Love of All Wisdom

Wilber’s post/modern turn

by on May.06, 2012, under M.T.S.R., Metaphilosophy, Natural Science

I’ve recently been writing an article on Ken Wilber’s thought, and have come to realize just how much his ideas have changed over the past ten years. His readers, and increasingly he himself, have come to characterize this as a change from a fourth phase of his thought (“Wilber-4″) to a fifth phase (“Wilber-5″). The changes can be hard to spot because the new view is detailed in only one book (Integral Spirituality); the rest of it is found online, in excerpts from a long forthcoming volume.

What is most striking in the change from Wilber-4 to Wilber-5 is its post/modernism. Wilber has moved much closer to a postmodern view in which there are only perspectives, which bring worlds into existence rather than discovering them; he has also become more modernist, giving much more prominence to an idea of cultural evolution where the modern age supersedes those that came before. But as David Harvey has noted, the continuities between modernism and postmodernism can be more significant than their self-proclaimed differences. (In this discussion I will repeatedly use the term “post/modern”, to emphasize the important respects in which the two are the same.) In this case, premodern traditions play an ever smaller role. Wilber’s earlier thought, in looking at the traditions of the premodern world, had tended to incorporate only mystical experience, but mystical experience still got the trump card – it was able to tell us what ultimate reality is. In Wilber-5, mystical experience needs to be kept in its place, without any sovereignty over other kinds of knowledge. Where Wilber’s earlier thought was all about the relationship between Ascent and Descent, Ascent now takes a smaller role as only one or two perspectives out of many, the rest being Descending and post/modern.

Since so much of my philosophical project has to do with recovering premodern wisdom, I was at first quite negatively disposed toward Wilber-5: it seemed like a decline rather than an improvement. But after mulling over the impressive methodological comments of one of my anonymous peer reviewers, I’ve revised that view. I’ve come to think that the change to Wilber-5 happened for some very good reasons.

One of the most prominent concerns of Wilber-5 is method, and this is as it should be. If we’re going to try to figure out how all the different worldviews out there relate to each other, how are we going to do it? How is it possible to do that responsibly?

And what drives Wilber’s post/modern turn, I think, is a recognition that the methods available to us for such a project are post/modern ones. For Anselm or Śāntideva, one could assume the truth of one’s own tradition fairly easily, and have an unproblematic project of “faith seeking understanding”. Competing traditions were available, but they were typically not live options – to accept one would mean a drastic change in one’s life and social position. Now conversion, including a conversion to or from atheism, is an ever-present possibility. This is the great change that Charles Taylor calls a secular age.

So too, the vast array of empirical evidence marshalled by natural science, overthrowing so many traditional cosmologies, was not available before the past few centuries. But it has been so persuasive now that even those opposed to science’s accepted conclusions still frame their views in scientific terms, as in the intelligent design movement.

What all of this means is that we simply cannot inhabit premodern tradition in the ways the premoderns did themselves. We need to think with the moderns. That is important and true; it’s a point I think I’ve sometimes neglected in my enthusiasm for premodern thought. And so I’m grateful for Wilber’s post/modern turn, for its reminding me of this point.

Now with all of this in mind, there remains plenty that I disagree with in Wilber-5, and I’ll be exploring that disagreement here over the next couple of weeks. The key problem I see is that for Wilber, the transition to post/modernity is part of a story of almost unambiguous progress. “Almost” unambiguous, because Wilber does acknowledge the claims of the Romantics, those who see post/modernity as a decline. There is, for him, a “disaster of modernity”. But in his eyes, this disaster comes essentially because we have not progressed enough. Humans have multiple lines of development, one of which is the spiritual; and “orange” modernity – Wilber-5 colour-codes his proposed levels of human individual and social development – halted its progress at the collective level by denying the spiritual line entirely. For him that’s what gives rise to fundamentalism and other conservative “religious” movements: those are the only options people see that don’t discard spirituality wholesale. All we need to do now is recover that spiritual dimension, and we’ll set the march of progress going forward again as it should be. Spirituality needs to recover itself at an “orange” and higher level; and then the energies that go into fundamentalism can be directed there.

I have at least two problems with this approach: one empirical and sociological, one deeper and more philosophical. I will explore both in the weeks to come.

