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Collected Essays on Philosophers by Colin Wilson

Vaughan Rapatahana considers what Colin Wilson had to say about other philosophers.

Upstart author of The Outsider (1956), the existentialist Colin Wilson was a brilliant, combative, contested figure on the philosophical and literary scene for more than fifty years. This collection of his essays on a range of British and European philosophers, edited and alphabetically arranged by Colin Stanley, should cast aside once and for all the spurious notion that Wilson was not a philosopher. Here he comes across as a serious thinker about other serious thinkers, analytic or existentialist, and spends less time on expostulating his own agenda, although his prime focus, the expansion of human consciousness via an examination of our mental states, is never far away. However, this book is not meant to be a coherent overview of Wilson’s metaphysics, best depicted in his Introduction to the New Existentialism (1966). This is more a potpourri of ideas, a dip-into book, if you will. It ranges from concise magazine articles, through book reviews and obituaries, to entire books – such as the text of his Anti-Sartre from 1981 – over a period covering 1965 to 2007. I would have preferred that his excellent chapter ‘The Strange Story of Modern Philosophy’ from Beyond the Outsider (1965) had been included, for it explains what Wilson sees as the deficiencies in the ideas of Descartes, Locke, Hume, and Kant extremely well, and would have slotted into this collection perfectly. But for Stanley to include every iota of Wilson’s writings about other philosophers would have constituted a set of volumes.

For the most part in this selection, Colin Wilson comes across as sensible and rather mild mannered in his appraisals, even if he fundamentally disagrees with the thinkers he’s discussing, such as the French Philosophy team of Marcuse, Derrida, Foucault, and Sartre. Wilson never disassociates a man from his ideas; a core component of his theory of Existential Literary Criticism is that a study of the author’s character is an essential part of interpreting their thought. As he notes with regard to Spinoza, “any attempt to judge him must start from Spinoza the human being” (p.205). His view of Herbert Marcuse is similarly tempered: “I am less interested in condemning Marcuse than in finding out ‘how he got like he is’” (p.80). Similarly, for Wilson it is Foucault’s sexual dysfunction which induces the negative inertia of most of his writing; while Wittgenstein was “a strange, tormented man” (p.233). In fact, Wilson is at his most critical when dissecting Bertrand Russell in three pieces here, again because personality flaws in the man dissipated his philosophy: “I am not attacking Russell on grounds of morality, but on his blindness to his own shortcomings. He liked to think of himself as a philosopher in the traditional sense of the word… yet he failed to see any inconsistency in devoting his life to the pursuit of teenage girls, and other people’s wives” (p.131).

Sartre’s sometime friend Albert Camus has been treated rather more gently by Wilson, partly, one would suppose, because the two met in Paris and discussed philosophy. Even the logical positivists and linguistic analysts at Oxford University, namely Ayer, Broad, Strawson, and Warnock, receive warm coverage in a 1968 Daily Telegraph magazine article reproduced here, while Karl Popper receives effusive praise: “He possesses all the basic qualities of a philosopher: he is broad, deep, humane, and in the last analysis, wise” (p.117).

This is not, then, the raging of a young Wilson new on the intellectual circuit, but a fairly balanced and well-written summary of his views on a panoply of philosophers, some of whom, such as Kierkegaard, he first made well-known for a British audience. Of course summarising others does not preclude Wilson casting his own notions into the mix, but he does so rather modestly as a countermark to his subject, unless he agrees completely with them. This is especially the case in his essay on Edmund Husserl, for me the best piece in this book, entitled ‘Husserl and Evolution’. By the way, Wilson’s titles often succinctly capture what he sees as the most important aspect of a given philosopher; thus also in this book, his essay ‘Whitehead As Existentialist’ from Philosophy Now Issue 64.

