Friday, July 04, 2008

The Academic Emergence of Integral Theory

Mark Forman and Sean Esbjörn-Hargens, organizers of this summer's first Integral Theory Conference, posted a response to the recent article by Frank Visser that questioned the nature of theory-building within the integral community. It's thoughtful and interesting.

I want to clear here that I think this is a great move on the part of the Wilber realm of integral. Visser raised some points that many of us agree with, and he also made some unfair generalizations, so it's great to see Mark and Sean engage the criticism rather than ignore it.

The more dialogue that can be generated between the various integral "movements," the better the whole integral enterprise will become.

The Academic Emergence of Integral Theory

Reflections on and Clarifications of the 1st Biennial Integral Theory Conference

Mark D. Forman, Ph.D.
and Sean Esbjörn-Hargens, Ph.D.


As founders and organizers of the 1st Integral Theory Conference we feel moved to respond to Frank Visser's latest posting (“Assessing Integral Theory”). We do this in the spirit of dialogue and out of a sense that his characterization of our event was misleading and inaccurate in important ways. To be fair, Visser's article is less about the conference and more about what constitutes theory building and the checking of its validity. His main focus is on how Wilber has failed to build theory and have it validated in a scientific or academic fashion. We would like to raise several points relevant to this.

First, however, we would like to underscore that we agree with elements of Visser's article.

  • We agree that Integral Theory (broadly defined or defined simply as Wilber's work) has not yet made strong enough inroads into the academic world. We recognize that the burden is on those of us engaged in Integral Theory to help it conform more strongly to the norms of academic discourse, research, and critical analysis.
  • Likewise, we agree, as academics, that Ken's writing has generally fallen in a place in between traditional academic discourse and more general popular philosophical discourse. While both of us feel greatly indebted to Ken for his obvious contribution to the Integral movement and honor the extent to which he has indeed sought empirical support (narrow and broad) for many of his ideas, we think that Visser rightly points out the challenges his writing style presents from an academic point of view.
  • Finally, we also agree that much value could have come out of Wilber engaging with patience and curiosity the various critiques the Integral World website has housed. We would be the first to read and study such dialogues closely were they to take place. And yet we recognize these squandered opportunities while simultaneously not being convinced that Wilber's silence has only been a matter of him being a self-referential jerk. Nor are we sure that the general lack of response by Wilber's students and proponents of his work is simply the result of them sleeping with the devil. We will address this issue further at the end of this essay.

All this said—and we believe these are some substantial areas of agreement—we also feel that Visser's overall characterization of the relationship between Integral Theory and academia misses the mark in several places. More centrally, we believe that his characterization of our conference as a place where “a kind of Wilber celebration is staged”—which we take to mean it will be an unthinking, uncritical, or idol-worshipping look at his work—is both inaccurate and demonstrates the same kind of dismissive tone that he has so vehemently charged Wilber with using with his critics. This accusation appears especially cynical given that much of the conference has been explicitly and obviously designed to address the kind of critiques that Visser's website has showcased over the years. To us it was notable that he primarily highlighted the potential downsides of the conference (e.g., to be more of the same “self-referential discourse” he attributes to Wilber) without presenting much, if any, of its possible opportunities (e.g., the first open academic space that is beginning a much needed and arguably far overdue process of critical reflection and application of Integral Theory).

We would therefore like to outline a few points that give a more accurate view of the conference and to provide what we feel is a more balanced impression—in the context of discussing the conference—of the relationship between Integral Theory and academia. We will end this response with some of our concerns with the quality and nature of the work found on the Integral World website itself.

Read their whole response.

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