Saturday, December 08, 2012

Gregory Desilet - Derrida and Wilber at the Crossroads of Metaphysics

From Integral World, this is an interesting look at the ways Ken Wilber may misunderstand postmodernism, and in this specific article, how he may misunderstand Jacques Derrida, the (in)famous French philosopher who gave us deconstructionism.
Despite his dissatisfaction with the term postmodern, this analysis will use the late Jacques Derrida as the exemplary postmodernist and will center primarily on comparing and contrasting elements of Wilber's views with those of Derrida. The pairing of Wilber and Derrida is featured because Wilber offers a reading of Derrida and because, in my view, Derrida provides the most cogent lines of argument pertinent to a critical examination of Wilber's positions.
This is pretty interesting - hope you might think so, too.

Full Disclosure: I have long thought that Wilber misunderstands certain aspects of postmodernism, and specifically in the interpersonal and intersubjective realms. There is no recognition (as far as I have ever seen) of the work of Jerome Bruner, Kenneth Gergen, or others who work with social constructionism/constructivism.

Gregory Desilet is author of various writings on language and culture, such as Cult of the Kill: Traditional Metaphysics of Rhetoric, Truth, and Violence in a Postmodern World and Our Faith in Evil: Melodrama and the Effects of Entertainment Violence. See also:, which hosts an eulogy for Derrida. In his Misunderstanding Derrida Desilet questions Ken Wilber's understanding of postmodernism.

Derrida and Wilber at the Crossroads of Metaphysics

Gregory Desilet

This essay has been written originally to be included in the book Dancing with Sophia: Integral Philosophy on the Verge. Published with permisson of the author. This is an extension of the argument found in "Misunderstanding Derrida and Postmodernism" (FV)

My descriptions of the views of Wilber and Derrida are offered in a spirit of provocative inquiry rather than a posture of authoritative insistence on the correctness of Derrida's views. 
Over several decades Ken Wilber has consistently addressed the task of modernizing and postmodernizing perennial philosophy. According to Wilber, advances in modern science and postmodern theory have been sufficiently validated to necessitate their inclusion in any scheme of understanding aimed at taking into account the full quality of human experience as currently measured among various world class philosophers, theologians, and spiritual practitioners. Admiring science and its emphasis on methods of verification, Wilber wants to make a science of spiritual wisdom. And, following postmodern epistemological critique and 20th century developments in science, he wants to upgrade that science to accord with current knowledge, including relativity theory in physics. Nevertheless, he wants to distance his views from certain aspects of postmodern theory—specifically all those views construing language as an endless play of signifiers untethered to anything outside the signifiers themselves. Wilber includes language theory among the many fields of theory in which he travels in his spiritual quest because the problem of meaning is analogous to the problem of spirit. Issues of meaning and spirit involve the interior and intangible side of experience and these qualities have proven difficult to render unto science due to the difficulty they present to measurement. But Wilber's efforts of analysis and theory construction have enabled him to arrive at a philosophy of integral spirituality he believes overcomes the difficulties posed by the interior and the intangible so that this realm now opens itself to access and management comparable to the tangible realm. And, if his work were indeed to accomplish such a task, it would be fair to say he has made it possible to pursue a science of spirituality. 

This study argues instead that Wilber fails to formulate a science of spirituality consistent with his claims for the potential of such a science to relieve problems of verification and uncertainty. More specifically it maintains that Wilber's claim to have ventured into the realm of post-metaphysical thinking overreaches, that his spiritual orientation remains grounded in classical metaphysics, and that his belief in the post-metaphysical nature of his spirituality and philosophy depends on questionable assumptions about both metaphysics and postmodernism. 

Despite his dissatisfaction with the term postmodern, this analysis will use the late Jacques Derrida as the exemplary postmodernist and will center primarily on comparing and contrasting elements of Wilber's views with those of Derrida. The pairing of Wilber and Derrida is featured because Wilber offers a reading of Derrida and because, in my view, Derrida provides the most cogent lines of argument pertinent to a critical examination of Wilber's positions. This pairing is also featured because I have had the benefit of personal encounters with both Wilber and Derrida. Though I was able to spend considerably more time with Derrida than with Wilber, both of these encounters presented opportunities to ask questions relevant to the issues addressed in this essay. 

A few words should be said about how critical commentary may be seen to square with an integral approach to doing philosophy and spiritual inquiry. It would seem consistent with the logic of "integral" that an integral approach to inquiry focus on integrating different views by way of a process Wilber describes as "transcend and include." However, when an integral philosopher such as Wilber includes and appropriates the views of another thinker such as Derrida into the framework of his (Wilber's) orientation but does so on the basis of what appears to be an inadequate interpretation of those views, then critical commentary may be seen to be integrally beneficial in its effort to set the record straight. For, surely, integral theorists are not interested in building coherence out of misinterpretations of key philosophical works. And, if it should turn out to be the case that an illusory coherence were constructed on the basis of crucial misunderstandings of a philosophical position which, if adequately understood, challenged the metaphysical core of Wilber's spiritual vision, then it would be consistent with the integral desire for rigor and adequacy to throw open the door to this kind of critical commentary. 

In the spirit of full disclosure I confess I am divided in my loyalties on points where integral and postmodern philosophies may be seen to have fundamental differences. On the one hand, I side with Wilber on the issue of grand narratives. One of the things I most admire about Wilber is his steadfast attempt to fashion a "theory of everything." In pursuit of this ambition the comprehensive interdisciplinary breadth of his reach into the archives of world knowledge and wisdom traditions has been remarkable and sets a standard few have been able to match. In my view, any philosophy claiming to be philosophy constitutes an attempt, explicit or otherwise, at grand narrative. Even when a philosophical position claims to be no more than, say, a philosophy of language or a philosophy of morality or a philosophy of whatever, it does not and cannot avoid including within itself default assumptions ushering in conclusions pertaining to metaphysics, conclusions about the nature of being which immediately trigger entanglement in a theory of everything. So, on the issue of metanarratives I do not side with Jean-François Lyotard insofar as postmodernism, as he defines it, avoids grand narratives. In my opinion, Derrida does not side with Lyotard on this issue either—a conclusion drawn from Derrida's statements that it is not possible to escape metaphysics. 

On the other hand, when it comes to the question of the nature of being, I side with Derrida's postmodernism rather than Wilber's integral philosophy. In principle, there can be no deeper level of critical analysis than the metaphysical level, the question of being. Therefore, a challenge at the level of being is one that affects every aspect of what rests above it. In challenging Wilber's metaphysics, then, no part of his approach to spirituality remains untouched, but only the primary aspects affected are discussed below. This postmodern deconstructive challenge to Wilber need not be seen as an attempt to demolish integral philosophy or spirituality. Instead, the reason for illuminating the contrasts between Derrida and Wilber will be to demonstrate that the deconstructive approach cannot be, as Wilber would have it, appropriated into the integral project as Wilber understands and practices it. As will be argued, an adequate understanding of Derrida's thinking about being and time precludes translating it into an orientation compatible at the deepest levels with integral post-metaphysics. Whether this incompatibility requires revisions of integral foundations to the point where the notion of "integral" no longer seems appropriate is a question remaining to be worked out in spiritual communities relevant to the question. 

Seeing Derrida and Wilber as opposed in their respective views of the nature of being requires a fundamental characterization of both thinkers with regard to metaphysical positioning. Any such characterization amounts to interpretation—and interpretations, as will be argued herein, may always be significantly skewed from the mark of adequate textual and contextual understanding.
Read the whole essay.
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