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I have juxtaposed the works of Ken Wilber and Alasdair MacIntyre against each other more than once here. They are at odds in many respects, and MacIntyre often has the best illustration of Wilber’s weak points. MacIntyre’s anti-modernism is the most potent antidote to the ever-increasing modernist tendency of Wilber’s thought. So too, MacIntyre effectively skewers what was perhaps always the weakest point in Wilber’s work, his “worldcentric” ethics. Finally, the uses they have made of non-Western thought are in drastically different directions, related closely to the content of their thought, such that MacIntyre’s intimacy orientation leads him to China and not India, and Wilber’s occasional interest in ascent leads him to India and not China.
(Wilber refers to refers to MacIntyre’s After Virtue once in a passing footnote to Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (684n21), but not in a way that comes to terms with MacIntyre’s challenge to Wilber.)

But there are at least two influences the two thinkers have in common. One is Hegel: especially in his earlier work, Wilber has often cited Hegel as an influence for his project of synthesis (although he doesn’t really get Hegel’s dialectical approach), while MacIntyre takes himself in After Virtue to be doing philosophical history in a sense deriving from Hegel. The second influence, which I want to talk about here, is Thomas S. Kuhn.

Kuhn was a historian of natural science, and the scope of his study remained in the natural-scientific disciplines: his examples are drawn from astronomy, physics, chemistry. But I noted before that his ideas have been at least as influential in the social sciences, and remain relevant to philosophy. And it is quite striking to me the way his ideas underlie both Wilber and MacIntyre.

As far as I can tell, Kuhn is one of the biggest influences on Wilber-5, the most recent phase of Wilber’s thought. The idea of a paradigm is front and centre in the works that articulate his method (Integral Spirituality and especially Excerpt B: The Many Ways We Touch). Paradigms are those sets of practices that generate replicable experiences. For there to be progress there must be a new paradigm. “‘Paradigm’ refers to the methodologies of enacting new phenomena, not merely to the theories that attempt to explain them” (Excerpt B, p2); paradigms are the practices that bring forth replicable experiences (“if you want to know this, you must do this”). Any theory not enacted by a paradigm falls under Wilber’s new favourite dirty word, “metaphysics”.

MacIntyre does not specifically use the word “paradigm” itself, but he uses closely related concepts and cites Kuhn as a key influence on them. In the autobiographical account that begins his The Tasks of Philosophy, he draws the contrast between the early (and relatively undistinguished) philosophy he did before and after reading Kuhn (alongside Imre Lakatos):

I had assumed that my enquiries would and should move forward in a piecemeal way, focusing first on this problem and then on that, in a mode characteristic of much analytic philosophy. So I had worked away at a number of issues that I had treated as separate and distinct without sufficient reflection upon the larger conceptual framework within which and by reference to which I and others formulated those issues. What I learned from Kuhn, or rather from Kuhn and Lakatos read together, was the need first to identify and then to break free from that framework and to enquire whether the various problems on which I had made so little progress had baffled me not or not only because of their difficulty, but because they were bound to remain intractable so long as they were understood in the terms dictated by those larger assumptions which I shared with many of my contemporaries.

When MacIntyre argues that different traditions of moral inquiry cannot normally be reconciled with each other because the standards by which they could be resolved are internal to those traditions, it is in many respects a more moderate version of Kuhn’s own claim. We tend to expect such difficulties of resolution in ethics, even if we try to get beyond them; Kuhn argues that they are just as difficult in science.

The difference between a MacIntyrean tradition and a Kuhnian paradigm is that paradigms do not normally coexist for long within the same field of inquiry. A paradigm, on Kuhn’s account, involves near-universal agreement within a field, except at those (rare) times when the paradigm is in crisis and a new revolutionary paradigm is coming to supplant it. But, MacIntyre argues, irreconcilable moral disagreement is inevitable in the modern West (let alone the rest of the world) specifically because of the coexistence of different traditions of moral inquiry, in which the standards by which the traditions can be evaluated are internal to those traditions.

Now what happens when we compare Wilber’s paradigms with MacIntyre’s traditions? There are similarities. Both highlight the role of practice: theoretical inquiries do not proceed in an arbitrary way. More importantly, both are attuned to the ways in which traditions of inquiry provide not only answers to our questions, but the standards by which those answers can be judged.

The trickier but important question is: what happens when those standards of evaluation collide? When we are dealing with different paradigms saying different things? Wilber provides a relatively easy answer to this question: you keep all the experiences enacted by the paradigms, but throw out the theories except to the extent that they can account for the experiences. A key disadvantage of this method is that, contrary to Wilber’s account, requires that one throw out some traditions out entirely.

MacIntyre’s approach is in many ways far less ambitious than Wilber’s – one is tempted to say not ambitious enough. MacIntyre takes seriously Kuhn’s point that standards of evaluation are internal to paradigms. (It is not just that an empiricist standard like Wilber’s would be contradicted by other, less empirical paradigms, but that that empiricism cannot itself be justified empirically, so it is not a justifiable view even its own terms.) And those standards are adequate until a point of epistemological crisis, equivalent to a paradigm shift. Until such a crisis happens, we remain effectively trapped inside our own traditions; at most we can take good ideas of other traditions piece by piece, but only insofar as they are judged by the standards of our own tradition (which is to say, the shopping cart).

Over the next couple weeks I have a publishing deadline to fulfill with Oxford Bibliographies, in addition to several other commitments. I will be taking those weeks off; Love of All Wisdom will return August 31.