Many academic philosophers don’t care for Colin Wilson’s thinking. They seem to desire remaining mired in either logical positivism, linguistic analysis, or other topics that do not bring us to the crux of who we are as human beings. I always appreciate any thinker who seeks to bring out the best in mankind. God knows we have seen enough of the worst. I read a blog post a few days ago by Dr. Sam Mickey, an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco, entitled Whitehead as Existentialist. Yes, it’s the same title as the essay Wilson did for Philosophy Now in 2007. Mickey’s blog is called Becoming Integral. His article opposes Wilson’s thesis that Alfred North Whitehead is, indeed, an existentialist. Mickey’s assertion is very simple: He says, “Whitehead is not an existentialist.”1 Furthermore, he says:
It would be a misunderstanding of Whitehead as well as a misunderstanding of the specificity of the movement or school of thought gravitating around the term “existentialism” to describe Whitehead as existentialist. Existentialism refers, however loosely, to an assortment of writers in the 19th and 20th centuries, writers with a provocative sense of style, a freestyle that performs a relentless adherence to the exigencies of actual existence. It is not a style as opposed to substance. This style is a stance, thinking outside the box of easy bake distinctions between style and substance. It is not just philosophy as a matter of life and death, it is life and death as a way of philosophy that leaves philosophy behind… the task of thinking after the end of philosophy.2
Mickey, here, accuses Wilson of misunderstanding Whitehead’s ideas, those ideas that bring Colin Wilson to the conclusion that Whitehead should be thought of as an existentialist. What are those ideas? The following quote starts Wilson’s essay off with a bang. It describes Whitehead’s understanding of “experience” very succinctly:
Nothing can be omitted, experience drunk and experience sober, experience sleeping and experience waking, experience drowsy and experience wide-awake, experience self-conscious and experience self-forgetful, experience intellectual and experience physical, experience religious and experience sceptical, experience anxious and experience care-free, experience anticipatory and experience retrospective, experience happy and experience grieving, experience dominated by emotion and experience under self-restraint, experience in the light and experience in the dark, experience normal and experience abnormal.3
What is more existential than human experience? Whitehead takes great trouble here to include just about every kind of experience, not simply the traits that compose what Mickey calls the “specificity of the movement or school of thought gravitating around the term ‘existentialism’,” as if we can classify every thinker under this or that category in nice and neat, logical fashion. In my opinion, philosophical thinking is not about “schools” and “movements” in academia, but real human life, with which they seem to be terribly out of touch. Western philosophy has been dealing with how we perceive experiences for a long time. The movement Mickey thinks of as Existentialism (capital E) began as a reaction to inadequate explanations concerning perception by Descartes, Locke, Hume, Berkeley, and Kant, among others. Franz Brentano and Edmund Husserl tried to go back and start to rebuild the foundation Descartes had erected on sinking sand, when he made his egregious error. Husserl was powerfully influential to Heidegger, Sartre, Camus, and all the luminaries of what Mickey sees as the “school” of Existentialism. Can we call him an existentialist? Of course Kierkegaard is called the Father of Existentialism, and he was certainly influential, but what did he do to correct the errors made by the empiricists, the errors that caused all the La Nausée? Much of his polemic was due to a misunderstanding of Hegel, caused by a lecture he attended in Berlin by Schelling.
Existentially speaking, Whitehead’s idea of prehension involves purposive action, action involving freewill in the creation of a unified synthesis of experience. It is one of the most existential ideas ever conceived.
Next, Mickey turns to ad hominem:
The essay is by Colin Wilson, who was not academically trained. His ideas never achieved compelling articulation. He’s really more of a Romantic than an existentialist, and his writings are composed more of true crime and paranormal novels than existentialist fiction or nonfiction.4
This is actually sort of amusing. I think Colin would think so, too. The implication here is that one must be “academically trained” to make philosophical statements, to write philosophy, to think as a philosopher. Admittedly, Wilson is somewhat of an autodidact, but does that disqualify him from making philosophical assertions? The nucleus of his oeuvre is philosophical. I challenge Dr. Mickey to read his Outsider Cycle. Wilson may be a Romantic in a way, but he is one with an answer to what led many of the nineteenth century Romantics to commit suicide. He refers to his brand of existentialism as “Romanticism Mark Three.” He calls the academic school of Existentialism “Romanticism Mark Two.”5 He writes,
The Romantics felt that the human spirit is engaged in a hopeless battle with a hostile world, and that the end is bound to be defeat and despair. The existentialists – Heidegger, Jaspers, Sartre, Camus – started from the same position, but arrived at a slightly less gloomy conclusion: man is free, he has a certain power of choice, even if life is totally meaningless.6
Wilson rejects the idea that life is meaningless. Must one believe life is meaningless to qualify as an existentialist in the academic sense? Apparently so. Perhaps the fact that Wilson was born into the ranks of the working class makes him less appealing as a philosopher, as an existentialist?
There are other points of contention that should be addressed, but this has become somewhat tedious. The bottom line is that Wilson has an idea of existentialism that is obviously different than Mickey’s concise, academic, ivory tower definition. Is that so wrong when the movement he refers to was such a failure? You have someone who is attempting to succeed where others failed and he gets lambasted by academics for it. Such is our day.
Existentialism, and philosophy in general, really have to do with the thinking, experiencing human person, and how we can use this knowledge to improve our world and empower our fellow humans. That means we can jettison most of the remaining garbage labeled as philosophy today by academics. When I began reading and thinking about philosophy, I just assumed it was all about life and all the questions pertaining to it. Of course, this is before I was “academically trained.” Strangely enough, I still adhere to this seemingly heretical thinking. How do we create a meaningful life on this earth, why do we get depressed, how can we alleviate it? Basically, all the concerns Wilson wrote about in The Outsider in 1956, and in his subsequent Outsider books.
Mickey, Sam. Whitehead as Existentialist. Becoming Integral: 4 Apr. 2016. https://becomingintegral.com/2016/04/04/whitehead-as-existentialist/. Accessed 24 Aug. 2017
Wilson, Colin. The Essential Colin Wilson. Celestial Arts: Berkeley, 1986
Wilson, Colin. Whitehead As Existentialist. Philosophy Now: Issue 64, 2007. https://philosophynow.org/issues/64/Whitehead_As_Existentialist. Accessed 21 Aug. 2017.
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