08/15 – ITC Perspectives: A Giant Leap Forward or a Bridge Too Far?

August-November 2013 / Notes from the Field

Jonathan Reams

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Jonathan Reams

I attended the 2013 Integral Theory Conference with my usual tendency to sit somewhat on the margins and observe the gathering with a mix of appreciative and critical eyes. One part of me is grateful for all the work to enable a gathering of people who have a diverse commonality in that they may have a wide range of ideas, experience, attitudes and perspectives they bring into the mix, but there is some kind of wider frame that is loosely held in common and enables this diversity to make for a dynamic mix. Another part of me is critical, maybe from too much time in the academic world, maybe from a sense of cynicism coming from experiences of things not being what they are billed to be. It is with a mix of these lenses and voices that I will offer my perspectives on the third iteration of the Integral Theory Conference.

As a bit of context, I also attended the 2008 and 2010 conferences. The 2008 version has been described as a love fest; a gathering of the tribe of integralists, who as a group inspired, informed and following the work of Ken Wilber, was happy to celebrate a kind of coming of age by having a genuine academic conference. Those of us attending from Integral Review felt a bit on the margins, minority voices saying there is much more to integral thought than Wilber and his followers.

2010 brought a move to begin differentiating the academic credibility and substance of the ITC and broader field of integral studies from Wilber, aiming to honor and recognize his contribute while taking the work out into the academic world in a way that could have legs of its own. I recall Sean Esbjörn-Hargens working hard to lead this move, and yet the center of gravity of the community attending the conference appeared the to be lagging behind, still to get the message and take the steps Sean pointed out as essential for the maturity of the field.

This brings us to the third iteration, which took an extra year to manifest, I believe primarily due to the shift in hosting from John F. Kennedy University to the MetaIntegral Foundation (which I believe is an entire story in itself of the ups and downs of the core group of organizers). In the interim, I was present in 2010, just prior to the ITC, at the Research across Boundaries Symposium http://dica-lab.org/rab/ . You can find written material from this in Integral Review http://integral-review.org/current_issue/index.asp where Sean had come to make clear that he was “not just that Wilber guy.” There he encountered a plurality of integral views, including the presentation of Roy Bhaskar. In his opening remarks at the 2013 ITC, Sean commented that Mark Edwards had told him “you’re not integral if you don’t know Roy Bhaskar’s work” and this clearly made an impact. A gathering of critical realists (the term for Bhaskar’s philosophy) and Wilberian integralists followed and opened the way for the next move for framing the 2013 ITC.

Billed as “Connecting the Integral Kosmopolitan,” the event took a big step from simply decoupling integral from Wilber by bringing two keynote speakers, Bhaskar and Edgar Morin, largely unknown to the existing “integral” community but major figures in their own domains in Europe. Mark Forman, one of the main organizers, wrote a blog just prior to the conference titled “Breaking the Meme: From Insular Integral to Integral Tradition” which also exemplified this felt sense coming from the organizers. There was a sense of expectation that this move to truly pluralize integral would catalyze a move from a relatively provincial, Wilber-centric driven community to a truly cosmopolitan one informed by major figures and streams of thought equally manifesting the integral impulse. The question then becomes, did it live up to its billing and accomplish its intentions as a great leap forward? Or was it a bridge too far?

What I observed over the course of the conference was that there was certainly a core portion of the attendees who found this move stimulating and a good move into maturing the community and field of integral studies. I also observed a large portion of attendees who struggled to engage Bhaskar and Morin for reasons I will elaborate below. I believe there might also have been a portion who felt that they were supposed to be important voices so “I should pay attention and learn, expand my horizons” etc. and thus did the best they could to follow along and believe it was a good thing, whether it will actually stick and make a difference for them or not.

Into the Details

From these broad overview contexts and comments on the general thrust of the conference, I want to get into illustrating my impressions with some more detailed stories. First I will address the evening keynotes, filling in with some data on why I perceived this gap between intentions and outcomes. From there I will describe what I can of parallel sessions that I attended to give some feeling for the other major portion of the conference, the sharing of work by a community maturing in their engagement with the work.

Keynotes

Sean Esbjörn-Hargens

Mark Forman opened the conference on Thursday evening with context and logistics, preparing the stage for Sean to lay out the foundation and justifications for the move he wanted the community to make, from being American centric towards a more global vision.

