Ken Wilber on the “Pre/Trans Fallacy”
I’ve been reading Ken Wilber’s The Atman Project: A Transpersonal View of Human Development (1980). It is quite insightful in some respects, and quite lacking in other respects. Of course, you are probably already aware by now that I’m quite critical of Wilber’s approach to the integral.
Still, there are things about the book that make it worthwhile despite its apparent failure to properly interpret the Atman as “the fourfold Atman” as described in the Upanishads. It’s fine to describe the realisation of Atman as the end goal of all human striving, evolution, and development. But what is also needed is an explication of why Atman is fourfold at all. So far in my reading of it, this isn’t addressed in the book.
Atman, as the fully self-realised, was also that which Nietzsche was trying to approach with his notion of the Übermensch. That, of course, has been largely misinterpreted. But the ancient conception of the fourfold Atman is rather important for interpreting many of the enigmas of religion — such as why there are four Vedas, why the Buddha’s chariot is pulled by four horses and why the Buddha received the four “Guardians of the Four Directions” upon his enlightenment, or why even, in the Book of Revelation, the Throne of God is described as surrounded by four “beasts”. All these are also represented in Blake’s “fourfold vision” and in his conception of “Albion divided fourfold”. And for that matter, it pertains equally to much Christian iconography — why, for example, the Crucified Christ is usually depicted as surrounded by the Four Evangelists — Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John — or why Christ Consciousness is often depicted as a tetramorph.
The Atman, too, is a tetramorph, and so far in my reading, this is what is missing in Wilber’s The Atman Project. (And I am so very happy to have discovered this term “tetramorph”, as it relieves me of the task of having to invent one). Atman could be simply described as the One Who is Many. Of course, it is true that Wilber attempted to make up for this lack of attention to the tetramorph with his own fourfold AQAL model (All Quadrants, All Levels), but this, as I’ve argued in the past, is deficient, being all too clearly only a reformed Cartesianism and not an authentic transform. For that reason, I’m often frustrated reading Wilber, and he has also often been criticised for misinterpreting Jean Gebser as well.
Still, despite this oversight, there are some useful things in The Atman Project. One of those matters I’ve already addressed, and that is his conception of the twelve phases of the human cycle leading to the Atman, which has some affinity with Rosenstock-Huessy’s “Twelve Tones of the Spirit” (which is Chapter VI of I Am An Impure Thinker). This is useful, as it helps illuminate why “twelve” is such an archetypal number (twelve disciples, twelve signs of the Zodiac, twelve tribes of Israel, twelve gods of high Olympus, twelve principle archetypes of “the collective unconscious”, the twelve winds of the Compass Rose, and so on). But as for getting from “the fourfold Atman” to these “twelve tones of the spirit”, Wilber seems rather opaque about this.
The other matter that Wilber introduces in The Atman Project is what he calls “the pre/trans fallacy”, and this is quite important, and Wilber confesses that he was guilty of this himself in his earlier writings. Although the distinction between the “pre-” and the “trans-” can be overdrawn, this is valid, and is probably implied, too, in what Gebser felt was the deficiency of the psychoanalytic school — it’s “psychism”, as he called it, which was the conflation of the psychistic with the authentically spiritual.
This is the topic I want to address specifically in today’s post, since it is the meaning of the “pre/trans fallacy”.
These orientations are also implied in Rosenstock-Huessy’s distinction between the “trajective” and the “prejective” types or orientations in his “cross of reality” model, the former being an orientation “backwards” and the latter an orientation “forwards”. In those terms, it means, then, correspondingly a regression or a progression. This distinction is why Gebser, for example, insists that we do not confuse “origin” with “beginning”. Origin is “ever-present” and not an event in the past. So, in effect, Gebser is warning against “nostalgism”. Nostalgism and aspiration point in different directions — the “pre-” and the “trans-“. Nostalgia is “trajective”, aspiration is “prejective” in those terms.
So, this issue of the “pre-” and the “trans-“, or the trajective and prejective, is quite important to understand because it is also implicated in much of today’s “culture war”, which is about as easy to understand as the Syrian crisis, which is quite the Gordian Knot and Hydra-headed monster, or the proverbial “tangled web”. Culture War, like the Syrian crisis, brings to mind the old Abbott & Costello skit “Who’s On First?”
Humour aside, the “pre/trans fallacy”, even as described by Wilber, becomes crucial in the context of the main theme of the last century — “the return of the repressed” — and for understanding Aurobindo, for example (Aurobindo appears to be the main influence in Wilber’s writing The Atman Project. Gebser appears to be a later influence on Wilber).
The return of the repressed may lead to a regression of the ego-consciousness to the psychistic, something referred to as “psychic inflation” which is the contrary movement towards an effective integration. If effect, with the “pre” fallacy, the ego is in danger of being assimilated by the so-called “unconscious” or “collective unconscious”. This is not a desirable outcome of the return of the repressed, but quite a lot of this is happening right now, and the problem of psychic inflation is that the “pre-” and the “trans-” become confused with one another, especially in this idea of “wokeness” being bandied about today. Psychic inflation can give someone the delusion of “transcendence” when it is, in fact, not so, ,but a regressive assimilation of the ego-consciousness by the unconscious or “the Shadow”.
So, in many respects, the “pre/trans fallacy” is the confusion of assimilation and integration. This is very common, and it is wrong to assume these mean the same thing, just as much as it is to assume that “total” and “whole” mean the same thing. This distinction can be very subtle, but if you keep in mind the paradox of the One and the Many, and keep in mind how origin differs from beginning, or integration differs from assimilation, or a whole differs from a totality, you should be on very safe ground. And it would mean, of course, that you are also beginning to more effectively deploy the “Master mode” of attention and consciousness described by Iain McGilchrist in his book The Master and His Emissary. Or, we should say, rather, that the “Emissary” is beginning to realise its authentic function within the whole — to be the servant and not the master.
This is, I would say, the most important thing about The Atman Project, even though I find Wilber to be too much still beholden to the obscurities of Cartesian metaphysics. You only have to compare Wilber’s AQAL model with Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality” to see where Wilber’s model is deficient, and so cannot hit the target he claims for it — integral consciousness. It’s errors are, in fact, so elementary that it’s a wonder anyone takes this AQAL model at all seriously as a model of integrality. For one thing, you’ll never understand Gebser’s “pre-existing pattern” in the evolution of his four consciousness structures by referencing the AQAL model, nor even what William Blake means by “fourfold vision” or “Albion divided fourfold”
This is not the place, though, to revisit my earlier critique of the deficiencies of the AQAL model (which got me into some hot water with some devotees of Ken Wilber). But the truth is, you’ll never come to understand the fourfold Atman or the meaning of the tetramorph by musing over the AQAL model. The “pre/trans fallacy”, though, is an important idea to understand.