Sex, Ecology, Spirituality - The Spirit of Evolution

I just had to take a day off today to finish devouring my first Ken Wilber book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. I had first heard of Ken Wilber around 2001, when I was living in San Francisco, reading - as one has to if one is to fit into the spiritual life of the area - a huge number of books on psychology, from existential psychoterapy, to the philosophy of emotions, through to Jung, covering also various well known critics of the field. It really struck me how much each of the psychotherapies was related to a particular school of philosophy. Cognitive psychoterapy clearly was closely related to logical positivism and behaviorism, existential psychoterapy to existentialism, and I suppose Jung would be closer to the philosophy of religions.

Ken Wilber in this book is quite open about being influenced by the Hegelian school of thought and Budhism. And his book has the depth and overview I remember from the little Hegel I read a long long time ago. He draws a very appealing picture integrate a large number of different thinkers and philosophies and bring some very welcome fresh light on them. I feel that I am going to have to re-read many of the classics, and he has given me new energy to read some for which I had never yet found an interest, such as Plotinus, which he describes as being one of the greatest post Aristotelian thinkers. Ken Wilber also covers a lot of postmodern thinkers (Habermas, Derrida, Foucault, ...) helping one understand their contributions to thought whilst finding a way to remain clearly critical of them. He does not spend so much time with the analytic school of thinkers (Wittgenstein, Davidson, David Lewis, Kripke, ...), with which I am a lot more familiar, though at times he seems to make a few winks that way too.
Ken Wilber really excells at integration: ie. helping set a framework in which one can read the history of thought in a way that helps locate each thinker, explain his contribution to what came before and how he fitted into what came right after. This is all the more interesting as he does not limit his history to one subject matter such as philosophy, but covers pretty much every aspect of the development of human thought, from biology, to anthropology (Levi-Stauss), history, psychology (Piaget), and a lot more... Still, to be complete his work would have to do a better job of incorporating the findings of the most famous philosophers of the analytic tradition such as Wittgenstein and Donald Davidson - though that would probably also make the book a lot more dull and less readable...

"Sex, Ecology, Spirituality" is long and often repetitive, but then it is also very clear and easy to read. I found a very good summary of the book at the cogsci department at UCLA. It is probably a little too condensed, and is missing the essential graphs that make the book understandeable - bear in mind that the book is 800 pages long (of which 300 pages of footnotes, which I have not yet read). If nothing else this book is really great at opening one's intellectual horizon... and doing this is the first step in helping us become conscious of our relation to the world in which we live - not just the physical world, but the spiritual world which has shaped it.

On the negative side, I find Ken Wilber's web site very off putting. It feels like a quack medicine site. This is not helped with quotes on the back cover of his book such as:

The twenty-first century literally has three choices: Aristotle, Nietzsche, or Ken Wilber. This book, written with remarkable scholarly breadth and depth, is exactly the medicine we need for the new century and the new millenium: not because it will make us feel good, wich it surely might, but because it can jolt us awake.

There was a time when I would not even have bothered to open a book where the author allowed himself to be described in such terms. And its a good thing I did not see his web site or that quote before I read what he had to say. If one is to be a spiritual leader, then one should not need to sell oneself like a soap brand. It could invite comparisons to soap bubbles.

This could then easily lead one to a cynical interpretation of this work: a very interesting overview of the mind body problem, followed by a very simple but mystical solution, that requires essentially that one join his group and follow courses in order to get the spiritual enlightenment. After all the solution to the problem is not in the book, but can only be had by practice.

Still, even if this very cynical view were correct, then the world would clearly be a much better place if more spiritual quacks had the breadth and depth of Ken Wilber's reading and culture. In fact it would be a world where the term "quack" would end up having a very different, probably positive, meaning :-)


I found a harsh critique of Ken Wilber in Stripping the Gurus. I have not had time to read through this in detail, nor to verify the fact mentioned. It seems to be mostly about Ken Wilber not making denuciating some person he should have taken more distance to - which if right is perhaps a little indirect of a critique. Reading a book on "Living in Zen" by Suzuki, does highlight some of the violent aspects of Zen. But perhaps this is a problem of historical perspective. I can just imagine someone rediscovering the deep spiritual knowledge of the middle ages in Europe, and then applying it to our time without having first taken care to remove the less pleasing aspects of that epoch in which it was embedded, such as witch-burning for example. To be able to select the good aspects from the bad in past philosophies, requires deep historical understanding, or else it one will fall either into one of two traps: make the past appear like the present, and so misunderstand what was said, or bring the past as is with its warts and all to the present and find oneself with a corpse.


I agree about the website and the quote. However, if you say its a good book, I'll have a read.

Posted by Alex on August 08, 2006 at 12:43 AM CEST #

When I go back to the book, I certainly can't escape the feeling that it is incredibly well researched. Of course, I only know most of the research he mentions second hand, so I can't tell for sure, but the feeling of the book is certainly not the feeling I would get when reading some quack easy medicine book.

There is no magical solution. Magic is a thing of the past, as Wilber explains so clearly. There is no going back. But there is understanding it, and certainly caring for the past around us that is called nature.

Posted by Henry Story on August 08, 2006 at 12:03 PM CEST #

This is all very well, but, hey! what, in a nutshell, has this guy to impart to us? (An ecologically-correct, organic, genetically unmodified nutshell, natürlich ...)

Posted by no name blog on August 08, 2006 at 02:47 PM CEST #

This is all very well, but, hey! what, in a nutshell, has this guy to impart to us?

It all depends on who the us is, of course. The summary of the book I point to above gives as much of a nutshell as is possible. What people have to learn from it will depend on where they come from. What is very novel for me, coming from the analytic tradition, is the reading of the history of ideas from a spiritual perspective, a perspective which I have to admit I had not paid so much attention to. Recent readings in psychology had allerted me to the relation between philosophy and psychology, and Jung had opened up a path towards the spiritual, but Wilber goes further. He sees the whole of evolution in spiritual terms, in a very Hegelian manner, whilst taking into account postmodern thinking. Just to see someone have the courage to do this is exhilarating. I won't necessarily drop my analytic tools, but it opens up many new horizons of thought.

(An ecologically-correct, organic, genetically unmodified nutshell, natürlich ...)
Wilber goes a lot further than "ecologically correct". He is interested in explaining where the two strands of Western tradition, the rational and the romantic, came from, what each of them gave us in the history of the evolution of civilization, what their limitations are, and why they need to be integrated if the very pressing problems that came with them are to be transcended. The transcending of these problems cannot be done either by going back to a mythical past paradise (wherever you wish to place that), nor by ignoring or rejecting the past by trying to escape to a hyper rational future. Just as psychotherapy helps the patient explore his forgotten past in order to understand and overcome the harm to the vision of his future that occurred there, in order to then help reawaken that vision, but not in order for him to remain stuck in the past, so we must understand where we came from and learn to accept (embrace) it, in order to rehumanise our vision of the future.

This book may also help one understand Zen writings such as this

Still pond
A frog jumps in

Posted by Henry Story on August 09, 2006 at 03:54 AM CEST #

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