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9 Comments for this entry

  • Thill

    1. I just read this in the Chronicle:

    The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps!

    And these people (the ruling elite in the U.S. academe and their masters in the political and business world) have the ignorant arrogance to think that their ugly, sordid, anti-educational, money-driven “model of higher education” should be implanted in the rest of the world?

    Woe to those credulous people, in India or China, for instance, who want to ape this failed “model of higher education”!!!

    2. “Wilber has moved much closer to a postmodern view in which there are only perspectives, which bring worlds into existence rather than discovering them…”

    So, has Wilber also succumbed to the postmodern virus which gradually, but surely, destroys coherence of thought?

    Perspective on what? “Perspective” is intentional and presupposes an object, or “field”, on which one has a perspective.

    This notion that a “perspective” brings its object, or “field”, not to mention “worlds”, into existence, is a weird one. Indeed, it is a form of magical thinking masquerading in the forms of philosophical thinking.

    A perspective is a theory, or has a theory at its core. And a theory is a bunch of words in which a framework of concepts is embedded.

    To believe that a bunch of words and concepts can bring real “worlds” into existence, in contrast to portraying fictional or imaginary ones, is sheer magical thinking on the power of words. One is reminded of “God said “Let there be Light” and there was Light”, “In the beginning was the Word”, and similar forms of magical thinking on the power of words.

    In this magical thinking (of which Nelson Goodman’s “Ways of Worldmaking” is an absurd instantiation), just because we have a word “unicorn” and a corresponding concept of a unicorn, and, of course, a “perspective” on a unicorn, we have created a real unicorn!

    This is obviously bizarre. No real unicorns have come into existence because we have a developed a “perspective” on unicorns. They are fictional or imaginary entities and will always remain so regardless of the ink spilled on developing any number of “perspectives” on them.

    In just the same way, no “perspective” has any power create even a real speck of dirt, not to mention entire “worlds”.

    There is an important and quite simple distinction between imagining an object, “hypothesizing” or postulating an object, and actually creating it.

    These distinctions are understood as a matter of course in basic cognitive development and it is odd that some philosophical views seek to conflate them, e.g., the view that our talk of objects, or “hypothesizing” or postulating them, actually creates those objects in reality.

    3. How do we demarcate the pre-modern, modern, and postmodern?

    Are they demarcated in terms of the nature of “assumptions” or in terms of historical epochs?

    For instance, is Herder a “postmodern” thinker because he held views similar to postmodern historical relativism?

    Further, assuming that we can intelligibly and sensibly demarcate them, what is the philosophical importance of dubbing a view “premodern”, or “modern”, or “postmodern”? What follows, of any philosophical worth or significance, from these sorts of claims?

    The central questions on any proposed view are: What does it mean? Is the view coherent or consistent? Is the view true, or plausible, or rational to hold?

    Whether a view is classified as “premodern”, or “modern”, or “postmodern” has nothing to do with the answers to these central questions.

    To suppose otherwise is to commit the “genetic fallacy” or the fallacy of thinking that the historical epoch or category of a view has a bearing on its truth or plausibility.

    4. “If we’re going to try to figure out how all the different worldviews out there relate to each other, how are we going to do it? How is it possible to do that responsibly?”

    Each worldview, assuming that it is worthy of consideration (Apart from a historical or anthropological interest, who cares a farthing about the “Voodoo worldview” or the “Viking worldview”?), must first be understood and evaluated in terms of the criteria of coherence, or internal consistency, and plausibility or fit of its central truth-claims with the known evidence.

    This criterion of “fit of its central truth-claims” with the known evidence also provides an effective standard of comparison of worldviews.

    “Which worldview is best supported by evidence?” is, or ought to be, the primary question in any comparison of worldviews.

  • David Marshall

    Thill is right: To say, “There are only perspectives, which bring worlds into existence rather than discovering them” is magic thinking. But this is not Wilber’s view.

    Wilber’s view is paradoxical. He will say that human perspectives on phenomena are co-created or tetra-enacted (the four quadrants), or speak of an integration between fact and interpretation. That is, there is some truth in saying that objects are objectively real and some truth in saying these objects are enacted by our own biological/thinking apparatus. Dogs will enact a somewhat different moon than we do, but that is not to say that either is creating the moon.

