some new insights. All in a fluently written writing style, that was at the same time personal and abstract. (At the same time I started my university studies in the psychology of religion -- Wilber was my private teacher).

Over the years I have grown wary of this very approach. Especially phrases like "everyone from A to B to C believes this" (fill in your favorite authority) or "Absolutely nobody believes this anymore" (e.g. in evolutionary biology) have made me suspicious. The many times Wilber uses the word "simply" have made me pause ("For the wisdom traditions, a [subtle] “body” simply means a mode of experience"-- simply? Or simplistically?).

The standard reply to criticism from specialists has been that no specialist likes to be "framed" in a larger theory. True, but the opposite is also true: generalists can overlook details, can be biased in their views (something they typically can't detect themselves) or can end up with abstractions far removed from every day political or scientific reality.

Instead, we have more generalization and more popularization. In the latest manuscript of Integral Spirituality, it looks as if the audience is supposed to consist of grad students (the book is full of annoying remarks such as "If this sounds too complex, wait, I will explain it later on"). Of course, this audience will not be able to judge or refute it's content. Incidentally, it is also full of agressive metaphors (modernity "killed" premodernity, postmodernity "trashed" modernity), which seem wholly misplaced. When you start paying attention to it, it makes you wonder what bloody war is going on.

And instead of a public and academic Wilber debate, we have, we are told, a "private" Wilber debate, within the walls of the Integral Institute, and only with invited celebrities. And a huge promotional machine, spreading the Wilber meme to as many (young) people as possible.

By now, the time has come for the Generalissimo of all generalists to meet and talk to the specialists, in all the fields he has entered. To name a few: Daniel Dennett, who just published Breaking the Spell, a book on evolution and religion (presenting sources and recent studies never mentioned in integral circlies), Peter Berger (who maintains modernization doesn't need to lead to secularization, especially in the US, given it's high percentage of believers).

I am waiting for that day.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

well, it is always nice to hear yet another comment on my generations supposed lack of understanding.

This quote of Visser's reminded me of one of my favorite scenes in Amadeus: "generalists can overlook details." There is a scene in Amadeus, when a charcter (I can't remember his name) is criticizing Mozart's composition, and says, "there are too many notes in this piece." Mozart looks up and says, "Which ones?"

So Visser, which details has Wilber missed? or are you going to leave that to some grad student to do the foot work for you?

This blog, although criticizing Wilber's penchant for generalities (and btw, have you seen wilber's endnotes? hardly a lack of detail!), falls prey to the same tendency. He cites nothing. Offers no details, except for a few put downs to a younger generation that he clearly knows nothing about. And then drops two authors' names. If he has read these books that he cites (which I assume he has), why does he not explain this new evidence? Why does't he unpack these detailed arguments? When he doesn't, it leads makes me wonder whether even understands Dennet's or Berger's work. Again, maybe he should ask a grad student to write his argument for him. At least a grad student knows how to cite sources and pull quotes.

And it seems that yet again Wilber is being punished for writing in language and style that people actually want to read.
I am really open to hearing criticism on Wilber's work. I just can't understand how this is justifiable criticism, or what it has to do with grad students.

And here is my personal rage about his comment that I would be unable to refute Wilber's argument because i am too young: I speak three languages fluently, have traveled much of the world alone, lived in foreign countries for up to three years by myself, and by my own wits. Graduated at the top of my class in college and graduate school, have worked for now for 13 years straight (in fact I put myself through graduate school) have read until I am blue in the face and my friends call me a geek, but I am incapable of discerning anythign for myself. Thank god i have your blog to shed light on my dim-witted ways.

10:24 AM  
Blogger Paul S. said...

i agree with annie: it would help your case to cite specific examples.

1:12 PM  
Blogger SP said...

Writing as another young person who has read hella books, graduated from a semi-prestigious college with honors, and moved outside of the US, and is, ergo, qualified for this discussion (that's not even mentioning this one time I went on this really long hike, which you have to admit is pretty awesome), I have to suggest that the point is being missed.

As I was defending my honors thesis on Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, my committee tried to get me to see that because of his style of presentation, Wilber gives himself the opportunity to categorize others as is convenient for his models. Because he tends to speak for them, he puts the burden on himself to represent them fairly.

