At the Edge of Integral Metatheory: Notes from the Critical Realism & Integral Theory Symposium

By: Nick Hedlund-de Witt

On September 15-18, 2011, Integral Institute and the Integral Research Center hosted the Critical Realism & Integral Theory Symposium at John F. Kennedy University, in the San Francisco Bay Area. The event, founded by the leading scholars Roy Bhaskar and Sean Esbjörn-Hargens, was envisaged with the intention of exploring the points of contact and divergence between the meta-systemic approaches of Critical Realism and the philosophy of meta-Reality on the one hand, and Integral Theory on the other. Integral Theory participants included:

  1. Sean Esbjörn-Hargens, California, USA  

  2. Roger Walsh, California, USA

  3. Michael Schwartz, Georgia, USA           

  4. Clint Fuhs, Colorado, USA                                   

  5. Zachary Stein, Massachusetts, USA                                   

  6. Jordan Luftig, California, USA

  7. Nick Hedlund-de Witt, California, USA 

  8. Lauren Tenney, Maine, USA       

  9. Lisa “Jaya” Waters, Texas, USA      

  10. Robb Smith, Nevada, USA                 


Critical Realism/metaReality Participants included:

  1. Roy Bhaskar, United Kingdom                              

  2. Mervyn Hartwig, United Kingdom        

  3. Hans Despain, Massachusetts, USA                   

  4. Tim Rutzou, United Kingdom                       

  5. Min Gyu Seo, South Korea                        

  6. Eirin Annamo, Norway                                  

  7. Nick Wilson, United Kingdom                                            

  8. Neil Hockey, Australia                       

  9. Paul Marshall, Spain

  10. Leigh Price, United Kingdom

In addition to these two major groups there was a third group of individuals who were not identified with either camp but familiar with both. They were invited to provide a reflective engagement, help each camp see its blindspots, and to provide an overarching view of Integral Metatheory. 

Integral Metatheory Participants included:

  1. Bonnie Roy, Connecticut, USA                             

  2. Gary Hampson, Czech Republic

Additionally, there were a number of visiting participants that attended for parts of the event, including:

  1. Annick Hedlund-de Witt, California, USA                             

  2. Vernice Solimar, California, USA

  3. Ray Greenleaf, California, USA

  4. Sushant Shresta, California, USA

The dialogue was so fecund and deep that many participants feel that both meta-approaches will never be the same.  As such, it seems fair to say that the event was an historic occasion. There are already a variety of ongoing exchanges, collaborations, and engagements between the members of the symposium from both communities of discourse.  For example: there at least five writing projects that have emerged from the symposium, most inspired by a compartive analysis of Integral Theory and Critical Realism; a group of participants from New England have decided to form an ongoing dialogue group, several scholars have teamed up to collaborate around specific research topics, the Integral Theory team has been invited to attend a Critiical Realism conference in South Africa in 2012, and a strategic partnership has been established between the recently founded International Center for Critical Realism in London and the Integral Research Center.

Symposium co-organizer Sean Esbjörn-Hargens described his experience of the event in the following editorial for the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice:

I just finished spending four days at the Critical Realism and Integral Theory Symposium (see the last editorial for a description of the event). Roy Bhaskar the founder of Critical Realism was there with nine of his colleagues. On the Integral Theory side we had nine individuals including myself – most of whom are JITP authors including Roger Walsh, Michael Schwartz, Clint Fuhs, Zachary Stein, Jordan Luftig, Lauren Tenney, Lisa “Jaya” Waters, and Nick Hedlund-de Witt.  In addition, Bonnie Roy and Gary Hampson (and Lauren Tenney) were representing meta-theory in general and providing reflections on both schools of thought.