    For example:

    “All of those are postulated structures that attempt to account for known Kosmic habits of interior domains. Those structures are themselves coherent wholes that help to enact and bring forth a world that is a co-creation of those structures doing the perceiving, knowing, and feeling. That structures co-create, present, and enact worlds, and do not merely perceive or represent them, is the revolution at the heart of the post-Kantian, postmodern understanding (and a feature therefore of any Integral Post-Metaphysics).”


    “This does not mean that therefore our reconstructive hermeneutics, reconstructive phenomenology, and reconstructive sciences are of no benefit at all–they are extraordinarily important as one aspect of a more transparent self-understanding. It is to say, however, that at no point do reconstructive inquiries disclose the thing-in-itself (although, if done correctly, they are guided by the thing-in-itself, they are guided by the givens or factual inheritances or Kosmic habits of the past as they impinge causally on the present via morphic resonance, formative causation, prehensive unification, cultural memory, and so on). When we enact a world, we are immersed in a meshwork of pre-existing givens with present interpretations.”

    • Amod Lele

      Thanks, David, and welcome. I’ve been focusing in my revisions on the modern elements of Wilber’s method, so haven’t gotten deeply into the postmodern (ie the perspectives piece). So there is likely stuff I’m missing. “Bring forth a world” sounds the same as “bring a world into existence”, but I suspect you’re right that that’s not quite how Wilber means it – it’s an act of co-creation between subject and object.

      I’ll be taking a more critical look at Wilber over the next couple of weeks, and would be very interested to hear your thoughts.

    • Thill

      1. David: “Thill is right: To say, “There are only perspectives, which bring worlds into existence rather than discovering them” is magic thinking. But this is not Wilber’s view.”

      Well, in claiming that “structures co-create, present, and enact worlds, and do not merely perceive or represent them…”, Wilber is still held captive to magical thinking, except that his magical thinking is “structuralist” or pertains to the magical power of structures!

      2. “Those structures are themselves coherent wholes that help to enact and bring forth a world that is a co-creation of those structures doing the perceiving, knowing, and feeling. That structures co-create, present, and enact worlds, and do not merely perceive or represent them…”

      This is structuralism gone awry on category mistakes!

      To speak of “structures” enacting (a bizarre notion) and “co-creating” a world, perceiving, knowing, and feeling (!!!) is just language gone on a wild holiday!

      “Structures” are not capable of any of that in themselves. Only organisms are capable of perceiving, knowing, feeling, etc. Of course, organisms are constrained by their biological structures in doing so, but it is a category mistake to attribute perceptions, knowledge and feelings to structures.

      The notion that a structure, or even a dog, can “enact” an object or a world is a most peculiar (mis)use of “enact”.

      Wilber seems to be also held captive here to an odd picture of a structure as some sort of an actor, say a Gielgud or an Olivier, “enacting” a variety of “worlds”.

      • Thill

        There are serious conceptual confusions in Wilber’s magic invocations of “structure”. For instance, in increasingly jargon-laden language, he writes:

        “the interior holon’s structure, which means the regularities governing the elements that are internal to that interior structure (either internal to the individual agency of an “I” or internal to the nexus-agency of a “we”). Those regularities or structures represent…”

        Note that the word “structure” is used here interchangeably with “regularities”.

        Does it makes any sense to attribute “perception, knowing, and feeling”, not to mention a capacity to “enact” worlds, to regularities?

  • Thill

    1. “failed model of higher education”, etc.

    I am talking about the business model of higher education. This business model is extending its dirty and vicious tentacles into all significant areas of high culture, including, of course, higher education.

    A cursory look at its effects in the art world should convince anyone of its marked propensity to undermine and destroy the standards of high culture. Trash is elevated to the status of “high art” merely by endowing the trash with outrageously high monetary value!

    2. The advocate of the magical view that “there are only perspectives, which bring worlds into existence rather than discovering them” could respond that, in my stupidity as a staunch advocate of common sense truths, I have taken her claim “literally” and misunderstood it.

    Oh, really?

    What then is meant by “perspectives which bring worlds into existence”? If it is not existence as we normally understand it, i.e., spatio-temporal reality, what is it?

