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My recent article, which I summarized last week, appears in the issue of Journal of Integral Theory and Practice devoted to integral religious studies. Fellow blogger Dustin DiPerna also contributed an article to the journal, which takes an approach very different from mine. As I understand it, DiPerna discusses the history of religious studies in order to explain how it might be done from an Integral (i.e. Wilberian) perspective. Recently, Gerard Bruitzman critiqued DiPerna’s article online, and DiPerna offered a response. Happily, DiPerna’s article is available as a free PDF, and the responses are freely available online as well.

I’m excited by the conversation between DiPerna and Bruitzman because I think it opens up an opportunity for online dialogue about Wilber’s approach and its merits and flaws. I think that Bruitzman’s criticism contains several elements that are similar to mine, though I also think there are important things he misses. Basically, DiPerna identifies a progress in the study of religion that corresponds to the progress identified in Wilber’s recent (Wilber-5) work. He traces this progress from a premodern era where scholars did not step beyond the confines of their own tradition, through a modern era where they treat “religion” as an object they stand outside of, through a postmodern era of sensitivity to one’s own content, finally ending up in a “post-postmodern” era defined by Wilber’s “Integral Methodological Pluralism”.

Bruitzman asks: where, in this story of progress, are the accomplishments of the premoderns? They seem, he thinks, to get left out. He expresses more sympathy for the “perennial philosophy” expressed by Huston Smith and others, which identifies a common truth to be found in all traditions. DiPerna’s response points out that Bruitzman entirely misses one of the key tenets of Wilber-5: the distinction between “structures” of consciousness (which progress as time advances) and “states” of consciousness (which don’t). DiPerna’s model in the article is intended to deal only with structures; because of its limited space, it leaves states out of the picture.

I am no perennialist myself, and as far as I can tell, DiPerna is quite right that Bruitzman has entirely missed the structure-state distinction in Wilber’s later thought. What DiPerna himself has not considered, as far as I can tell, is the point of my own article: that there is far more to the central claims (and, I would even argue, the truth) of premodern traditions than mere states of consciousness. I think Bruitzman gets some of this point in his critiques, though his perennialism – which does tend to involve a significant emphasis on states of consciousness – may limit how much of it he can see.

Take, for example, Bruitzman’s claim that in DiPerna’s view, “There is no room for Confucius’ hard-won practical wisdom or Dante’s highly nuanced heart-centered poetics in his inadequate category of premodern fusion.” To this DiPerna replies: “of course there is room for the insights of Jesus, Plato, and Confucius! The various states of consciousness they uncovered are vital gifts and can be found in all our world’s great wisdom streams. They deserve full honor. States of consciousness were simply not within the focused scope of the article.”

Is this reply adequate? Let us focus on Confucius – the one example mentioned by both Bruitzman and DiPerna. It doesn’t take much reading of Confucius’s surviving work to realize that whatever Confucius might have uncovered, it did not consist primarily of states of consciousness! The most prominent themes in Confucius’s Analects are how a state should be governed, how a family should relate, how children should be educated. If one were to refer to these things as “states of consciousness”, it would stretch the concept so far as to have no significant meaning – such that biology, physics, or structures of consciousness are themselves states of consciousness.

Indeed there is so little reference to states of consciousness in pre-Buddhist Confucian writing that some have even argued the early Confucians had no concept of consciousness at all. One doesn’t have to go that far to see that if all one honours from Confucius is the states of consciousness he supposedly uncovered, one is honouring little or nothing of his thought. One could legitimately say in that case that Confucius’s thought, without a discussion of consciousness, is not wisdom – that Confucius got the things he wrote about wrong and we should be focusing on natural science and/or mystical experience rather than learning from him – but one cannot reasonably pretend that states of consciousness were his own focus.

This point is an example of my article’s central critique: the core of many premodern traditions (to the extent that we can reasonably speak of a “core” in the first place, as Wilber does) goes beyond experienced states of consciousness, to include at least what Wilber and DiPerna refer to as structures. Many of the ideas that constitute a progress beyond the premodern to the modern, postmodern and post-postmodern (in Wilberian terms) may be directly at odds with the core of many premodern traditions. One may observe this most clearly in the most confused and inadequate part of Wilber’s system, his moral-ethical philosophy, which relies primarily on a progress from “egocentric” to “ethnocentric” to “worldcentric”. Even from a viewpoint of pure progress, this is a problematic way to view social development: when, exactly, were human societies ever egocentric before becoming ethnocentric? Most observed hunter-gatherer societies have a strong sense of group solidarity. And as I have noted before, Wilber’s worldcentrism runs into significant difficulties – fatal, I suspect – in justifying itself.

I have made many of these points in the article, but they’re worth recapping here outside the pay wall, and discussing specifically in response to DiPerna’s dialogue. In the context of DiPerna’s work, the most vital point is this: the state-structure distinction is simply not enough reason to claim that Wilber’s progressivist theory of history can accommodate the insights of premodern traditions. As I understand him, DiPerna brings up the distinction in order to claim that we can straightforwardly include the essentials of the premodern traditions while accepting a story of progress beyond the premodern, because those essentials have to do with states. The problem is just that in many (or even most) cases, they don’t, and so we can’t. The essentials of premodern traditions go far deeper than states of consciousness alone.