203 of 230 people found the following review helpful
on May 7, 2001
[For full review, see forthcoming, Torosyan, R. (2001). A system for everything: Book review of K. Wilber's Brief History of Everything. New Ideas in Psychology, 19 (3).]
Wilber manages to create a sweeping system for everything in life. He describes our spiritual evolution, and our dominant conceptual concerns: East and West, ancient and modern, individual and collective, physical and metaphysical. Wilber writes in an accessible common-sense style. He deliberately avoids a typical scholarly tone. While not free of some pretense at a monolithic voice, his work promotes rich conceptions of self-reflexiveness, interconnection, spirituality and empathy.
Wilber shows how the major theories of biological, psychological, cognitive and spiritual development describe different versions of how to find "the truth." At the outset, Wilber refers to Douglas Adams's best-selling cult novel Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. We desire final conclusions, just as Adams facetiously proposed the "answer that would completely explain 'God, life, the universe, and everything'" (p. xv). In the novel, that answer was "42," highlighting the absurdity of seeking such a final answer.
Wilber's "answer," instead, is a framework for connecting evolutionary currents. At first, he uses a Socratic dialogue, beginning with "KW" for Wilber and "Q" for the questioner, be s/he reader, fan, or friend. Initially, this appears somewhat contrived. The text pretends to be an interview, when it is clearly the author's own highly controlled construction. Upon further reading, however, the stylistic device helps Wilber engage the reader in a dialogue.
To Wilber, traditions of thought have usually been either "ascending" toward transcendental spirituality, or "descending" to the body, the senses, and sexuality (p. 11). The author suggests that humans must integrate dualities to survive as a species. In fact, we must not merely synthesize but accept the "nonduality" of ascending and descending, mind and body (p. 12).
Wilber's first chapter presents a brief summary of the entire book in the voice of the questioner:
Q: So we'll start with the story of the Big Bang itself, and then trace out the course of evolution from matter to life to mind. And then, with the emergence of mind, or human consciousness, we'll look at the five or six major epochs of human evolution itself. And all of this is set in the context of spirituality-of what spirituality means, of the various forms that it has historically taken, and the forms that it might take tomorrow. Sound right?
KW: Yes, it's sort of a brief history of everything...based on what I call 'orienting generalizations' (p. 17)
"Q" is obviously more highly informed than a first-time reader. Wilber uses Q less to ask questions than to help simplify points [the book summarizes the more complex content of Wilber's massive Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995)]. The "generalizations" he notes are Kohlberg's and Gilligan's moral stages. "Human moral development goes through at least three broad stages" (p. 17). In brief: before the child is socialized, it is "preconventional," as it learns the values of society it becomes "conventional," and eventually it may reflect on its own values critically, becoming increasingly "postconventional."
Wilber goes on to show a number of "tenets" or "patterns that connect." The first of these is that "reality is composed of whole/parts, or 'holons'" (p. 20). A holon is something that is itself "a whole and simultaneously a part of some other whole" (ibid.). Borrowing from Arthur Koestler, Wilber argues that the world is full of "holarchies," as opposed to hierarchies. Where a hierarchy typically separates distinct parts, a holarchy consists of both wholes that are parts, and parts that are wholes. For example, an atom is a whole of its own, but also a part of a whole molecule. A whole molecule is a part of a whole cell, and a whole cell is part of a whole organism. As Wilber says, "Time goes on, and today's wholes are tomorrow's parts" (ibid.).
Wilber uses the ideas of "depth" and "span" to say that whenever we map a territory, something always gets left out. For instance, as we narrow focus with a microscope, "There are fewer organisms than cells; there are fewer cells than molecules; there are fewer molecules than atoms; there are fewer atoms than quarks. Each has a greater depth, but less span" (p. 34). Similarly, if we move from mysticism and psychology, into biology and physics, the progression gives greater depth of specific detail but less span, embrace, or inclusion of levels of reality (pp. 36-38). These dimensions are neither dependent nor independent, but interdependent.
