Ken Wilber, pseudo-philosopher
In the twenty-first century, though, the opinions of what some commenters at this blog sneeringly call 'the intellectual elite' tend often to conflict with popular opinion. Despite his lack of training in Mandarin, the self-proclaimed Sinologist Gavin Menzies enjoys better sales and a higher public profile than any of the myriad scholars who contest his claims that fifteenth century Chinese mariners discovered Antarctica and New Zealand and kick-started the Italian Renaissance. New Agers who believe that Einsteinian physics allows us to walk on water and mould reality to our will had a box office hit with What the Bleep do we Know?, despite being condemned as charlatans by real scientists like Richard Dawkins and Simon Singh. In the United States, where Wilber grew up, studied chemistry and biology at undergraduate level, and eventually founded his Integral Movement, only a minority of adults are persuaded by the theories of evolution and plate tectonics.
After growing up in Oklahoma, abandoning a degree in medicine at North Carolina's Duke University, going to the East and sitting at the feet of a series of holy men, and hanging about in the New Age 'scene' on America's West Coast in the 1970s, Wilber began publishing books which promised to bring together 'spirituality and science' in a 'theory of everything'. By 1987 Wilber had gathered enough of a following to found the Integral Institute in Boulder, Colorado and begin to conduct expensive courses there.
According to Wilber, both individuals and societies can be understood in relation to a grand schema of 'stages' of 'consciousness'. Wilber's schema begins with a stage marked by 'archaic consciousness' and culminates in stages of 'pluralist' and 'integral' consciousness. Each of these stages incorporates the best parts of the last, and humans who have reached the latter stages tend to be happier and live more useful lives than those who have gotten 'stuck' on the earlier stages. Indeed, the world's conflicts derive from the fact that many people are stuck at a particular stage of consciousness, which Wilber calls the 'mythic stage'. When they reach a 'higher', 'pluralist' stage of consciousness, humans are able to integrate the different worldviews they encounter, instead of responding to differences of opinion with aggression. According to Wilber, most of the small percentage of humans who have reached the pluralist consciousness live in the 'advanced' Western societies.
The rhetoric of pluralism that Wilber uses is common in New Age thought, and also makes appearances in contemporary political discourse. Leaders of New Zealand's Green Party, for instance, are fond of claiming that their organisation is 'beyond left and right' and that it forsakes the 'politics of conflict'. Few self-proclaimed pluralists are actually willing to tolerate every opinion that they encounter. Anybody who tried to do so would find it impossible to think and act coherently, because it is impossible to advocate one point of view without taking all sorts of negative positions on other points of view. The Greens, for instance, cannot advocate 'clean' forms of power generation without opposing coal mining and nuclear reactors.
The 'pluralists' may claim to adopt a tolerant attitude toward all competing points of view, but they actually use a set of criteria - a sort of meta-worldview - to distinguish between desirable and undesirable opinions. Typically, they justify this meta-worldview by claiming that it embodies a sort of 'ultimate' or 'objective' truth, and is thus beyond contestation. The Greens, for instance, tend to explain their opposition to nuclear power and GE food on the grounds that such things go 'against the interests of the planet', and can thus never be justified. In this very old-fashioned argument, 'the planet' - or 'the ecopshere', or 'gaia' - stands in for God as the ultimate arbiter of what is right and wrong. Left and right alike must submit to its dictates.
Wilber's 'pluralism' rests on a similarly absolutist foundation. He claims that the stages of consciousness that humans and human societies can pass through are part of a system which encompasses the entire universe. Everything in the universe, from the atom 'upward', wants to be part of 'something more than itself'. There is a sort of force which makes one thing want to be incorporated into something 'higher' - that makes an atom 'want' to be part of a molecule, a tree 'want' to be part of a forest, and so on.
Wilber uses the terms 'holon' and 'holarchy' to try to explain these ideas. A holon is a single unit, and a holarchy is a collection of units. Holons 'want' to be part of a 'holarchy'. The universe is a sort of conglomeration of holarchies - a super-holarchy. Everything fits together, because every holon 'wants' it to. We should all therefore 'naturally' want to move to a higher stage of consciousness. If we do not, then we are ignorant of our true nature, and of the true nature of the universe. Ideas and modes of behaviour which belong to 'lower stages' of consciousness should be jettisoned, or at least 'transcended', in the interest of movement 'upwards'. Philosophy is one of the most academicised fields of intellectual endeavour. Plato and his disciples stand at the very beginning of the tradition of the Western university. Historically, many very significant philosophers have worked outside universities but, for the last hundred and twenty years at least, philosophy has by and large taken place within an academic context: students have trained for years in the discipline, have shown their credentials by publishing in journals refereed by their peers, and - if they are intent on being professional philosophers, and are good enough, and (perhaps) intellectually fashionable enough - won teaching positions at universities.
