Frank Visser on Ken Wilber

Ken Wilber

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Be sure to read this too:

Frank Visser & The 1st Biennial Integral Theory Conference

From August 2008

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Frank Visser On Ken Wilber
A Video Interview with Frank Visser (Full Transcript)
With Randi Cecchine

Original Link

Frank Visser Writes:

The #250 Jubilee issue of the Integral World Newsletter featured an interview with Frank Visser by Randi Cecchine, a New York video artist and documentary producer. She attended the Amsterdam Ken Wilber Meetup this summer for a couple of meetings – sometimes even being the only one attending… Of course, after having been listening for hours to my talking about Wilber, over some wine and dinner in the famous Cafe Restaurent Amsterdam, which is located in a monumental industrial building close to my home, she suggested to do a video interview of about an hour. Ten minutes of this interview have now been posted by her on YouTube – so literally my “10 minutes of fame”! Here’s the complete transcript of the interview.

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Frank: I am known as someone who harasses Ken Wilber; someone who is an integral party spoiler.

I was a huge fan of Wilber in the past. And I can say I did my share of Wilber promotion. I wrote a book, Thought as Passion, created a website (www.integralworld.net) and started the Ken Wilber Meetups. We have had Meetups every month for the last five years in this restaurant. These meetings happen in many cities all over the world.

For the past 6 or 7 years I’ve distanced myself from what I see as a kind of “integral circus”. The integral folks are very good at the promotion of a view, even a lifestyle, using all the sales language and political slogans that go with it, but that is not really my game. I try to do something else. My agenda is to stay focused on Wilber and validate his work. That seems to be difficult. I’ve really struggled with that by setting up a website, having personal contact with Wilber, getting writers to discuss his work, analyze it. I published about his work on my website.

Today I have a kind of ambivalent attitude. I’m still a huge fan of Wilber, but also a huge antagonist. That goes well with me… I think both are useful. He can handle the promotion himself now; I’ll handle the criticism or a certain level and standard of debate. Up till now, the debate with Wilber has been sub-standard. There is a lot to improve here—and I don’t know— improvise, because it’s a new situation. He is a hugely productive theorist. He inspires thousands of people; he is widely read. He is not widely known in academic fields.

Wilber has said so many things about so many subjects that it is time to give his work a second, close reading. “Every sentence has to be earned”, and then we will see if it holds true. It might very well be true, but it should be demonstrated. This is not a matter of sweeping statements, repetitive arguments, and false analogies.

Wilber is a good writer, a fluent writer. I loved to read that stuff in my 20’s. He’s bold! He says this is how it is and gives “overwhelming” evidence. He has said things like that “absolutely nobody understands this”. As a lay reader interested in spirituality and science, I found something that was finally setting things straight.

Years later, in doing a second reading, things are not so clear. I loved the rhetoric and the poetry and mystical element in Wilber. But Richard Dawkins calls it “bad poetry”. When used in science poetry provides a way to come up with new ideas. But when you use bad poetry you mislead people. You don’t explain things. You stop the debate instead of starting it—and, basically, that has happened with the now infamous evolutionary blunder Wilber made in some of his writings, when he wrote about the evolution of the human eye and the birds wing.

Actually, I translated that particular book, A Brief History of Everything. Many people, including myself, have been duped by this. He wrote, for example, that the human eye is so complex it cannot possibly have evolved from random evolution. The bird’s wing: you cannot imagine that one bird goes through a thousand mutations to create a wing—ridiculous! But it is wrong!

The very same year that A Brief History of Everything was published, Richard Dawkins wrote Climbing Mount Improbable, which contains whole chapters on the evolution of the eye and of the wing. But Wilber ignored this for a decade, until he could avoid it no longer—it shows how he treats the current state of science and how he refuses to acknowledge that as a mistake. This is only the start of the story, a long story of avoiding criticism, lashing out at the critics, ridiculing them.

We are now ten years later; the debate is still nowhere. In 1996 Wilber’s claims about eyes and wings were discredited by David Lane. He ignored it. Some people will take the lead and enormously expand upon the body of criticism they receive. He ignores it.