Indeed, aspects of what Wilson admits can be the rather obtuse ideas of Husserl, such as intentionality and the transcendental ego, permeate most of the longer pieces here: Wilson has Husserl enter the mix when writing about Whitehead, Cassirer, Derrida, Nietzsche, among others. For Wilson, Husserl is the ‘answer’ to the negativity of much (French) existentialism and postmodernism, which in Derrida, Wilson feels amounts to no more than “gobbledegook”. Husserl also provides a way forward from the analytical trivialities of the Oxford school. As Wilson concludes in his final piece on Wittgenstein, “Personally I am out of sympathy with the Oxford philosophers. What they are doing seems to me extremely interesting, but far too narrow … In my own view, philosophy must be as broad as possible … by becoming a science of consciousness … called phenomenology” (p.234). (Phenomenology is the attempt to articulate what it is like to experience.)

Colin Wilson
Colin Wilson portrait by Darren McAndrew 2017

Two Paths

In his overview of what constitutes philosophy, Wilson says he feels that “In a basic sense, there are only two basic attitudes in philosophy. It is like a billiard table with only two pockets, and you have to end up in one or the other” (p.46). Of the eighteen philosophers he writes about here (Kierkegaard slides in unannounced in a 1965 sliver about Nietzsche) only a select few escape falling into what he terms the ‘Humean Pocket’ – that strand of philosophy which has completely ignored or denied the active aspects of human consciousness, and is a haven for negativity, triviality, or at best, in Sartre, a resigned Stoicism. Sartre, for Wilson is a flawed and contradictory thinker who, despite his fiction depicting vistas of human freedom, ultimately conveys mankind to being merely a ‘useless passion’. Indeed, Wilson sees a chain of continuity from Sartre through Derrida, Foucault et al. in French philosophy, the latter two, for Wilson, trying to out-Sartre Jean-Paul.

Husserl, perhaps Nietzsche, definitely Whitehead – described by Wilson as “a respectable philosopher in the British empirical tradition going right to the heart of the matter and declaring that our ‘meaninglessness’ is a delusion” (p.230) – and Wilson himself, are playing another game altogether, aiming to sink the ball of thought into the positive pocket of Phenomenology. His intellectual ambition is best summarized by Wilson at the tail of his chapter praising Husserl:

“We must develop a level of consciousness that is able to unmask everyday consciousness as a liar… We require an instinct – or a habit – which leads us to constantly reject the world presented to us by everyday consciousness… This instinct – or habit – can only be acquired by the constant practice of phenomenological analysis” (p.78).

John Shand’s honest summation of Wilson in his Introduction bears noting here: “My view is that Colin Wilson’s fierce claim to have beaten nihilism… was not totally convincing” (p.xviii). So does Wilson’s own candidness about himself: he certainly had no illusions about how others would see his work: “There is certainly not a philosopher in England today who would agree with me” (p.234) are his final words in this excellent collection. Significantly, Shand also accords Wilson the mantle “In some manner a great man” – primarily because Wilson continued unstaunched in his efforts to completely overcome any vestige of existential despair.

Whether Wilson is ever accorded more recognition as an original philosopher remains to be seen. A couple of Wilson’s statements in this compilation make me hesitate, such as his 1970 remark, “As to myself, I am frankly more interested in the possibility of a few remarkable men transcending the old limitations, and establishing a new dimension of human freedom, than in social panaceas” (p.89). Despite this, I can only restate what I have already espoused in Philosophy Now (for instance in Issue 112); namely, that Wilson’s philosophical work certainly deserves much more serious attention and reflection. This Collected Essays on Philosophers is an excellent way of entering Colin Wilson’s new existentialist world, for, above everything else, it intersperses his own considered thoughts with his measured estimations of philosophers who have already been accorded such recognition.

© Dr Vaughan Rapatahana 2017

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 is Atonement.

Collected Essays on Philosophers, by Colin Wilson, edited by Colin Stanley, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016, 253 pages, £47.99 hb, ISBN: 1443889016

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