My Beef With Ken Wilber

I’ve written before, that I never mention the name Ken Wilber and his popular “Integral Spirituality” in my posts. Then in the last post I contradicted myself and mentioned the name Ken Wilber and the deficiencies of his AQAL model of reality (All Quadrants, All Levels), suggesting that these deficiencies disqualify it as being a truly “holistic” model. I suppose I need to explain myself, then. Wilber has come under fire from others for like reasons.

Although the AQAL model is a “fourfold” or quadrilateral model, it is also misleadingly so. It is very superficial and doesn’t hold up under closer scrutiny. In fact, under closer scrutiny it is revealed to be simply a clumsily modified version of Cartesian metaphysical dualism (we will refer to that as “Cartesianism” henceforth). It seems to have become a compulsion with us to think in these completely inadequate terms.

So, let’s compare Wilber’s quadratic AQAL logic and structure with Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s quadrilateral “cross of reality”, for both models claim to represent a new consciousness and to be able to account for ALL of reality in contrast to the conventional and legacy logic (that is to say, the logico-mathematical or “mental-rational structure of consciousness”).

Typically, I never get too far into a Wilber book. It doesn’t take me long to conclude that the line of thought he follows is going to be frustrated and finally end in a cul de sac. We might call his approach “the deficient integral” as opposed to “the efficient integral”. Wilber seems to me to get off track due to his model of logic — the AQAL model, for it isn’t truly integral and omits, by establishment and by its structure, a very large part of our reality and experience.

Nonetheless, one can laud the sincere impulse towards integralism therein and appreciate some of the valid insights. No truly new consciousness structure, however,  is ever born fully articulate, mature, and well-formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. It always struggles like any babbling newborn to become eloquent and to articulate itself. It often begins in weirdness and confusion, or in slang, slogans and graffiti.

First, let’s begin by examining the essential structure of the AQAL model (and you may read more about it here),

Ken Wilber's AQAL Model and the Three Virtues

Ken Wilber’s AQAL Model and the Three Virtues

Yuck. The first thing I notice about this model is that it is constituted by 3 personal pronouns. I, We, It or first person and third person forms. On this basis, it is claimed that the AQAL model covers all dimensions of reality and experience? If we are going to permit grammatical forms to constitute our thinking about reality, then we have to admit at least four fundamental persons of grammar — I, We, It (He, She, They), and You or Thou. Why is the so-called “second person” of the grammatical relationship AWOL from AQAL? What Wilber has done is take the fundamental subject-object schism and merely pluralised it. I-It relation becomes the We-Its relation. And what can be more contrived than a pronoun rebaptised as “Its”?

Wilber seems to have allowed the all-too familiar (but defective) Alexandrian paradigm of the grammatical persons and forms to subtly dominate his thinking process, so that the essential feature of reality is perceived as its organisation into singular and plural. (In fact, this arrangement or pattern which you all know from school is the very source of the word “paradigm” — a not insignificant detail). It’s an error that has persisted through two millennia. Rosenstock-Huessy liked to call this “the Greek Mind”, and Wilber seems unconsciously beholden to it still.

In the familiar Alexandrian paradigm, the persons of grammar are arranged in singular and plural forms of the three persons

Singular                    Plural
I love                         We love
You love                    You love
He, She It loves        They love

In this paradigm, there are three persons of grammar (called first, second, third) in singular and plural aspects. “We” is, however, mistakenly interpreted as the plural of “I”, and “I” is called “the first person”, whereas, in experiential terms, “I” is never the first person. “You” or “Thou” is, and precisely this personal form is omitted from Wilber’s model. Similarly, “We” is not plural “I’s”. “We” is a separate person altogether. It is the collective person — a singular where “the two shall become one flesh”. That We is a separate person altogether and not pluralised “I” is confirmed by research into universal grammar. All languages inventoried so far all have at least a minimum four person system — You, I, He, We. Some languages have more persons of grammar, but they are variants of these four, just as English has four persons of the third person — He, She, It, They. Rosenstock-Huessy has corrected the paradigm recognising a four person system of grammar as

You  (imperative form)
I (subjunctive form)
We (narrative form)
He, She, It, They (indicative form)

This is a superior arrangement because it is more inclusive of our full experience.

