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What is Critical Integral Theory? (draft)

What is Critical Integral Theory? (draft)

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Published by: Daniel Gustav Anderson on Nov 07, 2011
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Anderson 1WHAT IS CRITICAL INTEGRAL THEORY?(draft)Daniel Gustav AndersonJoe Corbett recently suggested I summarize my contribution to an integral critical theory. Thisis not the first time I have been asked to give some kind of introduction to the admittedly eccentric body of work I have cooked up, particularly in the two “long essays” published at
The Integral Review
:Such a Body” and “Sweet Science.” The long essays are written in a tight, technical, and simultaneously figurative language; my comments atFor The Turnstiles, I have heard, seem cryptic tomany. Effective or not I do all this on purpose, but the question remains a valid one: could I work upwith a crowbar for an outsider to use in prying into this material, just crack the door open a bit wider?This essay is intended as such a crowbar. I mean it as a somewhat informal introduction to theintention behind the work, and some of the concepts in them. Coffee-shop conversation. While I havenot covered all the ideas in the long essays or my other work here, nor have I uncovered the Easter eggsI hid in the notes and between the lines, I think someone forewarned with a grasp on these concepts, theconnections among them, and the objective problems with them will be able to make good use of themore precise and detailed presentation those essays offer.INTRODUCTION“Integral theory” is a contested term. For many, it connotes the theoretical work of one KenWilber: that is, the category “whatever Ken Wilber writes” coincides precisely with the category“integral theory.” Some take a slightly broader view, such that the category “whatever Ken Wilber writes plus whatever canon of writings Wilber seems to rely on as authoritative” coincides preciselywith the category “integral theory.” This second definition is the one I take to task in the long essays.Meanwhile, others, such as Sean Esbjorn-Hargens, take a tighter position, where “integral theory”refers only to that work in the broader purview of integral studies that follows on Ken Wilber's AQALmodel. I think a better approach will be to worry less about canon and the authority of the charismaticauthor (Max Weber has some interesting things to say about charismatic authority), and to insteadadvance an integral theory that is defined by the work it does, a functional definition for integral theory.I think integral theory ought to attempt the impossible, which is to understand the totality of all livedrelations in time and space, with an eye toward transforming the whole matrix. I will discuss what thismeans in terms of a canon for integral studies and an agenda for research in integral theory below.But to touch on Corbett's request of me, in order to get to an
integral critical theory
, you need towork from premises that are both integral and critical, which is to say, you need a
critical integral theory
. There are ways that integral theory as presented in the writings of Ken Wilber and his followers,working from premises in different forms of idealism (Schelling, Hegel, Aurobindo) are uncritical (bycriteria specified below). The "negative" task thus presented itself of identifying these problems inextant integral work, which I attempted to do, sometimes hamhandedly; the "positive" task emergeddialectically in response to those problems. I needed to affirm another way of working, of conceptualizing the work. Mirroring the "inversion" of Hegelian idealism in the work of Marx, Engels,and the gang, I found it productive to emphasize process over structure, history and determination over Spirit and Providence, the plural subject of interbeing over the singular subject of consumer capitalism,
Anderson 2and the particular, local, and heterogeneous over the transcendent and homogenous. Put differently:where
Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality
might be understood as a shotgun wedding between Schelling and Nagarjuna (I will leave it unsaid whom I think wound up getting shot in this arrangement), I proposedto read Nagarjuna's central concept of dependent origination through the diction of Marxist and post-Marxist categories.I will leave a summary of the "negative task" I set for myself for another time. Here is asummary of the "positive" positions I have taken
vis a vis
critical integral theory, foregrounding theaspects that may help construct an integral critical theory. Further, I would like to take this as anopportunity to point out the shortcomings in it that I now see with the benefit of hindsight, and toengage with some typical criticisms I have received. I hope my mistakes might be addressed in futurework by myself or others, or at least not reproduced.A CRITICAL THEORY?My understanding of what critical theory is and should do follows more or less on FrankfurtSchool definitions (especially that of Max Horkheimer), but is inflected by my own readings in theearly phases of the Birmingham School version of Cultural Studies, with an emphasis on theexplication of the prison writings of Antonio Gramsci, among other things.Start with Marx's eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted theworld, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Two interventions are called for here. The first isdescriptive, like pointing out to someone his or her location on a map: here we are, this is our situation.The second is more demanding, which is to actively work from the first intervention toward acomprehensive transformation of the world described. This second intervention demands, among other things, a normative critique of extant values and the production of new values by which atransformation worthy of the name might be guided. And that demands a serious investigation of thecategory of the novel, the new. If ones job is to identify new values or create them, one needs