This article was originally posted on December 3, 2014, but not much has changed regarding Frank Visser’s criticisms of Integral philosophy. He’s still disappointed and beating a neo-Darwinist drum.
I read Frank Visser’s “Reaching Out to the World” with appreciation and, at times, exasperation, particularly the conclusion in which he instructs the reader as to the “proper” way of approaching Integral philosophy. Here are my initial reactions, for what they’re worth.
Reading Visser’s essay, which he calls a new chapter of his decade-old book Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, helps me to know Wilber better and see the Integral community and its detractors more clearly. That is a huge gift. I wish Frank nothing but good tidings for the future of his projects, especially Integral World.
For those who don’t know who he is, Visser is an intellectual biographer of Wilber’s who over time became one of his greatest detractors. After all these years, Frank admits that he is “disappointed”, actually a kind of “triple disappointment.” He regrets (1) that Wilber’s understanding of science was not “that deep”, that (2) Wilber did not respond to online critics who contributed to his website (which was formerly called The World of Ken Wilber, BTW), and that (3) the Integral community didn’t seem to mind.
All three of these disappointments color Frank’s new chapter, which is really sort of an old chapter for those of us who have been paying at least a little attention over the past decade. Let’s take a look at each of them.
The First Disappointment
I guess Visser’s critique of Wilber’s take on neo-Darwinism is almost supposed to be self-evidently true, a knock down by a giant of a 98-pound weakling in a grotesquely mismatched prize fight. But it doesn’t really convince. These two paragraphs are the crux of Visser’s argument, beginning with a Wilber quote:
In Integral Spirituality (2006) he [Ken Wilber] states:
That drive—Eros by any other name—seems a perfectly realistic conclusion, given the facts of evolution as we understand them. Let’s just say there is plenty of room for a Kosmos of Eros.
This can be considered the core of Wilber’s philosophy—more central than holons, heaps, or artifacts; quadrants, levels, lines, states and all that jazz—not only the process of biological evolution, but the cosmos as a whole, is governed by a mysterious spiritual Force. Apparently, for Wilber, there is no other way to explain nature’s complexities. He is inspired in this respect by A.N. Whitehead’s process philosophy, which postulates an immanent divine force in evolution.
While I have defended similar notions in the past, and have even criticized Wilber for misrepresenting the esoteric view of evolution which postulates a divine upward drive towards complexity, after years of studying the field of biological evolution I would no longer hold that view. On the contrary, I discovered that science has offered many plausible explanations for the existence of cosmological and biological complexity. This makes the postulation of a spiritual Eros in the Kosmos rather premature. So instead of challenging Wilber from the perennialist position, which I did in my earlier writings, over the years I have challenged him on Integral World from the naturalistic position of science. Let’s really get post-metaphysical. Let’s get physical! Though Wilber may be strong in the fields of mind and culture, his coverage of the domains of life and matter leaves much to be desired. This casts grave doubts on Wilber’s claim for a Theory of Everything.
How about that! If you hadn’t been paying attention, when Wilber opposed metaphysics Visser was for it, but later apparently Ken sort of came around and acknowledged that his work had one metaphysical premise, and just then Visser coincidentally turns around and becomes anti-metaphysical. Well, okay, fine. They’re both permitted to evolve, aren’t they?
I would ask you to notice two things about the Wilber quote chosen by Visser. First, that Wilber describes Eros as a “perfectly realistic conclusion”. Second, Wilber says that “there is plenty of room” for Eros in his philosophy. Wilber nowhere invokes Spirit as an “explanation” for the universe.
Visser, to counter Wilber’s posture, is driven to the extreme position of saying that he wants to get rid of Eros entirely — any notion of an evolutionary end-point however dimly perceived and understood, any notion of creative intelligence anywhere, perhaps even a divine spark of some kind — because it is no longer needed after one has fully absorbed the fact that “science has offered many plausible explanations”.
It’s not difficult to see the flaw in Visser’s hand and Wilber’s trump card. Basically he neglects the way that the particular constraints given to scientific research — e.g., its insistence that only that which is perceivable by the senses or their extension by instruments is real — mean that science doesn’t really attempt to address metaphysical or spiritual truths at all. Wilber is not denying science its particular perspective on reality, only complementing it with methodologies of interiority which have within themselves the potential, it is claimed, to reveal Spirit.
Wilber does not begin his inquiry by “postulating Spirit”, he concludes his inquiry with an acknowledgement of a door for Spirit. Spirit is invoked as a realization, not an explanation. Ken makes room for both spirit and science. Visser, the former perennialist, meanwhile takes a position that seems indistinguishable from scientism (“Let’s get physical!”). One of these two philosophers allows science and spirit to co-exist and mutually inform one another through divergent methodologies and the other thinker insists only on room for one and defiantly jumps on the other’s back. Is it any wonder that some of us out here in the gallery see only one “Integralist” in the room?
The Second Disappointment
Frank Visser’s second great disappointment is Ken Wilber’s supposed failure to address his online critics. Firstly, it might help Frank’s case a bit if he were to acknowledge his self-interest in the topic. What, is Wilber’s limited engagement with his website — the largest collection of critical articles on him — hurtful and bad for business? I think a basic fact-finding on the matter would reveal that Wilber has written many hundreds of footnotes and other writings responding to critics, and adjusted his thought in five major iterations based largely on his attempts to honor and transcend legitimate criticisms.
