Towards an immanent spiritual life?

Part One: Intro by Michel Bauwens

This might be a little difficult to follow for most of our readers, but it is an important issue that relates to: is there a participatory spiritual life?

There are an increasing number of people like myself, who have been at some point in their life very active in the search for Enlightenment and the search for the ultimate meaning of life, who at some point have rejected this notion of absolute liberation and absolute transcendence. We also generally critique any approach that is solely focused on the development of individual consciousness, finding this ultimately a form of spiritual narcissism.

But does that mean that we have no spiritual life? Not at all. We may still do contemplative and meditative exercises, as a way to be ‘more aware’ and ‘more connected’, but the priority of our efforts lies in our engagement with the present world (but not seen in a reductionist, temporally or spatially restricted manner), in its fullness of beings, in our relational ability to extend the circle of care and concern.

Though I have not practiced it in any systematic way, as my life is now geared to seeding and growing the p2p meme itself, I have most sympathy for those type of approaches that start from the premise that spiritual life is a matter of confronting the experiences of ourselves and our peers, building an ever deeper context of understanding, empathy and care. See our entries on Relational and Participatory Spirituality for more, .

Now for the more difficult part.

The background for the following is a reading of two essays; one by Roland Benedikter, . is an extensive, but in my view also somewhat repetitive, inquiry into the possible convergence of the insights of the late postmodernists, with the integral approach of Ken Wilber. It basically claims that at the end of their lives, great postmodernists such as Derrida, came to accept the witness position (being aware of being aware), as central to further growth, but that they didn’t go ‘all the way’. So the Wilberian scheme provides a way forward for that bottleneck for further evolution of the western mind. As I said before, I also find that this essay stresses ‘individual change of consciousness’ as the sole criteria, and that, I’m caricaturing but this is how I see it, if we all would evolve as Wilber, and, god forbid, as Andrew Cohen, western civilization would get out of its predicament.

The other essay, by Gregory Desilet, analyses how in his view, both Wilber and Benedikter misinterpret Derrida. Heady stuff, but worth reading.


Because according to Desilet, Derrida carries a notion of ‘quasi-transcendence’, or what I would call ‘transcendence in the field of infinite immancence itself’, which points to a way forward for contemporary spirituality. In easy terms, it means simply that, even though we may reject absolute transcendence (or in my case, just leave it as an open possibility, as in Pascal’s wager), the field of immanence is such, that it is infinite, and that we can always transcend our current limitations, evolving to higher complex understandings (including through the use of the witness mind), extending of circle of care, understanding, empathy and solidarity.

So that’s the intro. We follow up with a copy of our email correspondence with Desilet.

Part two: Desilet on Derrida, Wilber and Benedikter

Regarding the Benedikter piece on the Integral World website, you raise an important and difficult question. I understand where you are coming from when you comment that the piece seems “totally oblivious of both the relational and action-in-the-world aspects of humans.” I sense something similar as well, although I would not say that it is “totally oblivious” of the aspects you mention. In Part V, I think the interviewer and Benedikter dance around this issue while not confronting it or pursuing it in the direction I would like to see.

As I only suggest in my article on Wilber and Derrida I think the problem arises from the way in which Benedikter understands the “double I” structure of “consciousness.” Following a postmodern line, he correctly sees the nature of self (and consciousness) as divided–in his words between the “normal” self and the the “witness” self. But for Benedikter the witness self seems to be theorized as a more primary and/or primordial self–a “pure activity of consciousness.” At the end of Part V he seems to suggest that this witness self may be properly viewed as a manifestation of godhead and, as such, the side of self with which we ought to strive to become more in tune with or identified with in the evolution toward highest enlightenment.

In Part V Benedikter also critiques postmodernism as leaning too far in the direction of nominalism at the expense of realism, thereby establishing an unhealthy imbalance. He finds this imbalance in the postmodern/deconstructive emphasis (as he believes) on a constructivism that leads to a vicious circle of relativism and, ultimately, meaninglessness. He believes that by restoring balance to the cosmological/ontological/metaphysical framework–a balance between nominalism and realism–we can also achieve a balance between the “subjective and objective.”

