On the Credibility of Integral Philosophy: a Response to Tony Jones’ Blog

by Steve McIntosh

This is my second “guest blog” here on Homebrewed Christianity. The first one, titled: “What Is Integral Philosophy?”, drew a response from Emergent Church thought leader Tony Jones, over at the Patheos website, titled: “Why Does Integral Philosophy Sound Like New Age?”. I was not aware of this until Tripp Fuller alerted me to Tony’s blog, and in connection with Tuesday’s podcast interview on Homebrew, Tripp invited me to respond with the following.

First, let me say that I’m glad my blog got Tony’s attention. My purpose in making media with Tripp is to help cross-pollinate the integral and emergent movements because there is a lot of overlap and I think we are natural allies. As a follower of Jesus myself, I’m reaching out to progressive Christians because I know it is easy to get the wrong impression about the credibility and usefulness of integral philosophy, and I want to correct that. In my books I draw heavily from the work of Philip Clayton, Holmes Rolston III, John Haught, David Ray Griffin, and of course, Whitehead and Teilhard.  And I’ve found that the main difference between the integral perspective and progressive Christian theology is integral’s focus on the evolution of consciousness and culture. Building on progressive Christian theology in my latest book, Evolution’s Purpose: An Integral Interpretation of the Scientific Story of Our Origins, I contend that this distinctive integral understanding of the evolution of consciousness can in fact be established through academically credible arguments (the book was endorsed by Rolston and Haught).

spiral_dynamics_model26Second, I agree with Tony that the convoluted chart at the top of his blog post does not help our cause. However, in addition to being a form of philosophy, integral is also a popular movement. And those who have sought to popularize the integral perspective have often times schlocked it up. As I argue in the podcast with Tripp, the teachings that make integral interesting and accessible to a popular audience are the same ones that over-simplify it and make it seem more like pop psychology than serious thinking.

Ken Wilber, however, is another matter.  I am not a “fanboy” of Wilber (using Tony’s phrase), but my work is certainly indebted to many of Wilber’s insights. Wilber is a complicated figure because he is both a philosopher and a spiritual teacher. And in my 2007 book, Integral Consciousness and the Future of Evolution, I critique Wilber for failing to distinguish integral philosophy from his Vedanta/Vajrayana belief system, and for playing fast and loose with the serious scholarship of others. Although I identify myself as an “integral philosopher,” I don’t consider myself a “Wilberian.” Integral Consciousness includes a chapter on “The Founders of Integral Philosophy,” which makes clear that Wilber is part of a line of integral thinkers who have all sought to understand the spiritual implications of evolution.

So is integral philosophy “New Age”? This, of course, is a term of derision (a term that has also been applied to the emergent church movement as I recall). A less pejorative term would be “progressive spirituality.” And progressive spirituality certainly has its lowbrow and tawdry elements; but of course so does Christianity. The progressive spiritual milieu, however, also includes intellectually respectable figures, including nominal Christians like Thomas Berry and Matthew fox.

The integral perspective may appear to casual observers to be a form of progressive spirituality because it has emerged out of this culture. But integral philosophy pushes off against and attempts to transcend the abundant shortcomings of progressive spirituality. And in my attempt to do just this in my writing, I’ve found the work of Clayton and the other contemporary theologian/philosophers mentioned above to be very helpful.

Tony writes that he has avoided looking into integral philosophy because of its lack of academic recognition. Yet even though there are a number of professional academics actively working to improve integral’s image in academia, I do not expect these efforts to bear much fruit in the near term. In my humble opinion, mainstream academic philosophy is largely in default regarding its duty to society. It’s been culturally irrelevant for decades, and has become so cramped and pinched that it is now only of interest to narrow specialists.

This same situation prevailed at the beginning of the Enlightenment, when the academic philosophy of the time (Scholastic Aristotelianism) had become stale and irrelevant as a result of its becoming the handmaiden of religion. Early Enlightenment philosophy was not only ignored or disfavored, it was illegal—Spinoza had to flee Amsterdam in the middle of the night to avoid being arrested for his writing. And now, most of academic philosophy has become similarly stale; this time as a result of becoming the handmaiden of science. The reactionary scorn heaped on atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel’s recent book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, provides a good example.

Thus it should come as no surprise that unorthodox forms of philosophy are emerging now to try to move forward in ways that are otherwise blocked by the materialistic prejudices of the academy. So even though most of us integral writers strive for intellectual rigor in our scholarship, we do not expect mainstream academia to validate our transcendence of their way of thinking. When it comes to entrenched identities, even the best argumentation is not persuasive.

To conclude, regardless of our limited prospects within mainstream academia, I do hope to persuade Tony and others in the emergent church movement that integral is worthy of more than a “drive-by dismissal.” Admittedly, a full-throated defense of integral philosophy cannot be adequately accomplished in a short blog post, or even an hour’s podcast, and I suspect my upcoming interview with Tripp will raise additional questions and objections. But hopefully it will at least pique your interest. And if it does, I invite you to visit my website and check out my books. Once you give it a fair hearing, I trust you will agree that this new way of seeing can be highly useful for our mutual work of furthering the progress of spirituality in general, and the teachings of Jesus in particular.