Of course, it might be argued that academia is not the be-all and end-all of intellectual life, and that good work can be done outside the Ivory Tower. It is true that there has been a handful of modern philosophers - Jean-Paul Sartre is a notable example - who have done fine work outside the academy. But these thinkers have generally won recognition inside the academy, as the professionals have scrambled to keep up with them.
By contrast, Wilber has never succeeded in getting a book published by an academic press, and his name is not cited by contributors to refereed journals. On some of the sites run by the man's fans, this failure is explained by the existence of a sort of 'academic conspiracy' against Wilber. According to this view, Wilber's genius goes unappreciated by a narrow-minded, monolithic philosophical 'establishment' which controls the universities and peer-reviewed journals.
Similar complaints, of course, are heard from other marginalised intellectual currents, like Creationist 'scientists' and believers in the sort of 'alternate' histories which have Celts or Chinese landing on New Zealand before Maori. The complaints of Wilber's followers do not seem any more compelling than those of the Creationists or the alternate history crowd.
Academia is not a place of rigorously enforced orthodoxies - instead, it is riven by factions and controversy. One only has to pick up an academic journal to see the extent to which scholars disagree with one another. In the age of 'publish or perish' and cut-throat competition for non-tenured jobs, academics have more reason than ever to contest. Today, any young, job-hungry academic would leap at the chance to embrace and promote a theory that ran counter to the direction of his or her discipline - if that theory were credible.
It is true that JFK 'University', a small, private institution in California, does offer a course in 'Integral Studies', but this course does not appear to be connected to or endorsed by any academic philosophy department. It looks rather like the sort of dubious course of studies which can be created at private 'universities' by religious groups intent on appearing intellectually respectable. It is, after all, possible to 'study' Creationism at various American 'universities'.
The source for the oft-repeated suggestion that Wilber is an acclaimed philosopher is probably Wilber himself. The man's books, which appear to either be self-published or to come from New Age presses, tend systematically to misrepresent his status in the philosophical community. For instance, the back cover of the 1995 volume Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality claims that 'Ken Wilber is one of the most widely read and influential philosophers of our time'.
If Wilber is not part of contemporary philosophical discourse, where does he get his ideas from? Wilber seems to derive some of his ideas and much of his terminology - his talks of 'holons' and a 'holarchy', for instance - from Arthur Koestler, a man who was never a philosopher, and indeed never claimed to be. After suffering at the hands of Stalinists in the Spanish Civil War, Koestler won a reputation for his novels and his journalism, which warned of the dangers of authoritarian politics. As he got older, though, Koestler developed some very strange beliefs, which led to the gradual evaporation of his reputation. After taking large amounts of LSD, Koestler became obsessed with the occult. He wrote about ghosts and spent a lot of time holding glorified seances.
Koestler also developed some inexplicable ideas about history. One of the strangest of the many strange books he wrote in his old age was The Thirteenth Tribe, which claims that the Jewish people of Europe come from Central Asia, not the Middle East. The Thirteenth Tribe was ridiculed by serious reviewers, but it was a huge hit with anti-semites, because it seemed to suggest that the Jews of Europe had no right to emigrate to the Middle East in the twentieth century. The anti-semitic conspiracy theorists at New Zealand's Uncensored magazine ran an article endorsing Koestler's book earlier this year.
It is not only Koestler's ideas which have been condemned in the court of intellectual opinion. When he found he was dying of cancer in 1983, Koestler forced his wife to commit suicide with him. In the last fifteen years scholars have discovered that this sadistic act was no aberration. David Cesarani, who wrote an acclaimed biography on Koestler, discovered that his subject had beaten and raped a series of women.
Wilber lifts his talk of holons and a holarchy from Koestler's 1967 book The Ghost in the Machine, which presented the 'discoveries' he arrived at in his drug-induced 'research' into the occult. This text was never taken seriously, and nowadays is read only as an insight into its author's disturbed psychology. Wilber and his followers seem to be the only people who appreciate Koestler's 'genius'.
