Ken Wilber Revisited: From Wilber I to Wilber V – A cross section of Wilber Phase I

by editor

Ken Wilber is a name to be reckoned with in the world of the Integral. If you are an aspiring Integral scholar or even a part-time “Integral” student who dillydallies with the term Integral and all things it represents, you cannot ignore Ken Wilber. Indeed, Wilber represents the entire system of modern-day Integralism and his works play a great role in defining the philosophy and taking it to ordinary people. He is one of the first few to make an attempt at synthesizing everything – all the psychological, philosophical, spiritual and physical traditions of human knowledge, using as starting point, “laudable eclecticism and the Perennial Philosophy’s Great Chain of Being – into one stream of knowledge or what is called a “unified theory of consciousness”.

This is the first of a series of posts titled, “Ken Wilber Revisited: From Wilber I to Wilber V” which will explore the five most important stages of Wilber, from Phase I to Phase V. The series will weigh the pros against the cons of Wilber’s teachings by analyzing and discussing both the criticisms and eulogies that have been made in all the Phases. We start with Phase I of Wilber.

Why Wilber? There is often a question of why should one start with Wilber when it comes to the Integral philosophy? There are several reasons and foremost among them are: 1. Wilber is the single most important Integral philosopher who has pioneered the modern Integral movement 2. He has discussed and analyzed about almost every field of knowledge in his attempt to synthesize them into his model (AQAL or otherwise). 3. Though not a original thinker in terms of Aurobindo, Whitehead, Hegel or Spinoza, he is the first one to “integrate” all such original thinkers into the Integral stream. Though there are questions as to what is Wilber’s belief system and why he is so different from what he was to what is he now, one thing has to be understood – Wilber’s untiring efforts have helped people view things through an Integral lens, in all-quadrant, all-level perspectives.

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In spite of his demerits, Wilber’s attempt to create a unifying theory of consciousness is remarkable and a never-before-made-attempt. Says Jack Crittenden in his “What is the meaning of Integral?”, “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.”

Wilber’s Phase I or the Romantic Period: Every well-known author or creative artist has a romantic period, most often at the beginning of his/her career. Wilber does not seem to be an exception to this. But one difference from Wilber and the others – he advises Integral student to ignore his Phase I and start with his Phase II.

Phase I of Wilber is often dubbed as Wilber’s Romantic Period, which begins in 1977 and ends in 1979. Wilber himself calls this his “Romantic-Jungian” period wherein he is under the influence of transpersonal psychology and the Jungian and Esoteric Traditional school of thought. Wilber I started with the publication of his first book, Spectrum of Consciousness. It was later followed by the book, No Boundary. In both the books, Wilber attempts to propose a theory that is a “unified” synthesis of the Eastern and Western “psychological, philosophical and spiritual maps of consciousness” (Alan Kazlev in his web page on Ken Wilber).

Levels of the Spectrum: Wilber adopts the idea of the Esoteric Traditionalists, the Theosophists, the Jungians and others when he says that “a single, universal teaching running through the apparently conflicting spiritual, philosophical, and psychological traditions, and what seems to be conflicts are actually the result of addressing different stages of consciousness”. This stems from the root idea that all different things are but part of one unified whole and have grown apart owing to differences made by time, space and knowledge.

According to Wilber’s levels of Spectrum, consciousness emerges from an underlying “Ground of Being” and splits up progressively into different “dualistic opposites”. This is how the splits occur. From the Ground of Being state, consciousness splits into two – the Ground of Being and the Self. Then, from there, a second split happens – between Organism and Environment. The third split happens between the Ego and the Body, while the fourth and the final happens between Persona and Shadow of consciousness. With so many splits, the goal to attain Nirvana or higher states of mind can be achieved only if an individual reunites each duality and reclaims each underlying unity within the dualistic differences. This reuniting of dualities and identification of unity among dualities leads to “monistic” consciousness and identification with the Absolute Reality. In brief, if dualities are united and the underlying, unifying currents are identified and realized between different poles, one can achieve an integral understanding of things and that in turn can lead to attainment of Godhead or realization of Absolute Reality. But why does Wilber reject this Phase I? What are the reasons or rather, what are flaws that surface in Wilber Phase I?

Critique on Wilber I: Alan Kazlev says Phase I reminds him of an “inverted version of Gurdjieff-Ouspenky law of three” and looks primitive from every other angle. It is what Kazlev calls an “upside down” representation of Godhead or what Jung would call the Collective Unconscious. Phase I means that human consciousness returns to where it emerges from, the perspective of Jungian and romantic philosophers who consider spiritual growth as a return to an “edenic” condition that existed in the past. Though many, including Wilber, reject this Phase, there are a few who make supportive claims for it.

Stan Grof opines that Wilber is inflexible in rejecting his early ideas. In that, he is not being “integral” in denying his early Phase completely. As Stephen Dinan says in his “Post-Modern Monk and Modern Shaman: The Theories of Ken Wilber and Stan Grof”: “Grof has found that authentic regression into the deepest layers of traumas, blocks, and neuroses is vital to healing and further growth. In this respect, his model of development aligns more with Carl Jung or Michael Washburn, who see adult development as a process of spiraling through origins to reaccess lost potentials of the psyche: a descent and return. The world of children, and especially fetuses, is charged with an enlivening numinosity (sacredness), something adults typically lack.”

This importance given to regression is again loosely based on concept of “fetal numinosity” or the belief that small children are mystical or spiritual (Remember Wordsworth’s “Trailing clouds of glory”). Since one does not know whether children have a pre-natal existence and represent spiritual and mystical qualities, one has to but agree with Wilber in his rejection of Phase I. Christian De Quincey in his paper “The Promise of Integralism” too condemns Wilber’s complete rejection of Phase I. He calls Wilber’s rejection as the rejection of “the ontological significance of feeling”.

Yet another major flaw in Phase I was, by trying to yoke different ideas together, Wilber fails to go in depth into them. A critic says that are a few issues with the Wilberian methodology of comprehending things – 1. No ontological discrimination, 2. Misunderstanding of original sources (we will find this in Phase II with Wilber’s understanding of Sri Aurobindo), 3. “No allowance for a collated body of facts to  be actually be incorrect” (That is, according to Wilber, everyone is right about something). But the last point is denied by many, and yet another critic opines, “Wilber says that because no mind can produce 100% error, every theory contains irreplaceable truth. This is a non sequitor. Even if no mind can always be wrong, a given theory or proposition can be 100% wrong.”

Right or wrong, Wilber himself denies the First Phase of his Integral Thinking. He suggests the Integral student to start with his Second Phase wherein he elaborately discusses on a developmental, “growth to goodness”  model of consciousness, integrating Eastern mysticism and Western psychology, including the Tibetan Buddhist/Aurobindo inspired model of “involution-evolution”. We will discuss on Wilber Phase II in the next post.

“Ken Wilber Revisited” is a series of posts on Ken Wilber and the development of his Integral theory. You can know more about Wilber and the criticism of his phases in our posts Wilber I, Wilber II, Wilber III, Wilber IV and Wilber V.

Reference Links:

1. Alan Kazlev’s “Ken Wilber” on his website

2. Alan Kazlev’s Wilber’s Phase I – The Romantic Period

3.  Don Salmon: Overview of Ken Wilber’s Theory of Integral Psychology

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