Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Kevin Shepherd - Critical Comments On Perennialist Philosophy

This article was posted over at Integral World the other day. Shepherd expresses some serious criticism of Perennialist Philosophy and its role in integral theory.

While I am posting this here and linking to the original, I am not in total agreement with Shepherd. He makes some good points, and in other places he is just plain wrong (on Beck, for example). He does cite a variety of sources for his argument, which is good.

I think this is an topic (the perennialist stuff) that many "professional" philosophers take issue with in integral theory, and as such, if integral theory is ever to gain a wider recognition, these things need to be addressed and resolved.

Kevin ShepherdKevin R. D. Shepherd (born 1950) is a British writer. He has composed diverse books ranging from Psychology in Science (1983) to Pointed Observations (2005). He created the small independent publishing imprint known as Citizen Initiative, and subsequently innovated the lengthy website in 2007. That website produced shocks in some directions. It has become noted for the seven letters of Kevin Shepherd which complain about commercial mysticism and forms of alternative therapy that include LSD therapy (currently illegal). This essay was found on and published with the kind permission of the author.

Critical Comments
On Perennialist

Kevin Shepherd

You have mentioned the subject of perennial philosophy in some of your books, often critically but sometimes more appreciatively. What is the reason for this?[1]

That vexed subject entails the investigation of an extensive corpus of materials unknown to the popular circuit of interest in such matters. This corpus involves many complexities totally neglected by “new spirituality,” which is a vulgar contemporary distraction devised by profiteers. Those materials are known to the world of scholarship, though interpretations are often fragmented or provisional.

Because I became acquainted with some of these materials in my unofficial research project, I attempted to make known something of the range involved in my two volume work Minds and Sociocultures. Only the first volume has been published, and it is of sufficient length to deter casual readers. The second volume will await publication. The history of religion and philosophy is not a subject that readily appeals to the retail bookshops dealing in flotsam like occultism, alternative therapy, and spiritualism. Many people have a taste for deceptive offerings, and so they are fed those by the commercial process. They are very prone to commercial books that are easily readable and which reassure them about what they have formerly been told, which may be completely erroneous.


  1. The Traditionalists: Guenon, Schuon, and Coomaraswamy
  2. The Aldous Huxley Backslide
  3. Divergences and Alternatives
  4. The Constructivist Counter
  5. Ken Wilber and Adi Da Samraj
  6. Rude Boy Andrew Cohen
  7. The Findhorn Foundation Contrivance
  8. Ken Wilber Integralism and the Critical Reaction
  9. The Wild West Blog Showdown
  10. Neoperennialism in Question
Here is one section of the paper that I thought was worth reproducing here:

8. Ken Wilber Integralism and the Critical Reaction

The books of Ken Wilber have received enthusiastic elevation from his supporters. It is more difficult for critics to rate the gestures in his early works towards alternative therapy and the Human Potential Movement. His Up from Eden (1981) was unusual as a version of human evolution, though the neo-Hegelian accents and other features have aroused disagreement (see my Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One, 1995, pp. 101-127).

The orientation of Ken Wilber in transpersonal psychology has also afforded disagreements, though the vocabulary progressed to integralism by the time of Integral Psychology (2000). That presentation was attended by the distinctive Wilberian terminology which has both attracted and repelled. Terms like the Great Nest of Being, the Kosmos, and the Integral Embrace are here in evidence, though the dominating theory is that of Four Quadrants. Wilber tends to explain everything by such means and concepts, and he has been inclined to assert the completeness of his theories. His numerous books have given him a monolithic status in alternative metaphysics, and his followers have seldom queried his doctrines until recent years. Although one may credit Ken Wilber’s industry in creating a worldview which attempts to explain so many factors, the “Everything” theory does not convince his critics, of whom there are now different categories.

Wilber’s promotion of Nagarjuna is known to be very problematic. He frequently refers to this early Indian Buddhist philosopher, though using very limited source materials. “None of the relevant scholarship is mentioned in popular works like Ken Wilber’s neo-Hegelian treatise on evolution, which lends a ‘Dharmakaya’ sense of overwhelming priority to the Buddhist Madhyamaka philosopher Nagarjuna in relation to early Vedantic matters” (Shepherd, Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One, 1995, p. 664). Further, “Nagarjuna is often mentioned (by Wilber) with esteem, though with scant indication of the exegetical difficulties posed by that Buddhist exponent for specialist scholars” (Shepherd, Pointed Observations, 2005, pp. 51-2). I am not a specialist, so I will not attempt here to be exhaustive on the point at issue. A few details can be found at 20.5 below.

Another non-specialist has since caught up with some discrepancies, though invoking a degree of poststructuralist thinking in evaluating Nagarjuna. However, the Wilber critic Jeff Meyerhoff does give a valid idea of Wilber’s exegetical problem in relation to Nagarjuna’s association with nihilism and relativism, and also argues strongly against many other aspects of Wilber theory. See Meyerhoff, Bald Ambition: A Critique of Ken Wilber’s Theory of Everything (2006), especially chapter 7, available as an online book at A basic contention of the Meyerhoff critique is that Wilber generalises about subjects which are in basic debate amongst academic experts, subjects which Wilber synthesises in an ambitious metaphysical theory of Everything.

In relation to religion, neither Wilber or Meyerhoff mention the provocative detail that Nagarjuna “according to some scholars was not a Mahayanist at all” (Shepherd, Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals, p. 98). Wilber tends very much to stress the supercession of Hinayana Buddhism by Mahayana, using an evolutionary argument in Up from Eden that was contested by the present writer over a decade ago. The counter-argument was ignored by American integralism, for whom Brits are virtually a martian race who expired in the Georgian era.

At the close of the 1990s, Ken Wilber founded the Integral Institute in Colorado. There have since been accusations of a cult-like approach from diverse critics, and extending to associations with the founding member Andrew Cohen. See Geoffrey D. Falk, “Norman Einstein”: The Dis-Integration of Ken Wilber (2008), an online book at The Falk critique is lengthy, accusing Wilber of inaccuracy and narcissism, and opposing the Integral Institute. See also the more compact coverage in Michael Bauwens, “The Cult of Ken Wilber” at This contribution comes from a former fan of Wilber who now complains of several tendencies that have been interpreted as serious flaws.

Wilber’s failure to negate his praise of Da Free John was a major hurdle for some of his admirers in the 90s. Bauwens also describes the style of Wilber’s lengthy Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995) as being unduly aggressive in places, and there is again the pervasive issue of matters taken for granted that are actually more complex. Recent occurrences in the Integral Institute are indicated as fostering an exclusivist and depreciatory attitude on Wilber’s part to those outside his close circle. Furthermore, these dissatisfactions are aggravated by the claims of Wilber to “nondual realization” in his book One Taste (1999), and also by his alliance with the meme theory of Don Beck that tends very much to relegate ecological interests in preference for the elevation of presumably transpersonal roles.

I'm not sure how the references to Cohen and Da Free John are relevant, other than that they also adhere to an evolutionary model of human spiritual history, but they DO highlight Wilber's tendency to associate with some seriously sketchy people.

As an aside, Shepherd is against the use of hallucinogens in spiritual practice. For an alternate point of view on this, check out this week's New Man Podcast, which features a discussion with Zen teacher Jun Po Dennis Kelly.

Post a Comment