Saturday, July 31, 2010

Critiques of AQAL at ITC 2010 #itc2010

Hi folks, John Wagnon here, filling in for Bill Harryman who was otherwise occupied as a panel member at ITC this afternoon.

The Critiques of AQAL panel was memorable and important. In short, this was an important step toward the broadening of the integral theory community beyond an attachment to Wilber's theories alone and into an appreciation of the ways in which Wilber's offerings fail to serve - an awareness that there are more integral voices in the world and that if we truly want to include and benefit from all perspectives, there are many excluded perspectives that deserve our attention. The panelists were all very diplomatic and respectful (as I would think it would be smart to do in a room of Wilber-philes like me), and yet were very clear about the problems they saw in the current state of Wilber's theories, or at least in their perception and understanding of it. I also felt this was a good opportunity for the critics themselves to begin to reintegrate with the integral community and maybe to lighten the load of the critical burdens they've been carrying for years. I look forward to a broader conversation about our ideas and practices in the integral community.

I have the great privilege and responsibility of attempting to describe this event to you. I also have the ability and privilege to interject my own opinions, and I will. I don't necessarily think I'm right, but I had some strong responses during the event that I felt I had to set down here. Please criticize them and dispute them. In the interest of an open dialogue on Wilber's contributions, I'd love to engage in further discussion of these ideas.

The panelists gave an overview of their history and what they felt was the most important issue with AQAL and Wilber's endeavor - or at least the most important issue they felt could be addressed in a panel format.

Frank Visser, joking that he promised to be frank with us, also promised not to dwell on the past (which is good because some critics seem to fixate on past rudeness on Ken's part). Frank described how taken he was with Ken's work, his history of attempting to contact Ken, acquiring his fax number and firing off a missive, only to be shocked by the very long reply he received. Eventually after a last 90's Wilber conference, Frank secured a visit with Ken which resulted in later visits and conversations, and eventually his book, Thought as Passion, now translated into several languages including an upcoming edition in Chinese.

Frank then moved on to describe what he called a "rough ride" over the last 10 years. Frank founded in the interest of having an open intellectual debate on Wilber's ideas. In the words of a German idiom, Frank wanted to "only tease the one that you love." He noted briefly that Wilber did not seem to be pleased with this. Frank didn't really dwell on it much (as he promised) but on his site is a record of the often acrimonious and disrespectful (on both sides) "debate" that contributors to had with and about Ken. As someone who is not an expert on the dialogue Frank has enabled on his site, I have a little familiarity with this history and I think as, with all respect to all parties, that Wilber was rude to these people on some occasions and in return they seem (to my eye) to fixate on Ken's social failings, whatever they are, as a failing of the theory. Frank, thankfully, did not review this history on the panel and I'm grateful to him. I think its high time to bury the hatchet and really listen to what these people have to say, just as much as it is high time for critics (and I count myself a critic of Wilberian integral theory - as well as a scholar and practitioner of it) to learn to differentiate between critiques of the theory and critiques of the man and his associated institutions. Those kinds of critiques have value, but we have to understand them in their own sphere so we can understand how they interact.

Frank said he was looking forward to what he called Phase II of integral theory, one which is more scientific and logical and less religious and psychospiritual as he believes phase I is/was. He looks forward to integral theory embracing the "shadow side" of itself which he regards as very cool/cold as in the cold gaze of critical thinking. We should go back to sources, compare them, evaluate whether the theory adequately represents and accounts for them.
Personally I was struck by Frank's sincerity and his apparent desire for a constructive conversation. Some of the criticism on seems to be outright vicious, to me, and yet is always bracketed as "critique with love". its a very strange sort of love, but observing Frank Visser at this panel - as well as some of the other participants - I believe it more. Perhaps this is something about the culture of Continental critical theory in which tearing your opponents to shreds can be an act of love. I can understand that in the metaphorical sense, however its harder to allow for that when attempting to digest some of the critical papers that are available on the internet. They don't seem like constructive criticism. I can easily allow that Ken may have invited this through his own behavior, and I find myself much more tolerant of these individuals viewpoints after their performance on this panel.