Great shifts in "reality" paradigms were brought by what Wilber calls "the watershed separating the modern and postmodern approaches to knowledge" (p. 58). Postmodernists criticize old paradigms such as "the Enlightenment,... the Newtonian, the Cartesian, the mechanistic, the mirror of nature, the reflection paradigm" (ibid.). In opposition, many postmodernists propose that "all truth is relative and merely culture-bound, there are no universal truths" (pp. 62-63). But as Wilber notes, even Derrida now concedes the elemental point that worldviews are not "'merely constructed' in the sense of totally relative and arbitrary" (p. 62). In Wilber's diagnosis, assertions that "there is no truth in the Kosmos, only those notions that men force on others," are nihilistic, replacing truth with "the ego of the theorist" (p. 63).
As a tool to place different worldviews, Wilber uses "four quadrants of development" (pp. 71-75). The exterior form of development is measured objectively and empirically. The interior dimension is subjective and interpretive, and hence depends on consciousness and introspection. And both interior and exterior occur not just separately but in social or cultural context.
Wilber describes how Foucault summarized the "monological madness" that dominated the eighteenth century and Enlightenment notions of the subject: "the subjective and intersubjective domains were thus reduced to empirical studies-I and we were reduced to its- and thus humans became 'objects of information, never subjects in communication'" (p. 269). Treated as objects, people were expected to meet norms of mental health, for instance, while their subjective position in the world was ignored.
Wilber says the whole of his morality aims to "protect and promote the greatest depth for the greatest span" (p. 335). He argues we must use these criteria when we make judgments. Although the spirituality risks opacity, the overall effort suggests deeply researched and grounded ways to structure reality. If we as a society need human empathy for multiple perspectives, then the patterns of thought laid out by Wilber provide a system for integrating such perspectives. Distilling messages of vast ranges of thought, Wilber presents highly differentiated worldviews and multiple points of intervention through which we can, if contingently, take action.
271 of 315 people found the following review helpful
on April 26, 2006
This is a disappointing book. I had read a couple of Wilber's earlier books and liked them, especially the superb "Grace and Grit." At his best, he can be very good at explaining a nondualistic Eastern style philosophy.
As the title suggests, this book is meant to introduce people to an all encompassing metaphysical system. No one could attempt such an enterprise without a little hubris. But why stop at a little? Wilber is fond of dropping the names of long lists of famous intellectuals whose work he finds consistent with, but subservient to, his system. Reality is sliced and diced in an endless taxonomy of levels, holons, stages, paradigm shifts, quadrants, centers, spheres and fulcrums before being reassembled into a nondualistic whole. Anyone satisfied with scientific explainations is dismissed as a "reductionist" holding what he calls "an insane world view." The science based world view is not so much argued against as it is insulted, dismissed and misrepresented.
The most remarkable thing in this book is it's bizzare description of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory. He makes the astonishing claim that very few theorists believe in Darwinian evolution and that, "There is no evidence whatsoever for intermediate (fossil) forms." Wilber maintains it would take at least a hundred simultaneous beneficial mutations for something like a wing to evolve. He claims this would have to occur separately in both a male and a female who would then have to mate successfully. This is a grotesque caricature of Darwinan theory. Anyone who thinks it is adequate should buy this book. Others should read Richard Dawkins "Climbing Mount Improbable." Wilber never names any scientists who advocate this version of evolution for the very good reason that there aren't any.
What accounts for this straw man caricature of the most foundational scientific theory in modern biology? Well, Darwinian theory predicts that two species competing for the same niche will compete very fiercely. Wilber's Hegelian style spirit based pantheism competes with a science based pantheism in the tradition of Spinoza, Darwin and Einstein.
This book is written in a question and answer format. I bought it on audio cassette. The questions were read by a young woman. Her tone indicates she is struggling to understand. She is always co-operative and eager to receive the wisdom from on high. The answers are read by a man. His tone is authoritative and patiently condescending. This is perfect for the text.
Here is a one sentence sample, from the book, of Wilber's writing at it's worst: "So we have some very popular theorists who, tired of the burdens of postconventional and world-centric rational perspectivism, recommend a regressive slide into egocentric vital impulsive polymorphous phantasmic emotional revival." Like Hegel, Wilber has attracted legions of readers who assume that his most incomprehensible writing must be his most brilliant. If you are willing to make that assumption, this book will delight you.