Sean opened his presentation with some simple toning which made for a nice modality of setting a space. He then set the context for the conference with some history, the road they see having been travelled and what they see coming. Once that larger context was set, Sean launched into mapping out the three strands he wished to now use to constellate the new universe of integral. He placed Ken in the I domain noting his strength (which I think most of agree with) being in the psychological, first person growth domain. He placed Bhaskar in the WE (his emphasis on social reality stuff coming to the foreground here) and Morin in the “its” domain. He was humorous about his own mapping tendencies. Sean spent most of his time doing this detailed contextualizing of how the three strands of thought mapped out a more complete and complex integral whole. His presentation was well received and set a good tone for the conference. You can also find more details and perspective on it in Jeremy Johnson’s blog – http://evolutionarylandscapes.net/2013/07/19/sean-esbjorn-hargens-keynote-itc2013/ .

One aspect of his talk that I took note of was that Sean made a lot of emotive noises around the shock and awe involved in the process of coming to realize that maybe integral theory was not as integral as it thought it was. I think this also revealed the degree to which many, Sean and the ITC organizers, have been embedded in a Wilber-centric world as the only brand of integral worthy of the label. Many of us present in the audience could not relate to this shock and awe of the realization because we never drank the Wilber Koolade so deeply in the first place.

Roy Bhaskar

Friday night, for the second keynote, Jordan Luftig opened with a well delivered talk on integral activism, calling on the community to get off the fence and into engagement with the world. The tendency to critique from the safety of a powerful map that can make the shortcomings of others easy targets was contrasted with the call to action, even political action, moving into the world to show that our knowledge can be of service in the world. His talk was well received. I think many are already busy doing, maybe just not so much in the political realm. Hopefully this will spark further moves along that direction.

Joel Krisberg, who as chair of the MetaIntegral foundation, then did a clever fundraising stint. He began by noting the pretentiousness of their initial fundraising campaign. They started off wanting to raise one million dollars. A little ways into the campaign they revised their target down to $250,000. In the end they raised about $25,000.

Then he led us in a mediation on giving and being asked for money. We checked in with our own reflexes around this dynamic and shared it with a neighbor. This was then followed up with pledge slips, asking us to choose to donate in multiples of $18. There was a generally good atmosphere in the room as these slips were circulated and collected, and I noted that it was easy enough for me to check off a box and commit to a donation. (There were followed up by email about a week later with an easy online way to pay). It was announced later that they had about $12,000 pledged that night. Seems like a much more efficient use of time and energy for raising money 😉

Then it was time for the highly anticipated event, Roy Bhaskar. How would it go trying to bring another brand or lineage into the integral community fold? As Roy was set to begin, I was noticing Sean sitting just below at one of the front tables.  Roy asked Sean how much time he had to speak. (It was clearly one hour on the program, and of course we were running late, although I must note that the parallel sessions were extremely good at being on time).  I wondered what this question indicated in terms of preparation and planning logistics, communication, or a lack thereof.  Sean, with a glowing look of admiration on his face, responded “take as much time as you want.” Roy then proceeded to speak for two full hours.

Roy began with an historical narrative of his own journey leading him to his philosophical position of critical realism.  He went into studying economics at first, to understand what he felt at that time were the core questions of human and social existence. He went through various fields of study, eventually to Hume and Kant on epistemology, questioning their assumption that you can only talk about perception and not the world itself. Bhaskar asked the simple yet powerful question, why can’t we talk about the world; “why not – it is there all the time.” This provided some context on where he entered into the beginnings of developing critical realism, by challenging assumptions about historical philosophical discourse.

I found this part very helpful in giving me some insight into the angle and trajectory of his thought. However, the bulk of the time then passed with his aim to present the whole of critical realism (at least it seemed like that to me). He told us he would give us “13 steps to heaven.” While I recall a couple of moments where I could identify when we moved from one step to the next, his style of presentation, which I would characterize as a mix of discursive continental philosophy (in that I found it generally quite full of abstractions)  with folksy everyday stories (that didn’t quite feel like stories either, being too general). I also found from this that for me it was too rambling, not clearly framed or developed in a manner which I could easily track where we were going. Occasionally something interesting would pop up, catch my attention and then Roy would wander or drift off somewhere that I could not track what or why he was talking about.

