This post continues from the previous in this series, which looked at integral ecophilosopher Sean Esbjorn-Hargens’s writing on the ontology of climate change. Here I examine the relationship between leading integral theorist Ken Wilber, integralist Esbjorn-Hargens, and process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead.

It’s a little difficult to separate Wilber’s and Esbjorn-Hargens’s views on Whitehead. I will  simply refer to “IT” (Integral Theory) in speaking of both their views, though these are generally ascribable to Wilber. (And I should note that identification of the term “Integral Theory” with Wilber himself is not uncontested.) I will use “KW” (Wilber) or “EH” (Esbjorn-Hargens) when quoting from specific written sources. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes attributed to EH will be from his article “Integrating Whitehead: Towards an Environmental Ethic,” which is found online, undated and unpaginated, at the website. Most of the Wilber references are either from “Appendix A: My Criticism of Whitehead as True but Partial,” found here, or from printed sources, especially The Eye of Spirit: An Integral Vision for a World Gone Slightly Mad (1997) and Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution (orig. 1995, revised 2000).

I should mention at the outset that my understanding of Integral Theory is far from expert. The following thoughts are based on a selective reading over the years of scattered Wilberian writings, and a more recent revisit of his later work that I am still in the midst of. I welcome being corrected if I’ve made any mistakes in interpreting his work.


Starting Points: Wilber Pro and Contra Whitehead

Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory (IT) attempts to create a user-friendly synthesis of the world’s knowledge, a distillation or “orienting map” drawing on sources in the human, social, physical, and life sciences (from Darwin to autopoiesis, systems, and complexity theories; from Piaget, Kohlberg, and Gilligan to Habermas and Luhmann; and much more), on philosophers ancient to modern and beyond (including Aristotle, Plotinus, Hegel, Schelling, Whitehead, Aurobindo, Gebser, Foucault, and Charles Taylor), and on what Wilber calls “the Wisdom Traditions,” including Advaita Vedanta, Mahayana Buddhism, Neoplatonism, and the mystical traditions of the world’s religions. Drawing, in other words, on everything.

Given Wilber’s ambitious grasp, it’s not surprising if he muddies the details, misinterpreting some sources and overreaching with others. The overall picture that emerges, however, warrants examination as a thought-provoking ontology, epistemology, and ethics for living in the twenty-first century.

His overall ideas build on certain key insights within process-relational philosophies and developmental and systems sciences. In particular, his concept of the “holon” is intended to resolve a range of issues that substantialist and processual philosophers could otherwise debate forever. (I could expand here on the particular relevance to the object/process debates that this blog has been involved in, but I trust that that will become evident to regular readers.)

A holon is the basic constituent of reality. It is a whole that is simultaneously a part of a larger whole, “all the way up and down”; it is emergent, and characterized by interiority and exteriority, and by the capacities of self-preservation (or agency), self-adaptation (or “communion,” meaning something more like “other-” or “context-adaptation”), self-transcendence (meaning something like Whiteheadian creativity), and self-dissolution (meaning the reverse, when a thing eventually comes apart).

Relations between holons are holarchic, which means they are developmental, emergent, and coevolving, with each emergent holon including and transcending its predecessors, and each emergent level tending toward greater levels of complexity, differentiation/integration, organization/structuration, relative autonomy, and telos. And it goes on. If any of that intrigues, then by all means move on to his writings, starting perhaps with Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (especially if you’re a philosopher), or just going straight to the Collected Works, which currently run to eight volumes.

In its basic foundations, Integral Theory bears strong resonances with the process metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead, but also very clear divergences. Both KW and EH show a strong overall admiration for Whitehead. Wilber characterizes Whitehead as a key transitional figure who “opened up science to interiority,” but only to subject-object (upper left quadrant, in IT terms) interiority, not to subject-subject (intersubjective, lower left quadrant) interiority. IT theory thus incorporates Whitehead’s move, but also transcends it, as EH puts it, “fortifying its strengths and gently exposing its vulnerabilities.”

