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Brief Lives

Colin Wilson (1931-2013)

Vaughan Rapatahana remembers the singular English existentialist.

Colin Wilson was perhaps England’s only famous existentialist philosopher. Indeed, Robert Solomon’s 2004 book Existentialism includes Wilson as the sole British representative of existentialism. (Here I’ll pass over the many other designations of Wilson, such as mystic, occultist, criminologist, and so on, for his lasting philosophical achievements eclipse his other interests.) However Wilson attended no university, and achieved no academic qualifications, despite Iris Murdoch trying to convince him of the benefits of a university education; as he wrote in his memoir The Angry Years in 2006: “She and I took an immediate liking to one another… and when she learned that I had not been to a university, offered to get me a scholarship at Oxford, a suggestion I gratefully declined.” Indeed Wilson only went to academic institutions as an intermittent writing fellow or a guest lecturer. The author of The Outsider, then, was himself outside the mainstream, not only of English philosophy, but of English academia too.

Wilson left school at sixteen and drifted through various jobs while pursuing his dream of becoming a writer. By the age of twenty-three he was sleeping rough on London’s Hampstead Heath to save money and writing in the British Library by day. He started work on a book appropriately called The Outsider, examining the role of excluded lonely individuals in creating literature and art. Published in 1956 when he was only twenty-five, this book exploded onto the cultural scene bringing Wilson lasting fame and, indeed, far too much early publicity. His following book was damned by the critics and he had a couple of run-ins with the press. He and his new wife then retreated to a rural cottage in the far reaches of Cornwall on the south-west coast of England. There they lived for the rest of his life, while he wrote and wrote.

Wilson was a particularly prolific author: he wrote almost 200 books, although by his own admission he was somewhat of a ‘hedgehog’. He used Isaiah Berlin’s classic distinction between foxes and hedgehogs in an interview with Geoff Ward in 2001: “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows just one thing. So, Shakespeare is a typical fox; Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are typical hedgehogs. I am a typical hedgehog – I know just one thing, and I repeat it over and over again. I’ve tried to approach it from different angles to make it look different, but it is the same thing.”

Colin Wilson
Colin Wilson by Gail Campbell, 2016

Wilson vs The French

Wilson’s philosophical position is best delineated in his Outsider Cycle of seven books written between 1956 and 1966, with Introduction to the New Existentialism (1966) being perhaps his most important work of philosophy. Otherwise, philosophically, the later compilation of several of his philosophical essays entitled Beneath the Iceberg (1998) is notable for its concentrated attacks on French philosophy.

Most significantly, in these books, Wilson stresses that he’s a positive existentialist philosopher – this is not a contradiction in terms. As such was always au contraire the pessimistic Continental existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus (as further shown in the title of his tome Anti-Sartre of 1981) and the later French postmodernists, such as Jacques Derrida, whom he often derided. As he revealed to Ward: “once I grasped what Derrida was saying I began to hate him.” There is an irony here, in that many of Wilson’s novels read somewhat ‘post-modernistically’ as he so earnestly strived to express his version of existentialism through his fiction.

Why such opprobrium against Twentieth Century French philosophy? Because Wilson strongly believed that Camus, Sartre, Derrida et al had misrepresented the inherent potential of humanity – which he thought could evolve to a better state of being – and had instead either focused on a stoic resignation to the fate of man (Wilson rarely concentrated on the potential of women), or had strenuously stressed a complete disavowal of human potential. In the particular case of Camus, whom Wilson met in 1957, there is an anecdote which displays just how big a chasm existed between them:

“Wilson pointed out to Camus that there were a number of places in his [Camus’] works where characters were actually ‘overwhelmed with meaning’. Wilson asked Camus why he didn’t pursue that personally, and Camus pointed to a Parisian teddy boy slouching past the window, saying: ‘What is good for him must be good for me also.’ Wilson… got very excited, and irritable in a way, and said, ‘That’s nonsense. Are you telling me Einstein shouldn’t have produced the Theory of Relativity because a Parisian teddy boy wouldn’t understand it?’”

Wilson’s Existentialism

What made Wilson’s brand of existentialism so unique was his idiosyncratic incorporation of key ideas from the German proto-existentialist Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), such as ‘époche’ or ‘reduction’, and – most importantly – ‘intentionality’. For Husserl, intentionality meant that all human consciousness is directed towards or about something. Wilson agreed that all perception is intentional, but also drew from Alfred North Whitehead’s notion of ‘meaning perception’ (‘prehension’) to further assert that the individual gives meaning to the world through their intentionality.

For Wilson, the completely passive observer is a myth. He was therefore particularly opposed to what we might call the ‘passive’ analysis of contents of consciousness by previous philosophers, notably René Descartes and David Hume, as well as Immanuel Kant and George Berkeley and much philosophy since – including what he termed the ‘Existentialism Mark One’ of the French. He felt that their passive understanding of consciousness had thrown philosophy completely off track. Through it, Descartes had introduced ultimate doubt with his cogito ergo sum; Hume went further along this sceptical route with his doubting of cause and effect; whilst Roland Barthes and his peers went even further along this trail to cast strong doubts on the possibility of any unfettered human agency – that is, of human freedom [see this issue’s theme, Ed].