Moreover, it is completely unconscionable that Wilber would include “It” (or even “Its”) as a dominating aspect of the model. This is only the persistence of the subject-object dichotomy. “It” is not normal form. It seems to be derived from Latin “id”. In antiquity (and in many contemporary languages too) “it” does not exist as a person. In antiquity, you could only say the name. As Rosenstock-Huessy pointed out, “it is raining” was an impossible form in antiquity. You could only say “Zeus rains” or “Zeus is raining”. And apparently, in Korean, it is impossible to refer to anything as “it”. Everything is “he” or a “thou”. It would be interesting to trace the beginnings of the use of “it” to refer to things that were once named. I haven’t done that, yet, but I suspect the use of “it” instead of the name coincides with the emergence of the mental-rational consciousness structure. If “it” was impossible, the “its” is even more ridiculous for being so arbitrary and contrived.

OK. Let’s compare Wilber’s quadrant model with Rosenstock-Huessy’s quadrilateral model

Cross of Reality ARosenstock-Huessy’s model doesn’t omit the “you” or “thou” dimension, where the persons of grammar correspond to the actual structure of our complete reality, correspondingly

Rosenstock-Huessy's "cross of reality"

Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality”

We see immediately from this schema why the persons of grammar are minimally four and not three. It’s because we are fourfold beings and our reality is a fourfold structure, too, being constituted of two times and two spaces — past and future, inner and outer. The fourfold human and the fourfold cosmos grew up together. Wilber’s model can’t account for that at all.

So, what’s the problem here? Wilber seems to have omitted time and our experience of time as an irrelevancy. Time isn’t even represented in Wilber’s AQAL model. Only subject and object spaces. Therefore, the human form cannot be properly interpreted, for we have four faces, like some representations of the god Janus, that face backwards, forwards, inwards, and outwards, and we have attendant faculties and consciousness functions organised accordingly for mastery of these dimensions — Jung’s feeling, thinking, sensing, willing functions are attuned to a reality that is fourfold in terms of two times and two spaces. And the four basic persons of grammar — You, I, We, He or She — are the representation in grammar of that reality and that consciousness, that we are fourfold beings just as our reality is a fourfold cosmos.

Comparing Wilber’s model to Rosenstock-Huessy’s, I would have to conclude that Wilber’s model is “deficient integral” owing to its apparent omission of time and subsequently of the “I-thou” relationship in which the time factor is really pronounced. For the “I-It” (or “We-Its”) relation is a relation of spaces — inner and outer, while the “I-Thou” (or “We-thou”) relation is a relation of times.

It is perhaps not so apparent to English speakers especially that the “thou” or “you” form is connected with time future. Other languages, like German, still preserve the formal aspects of this. In old English you had to say “go thou!” or “be thou loving!”, and so on. In other words, the “thou” or “you” is most closely associated with the imperative form and that is the future addressing the past. It is a call to change one’s personal or collective state — what we call the “vocation” or “calling” is time future in dialogue with time past. Time past is represented in the “we” form. We is not plural “I’s”. It is constituted by some historical act, like a marriage or union or congregation of peoples or the sexes in which “the two shall become one flesh”. We is the collective person, historically established by some act. The people in “We the People” is a singularity and a unity, an historically constituted entity called “nation”. A bunch of autonomous “I’s” or egos never yet formed a tribe or a nation — or a commune for that matter. Nor a successful marriage.

Though “I-It” (or “We-Its”) might be permissible in referring to the relation of subject and object spaces, “we-thou” is the relation in which the time element is outstanding.

So much for my beef with Wilber.



3 responses to “My Beef With Ken Wilber”

  1. LittleBigMan says :

    “The fourfold human and the fourfold cosmos grew up together.”

    Profoundly meaningful and beautifully put.

  2. Frank Visser says :

    Hi author,
    Could I repost this essay on Integral World? Please reply to f.visser3 @
    thanks in advance,
    Frank Visser

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