The real debate never materializes. The debate is not about this or that; it is about how he handles criticism or science. We are lay people. We are not a match for Wilber. When we read his fluent style we buy what he says. We enjoy it: finally, someone has figured it out! But when you go back and ask specialists they come up with different opinions, interpretations. And then something happens: it freezes! Wilber says, “Hey you aren’t qualified to criticize, you are at a lower stage!”

Wilber is king in his castle. Outside, some people clamor at the door. It’s a nuisance! And that’s unfortunate, because science or philosophy grows by debate, listening to critics, inviting those who disagree, not only those who agree. That’s the culture in the integral world: hey we agree, integral confirms integral confirms integral. Talk to those who don’t agree! I’m looking for that contrast. I hope that more people have these thoughts in the back of their minds …

Randi: How did you discover Wilber’s work?

Frank: In the early eighties, I picked up No Boundary and started to study the psychology of religion. I had gone to Poona, India, before. I wanted to study the psychology of mysticism, know how it works. The academic treatment of this was a cold shower of course.

Wilber provided my second education. I really loved to read in his work, because he took a field per book. One book was about anthropology and one was about sociology. One of his books he wrote in a long weekend; that impressed me very much. Now I would say, “Please take three weeks; it would have made a better book. Include some of the current status of the field, not just two or three elements you like or happen to be in contact with.”

Randi: You have changed—it seems to happen with more people. My experience in the integral scene with men is that the relationship begins with intensity…

Frank: Yes, finally, a feeling that someone understands. He does not have to deal with the ongoing yes and no and cautiousness of scientists. Wilber isn’t hindered by any of that. In one paragraph he can cover a whole question or subject. He makes a joke and uses some poetry. His work is immensely appealing for beginners…

Randi: And then what happens?

Frank: During 80’s I kept reading and then his wife got ill. From my perspective it looked like he disappeared. I worked for publishers in Frankfurt and we learned about his wife’s fate. Then, suddenly, a big book appeared: Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. It arrived as a galley proof. We were so excited—a bible of knowledge and immensely attractive!

I volunteered to be the translator of A Brief History of Everything and I lost my job in the process. Another publisher bought the book. At the time, I’d rather translate that book than to keep my job. In the 90’s he kept publishing and I visited him several times. Out of the meeting came the idea to write a book and in that period I started a website. The website has grown from five pages to 5000 printed pages (a single webpage can be 30 pages long). It is very grassroots oriented and I think that’s basically my main work regarding Wilber: www.Integralworld.net

Originally it was www.worldofkenwilber.com. Then Wilber asked me to change the name of the site. Back then, all the talk was about integral this and integral that. It had become an integral world. I thought this was a good umbrella, a new name for the site. But I kept my focus on Wilber.

Some people have said, “Leave the man alone; do something nice with your life.” But this is nice for me! He’s a thankful subject—is that a good expression? There’s so much to analyze. His output is so big! So much screams out for analysis, criticism and validation and the level of abstraction is so high, you need to come down to the details and see if it holds true. Sometimes it doesn’t, of course, because he’s human.

The problem starts when we ask, “Can we discuss this?” Could be I’m too far removed and Wilber says, “Frank is not here and we have discussions with 200 of the finest scientists.” It is behind closed doors. But science is public. When you publish it is out of your hands. He says critics misrepresent him—and that’s possible—but not everyone, not if his motto is that everyone is right!

When in rare cases he did engage his Integral World critics, it was a lame, polite meaningless exchange or an attempt to demolish critics by claiming misrepresentation. Where’s the grayness? It’s all black and white! And something inside me said it couldn’t be true!

I represent about 70 authors—all amateurs. But they come up with interesting stuff. They could be wrong. As long as there’s no full academic debate about Wilber’s work this is second best.

Probably I created my own literature. Who knows where it is going to go? Far removed from influencing, not using slogans, instead of repeating the same argument six times over, why not refine the argument?

Green meme, pre-trans fallacy—it doesn’t help repeating it. It would help to do more refinement with more detail. Nobody is talented in every direction. If Wilber had a school, and of course he has a school, the students could flesh that out. But there’s a difference between taking this stuff and applying it; there is a difference between taking it and holding it up to the light, trying to come up with counter examples and shaking the tree to see if it holds true. I know there is JFK, there is an upcoming conference where they invited more people who disagree, but that’s not what I’m aiming at. I have a special take on things. Some people might like it and some people might not, but I’m enjoying it.

