The Limits of Ken Wilber: An Appreciation

ken wilber

Ken Wilber likes to say that every stage of human psychological or spiritual growth “includes and transcends” the previous stage. We don’t lose our capacity to access earlier stages of development; and we don’t reject those earlier stages as “wrong.” We see the logic that drives earlier stages and can operate within that logical framework whenever it’s necessary.

He also seems to imply that growth is a gradual diminishment of ego as a driving force. A wider and wider horizon of empathy accompanies each stage of development.

This vision provides the impression of a kind of winding stairway or double-helix of personal progress. Each step in this stairway represents a certain leap from one set of assumptions or “action-logics” (Torbert) to a new and more encompassing set of assumptions. But all in all, this “inclusion and transcendence” represents a gradual growth.

Wilber’s whole body of work is profound, precise and coherent, even if the emphasis on inclusion and transcendence seems incomplete. It might be a small objection, but rather than saying we “include and transcend” each previous stage, we might say that transcendence of previous stages involves inclusion and shedding or sacrifice (the positive and the negative). Because in every stage of development (whether from 1st grade to 2nd; or from an ethnocentric to a more interconnected vision) fundamental assumptions driving previous stages are lost or negated. This is far more significant than inclusion. Inclusion is simply what remains by default after certain fundamental beliefs are sacrificed. The real change occurs via negation or sacrifice of old beliefs. Negation removes a layer of confused mud, leaving the vision a little more cleansed and wider in focus. What isn’t removed is still (by default) included in the new vision.

I picture a snake shedding its skins, and with each shedding the snake becomes more vivid (or perhaps more translucent, depending on how we wish to develop this analogy).

Maybe Wilber’s emphasis on inclusion and transcendence betrays an overly “positive” focus; almost as if he were inviting the ego to imagine its own infinite expansion, and to ignore the discontinuity of extinction that is inevitable and necessary in any real change of heart and mind.

Because negation can also be described as a leap into the unknown – a fully creative shift that has no predetermination. What we negate is not necessarily consistent for everyone. I wonder if clearly demarked stages only develop in retrospect, and carve a cultural habit of development in the young (who follow the same patterns, leaping in the same direction). But is this predetermined, or only a subtle form of indoctrination?

I’m not sure. This is what I want to discover.

I realize that someone in a very primitive stage of development (a child in 1st grade say) can’t make the leap into a fully functioning adult without passing through certain predictable stages of cognitive and emotional (etc.) development.

However, almost every child in this culture has already gotten deeply entangled in a poisonous web of values and beliefs; and is forced to disentangle itself from this web. And it may be this process of disentanglement that Wilber and others interpret as stages of development.

A child raised in a less poisonous culture may in fact develop very quickly, so that these stages shrink like an accordion. So yes, there are stages, but are they inevitably drawn out in the way we tend to live them; and would they necessarily follow the same patterns if the culture shifted drastically?

Part of the “inclusion” Wilber talks about is the capacity to revisit previous stages when the need arises. We don’t abandon access to older “logics”. The impression I get from hearing him may not be what he actually means. But he doesn’t emphasize the fact that we don’t return to these old stages in exactly the same frame of mind. The double-helix isn’t a stable structure. We can return to an earlier framework of ethnocentric logic (to defend our family against an intruder perhaps), but we don’t entirely lose the wider perspective of empathy, even if we end up forced to kill someone in self-defense. We’re not returning to old static stages, so much as operating within an old framework from a new perspective.

That’s because negation or shedding isn’t reversible. Once we see through the illusion of something, we can’t un-see what we learned. Unless, of course, the insight was fake, merely verbal. He would call these momentary insights “states”, rather than full “stages”. I’m being harsher for the moment in distinguishing them as “fake” and “real” insights, because this helps me get at the heart of what bothers me about these stage development models as a whole. They may represent culturally habituated delays in facing the illusion of a permanent Self; different levels of partial insight, which become “fake” insights when we gather them into our egos as forms of personal advancement. Either this illusion is discovered or it isn’t. Telling people that they’re “getting there”, getting closer and closer to the death of ego, is a way of luring people into a series of ever more subtle partial insights, delays that involve self-deception. The ego feels it is participating in its own gradual extinction, which is an infinite limit it will never succeed in crossing.

All in all I think these stage models under-emphasize the radical discontinuity implied when the illusions of an ego-logic are exposed.

Maybe the death of Literalism (which includes the death of a literal sense of Self) is a far more radical discontinuity than Wilber and others acknowledge; and that this negation can’t be mapped as a stage. It may in fact represent the ending of psychological stages of the sort Wilber describes; and perhaps the beginning of a wholly different form of development that is far less patterned or predictable.

And also less gradual. See, if I look back down the trajectory of history, it’s easy to pick out different discontinuous moments in history – revolutions in thought, technology and governance – but the overall impression till now is still one of gradual progress.

If, however, we look at our history from the “side” (so to speak), the trajectory doesn’t look quite so predictable or gradual.  A side view highlights the central discontinuity of Literalism.

Until Literalism is seen through, our disentanglement proceeds along stages of development that actually represent an infinite limit of ever more subtle forms of Literalism.

But this would suggest a meta-level pattern of development after all, much like “first there is a mountain; then there is no mountain; then there is.” That too is a stage description, but one that describes breaking through the delusion of Literalism.

Stage descriptions are in fact a brilliant way of denoting shifts in perspective that occur in coming to terms with thought and language. But I wonder if the elaboration of these stage shifts depicts culturally habituated delays in facing the limitations of thought (Literalism)? Do these more detailed stage depictions only describe how we disentangle ourselves from shared starting assumptions? In other words, are these developmental maps only mapping how a particular culture avoids a fundamental insight? Have we merely found ways of delaying our maturation, and is that what these maps depict?

All in all, stages of development are fictions in the sense that we can break up the world into any number of key “breaking points”. They are honest fictions, because they allow us to recognize different shifts in consciousness. He notes this often also: There is no argument between one description and another; each highlights a different kind of psychological shift.

But I also think that seeing through the illusion of Literalism is the primary shift or discontinuity. So long as that illusion holds, smaller stages of development form; but these progress along an infinite limit that can’t ever resolve Literalism itself.

That’s why I tend to find more meaning in Krishnamurti’s observation that ‘there is no psychological evolution”. He meant that all the (real) stages of ego development noted by Wilber and others are making an infinite number of steps out of one natural shift; so they function primarily as delays and distractions from the “central issue.”

But it’s still very interesting that both Wilber’s model of psychological evolution and K’s observation that there is no psychological evolution are simultaneously correct within their own fields of reference. Wilber from a more analytical, theoretical view along the trajectory. Krishnamurti from the “side” view that runs directly into death.

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