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A Philosopher of Everything

by Carter Phipps

You won't see him talking to world leaders on CNN. You won't see him schmoozing with politicians at Davos. You won't see interviews with him on 60 Minutes, Frontline, or C-SPAN. You can even be an educated, thoughtful, well-informed citizen of the Western world and never have heard his name. But make no mistake about it, Ken Wilber is important. His work and ideas—what he calls “integral philosophy”—are quietly affecting the way hundreds of thousands if not millions of people think about the world they live in. Ever since publishing his first book, The Spectrum of Consciousness, in 1977, Wilber's work has chipped away at the philosophical foundations of our postmodern age, clearing out contradictions and confusion and articulating new models and maps of reality that may shape the contours of our future culture. If postmodernism can be defined, as Lyotard famously put it, as “incredulity toward meta-narratives,” then Wilber's integral theory is the perfect antidote. With books called A Brief History of Everything and A Theory of Everything, Wilber has sought to create the sort of Holy Grail of grand narratives, a framework that allows for the integration of all categories of human knowledge. Just try to name another philosophy that can easily bring together most of religion, art, morality, economics, psychology, and all of the major sciences into one theory and you start to understand that when Wilber uses the world “integral,” he really means it.

Wilber is not the founder of the relatively embryonic field of integral philosophy. That distinction might better be placed at the feet of Indian sage Sri Aurobindo, or perhaps with philosopher Jean Gebser. Some would even go as far back as Hegel, though the German idealist never specifically used that word. But Wilber is the current laureate of the integral world. His work has transformed integral theory from a loose collection of ideas garnered from a few visionaries into an important movement, a powerful set of foundational notions about reality that are beginning to have influence at the highest levels. Witness Bill Clinton's recent reference to Wilber's work in a speech at Davos, where he mentioned the integral approach as a powerful prism through which to understand and relate to our globalizing world.

The appeal of integral theory is its inclusiveness, its comprehensiveness, its capacity to reframe and reorganize the vast complexity of human knowledge into useful coherence. And Wilber is the man most responsible for giving it that reputation. Indeed, with a mind that is both brilliant and broad-ranging, he is as at home discussing the dynamics of Jungian psychology as he is the epistemes of Foucault, the hard problem of cognitive science, and the nature of emptiness in Vajrayana Buddhism. And he writes about all of it with a popular touch that educates the layperson even as it draws one into entirely new and quite sophisticated perspectives on reality.

Wilber began his career exploring the connections between psychology and Eastern spiritual traditions, making the bold move of integrating their insights into one comprehensive “spectrum of consciousness,” a map of psychological and spiritual development from birth to Buddhahood. Such connections were radical for the time, earned him wide acclaim, and essentially inspired the entire field of transpersonal psychology (a field that he has since disassociated himself from). It also established him as a true champion of the insights of the great enlightenment traditions, East and West, and he has argued that they represent a fount of knowledge that must be dealt with by any genuine “integral” theory. It is a deeply felt passion, and a personal one, as Wilber himself is a spiritual practitioner with experience in several paths, most notably Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. He calls himself a “pandit,” borrowing an Indian term for a learned scholar who defends the true dharma* against all who would do it harm. This ongoing advocacy has earned him the deep appreciation and respect of many, including the editors of this magazine, who feel that a robust religious and spiritual discourse is essential for the health of our contemporary culture, and for its further evolution.

Of course, Wilber's placement of spirituality at the heart of his philosophical framework has not endeared him to a skeptical Western intelligentsia. But even at the beginning, he knew that his own philosophy would run counter to the dominant intellectual currents of the day:

One thing was very clear to me, as I struggled with how best to proceed in an intellectual climate dedicated to deconstructing anything that crossed its path: I would have to back up and start at the beginning, and try to create a vocabulary for a more constructive philosophy. Beyond pluralistic relativism is universal integralism; I therefore sought to outline a philosophy of universal integralism.

Put differently, I sought a world philosophy. I sought an integral philosophy, one that would believably weave together the many pluralistic contexts of science, morals, aesthetics, Eastern as well as Western philosophy, and the world's great wisdom traditions. Not on the level of details—that is finitely impossible; but on the level of orienting generalizations: a way to suggest that the world really is one, undivided, whole, and related to itself in every way: a holistic philosophy for a holistic Kosmos: a world philosophy, an integral philosophy.

This fall, Wilber will end a four-year publishing drought with the release of his twenty-third book, Integral Spirituality, which seeks to shed a brilliant new light on the role and significance of spirituality and religion in the modern and postmodern world. This deceptively slim volume presents a powerful context for understanding the central dilemmas facing religious traditions today—their declining influence, their ongoing debates with science, their struggle with various forms of extremism, and so on. It seeks to resuscitate religions' key insights while shedding the outdated mythic belief structures common to most traditions. The book also examines many of the core issues facing today's postmodern spiritual seekers—the role of therapy, the limitations of meditation, different approaches to and types of enlightenment, pluralistic interpretations of God, and the challenges faced by American Buddhism. Though Wilber's legend is already firmly established in the East-meets-West spiritual subculture, in the field of transpersonal psychology, and among many of the so-called cultural creatives, Integral Spirituality is a work that should raise his profile in the eyes of mainstream culture. And by showing off the power of the integral model to make sense out of one of the most complex and important areas of human life, Wilber may also earn himself more attention from the greatest critic of all—history.

