I noted two weeks ago how Ken Wilber’s recent post/modern turn (“Wilber-5”) is right in important respects, but suggested important problems with it. Last week I noted empirical problems: sociological data on Christianity show a very different picture from his. This week I want to turn to a deeper philosophical problem, which I suspect underlies last week’s sociological picture.
We cannot go back to premodernity. This much is true and important. Our options going forward must take account of the post/modern world, be developed within it. On all of this I agree with Wilber. But what I don’t think Wilber makes room for is this: one can take account of the post/modern world, understand it, know it, and still reject it.
Alasdair MacIntyre, whom I have already contrasted to Wilber on a related subject, is one example. For MacIntyre, modernity is a story of slow decline, one which makes the idea of ethical action increasingly meaningless. He is not a naïve Romantic; he knows we can’t go back. But he nevertheless rejects the modern secular liberal world and most of its presuppositions, and hopes to build a world more like the ones that preceded it. He works from a long background of studying post/modern figures like Marx and Nietzsche, who are strong influences in his own analysis. But his study of them leads to an embrace of tradition in general, and Roman Catholicism in particular – and to take that Catholicism not as a source of mystical experience (which he never mentions and really doesn’t care about) nor primarily as a community centre, but as his source of ethical teaching.
MacIntyre is scarcely alone in this. Writers at Front Porch Republic, like Patrick Deneen and James Matthew Wilson, have a sharply articulate grasp of the Western philosophical tradition from ancient times to the present, often holding PhDs in it (and their grasp of it usually strikes me as deeper than Wilber’s). But they express a Romantic rejection of much of the modern worldview, seeking to return us to a world of conservative traditional communities. Their anti-modernism and anti-postmodernism (the two are of a piece) is not naïve but sophisticated.
What MacIntyre and the Front Porchers are doing is described very well by Randall Collins in The Sociology of Philosophies: it is innovation through conservatism. Their approach has a venerable pedigree in philosophy throughout the world, and it is one that I don’t think Wilber adequately recognizes. To be fair, in many cases the practitioners of innovation through conservatism also do not themselves recognize what they are doing (although I don’t think this is true of MacIntyre). But doing it they are.
As his key example of innovation through conservatism, Collins highlights Japanese philosophy in the Tokugawa era (17th and 18th centuries), a rich period of thoughtful reflection. The ideas of the time were significantly backward-looking, urging a revival of Confucianism and of “Shinto”, the indigenous Japanese traditions connected to kami spirits. But as Collins notes,
This was not simple traditionalism. The progression was initiated by continual sharpening in the standards of scholarship, and energized by contemporary conflicts among rival intellectuals. These conflicts built up an accumulation of technical tools and conceptual innovations. (367)
Indeed, in some respects these new thinkers could even be said to have created the tradition of “Shinto” by reflecting on the idea of Shinto as a single unit, in a way that had not been done before – parallel to the founding of “Hinduism” in the modern age. Thomas Kasulis notes in his book on Shinto that while the term “Shinto” had long existed to refer to those Japanese traditions that predated Buddhism, it nevertheless “had no popular use in Japan until the development of state ideology in the middle of the nineteenth century.” (102) That sort of invention of tradition is a common feature of, and reaction to, modernity. But innovation through conservatism goes back much further than the modern age.
When one reads the works of Śaṅkara, one finds a constant refrain that he is merely explaining the teachings of the Upaniṣads and Brahma Sūtra. Most of his works are written in the form of commentaries on these texts – or even commentaries on commentaries on these texts. He claims to be just telling you what’s already in there. But of course it’s not already in there, or he wouldn’t need to write the commentary. His commentary refutes the ideas of Buddhist schools that didn’t exist at the time of the Upaniṣads, ideas that the Upaniṣadic writers were not thinking about. That refutation is something new. What Śaṅkara is doing is giving Upaniṣadic (or Vedāntic) tradition a new self-consciousness, articulating what it means to be a Vedāntin now, in his age, after a millennium of Buddhist thought. That is different from what it was to be a Vedāntin when the Upaniṣads were first composed. Yet at the same time there is a real continuity – Śaṅkara’s effort to still be a Vedāntin, to think as the ancient seers thought, is sincere.
In other words, innovation through conservatism – like MacIntyre, like the Tokugawa reformers, like the creators of modern Hinduism, like Śaṅkara – is a synthesis of past and present. It is doing something both new and old. It is old because it wants to be, and new because it has to be. It “comes to terms” with the present, not by accepting the ideas taken for granted in the day, but by finding the conceptual tools with which to reject it. That activity certainly transforms the past to which it reaches; MacIntyre’s idea that truth must be discovered within a tradition (rather than within this tradition) is not found in traditions before him. But at the same time, it presents arguments for embracing that past over the present. Pierre Hadot, in describing his own project, approvingly quoted the Marquis de Vauvenargues: “A truly new and truly original book would be one which made people love old truths.”
It is not that I necessarily agree with innovation through conservatism, at least not always. Sometimes one must move forward and do so deliberately. But any philosophy which aspires to be integral, as Wilber’s rightly does – to put together the best of the various intellectual and practical options on offer into a wider coherent theory – must give the ideas of innovation through conservatism a major role. And this is what I think Wilber has not yet done, especially in his recent post/modern work. (His work has become progressively less Romantic as time has passed, and in the process it has given progressively less time to innovation through conservatism.)
I should add that innovation through conservatism in this sense is significantly different from the literal conservatism I have referred to before. Both oppose the idea of progress, of moving into a new future that is considered better than the past. But a literal conservatism is concerned primarily to avoid drastic change from the present, preserving the past’s continuity with the present. Innovation through conservatism, on the other hand, typically innovates because it is seeking to restore a past that already seems lost. In that sense it is more accurately reactionary rather than conservative – but in being reactionary, it creates its own kind of progress.