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47 of 49 people found the following review helpful
on February 4, 2004
Ken Wilber's "Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution", is my favorite book. And that isn't a title I award lightly.
SES is quite possibly the first attempt at putting together a syncretic, evolutionary worldview since Hegel's "Phenomenology". In an age when truth has been declared dead and multiple perspectives rule the roost, where philosophy lives in the shadow of Nietzsche's madman, Wilber, in this striking volume, challenges post-modernity. Unlike other challengers, arguing for a retreat to conservatism and cynical (or mythic-literal) traditionalism, Ken proposes a different idea- we need to integrate the strengths of Post-modernity (a recognition of the other, a bird's eye view of ideology, and a profound social and ecological awareness), Modernity (scientific rationality, empiricism, democracy), and Pre-modernity (religious wisdom and cultural bounty) into one complete, "integral" package.
Sounds like a tough mission for any thinker to take on. Of course, Wilber- living outside the academia, blending his scholastic persuits with Zen practice, and doing his best to live his own philosophy- is no ordinary thinker. In the 551 pages of text (not including extensive endnotes and bibliography), Wilber essentially lays out his "theory of everything". Based in the psychological work of Freud, Piaget, Kohlberg, Maslow, Jung, Gebser, and other thinkers, Wilber first constructs a socio-psychological map of civilization's evolution to date, and shows how it integrates with hard scientific data. Dividing the world into subject and object, Wilber shows how modern empiricism has attempted to colonize the subjective sphere by trying to render it irrelevant- a condition he refers to as "flatland". After providing this analysis, Wilber takes a gander at the cognitive structures still lying in our future, through several examples of such advanced minds- Emerson, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Ramana Maharshi, and Meister Eckhart. After that, Wilber takes on the disease of the Post-modern world and it's primary culprits- a dissociation between what he refers to as the "Eco" camps (romantic, back-to-nature, web-of-life, holistic) and the "Ego" camps (rationalistic, modernistic, atomistic, disassociating the mind and body), and how these two contradictory (and self-contradictory) worldviews are becoming extremely destructive- in political discourse, academia, and the world in general.
Of course, as has been said before about SES, it's very hard to sum up in a simple outline- the book itself is practically a 500+ page outline. The main thrust of the work is to construct a coherent philosophy for the 21st century, and thus Wilber spends little time on details (which will be covered further in the next two volumes, Kosmic Karma and Creativity and The Spirit of Post-Modernity). But, that weakness aside, Wilber has proven himself the finest philosophical mind of the early 21st century, and the first great step beyond Foucault, Derrida, and the rest of the post-modern mess.
Although SES is an excellent book, it's not light reading, and readers without a background in philsophy, psychology, or cultural studies should take a look at a simpler introduction to Wilber's work, such as A Brief History of Everything- the condensed, more conversational version of SES.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on December 29, 2000
I believe SES is so valuable not only because Ken Wilber has taken the time to master the essential findings of a dozen different academic disciplines, but because he then combines this brilliant scholarship with the insight of a meditation master. In India these rare individuals are called "Pandits" - scholars who have fully opened the "eye of contemplation." Mystics usually do not even attempt to bring the ineffable truths they discover in transverbal states of consciousness into the world of conceptual discourse and sensory evidence. Scientists almost always assume that rationality is the highest faculty we have available to understand our world, and ignore the vast areas of human experience that cannot be easily weighed or measured.
Because Wilber is attempting the extraordinarily difficult feat of integrating these two paths, I think we should keep this "degree of difficulty" in mind as we evaluate his work. He may not always keep his toes perfectly pointed as he enters the water, but how many other theoreticians currently working could include anywhere NEAR this many moves (truths) in a single dive (system of thought?) SES (and Integral Theory as a whole) is far from perfect, and Wilber himself certainly is far from perfect (whatever "perfect" might mean)- but if you care about developing a more compassionate, courageous and effective approach to the daunting challenges facing humanity in the coming decades, you will not want to ignore the tremendous intellectual goldmine he offers in SES.
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44 of 50 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon April 7, 2001
