Rich Carlson’s critique of Integral Theory (3): Wilber’s approach as hyper-rational

We continue the discussion/presentation of Rich Carlson’s essay on the ideological aspects of the contemporary integral movement. We first presented his general ideological critique, followed by an extensive excerpt on the neoconservative nature of Beck and Wilber’s theorizing.

In a further part, Rich Carlson tackles Recapitulation Theory, the idea that individual human development ‘recapitulates’ the evolution of the species,i.e. the cultural evolution of mankind up to the present time.

Rich writes:

The ideological blind spots of recent integral theories and practices explored here are three fold. The first, or fundamentalism, is melded to religion, the second, neo-liberalism, is appropriated by the power structures of free market economics, the third, which I refer to as neo-conservatism, is not so much a consequence of hegemonic desire as it is a consequence of its ordering (systemization) strategies.”

One of these ordering mechanisms is the psychological recapitulation theory, i.e. that a child’s development recapitulates the stages of human culture.

Rich Carlson drives heavily on Gould to make his point:

Drawing an equivalence between the child and the primitive is couched with hidden dangers:

“For anyone who wishes to affirm the innate inequality of races, few biological arguments can have more appeal than recapitulation, with its insistence that children of higher races (invariably one’s own) are passing through and beyond the permanent conditions of adults in lower races. If adults of lower races are like white children, then they may be treated as such—subdued, disciplined, and managed (or, in the paternalistic tradition, educated but equally subdued). The “primitive-as-child” argument stood second to none in the arsenal of racist arguments supplied by science to justify slavery and imperialism. I do not think that most scientists who upheld the primitive-as- child argument consciously intended to promote racism. They merely expressed their allegiance to the prevailing views of white intellectuals and leaders of European society. Still, the arguments were used by politicians and I can find no evidence that any recapitulationist ever objected.(Gould 1977 p126)


“Criminal anthropology and racist ideology used the primitive-as- child argument to reinforce their claims about adults-atavistic deviants or members of lower races, respectively. But the argument could be reversed, usually with more benevolence, to ask what comparative anatomy and evolutionary history had to say about the nature of children. Recapitulation supplied an obvious general answer: we understand children only when we recognize that their behavior replays a phyletic past.” (Gould 1977 p135)

In drawing comparison between children and indigenous peoples it is no surprise that Recapitulation Theory has also been a justification for colonialist intent.

That this danger is not just theoretical but can have real political consequences is shown by the Wilber/Beck interpretation of the invasion of Iraq. (see yesterday’s entry)

Given all these problems with Wilber’s integral theory, Carlson then aims to find a root cause, by drawing on Gebser himself, and his distinction of mental and integral structures:

Ed Mahood Jr. who has given an excellent overview of Jean Gebser’s work, summarizes;

“abstraction becomes a key word to describe mental activity and we find man using his mind to overcome and “master” the world around him. With abstraction comes philosophizing, hence the philosopheme is the primary form of expression…. He then links perspective, which is perhaps Gebser’s most powerful trope for distinguishing cultural mutations with time perception which is abstract in the mental structure … Perspective has come to be a major part and aspect of our mental functioning. Perspective is the life blood of reasoning and the Rational structure of consciousness, which Gebser considers to be only a deficient form of the Mental structure. We should remember, however, that this is also the time of philosophy. The mental ordering and systematization of thought becomes the real dominant mode of expression.” (Mahood Jr para 31 -37)

Also …

time itself was conceptualized (spatialized) as an “arrow” that points from the past to the future by way of the present.” (Feuerstein in Mahood Jr para 31-37)

Spatial, perspectival, representational thinking with an arrow of time pointing from the past to present to future is characteristic of Wilber’s AQALS model.”

This inquiry leads to interesting conclusions:

Although Ken Wilber is a brilliant theorist his entire opus is an attempt to create a systematic philosophy which attempts to represent and order all forms of individual, social, biological, and universal reality into a spatial model in which evolution moves progressively according to the arrows of time. It is just this manner of philosophizing that Gebser refers to as proper to the “mental” mutation.

The AQALS is a dense system of multi-dimensional quadrants, grids, waves, streams, states, structures, spirals; a Glass Bead Game (Hesse 1943/2002) for “Spiral Masters” who play at perfecting a simularca of Enlightenment. Given its implicit infinite series of holonic signifiers, its constant deferral of meaning to a multiplicity of cross references and notes, it is a perfect hyper-text theory. In the intensification of space of a model which attempts to represents literally everything the phenomenology of lived experience collapses into a complex simulation or reality.

Such a theory seems well suited to an era in which we must constantly sort and order multiple streams of information, in which space and time have been compressed into the ten thousand executable commands of code that discloses the world to us through desk top metaphors and hyper-text links. Rather than an integral theory Ken Wilber’s efforts would perhaps better be referred to as hyper-mental or hyper-modern. If true, his philosophy would be well suited for our times.

What we are witnessing today is the extreme manifestation of the rational-mental structure operating in what Gebser referred to as a “deficient phase.” In this phase, rationality takes center stage, disallowing all other structures of consciousness from coming into awareness. In a sense, rationality becomes hyper-rational, deficient, and imbalanced, its mentality proliferates into collective consciousness, dividing and segmenting the world to such a degree that the result is fragmentation, anomie, and a decline in meaning. In effect, the rational-mental structure has imploded in on itself—not into a mutation, not into aperspectival consciousness, but into a hyper-extension of the perspectival world.

Hyper-perspectivism, in conjunction with cyberspace, has created a new epistemic order based on non-referentiality or depthlessness, collapsing the distinction between signified and signifier. The result is a cultural fascination with surfaces, images, and a restless energy intent on gratifying arbitrary and ephemeral desires.

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