Can the Intellectual Dark Web Save Western Culture?

Robb Smith Article, Integral Post, Perspectives, World Affairs 6 Comments

In our recent video dialogue, Integral Psychologist Mark Forman and I discussed the Intellectual Dark Web, the loose counter-cultural band of intellectuals recently profiled in the New York Times. At its core, the IDW seem to be bound together by a fundamentally “anti-Green” position—scoffing at the anti-realism, subjectivity and political correctness of postmodernity. The IDW is an intellectual movement that arises counter to, and seeking to reform, postmodernism and its worst excesses (what we in the Integral community call the unhealthy forms of “Green” consciousness, policy and culture, see below). In the dialogue, Mark and I both agreed that IDW is playing an important role in challenging prevailing culture to engage in necessary conversations and issues created at the leading-edge of a Green “operating system” that is increasingly straining under its philosophical and evolutionary contradictions. (For an in-depth explanation of the evolution of global operating systems see here.)

Let’s be clear: the IDW is doing good, great and important work.

And yet, from an integral point of view, the IDW is quite partial, with much they don’t seem to integrate, seeming to be stuck themselves in the fragmentation of Green with no coherent worldview or integrative, meta-systematic ontology, epistemology or methodology (which comes at Teal). The IDW is anti-Green, but not post-Green, seemingly unable to fully inhabit the valid critiques of postmodern aperspectivalism, and therefore not asking themselves the right questions about how to synthesize toward the meta-systemic worldview of a full spectrum, post-metaphysical, integral Teal. In short, postmodernity seems to offend them, but could it be because they haven’t yet transcended and included it in a higher, more encompassing synthesis that honors its partial truths and discards its craziness (of which there is much)?

Though I believe we’re underway on a broader complex system breakdown of the world state in both economy and culture (which I have called The Great Release), the IDW is the vanguard of a new phase now arising in the cultural macro-cycle specifically. In this most recent cultural system macro-cycle, which has been underway since the 1960s, the popularity of IDW is evidence of the logjam breaking and the cultural system of the West entering a specific and predictable third stage known as the release or breakdown phase. (The New York Times just published a piece with an excellent overview of this cultural macro-cycle of “emancipation” and the broader march towards liberalization since the 1960s.) Below I surmise what some of the cycle’s phases and broad arcs entail:

In my view, therefore, the question is this: will the IDW be more than a counter-balancing force to the dominant intellectual ideology of Green postmodernism? Can they synthesize enough, in time, to articulate positive, coherent and integrative modes upon which culture might be reorganized as it enters the fourth and final phase of the contemporary cultural macro-cycle in a few short years?

If they hope to, they have much work to do.

Among other things, with its heavy tendency towards an underexamined positivism, IDW treats postmodernism simply as a type of philosophical reasoning rather than also a stage of interior development in consciousness and culture (for it to be merely the former, it would have to defy both all of the data from constructive-developmental psychology and be one hell of a persuasive philosophy, judging by the awesome march of emancipation—the core of the postmodern project—pointed out in Stephen Pinker’s data in the New York Times article cited above about the cultural macro-cycle).

IDW compounds this type-stage conflation with the risk of a pre-trans fallacy, seeing an Orange, pre-postmodern rational positivism as transcendent to (or more cogent than) the later, more complex contextual aperspectivalism of Green. The overall misstep here is to fail to account for the evolution of interiors as vigorously as they’ve accounted for the evolution of exteriors (somewhat strange for a group that includes both psychologists and evolutionary scientists). This lack of an interior developmental edifice seems to prevent them from advancing a genuine transformational praxis beyond the mythic audience for whom they (partially) solve—much to their great credit—the most pressing of questions: how can pre-individuated, traditional men and women hope to stand up to the decentering, cultural-fragmenting assault on values, language and norms from Green?

And no one characterizes this important, beneficial role more than Jordan Peterson. Peterson, who I think of as a 21st century “cultural logotherapist”—logotherapy being that existential therapeutic model most concerned with how people animate their lives with meaning in the face of any circumstances—is attempting to reintegrate spirituality into contemporary life, helping people find renewed meaning by confronting the two-fold attack brought on by the alienation of modernity (Orange) and the relativism of postmodernity (Green, which in its extreme, though increasingly dominant, forms rejects any natural distinctions that might create power imbalances—hint: they all do as a natural feature of the universe—and thus must be rejected as dangerously oppressive). A prototypical target for the IDW’s assault on this decentering would be postmodern philosopher Michael Foucault: it is “meaningless to speak in the name of, or against, reason, truth, or knowledge.”

