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CRITICAL REALISM REVISITED

KEN WILBER

CRITICAL REALISM REVISITED


Ken Wilber

ince writing In Defense of Integral Theory, I have read several articles comparing and contrasting Integral Theory and Critical Realism. Virtually all of them say the same thing. They point out several ways that
Critical Realism can benefit from Integral Theory, and when it comes to ways that Integral Theory can benefit
from Critical Realism, they all say, essentially, a grounding in ontology.

Let me make a few points about this claim. First, if you happen to agree, fine, but it doesnt change the
fundamental tenets of the Integral framework. The whole point of the Integral model is that individuals can
adapt it as they see best to suit their needs and what they think is right.

But in some ways this is unfair to Integral Theory. As several responding critics have pointed out, Integral Theory has an extensive ontologyfrom involutionary givens to the 20 tenets, whose first tenet is:
Reality is composed neither of things nor of processes, but of holons. Holons, of course, are wholes that are
parts of other wholes (as a whole atom is part of a whole molecule, a whole molecule is part of a whole cell, a
whole cell is part of a whole organism, etc.). This is sometimes worded, Reality is composed of perspectives
that are holons (for reasons explained below). Since all of the items in the quadrants are holons, the Integral map is drenched in ontology (but, as I am maintaining, an ontology inseparable from epistemology and
methodology, all interwoven aspects of the Wholemany subjects, many methods, many objectsor Whos,
Hows, and Whats).

I do not prefer a critical realist approach to ontology because it means, first, separating epistemology and
ontology, and then grounding epistemology in the ontology (the item Integral Theory can allegedly benefit
from Critical Realism)and yet epistemology and ontology are not separate and separable domains. They are,
from the start, mutually interactive, enactive, complementary aspects of the Whole. They cannot, as I have
pointed out, be violently torn from each other, and then be put back together again by grounding one in the
other. Epistemology (and methodology) and ontology are all integrally interwoven and mutually enactive, each
contributing an irreducible aspect of the whole of reality, and none can be privileged (without resorting to firsttier thinking). Epistemology (and methodology) and ontology are each a crucially and mutually interwoven
aspects of every holon in existence, and are so because of a genuine (and not merely claimed) panpsychism, or
a Kosmos where consciousness, doing, and being are all enactively engaged dimensions of an inseparable and
infinitely interconnected universeall the way up, all the way down.

This approach neither commits the epistemic fallacy (epistemology is privileged and ontology derived
from it) nor the ontic fallacy (ontology is privileged and epistemology derived from it). Nor does it see ontology separated and consigned to its own realm, and epistemology separated and consigned to its own realmbut
rather both arise concurrently (as part of a four-quadrant tetra-arising), coevolve concurrently, and co-enact
concurrently. The Kosmos is simply too interwoven and too inseparable and too enactive to exist in any other
fashionthere are no silo dimensions anywhere in the universe. Atoms come into being at the same time that
they know each other; molecules come into being at the same time that they know each other; and likewise
cells, organisms, and so on. If their knowing and being dont properly mesh (which is certainly possible, and
actually happens quite often), then the affected holon simply ceases to ariseit ceases to be carried forward
by evolution, whether it is a subatomic particle, an animal, or an idea.

It is the refusal to ground ontology in epistemology or epistemology in ontology that sets Integral Theory
apart from postmodernism and Critical Realism, respectively. Instead of, say, epistemology being grounded in
ontology, there is instead a mutual resonance that doesor does notoccur between these dimensions of
MetaIntegral Foundation, May 2013

K. WIlBER

being, and their enactive mutuality thus either meshes (and the holon is carried forward by evolution) or fails
to mesh (and the holon becomes extinct in the very next moment). This is not two mutually separate domains
(epistemology and ontology) smashing into each other and reflecting or not, but two mutually enactive and
co-existing dimensions interactively resonating in the living Kosmos or failing to, at which point the very life
of the holon failing to resonate also fails to exist, and fades into Kosmic memory as a trace of what once was,
but is no more.