Share
If you enjoy all the Homebrewed Christianity Podcasts then consider sending us a donation via paypal. We got bandwidth to buy & audiological goodness to dispense. We will also get a percentage of your Amazon purchase through this link OR you can send us a few and get us a pint!

15 comments
johnboy sylvest
johnboy sylvest

re: the podcast discussion of achieving new syntheses and building political will ... so much of the strategizing, understandably, focused on the propositional, on conceptual mapmaking of empirical, moral, practical, political and other rational realities ... and that is indispensable ... the idea of passions was touched upon, briefly, mostly dealing with anger, indignation ... but beyond our fostering of intellectual, moral and sociopolitical development (conversion) on the mostly rational plane, what about affective attunement strategies? storytelling? engagement of our participatory imaginations? our more relational values? for our great religious traditions have long been in touch with the truth that human formation is most efficaciously advanced when our belonging and desiring needs enjoy a certain primacy over our behaving and believing needs? the nonpropositional contributing some of our deepest human value-realizations? in short, for outreach and political will-building, a novel like The Shack and a movie like Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and scripts for public liturgies and private devotionals might could have an incredibly important role alongside thinktanks and focus groups ? ... more than just discursive hegelian syntheses, we need to hum the same tunes is what i've learned about holistic human consciousness raising? great podcast! my previous comments focused on philosophical categories and justifications, but those concerns are small compared to the forward-looking generosity of spirit expressed by steve, so, bravo! and he deserves an encore appearance

johnboy sylvest
johnboy sylvest

Let me suggest,too, that there are philosophically defensible ways (with equal epistemic virtue) to respond to reality as a believer, unbeliever or agnostic and with various metaphysical stances, whether with a metaphysical naturalism or an aesthetic teleology (the latter as either a theology of nature like Jack Haught or as natural philosophy like it seems Steve might be suggesting?). Modern philosophy IS competent enough to guide us away from either scientism or fideism, from either a radically deconstructive postmodernism or a naive realism, inviting us to look over our epistemic shoulders at the leaps we've made, existentially actionable and normatively justified to be sure but guided neither by metaphysical necessity nor by scientific probability. Such meta-interpretive stances toward primal reality are, at best, equiplausible, at their worst revealing of Enlightenment and religious fundamentalisms. This is to suggest that while many of humankind's interpretive stances are per Wm. James forced and vital, so often they are not live options. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and their ilk mostly attack theological strawmen but they provide a certain hygiene b/c so many do indeed worship such scarecrows.

johnboy sylvest
johnboy sylvest

In a nutshell, in part, this all sounds like an argument against nominalism and scientism, which is fair enough. While it is true that semiotic science (e.g. Peirce) and Baldwinian evolution suggest a role for formal causation, for example, an emergentist perspective wouldn't necessarily lead to a robust Telos but would be consistent, also, with the minimalist telos of a nonreductive physicalism. This is to suggest that there could be downward causations that would not necessarily violate physical causal closure. Neither tautology, Purpose or purpose, vis a vis a take on human consciousness, for example, would impoverish our deeply contoured and richly textured human value-realizations. None of this offers a serious critique of neo-darwinian conceptions, properly appropriated (w/metaphysical agnosticism). Our great traditions and their associated human value-realizations remain in search of a metaphysic and we can all thus proceed with our metaphysics bracketed, when doing science, religion or even philosophy. A successful argument over against nominalism does not then prove a naive realism or foundational epistemology for evolution apparently gifted us with fallible heuristics. I am responding here to links provided above. My cursory reading suggests that Steve's thought is nuanced and not deserving of cursory dismissal. As for Ken Wilber, in my view, he advocates an arational gnosticism and has not responded adequately to Dan Helminiak's criticism (Lonergan's protege). Emergence reveals very few "all the way up and all the way down" dynamics and only in the most vague way can we successfully employ useful root metaphors. Integral Theory, at this stage, has asked some good questions and introduced some good categories as heuristic placeholders. Anyone claiming more than that (explanatory adequacy) is facilely proving too much, telling untellable stories, saying more than we can possibly know, presently. That's the whole point of emergence paradigms, explanatory inadequacy. The answer to scientism and nominalism is a contrite fallibilism, not a naive but a truly critical realism.

MarshallPease
MarshallPease

The only think hipper than a Magician is an Ironist?? Sounds Existential, maybe actually Beat, to me. I was hoping that "evolution" might imply that we are only in the middle of whatever it is we are doing, but all I see is unilinear "Stages of Ego Development" ... the Great Chain of Being for the postmodern age. Tony is a fan of Anyagrams, so I don't see what he's going on about.

Jesse Turri
Jesse Turri

Steve,

I Just got your book and I am very much looking forward to reading it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

 

BTW, don't listen to all those haters out there. Know who else has harsh words for academic philosophy? Wittgenstein:

 

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/03/was-wittgenstein-right/

 

His critique of academic philosophy is pretty pertinent I’d say, for those who have ears to hear that is...