IT critiques of Whitehead run along three lines:

(1) that Whitehead’s metaphysics is not “all-quadrant”; specifically, that Whitehead’s key concept of “prehension” restricts itself to subject-object relations and therefore ignores the crucial fourth quadrant (and “postmodern insight”) of intersubjectivity;

(2) that he is not “all-level,” insofar as he reduces all interiority to “prehension” and thereby misses the genuine complexity of interiority at “higher” levels of development; and

(3) that he also ignores “post-rational stages of interiority,” such as the nondual, transpersonal forms of consciousness described by Buddhist, Vedantic, and other traditions of spiritual practice and theory.

Let me discuss each of these critiques in turn.



1. Subjectivity vs. Intersubjectivity

Whitehead’s notion of “prehension,” which has the structure of a subjective (mental) pole and an objective (physical) pole, and which therefore can be characterized as a subject-object relation, applies to “actual occasions,” which are the most microscopic “bits” of reality.

IT argues that this subject-object structure is true inasfar as it goes, but that it is wrong to reduce all forms of interiority to it. There are, in addition, subject-subject relations, which Wilber, following the phenomenological and interpretive traditions, refers to as “intersubjectivity.” Wilber, on this basis, critiques Whitehead’s metaphysics as “monological,” to which Whiteheadian David Ray Griffin objects, saying that it would be fine for Wilber to characterize it as “partial” and “incomplete” from his perspective, but that calling it monological is inaccurate and unfair.

Here the argument, it seems to me, hinges on what it is that Whitehead is trying to accomplish with his concept of prehension. In my understanding, he is merely describing a structural building block of the universe — the mechanics, in effect, of its basic relations, a kind of “vector structure” and “directionality” that characterizes each act or occasion that makes up a living, directional universe. While intersubjectivity may not be evident in this basic building block, prehensions are inherently relational. It is only because of the temporal and durational directionality of prehension that occasions do not prehend each other; rather, they prehend the concresced “data” of other (previous) prehensions.

EH writes that Whitehead “denies contemporaries the ability to know each other.” But this is only true at the level of the actual occasion. Once it is understood that the universe is a fabric of such occasions, such acts of prehension, and that nowhere does a single prehension stand on its own, isolated from the relational processes in which it arises, then intersubjectivity becomes easily accommodated within Whitehead’s system.

Whitehead is not (in my understanding) arguing that human beings, or any other entities, only relate to other things as objects. He is saying that prehension is this kind of one-way thing. Social entities, like humans, are tremendously complex societies of occasions, with prehensions interwoven at multiple levels such that sociality emerges out of the complex interaction of (probably millions of) such prehensions. A human person’s “structure” as a society of occasions persists across the “space” of multiple contemporary occasions and the “time” of multiple consecutive occasions. A person’s interaction with another person, or with a whole social group, thus has plenty of opportunities, at very microscopic levels even, to interact socially and intersubjectively with those others. We act, needless to say, based on our understanding of others like us as similarly social and subjectively oriented individuals.

One could argue that this defense of Whitehead misses the point: that if prehension is as central as he makes it, then it ought not be thought of as a one-way interaction at all. There is always, Wilber asserts, a shared background from which any prehension emerges. Or, to put it in Wilber’s terms, there is always a four-quadrant structure to any holon: an individual interiority (a first-person “I”), a collective interiority (a second-person “we”), and an individual and a collective exteriority (“it” in its two aspects, one being bodily-individual, the other being systemic-relational, since each holon is part of a larger holon within which it relates to a social context).

This is a clear difference in the Wilberian paradigm, and since it characterizes holons “all the way up and down,” one could reasonably ask how far down it goes. If holons are all subdivisible into smaller holons, then they must by definition subdivide infinitely — though even Wilber isn’t interested in speculating much beyond the subatomic level.

(As an aside: In my own work on cinema, the prehensive subject-object structure is one that emerges out of a more basic relationality, which for all intents and purposes can be perceived as a percolating flow of interactivity, an in-betweenness that emerges between correlated points of subjectivation and of objectivation. In turn, in complex, symbolic creatures like us, the habits ingrained over time in how this flow is actualized lead to the emergence of certain sedimented and habituated understandings of what is “objective” and what is “subjective”: for instance, that a chair is an object, to be sat on but not to be talked to, while the cat that rests on it is a subject with which I can interact, or that the mountain behind my house is a mere object, a landscape to be admired, whereas the nation actively calls me to defend it. This is where the variability between what gets constituted as object and what as subject becomes an ethico-political matter of great significance.