This necessity of mutual enaction is part of the creative process that simultaneously brings forth multiple
subjects, multiple actions (methods), and multiple objectsthe multiplicity in each case occurring precisely
because all three of those are mutually interwoven, and as a new dimension (say, a new subject) evolves, so
the other dimensions must resonate (and co-evolve) in order to resonate with the new reality and keep the
Wholeness part of the holon Whole. This Wholeness is not the extrinsic sum of separate domains (e.g., epistemology, methodology, ontology), but the dynamic interwoven relationship of intrinsically co-evolving, cocreating, co-enacting internally related holonic dimensions, which must, indeed, resonate with each other or
face extinction. It is the reality of mutual enaction that sets up an equal necessity for mutual resonance among
these dimensions in a holon, and ensures that all of them co-evolve together, adjusting and re-adjusting to each
others reality until a genuine Wholistic resonance occurs among all of them. It is this mutual resonance among
interwoven dimensions, and not the isolated grounding of one silo dimension in another silo dimension, that
allows knowing to occur at alland is the fundamental basis of correct knowing and authentic being (mutual resonance) versus inaccurate knowing and inauthentic being (i.e., a lack of mutual resonance leading to
a fracture of one dimension from the others, and a frantic attempt to reconnect them by artificially grounding
one in the other).1

Genuine (and not merely claimed) panpsychism (or, as I prefer, pan-interiorism) is an important part of
this mutually resonating equation of the Whole. It is very similar to the stance of Charles Sanders Peirce
Americas one unanimously recognized philosophical genius. That epistemology and ontology are radically
inseparable means that every sign is not just representing an object or referent, but is simultaneously and
in-part interpreting that referent (the knowing and being coarising). As Peirce says of an act of semiotic
knowing, it consists of an action, or influence, which is, or involves, an operation of three subjects, such as
a sign, its object, and its interpretant [note the interpretant], this trirelative influence not being in any way
resolvable into an action between pairs [of those three interwoven dimensions]. This means the epistemic sign
and ontic object are categorically inseparable from each other and from some act of interpretation, and not
that one is grounded or reflects the other. Peirce comments on how odd this seems to conventional, siloed,
fragmented theories of epistemology and ontology:
It seems a strange thing, when one comes to ponder over it, that a sign should leave
its interpreter to supply a part of its meaning; but the explanation of the phenomenon
lies in the fact that the entire universenot merely the universe of existents, but that
wider universe, embracing the universe of existents as part, the universe which we are
all accustomed to refer to as the truththat all this universe is perfused with signs,
if it is not composed exclusively of signs.
1

This is why Reality is composed of holons is often stated as Reality is composed of perspectives that are holons.
This is simply focusing both on epistemology (perspectives) and ontology (holons) and pointing out their mutually
co-existing, co-arising, co-enacting natures. Perspectives are not grounded in holons, and holons are not grounded
in perspectivesthey mutually enact and co-create each other, with a change in one resonating with a change in the
other, as complementary aspects of the Whole, which keeps it Whole. This insures an integral pluralistic epistemology,
an integral pluralistic methodology, and an integral pluralistic ontology, all interwoven, all inseparableand thus open,
not to reflection of separate silos, but mutual resonance of complementary aspects of the Whole.

MetaIntegral Foundation

CRITICAL REALISM REVISITED

Epistemic signs, and their ontic objects, go inseparably togetherall the way up, all the way downand they
operate, Peirce would say, not with one of them separately reflecting or being grounded in the other, but
with a mutual perfusion of both throughout the entire universe.2

But, I repeat, you can separate out ontology and attempt to ground epistemology in it if you so desire,
and still use the Integral frameworknot a single aspect of the framework is fundamentally changed by that
move (although its meta-understanding is). And the writers who say that Integral Theory lacks this type of
ontological grounding are absolutely right.

Peirce is particularly famous for inventing the school of pragmatism. When William James began calling himself a
pragmatist and began supporting pragmatism, Peirce was not altogether pleased with James exact presentation, and
so he changed the name of his system to pragmaticism,a term, he wrote, so ugly as to discourage theft.

MetaIntegral Foundation