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Published in 1995, SES (as it is sometimes abbreviated) is the work in which Wilber grapples with modern philosophical naturalism, attempting to show its insufficiency as an explanation of being, evolution, and the meaning of life. He also describes an approach, called vision-logic, which he finds qualified to succeed modernism.
Wilber's project in this book requires nothing less than a complete re-visioning of the history of Eastern and Western thought. There are four philosophers that Wilber finds to be of the highest importance:
- Plotinus, Neo-Platonic philosopher, who introduced the first nondual philosophy to the West
- Nagarjuna, Buddhist philosopher, who did the same in the East
- Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, German Idealist who created the first evolutionary nondual philosophy in the West and
- Sri Aurobindo, Hindu Vedantin philosopher who did the same in the East
This is, of course, radically different from the usual history of philosophy, in which Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant and sometimes Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Friedrich Nietzsche are typically seen as the greatest Western philosophers, and, if Eastern thinkers are considered, Confucius, Laozi, Gautama Buddha, and Adi Shankara are among the greatest Eastern thinkers.
Wilber emphasizes that the account of existence presented by the Enlightenment is incomplete—it ignores and represses the spiritual and noetic components of existence. He accordingly avoids the term cosmos, which is associated with merely physical existence. He prefers the term kosmos to refer to the sum of manifest existence, which harks back to the usage of the term by the Pythagoreans and other ancient mystics. Wilber conceives of the Kosmos as consisting of several concentric spheres: matter (the physical universe) plus life (the vital realm) plus mind (the mental realm) plus soul (the psychic realm) plus Spirit (the spiritual realm).
The structure and theses of SES
- Wilber describes the deeply dysteleological perspective of contemporary philosophical naturalism as "the philosophy of 'oops'".
- He describes the spiritual inadequacies of philosophical naturalism as the source of the contemporary world's menacing ecological crisis.
- He describes his methodology as outlining "orienting generalizations"—points on which agreement can be found that will reveal a shared world-space.
- 1. The Web of Life
- Arthur Lovejoy's account of the Great Chain of Being is used to show how the mechanistic, materialistic modern worldview triumphed over the West's traditional, holistic, hierarchical view.
- The prevalence of pathological, dominating hierarchies throughout history has given hierarchy a bad name. But hierarchy is ultimately inescapable. Thus, we should concentrate on discovering which hierarchies actually do exist and on healing them.
- 2. The Pattern That Connects
- The Twenty Tenets
- Arthur Koestler's account of holism and holarchy and Ludwig von Bertalanffy's General Systems Theory are used to describe (approximately) twenty tenets of all holons.
- Wilber calls the holistic version of the Great Chain of Being the "Great Nest of Spirit", because this account emphasizes that higher levels include as well as transcend lower ones.
- The Twenty Tenets
- 3. Individual And Social
- 4. A View From Within
- Two fundamental aspects of existence are described: the "Left-hand path" (interiority) and the "Right-hand path" (exteriority).
- Gross Reductionism—atomism, for example—consists of reducing a whole to its parts. Subtle Reductionism—systems theory, for example—consists of reducing the interior to the exterior. Charles Taylor's work is used to show that the Enlightenment paradigm suffers from both Gross and Subtle Reductionism.
- When Individual and Social spheres are added to the Interior and Exterior aspects of existence, four quadrants emerge.
- 5. The Emergence Of Human Nature
- Jean Gebser's account of the development of human consciousness is used to show how the West progressed from the magic to the mythic to the rational mentalities.
- This acknowledgment that all of existence is in development adds a third fundamental dimension—depth, or verticality—to Wilber's model of consciousness.
- 6. Magic, Mythic And Beyond
- Jean Piaget's theory of developmental psychology is used to describe the individual development of the contemporary human being.
- The "Pre/Trans Fallacy" is described. This is Wilber's term for "romantic" approaches, like deep ecology and ecofeminism, that mistake earlier and more exclusivist modes of being for more mature, more inclusive modes.
- 7. The Farther Reaches Of Human Nature
- Jürgen Habermas' account of socio-cultural development is used to describe collective human development.
- Vision-logic is described, a non-dominating, global awareness of holistic hierarchy, in which the pathological dissociations of Nature from Self, interiority from exteriority, and creativity from compassion are transformed into healthy differentiations.
- The validity claims of mystics are compared to Thomas Kuhn's account of scientific paradigms.
- 8. The Depths Of The Divine
- The accounts of four mystics are used to describe the possibilities for further individual spiritual development.
- 9. The Way Up Is The Way Down
- According to the Neo-Platonist Plotinus' nondual metaphysics, "Ascending" philosophies are those that embrace the One, or the Absolute. "Descending" philosophies are those that embrace the Many, or Plenitude. Both ascent (driven by Eros, or creativity) and descent (driven by Agape, or compassion) are indispensable for a healthy, whole view.
- Plato's metaphysics, which also included both ascending and descending drives, is described.
- Plotinus' attack on Gnosticism is described in order to trace differences between healthy and pathological approaches to ascent.
- 10. This-Wordly, Otherwordly
- 11. Brave New World
- The liberating advantages as well as the spiritually crippling disadvantages of the modern, scientific mentality are described.
- 12. The Collapse Of The Kosmos
- Charles Taylor's account of the effects of the Enlightenment paradigm is used to show how vertical depth was collapsed into horizontal span and how the ascending drive was dissociated into the "Ego camp" (Kant's and Fichte's Transcendent Ego) and the "Eco camp" (Spinoza's deified Nature).
- Utilitarianism is described as mistaking sensory pleasure for Spirit, which ultimately resulted in a fixation on hedonism and sex in modern society.
- 13. The Dominance Of The Descenders
- Describes how the West tried to embrace the Many through science, but failed to embrace the One through mysticism.
- The result was the rise of Thanatos (Freud's death drive), and Phobos (existential fear), which are the respective pathological versions of Agape and Eros.
- 14. The Unpacking Of God
- At The Edge Of History
- Includes a meditation on Emptiness as the ground of Being in which all entities are ontologically healed.
In his 1997 book Coming into Being, cultural historian William Irwin Thompson harshly criticized the entire project of SES, contending that systematic "theories of everything" were inherently misguided. He also dismissed Wilber's scholarly achievements as "undergraduate generalizations". Thompson's reverence for many of Wilber's favorite thinkers (like Sri Aurobindo, Jean Gebser and Adi Shankara) makes Thompson's criticism all the more relevant.
"Put differently, I sought a world philosophy. I sought an integral philosophy, one that would believably weave together the many pluralistic contexts of science, morals, aesthetics, Eastern as well as Western philosophy, and the world's great wisdom traditions. Not on the level of details—that is finitely impossible; but on the level of orienting generalizations: a way to suggest that the world is one, undivided whole, and related to itself in every way: a holistic philosophy for a holistic Kosmos: a world philosophy, an integral philosophy." — Ken Wilber, "Introduction to Volume Six of the Collected Works".
- Wilber's Shambhala site, which includes lengthy excerpts from the forthcoming Volume II of the Kosmos Trilogy, tentatively titled Kosmic Karma and Creativity.
- Review of SES by Roger Walsh, author of Essential Spirituality
- Review of SES by Kaisa Puhakka, Transpersonal Psychologist
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