Now 57, Wilber is more prolific and productive than ever. A “collected works” edition of his books and writings has been published, pointing to the sheer volume of material this sage of synthesis has managed to churn out in less than three decades. He has also recently completed volume two of what is destined to be a series of three books elucidating the core ideas of his philosophy. The first installment of this “Kosmos Trilogy,” as he calls it, was Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, published in 1995. The second is tentatively titled “Kosmic Karma and Creativity” and will be published in 2007, with the third already partially written and presently titled “God, Sex, and Gender.” In between these weighty intellectual treatises, Wilber has mixed in a variety of other writings and books, some addressing specific fields, like Integral Psychology (2000), some dealing with contemporary cultural issues, like Boomeritis (2002) and The Many Faces of Terrorism (forthcoming), and some, like the popular A Brief History of Everything (1996), acting as more easy-to-read, abbreviated versions of his core trilogy.

Taking a page from the great Athenian tradition, Wilber has also formed an academy of his own, Integral Institute, a high-level think tank/educational institute that disseminates and applies integral theory to various fields of knowledge. Wilber's thought has always been too expansive and category-breaking to be easily accepted within the more conservative, more specialized environment of the conventional academic world, and so initially, he took his ideas straight to the people, so to speak, writing for a general, if highly educated, audience. But with great success comes great opportunity, and Wilber's large popular following, along with the tremendous accolades his work has garnered (he has famously been called the “Einstein of consciousness”), has allowed him to transcend his status as an independent philosopher and build relationships with individuals in many mainstream institutions, including government, business, and higher education. Perhaps the most dramatic example to date of the practical impact of these ongoing relationships is Integral University, a just-launched online “learning community” with tremendous ambitions. Indeed, with Integral Institute's support and Wilber's ongoing guidance, it has set its sights on becoming an accredited university unlike any other, bringing together a global network of scholars, theorists, practitioners and supporters, working in a rigorous, peer-reviewed context for the further development and expansion of integral theory into some twenty or more separate disciplines.

In the midst of all of this activity, the integral model itself continues to develop. In fact, one of the most striking aspects of Wilber's body of work is its ongoing evolution over the years as he incorporates disparate theories, ideas, and knowledge into his theoretical matrix at a furious pace. He sees integral theory not so much as a new field in and of itself but as an overarching context that, when applied to any area of study, will act as a sort of epistemological and ontological strainer, filtering away outdated assumptions about the nature of reality that might still exist in that field while at the same time radically reorganizing its contributions in light of a more comprehensive, inclusive worldview. Steadily, from ecology to anthropology to art to politics to economics to law to science to psychology to spirituality, he is endeavoring to bring the major categories of human knowledge into an integral embrace.

All Quadrants, All Levels

One of the best examples to date of the sort of integration espoused by integral theory is Wilber's signature insight (introduced in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality in 1995) into the four fundamental perspectives on reality, a breakthrough model he calls the four quadrants. Based on the actual perspectives from which we view the world around us—first-person, second- person, and third-person—these quadrants provide a unique and comprehensive window through which one can examine just about anything. The genesis of this insight wasn't sudden illumination or divine guidance. In fact, it was more grit than grace. Determined to understand how different kinds of knowledge systems fit together, Wilber spent years trying to understand the actual relationship between different disciplines and fields of study. But every school of thought seemed to have its own unique way of organizing reality, its own way of hierarchically ranking and categorizing knowledge. In search of a holistic model, Wilber struggled mightily with how to make sense out of these vastly discrepant systems:

At one point, I had over two hundred hierarchies written out on legal pads lying all over the floor, trying to figure out how to fit them together. . . . There were linguistic hierarchies, contextual hierarchies, spiritual hierarchies. There were stages of development in phonetics, stellar systems, cultural worldviews, autopoietic systems, technological modes, economic structures, phylogenetic unfoldings, superconscious realizations. . . . And they simply refused to agree with each other. . . . Toward the end of that three-year period, the whole thing started to become clear to me. It soon became obvious that the various hierarchies fall into four major classes (what I would call the four quadrants); that some of the hierarchies are referring to individuals, some to collectives; some are about exterior realities, some are about interior ones, but they all fit together seamlessly.

The rest, as they say, is history. The four quadrants model is perhaps Wilber's most celebrated insight. And justifiably so. He suggests that almost anything can be looked at using these four inherent perspectives—the interior and exterior perspectives on the individual and the interior and exterior perspectives on the collective. Want to know why science and religion have difficulty finding common ground? Why Marxism failed? Why neuroscience's search for God is misguided? Why the linguistic turn in twentieth-century philosophy was so important? It's all there in these simple but remarkably profound four quadrants. One can imagine a future in which high school students are drilled in this model of reality in the same way they learn the periodic table of the elements today.

*Dharma is a Sanskrit word that means natural law, or reality, and with respect to its significance for spirituality and religion, it might be described as the way of being that conforms to universal law, or the essential nature of things.

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