For me, the modern age is characterized by some interesting excesses, and Wilber satisfyingly identifies many of them in his spiritual journey here. Three favorite targets I found were: (1) the attempt to make things simpler than they really are in order to explain them, which analytic philosopher Dan Dennett calls "greedy reductionism," (2) the "rage against reason" found in much postmodernism that rejects the notion of objective reality and confident knowledge; and (3) extreme conservative thinking unable to come to grips with the vision of a complex evolving universe.
Wilber has a brilliant imagination and he is a very engaging writer, and this book (probably his best) deals with all three of those excesses in a fascinating way. His overall approach is not original of course (it is essentially a spiritual interpretation of systems and process metaphysics, but there are some very original elements sprinkled here and there. And probably the best thing about this book is that it does a competent job of presenting and integrating ideas from many diverse fields, in addressing the modern excesses, and trying to come up with a satisfying spiritual worldview for our complex age.
This is beautifully ironic, since what he attempts is the very essence of reductionism (!), something Wilber rails against mightily in this book when the "reductionists" disagree with his ideas because the "reduction" is not spiritually meaningful.
For comparison, the conservative religious/creationist critique of Darwinism holds that a universe composed of material elements that interact algorithmically ("machines") cannot also contain spiritual meaning. The Catholic Pope avoided that bind in support of evolution by imbuing material with living Spirit. Wilber uses the metaphysics of systems and processes rather than living Spirit, making his version, (like that of theologian Haught), noticeably more (if still imperfectly) compatible with the scientific worldview.
But this attack of reductionism while using to make his point is the big flaw, to me, in an otherwise very compelling, ambitious, and scholarly synthesis of many of the most profound ideas ever recorded in human thinking.
Indeed, this book seems like it would be sure to appeal to a wide variety of people who, like me, are looking for a way of making sense of our world where we don't bury our head in the sand against uncomfortable aspects of the scientific worldview, nor reject the implications of being spiritual beings who crave meaning.
Technically, the main problem I found is Wilber's annoyingly spotty attention to analysis (which seems worse because he does it reasonably well when he does it), in favor of linking ideas through metaphor. It makes his ideas flow like repetitive New Age spiritual poetry, from science to theology to philosophy and back again, but it doesn't quite hold together for me. It feeds the soul in many places, and feeds the intellect in many places, but not quite both at once.
If this was just a book of inspiring metaphor, the science would be distracting, and as a work of argumentation it is largely devoid of rigor. The result is arguably appropriate to the topic, since one of his targets is the dictatorship of materialist reasoning in science. However, he seems to lapse briefly into some of the excesses of postmodernism or even wishful superstition when after building a perfectly good concept from the ground up, he throws out conclusions that only fit by analogy. The usual leap of faith needed to appreciate any book of religion is then required. This contrasts with the well-reasoned argument leading up to that point. It is perhaps, as other reviewers pointed out, that he has taken on so very much.
He is left, sadly, with the same problems that some populists of complexity theory have, their passion for applying their ideas goes beyond what they've actually demonstrated... they _could_ (probably ?) well be right, but they've at that point only built an illusion of scientific soundness by telling a masterful story.
This encyclopedic book joins Murphy's masterpiece, "Future of the Body," as another magnificent attempt to construct a new spirituality out of scientific, humanistic, and religious traditions. I applaud his efforts, and I think this is a very worthy book that introduces in understandable form many important complex ideas that most people would otherwise not have the chance to engage. For the sake of space, I'd like to refer interested readers to many of the excellent points made in Frederick Polgardy's very fine review previously here.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on March 1, 2000
I think the previous reviewer has belittled Wilber's scope by making out that this book is primarily about Buddhism. This book is nothing of the sort, and Wilber consciously widens the scope of any specific 'world religion' and he portrays a spiritual perspective of God which seems to me to be smack-bang in the middle of Eastern and Western philosophies. Many people would say that Buddhism and Western theism are oceans apart, but Wilber reveals here that there may only be One ocean. Some people might think Wilber is a little too pretentious or too bold with his thinking, but I feel he carries it off as well as anyone could. This book is not for everyone, but it's well worth delving into.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on November 12, 2004
This is quite possibly the most profound and important book I've read in my life. Wilber has written 17 books (I've read 14 of them), and this is without a doubt, his magnum opus.