31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on March 9, 2003
For any thinking person who's struggling with the schism between science, psychology and faith, this book has the answer. Mr. Wilber has an amazing mind, and in this book he simplifies his theoretical framework to make his brilliant thought easier to grasp. I disagree with the reader who complained about lack of references -- all the footnotes are available in his other works. This is the synthesis of his thought for those who want to understand, not those who want to nit-pick.
For me, it's a life-changing book, showing the way to order my own thoughts and experiences. Wilber is the only writer I've come across, other than James Hillman, who helps me reconcile all my disparate reading and experience.
In this book, he perfectly and succinctly outlines the growth process I see in my clients who are struggling to overcome dysfunction, find meaning in life and transcend their pasts.
I am grateful for this book's influence in my thought, and in my work as a therapist.
30 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on February 14, 2003
Ken Wilber has written many many books discussing his beef against what he calls "flatland", which is characteristic of the western civilization as well as the modern world in general. I believe that he makes his point most clearly in this book as well as "Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality". Although "Sex Ecology and Sprituality" is a scholarly masterpiece, this book is the easier to understand for the lay reader. If you are new to Wilber's "Comprehensive Everything" type books, I would suggest reading this book before reading his other ones. I think although many of us Wilber lovers struggle to fully understand and appreciate his vision, his books are a true joy to read. If you are interested in these topics, another book that is easy and enjoyable to read is "Rhythm, Relationships, and Transcendence" by Toru Sato. It is also a wonderful book on the subject-object differentiation (dual vs nondual)! Both books help remind us that although our world of objects is useful, the world of subjects is what makes it beautiful! Happy reading!
24 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on September 1, 2003
Ken Wilber shows us that although we all take different roads in life, we share a common direction in our development and evolution. He brings together a vast number of theories and observations and organizes them into one theory. It is quite amazing! Wilber has written many books on this subject but this is the one I would recommend people to read first. If you'd like a shorter, more simplified but extremely well-organized / well-articulated book that covers this material, I strongly suggest "The Ever-transcending Spirit" by Toru Sato. It also discusses practical implications of these ideas that make you feel like you could have saved a lot of hassle and confusion if you read it eariler in your life. Both Wilber and Sato are clearly two of the most advanced thinkers of our time.
97 of 123 people found the following review helpful
on February 6, 2007
This is going to sound petty to most, but it hit me really hard.
I saw this book in a store and, having heard a lot about Ken Wilber, I picked it up. Of course, I turned right away to the "Note to the Reader" in front. Within seconds I was gasping in disbelief. Here's why.
Wilber begins with one of my favorite books, Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Great, I thought, a fellow Hitchhiker's fan! But, he immediately gets it wrong, seriously wrong, several times. I quote:
"In Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a massive supercomputer is designed to give the ultimate answer, the absolute answer, the answer that would completely explain 'God, life, the universe, and everything.'"
Wrong. It's "Life, the Universe, and Everything". No mention of God. Wilber continues:
"But the computer takes seven and a half million years to do this, and by the time the computer delivers the answer, everybody has forgotten the question."
Also wrong. They never knew the question in the first place, and never realized they would have to know the question in order to understand the answer. Wilber goes on:
"Nobody remembers the ultimate question, but the ultimate answer the computer comes up with is: 42. This is amazing! Finally, the ultimate answer. So wonderful is the answer that a contest is held to see if anybody can come up with the question."
Utterly, utterly wrong. There was no "contest"; a second computer was built to find the Ultimate Question. This computer was so large it was frequently mistaken for a planet, and was called the Earth by its inhabitants. Onward:
"Many profound questions are offered, but the final winner is: How many roads must a man walk down?"
Again, wrong. The Earth was destroyed five minutes before it was due to complete its program, and those who had built it decided to come up with a fake question rather than go through the whole thing again. "How many roads must a man walk down?" was what they settled on.
So, that's four major mistakes in the first two paragraphs, about a book that's known and loved by many, many readers. If Wilber can't be bothered to get this right, then (I asked myself) how trustworthy could he be on a more serious subject such as "a brief history of everything"?