Randi: What is the role of cultural differences in your perspective?

Frank: Cultural differences? A Dutch perspective? If you apply an integral analysis to the presentation of Wilber, there’s a huge American influence, but that’s as it should be. Some people say, “Oh, Wilber is so American!” That’s good, because he is American! And then he says he doesn’t want to be American. But, perhaps he’s unconsciously American the way he treats whole world, not hindered by detailed discussions. All I get is “Give me a break on that!”

Randi: How is that American?

Frank: The broad visions, good and bad guys, new world order, but it’s good when someone comes up with, people have talents in various directions…

It could be European to be more interested in specialization, more oriented to the negative, the pessimistic. It might be this or that. Let’s check it! If that were true it would be a great counter balance to the overconfident Wilber, who says: “I know this subject inside out”, “Frank don’t bother me.” Well, apparently not! It is a struggle, a cultural thing—and, integral theory would predict that everyone has this cultural unconscious filter. It is there and we should filter that out. European voices have this filter too—perhaps they should be shaken up and be told: don’t be so depressed, the sun is shining, don’t worry…

Randi: Especially to the Dutch?

Frank: The Dutch are typically the ones who pick up the American influences very quickly. This goes for music, psychology, literature. In France you probably have anti Americanism, but in the Netherlands not so much—not so much…

The Dutch culture is special in Europe—affluent with time to try out democratic experiments like having a government with left and right together. We had that for two terms. This is pretty rare. In Holland we decided a decade ago that the party on the left and on the right each might be promoting half-truths.

But after six or seven years, people got bored; a half-truth is more exciting for a lot of people. If you say we need a revolution, half of the country starts to jump. If you say we have to grow, half the country gets excited. But if we say we have to grow a little, reform a little, people will say: boring, boring—that shows where people are. You cannot transcend the dichotomy you chose for either one or the other.

These experiments have been here in Netherlands. We have immigration issues, and a killing of someone who was almost our president. He was not killed a Muslim radical but by an ecological radical. So it’s all in turmoil. And this was the prime case study for integral theory: can we, with meaningful concepts, analyze this cultural problem. This hasn’t happened yet. Of course, you can say write it yourself. That’s not where my specialty is, but that’s the next step.

Randi: Can you talk about the Dutch cultural situation?

We have been a very tolerant country. That’s our image. Everyone is welcome with their money to spend, but also there was a lot of labor to do we didn’t want to do it ourselves. Immigrants came and brought their religion. It became more aggressive with younger generations of immigrants who caused problems out of proportions to their numbers. They created fear in the people. Every day in the newspapers we read about this immigration problem and we are confused. We have to be tolerant, keep everyone together. People criticize us: you are a coward; you should be firm, law and order. We know the discussion but we don’t carry arms…

Randi: The things that happen to the Americans—are (1) freedom of expression and (2) the right to bear arms.

Frank: We would probably have the right to wear wooden shoes…

In the American situation you have two parties. I would love to see Wilber analyze that situation, really sit down, write it out and send it to the New York Times so that its really discussed…

I would love to see Wilber’s work analyzed. His message to the world seems to be: the integral view solves everything and everything else makes it only worse. That’s the language of a political party; it attracts people for the same reasons it attracted me when I was younger. But, it’s bad for the acceptance by science—tone down that volume! Start an analysis and identify where there is a lot of stuff that initially can hold true; it makes sense, as when I said we had this government of left and right. Is there a theory that explains it, says predictably that not many people will vote—then bring it into the field of sociology and real science…

Randi: Why are you not writing that book?

Frank: My work. I work for advertising agencies. I do websites for coffee and tea all over the world. It is fun and so un-philosophical. It is another part of me that wants to work with the Internet and see how we can find smart solutions and troubleshoot. That’s another part of me. If I had a more academic profession I would have to write and publish and I would have written more. Time is limited and I did my share of promotion. I’m more a publisher who gives a podium to people. They wrote essays, very long essays! That’s the formula I like… I shouldn’t stress too much negativity but I see it as a counterbalance to what I see as over-positivism. That’s the story…

Randi: You don’t want to see it destroyed, but validated— Do you have a fantasy picture of what that looks like?

