Ken Wilber's Take on Religion and Social Progress
|Book: Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World By Ken Wilber|
ZNet Book Page
Publisher: Shambhala/Integral Books
I've been reading Ken Wilber's books seriously for the past few years. A fellow Quaker tried to interest me in Wilber years earlier but I just didn't get what the buzz was about. I am going to use this review to lay out why I think Wilber has constructed one of the most helpful broad delineations of religion, spirituality, and social progress available.
Ken Wilber is a synthesizer and system-builder who tries to improve on the work of Western thinkers such as Hegel and Eastern thinkers such as Aurobindo (by whom the term "integral" was first used for a mystical philosphy). Theorists of social change will immediately note Hegel as one of the direct forerunners of modern radical theories of social change, especially Marxism. Wilber does make regular references to Jurgen Habermas, one of the most recent Frankfurt School Marxist philosophers. Wilber's usage of Habermas does not automatically make Wilber a radical. In fact, Wilber is not a radical in the classical leftist sense, but tries to claim that he is synthesizing the best of the left with the best of the right. On this point, I think Wilber is indulging in rhetorical flourishes, as his political positions, when he takes them, are largely within the orbit of liberalism, with a fairly superficial dose of conservatism.
In short, my view is that Wilber's aim at a global, synthesizing viewpoint, leads him to stand within the classical Enlightenment framework, which is arguably the same frame within which radical social philosophy has taken shape. Wilber's innovations within the Enlightenment framework result in several innovations and elaborations which I find tremondously helpful to the tasks of radical social change.
To summarize Wilber's framework is to risk oversimplification, but an attempt will help readers unfamiliar with Wilber. Wilber's overarching goal is to synthesize Western and Eastern philosophy and spirituality. From the East, he uses various thinkers who have proposed a developmental progression of mystical awareness. From the West, he relies on those who propose cognitive, social, and ethical developmental progressions. Wilber's synthesis results in what he calls an "All Quadrant, All Levels" map of the Kosmos or AQAL. His contention is that Eastern mystical philosophers have mapped out the general contours of the interior awareness of humankind, while Western thinkers have largely mapped the exterior objects of experience. By creating the AQAL synthesis of interior and exterior, a general sketch of all existence itself has been generated. Eastern thought lays out spiritual development from unconsciousness to universal consciousness, and Western thought maps out the development of reason from elementary to sophisticated.
The next move for Wilber once the connection of interiority with exteriority is established, is to differentiate between the individual and collective dimensions of both interiority and exteriority. The interior individuality is subjective awareness as mind, experience, and feeling. The collective interiority is the domain of shared subjectivity, of intersubjectivity. Parallel with interiority is exteriority or the domains of individual physical beings and objective collectives. What we have a four-point elaboration of subjectivity, objectivity, intersubjectivity, and interobjectivity.
Although Wilber emphasizes the subjective individual in his philosophy, it is the domain of the interobjective where his thought has stumbled upon the most helpful conception for radical social change theory. Radical thought has traditionally identified the institutions and structures of society as the key arena for lasting permanent social change. The shift from capitalism to socialism is one example of a "revolution" proposed for social institutions or, the interobjective domain. By approaching the institutional in terms of its distinctiveness from intersubjective and subjective domains, we may be able to establish practical and powerful delineations of the notoriously slippery concepts of "structure" and "institution." Although Wilber makes almost no elaboration of interobjective domains beyond identifiying their progression from tribal government to modern democracy in political institutions, there seems to me far more fruitful work that can be done with interobjective discriminations of the political tasks that face the left.
Wilber's understanding of interobjective realities parallels his understanding of subjective and intersubjective realities. In short, institutions and social structures develop and evolve. His thought on how they change has not yet reached as complex and thorough elaboration as his thought on interior subjectivity, but no systematizer can do all the work implied in the system proposed. At some level, the development of the interobjective domain and its key stages and potentials await another thinker of the caliber of Habermas or Marx.