Note: The following post was originally published on Joe-Perez.com on August 2, 2011. Since writing this piece over three years ago, my views have become more clear. I have therefore added a postscript to show my current view, which is that the cultural critic may safely ignore Zak Stein’s argument.
Several months ago, Zachary Stein of DTS and the Harvard University Graduate School of Education passed along his paper, “On the Use of the Term Integral,” (published in the proceedings of the 2nd Biennial ITC in 2010 and forthcoming from SUNY). I intended to write about the issues it raises on my blog, but then I took an extended writing leave.
Now that this blog is finally going again, I think Stein’s thesis is well worth considering right out of the starting gate. What is the term “Integral” all about? And, since this is my blog, how do I intend to use the term on Joe Perez (the blog)?
Three Ways to Define “Integral”
There are basically three varieties of answers to the first question. First, answers from those who are “in the know” about the so-called Integral movement, a loosely defined constellation of books, teachers, coaches, conferences, events, and even blogs centered around Ken Wilber‘s many writings and the work of previous “Integral thinkers” such as Sri Aurobindo and Jean Gebser, who used the term in ways that inspired Wilber.
Second, answers from those whose use of the term is connected to its more common uses (i.e., the dictionary definition meaning “whole” or “essential”) or easy use in the New Age movement, where it is occasionally used along with terms such as “holistic” without any intended association with Wilber’s philosophy.
Third — and this usage doesn’t really concern us much because it is so uncommon — is the appropriation of “Integral” by a few bloggers and such who are familiar with Wilber’s work but are opposed to his views. Some have insisted that their own views are best called “Integral” and that Wilber and allied thinkers aren’t really “Integral.”
Exorcising the “Integral” Demons
Zachary Stein’s essay focuses on the first usage of “Integral,” which is also the sense in which the term will be used generally on this blog. He conducts what he calls a “terminological exorcism;” that is, expelling “magical,” “richly luminous,” or “almost religious” connotations in favor of more careful and accurate use of the term.
It’s not that Stein wants to de-legitimize the “deeply religious bent” of the term’s most influential proponents (Sri Aurobindo, James Mark Baldwin, and Jean Gebser among them). Instead, he wants to clear up confusion about how the term is actually used when describing human development. He asks us to consider whether we are using the term descriptively or normatively.
“Integral” fails when it is used descriptively, Stein argues, because it is often applied liberally to refer to stages at the upper end of the spectrum of human development and to provide a positive, normative valuation of those stages. But, Stein says:
[O]ne form of common usage [of “integral”] entangles this term with discourses about the higher levels. But these ways of deploying the term integral—where it is used as a descriptive term—are liability prone, and land us in confusions about what the higher stages are really like. Using the term as a catch-all for characterizing properties and products of late-stage development blinds us to the heterogeneity of what shows up beyond formal operations and the non-obvious value thereof. (p. 14, 15)
He says that uses of the term as a catch-all are connected with a highly problematic “growth-to-goodness” philosophical assumption present in the Integral movement (though not Wilber’s own writings, which are “poly-vocal and rich with footnotes and caveats.”) Indeed, he supplies several examples intended to show that “Integral” is more of a potential made available at higher-levels rather than a description. Additionally, he says:
[I]t is more accurate to take Integral as a term used with reference to a specific sub-set of high level capabilities, dispositions, and artifacts. These would be those that are taken as valuable, admirable, and worthy of pursuit. That is, out of all that becomes possible beyond formal operations, Integral is used as a label for what is preferable. (p. 15)
All in all, I find Zachary’s recommendations compelling, at least as a guide for the sort of usage of “Integral” that I find most helpful for this blog going forward. I’ll leave it to professional psychological theorists to weigh in on the question or whether it is appropriate to dispense with the term for the basis of their research. I suspect that Stein’s recommendation will probably not meet much resistance.
The Struggle to Use “Integral” Well as a Term of Art
Freeing the term “Integral” from any assumption that it describes the psychological stage of maturity of those to whom it is applied is liberating. In the early days of this blog, I struggled (e.g., here and here) to find ways of applying the term in critical discourse without appearing to be making some sort of illegitimate psychological profile without adequate empirical data.
When I used the term “Integral” as a descriptor in Rising Up, I was constantly sidetracked by a need I felt to justify a “diagnosis” rather than simply weigh-in on certain formal features of someone’s writing. Moreover, the book’s (and blog’s) use of developmental models in cultural criticism was largely ignored both by the mainstream pundits and even among most Integral writers. I don’t know why, but my suspicion is that others were hesitant to follow in the direction of using “Integral” in cultural criticism because of some of the confusion between descriptive and normative terminology discussed by Stein.
Nevertheless, I gained some important lessons from “cutting new grooves” with Rising Up that are salient to this conversation. Most of all, I learned that the act of applying the label “Integral” to the discourses we experience — whether they are internal thought dialogues, conversations with friends, or blogs on the World Wide Web — is a valuable and consciousness-expanding practice.
There is, I believe, a stage of development in which a person may find themselves needing to use evolutionary or developmental metaphors for repairing fragmented worldviews and restore psychological equilibrium. For individuals with this psychic structure, it is worthwhile to remember “Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein” (Mark 10:15), and thus pick up everything they encounter as a child takes a toy, hold it up for examination, and say, “This is Integral. This isn’t Integral,” or “This is Red meme. This is Blue meme. This is Orange meme. This is Yellow meme,” and so on.
Without going through the process of mentally recalibrating the engines of thought to account for new developmentally-framed discourses, my maturation process would have been short-circuited. While it’s fine to distinguish between descriptive and evaluative in theory, and it’s probably a commendable discipline to practice for psychological theorists, in practice the two are often interwoven.
The statement, “Barack Obama’s speech about ‘red America’ and ‘blue America’ is an example of ‘Integral’ discourse,” would not be disputed by any Integral thinker that I know (or would respect as an “Integral thinker” if I knew.) But is that sentence descriptive or evaluative? How could it be re-written so as to be one but not the other? It makes my mind pause to even attempt such exorcism of language on the fly.
Opening the Door to the “Integral Closet”
Is it really important that people at post-formal levels of development make this distinction in everyday conversation, or is that really just a concern for psychological theorists who need to get their papers approved by editorial boards sometimes filled with academics ignorant of the last few decades of developmental literature? I suspect the latter is the case. Continue reading “Defining “Integral” (With Postscript Regarding Zak Stein)”