Yet, when he finally came to a close, he received a rousing standing ovation, at least from the majority of those still left in the room. (Myself not included. The reasonable portion of the audience who left before he was finished of course clearly did not give him a standing ovation either). I had to wonder, was I missing something here? This could well be true. Or was it a case of expectations generating favorable interpretations of the value of what we sat through?

This curiosity with what I had witnessed/endured led me to seek out the opinion of a friend who I spotted near the front. This person is well read in a wide variety of European philosophy and integral thought. He told me that he could follow about 60% of the talk. His take on it was that because Roy threw out lots of unfamiliar terms, it made it easy for people to lose track. There was too much internally developed jargon lacking explanation. Later I met a friend of a friend who was a critical realist rather than Wilberian. He felt it was problematic because he threw out the whole theory at once to a crowd unfamiliar and who don’t want to do all the work of digesting such a theory as an introductory orientation. The risk taken of having Bhaskar talk was that people would not really want to get into critical realism after the way he had presented it. It seems to be a case of the founder of a body of work not being its best advocate to audiences beyond those already initiated.

Thus my feeling at this point was that the intention of offering a new strand of thought to this community was good, but the execution left much to be desired. Some framing and expectations to Roy ahead of time to help him understand the objectives of his presentation in relation to where the audience would be at (of course there was plenty of diversity in this, but one could make some clear general observations about it) and a sense of how to build some bridges to the audience would have seemed appropriate. But not knowing the inner details of the organizers’ intentions nor of Roy’s capabilities (or not) in this kind of skillful means, I can only make conjectures from the margins.

I of course must confess that I have not read any of Bhaskar’ s work, nor any of those who have attempted to organize and articulate his philosophy in a manner possibly more accessible to an audience not wanting to do the work of following this kind of philosophical discourse.  You can also get a more in-depth view by conference blogger Jeremy Johnson here – http://evolutionarylandscapes.net/2013/07/20/jordan-luftig-speaks-integral-political-activism-roy-bhaskars-friday-night-keynote-itc2013/ .

Edgar Morin

This then could not help but make for some curiosity heading into the Saturday night keynote of Edgar Morin. How would this noted French public intellectual come across? The evening opened with the usual award ceremony. I could not help but notice the dominance of quadrant driven categories for best papers, which felt out of place in the newly espoused pluralism. There were of course some awards related to critical realism and Morin’s complex thought, but they seemed more of an add-on than an integrated thing. I think this represented one aspect of the gap between the aims and intentions of the organizers and the actual state of the community, even the organizers.

Morin was introduced by Sean Kelly, from CIIS, who had translated some of Morin’s work into English and along with colleague Alfonso Montouri, helped bring Morin to an American audience. His brief introduction prepared us well and we then watched as Kelly sat at a table on stage, ready (apparently) to translate Morin from his native French, while the 92 year old Morin went up to the podium. He opened in English with some remarks about the quality of his English, but then proceeded to talk for 75 minutes in an English that was somewhat broken, halting at times, and very hard to follow.

Because of this, and I think because of the frustrations of many the night before, I (seated at the back of the room this time) noticed maybe 50 people leaving in the first five to ten minutes. Over the next hour another 100 or so gradually drifted out. Yet clearly, for many of those who stayed, it was worth it as they gave Morin a rousing standing ovation.

Listening as best I could, (I think I could track 20-30% of what he was saying) it was again a case of discursive, abstract continental European thought. Rather than try to recall what I could track, I think Jeremy’s blog will do a better job of filling in those details http://evolutionarylandscapes.net/2013/07/21/saturday-night-keynote/ . My reflections on this are that it is indeed a big leap to go from Wilber-centric to continental European thinkers whose framing or scaffolding is not of the same modality/skill level etc. My sense is that most of the audience is used to the skillful articulation Wilber brought to the integral impulse he fostered. I have heard many times the phrase that his writings helped people see what they in many ways knew but could not put into organized thought or language. Thus a majority of the conference attendees are used to an articulate writer and speaker who can contextualize and scaffold then into seeing integral perspectives. This competency, or skillful means of articulation seemed to be missing in both of these keynotes.

