The dangers of the ‘Babushka Doll’ view fo the world

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As systems thinking has ascended to a dominant position across many different fields of knowledge, numerous popular writers have emerged who have attempted to ‘unite all knowledge’ to develop ‘theories of everything’ – these tend to be totalising world views that can absorb and place anything within their closed system of reference points. Most common in the New Age movement, but also in some popular writing within the environmental movement and the less reflexive branches of sustainability science, these writers seem to think they have ‘solved’ all the ultimate problems of knowing by providing a way of thinking about every aspect of material and non-material reality.

The greatest problem with this general approach is that there is no room for messiness, no unresolved edges that can act as hooks for exploratory dialogues and the true believers seem to only hear what gets filtered through the categories of their ‘models’. Like Classical Marxists or religious fundamentalists, you are only appreciated if you are seen to think the same way. God forbig you use the wrong language, then you are out. Instead, what we need to realise is that the more we think we understand, the closer we get to the mystery of our existence and the meaning of life. Below is a short piece my colleague John Van Breda wrote in response to a question about his views about Ken Wilbur in light of his own research on transdisciplinary research methods. It seems to capture in a succinct but profound way the essential problem with what he so appropriately calls the ‘Babushka Doll’ view of the world.

By John Van Breda:

“Just for the record, I became quite interested in David Bohm’s (famous quantum physicist / philosopher) version of integral theory, but somehow quite quickly lost ‘interest’ in this when coming across Wilber’s work and, particularly, the effects it seems to have on his disciples. So, I can sum my uneasiness with Wilberianism as follows:
(a) Wiberian integralism presents a kind of a ‘Babushka doll’ view of the world, where everything fits in absolutely neatly and perfectly into each other. All spheres of reality can be explained in terms of each other, using the very same ideas, concepts, words, logics, symbols etc. There are only similarities with simply no room for (fundamental) ruptures, discontinuities, breakages, incommesurabilities, which we know is ‘integral’ (excuse the pun!) to our social world as well as the natural world (depending on which version of evolutionary theory you support);
(b) the theoretical and intellectual consequences / effects that Wilber’s theory produces ‘on’ people. Most (and excuse my generalisation here) Wilberian people I’ve come across so far appear to have developed an almost complete ‘numbness’ or ‘blindness’ for anything empirical that cannot be fitted into little (coloured) boxes (i.e. thought categories), once they have been put ‘in’ there, that means the job is done … they have been ‘explained’ … and this, in turn, means they can never be ‘opened’ again for further scrutiny / investigation / critical reflection / inquiry etc. The implication hereof is that all these multi-coloured boxes are effectively turned into ‘black boxes’ as we will never really know (or not allowed to know) what is really is on ‘inside’ them.

I can only assume that this strategy is out of fear of what has been incarcerated ‘inside’ these boxes / categories might very well just ‘jump out’ again, and resist / contradict the very logics of how and why they were locked ‘in’ there, in the first place, and consequently running the risk of bringing down the whole damn integral theory like a house of cards. (Was it Einstein or Heisenberg that said that it takes just one ‘small’ fact to contradict a theory? – similar to the ‘black swan’ conundrum). In short, it would seem that the nett-effect of Wilberianism is that it produces some of the worst intellectual and empirical strait-jacket / laziness / blind-foldedness I’ve come across to date!
Anyway, so much for my two cents worth of knee-jerk critique of Wilberianism, which by no means is intended to close-off debate. On the contrary. I must also confess that I have not read his works in totality, because, as mentioned above, I lost interest rather quickly. I’m also sure that you will be able to present a much more sophisticated version of Wilber’s theory than this simplistic rendition of mine.

Also, just for the record, my own thinking and interest in matters theoretical and metaphysical has shifted more in the direction of Peter Sloterdijk’s “Spheres” (Vol. 1 now available in English: and Bruno Latour’s “Modes of Existence” (see: Although they also work with a relational / interconnected view of the world, there is indeed a fundamental difference between their thoughts and Wilber’s: in order to construct their ideas of ‘spheres’ or ‘modes’ of existence they do not a priori posit / assume the ‘connections’ which make the coupling of human-nonhuman relations possible … this (i.e. finding out the nature of these connections) always needs to be done via some ‘radical empiricism’ (to borrow a term from William James) … which seems to be a clever strategy of guarding against turning their ‘spheres’ and ‘modes’ of existence into black boxes.