(If this structure of subjectivation/objectivation arising from a more primordial interactivity were to go “all the way down and all the way up,” it would both descend and ascend into percolating flow, but not into quadrants. Since I favor Peirce’s triadism to Wilber’s quadrantism — the two are somewhat reconcilable, but I’ll leave that aside for now — I could see thirdness and even secondness diminishing, as we move back in time, as it were, to a primordial point characterized only by pure firstness, that is, sheer spontaneity. Similarly, at the “top” end, at some final evolutionary end-point, we might attain something like pure and unadulterated thirdness, that is, sheer meaning/pattern/organization with nothing left over. But here I feel like I’m speculating over angels dancing on the head of a pin… Best to leave such speculation to one’s dreams.)

So on this first point, I’m not convinced that Whitehead is necessarily missing anything. I agree, however, that Wilber’s four-quadrant AQAL model emphasizes intersubjective (“I-you,” or “we-we”) relations in a way that Whitehead doesn’t. It also emphasizes objectivity and interobjectivity in a way that Whitehead doesn’t. Whitehead is describing a structural feature of the universe, while Wilber is providing something more like a lens through which we should think of all things in the universe. Both can complement each other well, I believe.



2. Prehension vs. Interiority

Where IT builds on Whitehead more originally and effectively, I believe, is in its conceptualization of prehension and of interiority in general. IT is entirely consistent with process-relational theory in its contention that “interiors and exteriors both arise together and have correlative emergent properties” (EH, “Integrating Whitehead”). Wilber’s concept of “worldspace” to describe interiors is a useful move, as it brings a Whiteheadian “pan-experientialism” into closer communication with other understandings of experience, mentality, psyche, and so on, such as those of phenomenology and Uexkullian umwelt theory.

Interiority, for Whitehead, is a general feature of all real things in the universe; but, as IT claims, his description of the different kinds of interiority is limited. Wilber’s expansion of it leads him to call himself a “pan-interiorist, not a pan-experientialist, pan-mentalist, pan-feelingist, or pan-soulist.” To this list one could add “not a panpsychist.” The point, for Wilber, is that all these things — experience, mentality, feelings, soul, psyche — emerge at some level, but they do not characterize all things in the universe “all the way down.” What does, “all the way down” and “all the way up,” is interiority.

In contrast to Whitehead, IT reserves the term “prehension” only for the most rudimentary form of interiority, that ascribed to the atom. Above that “level,” we get other kinds of interiority: protoplasmic irritability (in cells), rudimentary sensations (in metabolic organisms), perceptions, impulses, emotions, images, symbols, concepts, and so on. EH provides the following chart listing these. (Read it from the bottom up to get a sense of the developmental levels.)

Interiors Exteriors
concepts complex neocortex (humans
symbols neocortex (primates)
emotion/image limbic system (paleomammals
impulse/emotion brain stem (reptiles)
perception/impulse neural cord (fish/amphibians)
perception neuronal organisms (e.g., annelids
sensation proto-neuronal organism (e.g., coelenterata)
rudimentary sensation metabolic organisms (e.g., plants)
irritability cells (genetic)
prehension atoms

Furthermore, where Whiteheadian process philosophers conventionally distinguish between actual individuals and aggregates, or “wholes” (such as an organism, which IT would call a “holon”) and “heaps” (such as a pile of rocks), IT adds the notion of the “social holon,” which is “between a whole and a heap because it is composed of individuals united in relationship but it lacks a locus of self-awareness.”

Rocks, EH writes, “are heaps (with no interiors except more exteriors), that are composed of atoms which do have interiors, but only of the most basic types (propensities and patterns that endure across time).” Social holons, on the other hand, could be described as wholes with interiors composed of individuals also with interiors, but with the interiority of the whole being a negotiated, networked and relational ensemble rather than a centrally directed and singular one.