It became clear to me that Morin is a window into a more mainstream world, connected to the center of gravity of thought, in France and maybe elsewhere, yet with a very mental/intellectual and even materialistic cosmology (of course I’m giving away my bias here of perceiving these unfavorably limited). After the talk I again followed up with my friend who is familiar with this mode of discourse and he gave me the tip that at first these European thinkers appear superficial, but if you stick with them long enough you find that these things of depth are there. But such a presentation mode or style (that did not match the audience – or at least me) made this not come through and I would need more than this tip to become convinced otherwise.

Another person I talked to afterwards indicated that they could only follow about 10% of Morin, and that translation would have been good. Yet there was also a sense of respect for bringing these international figures in. Even if it was a long step for most of the audience it was a good step to honor their presence in this community. Even someone I knew who had French language skills, said he could only follow 2/3 of Morin. Yet he came away with excitement from Morin’s energetic transmission. This was clearly evident in his talk; that he spoke with great passion and from significant experience. There was a real appreciation from most of the audience for the energy and passion he spoke with, even if they could not understand what he said.

Thus I was again left wondering if I was missing something, or if the aura of expectations and passionate presentation made clarity and insight into ideas of minor importance. Maybe this was a good thing, forcing the audience out of their heads and into another modality.

Pre-conference workshops

Now I will turn my attention to the parallel workshops, panels and presentations that really were the meat of the conference. I talked briefly with someone who went to the introductory workshop given by Jeff Cohen. It was well attended and designed for those with no prior knowledge of Wilberian integral theory. For this person, it was very informative, even if an inevitable information overload. There were some exercises that were seen as very helpful in getting a feel for the spaces that this approach could open up. There was stuff to take home and use and a feeling of being motivated to learn more.

For myself, I attended Zak Stein, Sandra Hill, Joel Rothaizer and Zachary Van Rossum (with Clint Fuhs also having a part in it) on “Enhancing leadership capacity through instructional dynamic steering: Embedding diagnostic developmental assessments in leadership curricula.” Zak Stein opened with a broad overview of how their work has evolved, the theoretical basis of it etc., a typical Zak presentation, full of good clear framing and of concepts linked together well.  Clint and the other Zach, as two doctoral students talked about their research using a database from a project involving the Lectical assessments. They also ran us through a case worksheet to generate assessment material to give us an experience of how these assessments are generated. They gave lots of time for it and debriefed it well.

Then the two consultants (Sandra and Joel) who are using Lectical assessments in a large training program with civil servants in Edmonton, Alberta, presented a description of their work and some results they have so far on it. This was also very well received by the audience who expressed a lot of interest in the scale and scope of this project and the impact it was having.

Overall what came through clearly was that the Lectical assessments are a nuanced way of seeing people as much more than just performance at a certain level. A good distinction arose about not actually measuring people’s performance, but their ability to reflect on and talk about how they are thinking about their performance.  Correlation between that and the ability to take action took into consideration how much the culture of an organization impacts that or looking at other barriers between what you know and are capable of and putting it into practice. As well, we got into how to design formative rather than summative assessment instruments that are good for the test taker, teacher and everyone involved to learn and to stimulate developmental growth. I was pleased with the time I spent in the workshop, and the general sense I had from other attendees was similar.

Presentations

Friday morning began for me with my own presentation along with my colleague Anne Caspari. “Feeling into the moment: Applying integral maps and processes to corporate leadership training and transdisciplinary education” was the title of our presentation, which was well attended with an internationally diverse group – the first 6 attendees introducing themselves were all foreign to the US. There was a range of familiarity and experience with the kind of experiential exercise we did on cultivating awareness of and ability to use subtle forms of presence. I was happy enough with how it went and we received plenty of nice feedback afterwards.

I next went to the Pacific Integral (Venita Ramirez, Geoff Fitch and Terri O’Fallon) presentation on “Causal leadership: A natural emergence from later stages of awareness.” This presentation focused on unpacking details and nuances of later developmental stages of leadership. We were told there would be a practical component or exercise, yet when it was set up and we expected it, we missed it, or didn’t recognize it. I am not sure if I just didn’t get the point of what type of exercise it was, or if the presenter just talked about it without doing it with us. Maybe it was too subtle for me to notice. Instead we got more of a monologue which felt out of place. Terri’s presentation of her research findings was of course interesting as she always is and it is clear that she is breaking new ground in bringing empirical rigor further into this area of work.

