On Ken Wilber and Integral Naked

by Scott London

I was dazzled by Ken Wilber’s book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality when it appeared in the mid-1990s. Rarely had I encountered a writer and philosopher who expressed himself with so much energy and clarity of insight on the difficult business of human consciousness. His grasp of the complexities of evolutionary theory, systems thinking, metaphysics, contemplative tradition, postmodernism and other daunting subjects was not just impressive, but masterful. Here, I thought, was someone who could finally make some sense of our strange predicament at the turn of the millennium — someone who could help us distinguish between frontier and fringe thinking and clear a path through the thicket of psychobabble that makes up so much of what’s being written today about personal growth and human consciousness.

After finishing the book, I went on to read every book of Wilber’s that I could get my hands on. The love affair lasted several years. But by 1999 I found myself having increasing reservations about his method, and perhaps also about the man himself. I wrote about some of these in a review of his book One Taste that appeared in the Spring 2000 issue of Parabola Magazine (see my review here).

The questions I had revolved around the certitude with which he puts forth his views, the definiteness of his assertions. They were always explanatory rather than exploratory. I had thought someone with his intellectual gifts and spiritual insight would be more sensitive to complexity, to metaphor, paradox, mystery. If anything, I felt he did a violence to ideas that were, by definition, boundary-spanning — such as liberal political theory or ecopsychology or the role in psychology of myth — by forcing them into narrow categories that served his own theoretical interests. I was constantly amazed by his misrepresentations of great thinkers such as Huston Smith, Gerald Heard, Stan Grof and others. 

My initial euphoria upon discovering Wilber some years ago gave way to a deepening sadness that this was the man being heralded as one of today’s most original and significant philosophers. The notion that he represented some sort of “Einstein of the consciousness movement,” as somebody once said, struck me as preposterous.

Even so, I was excited when Wilber spearheaded the launch of Integral Naked, a website featuring audio interviews with brilliant and visionary thinkers, about five years ago. I was an enthusiastic early supporter of the site. But, again, my excitement gradually gave way to a sinking feeling that what Wilber and his friends had created was a little club of people calling themselves “integral thinkers” who used a common vocabulary but were in fact increasingly insulated from the world around them — not because they were uninterested or uninformed about the world at large but because they were convinced they had the best system or theory that could explain what was going on (exemplified by such grandiose book titles as A Theory of Everything and A Brief History of Everything). I eventually unsubscribed to Integral Naked. My reasons for pulling the plug are summarized in this open letter to the site.

In recent years, Wilber’s Integral Institute has become more firmly established and Integral Naked seems, from what I can tell, to be going strong. But Wilber’s critics have grown more numerous. And he himself seems increasingly insular and cantankerous. In a now infamous blog entry, Wilber embarrassed himself in front of the world, as his biographer Frank Visser put it, “by abusing and insulting those of his critics who did not ‘understand’ his work, and invited those who ‘did’ to come to his integral ‘sanctuary.’ His main complaint was the low level of the criticism he had received so far, especially from Integral World authors.”

It was a depressing blog entry, to say the least, and perhaps also a cautionary tale about what happens when we go too far in defending our own intellectual constructs. Ideas at their best are meant to edify and inspire, not divide and isolate. When we find ourselves growing hard and brittle in defense of our own theories, then we have given our own constructs more power than they deserve.

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