Reflections on Jorge Ferrer’s Participatory Turn in Transpersonal Theory

I’m taking a course this semester on contemporary transpersonal theory taught by Prof. Jorge Ferrer and Prof. Jacob Sherman. Ferrer’s key text is Revisioning Transpersonal Theory (2001), wherein he tries to initiate a paradigm shift in transpersonal psychology beyond the neo-perennialist assumptions of its founders (e.g., Ken Wilber, Stanislav Grof, Abraham Maslow). In 2008, Ferrer and Sherman co-edited The Participatory Turn, which is an attempt to historically and methodologically ground the participatory approach initiated in Revisioning by applying it in the discipline of religious studies.

Here is Ferrer talking to the Center for Spirituality and Health at the University of Florida in 2006:

In what follows, I’m drawing also from Ferrer’s recent essay in The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology entitled “Participatory Spirituality and Transpersonal Theory: A Ten Year Retrospective” (2011).

Ferrer mentions what some evangelical Christian’s have begun calling the “scandal of pluralism”: the scandal being that the explosion of contemporary spiritualities raises the issue of how any one of them in particular could provide a fully accurate depiction of the ultimate nature of reality without implying that all of the others are off the mark. The perennialists get around this issue by suggesting each spirituality represents a different path up the same mountain. Their’s remains a universalist picture of religion, since one spiritual system can be measured relative to another based upon how high up the mountain it is. Despite the many faces of the mountain, and the diversity of paths winding up its slopes, there is only one peak: the perennialist judges each system according to the same altitudinal standard. Against the perennialist’s universalism, Ferrer, argues that the peak is a regulative principle used to guide cocreative inquiry into “the mystery,” rather than a ready-made position one can claim to have finally discovered for oneself. Ferrer therefore doesn’t reject universalism entirely, but adopts what he calls “a more relaxed spiritual universalism.” Pluralism leads inevitably into a performative contradiction, since the claim that all systems are relative is itself a universal claim. Ferrer suggests that the only way beyond the self-defeating contradiction of pluralism and the self-congratulatory exclusivity of universalism is to cultivate a form of spiritual judgement based upon pragmatic and transformational–not just ontological or metaphysical–criteria. I’ve so far proceeded with the working assumption that spiritual systems are primarily or exclusively concerned with metaphysics, with “providing an accurate depiction of the ultimate nature of reality.” This leaves out the practical, embodied, and indeed participatory dimensions of spirituality, those focused not just on the theoretical description of reality but also upon the moral transformation of that same reality. Part of what Ferrer is getting at, I think, is that we can overcome the tendency to privilege a particular tradition as paradigmatic and thereby untangle the the universalism-pluralism knot by engaging in a participatory form of inquiry open to the “dynamic and undetermined mystery or generative power of life, the cosmos, and/or the spirit.” Ferrer argues that “the mystery” is unlike the Kantian thing-in-itself, since his participatory approach “[refuses] to conceive of the mystery as having objectifiable pregiven attributes.” I become a bit confused here, since this seems to be a misreading of Kant, who would have agreed with this refusal in principle, even if in practice he offered some hints as to the nature of the supersensible (e.g., in the Critique of Judgment, he posits the idea of a purposeful organization of things as a regulative guide). Despite Ferrer’s professed resistance to characterizing the thing-in-itself in any way, he also goes on in the same essay to say: “I take the view that the mystery, the cosmos, and/or spirit unfolds from a primordial state of undifferentiated unity toward one of infinite differentiation-in-communion.” This perspective could be read as an inevitable result of Kant’s transcendental idealism as it was taken up and elaborated upon by thinkers like Fichte, Hegel, and Schelling. Schelling’s organic philosophy, wherein a living and creative cosmos is the ongoing revelation of an infinite spirit, seems especially similar to the view Ferrer expresses above. Rather than pretend we can or should say nothing about the ultimate nature of reality, I think it is possible to preserve its essential mysteriousness while also engaging in the metaphysical and moral work required to effectively describe and transform it.

