Reflections on the New-Age Paradigm: A Conversation with Ken Wilber ( excerpt )


ReVison Journal: I wonder if we could now move on to the notion of epistemology, because you said earlier that the evolutionary hierarchy is also a hierarchy of knowledge. Could you elaborate?

WILBER: Each level of the Great Chain is a level of prehension, as Whitehead might say. Each level prehends, or somehow touches or cognizes, its environment. As we said earlier, each level is a stepped-down version of absolute consciousness. Anyway, if we use our simple three-level hierarchy of body, mind and spirit, then the three corresponding modes of knowing are sensory, symbolic and intuitive. The Christian mystics refer to them as the eye of flesh, the eye of reason and the eye of contemplation. Even Aristotle was pefectly aware of these realms - he referred to them as techne, praxis (or phronesis) and theoria.

Rv: And they are hierarchic?

WILBER: Yes. Just as the eye of reason transcends but includes the eye of flesh, the eye of contemplation transcends but includes the eye of reason.

Rv: Can science as we know it be extended to cover all three realms? Can we have a higher science of being? The new paradigm seems to say we can.

WILBER: Depends, I guess, on what you mean by science. Look at it this way; we have at least these three modes of knowing - sensory, symbolic and contemplative. These modes correspond to the physical body, the mind and the spirit. That is simple enough, but it becomes a little more complicated when you realize that the mind, for instance, can look not only at its own level but at the other two levels as well, and in each case you would get a fundamentally different type of knowledge. Here, I could draw it like this:

Rv: So we have three basic modes and realms of knowledge: the physical-sensory, the mental and the spiritual. (These are numbered 1, 2 and 3.) And then, within the mental mode itself, we have, what, three subsets?

WILBER: Subsets is fine. . . . (These are lettered a, b and c.)

Rv: Depending upon which of the three realms the mental mode takes as its object?

WILBER:Yes. Following my favorite orthodox philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, we can characterize the three mental subsets like this. When the mind confines itself to sensory knowledge, the mode is called empirical-analytic, and its interest is technical. When the mind works with other minds, the mode is hermeneutic, phenomenological. rational or historic, and its interest is practical or moral. We now add the mystic view, which Habermas doesn't directly cover, and we say that when the mind attempts to cognize the spiritual realm, its mode is paradoxical or radically dialectical, and its interest is soteriological. Here, I'll put it on the diagram:

Rv: What exactly is hermeneutics?

WILBER: The study of interpretation and symbolic meaning. In the hands of such sophisticated philosophers as Gadamer or Ricoeur, it really comes to mean mentality in general, or symbolic intentionality and meaning and value. See, the reason that empirical-analytic studies are so limited - limited, in fact, to the sensory realm - is that they can't even disclose the nature or meaning of mental productions. There is no empirical test, for instance, which will disclose the meaning of Macbeth, or the meaning of value, the meaning of your life and so on. Meaning is a mental production and can be determined only by interpretation, or what Heidegger called the hermeneutic circle.

Rv: Most people understand what you mean by empirical-analytic. Could you comment on the third subset, the paradoxical?

WILBER: The idea is simply that when the mind attempts to reason about the absolute, it will necessarily generate paradoxes, for exactly the reasons we have been discussing. When reason operates in this mode, we call it paradoxical. I have also heard the word "mandalic reason" used, and I like that. Either one is fine.

Rv: Now you are saying that paradoxical reason is not contemplation, but it does have its uses, correct?

WILBER: Yes, exactly. Both of those points should be emphasized. The first is that paradoxical or mandalic reason - which is what results when you try to think or write about the Tao or Spirit or Buddha Nature - is not itself spirit, nor does it disclose spirit per se. Here, let me just number all five modes like this:

Number 5 is simple sensory-material perception. Number 4 is empirical-analytic mental knowledge, or mind's ideas about the sensory-material world. Number 3 is hermeneutic and introspective and phenomenological knowledge, or mind's knowledge about mind. Number 2 is paradoxical or mandalic reason, or mind's attempt to think about spirit. Number 1 is spirit's direct knowledge of spirit, which is non-mediated or nonsymbolic knowledge, intuitive and contemplative.

Rv: And your first point is that number 2 should not be confused with number 1.

WILBER: Yes, and that is an extremely elemental point. There is no way to directly understand spirit except by radical spiritual transformation, or the direct opening of the eye of contemplation in your own case. You can read, think and write about the Tao all day, and none of that is the Tao. No mental theory is even close to Brahman.

Rv: And since, if you do reason about Tao, you will only generate paradoxes, there is no way to state one position over another. I mean, you can't say the Tao is dynamic flux, because that's half of a dualism in the paradox.

WILBER: That's true. You can't say it without contradicting yourself, as both Nagarjuna and Kant clearly pointed out.

Rv: I'm not sure I follow that point.

WILBER: Well, say you say the Tao is constantly changing, that nothing is permanent, everything changes. That's a self-contradiction, because you are claiming everything changes except, apparently, the fact that everything changes, which must therefore be a permanent fact. Contradiction. It won't work. Same thing happens if you claim reality is relative, dynamic, one, etc.

Rv: So the Tao is permanent and impermanent?

WILBER: Or neither, or even neither-neither, as Nagarjuna would have it. But you see the point - reason generates paradoxical statements when it tries to grasp the absolute.

Rv: But your second point was that that type of reason has certain uses?

WILBER: Definitely so, as long as we don't confuse mandalic reason with actual intuition-contemplation. One of its uses is to try to hint to other minds what God might be like. Hegel used such dialectical reason with great force, although he always came too close to confusing it with spiritual intuition. Another purpose, which was used with extraordinary skill by Nagarjuna, is to use the dialectic to demolish reason itself and thus pave the way for actual contemplation, or prajna.

Rv: How, exactly?

WILBER: Nagarjuna would be faced by an opponent who wished to characterize the absolute - the brahmins claimed god was absolute being, certain nihilist Buddhists claimed it was extinction, others claimed it was pattern, others said it was monistic or unitary and so on.

Rv: All of which are partial and dualistic?

WILBER: Yes, and Nagarjuna would demonstrate that point by turning the opponent's logic back on itself, at which point it would contradict itself. See, if you try to make a statement about reality as a whole, then your statement is part of that reality, at which point it becomes like a hand trying to grasp itself or a tongue trying to taste itself. You end up either in an infinite regress or in a blatant contradiction. Nagarjuna would use this inherent limitation in reason to exhaust reason's attempts to grasp spirit, at which point, if the thing is done carefully, you become more open to actual contemplative insight - the mind just shuts up, and in the gap between those thoughts, prajna is born, or at least can be. But as far as reality goes, it is neither being nor nonbeing, nor both nor neither - those were Nagarjuna's four categories, and they were based on the Buddha's original "inexpressibles." Whatever reality is, it can only, only be "seen" upon satori, or via actual contemplative insight.

Rv: And if you try to state what is "seen" you will only generate paradox. . . .

WILBER: Yes, but those paradoxes, used skillfully, as upaya, constitute mandalic reason and that is one of its uses.