    The apostles of postmodernist Minerva could say that it is “existence as an object of contemplation” or something like that.

    In other words, to say that “perspectives bring worlds into existence” is NOT to say that they bring worlds into existence in space-time, but as “objects of contemplation”, or objects of understanding and so forth.

    But this makes their claim a thunderous tautology!

    To have a perspective is, among other things, to have thought about something, to have contemplated and understood something.

    Therefore, to say that a perspective brings worlds into existence as objects of contemplation is merely to say that in holding a perspective we entertain thoughts or ideas about certain “worlds”, or imagine or contemplate them in our minds.

    If “bring worlds into existence”, in this context, means nothing more than having some ideas about them, conceiving or imagining them, and so on, then, given what it means to have a “perspective” on anything, the claim that a perspective brings a world into existence is, in essence, merely the claim that a perspective is a perspective!!!

    Compare the claim that a causal hypothesis brings causal factors into existence!

    What could this possibly mean?

    It is obviously absurd to say that if I have the hypothesis that a virus causes multiple personality disorder, then I have actually brought that virus into existence in space-time.

    In the “interpretation” proposed by the apostles of postmodern Minerva, the claim that a causal hypothesis brings about the existence of the relevant causal factor only means that in formulating the causal hypothesis we are thinking about, conceiving, envisaging, or contemplating a causal factor.

    A thunderous tautology indeed!

    What is it to proffer a causal hypothesis, but to think about, conceive, contemplate,or envisage a causal factor?

    Of course, none of this undermines the elementary common sense truth that I can proffer a causal hypothesis, but the alleged causal factor may not exist at all other than “in” my imagination!

  • Thill

    I would add that the “interpretation” of “bring into existence” in terms of having conceptions or ideas of something is a solecism, a corruption of language.

    The distinction between thinking about something, or having ideas about something, or imagining it, and actually bringing it into existence is obvious.

  • ZenFun

    I think Wilber’s take on perspectives doesn’t have anything to do with manifestation in the “real” world as is being argued against here. The point is that anything you perceive and/or communicate is already filtered through your own experience. The relationship of the perceived reality and *you* is the perspective. Your entire experience of reality is, at its core, a set of perspectives. Here are a couple paragraphs to chew on from

    “But there are no perceptions anywhere in the real world; there are only perspectives. A subject perceiving an object is always already in a relationship of first-person, second-person, and third-person when it comes to the perceived occasions. If the manifest world is indeed panpsychic—or built of sentient beings (all the way up, all the way down)—then the manifest world is built of perspectives, not perceptions. Moving from perceptions to perspectives is the first radical step in the move from metaphysics to post-metaphysics. Subjects don’t prehend objects anywhere in the universe; rather, first persons prehend second persons or third persons: perceptions are always within actual perspectives. “Subject perceiving object” (or “bare attention to dharmas”) is not a raw given but a low-order abstraction that already tears the fabric of the Kosmos in ways that cannot easily be repaired.”

    “Even if we say, with the materialist, that the world is composed of nothing but physical atoms, nonetheless “atom” is already a third-person symbol being perceived by a first-person sentient being. And if we try to picture an actual atom, that too is a third-person entity prehended by a first person. In other words, even “atom” is not an entity, or even a perception, but a perspective, within which a perception occurs (i.e., all perceptions and feelings are always already within the space of an actual perspective)”

    • Amod Lele

      Thanks, ZenFun, and welcome. As I mentioned to David above, I haven’t yet explored the postmodern side of Wilber’s recent methodology in too much detail, as I’ve been focused on the modern (i.e. the empiricism, the demand that valid knowledge be founded in experience). The perspectives, as I see it, are more a part of the postmodern side. And I don’t think I fully understand his take yet. I know he’s trying to navigate a middle course between a solipsistic subjectivity (we create our own reality as we choose) on one hand and an extreme objectivism (subjectivity plays no role in knowledge at all) on the other. Navigating that course is necessary for any serious thinker and I think it’s important that Wilber makes the effort to do so. I think he’s moved further from the objectivist pole and more toward the subjectivist in the latest phase, and I’m not yet entirely sure what I think of that.

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