Ferrer’s comments in the above videos about the “pride of mind” are important. I certainly agree with him that education in the United States and Western world generally is almost exclusively intellectual, neglecting the vital energies of the body, the empathic wisdom of the heart, and the inspiration of the spirit. Philosophy education in particular might benefit from an understanding of the poetic basis of mind, the way in which language and verbal consciousness are rooted in song, and as such, emerge out of the breathing (spirit-imbued) body. The mind need not be in control of the body from a position beyond it; rather, the mind can be understood to be the life that moves through the body, analogous to the way wind passes through an aeolian harp. Mind, then, is not isolable from the body, but neither is it locally produced by the body. It flows through. When its flow is blocked by bodily trauma (e.g., when one of the harp’s string’s is snapped), thinking also becomes disfigured.

Much has been made of the confrontation between Ferrer and Wilber (HERE and HERE, for example). I’m just beginning to read the relevant material, but so far it seems to me that the differences between the two are real but largely overplayed. Ferrer tends to lean more toward a kind of pluralistic openness to “the mystery,” while Wilber tends more toward inclusivist perennialism. I am uncomfortable with aspects of Wilber’s developmental scheme, since it makes it all too easy to dismiss critics as being simply less developed than oneself. However, I do think consciousness can only be understood as an evolutionary process, that something like the historical dialectic described by Hegel in The Phenomenology of Spirit is unfolding upon the earth. I am uncomfortable with such Western-centric schemes as they currently exist only because it seems there are multiple evolutions of multiple consciousnesses.

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5 thoughts on “Reflections on Jorge Ferrer’s Participatory Turn in Transpersonal Theory

  1. I’m always a bit confused by Jorge’s participatory schemes, not because I disagree in any major way, but because it seems that philosophy post-Kant is almost always participatory philosophy of some kind. I recall Jake Sherman doing a nice history of participation in his chapter as well. Isn’t it fair to say, then, that participation is the general starting point of most philosophies (especially since Kant, but also many before him) rather than something new emerging now? I’ve always found your own reading of Kant to be deeper and more interesting in this sense.

    • Well, (neo)Platonic philosophy prior to Kant was participatory in some ways, but it wasn’t until the post-Kantian Romantics that participation was considered a two-way street. That is, with Plato, creatures participate in the forms, but only after Kant do creatures (particularly humans) have a creative role to play in this participation. Kant sort of got stuck in no-man’s land between dogmatic metaphysics where the subject comes to know pre-existing objects and a full-blown participatory ontology where subjects and objects are co-created. For Kant, the subject plays a creative role, but the creative role of the object (if there be one) has been pushed beyond our sensual and intellectual grasp. Though as I hinted in the essay above, in the Critique of Judgment, Kant starts to realize that the thing in itself must be playing a causal role in our perception and cognition, which all the post-Kantian idealists jumped on and ran with (Hegel ran to absolute idealism, Schelling to transcendental naturalism, Goethe to a sort of archetypal empiricism…).

  2. Hi Mathew,

    I just happily found your site. I feel like a toddler who just received a new toy! I love this material. Anyway, I’m surprised that I haven’t seen the names Schuon, Guenon, and Coomaraswamy and others of the “Traditionalist school”. Perennialism has weighed heavily on my mind in recent years. It seems to me that the Transcendent Unity of Religions holds up only if understood in terms of orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy. Strangely, the Perennialist view made it possible for me to consider traditional religion- but now, as a result of reading Christian writers, I’ve started to question whether metaphysics, does in fact, “trump” theology. Thoughts?

  3. I appreciate your knowledgeable commentary, Matthew. You might investigate Jewish spiritual texts. Earlier than the modern philosophers you name, Jewish writers describe the relationship between the tribes and God as co-creative. This is what tikkun olam is about. Rabbi Luria, the Kabbalist, likewise names a redemptive contribution assigned to human activity.
    By the way, in 1991 I taught Feminist Transpersonal Psychology at CIIS.

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