Frank: I do see presenting integral that speaks to every separate field of science. In the past we had interdisciplinary studies, but that is not the same as integral. Now it is more like a craze. Now go to specialists again and you can’t become too generalistic.

Integral as a wave towards a generalization is always good. For example I’d prefer to see Wilber write on integral biology: There is Darwin, Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould. Everyone is supposed to be right, so how can we figure this out? I’d rather see that than simply say: biology in the Upper-Right quadrant. That’s a classification game that is popular at integral. They are obsessed with classification and not going into the field. Wilber overestimates what he thinks is a majority but what can in fact be a minority. That’s what Jeff Meyerhoff, one of the critics on Integral World, says about Wilber.

Another critic has said: you could integrate all the fairy tales you want, but that does not make it true. So there are strong statements made on both sides…

Randi: How does something come and stick or not?

Frank: If a perspective is fruitful, it produces a lot of writing. French philosophy did that—books and books. Then it ends for some reason, for example if another approach brings more research or writing. Why does this happen?

Science has prejudices, money and schools that distrust each other. To Wilber’s credit, he says that we should take the whole field and cast a net as wide as possible, I’m all for that, but then I would say, “Keep the details right, as well, or it doesn’t work. With airy-fairy abstract you keep repeating abstractions. Then it becomes empty…”

Randi: Integral theory, academic psychology work…

Frank: In the academic world, Wilber is mostly seen as a bookshelf tumbling over. It’s too much! It’s an overkill of sources and name calling, with five famous names in one single sentence. According to the Wilber rhetoric, everyone from A to B to C to D agrees with him; this is a very un-modern way of arguing, a pre-modern way. If five authorities think something, it must be true. It could be wrong. It’s irrelevant.

What he’s catering to is impressing the laymen. The specialist will think, “I know a bit about D,” and looks it up—D for Derrida, for example. Then the specialist says: that’s a wrong interpretation of Derrida. I’m not a specialist in either field. I want to hear these people speak, but Wilber would say, “This person is not qualified” or nitpicking. He is ignoring the critic…

Randi: Wilber’s ego—

Frank: [Smiles] Next question. Egos are fine. He’s a difficult person. I was always surprised by this. I thought, “Why be so defensive? Why so evasive? Why not just say ok? You can write a book in a weekend; why can’t you read all my criticism in a weekend.” The messaging is: “Your website is so full of garbage”—it’s like—YOU DON’T COUNT. That surprised me…

Randi: Cultural defensiveness—it could be the overconfidence hides the insecurity—you could psychologize it—

Frank: I think it’s why you don’t understand it; it surprises you. I see it as noise, a waste of time. I’ve been busy a quarter of a century with Wilber. He’s been busy for a decade with the Institute. Where are the books or essays about Iraq or global warming or the Middle East? The world cries out for this. What I see is that Wilber reserves limited time for this: half an hour at Integral Naked. But the world will not listen to that.

Things are so complex, I’d love to see him spend time—cut the socializing, cut “I call this celebrity, I call that celebrity and talk with them into integral”. If they agree, why? Agree? Disagree!—that brings the clash, the insight, and the much needed qualifications. Not disqualifications because you are green, in a performative contradiction, you are a bad critic, or whatever. For Wilber you have good and bad critics—and who are the good critics? Those who agree? How is that a good critic? Next question.

There are “good critics” (so-called), ones who are all in favor of Wilber, who even want to be more integral than Wilber, if that’s possible. Wilber is the foremost current productive one with the most influence and relevance to problems of today. This is all the more reason to criticize him, all the more reason to have a close reading, than let him get away with anything he says.

That’s the double attitude I have, because I value his program, like his ideas. There’s every reason to follow it closely, not to be impressed by authority arguments, games he plays, real problematic exchange. A few years back, he really tried to silence his critics [in the Wyatt Earp episode documented on IntegralWorld] and I replied with a piece, “Games Pandits Play.” But things are too complex for that.

