Book Review: Bald Ambition: A Critique of Ken Wilber’s Theory of Everything

Book Reviews / June 2011

Jeff Meyerhoff. Bald Ambition: A Critique of  Ken Wilber’s  Theory of Everything. LaVerne, Tennessee: Inside the Curtain Press. 2010.

Russ Volckmann

This book has been out only a year or so and I already feel like I am behind the curve. While Meyerhoff notes that there has been something of a wall, albeit one with gaps, of silence regarding this book, in an interview with Frank Visser (who wrote the forward and is author of Ken Wilber: Thought as passion, the book that outlined the stages of Wilber’s thought for the first time in my reading) Meyerhoff does outline several reviews/responses to his writing. Some of this may be related to the fact that much of this book was laid out on Frank Visser’s invaluable website, in the early part of the last decade. There, Meyerhoff has a chance to respond to criticisms, as well as share his own reflections since the book was published. I highly recommend the interview: So there has been an ongoing dialogue about much of what has been written in the book, a dialogue that most notably has not truly engaged Wilber’s attention.

Straight off, I find I wanted to join those who have criticized the book for one chapter, in particular, “Psychological Analysis of Wilber’s Beliefs,” as an amateurish psychological intrusion, but Meyerhoff himself seems to have backed off from his interpretations in the interview with Visser. He calls it a psychology of belief in which he places loss at the heart of Wilber’s psychology: “The case for loss in Wilber is strong, but intuitively I just don’t feel it captures what’s central.” At this point I am not sure what is central. In any case, unless you want a quasi-Eriksonian analysis as an example of what not to do, this chapter can comfortably be ignored.

Having said that, however, this is the kind of book I wish I could write, particularly in the depth of research and clarity of critique. Clearly Meyerhoff invested a great deal in the scholarship of examining Wilber’s writing, particularly Sex, Ecology and Spirituality (SES). In the interview he admitted to reading “most of” Integral Spirituality and finds that Wilber has made some adjustments to earlier approaches that Meyerhoff critques very effectively from an “academic” point of view. His attention to primary and secondary sources in questioning Wilber’s academic credentials and theoretical positions, particularly around the notion of orienting generalizations, is quite effective. Wilber’s response to this criticism has been to shift to integral methodological pluralism and its eight methods. Meyerhoff sees this as sidestepping the issue, albeit he does appreciate in Wilber “a more radically perspectival understanding in which the arising developmental edge actually creates (enacts), in some way, a new reality.”

He does find Wilber’s approach to be a creative synthesis that offers a compelling life philosophy. But chapters on consciousness, vision-logic, mysticism, social evolution, western history, poststructuralism and postmodernism, methodology and philosophy provides example after example of the dialogical nature of learning and theory building that is a far cry from the weight of opinion suggested in Wilber’s writing in SES. A question this raises for those interested in the integral approach that has developed through the years is, “So What?” As Meyerhoff himself acknowledges the attraction of Wilber’s work is more in the application in one’s life and action than as a contribution to academic discourse.

And yet, there are folks like Sean Esjborn-Hargens, Mark Forman and others who are working to introduce Wilber’s work into academia and build on it. This enterprise has recently hit a bit of a snag in that National University (a non-profit online and on campus educational institution) has purchased the hotbed of academic integralism—JFK University where Sean and Mark have been based. NU has decided to terminate the integral institute relationship and apparently the degree programs associated with it. I am not sure what the implications are for the cadre of integral educators on staff at JFK but the fact that Sean has developed a website offering himself as a consultant may be meaningful. This will mean that the only academic degree program associated with Wilber is the Fielding Graduate Institute’s MA in integral studies. Others, like myself, do continue to work with PhD students using integral theory through courses and dissertations.

And then there is the quiet speculation about Ken himself. Having miraculously survived major seizures, his health has been profoundly impacted. He has courageously continued to present himself and his thinking through short pieces on his website or integral institute online activities, agreed to an occasional interview, participated in conversations with numerous others like Roger Walsh that are available online at But I am not aware of his having done any significant writing since Integral Spirituality. We all look forward to Wllber continuing to develop and evolve his work, but it is difficult to be optimistic.

In the meanwhile, the work of academics that have adopted or adapted aspects of Wilber’s work will no doubt continue. And let’s not ignore some of Meyerhoff’s closing comments:

Wilber is a creative synthesizer whose interests span all types of knowledge in contrast to the narrow specialization prevalent in academia. He has done more than perhaps any other thinker to forge a synthesis of Western and Eastern theories and practices of self-development. His grand theorizing does have real world applications and he is actively trying to institutionalize his work and propagate it to create individual and social change. He is an accomplished mystical practitioner and speaks knowledgeably about both the theoretical experiential aspects of mysticism.

But this in no way diminishes the importance of considering Meyerhoff’s observations that Wilber has tended to ignore difference of opinion in academic and other philosophical work, Nor does it ignore the numerous examples of Wilber’s tendency to use derisive terms to talk about people who disagree with him—another form of argumentum ad hominem of which many of Wilber’s critics are also guilty.

