Review: Integral Consciousness and the Future of Evolution, by Steve McIntosh

When I discovered the work of integral philosopher Ken Wilber about three years ago, I was very excited. Cultural evolution had long been a fascination of mine, and was central to my understanding of the gospel (it sort of relates to what I wrote here), so I was thrilled to find a contemporary thinker who wrote so compellingly about it.

At the same time I had serious reservations. His method was (and is) something less than rigorous. He has a penchant for hyperbole that is unbecoming of a philosopher. And his epistemology is idealistic, which I find problematic.

I was also unenthused with the sycophantic dogmatism displayed by many of his readers on the Integral Institute Multiplex discussion forums.

Some of my posts on those forums were copied and pasted on another blog, and someone, commenting on them, noted that I "ask legitimate questions but border on heresy and [risk] being kicked out" of the Integral Institute forums. (That last part might have been an exaggeration, but clearly I'm not the only one to notice the unwelcome emergence of an integral orthodoxy.)

I was pleased to discover Steve McIntosh's 2007 book Integral Consciousness and the Future of Evolution. While acknowledging his debt to Wilber, McIntosh makes some quite valid criticisms of Wilber, which are not far different from my own.

McIntosh spends nearly 150 pages introducing integral philosophy. His discussion of the stages of consciousness and culture includes a nice description of the work of Clare Graves, and what has now become known as "spiral dynamics." Disappointingly, McIntosh likens the parallel between cultural and individual consciousness development to the long-discredited notion that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" in biology:
Just as in biological evolution, where we see a human fetus grow through the stages of the entire tree of life as it develops, we can now likewise see within the development of each human mind, a rough approximation of the evolution of human cultural history. (32)
I also rolled my eyes a bit when I reached the chapter on integral politics, which makes the case for some form of global governance. McIntosh is aware that this idea is usually dismissed as "an idealistic fantasy best left for another century," while others consider it "the world's worst nightmare, a scenario in which the corporate elite gain complete control, and everything that is currently wrong with the U.S. government becomes writ-large on the world" (105).

While I think McIntosh makes some compelling arguments, I think he underestimates the resistance such an idea would face in the country whose participation would be most critical, namely the US. Just consider the hysterical reaction among American conservatives to such benign instruments as the United Nations "Convention on the Rights of the Child." These are people with an already-established animus against anything that smacks of "world government," and, as a Monty Python sketch once said about similar creatures, "Once they get an idea in their heads, there's no shiftin' it."

I can't do justice to McIntosh's arguments for this idea (and against the inevitable objections), but suffice it to say, I don't think it is going to be a realistic possibility at any time in the near future. But then again, who knows? In periods of upheaval like we are currently experiencing, previously unthinkable things become thinkable.

In the second part of his book, McIntosh surveys some of the important thinkers whose works have influenced integral thought, including Hegel, Bergson, Whitehead, Teilhard de Chardin, Jean Gebser, James Mark Baldwin, Clare W. Graves, Jurgen Habermas, and, of course, Ken Wilber.

Although McIntosh is very appreciative of Wilber's contribution, he acknowledges also his weaknesses, such as "the fact that [Wilber] sometimes plays fast and loose with a lot of serious scholarship, using it in ways the authors he cites would be unlikely to agree with" (155). He notes, too, that Wilber is both a philosopher and a spiritual teacher. While there is nothing wrong with this, Wilber "does advance his personal belief system as though it were an empirical matter of fact," and "it is often difficult to separate his philosophy from his religion" (155). McIntosh says that, "for those of us who are not Hindus or Buddhists, Wilber's spiritual teaching does not always speak to our experiences of spirit" (155).

I don't think I'm as bothered by this as McIntosh is, and I'm a little bit more sympathetic than he is with Wilber's belief that a "broad empiricism" can attain objective truth from mystical experience, something I've touched on before in my consideration of Zen in the light of Bernard Lonergan's cognitional theory.1

There are some problems. McIntosh often refers to "the will," in the problematic sense of a psychological faculty. He also confuses "intentionality" with "volition." This is partly understandable, as in popular parlance they mean basically the same thing. In philosophy, however, "intentionality" means something quite different. In philosophy, when it is said that mental states (or acts of sensation, for that matter) are "intentional," it means that they are always about something. So "thinking" is intentional because you cannot think without thinking about something. It has nothing to do with volition. He misunderstands Franz Brentano to have been speaking of intentionality in the popular sense (as volition), which was not how Brentano used the term. He misunderstands a quotation by Allan Combs in the same way (which is odd, because the quotation itself contains an explanation of the correct meaning of the term).

Those quibbles aside, I would still recommend this book to someone looking for a clear and very readable introduction to integral philosophy. The original contributions (described in a section under the helpful heading "What I Add to Integral Philosophy") are somewhat underwhelming, being mostly limited to greater emphasis on this, an enhanced understanding of that, disagreements with Ken Wilber on this, that, and the other -- but McIntosh does a good job of explaining integral philosophy, and it's good to have published criticisms of Wilber from within the community of self-identified integral thinkers. He also writes very perceptively about politics, and I suspect this is one area where McIntosh will make a very substantial and original contribution.


[1] I should add, though, that while Wilber's notion of "broad empiricism" and Lonergan's generalized empirical method have some things in common (such as the recognition that experience of data of consciousness, and not merely data of sense, can, after a process of understanding, result in objective knowledge), Wilber has not fully recognised the importance of reasonable judgment and what Lonergan calls "grasp of the virtually unconditioned" in the attainment of knowledge.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.