Individual holons’ relationship with social holons is part of what constitutes the former’s collective side, i.e., its lower-right and lower-left quadrants, but the social holon is not itself fully a holon in the same sense, or on the same level, as the individual holon. This is what prevents a State or ethnic group from taking precedence over individuals: individuals have greater depth but less span that the social groups they are a part of. Individuals have, as Whitehead put it, a dominant monad (which, for humans, would be the form of awareness that makes decisions, has agency, etc.). Social holons, on the other hand, have a “dominant mode of discourse” or of “mutual resonance” (KW, Integral Spirituality, p. 149).

All of that requires more time to spell out, but it relates, indirectly at least, to one of the most interesting features of Wilber’s model, which is its identification of the possibilities, both positive and negative (or pathological), arising at each developmental stage or level. I won’t get into these here, except to quote one of the intriguing implications.

Recall that viewed in the first-person external, i.e. upper-right quadrant, humans consist of things like a body, a nervous system, a triune brain (as described by neuroscientist Paul MacLean), and so on. Wilber writes:

When MacLean said that when humans lie on the couch for psychoanalysis, they lie down with a crocodile and a horse, that wasn’t the half of it: we lie down with the planets and the starts, the lakes and the rivers, the plankton and the oaks, the lizards and the birds, the rabbits and the apes — and, to repeat, not simply because they are neighbors in our own universe, but because they are components in our own being, they are literally our bones and blood and marrow and guts and feelings and fears. (KW, SES, 1995:103-4)

This is because in our mental (or, as he calls it, “noospheric”) development, which includes the development of progressively larger “social” (i.e. political, linguistic, technical, economic) holons up to the (currently emergent) level of the planet, we have had to deal with our adaptive “fit” at each scalar level. So the possibility for mega-pathologies grows as that mental or noospheric level grows — something that it doesn’t do for horses or apes (unless perhaps they, too, get dragged into larger noospheric ensembles, but Wilber doesn’t speculate about that, and neither will I here).

In conclusion, IT’s analysis of interiority builds on Whitehead’s essential insight, but adds a richness to it that it gets from an incorporation of a broad array of psychological and social-scientific resources, including those that look at the “exterior” of things (i.e., view them scientifically or objectively) and those that focus on the “interior” (the experiential, phenomenological, and hermeneutic).



3. Transpersonal and Nondual Experience

The final point on which IT critiques Whitehead is his lack of understanding of transpersonal and nondual states of consciousness. Whitehead’s limitations here are understandable, according to Wilber, since he was an early twentieth century Christian who did not engage in contemplative practices of the kind that would lead to nondual states. I won’t comment on that, since I’m not sure what exactly Whitehead did practice. The point is that Wilber here is raising an issue that would not have occurred to someone who was not a mystic, and that would not have been very obvious in any case except to someone more familiar with Asian metaphysical traditions.

This, I think, is a useful critique, and one that ought to prompt Whiteheadians into a closer dialogue both with Mahayana Buddhist, Advaita Vedantist, and other Asian nondualisms and with Wilber’s particular interpretation of them. (The two are not identical.)

There have been a number of attempts, over the years, to compare Whiteheadian process philosophy with Buddhism, Chinese philosophy, and other Asian traditions. I have referred to some of them on this blog, e.g., the work of Peter Kakol, Steve Odin, Charles Hartshorne, and others (see, e.g., the special issue of Philosophy East and West dedicated to the topic  from 1975; and the later work of MacFarlane and others). Western understandings of Asian philosophical traditions have undergone rapid change in recent decades, however, as the volume of available translations and of comparative work has increased exponentially, so there’s much more comparative work that could still be done.

Without getting more deeply into Wilber’s work on nondualism and transpersonal experience (which I’m not the best qualified to do, in any case), I’ll just conclude here by saying that my hunch is that IT is correct in this third critique, up to a point. But we are far from having any kind of consensus about nondual and/or transpersonal states of consciousness and what they represent, so all of this remains a little bit like shooting in the dark at a moving target.

