Critics Do. Critics Don't.
A Response to Ken Wilber
by Christian de Quincey
I hadn�t planned on responding to Ken Wilber�s lengthy reply, "Do Critics Misrepresent My Position," to my paper, �The Promise of Integralism,� in the Journal of Consciousness Studies (Vol. 7 No. 11/12 ), but a recent remark by a mutual colleague made me think twice: �Of course, you got Wilber wrong,� he said matter-of-factly. On further probing, I discovered that he and other members of a Wilber-dialogue group had concluded that my critique must have been �factually wrong� because I had not responded to Wilber�s very strong claim that I had �misrepresented� him and his ideas. My silence was interpreted as an acknowledgement of Wilber�s slam-dunk retort. And, he said, Wilber had commented something to the effect: �There. That�s the end of that,� meaning he believed he had put me in my place.
Actually, my silence indicated nothing of the sort. I didn�t respond before now for two reasons: One, because I was just too busy with other projects, such as fine-tuning my forthcoming book Radical Nature, various teaching commitments, my full-time job as managing editor for IONS Review, and a couple of papers and articles I had been commissioned to write for other journals. Second, I saw no particular merit in continuing a de Quincey-Wilber ping-pong match. My original intent for publishing the JCS critique was to stimulate a dialogue with Wilber on some specific areas of his model that I felt were problematic�especially as developed in his then new book Integral Psychology. It was clear from the tone of his response that dialogue was not something he was interested in. In fact, I felt�along with many others I have spoken with about this�that Wilber�s reply had demonstrated a surprising lack of emotional maturity, confirming a point I had made in my paper.
Aside from the emotional tone, I was immediately struck by the degree to which Wilber manifested many of the critical failings he had accused me of�not least of which were the �misrepresentations,� �distortions,� out-of-context quotes, ad hominems, and plain factual inaccuracies in his �test case� response.
Because of these ostensibly deliberate misrepresentations and factual errors, and because my silence has been taken to be a mea culpa, I now feel I should take some time out of my schedule to put the record straight. I don�t expect to change Wilber�s views, or the views of those devoted Wilberphiles who rushed to his defense (some of whom attempted to prevent publication of my original critique). This response is intended for unbiased readers interested in hearing both sides.
A close and discerning reading of Wilber�s response along with my original paper would probably make most of this reply redundant. But since I don�t expect many people will invest the time to rigorously analyze �what-he-said-I-said� and compare it to what I actually said, I�ll do so myself. Furthermore, at least one of Wilber�s inaccuracies will not be revealed by a close reading of my paper, so I will begin there.
Wilber claims �Although de Quincey does not know me�in fact, he has never met me�he gives the reader a lengthy, intimate psychoanalysis of me as a person completely lacking in feeling, emotions, caring, and compassion, and therefore a person utterly bereft of any spirituality at all.� This is both inaccurate and highly exaggerated.
Fact is, Ken and I have met. A few years ago, at an intimate gathering of friends in the San Francisco Bay Area honoring his work, Ken warmly greeted me and thanked me for my �kind review� of Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (SES) in an IONS publication. The meeting lasted three or four hours, and the occasion gave me a chance to observe him interact with a small group of Wilberphiles and one or two �dissenters.� He and I talked one-on-one, and he expressed delight in finally meeting me. Previously, and subsequently, we communicated via email and fax.
Now, it�s quite possible that Ken forgot our meeting. Nonetheless, the fact remains that we did meet. And I would agree that this meeting alone would hardly be grounds for an �intimate psychoanalysis� of him �completely lacking in feeling, emotions, caring, and compassion.� Nowhere, in anything I have written, have I suggested that Wilber is �completely lacking in feeling� etc. Rather, what I did say in my JCS paper is that he seems to want to deny or avoid dealing with feelings. In fact, it is obvious to me that Ken is quite an emotional and feeling person, but from my experience of him (both in person and in writing, and from reports from many people who have been close to him over the years) he is not comfortable with this aspect of his personality. Certainly, as I emphasize in my paper, he is strongly motivated to deny the ontological significance of feeling in his writings. It is a leitmotif running through much of his work. As I say, in actual fact he can�t avoid feeling because it inevitably �sneaks back into his system.� So right off the bat, Ken indulges in both factual inaccuracy and emotional hyperbole.
Wilber thinks I�m out to get him: �On the one hand, he offers what seems to be a genuine appreciation. . . . But in the next breath he is engaged in intense ad hominen [sic] attacks on me as a person.� Yes, my paper is a �genuine appreciation� of the man�s work. No, it�s not an �intense ad hominem� (as a many people have remarked to me, some of them close associates and friends of Wilber�s for many years). But yes, it is an intensive analysis of three or four questionable aspects of Wilber�s model as presented in Integral Psychology. I quite deliberately address the issue of his tone and style (given the attention to this aspect of his writings, to have done otherwise would have been a conspicuous omission), and I interpret his tone and style in the context of what I understand to be his passion for rationality and discomfort with feelings. I make a point of showing how his professional style is all of a piece with what appears to be his personal psychology. No surprise there. No doubt true for many (all?) of us�but especially relevant in Wilber�s case (as I will explain later).
In many places, Wilber makes wild claims such as �[de Quincey�s] tendency to take one detail and excoriate me for �completely misunderstanding� it, but then in footnotes he concedes that I do understand it, often quite perfectly�� Nowhere do I say he �completely misunderstands� anything (the quote is his own invention). And it would be interesting to know which specific footnotes of mine concede that he does, after all, understand �quite perfectly� what he says I say he misunderstands. These kinds of unsubstantiated claims may be read by noncritical readers as evidence that I have been less than fair to Wilber. And my silence may have been �read� as an admission of error on my part. But the fact is the error here, as elsewhere, is Wilber�s.
