For the past couple months I’ve been busy writing a critique of Ken Wilber‘s thought on “religion”, to be submitted to the journal devoted to his thought. I’ve been critical of Wilber before, and that article will be no different. In the next week or two I expect to post about some further criticisms that the article didn’t have room for.
But I don’t want all these criticisms to make it sound like I think Wilber’s thought is silly, fruitless or otherwise wrong-headed. Quite the opposite. I engage with Wilber’s ideas this much precisely because his project is so important and valuable. Granted, his writings don’t stand up well to either analytic or continental assessment: his arguments are sometimes maddeningly imprecise, and his readings of other thinkers tend strongly to the superficial. But what Wilber lacks in precision and depth, he makes up for in breadth.
For the thing about both the analytic and continental standards of assessment is that they are both generated in the context of contemporary academia – and that is a context that gives out all its rewards to those who think small. When good work is considered to be that which gets the details exactly right, it’s much easier to generate endless articles saying new things, because there are so many new details to talk about. The nonacademic book publishing industry has its own problematic incentives, but they are not the same ones. They don’t push authors to precise nitpicky detail in the same way; and that’s a valuable counterbalance to academia. I do think academia’s details matter a lot. But they matter because they are part of a larger whole. We will not really be able to make sense of the world and our lives if we can’t understand what that whole is, how everything fits together. And that’s where Wilber comes in.
Wilber’s project is an audacious one: to integrate all the different realms of human knowledge, including the “great wisdom traditions” like Buddhism and Christianity. He tries hard to bring together “religion” and science, and he understands that philosophy has a key role in that process.
It would be one thing to make a mere catalogue of these different kinds of knowledge, a road map to the most important books. That much has been done before. Wilber, by contrast, actually tries to consider the truth of the ideas he studies. And not just in terms of declaring them true or declaring them false, but trying to find the truth in all of them. He proclaims, rightly I think, that “no human mind can produce 100% error.” And more than that: when an idea comes to last across multiple generations, that suggests there is particular truth to it – it’s not tied to the madness of one particular clique or the whimsy of one era, but is reinvented with every new birth who take it up and find it valuable for explaining the world and our place in it. Somehow, the ideas need to go together.
This approach too has been taken before to some extent. G.W.F. Hegel tried harder than most. While I think Hegel was more methodologically sophisticated than Wilber, there is a lot missing from Hegel’s synthesis. Science, especially, has changed a lot, making Hegel’s philosophy of nature difficult to accept; so too, Hegel’s thought has no room for the shining achievement of the 20th century, namely feminism and the liberation of women. And while Hegel at least attempted to include Asian philosophies in his synthesis, in a way that few had before, they were stuck at the earliest and lowest level of his philosophy, making Hegel “strong with respect to time and weak with respect to space”. All of these vast gaps in Hegel’s thought – science, feminism, Asian philosophy – Wilber has tried hard to give a central place in his thought. His attempted synthesis is the widest one I know of – much more so than that of, say, Mou Zongsan, who says little if anything about Judaism or Advaita Vedānta, let alone feminism and science. Wilber gives us some vision of what a unified synthesis now could look like.
I don’t accept most of the contours of the synthesis Wilber comes up with, but some of the concepts that make it up have been very valuable to my reflection, especially ascent and descent and the pre-trans fallacy. And beyond the particular concepts, the nature of the project itself is particularly valuable in the era of detail-obsessed academia. Philologists and analytic philosophers usually can’t see the forest for the trees. Wilber’s sweeping generalizations give him the opposite problem: he has a hard time getting the whole forest because he doesn’t understand the trees that make it up. But when the structures of textual production today lead so overwhelmingly to a focus on nitpicky details with no larger context, Wilber’s problem is a good one for a thinker to have.