In the first few months since the birth of this site, we've been carefully driving stakes into the ground while consciously tending the soil for our next iteration of growth into the larger world. Our aim is to organize a diverse community from various segments of society, people with talent, sincerity and grit. People also who have an intuition of a larger purpose and through whom we can leverage intelligence from various fields of study and action to better serve the needs of the world.
As you may have noticed, many of us draw inspiration from the philosopher Ken Wilber. By extension, we have loose affiliation with the community of practitioners that have emerged around his work. There are several bright lights in this widening circle.
But recently a colleague made an important general point about those drawn to Ken’s work. She observed how the community tends to be heady, interested in maps and big pictures, but somewhat lacking in the rigorous study of other fields. She evoked the image of a ‘T’. We liked that image because it reflects a single body. In this case, a skinny body with a wide head. In this community, there is a tendency for over-generalizing based on the maps of integral theory. There is not enough ‘girth’: knowledge about and practice in the diverse fields that comprise societies. The poetry of the world, if you will.
To an extent this is understandable. James Crittendon in his introduction to one of Ken’s books insightfully recognized that most people see the world through the lens of their area of expertise and tend to consider their work to be the lynchpin of truth in the universe. Used properly, Wilber’s integral map is humbling as it arranges fields and theories within a larger picture. In some ways, this will never be properly reconciled, as experts from all fields will debate and struggle to understand how to organize and privilege material properly. And this is healthy.
But it’s bothered us, this lack of girth, since our continued explicit purpose on this site is to seek the most authentic and mature human expressions within the highest context of spirit-in-action.
Happily, we’ve found one such expression. For several years, Stanford professor of Italian Literature, Robert Harrison, has hosted a campus radio program called Entitled Opinions (free on Itunes). Unapologetically erudite (some might say elitist, to which we suspect he would have few qualms), the show visits a range of topics, usually focussed around an important thinker, philosopher or artist. His tastes are startlingly eclectic: from an unmatched grounding in Dante to an almost adolescent reverence for The Doors. But all the while, he weaves a graceful narrative, seeing the many faces of divinity within the broad expressions of humanity. Always respectful of his guest’s expertise, he nevertheless remains an active and present interviewer determined to use whatever topic is being discussed to deepen the sensibilities of his audience.
His is a knowledge that demonstrates the value of being at once alert to the progressive movements of the day while remaining steeped in the principles of antiquity, and alive to the intelligence of subsequent ages. Girth to us looks and sounds not just like rhetorical appreciation for the stages through which humanity has passed, but a deep knowledge of these stages and a living recognition of their relationships past, present and future. To both know and appreciate ancient practices of antiquity, the relationship of sport to the human condition, the value of religious institutions, the liberation of the individual during the Enlightenment, and the progress of egalitarian principles in recent times. And to be aware and wary of the war within the soul of man, the misuses of power in traditional structures, the greed and degradation of nature in the modern mindset, and the danger of relativism to our understanding of the sacred. We’ve heard all of these themes on Entitled Opinions, always articulated with more grace than this article can muster.
To be sure, Harrison is guilty of Crittenton’s lynchpin theory. His is a bias to literature, and the themes that move through the great works of classical and contemporary writing. But to be fair, literature is among the oldest and most developed mediums, likely a better candidate for meaning making than behavioral psychology, say, or market-based capitalism.
As Juma discussed, Ken Wilber’s integral map is an admirable and helpful attempt to meta-integrate many disparate disciplines of knowledge, and it can provide a clarity of orientation that’s at once illuminating and highly practical. But if we only come to know the map- and not the deep flesh that it outlines- our wisdom and understanding can remain but a thin and anemic skeleton of the mind. Wilber himself delved into all those disciplines in the course of his research, and underwent deep spiritual and psychological practice, but few of us have the time for such a colossal project. Harrison’s show can help us bridge this gap.
Memorizing the integral map, we can speak of the transition from the purple meme to the blue meme (or from hunter-gatherer societies to agrarian ones), but how did that actually look in real time. Listen to Harrison’s two-part show on The Origins of Agriculture, and a vast and detailed portrait of that period comes alive. We can locate on the integral map the ‘kosmic address’ of the existentialist stage of development, but in what detail do we really understand the trials and depths of that troubled developmental location. Harrison’s shows on Heidegger, Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus and Bataille are rich and accessible introductions to that evolutionary moment.
On Harrison’s show we can both dig into history- Byzantine, Greek, Roman- and deepen our understanding of globalization, the Internet, corporations, human rights and many other features of our 21st century world. We can plunge into the treasures of the arts and of literature, and we can also learn about cancer, institutions and the fate of the earth. Harrison is a natural integralist. The world, earth and cosmos are a single unfolding story, and he’s interested. Nay, he’s passionately interested.
Harrison resonates deeply with many of the giant critics of the modern world (and more than aptly communicates their message), but is no simple leftist or cynic. He understands and upholds the spiritual dimension of life, but is no crass fundamentalist. Harrison is a deeply moral man, an enlightened Epicurean whose voice turns and curls with the poetic taste of life going down sweetly. The world is magic in Harrison’s hands, and I for one can’t get enough of his exquisite monologues. He’s an inspiration and exemplar of what the integrated life can be. He puts girth in my quadrants.