I put the book down and walked away.
72 of 91 people found the following review helpful
on May 1, 2001
For those who don't know (it seems likely based on these reviews that many don't), this is the same Ken Wilber who, not so long ago, was zealously promoting the works of the meglomaniacal cult leader Da Free John, a man who makes the usual claims for his type: to be the greatest avatar of all time, in possession of miraculous powers, and so on. Many of Wilber's ideas, here in Brief History of Everything and all of his later works, are lifted directly from "Master" Da, right down to the terminology, but he hardly stops there: he simultaneously manages to believe in literal Hindu-style reincarnation, Freudianism, Zen Buddhism, behaviourism, and any number of other things, dodging their inherent contradictions by taking only what he wants of each.
His system is little more than a lot of decoration disguising a stitching-together of Freud and Piaget with Da and Aurobindo; correspondences to what he here and in later works calls "other quadrants" are always suggested but never specified. Similarly, his supposedly "inclusive" model simply ignores vast areas of the world religious traditions that contradict his theory, such as all of Western esotericism and the nearly universal idea that the proper number of levels of consciousness (his primary theme) is seven.
That the seams in this crazy quilt are seemingly invisible to so many is due in part to the overspecialized (mis)education we are provided with; most of Wilber's readers probably aren't familiar enough with the vast territories he covers to realize that he subtly distorts all he touches to shoehorn it into his model. He comes across here and elsewhere as a self-assured filing cabinet stuffed full of data; but he never provides us with a single testable hypothesis, only a belief system consisting of a vague doctrine of inevitable progress. It is this in particular that makes his system so appealing to the academics, corporate CEOs and limosine new-agers that endorse it; it reinforces all their most cherished illusions. This is not to say that his books are without merit; his observations are spot-on when he isn't defending his precious system, and he builds a sort of holistic verbal bridge to places the intellectually or spiritually lazy will find new, but for those serious about transformation it is a bridge to nowhere.
47 of 59 people found the following review helpful
on June 3, 2008
Through an unfortunate clicking error, I accidentally purchased a copy of Ken Wilber's opus "A Brief History of Everything." I had read snippets of other Wilber books in the past and was saddened by my purchasing error when the box arrived from Amazon.
I reminded myself, however, that in the past I had made other purchasing mistakes and had then been ultimately pleased by the book when I finally got down to reading it. That was not the case with "A Brief History".
Armed with two undergraduate degrees, a doctorate, and a lifetime love of general reading on a broad host of subjects, I dove in. I felt that my education and experiences were both broad and narrow enough to decipher Wilber. I soon re-discovered that reading Wilber is like having your brain pushed through the extra-gooey sludge layer of popular intellectualism. His convoluted syntax is surpassed only by his wholly imaginary vocabulary. This kind of psycho-babble, new-age charlatanism should be reserved exclusively for the conversion of Silicon Valley CEOs to Wilber's zen-narcissism. The book should carry a safety warning for the general public. I am dumber having read it.
Reluctantly, I gave the book two stars, for three reasons. First, the cover photo on the book is the largest head shot of any author ever. It would have never fit on the back jacket flap. Second, Wilber's child-like belief in a universal unitarianism refreshes my own desire to believe in the transcendence of human nature. (Unless you think he's just saying all this stuff to sell books and lectures to Silicon Valley CEOs . . .?!). Finally, I'm amazed that he could string so many imaginary words together and make them sound like sentences.
Well, at least I got bubble-wrap.
24 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on November 18, 2004
This is the first Ken Wilber book I have read. I got halfway through A Theory of Everything and realized I should have read this first. So I did.
Wilber is a prolific and uniquely American philosopher who has written extensively on his developing Theory of Everything. Unlike other all-encompassing scientific theories (systems theory, string theory, m-theory, etc), Wilber's philosophy encompasses thought and spirituality as well. In fact, Wilber's central point is that our modern mode of thinking unfortunately focuses solely on provable, measurable science, ignoring the spiritual and emotional internal aspects of individuals and of society. We are living in a state of what he calls "flatland." This book is basically a call to global well-roundedness in thought.
