Is it possible for a theory to be philosophically adequate if it is not politically adequate?

I’m posting here a short piece I wrote in response to a question I received via email from someone who is not yet this forum (and might not wish to be).

I don’t know how many people will see this post in this category (of the “Infinite Commons”), or whether we’ll even keep this political sub-category. I created it with the idea that it would be good to have a space for actually civil and constructive political conversation. Whether this area will get engagement as we begin opening up the forum this summer remains to be seen, but I’m hopeful.

In the meantime, I’ll leave this here in case anyone might like to pick up the thread at some later date.

Here is the question I was asked, followed by my response.

You have indicated a commitment to political engagement, which is something that I share, at least to the degree of specificity with which we have communicated our respective definitions of political engagement so far. You have also indicated some degree of proximity to Ken Wilber’s work, though also some degree of critical distance from it.

My question is how you relate these two domains to each other. Do you find Integral Theory to be politically adequate? If so, I would be interested to hear about the basic contours of this - how you would describe the theory as one source or support or inspiration for your own political engagement. On the other hand, if you find Integral Theory not entirely adequate with regard to political engagement, then I would like to know how you relate to the category, “philosophically (or meta-theoretically) adequate but not politically adequate” - in other words, what do you make of such a category? Do you think it is perfectly normal? Problematic? Nonexistent? (Hopefully, my effort to ask this last branch of the question in an expansive way isn’t too confusing. A more compact version would be, “Do you think it is possible for a theory to be philosophically adequate if it is not politically adequate?”)

Thanks for the time, again, to respond to your email. Probably, this time, I didn’t need as much time since the answer (from my point of view at least) is pretty clear: no, Integral Theory is definitely not politically adequate…although I think it can be politically useful.

My reason for saying this is that I believe that the political impulse or response does not stem from an intellectual framework but from a much more primordial experience of actually facing, seeing, and being “called to account” by the other—by actual other people in their concrete existence, radical irreducibility, and incalculable value. This ethical moment needs to be at the basis of politics, if politics is not simply to be a zero-sum game or abstract ideological enterprise.

I have only read a little of his work, but it seems to me Emmanuel Levinas is much clearer on where the ethical orientation originates, and what must guide it, than Integral Theory (via Wilber) is. For Levinas, the ethical involves a face to face encounter with the other human (or sentient) being. Politics, therefore, is an extension of in some way actually recognizing (and caring about) other people and beings.

If this quality of care is there, I believe Integral Theory can be useful as a “skillful means” or mapping of worldviews and kosmic addresses to help language and effectuate changes in policy, culture, and so on. (This is the kind of stuff Steve McIntosh is doing, for example, in attempting to include both conservative and liberal values in next-stage versions conservatism and liberalism—affirming that each orientation has important values to contribute to social cohesion and progress, and seeking ways for each side to articulate their primary concerns in ways that don’t exclude the (legitimate) concerns of the other side.)

This is great, as long as we’re still caring about people (and other forms of life, and the planet) in our actual day-to-day existence. But when the guiding (face to face) ethical impulse is not there, then metatheory easily becomes emptied of moral force and devolves into mere strategy.

I believe it’s possible to remain grounded in the heart—in our felt sense of care and connection—and use theory to help facilitate discourse and action. However, when I sense that a primary ethical orientation is lacking, I find the metatheoretical approach to be not only inadequate, but a dangerously seductive diversion, since one can believe one is able to account for multiple global and planetary perspectives without actually even the ability to be in honest, ethical relationship with a single human being.

This quote from 20th-century theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer sums it up for me:

“The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.”

I would answer the question of whether Integral Theory is philosophically adequate also in the negative. The reason for this is that Integral Theory does not tend to include a strong critical theory component that analyzes specific historical power relations. It doesn’t look, for example, at the basis for money…or debt…or ownership. It doesn’t engage, in any specific way, with the roots of political violence—nor does it suggest any practical form of resistance or systemic change. It tends, as well, to displace the basis of human political agency from organized collaborative action to impersonal forces such as “evolution” and “eros” and “spirit.”

I do happen to think there are spiritual forces at play in social change, and that values, worldviews, perspectives, and development are all important factors in political theory. But I also think we need to understand how capital works, or how the corporate media “manufactures consent.” Even if one might (from an Integral Theory perspective) regard such analysis as postmodern or green (or merely Lower-right quadrant), I think that without actually doing this critical work, Integral Theory risks recapitulating some of the same structures it might wish to transcend and include.

Zak Stein and Bonnitta Roy are two meta-theorists who come to mind that also do the critical work I otherwise find lacking in Integral Theory.

To answer your last question: “Do you think it is possible for a theory to be philosophically adequate if it is not politically adequate?”

I’d say it depends on what the theory is attempting to do, but in the case of Integral Theory, which aspires to goodness, truth, and beauty, I’d say no.

I hope that’s an adequate answer to your question!

I look forward to hearing more about XXXX and anything else you’d like to share, in good time.

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IMHO It’s an adequate answer. Otherwise, Houston needs as much notice as possible to adjust the contours.