SES starts with a unique systems theory with swift, elegant explanation, superior examples and demonstrations of knowledge. The kicker comes about 100 pages into the book where Wilber applies the systems theory to consciousness development and anthropological evolution. He then shows how this same pattern of existence develops and envelopes universally through all three modes of awareness, demonstrated through Plato's "Big Three" (the Good, the True, the Beautiful). From there, the 2nd half the book takes you on a philosophical tour de force from Plato all the way to Hegel and Feuerbach, leaving no ideology or pundit unscathed, or perhaps unexhalted; Wilber highlights important contributions of almost every philosophical mind, prejudice and partisan towards no one. Ken fills every page with magnificent commentary, critique and insight from cover to cover.

Wilber literally leaves out nothing (theoretically, not factually). There is nothing--save some quantum mechanical theories--that escape his scope and integration. Wilber is the most profound and important thinker in the world today. And it's not only because his ideas are so revolutionary--to the contrary, most of his ideas have been developed before--but it's how plainly he weaves EVERYTHING together into a comprehensable and bite-sized (if you can call 830 pages bite-sized) book. He does this primarily through fantastic writing. He repeats important points in new ways, uses appropriate metaphors, and fleshes everything out rationally for accessibility; not to mention he's quite humorous at times.

I can't overstate the importance of this book. I read the critical reviews below and I see nothing but misunderstandings and flawed logic. For instance, Ken never implies religion is the answer to the "flatland" of modernity. He simply states that he BELIEVES transpersonal awareness is the next evolutionary step in consciousness, he never by any means claims it is necessary (in either mythic or mystic forms).

An important side note: this is not a good starting point for Wilber readers. If you've never read a Wilber book, start at "A Brief History of Everything" as a sufficient primer.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on March 31, 2001
As another reviewer suggests, this is indeed an extremely ambitious work. Wilber's life's work is exceedingly ambitious, and this volume is the most comprehensive and the most demanding single volume he has yet published
First, I will say to the KW book shopper, this is not the best of his works to start with, in my opinion. Even for the serious reader, I would recommend "ramping up" to this book by reading some of his other work first. You'll get more out of this one if you do. At least read "A Brief History of Everything" first, which KW wrote as a more accessible summary of the thought presented in SES. Because KW's work draws on thinkers from so many disparate fields, the terminology alone can be daunting in SES, unless you are already conversant in the languages of developmental psychology, linguistic analysis, sociology, metaphysics, epistemology, eastern religions and so on. Reading ABHE first will at least give you a good overview of the territory before plunging into SES. I had read eight other KW works before I took on this one, and I think my understanding of SES benefitted from that.
That said, this is a stunning work, and if any one volume of KW's work can be said to lay out the core of his thinking, this would be it. The book begins by outlining what KW calls the "Twenty Tenets," which are, as he calls them, "orienting generalizations" that place in context all that comes after. Here he explains his holarchical model, the "spectrum of consciousness," the basic characteristics of the evolution of consciousness, and his Four Quadrants model of wisdom traditions, or approaches to understanding the universe, which may be his most unique contribution to philosophical thought. From there he proceeds to flesh out his integral theory of knowledge, which seeks to establish a way for us to reconcile (and integrate) the valuable contributions of approaches as disparate as neuroscience and mysticism, Freudian analysis and systems theory. And he shows how this affects our approaches to, yes, sex (gender identity, roles of the sexes, feminism, the mens' movements, et al), ecology (what do various worldviews, belief systems, and perpectives along the spectrum of consciousness mean for our approach to ecological issues, and what are their prospects?) and spirituality (what place does spirituality still have in the story of humankind, and how do we make sense of the seemingly limitless and contradictory number of approaches to this oldest and most important of questions?)
The most unique contribution KW has made to world thought is to begin the integration of the many wisdom traditions and modes of inquiry--to set out a methodology for doing so and to begin to do it. Am I having a mystical experience, is God speaking to me, or is it just something my brain chemistry is doing? Or is it just a culturally-conditioned response to environmental context? Or regression to a prerational state? Any one approach has its answer, but who is right? And what place does each kind of answer have have in an integrated approach to understanding? Wilber says each of the many modes of serious inquiry has part of the truth, but not all of it. He asks how we honor the valuable contributions from each such partial view to begin to develop a comprehensive view of the whole. SES is Wilber's most all-inclusive single attempt to address these questions. His work is essential to any serious thinker or seeker of the truth today. And for any remotely serious student of Ken Wilber's work, you must read this book.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on September 2, 2003
Ken Wilber is probably one of the most brilliant modern thinkers of our time. Among all of the books he has written, this one is "The One" that really explains it all. What an inspiring piece of work! He brings together work in philosophy, spirituality, psychology, sociology, biology, physics and all other fields of study and convincingly explains that it all fits together if we look at it through this framework that he has developed. If there is a philosophical book you should read, this is the one to pick up. If you are not ready for such a comprehensive detailed discussion, read the other absolutely incredible book called "The Ever-transcending Spirit" by Toru Sato. The content is very similar but everything is explained in a much simpler (and shorter) way. Both of these books really deserve some mega-awards!
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on December 22, 1999
Thank you Ken, for reading all those boring books! Thank you translating all that private mumble into a light and easy language! Thank you for making it possible for me to participate in the conversation with so many of the great thinkers. The integral perspective is the obvious approach and I am little embarrassed finding out about my own self-centredness. I can also think of a lot of modern thinkers that ought to be a little embarrassed too. Ken Wilber is a crystal clear voice - now cutting through the post-modern narcissism of our time, inviting us to find out what we can agree upon. This in the most important book I ever read!
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on May 9, 2005
There is no question that Ken Wilber is a brilliant person who, although it is "his" vision, has a great vision for humanity. His intentions for the most part are very sincere and his ability to integrate such vast amounts of literature is unsurpassed. Most readers will agree that this is Wilber's most comprehensive work to date. If you have ample knowledge in the field of philosophy, spirituality, psychology, sociology, biology, physics etc, this book is certainly worth reading and the ideas put forth in this book are well worth contemplating. The only thing I didn't like too much about this book is that his writing is too one-sided. There is a place for these kinds of people who push for change with strong and convincing arguments. They serve as catalysts for social change in history. However, he seems so caught up in convincing the readers of his worldview that it actually takes away from his story. When people are truly confident in their views they usually are not so motivated to convince others to agree with them. The fact that other people may disagree or may not understand is also understandable to them. Despite this, I believe this book is a one of the best attempts to integrate many topics into one framework. Another absolutely fabulous book that does this on a small scale mostly in the field of psychology is Toru Sato's "Ever-Transcending Spirit". In contrast to "Sex, Ecology and Spirituality" it is actually readable for almost anyone without any expert background knowledge. In some ways, it goes beyond Wilber in that Wilber separates the four quadrants and Sato tries to integrate the four quadrants by using everyday experiences that relate to these quadrants and explaining how they go together. It is also an excellent book so I'd highly recommend it too! If you want to understand Wilber though, I found this to be the most satisfying.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on November 11, 2006
We all love it when a book comes along that shatters our world apart, in the best sense, and provides meaning a coherence where there was only confusion and a lack of ability to articulate our experience of the world.

Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, by Ken Wilber, is such a book for me. More than any book I have ever read this book has changed my life profoundly, and certainly for the better.

There's no doubt that this is an intimidating read, over 800 pages and a fair portion of them are technical endnotes. However, even without the endnotes, I have to disagree with the editorial reviewers, that the contents of the book are confusing. Far from frustrated, I was in fact delighted at the extraordinary amount of synthesis in this work, and while he has been criticised for his use of sweeping overgeneralisation (although he explicitly states that his approach uses broad orienting generalisations), no one has come out with a better set of generalisations and metatheoria to replace the ones he outlines here, and in subsequent books.

Wilber begins by looking at the state of the world in terms of the physical sciences, which somehow see the world as both winding up and down and how we can believably put together a theory (or metatheory - a theory of theories) that embraces the main orienting generalisations from the main areas of human enquiry AS WELL AS, and this is the important part, putting it into an evolutionary, developmental context that explicitly takes account of higher states of consciousness than just rational (Western, rational, reasonable mind that is the basis of Western society, mostly), into the transrational and the genuinely mystical or spiritual stages. If the second part of that sentence just put you off the book, well so be it, but the main reason for my love of this book is that it quietly tries to best explain how genuine spirituality (higher spiritual states and stages) can be logically, or we may so translogically, incorporated into what we know of the world through science and the various other knowledge disciplines - the humanities, systems theory, phenomenology, hermeneutics etc. That is, that spirit transcends and includes atoms, molecules, cells, theories, concepts, systems, institutions, dogma, religious traditions, etc, etc.

In the process he conceives of what he calls the four quadrants (the inner and outer perspective of the individual and collective) and outlines in some detail the nature of the basic unit of the universe as being a holon (a whole which is also part of a larger whole), which have become a major part of the increasingly popular and widely-used Integral model, aka AQAL (All Quadrants, All Levels, All Lines, All States, All Types).

Along the way - hence the book title - he looks at how this new conception of reality would influence our approach to gender/feminism and ecology and in both cases, I think, his insights are extraordinary and both of these have seriously refocussed my whole view of the world.

For those of you who are interested in genuine transcendental spirituality in whatever form, you may just find this book an excellent antidote to the serious anti-intellectualism that is rife in spiritual circles, and may even find that these ideas form a kind of reorienting contextual framework in which a healthy spirituality can exist alongside every other thing in the kosmos.
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