What is the Meaning of "Integral"?
Tony Schwartz, former New York Times reporter and author of What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America, has called Ken Wilber "the most comprehensive philosophical thinker of our times." I think that is true. In fact, I thought that was true twenty years ago, when I founded ReVision Journal in large measure to provide an outlet for the integral vision that Ken was already voicing. I had just finished reading his first book, The Spectrum of Consciousness, which he wrote when he was 23. The boy wonder was living in Lincoln, Nebraska, washing dishes for a living, meditating, and writing a book a year. Main Currents in Modern Thought, which published his first essay, was just about to go out of business, and it was my desire to keep alive the integrative focus and spirit that that journal represented. This, combined with my desire to work with Ken in doing so, prompted me to drag him into the publishing business. We were both about 27 at the time, and within a year or two we had ReVision up and running, based very much on the integral vision that we both shared and that Ken was already articulating in a powerful way.
But it is exactly the comprehensive and integral nature of Wilber's vision that is the key to the sometimes extreme reactions that his work elicits. Take, for example, his recent Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. The book certainly has its fans. Michael Murphy maintains that, along with Aurobindo's Life Divine, Heidegger's Being and Time, and Whitehead's Process and Reality, Wilber's Sex, Ecology, Spirituality is "one of the four great books of this century." Dr. Larry Dossey proclaims it "one of the most significant books ever published," while Roger Walsh compares its scope to Hegel and Aurobindo. The most perspicuous reader of the bunch, invoking Alasdair MacIntyre's well-known choice between Aristotle and Nietzsche, claims that no, the modern world actually has three choices: Aristotle, Nietzsche, or Wilber.
The book's detractors are no less numerous, vocal, or determined. Nobody, however, has yet presented a coherent critique of Wilber's overall approach. However, and make no mistake: if Wilber's approach is more or less accurate, it does nothing less than offer a coherent integration of virtually every field of human knowledge. A tall claim? See what you think:
Wilber's approach appears to have provided a coherent vision that seamlessly weaves together truth-claims from such fields as physics and biology; the eco-sciences; chaos theory and the systems sciences; medicine, neurophysiology, biochemistry; art, poetry, and aesthetics in general; developmental psychology and a spectrum of psychotherapeutic endeavors, from Freud to Jung to Kegan; the great spiritual theorists from Plato and Plotinus in the West to Shankara and Nagarjuna in the East; the modernists from Descartes and Locke to Kant; the Idealists from Schelling to Hegel; the postmodernists from Foucault and Derrida to Taylor and Habermas; the major hermeneutic tradition, Dilthey to Heidegger to Gadamer; the social systems theorists from Comte and Marx to Parsons and Luhmann; the contemplative and mystical schools of the great meditative traditions, East and West, in the world's major religious traditions.
And all of that is just a sampling! Various critics, who believe that one of the above approaches has the entire truth, have taken umbrage at Wilber's perspective, apparently irritated that their own narrow field is not the linchpin of the universe. In other words, to the critics the stakes are enormous, and it is not choosing sides at this point if I suggest that the critics who have focused on their pet points in Wilber's method are attacking a particular tree in the forest of his presentation. But if we look instead at the forest, and if his approach is generally valid, then it honors and incorporates more truth than any other system in history.
How so? What is his actual method? In working with any field, Wilber simply backs up to a level of generalization at which the various conflicting approaches actually agree with one another. Take, for example, the world's great religious traditions: Do they all agree that Jesus is God? No. So we must jettison that. Do they all agree that there is a God? That depends on the meaning of "God." Do they all agree on God, if by "God" we mean a Spirit that is in many ways unqualifiable, from the Buddhists' Emptiness to the Jewish mystery of the Divine to the Christian Cloud of Unknowing? Yes, that works as a generalizationwhat Wilber calls an "orienting generalization" or "sturdy conclusion."
Wilber likewise approaches all the other fields of human knowledge: art to poetry, empiricism to hermeneutics, cognitive science to meditation, evolutionary theory to idealism. In every case he assembles a series of sturdy and reliable, not to say irrefutable, orienting generalizations. He is not worried, nor should his readers be, about whether other fields would accept the conclusions of any given field; in short, don't worry, for example, if empiricist conclusions do not match religious conclusions. Instead, simply assemble all the orienting conclusions as if each field had incredibly important truths to tell us. This is exactly Wilber's first step in his integrative method—a type of phenomenology of all human knowledge conducted at the level of orienting generalizations. In other words, assemble all of the truths that each field believes it has to offer humanity. For the moment, simply assume they are indeed true.
Wilber then arranges these truths into chains or networks of interlocking conclusions. At this point Wilber veers sharply from a method of mere eclecticism and into a systematic vision. For the second step in Wilber's method is to take all of the truths or orienting generalizations assembled in the first step and then pose this question: What coherent system would in fact incorporate the greatest number of these truths?
The result is the "integral system" that Wilber has elaborated in his many books, a system that appears to incorporate the greatest number of orienting generalizations from the greatest number of fields of human inquiry. Thus, if it holds up, Wilber's approach incorporates and honors, it integrates, more truth than any other system in history.
The general idea is straightforward. It is not which theorist is right and which is wrong. Wilber's basic idea is that "Everybody is right"that is, everybody has an important, if partial, truth15