I think Benedikter’s instinct that a balance should be sought is a good instinct and coincides with your instinct that the focus on the aspects of consciousness and self should not come at the expense of relation (to others and to world). But here I believe Benedikter misunderstands Derrida and thereby the most viable expression of postmodern philosophy (though I do understand that Derrida did not like being labeled as “postmodern”).

Benedikter acknowledges Derrida’s respect for Levinas. But the respect Derrida had for Levinas is an indication of Derrida’s respect for the “other” and the self/other structure of human being (although Derrida differed from Levinas here as well–and that is a discussion too long for this email). Unlike the “double I” structure of normal self and witness self, this structure includes everything that can be imagined as “other”–including especially other human beings and the entire world of beings. For Derrida the “other” that is of the self is also of a piece with the “otherness” of all that is and is yet to come.

Benedikter’s “witness self” differs from this “other” in the way in which Benedikter seems to structure it. For Derrida, this “other” is also divided in its essence and origin and must not be idealized into a kind of “godhead” toward which we are reaching. This “other” is also the other that coud bring pain, suffering, and all the things associated with the worst of human action and experience. Derrida’s “affirmation” of the other as it includes suffering and wrongdoing is not an endorsement of suffering and wrongdoing. But it does accept these as ultimately an irreducible part of otherness. But this does not mean these are beyond “deconstruction,” beyond critique, evaluation, identification, and censure.

This is where many misunderstand deconstruction and its implications. Here the source of “evaluation” and “judgment” is not tied to a “godhead” or “pure consciousness” or “absolute transcendence.” Instead, it is tied to a “quasi-transcendence” that is rooted in time and context (a context that includes a world of others). This process is “relative” but always (absolutely) open to further judgment and refinement. This openness of context (to the “other”–including other humans) insures that contexts are never isolated from each other to the extent that we can say one contextualization and interpretation is as good as another (vicious relativism). Interpretations and contexts (and humans) are always open and exposed to each other and overlapping contexts and thereby open to an intruding and perhaps corrective judgment through renewed, broader, and perhaps more relevant contextualization.

Wilber understands that relativism need not lead to meaninglessness, as his reference to Einstein’s special relativity indicates (technically, however, special relativity involves a system of measurment where measurement from one point of view is as good as another). The kind of contextualism resulting from deconstruction does not lead to this kind of relativism (in fact, Derrida claimed that it did not lead to any of the technical senses of philosophical relativism at all). It is not possible to go into all the aspects of this contextualism here, but for more on this you can see the essay on my web site titled “Physics and Language.”

In conclusion, I would say that the problem I (and you) seem to spot in Benedikter is one that he recognizes but tends to try to resolve in a way that involves 1) heading in the wrong direction (toward a kind of transcendentalism of the witness self) and 2) failure to see that Derrida’s deconstruction already contains a resolution. But Derrida’s resolution does not look like one to Benedikter because he fails to see that it already offers a balance between nominalism and realism and self and other–but one that retains a paradoxical understanding of oppositional tensions (what I refer to as the “one that is also two”–a both/and structure that precludes forms of absolute transcendence). In the end, Derrida’s deconstruction leaves us no escape from certain limits and frailties of judgment–often all too human judgment. And this may be what concerns Benedikter and like-minded folks (including, I think, Wilber).

1 Comment Towards an immanent spiritual life?

  1. AvatarMikhail

    Eventually man comes to the point where he asks: “What do I live for?” In other words, one does not find any pleasure in this life anymore, or he only sees very little. One starts asking about pleasure, as well as about the meaning of life. It is because the meaning of life is to feel that one’s egoistic desire is filled. However, if there is nothing to fill it with, then what does one live for?

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