Another of the key influences on Wilber's thinking is Adi Da, a 'spiritual seeker' who proclaimed himself a living God at the beginning of the 1970s and founded a dystopian community on a small Fijian island. When Adi Da died last year his followers gathered about his body, waiting for a resurrection, but after lying for days in the tropical heat Da began to smell. Wilber was a friend of Adi Da for some time, and although he came to disagree with some of the man's more crazed antics, he has repeatedly referred to Da as a 'great spiritual thinker'. In a text called 'The Case of Adi Da', which is reproduced on his own official website, Wilber describes Da's rambling, egomaniacal, often incomprehensible book The Dawn Horse Testament as 'one of the very greatest spiritual treatises, comparable in scope and depth to any of the truly classic religious texts'. Adi Da's work in general is 'an extraordinary source of material', Wilber maintains.
Wilber wants to distance himself from Adi Da the man, whilst holding on to Adi Da's writing. This manoeuvre is clearly impossible, because all of Adi Da's writing is about one subject - Adi Da. Again and again in his texts, Adi Da insists on his own divinity, and demands that the rest of humanity - whom he charmingly describes in one text as 'the five billion slugs' - submit itself to him.
Wilber's continuing defence of Adi Da's deranged texts has caused some of his followers embarrassment, but it is not hard to understand, because Da is part of the essential background to Wilber's work. If Wilber takes his cosmic vocabulary from Koestler, then he takes a key part of his method from Adi Da.
Like Adi Da, Wilber purports to be what we can call a mystical-syncretic thinker - that is, he purports to take previous thinkers and 'extend' them by showing that their thought illuminated only a part of a 'wider truth'. Adi Da would get his disciples to read works from many different religious traditions, and then proclaim that all of these traditions were valid, as long as it was recognised that they illuminated only parts of an 'absolute truth' - a truth embodied in Adi Da.
Wilber uses a similar manoeuvre, though he isn't, of course, as crass as Adi Da. In his texts, Wilber examines an endless series of conflicts, all of which consist of two 'partial' truths which need to be 'reconciled' by being considered in the light of the 'ultimate reality' which Integral Thought - ie, Ken Wilber - can alone describe.
I have read a number of Wilber's texts carefully, and I cannot avoid concluding that they prove conclusively that the man is, at least as far as he discusses subjects with which I am familiar, an intellectual fraud. Looking through Wilber’s attempts at philosophy, I find no evidence that he understands even the sort of basic philosophical concepts that undergraduates majoring in the subject learn. I certainly can't see that he has a grasp of key debates in philosophy over the past hundred years.
Admittedly, I haven't read everything, or even most of the things, that Wilber has published. Like so many people who don't bother with peer review and don't get reviewed except in fringe publications staffed with their own followers, the man seems to be able to publish about an extraordinary number of subjects at an extraordinary rate. I don't have the expertise to assess Wilber's writing on mathematics, on developmental psychology, on pharmacology, and on a dozen other subjects, though I do note, after doing some searches, that Wilber doesn't seem to be any more esteemed by scholars in these fields than he is by scholars in philosophy. I can, however, make a reasonable stab at assessing Wilber's writing about two related fields that I have studied in some detail - historiography and the philosophy of history.
In a rambling text called 'Who Ate Captain Cook?', Wilber discusses, or rather purports to discuss, the key controversies of contemporary historiography and philosophy of history. Before we consider Wilber's text, it is important for us to be clear about what historiography and the philosophy of history are. Historiography refers to the arguments that historians have about interpretations of past events - we might speak of the historiography of the Second World War, for instance, to describe the disputes about what caused the war, whether Hitler could ever have won the war, whether America would have joined the war if it were not for the attack on Pearl Harbour, and so on. The philosophy of history sits at a higher level of abstraction than historiography -it discusses the basic presuppositions and methods of history, rather than specific pieces of history. A philosopher of history might consider, for instance, whether history might ever become become a science, with the sort of strict laws that the natural sciences use, or whether the discipline has more affinities with the arts.
Wilber's text claims that contemporary historians are divided into two camps, one of which is 'postmodern' and one of which is 'modernist'. According to Wilber, postmodernists think that Western civilisation is evil, and that facts do not exist, while the modernists believe that Western civilisation is good, and that facts exist without interpretation. Wilber claims that the historiography about the meaning of the death of Captain Cook shows that both of these viewpoints contain some truth, but need to be – of course - 'transcended' using the higher truth that Wilber's Integral truth can provide.