Another example: ��there is not a single major issue where de Quincey categorically rejects my model, although he gives that impression at every turn . . .� Well, here the rhetorical tactic is to throw in a nonsequitur. As anyone who reads my paper will see very clearly, I do critique Wilber, sometimes severely, for several vulnerable points in his model�such as his description of intersubjectivity and the Lower Left quadrant, or his promissory �nonsolution� to the mind-body problem�and for attacking a strawman version of panpsychism. I stand by all of these critiques, and Wilber�s defensive response (as we shall see) does little to correct his position. But nowhere do I suggest that because of any single major issue do I �categorically reject� his model as a whole. I do, it is true, reject his position on several individual major issues (see below), and I point out that if Wilber does not adequately address the vulnerable elements in his model, then his grand rational edifice, his four-quadrant Taj Mahal of the intellect, is in danger of falling apart. So, no, I don�t reject his model wholesale; I do rigorously critique some important elements of it; and I point out that these leave his total model vulnerable. But none of this amounts to �giving the impression at every turn� that I �categorically reject� his model. There is much about his model�as a model�that I agree with. And I genuinely appreciate the fine work he has put into creating and developing it (as I clearly and explicitly acknowledge in my paper).
What is true, however, is that I did�and do�categorically reject his claim that intersubjectivity occurs �only� via linguistic interpretation. This is his claim, not my �misrepresentation.� It�s stated over and over in Integral Psychology (see the long list of references [footnote 14, p. 189] in my JCS paper). Neither he nor his acolytes can rightly blame me for quoting Wilber�s own exact words, or for pointing out where he says them. I cannot be responsible if Wilber �implies� something different in other books, but failed to strengthen his �very weak intersubjectivity� (as I called it) in this one particular book that was explicitly the major focus of my critique. I do not, as he complains, �distort� his words (I quote them exactly), nor do I take them out of context (I reference the books and pages where his words can be seen in context).
Also, I do reject Wilber�s claim to have provided a solution to the mind-body problem. And I do question the ability of his four-quadrant model to include subtle energies as he currently explains them.
Wilber does admit that he came away from reading my paper �with an almost complete confusion about what was said and how I should respond.� Judging by comments he makes elsewhere (which I shall address), it seems that his confusion stems from the fact that he has difficulty accepting it is possible to admire and acknowledge one part of a scholar�s work while rigorously critiquing other parts. Not one of the more than a dozen peer reviewers of my paper (including philosophers, psychologists, therapists, and doctoral students) shared Wilber�s �confusion��in fact, far and away the most common comment has been how �fair,� �balanced,� and �clear� my critique was. And I do note with some amusement that despite (or is it because of?) his confusion, Wilber managed to churn out more than 40 pages of single-spaced text in response. And when he says, �I happen to agree with virtually all of de Quincey�s main points,� I doubt he was as confused as he pretends. I�m also heartened by his conclusion, at the end of nearly 15,000 words (not including another 4,000 words of appendices and notes) bemoaning how badly misrepresented he has been: �The good news in all this is that it has spurred me to begin taking this material out into the world myself.�
He says, �de Quincey either takes a partial aspect of my position and claims that it is my total position (he does this quite often)� (where, I wonder, do I make such a claim?); �or he simply does not present my actual position in the first place . . . [such] misrepresentation of my work is quite common �� This is rhetorical nonsense. If I took a �partial aspect� of Wilber�s total position it is only because that�s what he expressed in Integral Psychology (IP) and A Theory of Everything (ToE) (the two books cited most in my critique because they were his most recent), without sufficient, if any, clarification from Wilber that this was only a partial view. (As it happens, I have also read his Collected Works, so I am aware of his �total view,� which does not change my critique of his �partial view� as expressed in IP and ToE).
The complaint that �misrepresentation of my work is quite common� is by now a tiresome defensive refrain we hear from Wilber. In any written work, particularly one dealing with philosophical issues (often involving metaphysical abstractions) variations in interpretations are to be expected�if not, indeed, inevitable. A difference in interpretation is not the same as misrepresentation. Misrepresentation is a, usually deliberate, distortion of what someone has said�and can include outright misquote, or more subtly, selective nonrepresentative quotes. (As I will show, Wilber is far from innocent on this score in his response to my critique.)
When Wilber accuses that �[de Quincey ] severely misrepresents my position� I can only repeat and emphasize that I quote�in context�what Wilber says over and over in more than one book.
Wilber�s rhetorical strategy was to present my article as
a test case, and simply give a point-by-point comparison between what he says my position is and what my works actually say. By giving direct quotes from the work de Quincey is ostensibly summarizing, and putting them next to what de Quincey claims is my view, I hope the reader will get a clear sense of just where and to what extent my actual view is simply not being presented fairly.
He then goes on for 30 or 40 pages actually demonstrating and indulging in what he accuses me of: i.e., misrepresentation and distortion. He does not lay out for comparison what I actually say and what he says. If he did, readers would see that I have indeed quoted him accurately. Instead, he selectively distorts what I say, or ignores actual sources I cite. The inattentive reader may come away believing that Wilber has �proven� his case. But a close reading of what I actually said and what he actually said stands as evidence that my original critique of his work remains valid.
And so we come to some of the specifics . . .