Unexpectedly Frank seemed to get a little choked up as he worked his way deeper into his critical voice. It could have been totally coincidental, but I wonder what his emotions were. Was he relieved to finally be able to have his say within the integral community and be heard with a respectful ear? Did he have pent up anger for his treatment by Wilber and others? I don't know. I tend to give him the benefit of the doubt and choose to believe it was meaningless coincidence.

Jeff Meyerhoff introduced himself by describing how he began reading SES in the 90's and was immediately struck by how *wrong* he thought Wilber was. He continued to read Wilber and continued to think wrong, wrong, wrong, and so he began writing about his objections on These eventually became Bald Ambition, his book of critiques of Wilber and his work.

Jeff offered several example criticisms. How do you determine what is the true part of a particular perspective? In Wilber-IV, Ken describes AQAL as a set of orienting generalizations based on "already agreed upon perspectives". However, Jeff reported that when he began to investigate these foundational theories Ken built upon, there was no such consensus.
For awhile, Jeff felt he had the offical role of "the bad critic" which I guess means that when Wilber complained of a critic who is getting his work wrong, etc., he meant Jeff. Jeff felt that Wilber, after Jeff's critique, dropped this "orienting generalization" language without another word. He replaced it with his 8 methods. So Jeff, looked into them. He looked into phenomenology and again found that there was enormous disagreement in the field - and in social sciences in general - how do you judge this field of knowledge?

Further how do you judge health/un-health? Who is doing the judging? Ken? What qualifications do you need to expound upon what healthy development, translation, etc. actually is?
Jeff also felt there was far too much emphasis on progress and growth, when death and decline are also everywhere (imho, Wilber does account for this with Thanatos, but he doesn't talk about this much, which I suppose is the point.)

My impression of Jeff is one of sincere appreciation for Wilber's work and also someone who takes a sincerely critical position by habit, to the point that he (as he is self-aware of) later cannot resist criticizing the other critics and defending Wilber. I will certainly read Jeff's rhetoric with a very different eye and ear after experiencing his demeanor first hand.

Sarah Ross was once a part of the original Integral University (which imploded for some reason I don't understand - eventually reincarnating as the JFK and Fielding programs). However she saw behavior and social dynamics in the original I-I that she felt were unhealthy or inadequate or wrong. She wrote a public letter of intervention to highlight these problems and soon found herself quietly removed form the rolls of Integral University. She reported that she was dismayed by recent reports she has received that these dynamics are still present in II, and I-Life (and maybe by extension JFK and ITC). She didn't really go into what these problems were, which again I am grateful for. Whatever bad blood exists between them should have little to do with the strengths and weaknesses of the theory (although it is fair to ask whether applications of a theory have good results - I'm not sure one can claim the dynamics she referred to were an actual consequence of integral theory.)

To me, and I don't know Sarah Ross at all, Sarah seemed to hold a great deal of resentment over the way she was treated. Perhaps this is justified, I don't know.

Sarah launched into her critical questions. Is AQAL really a theory? How explanatory is it? What does it help you do? To her AQAL is not a theory, but a map, model, description, etc. and is static. It doesn't describe how change occurs, etc. She exhorted us to be critical of our own thinking. She confessed that she hasn't kept up with Wilber's work and complained that there isn't one book she can read to find out what his theory actually is. (I would actually dispute this - in my experience reading Wilber's latest book is always sufficient to understand the theory. If you miss three books, just read the latest. He always repeats and recapitulates the theory). Sarah believes this is actually a process of a theorist working out his theory in public and that no theory of anything actually happening is offered. Lazlo, by contrast, describes how and why things happen. (I can't help but wonder if this isn't a misunderstanding of what meta-theory actually is and does).

Sarah went on to failings she finds in the AQAL map. She believes that all the variables of AQAL are formal stage variables. That the map is a simplistic early systems matrix - that any early systems thinker could create such a matrix. And that it is full of category errors. (I agree with a later questioner on the panel that I don't really see the significance of this other than Sarah believes that any adequate meta-theory must operate at higher and more complex levels of abstraction. It isn't immediately obvious to me that this is true).

