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. Continue reading