Friday, May 20, 2011

Adrian J Ivakhiv - Wilber’s post-metaphysical turn

Over at the excellent Immanence blog, Adrian J Ivakhiv has been posting a series that looks at Ken Wilber and the AQAL model in preparation for a reading on his blog (and several others) of Sean Esbjorn-Hargens's and Michael Zimmerman's, one half of the duo that authored the mammoth Integral Ecology: Uniting Multiple Perspectives on the Natural World -newly released in paper in March of this year.

This is the fourth in a series (so far), but for me it is the best so far.
In his latest post, Ivakhiv offers an outsider's perspective on Wilber's place in the academy, or the lack of a place, actually. It's interesting how this is seen from someone not associated with integral theory and who is associated with academia.

This post is fairly comprehensive, but I wanted to share this one section and encourage readers to go check out the rest of it, and at least the previous two as well.
A few points to clear the air

Two kinds of responses seem to be fairly common when one inquires about what people think of Ken Wilber.
The first, typical among academics, is something along the lines of “who’s he?” or (though never stated quite like this) “why should I be interested in that?” The reason for this sort of response is that Wilber’s name does not circulate widely in the main currents of scholarly discourse; and two of the important reasons for that, in turn, are (i) that he doesn’t publish in scholarly journals and (ii) that the scope of his work is so broad that if he tried to publish in scholarly journals, he would likely get nailed on one thing or another in the peer-review process. His work simply raises too many questions in too many fields at once.

Furthermore, due to the nature of his earlier writings (before about 1995) and the venues in which they were published (mainly the popular Buddhist publisher Shambhala, the Theosophical publishing house Quest Books, and the journal Wilber co-founded, ReVision), he had established a reputation as a “new agey” or “new paradigm” thinker alongside the likes of Deepak Chopra, Fritjof Capra, and others in that vein, none of whom capture a great deal of attention in academe. This association of Wilber with such authors makes historical sesnse, but readers of his more recent work know how significantly Wilber deviates from the great bulk of “new paradigm” thought.

The second response, typical among those who know something about him, is something negative either about Wilber’s personality (e.g., that he’s arrogant, full of himself, etc.) or about his organization, the Integral Institute, and its satellites (that they’re cultish, fawning, commercial hucksters, etc.).

Evidence for the first claim would seem to lie in Wilber’s perceived attitude regarding his world-historical importance and in his often vehement responses to many critics. (I’m not particularly bothered by the swearing and the cowboy imagery as much as I squirm at lines like this:
“Not only did I grok what the postmodernists were saying, I have given, in dozens of writings, what numerous experts and specialists in the field (including experts on Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, among others) have called some of the best, and in a few instances, THE best, treatment of these topics.”
Umm, oops. But okay, we’re all entitled to say some stupid things now and then, so maybe we can cut him some slack there.)

Evidence for the second claim — about the Integral Institute and its offshoots — lies simply in the style by which they sell their wares, and perhaps the fact that people who aren’t employed by universities have to make a living somehow. I don’t have much to say about that, except that other philosophers might learn a trick or two from them about how to make philosophical ideas relevant to contemporary lives.

With regard to his relationship to critics, the story is more complicated than many critics make it sound. He talks to a lot of people — interviewing them, being interviewed by them, and so on — and he has in fact changed his mind a lot and developed his ideas in radically new directions over the years, often in response to critiques. In the process, he has come up with the most wide-ranging and integrated philosophical-psychological-sociocultural-cosmological synthesis I have ever seen.

How well this synthesis holds together is another question. Answering that question requires the kind of analysis and scholarship that few are prepared to take up.

The above two responses are certainly not the only responses you will hear — Wilber has many followers, and a great many readers — but they are worth mentioning at the outset, if only as to indicate that I’m aware of them. Fortunately, both responses are fairly peripheral to the value of Wilber’s ideas, so now that I’ve mentioned them, I can simply set them aside and not comment on them further.

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