One of the problems is that speaking authoritatively about these matters requires both significant experiential practice and authoritative knowledge of the different traditions of interpreting that kind of practice. Other such traditions have developed over centuries, but bridging between them and Western scholarship is something that’s still in its infancy. Given the position and the dynamism of Western intellectual traditions in the world, however, seeking a shared understanding while avoiding those traditions is not really viable. So we take baby steps and see where they lead us.



4. What about the Politics?

Finally: what does all of this have to do with politics? At least two things, I’d say.

First, there is the politics of comparison across traditions in a post-traditional world: What counts for knowledge, and what doesn’t? Who says? Who is to arbitrate between and among the sciences, the religions, the intellectual schools, the political ideologies, the artistic blocs, et al.?

For me the best approach to these questions is a cosmopolitical one (in the Latourian-Stengersian sense), which admits that we don’t really know how to proceed, and can’t really know, but we must nevertheless, and that we work our way toward building mutual understandings through trial-and-error and give-and-take. Here, Wilber’s project is very interesting, even if its totalizing tendencies ought to be critiqued (and it seems to me that they have diminished over the years).

Second, there is the politics of experience, as R. D. Laing once called it. Here,  a pluralistic and respectful approach to consciousness still seems to me the best policy. This doesn’t mean valuing schizophrenic or delusional states equally with rational ones (as some superficial readers of Deleuze and Guattari have thought they advocated). It does mean paying close attention to the historical construction of categories like madness, schizophrenia, mysticism, religion, fanaticism, secularism, superstition, God, faith, piety, spirituality and spiritual attainment (of one or another kind), shamanism, and the rest. (My listing of these in the same sentence isn’t intended to suggest they are all on the same “level” of phenomenon, but rather just to indicate the breadth that needs to be covered in any assessment of nonordinary experience.)

Among Western intellectuals, Wilber has provided one of the most coherent, consistent, and broad-ranging efforts at making sense of this full territory of consciousness. His model has been critiqued for imposing a hierarchy that devalues certain modes of consciousness (and the traditions related to them) as opposed to others. Specifically, he has frequently written about (and taken flak for) what he calls the “pre/trans fallacy,” or the confusion between regressive and transcendent states and stages.

Some of the other theorists in transpersonal studies (Washburn, Grof, Ferrer, Varela-Thompson-Rosch, et al.) offer, to my mind, viable alternatives. And there is the entire rapidly growing “science of consciousness” field, including its neuroscientific and cognitive branches as well as the phenomenological (or “neurophenomenological”), all of which ought to be part of this conversation. But delving into this area would take me much farther than I can go in this post.

The politics of this delving, however, brings us back to the first point: the politics of how we value and privilege (or deprivilege) statements made by scientists as opposed to those made by mystics, religious believers, spiritual practitioners, indigenous peoples, and various others. The first step here, for me, is always the cosmopolitical one of admitting that there are no longer any sciences that are not ethno-sciences: all “sciences” and “knowledges” are situated within particular traditions of knowledge-making, authority-claiming, and world-staking. The same goes for philosophy or anything else. “We are all ethnos now” might be our post-Latourian slogan.

Leaving it at that isn’t enough, however. The point is to always make sense of those wider contexts, bringing them into some coherent relationship with each other, without assuming that the grounds for that relationship are already made. We play on a playing-field that may be level, but that still requires goal posts (which are movable) and rules (which are negotiable). If some of us wish to play by the rules of, say, scientific objectivity (repeatable experiments, double-blind-reviewing, and so on), whether it is around the issue of climate change or of psychic experiences or anything else, we ought to be able to make the case for why these rules are good ones for others to respectably make room for.

Wilber’s attentiveness to the social and interpretive milieus by which we build our worldspaces seems a very useful one here. He’s not the only one to make that point, but he captures it well with his simple AQAL framework. At the same time, his framework, while it claims to be “integrally pluralistic,” does require taking on board certain value-laden assumptions about what is “higher” or more “developed” and what is “lower” or less developed. Its political implications remain, for me, uncertain. (Here’s just a little indicator of where that uncertainty arises from.)

So I think the Wilberian paradigm needs more rigorous scrutiny than it has received. That is something that I hope will occur in the reading group on Integral Ecology.



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