In my case, because I was exposed to so much of what Wilber talks about via Wilber, it didn't occur to me that he could be misinterpreting. And when his statements were backed by assertions that everyone in the particular field was in agreement, I didn't think to go and check if that was true. I took him at his word, thinking that if there weren't the consensus he claimed, I would be hearing about it. But from where? Certainly not in his books.

His straw man arguments have kept Wilber from being taken seriously in academia. He gets away with this by skipping one of the very steps in the scientific process that he extolls in his writing: peer review. Without an open dialogue, Wilber forgoes the integrity of his work.

That, I think, is Visser's main point: that Wilber needs to open himself to criticism for the sake of his project, not that a generation reading Wilber is dim-witted.

We've all learned from Wilber and been inspired by him. That these discussions are taking place is the proof of our appreciation for what he's done. But we can't make the mistake, as I have before, of putting Wilber before the Truth.

If you want the specific crticisms (all cited), they're at Visser's site and they're good.

4:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And yet another twen offering his two cents ...
Watching the latest Kenny-clips on integralnaked, I get the uncanny feeling that there's a lot of valid criticism around on integralwatch and wilberwatch. What I haven't found as of yet, though, is criticism pointing out flaws in his system which really hinder its use as a, well, working map of consciousness. As a psychonaut using various vessels, I have found his maps to be of immeasurable value, and the critics generally seem to focus either on "man, he don't know nothing 'bout physics" or "man, he ain't talkin' to me".
Ok, seriously. Since I work as a therapist, I'd be really interested in understanding which flaws in Wilbers model of consciousness might actually spoil its usefulness in working with myself and others and in meditation.
(Sorry if I sound too esoteric, but when I read Kennys books I'm more interested in the love and the poetry in and between the lines than in the hard science. Am I the only one?)

12:31 AM  
Blogger JesseM said...

There's some specific criticisms of various claims made by Wilber at David Lane's site:

Here, for example, is a good critique of some arguments of Wilber's about Darwinian evolution which differ little from those of creationists and "intelligent design" advocates (except that instead of arguing that mainstream science is wrong, Wilber just claims that 'absolutely nobody believes this [evolution by random mutation and natural selection] anymore'!):

And here's a series of posts where someone knowledgeable about the philosophy of Plotinus accuses Wilber of badly misrepresenting him:

2:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey... i went to read about Ken crits on integralworld and found lots and lots of adverts. So I went to look at Vissers book and... I couldn't find any criticisms of it... only glowing 5 star reviews. :)

9:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It’s neither academically sound (there are no ‘real’ academics following the Wilber stuff, because it’s not academic), nor is it transcendent in any religious sense, although it presents itself as both academic and transcendent. The biggest problem, Martin, is that it contains no internal logic by which to transcend its self, which is why it’s become cultic and prone to aggressively defending ‘dear leader’.

oh- not to mention you end up coloring all the people of the earth according to what color they are (enough said, no?).

Serious seekers drawn to Wilber quickly move on to an authentic religion. Serious academics drawn to Wilber quickly move on to the sources. Either renders Wilber irrelevant very quickly.

12:46 PM  
Blogger MD said...

Serious seekers drawn to Wilber quickly move on to an authentic religion. Serious academics drawn to Wilber quickly move on to the sources. Either renders Wilber irrelevant very quickly.

This is a very pertinent insight. I resonant with it 100%, falling into the latter camp. Doing so, I've found far more integral thought elsewhere (for my field, art, it's Paglia, Dewey, McLuhan, and more).

Which is why I believe that "integral" ought no longer be associated with Wilber, and his work rather be called "Wilberian theory". I doubt that will happen, of course, because he is clearly vested in creating a brand identity suitable for the self-help and actualization market.

Frank writes:

When you start paying attention to it, it makes you wonder what bloody war is going on.

There is no war. It is all in Wilber's head.

11:25 AM  
Blogger MD said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

‘Dear Leader’ of II responds to Frank’s post.

See link:

Folks, it must be obvious to any and all that Ken is far from well, on many levels and according to many lines :) I also trust that Frank is mature enough to see this 4-grade rant for what it is, just that (oh, i used a level when I’m supposed to be a mean green).