Peterson will have none of it, appealing especially to men who feel like their lives are meaningless in the face of, first, total gender-identity destabilization, and second, a postmodern knowledge-centric economy that only really rewards the fast, agile, cosmopolitan: that is, those workers who live, act and work from a Green mode of values and being (and, in my view, most of whom are not themselves matured to Green, per se, but for whom the values and surface modes of Green are far more palatable to them, likely for reasons that have to do with both culture-of-origin and brain structure).

He’s deeply loved because he’s combating this two-fold cultural and economic alienation by giving hope to developing, pre-postmodern men and women who haven’t yet even grown into Orange as fully individuated, self-authoring modes of being. He’s doing it by acting as a “heat shield” against Green—“the most important public intellectual of the era”—giving them reason and cover to reject the moral and identity decentering of Green (which, of course, is totally appropriate and justifiable for that developmental level!). He seems to do it with a two-fold lesson of personal responsibility (contra rights) and spiritual resurrection (contra nihilism), an attempt at literal resurrection of the power and place of spiritual life recovered from the existential dread of industrial, technocratic modernity (Orange) and post-industrial, knowledge-centered narcissism (Green). In short, he’s the existential therapist that millions need right now, trying to counter logotherapy founder Victor Frankl’s “mass neurotic triad” of aggression, addiction and depression with a message suited precisely to their pre-Green maturation.

However, because he doesn’t seem to acknowledge the dignities of Green, and he reverts to the totalitarian fear that’s innate to both his own personality-structure and logotherapy itself (i.e., the mid-20th century, nuclear holocaust-tinged totalitarian background in which logotherapy and other existential dread grew up), he effectively enacts an Orange, societal-level logotherapy that sees threat everywhere rather than dialectical, developmental processes of psychosociocultural maturation. Overcoming the emotional response to threats outside of oneself requires serious inner work for everyone. Could this be preventing Peterson from seeing the dignities of the linguistic turn in philosophy, its correct but partial critique of power structures, its understanding of reality as polyvocal and plural, and its skepticism towards totalizing meta-narratives?

He sees the fragmentation, narcissism and scattering of meaning that Green brings, but he doesn’t seem to acknowledge its dignities: the very freedom for marginalized groups that I know he’d agree is so important didn’t come from just anywhere. Orange may have provided the theoretical foundation for emancipation of the oppressed from and within social structures worldwide, but it took Green to liberate the cultural conventions and language from continuing to replicate systemic oppression in the Lifeworld (we are, at least, on our way).

And herein lies one of the central insights of an integral worldview (and philosophers throughout the ages): it’s not just what you know that matters, as several of the IDW clearly have a wide range of integrative knowledge across many different disciplines and traditions. It also matters how much work you’ve done to integrate that knowledge into a coherent internal synthesis of cognitive-emotional-self-praxis. In other words, the only way out is through, and though badgering deconstructive postmodernism is an important balancing function played by the IDW, it’s vastly incomplete (and nowhere near novel, with philosophers shredding the performative contradictions of postmodernism (and positivism!) for decades). On the other hand, what the world is evolving towards, and very much needs its leading thinkers to reckon with, is the requirements of a reconstructive postmodernism (i.e., a post-postmodernism). And that process doesn’t even begin until one takes the lessons of Green seriously, because to reconstruct is to integrate, and to integrate is to have fully digested at least what’s partially true and valid in any view point.

On the other side of this process lies a Teal worldview, one that, among many other important requirements, restores the force of evolutionary hierarchies (both interior and exterior, individual and collective), accounts for processual and complex systemic dynamics (including emergence, whole/parts, polarities etc.), honors a broader set of epistemologies (1st person, 2nd person and 3rd person methods), includes the realism but transcends the unreality of earlier univocal ontologies (i.e., real occasions are perspectival hyperobjects, not pre-given simplicities), discloses the possibility for collapsing the subject-object split (and thus, not solving, but dissolving “the hard problem,” the mind-body problem), and offers a true transformational praxis for self, culture and world.

This is where we’re headed, and to pastures beyond. God speed—and true, genuine gratitude—to the IDW helping us get there.

Robb Smith

About Robb Smith

Robb Smith is a leading thinker on the Transformation Age and the global Integral Philosophy movement. He is the co-founder and CEO of Integral Life and Integral Ventures.