In the afternoon I attended a presentation by Mark Foreman and Drew Krafcik on Drew’s dissertation research on wisdom, titled “Integral theory and positive psychology’s construct of ‘wisdom’: Empirical and theoretical relationships.” There was a lot of great data from a variety of means presented, which gave it a good feeling of solid research. Drew used a total of 12 standardized assessment instruments with this group of research participants.

What stood out the most was when Drew presented his finding that his 25 nominated exemplars of wisdom scored at mainly late conventional stages of cognitive development. Drew had used the Washington University Sentence Completion Test (WUSCT) as one of his assessments. There was a strange kind of anxiety among many in the audience that these wise people did not match the heroes’ image of being second tier. I.e. wise is good; integral/later (post-conventional) stage is good, therefore it does not compute that these wise people did not score this way. A kind of disillusionment appeared to be occurring and the charge of the reaction was palpable in the room. The need to discredit sentence completion tests validity as a way of coping with that was surprising. I watched with amusement as Mark Forman attempted to say things like how these tests were not always so reliable, that they were too language centric, and other general comments that gave me a distinct impression that there was huge discomfort that these people did not score high on the beloved cognitive complexity tests. Samples of statements from the research participants that we had been shown were commented on along the lines that people would expect such statements to score high by the nature of what they were saying.

At this point I found all this very strange, with Susanne Cook-Greuter and Terri O’Fallon also being in the room. I leaned over to Terri and commented that it appeared to me that these reactions came from people mistaking the values and content of the respondents’ statements with the complexity of the structure of the meaning making, thus not truly understanding stage development. It makes me wonder that if here, at the third of these conferences, where so much emphasis is placed on later stages of cognitive complexity, that there appeared to be so little actual ability to perceive and understand how it did or did not show up in these statements. (Going back to my comments in relation to the keynote talks of Bhaskar and Morin, I see wishful expectations clouding clarity of perception and good judgment).

After this I was called to duty on the integral education panel, hosted by the integral education branch of Meta-integral, represented by Willow Dea and Matthew Rich. It was a large panel and we had some good discussions covering a wide range of relevant topics and perspectives on them and experiences related to these perspectives. There was also some passionate engagement from the audience near the end.

I began Saturday with Alain Gauthier’s presentation of “Integral development of evolutionary co-leadership.” This perspective Alain went into was clearly the culmination of a long personal and experiential journey.  This mix of biographical narrative with how the idea evolved made for a nice mix to follow along. Of course the challenge of trying to fit all this into a 90 minute session was ever present, but the thread of Alain’s trajectory was clear and it motivated one audience member I talked to later to buy his newly published French book on the subject.

Then I went to Roger Walsh’s presentation on “What is wisdom and how can it be cultivated?” Roger exemplified a very high quality of presence, brought in very good exercises (guided meditations) and engaged people who brought up questions early on in a way that continued the presentation seamlessly. He looked at wisdom historically, as well as theoretically, which gave us some good simple distinctions to work with. He also gave us handouts instead of so many slides, which was very helpful. The summary of how to get wise – hang out with wise people!

In the afternoon I attended the panel on Integral leadership. It was opened with a good small group process to get questions for panel. The panelists then talked individually pretty much about what they wanted to anyway, but a link could be drawn to the question clusters generated up front. There was a great breadth, depth and diversity of experience on the panel. At the same time I had a feeling that we have heard a lot of this already. But for many it could have been a very useful upgrade to their existing knowledge.

Sunday morning I attended Dean Anderson on “An integrated system for organizational transformation.” There was good content, lots of context and a good exercise for us to work on in small groups. Dean and his wife Linda Ackerman have clearly done a tremendous body of work in bringing together 30 years of experience with the various steps and stages and components in a process oriented approach to large scale organizational work that has true impact. The one thing I found missing was simply how you get to the stage of getting to actually do that level of work.

