The Outsider’s Guide to Whitehead’s Philosophy, Conclusion

The Outsider’s Guide to Whitehead’s Philosophy, Conclusion

This article will conclude my short series on Whitehead’s relevance to the Outsider. I have attempted to show a few of the great man’s ideas which were important to Colin Wilson’s thinking regarding the Outsider’s problem. The two most important of these are prehension, and Whitehead’s solution to the conundrum of human perception, the latter of which confounded philosophers since Descartes’ cogito.

Whitehead, along with Edmund Husserl, are important to Wilson in that they “overturned the foundations of western philosophy, and then laid a new and unshakeable foundation.”1 Even so, the implications of their work is largely ignored by academic philosophers. Wilson says, “It would . . . be no exaggeration to say that Whitehead and Husserl together reversed the trend of European thought since Galileo.”2

Wilson wrote his first book, The Outsider, with the notion of solving the problem of the feeling of emptiness and meaninglessness in life. He comments:

I would say that this feeling is the starting point of a great deal of existentialism and post-modernism. This, for me, was the fundamental ‘Outsider problem’, the problem of so many of those oversensitive romantics who committed suicide or fell into depression, the problem of ‘negation’ as expressed by Dostoevsky in The Possessed or by Eliot in The Waste Land and The Hollow Men. I asserted in The Outsider that this is the most basic problem of human existence – all others are trivial in comparison.3

But Whitehead declares “that our ‘meaninglessness’ is a delusion, like our conviction that the Sun goes round the Earth.”4 It is a matter of perception. The person who feels meaningless and is full of despair is overtaken by presentational immediacy. Causal efficacy has taken a backseat to immediacy perception, and this leads to the experience of “the sickness unto death,” as Kierkegaard calls it. Since the days of Galileo, when he split reality into primary and secondary qualities, our thinking has been confused. Descartes erected an edifice of error on this confusion. Since then, our entire educational system has inculcated us with the wrong ideas, hence the modern despair of life. Whitehead, and Husserl to a certain extent, have righted the errors that were made by previous thinkers by uprooting the old foundations and rebuilding new ones. Whitehead has provided us with what he calls “causal efficacy” and “presentational immediacy.” Wilson refers to causal efficacy” as “meaning perception.” He writes:

There are days when I feel totally trapped in the present moment, and days when I have a curious feeling of strength and optimism, a certainty that ‘I can win’. The problem is that the two feelings tend to be mutually contradictory, like two extremely honest people each assuring me that the other is a liar.5

This issue of how to remain in a state where the two modes of perception are combined and operate concurrently is the primary problem of our day. Whitehead did refer to what he called “symbolic reference,” where the two kinds of perception synthesize and work together. Our quest is just this: to formulate a praxis where “the two beams of perception . . . [are] drawn together until we become aware of vibrations of meaning that lie beyond the flat ‘ordinary consciousness’ we take for granted.”6 Whitehead does make it very clear that symbolic reference is connected to meaning: “The failure to lay due emphasis on symbolic reference is one of the reasons for metaphysical difficulties; it has reduced the notion of ‘meaning’ to a mystery.”7  Future posts will investigate symbolic reference, but not necessarily in reference to the work of Colin Wilson, although I will undoubtedly be looking into the remainder of his work for clues of how to formulate the praxis that will bring about a habitual state of interplay between the two modes of perception. I also want to tie this in to what Jungian and archetypal notions I can. There is some common ground there, even though Jung, I believe, constructed his thinking upon more of a Cartesian/Kantian foundation, which he inherited from his training and from Freud. James Hillman has ideas of underlying his archetypal psychology with Whitehead’s metaphysics. This I will also look into in future installments.




Odin, Steve. Tragic Beauty in Whitehead and Japanese Aesthetics. Lexington: New York, 2016.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. MacMillan: New York, 1929

Wilson, Colin. Beyond the Outsider: The Philosophy of the Future. Houghton-Mifflin: New York, 1965.

Wilson, Colin. Whitehead As Existentialist. Philosophy Now: Issue 64, 2007. Accessed 25 Aug. 2017.

  1. Beyond the Outsider, 89
  2. ibid.
  3. Whitehead as Existentialist
  4. ibid.
  5. ibid.
  6. ibid.
  7. Process and Reality, 168

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