Top critical review
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on 7 December 1998
_SES_ is quite an idea trip. I purchased it after having my understanding of religion and spirituality profoundly deepened by _Up From Eden_ and _The Atman Project_. In fact, after many years of spiritual and philosophical seeking, Wilber has so far been the only thinker who has been able to "make sense" of my own Christian faith, in a way that enables me to continue to embrace it, despite many obvious mythical trappings. In that sense, I am deeply and personally indebted to Ken for the gift of a new conceptual framework, in which to understand my relationship to faith, and my faith's relationship to the evolution of humanity and culture. Insofar as _SES_ carries on the torch of that vision, it continues to make keen observations about the spiritual and cultural future of humanity and planet Earth.
Unfortunately, _SES_ also deeply disappointed me in a number of important ways. The _Booklist_ reviewer's critisicm that "it suffers from a tendency to make unsubstantiated or inadequately referenced claims" is a severe understatement; the majority of Wilber's arguments are not so much won as repeated so many times as to seem obviously true. The book is so repetitive that it became frustrating to read, and in spots it was only Ken's lively and interesting language that made it bearable. Unfortunately, the same language is sweeping, black-and-white, and notoriously lacking in the senstivity to nuance and detail that is required machinery in every philosopher's toolkit. Worse, he too often slips into polemical rhetoric to substitute for solid argumentation. His repetitive criticism of "flatland holism," and its close cousin "subtle reductionism," is almost totally lacking in substantive argument over the eight-hundred page trek. His disagreements with systems theories over "depth" and "span" issues are insightful, but a great deal more rigor is necessary before his philosophical foundataions can be ultimately acceptable. His discussions are rich in flavorful and evocative images (which is his undisputed strength), but weak on logic.
Perhaps his claim that higher states of consciousness and being transcend formal-operational logic gives him a license to favor colorful intuition over bland argument and proof. However, as he is continuously ready to point out, higher integrations must transcend _and include_ their predecessors. If anything, Ken's treatment of the human spirit should be _more_ rational, not less; and I did not find that to be the case in this work. (Interestingly, the Western thinkers whom he praises most for their insight are some of the most philosophically rigorous in the business -- Plato, Plotinus, Shelling, Kant, Hegel, Gebser, Habermas, to name a few. One of the advantages of reading _SES_ is that it points to a tremendous amount of excellent primary source material.)
_Eden_ and _Atman_ are the undisputed presentations of Ken's model of consciousness; they are, in form and content, one of the most significant contributions to the literature on religion, spirituality, and psychology in the second half of the twentieth century. But in _SES_, I think Ken has bit off a little more than he can chew, by attempting to extract a volume from a pamphlet. The result is undigested, repetitive, and philosophically unsatisfying.