This is probably the most challenging book I've read in a long time. I have never read anything like it. Wilber's theory fascinating. It joins many of the great philosophies, sciences, and spiritual beliefs and shows how they can live in accord rather than at odds with one another. It traces our development as humans using aspects of developmental psychology, and examines the evolution of our thought from a historical perspective.
As an attempt to incorporate all modes of thought-psychological, scientific, philosophical, religious, etc.-this is a fantastic book. Several of the reviews I've read criticize Wilber for his inability to scientifically prove his theory. But that criticism is missing one of the main points of his theory-namely that science is only one aspect of thought, only one facet of our world. Not everything can be proven through science. Love, sorrow, joy, humor-these things are not measurable with instruments. There is definite moral right and wrong (e.g. Nazis wrong) that can't be proven with science. And Wilber's point is that science can't be used to prove things of a spiritual nature any more than prayer could be used to calculate the boiling point of water. For an individual and a world to be healthy, it must operate and evolve in all quadrants, not just one. It must break out of this "flatland" approach.
My biggest criticisms of A Brief History of Everything are of style more than content. The book is set up as a dialogue between a questioner and answerer. Why this was done is beyond me, and it actually became very annoying. It's a technique a writer might use to help flush out his thoughts, but there's no need for the questions to be included in the final draft.
My other criticism is that, although Wilber's philosophy is not New Age, the terms he uses to describe his concepts have that flavor. He often makes up several words which mean the same thing and unnecessarily uses them interchangeably. It gets a tad confusing at times. And Wilbur has a tendency to end his chapters with a flurry of this language in an overly dramatic way that seems more like bad New Age poetry than anything else. It detracts from his otherwise brilliant theory.
30 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on June 3, 2013
I love reading the 1-2 star reviews for Wilber, as they can be classified into two groups, those who don't actually understand what he's saying (I was guilty of this once when reading his "pre/trans fallacy" essay, but I re-read it and finally got around my objections) and those who simply don't know what they don't even know.
Reductionist and materialists -- your arguments are embarrassing and Rupert Sheldrakes book "Science Set Free" takes you to the philosophical woodshed, will you learn your lesson? Of course not. Because trying to explain expanded reality to someone who see's nothing more than atoms and matter arranged in ever more complex meaningless patterns is like trying to explain sex to someone who's never had sex. Someone can write out a really detailed account of every motion, every sensation, every feeling, but if you haven't had sex, then it can't be sugar coated, you dont even know what you dont even know. Sorry if that sounds arrogant, but it's reality. The same is true for people who've never experienced an intense non-dual state of consciousness.
In this book Wilber attempts, I think quite well, to bring every possible worldview and bit of human knowledge into his map and show how it fits, how all of it is useful in some way, and how all of it can be improved with an expanded view and put into its evolutionary context (and he freely admits that because all his work is based on evolution that Wilber 1.0 is not the same as Wilber 3.0, later books correct mistakes in earlier books) For anyone who is tempted to see evolution as confined to the obvious biological sciences, Wilber explains how evolution is everywhere and nothing can escape it (not even his own work).
If you think his book is too "light" for you philosophically, then read his epistemological essay "The Three Eyes Of Knowledge" ... which is the underpinning for everything else he writes. If you still disagree with him, then we're back to that old pesky problem of how to explain consciousness. And on that issue, again, you've either "been there, done that" or you haven't when it comes to admitting that there's a 3rd eye of knowledge. You either view ultimate reality with 2D vision, or with a more realistic 3D perspective.
When it comes to adding mystical experience to any reality paradigm, there is no sitting on the sidelines and thinking about it, you either jump into the game and live and breathe it, or you can "think" about it for days, weeks, years and never get it. Your criticism is devoid of direct experience and knowledge. It's like someone who's never played quarterback in the NFL telling Brady, Rogers or Manning how to do it properly.
I don't ever critique advanced forms of math like non-linear dynamics because I've never done the homework to understand it. It's beyond my current comprehension. So why should someone who's never done the "homework" involved to discover the 3rd eye of knowledge feel like their opinion about it is valid? It's not. Either jump in the deep end of the pool by giving mystical experience a try, or continue to write critiques that are frankly embarrassing because you don't even know what you don't even know.