In this article, I will attempt to provide a brief summary of Colin Wilson’s thoughts regarding Martin Heidegger’s philosophy. Heidegger, of course, was one of the paramount figures in twentieth-century existentialist thought, even though he tried to distance himself from the movement known as existentialism, popularized by Sartre and Camus. Wilson proposes a “new existentialism,” which is more optimistic, as opposed to the pessimism of Sartre, Camus, et al. The exposition of his philosophy can be found in his book, The New Existentialism.
Colin Wilson’s first book, and perhaps his most celebrated, is The Outsider, released in 1956. In it, he only mentions Heidegger three times, two of which he links him with Sartre. Wilson doesn’t reveal much of what he thinks about Heidegger’s thought here, except to comment in the 1967 postscript to The Outsider that he feels his new existentialism is not being sufficiently examined in Europe or England. He writes, “Europe has little to offer, besides the dead philosophy of Sartre and Heidegger.”1. I feel that, at this point, Wilson probably has not thoroughly examined Heidegger because, as we shall see later, his opinion changes somewhat. This is not surprising at all. It takes years to digest someone like Heidegger, one of the reasons being his very abstruse style of writing. All thinkers evolve; it is the nature of the mind to progress and develop over years and years of study.
In his second book, Religion and the Rebel, Wilson mentions Heidegger when commenting on his personal meaning of existentialism:
. . . what I mean by existentialism covers a broader field than what Kierkegaard or Heidegger or Sartre means by it; my existentialism is closer to Goethe’s idea of Bildung.2
One would assume that Wilson has read him thoroughly by this time. Still, it seems he has not fully realized Heidegger’s later writings, which reflect a change of focus that puts him somewhat closer to Wilson’s new existentialism.
Heidegger switches his philosophy to the idea that language is the medium through which one can draw closer to a truer sense of Being. Hermeneutics becomes more important for him. Through exegesis of important works, such as the Presocratics, Kant, Nietzsche, and especially the German poet, Hölderlin. He understands now that Western civilization (specifically Philosophy and technology) has become too nihilistic. Poetry becomes very important to Heidegger. In his book, The New Gnosis, Robert Avens writes:
In contrast with the verbal eccentricities characteristic of Being and Time, the language of his later writings is simple and poetic. It is as if Heidegger has recovered the speech of the soul . . .3
It was this that Henry Corbin saw in Heidegger. As a result, he became a primary influence in Corbin’s work.
In Wilson’s book, Beyond the Outsider, even though he objects to certain aspects of Heidgger’s work, he finally recognizes that Heidegger has important things to say, especially concerning authenticity. He writes:
. . . to some extent, the rift between Heidegger and Husserl begins to vanish when one compares their later work.4.
It would not be true to say that Heidegger’s final position is pessimistic, even though his idea of ‘existence-towards-death’ dominates his philosophy. His attitude to death is stoical rather than pessimistic; but his belief that poetry is a key to authenticity has a definite note of optimism. But perhaps more important than any of this is his fundamental insight: that the cause of the decline and crisis in human history is due to forgetfulness of Being.5
Wilson still has issues with some of Heidegger’s ideas, but he does, at least, recognize his importance for twentieth-century existentialism. He finds it strange that “both Sartre and Heidegger came so close to creating a post-Husserlian existentialism,” but that “both lost all possibility of breaking from the closed circle of romantic defeatism when they abandoned Husserl’s fundamental principle: the study of phenomena to uncover the hidden patterns of intentionality.”6
Personally, I have always thought, at least since I began reading Philosophy, that Heidegger has very important things to tell us. His thinking is deep, springing from the very roots of the German soul. I am thinking here of Hegel, Eckhart, Hölderlin, Fichte, Nietzsche, Husserl, as well as the Greeks. Heidegger is definitely on the right track with poetry, as Wilson agrees.
Avens, Robert. The New Gnosis: Heidegger, Hillman, and Angels. Spring. Putnam: 1984.
Wilson, Colin. Beyond the Outsider. Carrol & Graff: New York, 1965.
Wilson, Colin. Religion and the Rebel. Houghton-Mifflin: Boston, 1957.
Wilson, Colin. The Outsider. Diversion Books. Kindle Edition.