It was a very engaging four days and I think it is fair to say that both meta-approaches will never be the same. The similarities between the meta-philosophy of Bhaskar and the meta-theory of Wilber’s is simply stunning. Furthermore, the ways they compliment each other via their unique combination of strengths and limitations is remarkable. For example, Integral Theory excels at articulating a sophisticated and nuanced theory of epistemology whereas Critical Realism is unsurpassed in presenting a multilayered and complex theory of ontology. Integral Theory has a primary focus on individuals and their growth and development all the way till nondual realization. Critical Realism has a primary focus on society and the injustices therein which must be addressed for collective emancipation.

The main area of divergence that emerged occurred around Integral Theory’s postmetaphysical notion of enactment and Critical Realism’s critique of neo-Kantianism and their notion of the Real. While the complexities of the exchanges around this are too complex to get into here I will just say that I felt more alive in those moments than I ever have before. It was just thrilling to be at the intersection between Critical Realism and Integral Theory and watching both approaches having to confront some deep epistemological and ontological issues. Issues that likely will have a major impact on both schools of thought as they continue to unpack the implications of what the other school was pointing out to them.

In short, there were a number of deep exchanges between the two groups. Integral Theory has a lot to learn from Critical Realism and vice versa. The Critical Realists raised some good critiques and identified areas of underdevelopment within Integral Theory and we did the same for them. I feel that Integral Theory has found a soul mate in Critical Realism (and Bhaskar’s philosophy of meta-Reality). I learned as much about Integral Theory over these last four days as I did about Critical Realism. Thus, this four-day encounter served both schools of thought in helping each one to make their own approach an object of their collective awareness. Therein lies the subject to object principle, which is the driver of growth and transformation. I honestly feel that Integral Theory will never be the same now – it has and will continue to be transformed by its encounter with the Critical Realism “other”. In fact, there are already a variety of ongoing exchanges, collaborations, and engagements between the members of the symposium from both communities of discourse. For Integral Theory to mature into its post-formal potential as a metaframework for theory and practices – ongoing events such as this will be essential and I believe are now inevitable.


As I feel shines through in the above passage, since the symposium Sean has been overflowing with vitality and creativity, already re-visioning Integral Theory in important ways that seem to be fashioning a whole new evolutionary trajectory for the field.  As for me, I was intellectually impacted in a deep way - some of the foundations of the post-metaphysical philosophical position with which I had long identified with opening up in front of my eyes.  New understandings and inflections of Integral Theory and its unique dignities and disasters emerged in my field of awareness as I explored IT through a meta-lens as comprehenive and adequate as itself, but that is indeed not itself - a positionality outside the very logos of Integral Theory. The Critical Realists illumined for us an external metatheoretical vantage and critique of neo- and post-Kantianism that has inspired me to take a much deeper look at the adequacy, coherence, and at the end of the day, 'seriousness' (a term Bhaskar borrows from Hegel to denote a theory's adequecy for effective emancipatory practice) of Integral Theory's commitment to the post-Kantian, post-metaphysical or enactive position that is has formulated to date.  Much remains to be explored, learned, and worked out along this line of inquiry for me, many of my inredible friends that helped birth the magic of the symposium, as well as, I believe, the integral commmunity at large. But the future of the field has never felt more unknown and at once deeply promising to me. I watch and await, eyes wide open, the emergent forms that I know we will birth together as we expand our noetic purview and reflect anew on Integral Theory through our engagement with Critical Realism. After the symposium, I was burgeoning with reflections and insights on our discussions of neo-Kantianism, the epistemic fallacy, post-metaphysical thinking, the contours of the emergence of a post-postmodern wave of meta-philosophy, and the relevance of all that for emancipatory social research. I had a palpable intuition that there is something very alive and important exerting an emergent morphic pull at the nexus of Critical Realism and Integral Theory - the deep complementarity AND (partial) incommensurability of these approaches is calling each to go beyond itself - to stretch the canvas of its being - and understand the deeper dialectical-evolutionary currents of which each are part and parcel. 


For interested parties, we have posted the opening talks by Roy and Sean below:

Roy Bhaskar "An Overview of Critical Realism"

Sean Esbjörn-Hargens "An Overview of Integral Theory"

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