Ken Wilber & His Philosophy
by Miriam Pia
Ken Wilber is one of the dominant and ‘game changing’ American philosophers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. His work broke with the status quo of academic philosophies of both the West and the East. Because of that, his work, although famous outside of most Western philosophy based universities has not become popular or frequently taught within them. The one place he is best known for having taught is in fact the first established Buddhist based university in the United States of America, the Naropa Institute in Colorado. As it happens Boulder, Colorado with the Rocky Mountains does mimic some of the basic underlying type of geography as the Tibetan culture and philosophy which came into being in the snowy Himalayan Mountains.
What makes Ken Wilber’s Philosophy so different?
Epistemology is the area of philosophy devoted to figuring out and clarifying what knowledge is, since only by knowing what knowledge is can we – as individuals and as the human race, know what to be sure of as being truth and what remains ignorance of one kind or another.
There are clear traditions of ideas and beliefs about what the truth is and how to determine it in both Western and Eastern philosophical traditions. The main radical measure that Ken Wilber takes in his ‘integral philosophy’ is that he reviews the Western tradition and makes a new organized schema. For many in the Western tradition, to borrow from the philosophy of science of the 1980s, Wilber’s Integral Philosophical system creates a new paradigm. He does this by showing how much of what was argued over in terms of their relation to truth in terms of priority and hierarchy in the preceding 300 years of philosophical tradition can be couched into new language and put together into a new schema without denying any of them.
The main schools of thought in the Western tradition about truth and knowledge are:
Idealism: Plato and Kant, and later Hegel and other German idealists. These posit that truth can be learned through mental operations and that abstract thinking can lead to real world results because of 2 factors: 1 is that much of truth and the ability to perceive it is built right into the human mind, and that 2 logic and mathematics and proper philosophical inquiry, and later also scientific research methods also yield real and legitimate results.
Plato argued that the truth of things is right in the perception of them within a realm seen as the human mind or perceivable by the mind. The main example is what has come to be known as ‘the principle of the thing’, where Plato taught that the principle of any object was real as an idea or ideal and that if anything, things took shape from the reality of the realm of ideas more than the other way around.
Kant explained that some of what is true shows up right in the mind – these are a priori ideas, which are true of the human mind and indicate what is true about the world. Kant read Plato and Aristotle and knew at least some Christianity, and possibly knew post-Judaic Christianity (after the Council of Nicea people could become Christian without having to convert to Judaism) very well.
From then up to the present there have been schools of thought which developed out of believing that idealism is true, believing in idealism in a limited way, and running counter to idealism. In the ancient world, Plato came right before Aristotle but unlike Plato Aristotle was not an idealist. He thought Plato’s theory of forms was wrong and went around cataloging species of life forms for Emperor Alexander. Aristotle is considered a proto empirical scientist of the Western world. Aristotle believed very strongly in the world as being real and as existing without dependency upon any human mind for its existence, but did view human perception as having some kind of reality.
The development of the empirical sciences and scientific method during the previous 3 centuries, although there were scientific and technological breakthroughs going back thousands of years before the advent of modern science: in Western cultures was directly related to accepting Kant’s idea that part of what is real and some of the truth that can be perceived has to do with the human mind and the ability to think and the rest of it has to do with the outside world. Hence, by relating to the world of sensory experience the right way, and by thinking the right way, humans have a good chance of learning the truth. Theories are the closest to the truth that can be reached given careful examination of the evidence found in the world with lots of help from excellent thinking with a human mind.
Ken Wilber notes early on in the description of his own philosophy the matter of how much the empirical sciences seem to award truth value to the outside world but none to the subjective experience of people. Not only that, claims Ken Wilber, but scientific theories also seem to dismiss society in determining what is true or not. One Continental Philosopher of the 20th century who emphasized the effect of society and in society was Michele Foucault, who’s writings were mainly interdisciplinary. The French tendency to post modernism which Wilber is also aware of, developed with existentialism as a mostly idealist, atheist philosophical movement of the 20th century.
Integral Theory & Truth Quadrants
In Ken Wilber’s integral theory, KW recognizes 4 types of truth which he posits exist for every individual. One, if the subjective realm. This does contain Plato’s world of forms and Kant’s a priori concepts, but also contains everything from logic to dreams and emotions, hopes and fears of individuals. Personal truths about the self and one’s point of view and so on, can all exist in this realm.
Another quadrant of truth, according to integral theory, is the truth about the world, more familial to people as involving a world of sense objects and social relations that exist regardless of human perception but that humans may be able to perceive the truth about.
Wilber’s integral philosophy contains two quadrants which are simultaneously private but also external and existing in a shared realm with other people and other creatures. One of the two is the external world from the perspective of an individual and the other is more the mass scale social scene.