Regarding the category errors, Sarah offered, for example, that the Quadrant Map is about a single holon. She then asks why do we need lines, states, & types which are about an individual's consciousness? (I think she has a point here, AQAL claims to be a theory of everything but it has a very obvious psychological focus - at the same time, I think ken is clear in his theory that its about not a single holon but about any and all holons at whatever holarchical level there is. To my eye there was a pattern to some of the critiques offered that, to someone who has made a somewhat critical study of Wilber's work like most of the JFK/Fielding students, for instance - these criticisms are fairly clear, obvious, and also relatively small. I do agree that AQAL has an overly psychological focus. So "theory of everything" is more than a little bit of hyperbole - that doesn't bother me that much. I think its clearly *not* an adequate theory of everything. I think that's a fair criticism, but I think its easily reframed. Perhaps Wilber won't do this - but I think that hs more to do with Wilber personally than the value of the theory.) Sarah also offered that AQAL makes scale errors, that social holons were not adequately taken into account (but of course in Wilber-V of the excerpts, they are taken into account, maybe in response to Mark Edwards criticisms and work.)

Finally, she said that in her own work she only introduces quadrants in order to blur them and felt that the distinctions and categories in AQAL were far too rigid and taken too literally. (Again I don't know about this - to me its always been clear that the theory must be held lightly - as Wilber himself exhorts one to do.) Sarah implored us to not swallow a theory hook, line, & sinker. Use it. See if it works. Criticize it. How does it serve you? Watch how you have to blur the lines and elements in practice. (I think any serious integral practitioner would simply be nodding along with this).

She left us with the assertions that quadrants had no fundamental reality - they were not reality at all - they were simply constructs.

Again, I felt like Sarah seemed resentful toward Ken and how she perceived the integral community using and believing the theory. I think it detracted from her critiques, many of which seemed to be common sense things that, in my experience, the integral community of scholar-practitioners is already doing. The good thing about this, to me, is that there is a lot of coherence and basic agreement between Sarah's prescriptions for integral and what I think is actually happening. But I also think there's some understanding that's going to have to be built with the critical community so we can avoid over focusing on things that really aren't that neglected or misunderstood.

Bonnita Roy started by confessing that she felt she was a bit out of her league among the "big guns" and wondered how she would outdo them. So she said she started with a thought experiment. She said, "Lets assume Wilber is writing complete nonsense" and she had to conclude that it was a very strange sort of nonsense because it does seem to offer great value, which is something that nonsense really doesn't do. For example, she highlighted the common language that Wilber had established, and which enables the conversations we are having at ITC and elsewhere. She felt that this language was an enormous gift to us and one of the great values of his work.

She bracketed her statements by saying she identifies as a process philosopher, not as a Wilber critic.

She recalled how excited she was when the excerpts came out and how eagerly she read them because she was excited about bringing more process philosophy into the integral community. She felt that, sadly, Wilber had moved away from that since. Still, she felt that she was profoundly disinterested in contextualizing the criticism as regarding Ken the man or AQAL as *his theory*. She finds it far more interesting to address what *we* are going to do about it. The responsibility is ours, not Wilber's. That being said, she has 2 main critiques of Wilber's work. 1) is a fundamental Achilles heel, and 2) is more complex and probably not a good topic for a panel.
To describe the first, though, she said it's a big problem that AQAL has taken a developmental model from psychology and exported it into AQAL as an evolutionary process. She feels this is a big problem.

Transcend and include, in her opinion, works because of the persistent self that exists in the west. In other cultures, indigenous cultures for instance, this persistent self does not seem to exist. They change their names, they think of themselves as different beings etc. (I wonder to what extent does it matter how we conceptualize ourselves vs how we may really be?) She feels that transcend & include has been exported to claim that consciousness itself has an algorithmic transcend & include dynamic. Evolution isn't like that. T & I never produces an evolutionary tree of species for example. Early forms are not foundational to later forms, the pre-Cambrian extinction for instance wiped out species that are not foundational to humanity (again I call attention to Wilber's use of Thanatos, its always been obvious to me that the evolution he theorizes is never a guaranteed thing and that death, disaster, and devolution is always possible.) She says for instance that she doesn't T&I her dog. She can't possibly include an ethnocentric worldview - its anathema to her (what about preserve & negate I wonder - and in my experience, under stress, its easy for seemingly advanced humans to regress to ethnocentricity, or even to just indulge ethnocentricity in unexpected ways if you aren't careful).

