Wilber's Research Methodology

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Jennifer Gidley:

"Wilber refers to his main methodology as orienting generalizations which he describes in the following way: “If we look at the various fields of human knowledge—from physics to biologyto psychology, sociology, theology and religion—certain broad, general themes emerge, about which there is very little disagreement” (Wilber, 1996a, p. 17). Expanding on his methods for constructing his theory, Wilber (1996) continues: If we take these types of largely-agreed-upon orienting generalizations from the various branches of knowledge . . . and if we string these orienting generalizations together, we will arrive at some astonishing and often profound conclusions, conclusions that, as extraordinary as they might be, nonetheless embody nothing more than our already-agreed-upon knowledge. . . . In working with broad orienting generalizations, we can suggest a broad orienting map of the place of men and women in relation to Universe, Life and Spirit. (p. 18)

Wilber’s overall ‘integrative method’ is further detailed by Jack Crittenden in the Forward to Wilber’s The Eye of Spirit , (2000d) and described as having three steps.

I have summarized Crittenden’s description of these three steps as follows:

• Wilber develops the orienting generalizations within each field of study—“a type of phenomenology of all human knowledge conducted at the level of orienting generalizations.”

• “Wilber then arranges these truths into chains or networks of interlocking conclusions. At this point Wilber veers sharply from a method of mere eclecticism and into systematic vision.” Crittenden claims that at this point Wilber asks himself: “What coherent system would in fact incorporate the greatest number of these truths?”

• “The third step in Wilber’s overall approach is the development of a new type of critical theory.” Crittenden explains that once Wilber has developed his optimum schema (eg AQAL) he then critiques the partiality of the narrower approaches.

“He criticizes not their truths, but their partial nature” (pp. xiii-xiv).In regard to his own truth claims, Wilber gives mixed messages. In a discussion of what he calls broad science —or even spiritual science —he claims that all “truth claims [can be] guided by the three strands of valid knowledge (injunction, apprehension, confirmation; or exemplars, data, falsification) applied at every level (sensory, mental, spiritual)” (Wilber, 1998, p. 174). In other contexts he honors the role of pluralism and relativism in truth claims. Yet he positions his integral theory above other theories, suggesting that his tacit bias may be to believe that his theory is more “true” than others. In the foreword to the second edition of Up from Eden, Wilber tackled head-on what he sees as the major critiques against evolution theory that still hampered the appropriate development of the evolution of consciousness theory at the time he was writing. Wilber (1996c) claims that there has been considerable opposition to the notion of cultural and consciousness evolution— from the traditionalists, because evil is still happening; the Romantics, who hark back to the past; and from the liberal social theorists, reacting to the horrors of Social Darwinism. He then puts forward several arguments for cultural evolution, particularly drawing on Habermas’ notion of the dialectic of progress. He also points to the “distinction between differentiation and dissociation,” “the difference between transcendence and repression,” “the difference between natural hierarchy and pathological hierarchy,” and how “higher structures can be hijacked by lower impulses” (pp. xi-xiv). These are important theoretical contributions to the discourse."


Wilber as Cartographer

An assessment by Jennifer Gidley:

"Wilber appears to provide the biggest, most comprehensive, map. His more elementary books introduce readers to vast bodies of material from a very broad range of disciplines and perspectives, and organize the information in ways that are not too difficult for the average non-academic reader to understand (Wilber, 1996a, 2000a). His more academic books provide much more depth in many areas, yet the emphasis is still on the organization of the material into maps and charts (Wilber, 2000d, 2000b). The quantity of work he has written is vast and most of it is fairly accessible. However, his depth sounding of the territory itself is lacking in some areas. There is a significant bias toward Eastern spiritualities, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, while largely overlooking major Western esoteric traditions, such as Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry and anthroposophy, to name a few; and some serious distortions, e.g. postmodernism, Derrida(Hampson, 2007). Wilber refers to hundreds of original or secondary sources. Those finding his work useful as a map or guide to spiritual, philosophical or psychological territories are encouraged to consult the primary sources for a deeper understanding of the territory he maps. He also encourages his readers to go to the territory themselves. The major focus of Wilber’s books, particularly since the mid-nineties, is, first and foremost, to conceptually develop and map the most comprehensive theoretical framework of integral knowledge and understanding of humanity, nature and Kosmos. He refers to his own work, unabashedly, as mapping. The following long quote, from the foreword to Visser’s (2003) book about his work, is an encapsulation of this perspective. Every one of my books has at least one sentence, usually buried, that says the following: “.. . It is a sharing of what I have seen; it is a small offering of what I have remembered; it is also the Zen dust you should shake from your sandals; and it is finally a lie in the face of the Mystery which only alone is. ”In other words, all of my books are lies. They are simply maps of a territory, shadows of a reality, gray symbols dragging their bellies across the dead page, suffocated signs full of muffled sound and faded glory, signifying absolutely nothing. And it is the nothing, the Mystery, the Emptiness alone that needs to be realized: not known but felt, not thought but breathed, not an object but an atmosphere, not a lesson but a life. There follows a book of maps; hopefully more comprehensive maps, but maps nonetheless. (p. xv)Wilber’s integral approach has added a significant breadth of content to the evolution of consciousness narrative — much of which was scientistic and disciplinary prior to his seminal contribution through Up from Eden (Wilber, 1996c). He has conceptually integrated much of the20th century Anglophone literature that was written after Steiner’s death and even after publication of Gebser’s Ever-Present Origin. He draws attention to a vast body of literature. He attempts to theorize a framework that can make sense of all the partial approaches—to create a genuine theory of everything (Wilber, 2000a). He admits that all attempts at such an integral vision “are marked by the many ways in which they fail. The many ways in which they fall short, make unwarranted generalizations, drive specialists insane, and generally fail to achieve their stated aim of holistic embrace” (p. xii). In spite of this dilemma, he appears to commit himself in every book to the “ever-receding dream” of a holistic quest (p. xxii). Also, somewhere in each book, usually in the preface or introduction, and often scattered throughout as well, he points to spiritual territory that he claims is beyond words. Reynolds (2004) cites Wilber from A Brief History of Everything : “The task of philosophy, as it were, is not simply to clarify the maps and correct their deviations from reality but to elucidate these deeper currents from which thought couldn’t deviate if it wanted to” (p. xv). Situated as he is in a context of American culture— where fast foods, accelerated learning and a general addiction to an ever-speedier pace of living is the norm—Wilber writes at a hurried pace. In his race to write he does not appear to stop and check for accuracy of details—to edit for redundancies, nor to reflect on and refine his language. That is his major weakness and perhaps also his strength. As a result he is read, loved and revered by many, but he is critiqued by many as well. In summary, providing readers take seriously the fact that the self-declared nature of Wilber’s work is to make conceptual maps, and providing readers also check his major sources for accuracy, and especially that they dive into the territory themselves, then his work can provide a valuable service. Alternatively, if AQAL-integral—or any other integral approach—were to take on the character of a dogma, or an ideology, it could threaten the whole integral project, fragmenting it in its infancy. But it cannot be denied that on the slowly awakening, integral- planetary path, in the hallowed footsteps quietly trodden by Steiner, Gebser and Sri Aurobindo, it is Wilber who, as the Master of Ceremonies, proudly introduces the integral project to the world stage in the 21st century."