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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.