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A Conversation With Ken Wilber

A Conversation With Ken Wilber

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Published by Agnese Bankovska

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Published by: Agnese Bankovska on Dec 01, 2010
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12/08/2012

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Interview
Anthropology,Consciousness,and Spirituality:A Conversation with Ken Wilber
Grant Jewell Rich
Pettengill HallBates College4 Andrews Rd.
Lewiston,
ME 04240optimalex@aol com
Abstract
This
is
an interview with author Ken Wilber, whose work on consciousness overthe last twenty-five years has been tremendously influential. His work blends"Eastern" and "Western" approaches and has influenced scholars in psychology,philosophy, and religion, as well as in anthropology. His work on transpersonalpsychology is especially well-known, and his first book,
The Spectrum ofConsciousness
,arguably marks the beginning of transpersonal
studies.
Frances Vaughan has referredto Wilber's work as the "work of genius." Daniel Goleman once listed Wilber amongthe "ranks of the grand theorists of human consciousness" including "Ernst Cassirer,Mircea
Eliade,
and Gregory Bateson." Wilber discusses the scope of the consciousnessproblem
as
well
as
contributions to the field that anthropologists might be well suitedto make.
Key words: consciousness, theory, interview, relativism.
Rich:
You've written volumes on the theme of consciousness. For example in yourbooks
Integral Psychology
and
Theory of Everything
you develop comprehensivemodels of consciousness that seek to integrate Eastern and Western
ways
of thinking,ancient and modern models of thought, and you've examined consciousness at everylevel from the atomic to the psychological to the sociological to the spiritual. Firstoff, how do you define the scope of consciousness?
Wilber:
It's one of those interesting things consciousness, because an aspect of it isfirst person, so it's something you can't really describe or define very well. Becausepart of it is experiential it's like saying how would you define a sunset, or how do youdefine a tasty piece of apple pie, or how do you define making love and so on. I thinkit's one of the difficulties of the field in that we want to, on the one hand, try to befairly scientific about our approach to consciousness, and science tends to studythings which are merely objects: rocks, trees, ecosystems, and so on. So it can giveyou pretty good objective definitions of objects, but when a part of what you'restudying
is
subjective, then it gets a little slipperier, and that
is
certainly the case withconsciousness. If you look back at the traditions, on the one hand, and by traditionsI mean the great wisdom traditions or the spiritual traditions, on the one handconsciousness is part of our own individuality. But most of the traditions maintain
Anthropology ofConsciousness
12(Z):43-6O. Copyright
© 2001
American Anthropological Associat43
 
44
Anthropobgy of Consciousness
112(2)]that consciousness has a component that runs right into spirit and spirit itself beingall transcending, all encompassing,
is
itself unqualifiable. Ultimately you can't reallydefine it. You can't define that which is common to all things or the ground of allthings. So, it's kind of a long-winded way of saying that a good deal of consciousnessis hard to define. Rather like pornography, [laughing] you know it when you see it,or in this case feel it, I suppose, and that's what we're doing. We can study an awfullot through the aspects of consciousness. We can look at levels of consciousness orwaves of consciousness, or developmental lines of consciousness. So we go at it thatway, by coming up with this large catalog of all the various types and modes andaspects of consciousness.
Rich:
You're well known for stage levels and stage theories of consciousness. Howdo you define a stage?
Wilber:
That's another area that it is problematic. On the one hand, it's true thatI do study some of the stages of consciousness but I don't think all aspects ofconsciousness exist in stages. The model that
I
often present is sometimes summarizedas "all quadrants, all levels, all lines, and all states." We can talk about what thesemean if you want, but the general idea is that one of those four has to do with levelsof consciousness or stages of consciousness. This is based not on theoretical issuesso much as it is based on empirical research. I'm particularly thinking about thenumber of developmental psychologists studying aspects of developmental psychologyincluding cognitive development, moral development, linguistic development, andso on. So, any integral theory of consciousness wants to at least look at the evidencefor stages and then try to see if there isn't some sort of felicitous way you can fit stageconceptions into an overall model. Then you immediately run into criticisms ofstage conceptions particularly by the relativistic pluralists who don't believe in theidea.
Rich:
Might there be a different pace, order, or endpoint for the stages in differentcultures or in different periods of history ? Often scholars note problems or limitationswith stage theories. Kubler-Ross did wonderful work on the stages of dying [denial,anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance]- but recent evidence suggests people gothrough the stages in a variety of orders and sometimes at the same time. Anotherexample would be Kohlberg's work on moral development—in the US there
is
someevidence that many people do proceed through the stages as he describes—however,evidence from other cultures suggests that there are different criteria for moralbehavior, and that a person viewed as moral in a certain culture may not necessarilyscore high on Kohlberg's stages.
Wilber:
Well, what we're looking at here, again it depends on what you mean bya stage and how specific or narrow you try to define that. On the one hand, if youback up very very far, and define a stage in an extremely broad conception, very fewpeople would disagree. For example in the human mind, we have images, we havesymbols, we have concepts, and we have rules. Those are very general types ofcognitive capacities. All cultures seem to have the capacity to form images, symbols,concepts and rules. The exact nature of them differs from culture to culture but
the
capacity
itself,
as far as we can tell,
is
present in all known cultures. Moreover, those
 
Sep/Dec 2001
A
Conversation with Ken Wilber
45
four entities that I just listed do emerge in a sequence that cannot be changed bysocial conditioning, so nobody has found rules emerging before images, ever. So,some stage conceptions in fact are uncontested and thats important to realize.Usually, the pluralistic relativists want to come in and say all stage conception isrelative and thats simply factually incorrect. So, the question becomes, stages doexist, we need to look very carefully at whether the stages we're looking at exist ina single individual, in
a
single community, in a single culture, in several cultures, orwhether the stages are universal. I think a much more balanced approach to stageconception
is to
say:
we
have evidence for stages in
all those
categories.
Some
stages,like Kohlbergs, might be confined to particular cultures. Other stages, such as theones
I
gave in cognitive development are universal. So, if you
go
through and try tomap all of the various stage conceptions, then you can get
a
better idea about whichones are cross-cultural, and which ones
are
more isolated. But taking either extremeand saying there are no stages, period, or taking the other sort of Piagetian extreme,and saying everybody goes through the same stages—1 think both of those areincorrect.
Rich:
Can you give an example of a theory where a person, in a particular stagemodel, might skip stages or go backwards? You gave the example of the Piagetiancognitive development theory, its a theory where a person typically does not skipstages or
go
backwards, but then
you
also alluded to the fact that there might
be
stagemodels for which that is not the case.
Wilber:
Yes, it
s a
very broad conception of the general stage approach. What we'retrying to look
M is
just very simply taken from the model of growth systems in all ofnature. Virtually every organic system we're aware of has aspects that undergodevelopment, and these developments tend to appear, they're not rigid clunky sorts

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