Steps & Stages: Spirituality & Buddhist influences
In actual practice, one of the main differences between Ken Wilber and most of the traditional Western philosophers is that KW learned to meditate within the blended context of Buddhism in Colorado and the more general cultural context of the Rocky Mountains, Christianity – mostly Protestantism, Hippies and Chogyam Chungpa/ Trungpa – who was the first major Buddhist lama (and really a ‘bad boy’ as lamas go) who trekked to North America and introduced Dharma and founded the Naropa Institute when KW was a young boy in the region.
Because KW did bother to learn to meditate, and turned out to be very good at it, he included in his philosophy 4 major states or types of consciousness which in Western philosophical tradition go predominantly unmentioned. Here and there someone refers to imagination and dream states in Western philosophy but normally not in a well organized manner.
How it proceeds
The bulk of Ken Wilber’s philosophical writings explain how he sees his theory functioning within individuals and societal groups. It includes a history and philosophy of human development that goes from the rudimentary and biological up to the spiritual. Through the descriptions, he teaches readers and followers how to get some idea of which levels they are operating on as individuals and then, by knowing where they are, shows them how they might reach subsequent levels. In that respect KW’s philosophical works are infused with inspiration and hope as they are designed to enable readers and followers to really do something in their own lives with the philosophy rather than it being one of the types of philosophical treatises that is full of explanation and description but for readers has no direct, practical value beyond maybe being able to understand why research exists and what it is like when it makes sense.
How it fits in
Beyond what has already been explained, Ken Wilber’s thought has been enigmatic and profound in that it is not a simple rehash of what has been done in the past and yet it really does break with tradition without just destroying tradition.
As an individual, Ken Wilber is someone who was able to become well known and well liked and to fit in in those senses but he has always stood out from the crowd in part due to being exceptionally tall and thin but also due to being a brilliant man who boldly did something like study Plato but also learn to meditate and not run away nor hide from what he learned by doing so.
By reputation, Ken Wilber has become a well known American philosopher despite being regularly ignored by academic philosophy and philosophers because he is 1) an odd ball, and 2) they weren’t responsible for his success and don’t know him and may feel put out that he is a great philosopher out of nowhere rather than after having carefully ensconced in academic philosophy for at least a decade and showing up as a little bit important by contributing the American analytical philosophical tradition with a new treatise on computer logic and the implications for hospital ethics in the 21st century or something ‘normal’ and ‘expected’ like that. Instead, integral theory has grown into a diverse set of organizations that surround sales of Ken Wilber books and workshops. The philosophy has been picked up and partially learned and bandied about as much by corporate coaches as by academic philosophers.
Personally, I think it is not worth denying that despite the ill fit with the majority trends in the American analytic philosophical tradition early in the 21st century, Ken Wilber really is one the best American philosophers certainly of his generation and quite possibly for the century for the Americans.
In truth, to give perspective another way, he is more the spiritual and philosophical son or descendant of the Englishman Alan Watts who was a British philosopher who was one of the first of the 20th century Western thinkers to attempt to engage with Asiatic and Buddhist philosophy. Their 19th century predecessor was actually Friedrich Nietzsche and Louise Andreas-Salome (maybe J. Ree) who tried to go beyond the limits of what they had learned from the ancient Greeks and their philosophical forebears in a decidedly Christian European and North American world.
In that respect, it is proper to understand these thinkers as trying to be more worldly, and cutting edge and inclusive in the scope of their philosophical endeavors, thoughts and trying to write for what Thomas S. Kuhn (philosophy of science 1980s) called a new paradigm.
Ken Wilber’s philosophy is far from useless but really is best understood in the context of trying to bridge Western and Eastern thought, but also trying to push forward with Western consciousness, and draw new conclusions about the debate about which takes philosophical precedence about truth: self, world, a priori ideas or logic?
In general, idealism faded during the 20th century but did not entirely disappear. American and British philosophy became more analytic and atheistic. Continental philosophy became more atheistic but also more interdisciplinary and some forms of idealism persisted but were changed as their context switched from empirical sciences and math over to areas such as music, art criticism and so on. The women’s movements as part of the continuing saga of human civil rights was also involved and showed up because French women existentialists on the Continent and radicals – like Ayn Rand, who was as free standing in her philosophical efforts as Ken Wilber but being a woman, and a conservative, unlike Ken Wilber she was able to do it in part thanks to the funding from her husband while living as a wife.
It may take some decades before universities figure out the best way to place the work of Ken Wilber in relation to the canon for the philosophy curriculum, but already, Ken Wilber has made himself into a prominent American philosopher. Not everyone will agree with him and that one point makes Ken Wilber just like every other great philosopher who has ever walked the Earth.