The Outsider’s Guide to Whitehead’s Philosophy, Part 5

The Outsider’s Guide to Whitehead’s Philosophy, Part 5

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. Accessed 24 Aug. 2017

Wilson, Colin. The Essential Colin Wilson. Celestial Arts: Berkeley, 1986

Wilson, Colin. Whitehead As Existentialist. Philosophy Now: Issue 64, 2007. Accessed 21 Aug. 2017.

  1. Mickey, Whitehead
  2. ibid.
  3. qtd. in Wilson, Whitehead
  4. Mickey, Whitead
  5. The Essential Colin Wilson, 10-11
  6. ibid.

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3 thoughts on “The Outsider’s Guide to Whitehead’s Philosophy, Part 5

  1. Thanks for this, Mark. I don’t think you and I are as opposed on this as it might seem. You could probably read my post again and think with it instead of against it. I say “Whitehead is not an existentialist,” but I also say that “I appreciate Whiteheadian alliances and solidarities,” and later I say that “whoever wants it [the existentialist label] can have it, whether it’s a misnomer or not.” I’m happy to consider Whitehead in alliance with existentialism while also recognizing that “it is more accurate to say that Whitehead is not an existentialist.”

    I don’t accuse Wilson of misunderstanding Whitehead’s ideas. In the passage you quote from me, it’s a question of his style more than his ideas. It’s not what he thinks but the way he takes up the task of thinking. Style matters a lot, not just ideas.

    I say that my definition is articulated “loosely,” not as you suggest, “nice and neat.” There are fuzzy boundaries, just like with any literary or artistic genre, but there are real differences too. Overgeneralization isn’t very helpful for making discerning comparisons.

    Is an “ivory tower” definition at work if I say that Mozart was not playing jazz. I’m just being specific about genre, attempting to honor the finely textured differences that make up the real lives and real histories of philosophers. Applying the label “existentialism” too broadly levels the meaning of the word, so that process philosophers, pragmatists, radical empiricists, and phenomenologists all come in the door, and I imagine most ancient philosophers would be included as well, and countless others. It’s also worth noting that Husserl isn’t a foundational figure for existentialism but for phenomenology. Existentialism finds its foundational figures in Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche, and folks like Heidegger and Sartre fused that with Husserlian phenomenology. I’m using labels here to discern real differences between real thinkers who cared a lot about the specific details they were articulating.

    It seems like you’re using a general definition of existentialism that includes any thinker radically committed to experience, which you distinguish from a specific (capitalized) Existentialism that refers to the actual literary/philosophical movement by that name. That’s not unlike saying that any song with a beat is a rock song (including works by Mozart and Dizzy Gillespie), but capitalized Rock is the name of the musical genre that began in the middle of the twentieth century. That can be a powerful idea: we’re all existentialists; all music rocks!

    There’s nothing inherently ad hominem in saying that Wilson isn’t academically trained. It isn’t ad hominem to say that Plato didn’t have a PhD and Socrates never even wrote a book, or to say that Hegel is more of a Romantic than an empiricist. To say that a shaman doesn’t have Western medical training doesn’t mean the shaman is a bad person or bad healer. Perhaps the shaman is the best healer ever, but the lack of Western training does indicate that the shaman will likely not use medical instruments or terminology consistent with Western medicine. Wilson is relatively idiosyncratic and vague about his use of the word “existentialist,” and that limits his articulation of the delicately woven fabric of the history of philosophy.

    I’m trying to add some nuance and context to the Whitehead-existentialism comparison. Nonetheless, as I say in the post “I don’t see any reason to close the door on Whitehead’s participation in any movement related to existentialism.”

  2. Sam,

    Thank you so much for reading.

    Perhaps we can agree that Wilson’s existentialism, of which criteria he uses in his claim that Whitehead is an existentialist, is simply a different “movement” than the failed Existentialism of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, Camus, et al? Yes, I am differentiating. Wilson called his idea the New Existentialism. It is my opinion that he, with the help of others whose work he assimilated, solved some of the problems that faced Sartre and Camus, especially. With that in mind, Whitehead helped Wilson solve the problems of meaning with his amazing idea of prehension and his notions concerning human perception.

    I like your example of the shaman, by the way. Touché! There is often a snobbishness among academicians concerning their intensive training, but I perceive you are not of their ilk. I respect you for that.

    In the end, it’s obviously not that important if we say Whitehead is an existentialist, or simply a process philosopher and mathematician. He was an amazing thinker!

    Thanks again, Sam. I am honored to have academicians, and anyone else for that matter, read my blog. 🙂

    1. It’s a pleasure to be in dialogue, Mark. Yes, I think it’s important to distinguish Wilson and Whitehead from the failed existentialism of Kierkegaard et al., which tends to get stuck in what Alan Watts called the “skin encapsulated ego.” Sometimes I use phrases like “ecological existentialism” (Deborah Bird Rose) or “coexistentialism” (Timothy Morton) to refer to this kind of new and expanded commitment to the exigencies of existence.

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