A note on personality cults and Integral

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Phil Anderson responds to my article on “How Much Credit Does Ken Wilber (Or Anyone) Deserve For “Integral” Ideas?”:

i think it’s important that good IDEAS receive credit. and, if they are being attributed, that they are correctly attributed to their originator.

r.e. giving the originator “credit”, no – not really.

i think it’s worth remembering that most of the causes and conditions for someone’s work will have been down to things outside their control (their genetics, their parents, their education). not something they need to be praised for.

i think insofar as we do wish to credit the person rather than the ideas, quite a big chunk of that is (perhaps unconsciously) self-serving, we are moving to bind ourselves to someone powerful to benefit from their virtue. i think the energies here are Red/Blue – about people not ideas. which is fine – people are part of reality although the danger here then is that (other people’s) good ideas end up getting sacrificed on the altar of some personality cult.

I think that sounds right, very nuanced. I think it’s valuable to add as you did that one of the motivations for people to avoid giving credit to a specific philosopher for “Integral” ideas is their desire to avoid personality cults or distractions, and that’s totally a valid concern.

My only hesitation would be that my heart hangs up a bit at the notion of putting ideas above people as a matter of principle (if that is what you intend). It’s really so very context-dependent. In science, careers are made or broken over who gets “credit” for specific discoveries. In publishing, authors can lose their entire life’s savings and professional reputation if they’re hit for a plagiarism lawsuit for lifting someone else’s words without proper credit. The line between an idea (like biological evolution) and a person (like Darwin) isn’t as clear cut as you make it out to be, at least not at this point in time regarding Integral Theory. The Integral movement is part of this world and shouldn’t exist in a zone removed from such concerns and cultural mores.

Incidentally, I have a bit of personal experience around the topic of “personality cult”. When my book was in the editorial process at Shambhala Publications, we had the title, Soulfully Gay, but no subtitle. An editor suggested, as best I recall, “How Harvard, Sex, Drugs, and Ken Wilber Drove Me Crazy and Brought Me Back to God.” (I was lukewarm on it, but I could live with it.)

The Shambhala folks liked the subtitle a lot, but Ken Wilber — the editor of the Integral Books imprint, which included my book — spoke out against it. He did not want Integral philosophy too closely associated with him as a personality. He got his name out of the subtitle and Integral Philosophy got put in.

I’m sure other folks have got other similar stories about Ken.

You can look at the New Age scene or the personal empowerment movement and point to countless gurus, teachers, and authors who have built empires around their “personal brand”. They’ve put themselves front and center. Not Ken, from what I can tell. By and large, he’s tried to step back and let the movement drive itself. Not to give him too much credit or anything, but I think it’s worth noting.

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