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Shambhala Sun | March 1999

The Denial of the Universal

By: "If there is nothing universal-and that is the claim of the extreme postmodernists-then there is nothing genuinely spiritual anywhere in the universe, nor can there ever be."

My approach to postmodernism has been that it contains some important but partial truths, and that what needs to be attacked are the extremist versions that take relativism, constructivism and contextualism to be the only truths in existence-at which point they all become self-contradictory and unworthy of respect.
    Buried in the postmodern agenda are several noble impulses, I believe; yet in order to salvage them, they must themselves be placed in a larger context, which both limits their claims and completes their aims. The noble impulses are those of freedom, tolerance, aperspectival embrace, and liberation from unnecessary or unfair conventions.
    The liberal/postmodern agenda has been to cherish cultural differences and multiple perspectives, including previously marginalized cultures and groups (women, minorities, gays, etc.). That stance-namely, universal pluralism-is a very high developmental achievement, coming into existence only at the worldcentric, postconventional level of growth. The liberal/postmodern stance, at its best, is generated at that high level of consciousness evolution.
    But in their zeal to "transgress" and'subvert" conventional levels in favor of postconventional freedom, the extreme liberal/postmodernists ended up championing any and all stances (extreme diversity and multiculturalism), including many stances that are frankly ethnocentric and egocentric (since all stances are to be equally valued). This allowed, and often encouraged, regressive trends, a devolution from worldcentric to ethnocentric to egocentric-to a rampant subjectivism and narcissism, in fact, which then anchored the entire (and at this point completely misguided) agenda. Noble impulses horribly skewed-there is the best that can be said for liberal/postmodernism. The noble vision of universal pluralism was devastated, the universal part was completely ditched or denied, and rampant pluralism, driven by rampant narcissism, came to carry the sad day.
    It is against this vulgar pluralism-which actually dissolves and destroys the liberal stance itself, destroys the demand for evolution to the worldcentric, postconventional levels which alone can support and protect the liberal vision-that recent attacks have been directed. Habermas, Nagel, and crew are simply pointing out that the very claim of pluralism has, in fact, a universal component, and unless this universal component is acknowledged and included, the entire liberal/postmodern agenda self-destructs.
    I totally agree. But let us not forget the noble impulses hidden in that agenda, and let us not forget that those impulses can be redeemed, and the original liberal/postmodern vision can be fulfilled, if we retire pluralism and return to universal pluralism and unitas multiplex: universal deep features, local surface features. These universal features are accessed by empathy and compassion. And the liberal/postmodern vision itself can be protected only if it includes, in its own agenda, a cultural encouragement that individuals do their best to grow and evolve from egocentric to sociocentric to worldcentric, there to stand open to universal spiritual glories.
    Freedom-the core of the liberal values-does not lie in egocentric or ethnocentric realms. Real freedom, true freedom, lies in the vast expanse of worldcentric awareness, which itself opens onto the infinite expanse of pure Spirit and primordial Self, a Self common in and to all sentient beings as such, and therefore a domain in which Freedom radiates in all directions. That is why we must move in a postliberal, not preliberal, fashion.
    So it is the irony of ironies that liberal/ postmodernism, in searching for freedom for all, has championed modes of intense unfreedom: the egocentric is not free, for he is a slave to his impulses; the ethnocentric is not free, for he is a slave to his skin color. Only in worldcentric awareness, which sets a mature individuality in the context of all individuals and moves easily in that vastly expanded space, does a real freedom begin to dawn, a freedom that opens onto pure Spirit in a timeless embrace of the All. Let liberalism continue to move in that original direction, of progressive growth and evolution, and cease the self-contradictory and mindless championing of any subjectivist impulse that comes down the pike.
    It is the narrow, misguided, narcissistic, relativistic sludge that is being so effectively demolished by critics, and rightly so. Make no mistake: if postmodernism is right, there is and can be no Spirit whatsoever. If Spirit is anything, it is universal. If Spirit is anything, it is all-encompassing. If Spirit is anything, it is the Ground of manifestation everywhere, equally, radiantly. But if there is nothing universal-and that is the claim of the extreme postmodernists- then there is nothing genuinely spiritual anywhere in the universe, nor can there ever be. So while I hold open the noble impulses in the original vision-that of universal pluralism and unitas multiplex-I join in the attack on those who have forgotten the unitas and offer only the multiplex.

Material in this column appears in One Taste: The Journals of Ken Wilber, from Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston. © Ken Wilber 1998.

    The Denial of the Universal, Ken Wilber, Shambhala Sun, March 1999.

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