Ken Wilber

February 23, 2010 | Leave a Comment

Category: Biology, Ontogeny, Ouroboros

My wife introduced me to Ken Wilber’s work about three years after the website went up.  That was around 2003.  From there I read maybe six of his books (he’s written close to 20) and listened several times to the 10-CD interview he conducted.

In the previous piece, I noted the prerational and transrational distinction he makes that clearly demarcates the differences between aboriginal prepersonal points of view and more recent spiritual transpersonal experiences.  The two are often confused.  Wilber efficiently parses out the differences, using a system of seven stages of maturation that apply to both individuals and societies.

Wilber looks at some feminist inclinations to view ancient times as more evolved in human relations as another case of comparing seemingly positive aspects of earlier stages of societal evolution, or maturation, with later-stage negative features.  For example, human sacrifice was common in matrifocal agricultural society, a fact usually ignored by those seeking synthesis in the past.  Wilber suggests that some feminists pick and choose what they want to emphasize when comparing female-centered societies with contemporary patrifocal examples.

Paying close attention to similarities between evolution and maturation on both individual and social scales, Wilber, guided by the work of Habermas, Gebser, Adi Da, and others, feels to me to still be operating from a natural selection frame of reference.  Wilber’s trajectory is linear and pyramidal, male and hierarchical in many ways.  Though concepts of maturation are deeply integrated into his point of view, it seems to me that his point of view is informed mostly by a male orientation suggesting survival-of-the-fittest understandings.

What I think Wilber is at least partially missing is cyclical-based evolutionary changes over time.  In evolution by maturation, heterochronic theory, or what I’m now calling The Orchestral Theory, there are surges of maturational delay and acceleration, the prolonging of embryonic features into adulthood and the accordioning of adult features into embryos, which accompany evolution, often with a periodic, cyclic return of features and behaviors, modified as they reappear.

Clearly, both cyclic and linear patterns are in play.  Wilber’s concentration on the linear or hierarchical is probably mostly a function of the times we live in.  Then again, I’ve never noted Wilber ever quoting Gould or the heterochronists.  As a philosopher working with evolutionary principles, he does not often depart from natural selection orthodoxy on those rare occasions that it comes up.  Once, when on a forum discussing Dawkins’ positions on evolutionary theory, Wilber jumped in to make it clear he did not agree with much of what Dawkins says.  Wilber has opinions about biological evolution theory.  They just tend to congregate around natural selection, though not Neo-Darwinism.  It is perhaps odd that Wilber heavily focuses on maturational interpretations of societal change and personal transformation, while he at the same time ignores existing maturational interpretations of biological evolution put forth by the heterochronist Neo-Lamarckians of the nineteenth century.

Wilber, when he focuses on the confusions that accumulate around prerational and transrational, prepersonal and transpersonal, or ancient matrifocal as a current not belonging in the present, seems to overlook the power of cycles to explain much of what does not emerge in linear overviews.  Wilber describes the symbol of the serpent with her tail in her mouth, the oroborus, as not only an archaic representation of spiritual experience, but as a symbol that represents the prepersonal, or prerational, frame of reference.  I believe that Wilber misses the agency of cycles in both the prerational and transrational.  This can result in an interpretation of symbols that picks up some, but not all, of the connotations.  The serpent, as a powerful representation of prerational consciousness, also serves as a symbol of cycles that transcends the prerational, transrational split.

With Wilber, each stage transcends and includes previous stages, so nothing is actually lost or replaced as each transformation or maturation occurs.  Nevertheless, I believe it useful in a linear, nested hierarchy model to accompany these descriptions with the complementary opposite model of cycles, how things transform by maturing both backward and forward in time, often at the same time.  Wilber’s work is remarkable, astonishing and a joy to read.  Still, it could use a female’s touch.


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