Ken Wilber and Plotinus: comparing metaphysics


I am as intrigued by metaphysical models of the world as I am convinced that it is impossible to know with any certainty which extant model, if any, is correct (at least at this time). The following discussion of Plotinian metaphysics vs. Wilberian metaphysics is just such an inconclusive rumination that I believe is nevertheless healthy to engage in from time to time in order to get us thinking about what might lie beyond the sensible and the mental.

I am neither a scholar of Ken Wilber (whom I nevertheless read ardently and admire) nor Plotinus (whom I also nevertheless read ardently and admire!). Nevertheless, I am aware that Ken Wilber relies a great deal on the metaphysics of Plotinus in articulating his own all-encompassing vision of the world. Nevertheless, according to Brian Hines, Wilber misunderstands Plotinus and misapplies his metaphysics.

Ken Wilber advocates a metaphysics which he regards as authentically “nondual,” in which there are neither parts nor wholes, but only “holons,” which can alternately function as either wholes or parts depending on context. Brian quotes Wilber:

“Thus, holons within holons within holons means that the world is without foundation in either wholes or parts (and as for any sort of “absolute reality” in the spiritual sense, we will see that it is neither whole nor part, neither one nor many, but pure groundless Emptiness, or radically nondual Spirit).”

Ultimately, Wilber rejects the view that the universe can be conceived in terms of either the One (Whole) or the Many (Part). But according to Brian Hines, Plotinus is a monist who is very keen on reducing reality ultimately to the One: his view of reality is a top-down or vertical hierarchy in which the ultimate One at the top emanates the Many, whose destiny is to return to the One rather than to enjoy any autonomous or enduring existence. Despite this emphasis on return to the One, Plotinus is very much a dualist who sees the Many as distinct from the One and derivative of it. As in the Judeo-Christian tradition, many of whose thinkers would readily accommodate Neoplatonist metaphysics to their religion, the Creator/creature distinction is never ultimately abolished even upon the return of the Many to the One.

Brian Hines cautions against interpreting either Plato or Plotinus as enamored with the Many. On the contrary, his emphasis is an overriding emphasis on the value of the One. Thus, Hines very much takes exception to Wilber’s assertion concerning Plotinus that “The need to balance and unite Ascent and Descent, Eros and Agape, wisdom and compassion, transcendence and immanence — this Nondual integration is the great and enduring contribution of Plotinus.”

Where Wilber’s ontology differs from that of Plotinus, in whose ontology we are all individual gods enmeshed in and derived from the One, entails closer proximity to Hegel’s doctrine of internal relations or the Buddhist conception of dependent-origination, according to which all of reality is reciprocally determined and defined entirely by relations. The One, in Plotinus, however, is not dependent on anything outside of itself, and is neither a holon, nor a relation, nor does it even have relations; it merely generates derivative relations.

Plotinus’ One, which is also the First and the Good, then generates the Nous. This “Nous” or “Spirit” is also defined as the “Intellect” which, though subsidiary to the One, never has direct contact with the physical world. The Intellect is characterized in Plotinus as the domain of the Forms, from which the material world derives its being. Though an intermediary, it is only an indirect one, since it is the Soul which has contact with the world, not the Intellect/Nous/Spirit, nor the One. We may thus characterize Wilber’s ontology as a kind of holonic monism through and through, up and down, which is as far from Plotinus’ ontology as can be imagined.

Experienced psychology writer and practitioner of psi abilities. Looking forward to contributing to a worldwide awakening to the reality of psi phenomena.