However, Wilson’s interpretation of intentionality held that man could delineate his own state of consciousness, and moreover, could and should evolve into a more meaningful state via a rigorous ‘bracketing-out’ investigation of it, since meaning came from man and was not somehow imposed upon him by external things. By ‘bracketing-out’ (Husserl’s ‘reduction’), Wilson meant a systematic – he called it a ‘scientific’ – analysis of human mental states which ‘reduced away’ any erroneous preconceived ideas. If all perception is intentional, then for Wilson, the only way forward is inward.

Wilson also wanted to appropriate and build on the earth-shattering epiphanic experiences of the Romantics to abnegate the resignation of the Continental existentialists, who were mired unhappily in their stoic resignation to contingency – a passive kowtowing to human inadequacy – and to instead build once and for all an impenetrable edifice of permanently attainable expanded consciousness. This expanded consciousness is the ‘real’ or ‘true’ consciousness, for everyday consciousness is a liar. For this goal of consciousness expansion, Wilson also drew on Abraham Maslow’s notion of peak experiences, insisting that by appropriately analyzing and signposting consciousness, man could evolve into a state of permanent peak experience. The optimism of a peak experience then breeds further optimism and expansion of consciousness… thus epiphanies could become the norm for those who searched within themselves and strove to achieve Wilson’s specific form of disciplined self-knowledge. Friedrich Nietzsche, for Wilson, was therefore one of the few philosophers worth studying, because of Nietzsche’s eternal positivity about the possibility of human overcoming ‘in spite of everything’. Wilson was thus temperamentally also very much an outsider, sailing well beyond the squalls of resignation and despair that beset many of his existentialist peers.

A statement Wilson made in 1988 in his Essay on the New Existentialism draws together his borrowings from Maslow and Husserl, and sums up his abiding philosophy concisely. He wrote that if “consciousness is intentional, then we can deliberately make it more intentional… the result would be a step in the direction of the mystic’s insight.”

Wilson’s Transcendental Ego

Wilson is never great at detailing precisely how we can achieve this evolved consciousness. He never specifies the steps by which his new existentialism would complete a ‘bracketed’ examination of conscious experience. Indeed, he occasionally waxes and wanes about the possibility that psychotropic drugs could in some way aid consciousness-widening, whilst at the same time stressing that most people are just not yet ready for the broadening of their minds. He can be rather too vague at times. It would seem he agrees with Jean Gebser, who says in The Ever-Present Origin (trans. 1985) that man himself actually makes the chemical and neurological components of consciousness – that is, brains – explode into life, and for this reason, concentration as well as the will to work on developing inner mental states is tremendously vital. In fact, Wilson proclaimed in Wholeness or Transcendence?: Ancient Lessons for the Emerging Global Civilization (1992) that Gebser “seems to me possibly the most important thinker of the twentieth century.” For both men, consciousness would actually seem to activate the brain, rather than the other way around. Thus for Colin Wilson there is very definitely a Transcendental Ego, or Higher Self, even if he often depicts a rather mystical disintegration of this self. Man is not merely a set of chemical nuts and bolts, nerves and synapses. So Wilson obviously also firmly disagrees with such thinkers as Francis Crick, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.

Wilson’s Linguistic Philosophy

Wilson did have considerable empathy with Twentieth Century language theorists such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and J.L. Austin, but thought they went nowhere wide enough in their consideration of language. The evolutionary way forward lay for Wilson not only in the expansion of consciousness, but just as importantly, in the concomitant expansion of language to describe this process. He said we will need to construct a whole new way of speaking to describe the yet-to-be codified subcranial discoveries. Interestingly enough, then, Colin Wilson was not only a unique positive existentialist, but also a sympathizer with British linguistic philosophy. Indeed he proselytized for a combination of language theory and new existentialism in one overall package, and firmly believed that he would be able to unite these two major streams of Twentieth Century philosophy. Wilson had set himself a very ambitious and original lifelong project, then: one that he always felt he continued to progress in, even as he later widened his intellectual range to look into other zones, such as in an ongoing investigation of the occult. (As a bit of an aside concerning language and consciousness, Derrida somewhat deconstructed Husserl. Husserl wanted to say both that intentionality precedes language, but also that intentionality is expressed via language. The difficulty is then that intentionality cannot be free of language, and is accordingly obscured or corrupted – this is Derrida’s différence. Wilson attempts to explain this away in a piece entitled ‘Notes on Derrida for Rowan’ in Below the Iceberg. There, regarding Derrida, he states, “if he is arguing that the inbuilt ambiguity of language can never be pinned down, then he is merely siding with various other sceptics and relativists, and needs to be taken no more seriously than they are… There are only two pockets on the billiard table of philosophy, and Derrida has undoubtedly landed us back in the one labelled ‘David Hume’.”)

Wilson Ultimately

Colin Wilson remains truly one of a kind, and well worthy of study both within and without the institutions that have largely disavowed or even forgotten him. The New Existentialism – Wilson’s way to achieve the ultimate quasi-mystical apotheosis of consciousness – necessitates an approach whose methods might even ultimately be described as Anglo-Saxon and empirical rather than as Continental and purely rationalist.

A journalist once asked Wilson if he thought he has had any influence as a philosopher, to which he replied “none at all.” However his ‘phenomenological metaphysics’ – as it was described by the critic Cacturimus in an issue of The Minnesota Review of 1967 – bears serious re-evaluation.

© Dr Vaughan Rapatahana 2016

Vaughan Rapatahana has a PhD from the University of Auckland, is a published poet, and lives in Hong Kong and New Zealand. His latest collection of poems, Atonement, has just been launched.

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