first tocome to grips with history, with what has come before, and the present as the product of a matrix of historical forces. This is the first consideration for a critical theory: it is concerned with carefullyanalyzing the relation of past determinations on present possibilities for transformation, with imaginingthose possibilities in a utopian way, and working like a fool to promote and advance thattransformation.A second characteristic of a critical theory specifies the “world” in Marx's thesis eleven: theworld is understood holistically, as a whole and by reference to the relation of the parts to the whole.The category of contradiction is of particular importance here, as it toward ways in which the totality of relations is conflicted, in flux, in metabolic relation “within” and “without.” The emphasis is on thedetermination of the totality and its members by historical forces rather than on positing a spiritualForce that emerges through mindstuff, Worldviews appropriate to Ages as in the historicism Wilber deploys.There is an element of pluralism at work here (and this is a third characteristic): a criticaltheory is willing to listen to knowledge regardless of disciplinary boundaries or whatever assumptionsmay be made about them. Further, it takes a reflexive position, critically analyzing the position of itsown production of knowledge, in an attempt to account for its own limitations. This is particularlyemphasized in “Sweet Science.” A helpful historical example of this kind of research is the tradition of American pluralism practiced by such thinkers as Richard McKeon, where one begins not with adoctrine or an agenda but with a puzzle, a problem, a question, a mystery that you have to grapple with.This engagement with one's limits and with the limits of extant knowledge leads to an inquiry (more on
Anderson 3this when I describe the second intervention below), in which one may be surprised.Cultural Studies emerged in Britain from such an understanding of critical theory, and whichmay be productively compared to the pluralist aspirations of the pragmatist tradition. Positive work emerges from a negative critique: Raymond Williams, for instance, proposes the category of theculturally “emergent” or novel (this is in
Marxism and Literature
) after a detailed consideration of theways in which culture is determined, mechanical if you like. I think Cultural Studies is uniquelycapable of providing a position of critique of Wilber's integral theory as a way to make knowledge andas a function of neoliberal consumer culture; this is what Cultural Studies
and not infrequently inan integral way (attempting to account for the totality of relations in which cultural production andconsumption does its thing). Wilber's attitude toward Cultural Studies is generally dismissive andoccasionally dyspeptic. This is unfortunate, but it is also an invitation to bring a Cultural Studiesapproach to Wilber's work as a cultural object with a particular history and a certain kind of socialspace, like cult cinema or romance novels.The bigger point is that I think integral theory as such should be able to do these three functionsof critical theory, at a minimum: to describe and propose to transform the world as such, and as a partof that, to be ambitious and tackle the totality of relations in that world (and not just the mind-stuff).Further, integral theory should be capable of a rigorous self-critique of its own means of makingknowledge, its own legitimacy as a way of making knowledge, and should embrace an authentic,cooperative pluralism. In terms of the dialectic of consciousness and conditions (of which more below), Wilber's work emphasizes “consciousness.” We need to account for both more completely.ONTOLOGY.The first concept underlying the critical integral theory I have proposed is a dialectic of consciousness and conditions. This can be explained through the second concept, that of a
. Now, as a materialist in the philosophical sense I take matter for granted as something external toordinary consciousness (see Sebastiano Timpanaro's book 
On Materialism
for a detailed exposition onthis, and to see that the materialism I am describing here does not correspond to that which is denoted by the term more typically in integral studies). I have never touched the moon, but I find it plausible toassume the scientific consensus is legitimate and the moon is matter whether its substance penetratesmy nerve endings or not, whether it becomes an object of sense-consciousness for me or not. Whenthis body fails, I accept the premise that the moon will carry on two-facedly to light the nighttimeactivities of those I leave behind. Particular configurations of matter, particular forms, arise and persistand decompose by causes and conditions internal and external to their configuration.However, I do not assume that objects or “things,” apparent configurations or forms of matter,necessarily coincide with the ideas or images any one of us has of them. Here is a traditional example(this in lieu of Heidegger's jug): a fearful man walks into a dark space, and trips over a coiled viper.But the snake does not strike. Why? Even though he clearly and coherently perceived it as a viper through the screens and residues of his past experiences and habits of mind, in fact the snake wasmerely a coil of rope. “Mind forg'd manacles.” The limits of my consciousness, its habits, thoroughlycondition how something becomes coherent to me as something specific, not as undifferentiated matter or form, but as a thing with a name and not something else, a coherence.I lifted the term “coherence” from Brook Ziporyn's
 Being and Ambiguity,
where it translates theBuddhist concept of a “dharma,” as in the
 Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra
's admonition that “alldharmas are forms of emptiness.” What does it mean for something to be a form (a coherence) that is“empty”? Its arising, persisting, and decaying, and the forms these take (the particular ways in which

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