The last round of presentations I went to see Bonnie Roy present her experience with “The Magellan courses: Explorations in self-organizing co-creative transformative learning.” I have been involved with and observing Bonnie’s work for seven years now, and it was clear how much time has matured her skillful means and ability to concisely articulate the core points necessary to give people the context they need (and not more!) and then guide us in a very cool experience as a whole group, with some small discussion groups inside it. This allowed us to get a taste of the modality of inquiry that goes on in her courses. The room was packed, with lots of people sitting on the floor in the aisles and having a lot of fun as well. For a last conference session, where often the energy is drained away by input overload, Bonnie gave us a refreshing energy and insight into the nature of the core competency necessary to succeed in the future.

The afternoon session, the “Global Kosmopolitan Summit” opened with some lovely jazz improvisation by Ed Sarath that also brought the audience into to participate. Then there was a facilitator who took us through a process of breaking into a number of pre-identified group topic clusters with leaders pre-arranged. We then had 20 minutes to come up with key points around our theme. It did not seem to me like a great way to do a participatory thing at the end of the conference as it tried to generate material (ostensibly) for future work. But this was not the right set up to really do that well, so we ended up with lots of the usual platitudes and clichés. I certainly didn’t feel it generated an agenda for the future of the integral community’s work. However it was well attended and people appeared to feel good about it.

Final Reflections

This in a way summed up my feeling about the plenary parts of the conference; well-intended but lacking skillful execution. For the collective move and intentions held by the organizers, I would say it was leaning more to being a bridge too far. I recognize that a core group will be more engaged with the very meta level of complexity of trying to begin the project of integrating three such bodies of work and thus have perceived the conference more towards being a great leap forward. To have enabled a broader range of attendees to gain more value from the keynotes I believe that much more bridging and framing for and by Bhaskar and Morin would have been in order (not to mention the simple way clear translation would have helped immensely – for Roy in some ways as well. The danger is that people will go away without taking their work seriously and leave the work of making the field of integral studies more broadly cosmopolitan to a handful of dedicated enthusiasts. However critical my perspective on this is, I also want to make clear that I applaud the intentions and act of actually bringing in fresh voices to the community.

For the parallel academic presentations, at least from my own experience and the general feelings and comments I heard from talking to others, I think this part of the conference was organized well and of a better quality than previous conferences. My impression is that there is a growing maturity in the research and applications being done and that the conversations generated among the presenters and attendees on the diverse topics were more grounded than in previous conferences. In that way I find that while not a “great leap” forward, it was forward movement.

Thus the 2013 ITC conference experience for me reflected the lenses I brought to it. In some areas I perceived wishful expectations clouding clarity of perception and good judgment. In other areas I experienced a maturing and deepening of quality academic discourse. All of this held in a good sense of community among a diverse group with hearts clearly holding a common work.

About the Author

Jonathan Reams, PhD, is an American/Canadian currently teaching at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, in the areas of leadership development, organizational counseling and coaching and his research is in the areas of leadership development and Immunity to Change (ITC) based coaching. He serves as Editor-in Chief of Integral Review. Reams also runs leadership training programs and projects in Europe and North America using The Leadership Circle and ITC.

2 thoughts on “08/15 – ITC Perspectives: A Giant Leap Forward or a Bridge Too Far?

  1. Albert Klamt

    Thanks you very much Jonathan. Clear, concise, specifc, concrete and comprehensive. This is a great feedback and feedforward. And it shows the huge amount of necessary work to be done within the next years.

    Continental philosophy is a BIG topic which cannot be exhausted by any single conference. There are diffuse developments- which are spreading in very different ways across the continents now. Since the death of Derrida in 2004. I can only recommend- for those who still are interested an anthology with 26 authors. From Latour, Zizek, DELanda, Protevi, Stengers and others:

    http://re-press.org/books/the-speculative-turn-continental-materialism-and-realism/

    Complexity is a big topic and crucial for approaches like spiral dynamics integral too. From week to week dozens of publications are popping up and cannot be summarized in a simple way.

    For the moment, thanks again.

    Albert Klamt, Berlin

    Reply
    1. Jonathan Reams

      Hi Albert,
      Glad the review was helpful for you 🙂
      I can’t say I’m into materialism and continental philosophy too much, but others might be grateful for the link.
      Jonathan

      Reply

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