 

liminalpreacher
liminalpreacher

Thank you, Steve, for this thoughtful post. I look forward to hearing the podcast and reading your books. I think Emergent and Integral are natural allies since both are intellectual, cultural, and spiritual movements. It seems people are hung up on if Integral thought is "really" academic or not. There is certainly a difference between strict academic theology/philosophy and ideas generated in a movement--but that doesn't mean one is better than the other. We need both--both can be valid, necessary, helpful, and, yes, intellectually rigorous.  (More liberationist folks would even make the opposite argument of Tony's: that one's action in the world, identification in a movement, profoundly shapes the quality and content of one's theory). Tony also argues in his very thoughtful "The Church is Flat" that the Emergent conversation is best understood in terms of social movement theory--so I'm surprised that he levels the "not academic enough" critique at Integral Philosophy.

 

As far as the "New Age" claim that Tony makes--I always get frustrated when I hear this as a critique. It is similar to how "liberal" gets used in more conservative circles: a straw-person label to throw at somebody that does not necessarily mean much. I have lots of New Age-type friends--and they're great!

David Miller
David Miller

There is a lot of vibrant philosophical work being done in the academy.  See, for example, the various approaches under the rubric of "Continental philosophy of religion."Question:  Among all the philosophers cited above, did or do any of them think of themselves as integral philosophers?  I don't think so.I think there is an integral perspective (or perhaps integral perspectives), but, while it does utilize philosophy for its own purposes, it isn't itself philosophy.  Neither of the two posts on this subject have demonstrated that to be the case.  The sour-grapes attitude toward the philosophical guild(s) doesn't make the case.

tom c
tom c

I retain my reservations about teleological interpretations of evolution. While I agree that the academy ought to remain open to new arguments that challenge prevailing views of evolution (of course!), those arguments could be posed, defended and sharpened (and, of course, perhaps rejected) in blind-reviewed journals. Furthermore, the fact that Nagel's book has generated a fire storm of criticism does not mean that the criticism is unearned.

 

Tony Jones' linking of integral philosophy with "New Age" seems problematic for exactly the reason you highlight, but are you sure you aren't doing something similar with your criticism of "mainstream academic philosophy"? The scorn heaped upon "mainsteam academic philosophy" in the fourth to last paragraph of your post makes me less likely to take your claims on behalf of integral philosophy seriously. Various philosophical approaches and schools have their problems to be sure, but to lump them all together and claim (humbly?) that they are in default on their "debt" to society and are "culturally irrelevant" is just plain wrong. Have you read Martha Nussbaum? Or Kwame Anthony Appiah? Or Claudia Card? Or Charles Taylor?

 

 

 

 

 

johnboy sylvest
johnboy sylvest

to be clear, i mean we should write/commission NEW novels, make movies, write songs, liturgies, devotionals ... that are as good, for example, as The Shack :)

johnboy sylvest
johnboy sylvest

re: guided by scientific probability, our leaps go beyond same but not without or, as integralists say, transcend but include

tom c
tom c

 @pluralformI like your bringing in Wittgenstein to the conversation, but wouldn't the spirit of his philosophy move in a different direction than integral philosophy (with his emphasis on differences in works like PI)?

Jonnie Russell
Jonnie Russell

 @pluralform Good word.  No wonder he was always trying to get his students to become mechanics, shopkeepers, and any other non-academic jobs.  Besides a few (Norman Malcom, G. E. M. Anscombe, and a few others), he did a pretty good job getting his 'trainees' out of the academy.

Jonnie Russell
Jonnie Russell

 @tom c  @pluralform I think he would certainly applaud its breaking with the divorced-from-human-life mode that much of academic analytic philosophy consists in.  But, you're exactly right that he would be fundamentally suspicious of the "craving for generality" that systems like integral philosophy have.  That very desire was at the heart of what Wittgenstein wanted to therapeutically disabuse us of, especially those involved in the philosophical task. He began this critical line of thinking in the Blue and Brown books and really began to flesh it out in PI. So yeah, he would say yeah to the de-academic-ing of the philosophical discipline I think, but fundamentally rail against integral's craving for generality and invocation of scientific terminology for human experience and life.

tom c
tom c

 @JonnieR  @tom c  @pluralform I agree in general with your reading of Wittgenstein, and like I said, it is helpful to bring his approach to philosophy to this discussion. I especially like the focus being placed on philosophy as a practice. My hackles were raised by what I read (and heard via the recently posted podcast) as the dismissal of the cultural relevance and the moral quality of the contributions of academic philosophy. (I understand this was in part a response to Tony Jones' "avoidance" of Integral philosophy because it is not typically accepted in the academy, yet McIntosh's counter-argument against academic philosophy was, in my view, too sweeping.)

 

It was in college that I first read Wittgenstein, and philosophers like Nussbaum and Appiah hold academic posts. In short, I think it is all too easy to call out "academic philosophy", but it is not clear what exactly the target of criticism is; what is needed is something more specific so that we don't equivocate on our terms. (This is not easy and it troubles me a great deal as I try to situate my own work within the academy.)