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For reasons I discussed last time, I’ve found it important to categorize philosophies using the ideal types of ascent and descent – but have not yet been able to specify them as clearly as an ideal type should be. I had thought I had drawn the concepts from Martha Nussbaum as well as Ken Wilber, but Nussbaum’s use of the ascent-descent dichotomy turned out to be implicit at most.

Wilber is not exactly clear on the topic himself. In Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, the most systematic presentation of his ideas, he does not offer a definition as such. He does present us with a more detailed description of what he’s getting at, speaking of the movements of a quasi-Hegelian Spirit (with a capital S):

The first movement is a descent of the One into the world of the Many, a movement that actually creates the world of the Many, blesses the Many and confers Goodness on all of it: Spirit immanent in the world. The other is the movement of return or ascent from the Many to the One, a process of remembering or recollecting the Good: Spirit transcendent to the world. (330)

I am not (yet) so Hegelian that I am comfortable speaking of “movements of Spirit” in this sense. It is not an ideal depiction of what ascent and descent might come out to be. Wilber helps by offering a different phrasing in what comes next:

Western civilization has been a battle royale between these two movements, between those who wanted only to live in “this world” of Manyness and those who wanted to live only in the “other world” of transcendent Oneness… ascetic and repressive Ascenders [1]… who seem willing to destroy ‘this world’ (of nature, body, senses) in favor of anything they imagine as an ‘other world’; and, on the other hand, the shadow-hugging Descenders, who fuss about in the world of time looking for the Timeless… they want from ‘this world’ something that it could never deliver: salvation. (330-1)

There are two important aspects to the characterization of ascent in these passages. One is transcendence: the ascender is dissatisfied with this world as it currently exists, seeing it as a problem to be solved or overcome, gone beyond. (“Transcend” literally means “climb beyond”.) But this dissatisfaction and ensuing transcendence are of a particular kind: not the messianic kind that sees the world’s troubles as something to be solved within its own future (as in Marx), but of another kind that involves transcending the world entirely.

Second, and at least as fundamental, there is a key metaphysical problem that returns again and again in both Western and Indian philosophy: the problem of the One and the Many. The early Greek philosopher Parmenides attempted to demonstrate how truth is ultimately one thing, and most of the Greeks after him accepted his argument. But then they faced the problem: what is the relationship between the ultimate One (whether thought of as truth, being, or goodness) and the clearly manifold reality that surrounds us? Wilber notes that much of Western philosophy has been a reaction to this problem, and identifies ascent as a movement toward the One and descent as a movement toward the Many. The problem has clearly been at the heart of Vedānta philosophy in India as well, although curiously Wilber identifies the problem only with the West. (I suspect this is because he believes mystical experience resolves the problem entirely and the Vedāntins derived their philosophy from mystical experiences – but not only do we have little evidence to believe that is the case, such an approach ignores just how much the problem was debated among Vedāntins. It was as much an argument between Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja as it was between Plato and Aristotle, quite possibly more so.)

In James Doull‘s heavily Greek-influenced work, which I have found very helpful for thinking about large-scale philosophical issues, “the One” and “the Many” become “the universal” and “the particular” (or perhaps better “particulars”), respectively. What I find helpful about this phrasing is it focuses our attention on the Many not as an undifferentiated grouping, but as separate particular phenomena independent of each other – including ourselves as particular individuals, living our particular lives in particular places.

From there I come to the most helpful definition I’ve been able to come up with for ascent: it is an attempt to transcend the particular human condition, in the name of a higher and better universal – though that universal may well be ineffable, difficult to define or speak of. Descent, by contrast, is the attempt to embrace the particular human condition without regard to such a universal.

What does this mean exactly? More next time.

1 Wilber usually capitalizes Ascent and Descent (and Ascender and Descender), which is why I have often done so in the past. I think that that capitalization tends to encourage excessive reification of the categories, so I think it is better to stop doing so at this point (though now that I’ve gotten in the habit of capitalizing them, I wouldn’t be surprised if I wind up doing so accidentally).