Wilber’s text is filled with blunders, but this post is long enough already, and the cricket is about to begin, so I’ll focus on one particular passage. Here is Wilber elaborating on the difference he sees between the two ‘sides’ of debates in contemporary historiography and the philosophy of history:
It’s the fight between facts and interpretations; or between 'scientific historiography' and 'hermeneutic historiography'; or between modernism and postmodernism; or between orange and green; or between the Right-Hand and the Left-Hand approaches. It all boils down to this: On the one hand (i.e., the Right Hand), we have the modern, orange, scientific meme, which believes that fundamentally there are only empirical facts in the world ('The world is sum total of facts,' as the logical positivists would put it), and thus there is one, true, universal, empirical account of history that tells things the way 'they really were.' On the other hand (i.e., the Left Hand), we have the postmodern, green, pluralist meme, which believes that there are 'no facts, only interpretations.
Anybody who knows anything about trends in historiography and the philosophy of history over the past fifty years will know that Wilber is talking nonsense here. Historians, let alone philosophers of history, have not argued that facts exist free of interpretation for many decades - possibly the last high-profile book which argued this line was Geoffrey Elton's The Practice of History, which was published in the mid-60s and was widely ridiculed as out of date even then.
Elton, who was a rather stuffy scholar of the Tudor period of England's past, claimed that historians should look through a range of 'facts' dispassionately and then arrive at an 'interpretation' of these facts. The flaw in his argument is that facts never arrive 'naked' to the scholar - they are always embedded in a context. Consider, for instance, the fact that Britain declared war on Germany on the 3rd of September 1939. We cannot even begin to process this fact without also knowing a whole series of other facts - we have to know that Britain and Germany were both sovereign states, we have to know what a declaration of war is, we have to know what war itself is, and so on.
We never come at a fact innocently, but always within some framework of interpretations. This does not, in the opinions of most philosophers of history, mean that we are trapped in a single dogmatic framework. We are free to adopt different frameworks, or working hypotheses, as historians often call them, as we sift through evidence. But we cannot buy into any naive ideas of being free of background of assumptions when we study the past.
Wilber is also talking nonsense when he claims that 'postmodernists' deny the existence of facts. No historian or philosopher of history would do such a thing. What a minority of historians and philosophers of history do claim is that the framework within which we view facts is very strongly governed by our cultural background and assumptions, and that it therefore hard to get free from. If it is taken to an extreme, this view can involve a sort of cultural relativism, where someone asserts that, say, Cook could never possibly, with the best will in the world, understand the Hawaiians, and never grasp some basic facts about their society, because he was trapped in a worldview given to him by his culture.
Cultural relativism does not, then, involve denying that facts exist, as Wilber seems to claims it does - rather, it involves the denial that humans can grasp certain facts about societies very different from their own. There is a huge difference between the two positions. When philosophers talk about knowledge-claims -about human attempts to know things - then they are doing epistemology. When philosophers talk about what exists - about what has being - then they are discussing ontology. If two philosophers argue about whether cultural relativism is a defensible position or not then they are involved in an epistemological argument. Wilber, though, thinks that the philosophers of history who argue about cultural relativism are somehow engaged in ontological argument. He doesn't seem able to distinguish between two of the most basic types of philosophical enquiry.
I have laboured this point because I want to emphasise Wilber's lack of understanding of even the simplest elements of philosophy, let alone historiography. Although Wilber claims to be the key philosopher of our time, and to have the solution to the problems that divide philosophers, he seems to me to have less grasp of the subject than the average undergraduate. And it's easy to understand why someone with such a basic understanding of philosophy as Wilber could fall for the scribblings of Adi Da and Arthur Koestler.
Like Gavin Menzies and What the Bleep do we Know? and the conspiracy theorists of Uncensored, Ken Wilber is a symptom of the breach which has opened up in the West between serious scholarship and popular opinion. This breach has complex origins - to understand it properly, we would have to consider the decay of public education, the rise of the internet, which allows for the speedy replication and dissemination of error and fantasy, the lack of genuine political debate in societies where the left and the labour movement have been in decline, and many other factors - but its effects, which I'll discuss in a future post, are straightforwardly negative.