It could be another game to say: let’s include the critics and see… that’s another game, that’s my game…

Randi: It’s a game.

Frank: It’s a man’s game—we love to fight with theory…

Randi: You have playfulness about it. A game is playful. You might be obsessed, but not distressed?

Frank: Play can be a like a tennis match; it can be life or death, but still a game. You love the opponent for being there and then the game is over. Someone wins and that’s the agreement. Perhaps it a male thing— a good fight. That’s fine.

What’s your take on that? Is it hormones?

Randi: Everything is all hormones. If everything is hormones, then it drops out of the equation. The masculine/feminine take in integral is great if it advances the theories. I don’t want to play; I have no interest in playing that game.

Whenever I look at Integral Institute I see men, men, men, every once in a while, a man who isn’t white. I think it is a competitive hero, god, father worship thing. You worship and fall out of worship. It is fascinating to watch, but I don’t have strong feelings about him. Women’s voices are so important in this work. I don’t see them bring that personal. Game? I don’t see it. The challenge is how do you make your voice heard in a place.

Frank: Wilber said there are twenty schools of feminism. Perhaps they fight among each other; the only thing they agree on is that women exist. That’s a Ken Wilber joke. The truth is: all they agree on, as feminist scholar Joyce Nielsen has pointed out, is that women suffer in most cultures. Now that’s painful. If you overlook that and you do a classification game… He doesn’t seem to see the suffering. That’s painful. Again, there’s another discussion that didn’t really happen yet.

Randi: Talking… call it masculine…

Frank: For over a decade he has announced a book on sex and gender. It would discuss the descending path and the ascending path. But the descending path turned out to be ascending as well. Somehow this doesn’t come along. Is there a writer’s block? Is it the time he spends on socializing and building the Institute? He should devote his time to writing.

Randi: We have role models of people who have started out as theorists then became organization builders. That’s such a different skill set—

How would you like to see integral, not Ken Wilber?

Frank: He deserves credit for reusing a term already in existence, branding an approach with it, and covering so much. Nobody has ever done that before. That’s great, but a first step. I always have a feeling it should be the start of a debate, not end it. My experience is that whenever I tried to start a debate, Wilber has tried to end it. I couldn’t figure that out…

Randi: Wilber will die one day…

Frank: When you are in the mood and everyone feels the pathos – “we are in the forefront” – you can conquer the world, but when the founder disappears or dies, it is a big question. In guru movements it is the same thing. When I went to Poona in the early 80’s, we felt: religion was outdated. Everyone will wear orange. This guru Osho wrote like 300 books. He didn’t write them, he spoke them. But all of those books are now remaindered, and they were great! Fantastic!

It can go quickly; it can still be only a fad, this integral thing. The more it is sold, marketed and promoted aggressively… But the more it is demonstrated that it works, then it will probably take root. I always think Wilber wished to be received like that in science. He wants to prove to the whole science world he understands it better than everyone.

Wilber’s motto “Everyone is right” has been turned now into “Especially me, and with the exception of my critics, who are always wrong.” That self-referential game has to stop.

Randi: What are your hopes for integral theory?

Frank: My hope with integral theory is that it is presented as a proposal to be discussed instead of a view of life that has to be promoted. That’s basically the switch that is needed, in my opinion.

Using the theory and making it real is still a bit premature, I am afraid. We haven’t had that phase yet of a solid critical look at the theoretical proposals Wilber has made of the years. Too much is taken for granted.

So there’s not only a lack of grounding in practice, though many are working hard on this aspect, there’s also a lack of grounding in theory. For that interested specialists from the various fields of science should be invited to discuss Wilber’s proposals. But unfortunately, not many are interested. And those who are interested are “taken in” by him and his sweeping style of presentation. That leaves little room for a sober assessment of the many claims he makes.

Perhaps the time isn’t ripe for that yet—and we have to go through the long process of building in integral school around Wilber, which will produce the studies and literature needed to attract attention from other scientists (as is done through the JFK program and others). But even then, a sensitivity to objections, criticism, second thoughts, etc. should be kept alive, to avoid turning it into an ideology.

So I am not too optimistic about this, given my experience with the Wilber community over the years.

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