I don't believe there’s much more to say about this, because it's so So ridiculous as to be laughable. There's nothing to call it except truly pathetic, and very sad. Wilber the person has been such a disappointment to so many, he has no idea. His personal shortcomings are destroying any semblance of a real, academic-based integrative movement that just may have sprung up from the SES days. Too bad. It looks like he finally, and fatally, shot himself in the foot.

I’d say it’s time for the II minions to start a pledge drive, as they will soon need to by a remote island in the south pacific for Dear Leader.

1:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


i think i love you

6:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hay Annie,

Was that direct flights or were they stopovers... reason I ask is that I had a roomate who was a pigme from Africa, well, he actually lived downstairs but we passed notes through a hole in the floor... and he just could not "Get" the integral theories at all.. .and try as I might ... no luck... and now that I see how brilliant you are,,, and the travel and all... and by yourself... well, he traveled and I think the problem is that he took a lot of non-stop flights... and I guess you learn so much more on those stopovers... and the foreign couontries and all... that helps... I think he only visited two or three countries... so that might explain it... it is so cruious, but your post kinda clears up some of my confusion...

not sure but I think he has only worked about 12 years and that is an issue... and also some people helped him through graduate school, not like you at all...

he's white, which is unusual for a pigme,,, but he is short which is to be expected, i guess... and that's why he had to wear name tags during his travel... and had to be met by airline personnel each time (they were sure he was under 18 although he is way past 40)

still doesn't get integral theory though, what a dufus... I can't believe it...

did you know there is a new quadrant? ... yea, quadrant five (Ken does not talk about it much...) but it is there - it's like an easter egg that pops out once you get your frequent flier milage up...

I've not gotten it yet, but a few more flights to
Boulder and those Integral Workshops ... bingo... soon I hope...

but I'm sure you got it, probably you are the one who told Ken?

Peace and Love,

4:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's a little something concerning Wilber's recent defence of Behe and all that ID nonsense. He claimed that ID was making huge in-roads through the US courts when it actually wasn’t - see, I went and checked the actual facts and not the 'Wilber facts'. Likewise, here's the UK response to ID. This is reposted from The British Humanist Association (of which I am a proud member). I wonder what Wilber would make of it? Possibly just shove his fingers in his ears and whistle something mystical as per?

"Schools Minister Jacqui Smith has stated that the Government is opposed to the teaching of creationism and ‘intelligent design’ in science lessons in British schools.

The British Humanist Association (BHA) called on her to justify a parliamentary answer she gave on 27 February , which stated that creationism and ‘intelligent design’ could be taught in school science lessons. In her unequivocal reply, Ms Smith has said that she ‘would like to take this opportunity make clear our position on Creationism and Intelligent Design in the National Curriculum’.

In the statement given to the BHA, the minister said that ‘Creationism and Intelligent Design are not included in either the present science programme of study or the revised science programme of study to be implemented in September 2006.’

She goes on to say that the only ‘controvers[ies]’‘ that could be taught in science lessons are scientific ones, and that ‘Creationism cannot be used as an example of a scientific controversy, as it has no empirical evidence to support it and no underpinning scientific principles or explanations.’

In her statement, Ms Smith is equally scathing of ‘Intelligent design’: ‘Intelligent Design is sometimes erroneously advanced as a scientific theory but it has no underpinning scientific principles or explanations supporting it and is not accepted by the international scientific community.’

Humanist campaigners have welcomed the statement, and Andrew Copson , BHA education officer commented:

‘It has always seemed ludicrous that a debate should even exist as to whether creation myths should be taught in school science, even in their pseudo-scientific sheepskin of "intelligent design". Now we can hopefully draw a line under this pretend ‘controversy’ – pupils in science lessons should be taught science, creationism and intelligent design are not science, they cannot be taught in science classes.’"

Hmmm...very curious, at least if you consider Ken's supportive bluster about ID’s criticisms of evolutionary biology. Perhaps this is something else he will have to face down if anyone of note ever gets round to reading his work, which is a big if and one that I wouldn't put any money on ;)

3:56 PM  

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