At the heart of Myerhoff’s presentation is the chapter on holons. I find it disappointing although understandable given the era in which the original chapter was written (mid 2000s) that so much attention is given to Fred Kofmann’s unfortunate treatment of holons as individual, social, artifacts and heaps. Individual and social or collective holons are useful distinctions as mapping tools for making meaning and examining relationships among variables. I would suggest that artifacts and heaps are lower right phenomena in both individual and social holons. Others, like Mark Edwards, have even suggested dispensing with the distinction between individual and social holons.

Meyerhoff agrees with Andrew P. Smith that the concept of holons is inherently flawed, citing the fact that some atoms exist without being a part of a large whole, that they are free floating. I wonder if this is the difference between viewing through the lens of a still camera or watching a movie. Free floating atoms probably do not remain free floating for their entire existence. But it would take more of a scientist than I to affirm this.

Another object of criticism is Wilber’s map of the Kosmos. One can find it in the inside cover of SES and reproduced in many other places, including the article by Brian McConnell in this issue of Integral Leadership Review. Meyerhoff sees this map of the Kosmos as trying to represent hard reality (whatever that is, I suppose it must be that which has general agreement among academics) as opposed to its being a metaphor.

Perhaps I am hanging too loose with Wilber’s work, but I see it as a part of an ongoing process that includes Meyerhoff’s preference for generating sense and meaning through relationship over time, For me, there is no need for proof or consistency. I see Wilber’s work as suggestive, as sophisticated and laced with many images and references. I also see it as a platform on which others need to build. As with any ongoing construction, the very platform will need to be adjusted, rebuilt, to support ascending into higher stages of meaning and sense making.

I do not believe that anyone will ever draw a ‘true” representation of the Kosmos. All we have are our images, our understanding of self and other, and the opportunity to engage in the exploration. Meyerhoff has made an important contribution to this exploration. Work like his stimulates our reflection and clarity of thinking.

One thought on “Book Review: Bald Ambition: A Critique of Ken Wilber’s Theory of Everything

  1. Hugh Laue

    Russ, you have been way too generous in this review. The title alone says it all – and from what I read of Meyerhoff’s earlier stuff on Integral World years ago his “criticism” was misguided from the start. Is it a criticism of AQAL theory or of the man – or an attempt at both? I am reminded of climate change denialists – cherry pick data out of context that fit and ideological belief that global warming is not happening or if it is we are not to blame – and then irrationally conclude that the theory is fatally flawed. Sorry – Meyerhoff’s book tells us more, perhaps, about his own psychological state of mind than it does about Wilber’s. In any event Meyerhoff’s book demonstrates one point very clearly – that he is not aware of the intersubjective culture/worldview in which he is embedded (modernist not even post-modernist yet). Also demonstrating baby boomer narcissim, perhaps? While I am at it (and who am I anyway) Integral World has deteriorated to an extent where Frank shows no discrmination in what he allows guests to post. Very, very far from Integral. It may have been invaluable to start with – I certainly benefitted – it has long since served its purpose and confuses rather than enlightens. It’s easy to understand why Wilber ignores it – just as genuine climate scientists do not waste their time engaging with every denialist mis-representation. Integral Institute (via Sean Hargens was it?) attempted a peace offering some years ago but Frank essentially rejected it. The confused and purile writings on evolution by David Lane et al totally mis-represent both Wilber and the leading edge of evolutionary scientific thinking – which now icludes biosemiosis.
    “Meyerhoff agrees with Andrew P. Smith that the concept of holons is inherently flawed, citing the fact that some atoms exist without being a part of a large whole, that they are free floating.” If this is what Meyerhoff believes then that’s enough to indicate he has little grasp of both empirical science nor the essence of the holon concept. As soon as you concieve of anything it is already part of a larger whole – free floating or not. I suggest Meyerhoff and every other integral theorist read “Quantum Questions” before engaging with the rest of Wilber’s work – which continues to evolve leaving “academia”‘ battling to maintain credibility. Not good news that JFK’s Integral Program has been dropped – further indication of a regression of consciousness amongst the majority of American’s where homo economicus is taking the planet on suicidal evolutionary path. I do wish he would publish the rest of his Kosmos Trilogy – the Addena referenced in Intergral Spiritually show that it’s pretty much all there waiting. I’m particularly keen to see him elaborate on “integral semiotics” .
    Lest I be thought of as a grumpy old man (67 year old man that had the good karma to be connceted with the Kagyu Buddhist Lineage more thatn 30 years ago) it does say something that Meyerhoff values Wilber’s work enough to seriously enegage with it. But without actually following the injunctions to realise the truths available through following those injunctions there is little hope for constructive criticism. Also, thank you for making this journal available for free and for the good work in helping to take the integral vision inot the mainstream – it is despearately needed in “this world gone slightly mad” as the subtitle of Wilber’s “Eye of Spirit”‘ so compassionately put it. Kind regards from here in Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth) South Africa.l

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