It’s hard for me to think of another major public intellectual who has been more willing to change. Ken’s just sorta, well, picky about who he engages with. You can imagine why if you’ve read some of the attacks on Integral World (unfortunately not atypical is Joe Corbett’s diatribe calling Ken Wilber a “big selfish asshole”). When it comes to policing incivility in public discourse around Integral philosophy, I suspect that Visser doesn’t have the moral high ground he thinks he has.
The notorious Wyatt Earp affair in 2006 didn’t win over Frank or other critics who pleaded to Ken for a response, any response, despite the fact that it was indeed a response. It just wasn’t the reply Frank or other critics wanted to hear. In an over-the-top missive in the classic genre of “blog rant”, Ken made some really powerful, stinging points that needed to be said. They were the teal/turquoise elephants in the room.
And then Ken decided the most skillful reply was to take a breather and let his students get their hands dirty if they chose to do so while he focused on building the Integral enterprise. Arguably it was his best option. That’s what I thought at the time. It did have a dynamic way of getting some of the Integral community’s shadows out of the closet for sure, Ken’s included. The whole affair helped open my eyes to the real world challenges of embodying the Integral worldview in one’s being.
The Third Disappointment
Visser’s third disappointment is with the Integral community itself because they “ignore” the “intellectual problems” that he finds so troublesome and, well, disappointing. Apparently he wishes everyone would study neo-Darwinism like he has, because if only they would, they would see that Wilber’s isn’t a Theory of Everything at all. Personally I always thought there was a good chunk of well-intended humor in the title of Wilber’s book A Theory of Everything, but I digress.
Of course, I have no problem with folks who are interested in academic debates to read some good biology books and form opinions about what they read. If they’ve genuinely got an Integral consciousness they will be a little more fluent in the Upper Right quadrant, and if they don’t got it, they will no doubt absolutize the Upper Right quadrant and find some better use of their time than chasing Integral rainbows (I mean, interiors).
For Visser there is nothing “historical” or “groundbreaking” in the Integral project, and anyone with notions to the contrary is suffering from delusions which are no doubt manifesting with the shadow of “inflation”. He concludes:
The proper approach to Wilber’s integral philosophy is therefore differential: some parts of it are strong, some are weak and some are just plain wrong. Above all, let’s de-glamorize, de-hype, de-mystify, de-idealize the integral project. Only in such a climate can we sort out what’s valuable and what isn’t. The current strongly commercialized and even evangelical (“spread the message to as many people as possible!”) integral culture makes this sober reflection virtually impossible and even suspect.
And here is where I most strongly disagree with him, even if (yikes!) it would at first glance put me on the ghastly side of glamor, hype, mystification, and idealization of the lower-case integral project. It’s true that I have seen some of that inflation of ego and purpose, and idealization, in myself and others. And I think it’s fine to point it out when it can be harmful to our work. Certainly it isn’t necessary to remind the world that Integral is going to save the world because that might just make the world want to NOT be saved out of spite. Frank is doing a service here, to an extent, and so are all the folks who would join with him in this critique. To an extent.
But it’s also sort of like pushing a baby to the ground when she is just learning to walk. It’s stupid and mean. Those of us riding the second-tier or integral or evolutionary wave, we are like babies. We are the future. And we are trying to walk for Pete’s sake.
We Wilberians (if I must use the term) see Ken Wilber as perhaps the most important thinker who sees what is all around us and is helping to move us forward. Integralists of all affinities, Wilberian or otherwise (a nod to Don Beck and Spiral Dynamics), are all pushing the envelope forward. This is difficult work, and we get very little support from traditionalists, modernists, and postmodernists. On some days it feels like they’re pushing us down every chance they get. We have a long ways to go before we can rest, and we need to believe in ourselves and our fellows.
We need wise, humble critics, not aversion to criticism. But just as importantly, we need to inhabit the Integral worldspace and turn our criticism outside ourselves to the world beyond. A proper sense of our role in history is in order, for a due sense of great responsibility along with humility, so we don’t under-tote the goods we have to sell. And make no mistake, ideas need to be communicated and promoted and the best ideas don’t always win. One looks about at the paucity of Integral ideas in the intellectual marketplace and really has to be incredulous at the notion that Integral has been over-marketed!
Integral ideas need a healthy ecosystem in which they can flourish and impact the broader culture. That’s where the Integral movement comes in, the healthy development of which ought to be a goal of every integralist, not the brunt of condescending attacks on egoic “inflation”. Like poets, we are underappreciated visionaries.
There’s room in Integral circles for people who agree with Frank and want the discussion of Integral to be robust in academic domains. But Integral is more than the philosophy of science or interdisciplinary meta-theory. And I hope to God the critics of “inflation” don’t succeed in discouraging Integral’s uptake in the culture by means of attacks on “commercialization” and “evangelization”. (Speaking of commercialization, it’s ironic to note that it’s Visser’s website that has Google ads peddling $299 SEO Services and Amazon affiliate links giving him a dime off the sale of every one of Ken Wilber’s book sold there, whereas Integral Life at least seems to market only its own products.)
If Integral ideas spread, as I hope they do, it will because many of us ignore Frank’s recommendation of the “proper approach to Wilber’s philosophy” and instead allow ourselves to be remade more wise, more whole, more fully human … and share our beautiful Self/selves abundantly with the rest of the world for the sake of love, with the goal of truth. Visser’s disappointments are sad for him, yes, but they don’t have to be our own.
In a small way, I hope to promote a healthy Integral ecosystem in the blogosphere through my blogging. My intention is to add a mostly outward-facing beacon into the territory of spiritual and philosophical and cultural commentary weblogs.