Zak Stein, who I count as a friend or at least a friendly acquaintance (shameless name drop), described his primary criticisms as "Laudable Liabilities". He began with a general comment that in the integral community we need far better exegesis and hermeneutic practice around Wilber's work. He feels the level of discourse around it is pretty superficial and shallow. He exhorted us to approach any serious thinker's work with a Hermeneutics of Respect & Rigor, not suspicion.

Zak turned to address his opinions on why Wilber doesn't get any play in the academy. He felt that this state of affairs was regrettable but also valuable. That there are some endeavors that you just can't do justice to within the academy and that perhaps Wilber's project was one of these.

So, on to the Laudable Liabilities: He began with what he called "The Engineered Popularity of the Movement". He offered that there is a long history of public intellectuals and that they have a valuable place outside academia. Wilber really couldn't have created his work in academia. If you want to create large-scale social change, you don't go to academia. So taking it to the public is actually a good tactic - however Zak shared his skepticism and caution regarding the slip from Engineered Popularity into outright Advertising.

Zak also felt that Wilber's attachment to "Growth to Goodness" was problematic. That there was no such thing. That some less developed people were very good and some highly developed people were not only not good but were actually dangerous. The Darth Vader move always being possible, as Ken says.

Zak reviewed some Habermas from his "Knowledge and Human Interests". Habermas highlighted 3 spheres: Science, Hermeneutics, and Liberation from Bondage (psychoanalysis for instance) but Zak thinks Wilber added a 4th: "A reasonable discourse on salvation," and that this arena is just a nonstarter in the academy. This is regrettable for the academy but it's good for popularity and that in turn is good because Wilber's work supports a broad and inclusive worldview shared by many people that is progressive.

The last of the critics was Markus, from Luxemborg, who wondered why he was there. He resonated with Frank's story and felt Wilber saved him from giving up on psychology (although I think Frank actually did give up on psychology and perhaps because of Wilber? Am I remembering that story rightly?). Markus has studied lots of integrative frameworks and various meta-theories and communities, which all, he feels, have similar features. We all think we will save the world, that our theory covers evervything, and we ignore each other. So he wants to know how can we build bridges between these communities (I say yes! lets do this! So I want to know who these other communities are?) He thinks the invitation to critics is a great step, but he also says that a panel is not really a dialogue. He wants the invert and pervert the panel structure badly - but he promised to restrain himself. He thinks he less interested in a particular theory than in how we build theories. His primary meta-cricism is the lack of a dialogical space around AQAL.

AQAL claims to be based on all-inclusiveness and he feels this creates all kinds of problems because critics can never by an outside perspective. They are always co-opted by the theory. So the first order of business is to create a valid ground of the position of the critic. He claims that "all inclusiveness is simply not achieveable" (He stated this as if it were indisputably true, but I can't help but wonder what he meant by this? Why does he think this is true?)

He also points out there is much more in integral theory than just 5 elements. Wilber's model shows up with a wide range of lenses. But there is much more that is not included. Wilber is creating problems by claiming there is consensus when there is none. But if he said that orienting generalizations are the way meta-theorists work that would be better - but he doesn't do that. Which leads to his last opening critique, which is that Wilber is not transparent. He doesn't describe his theory by clearly marking What is hypothesis? What is evidence? Theory? speculations? conclusions? etc? (I've actually noted this as well. Wilber seems very reluctant to admit that he is changing his theory based on some criticism or another. He just changes it and moves on without drawing much attention to the change. On the one hand I'd like to see that greater transparency as well. On the other, perhaps we should be happy that he ocassionally listens to these critiques even if he doesn't seem to admit it.)

Well, that's the opening volley! There's much, much more and I'll follow up with the ensuing dialogue and Q&A tomorrow.

In summary I'd like to recap that I'm very grateful to ITC and to these individuals for creating this panel. It took some courage to come here and tell a bunch of Wilber groupies that our idol has clay feet. I think it speaks well of them and of the ITC organizers like Mark Forman and Sean Esbjorn-Hargins, that they embraced this opportunity to create a broader and deeper conversation on Wilber's contributions to integral theory. I'm looking forward to engaging these ideas in the coming weeks and months. I sincerely hope we do this again at ITC 2012 and that hopefully we'll have taken steps to flesh out, rebut, accept, and resolve these and other criticisms by then.

More tomorrow!

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