Are we the castle?

“Because we are in the world, we are condemned to meaning” wrote the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty [1]. Commenting on this famous line in the introduction to the 1965 collection Eagle and Earwig, Colin Wilson remarks that even suicide is a meaningful act. He mentions an “interesting book” entitled Suicide and Scandinavia by Herbert Hendin, who “says that if a man could be interviewed in mid air between the top of a skyscraper and the pavement, his feelings might be very different from those he had a moment before as he prepared to jump”. As Merleau-Ponty says there are no gestures which do not carry meaning – even the embarrassed silence at some political platitude is meaningful in that it expresses an intentional lack of interest, a rejection of what he calls ready-made formulas. Gurdjieff dismissed such artificial things as “the glamour of new slogans” – the shallow imitation of old racial, religious, academic and commercial ideas which would later be known at the end of last century as postmodernism. Like the existentialism that preceded it, the grandly titled ‘postmodern’ trend was based largely on the misunderstanding of an obscure philosophical method known as phenomenology. Colin Wilson soon fitted this useful method to his ‘Outsider’ credo as the sixties dawned but it would be fair to say that very few have really noticed; his summing up of an evolutionary phenomenology (‘new existentialism’) in 1966 still remains little known. In the mid sixties the academy gleefully swallowed discourse, épistémè and deconstruction and now appears to be suffering complications as if from an act of slow self-harm. 

As committed to the phenomenological method as Merleau-Ponty, Wilson knew that this recognition of meaning was obscured by what its founder Edmund Husserl called the natural standpoint or ‘natural’ (sic) or naive attitude. With under appreciated sarcasm Husserl stated that this attitude was the native environment of the ‘naive man’ or ‘normal individual’. Although Wilson did not discover Merleau-Ponty’s influence Husserl until after The Outsider, he admitted that it merely strengthened principles that he had been carrying out for most of his life. In 1957 he had defined an ‘insider’ as someone who “fills his consciousness with a selected ‘order’”, that is to say, a natural-attitude dweller [2]. A year earlier Wilson had imagined this state as a heavily fortified and technologically advanced castle on a remote island – and if this image wasn’t severe enough, the jailer had hypnotised the prisoners so that they believe they are the prison. Perhaps influenced by parables that Gurdjieff told Ouspensky and owing an obvious debt to Plato’s cave, this ‘situation’ (as Wilson calls it) is currently too close to reality to be described as purely metaphorical. 

By 1965 Wilson was describing the natural attitude as a perceptual prison, a “narrow, personal little world that is soon exhausted by the act of living” and he had likewise begun to define his term ‘outsider’ more strictly or rather, more phenomenologically. An outsider is someone who craves to live outside the natural attitude, a metaphorical sea creature who wishes to evolve and live on dry land, the terra firma of the mind and ideas. Sartre’s waiter whose head empties as his cafe clears of customers is totally at home in this “sea of static personality” as it is described in the sixth chapter of The Outsider, a chapter concerned with identity. Against this personal stasis Wilson seeks to find a way back to the “true ‘I’” – a phenomenological statement worthy of the Husserl that Merleau-Ponty admired so much, the later Husserl. In his final book Husserl spoke of a “universal life of self-responsibility” and an ability to “shape oneself into the true ‘I’, the free autonomous ‘I’” [3]. These tasks involve agency and autonomy, but unfortunately such self-motivations are absent from today’s dominant theories about identity which have their roots in ‘old’ (sic) existentialism, post-structuralism and postmodernism. 

Wilson was keen to point out that Husserl’s natural attitude is merely a temporary convenience rather than the eternal truth of the human condition. We naively or naturally think that we interpret reality as neutrally as a camera lens but even a little reflection on this process will show this to be untrue. Perception depends on paying attention, and as soon as we do that we begin to select, filter and distort – Husserl labelled this subliminal process ‘intentionality’. “The natural standpoint is as filtered and distorted with prejudices as the vision of a madman” comments Wilson (the prisoners in the castle think they are the castle). But this is not to say that everything is relative and that reality remains elusive. Husserl proscribed a method to filter out the filtering which is known as bracketing or epoché (suspension or ‘stopping’ – Gurdjieff might have approved). Descartes naively imagined the ‘I think’ as a flat polished mirror which simply reflected reality back to us, but Husserl showed that this ‘mirror’ of consciousness is a variable; sometimes concave, convex, broken into shards, distorted through powerful microscopic and telescopic lenses, covered in layers of dirt – and until we understand and clear away these distortions we will continuously mistake parts off ourselves (our prejudices) for reality itself. All attempts to eradicate individual and social prejudice will fail unless this very deep enigma is thoroughly examined. “If I carry out the [transcendental] reduction for myself” wrote Husserl, “I am not a human ego”. In the chapter on identity Wilson asks the existential question ‘who am I?’ and rejects the usual bourgeois ‘social’ answers, instead accepting that the true ‘I’ is our genuine identity [4]. Like Husserl had said, until we exist in the phenomenological attitude rather than the murky naive attitude, the clarity of genuine (‘first’) thought and philosophy is impossible. 

Wilson calls the natural standpoint ‘Zola’s fallacy’ after the novelist who was part of the literary movement known as realism or more significantly, naturalism. Émile Zola thought of himself as a neutral reporter but his selection of brutal ‘facts’ show a bias toward humanity at its worst. Based on a real criminal case, one novel was an expression of his theory that “love and death, possessing and killing, are the dark foundations of the human soul” [5]. Zola’s naturalism is a good example of the natural standpoint at work. “It is true that he believes in social justice, and it is this concern with human suffering that makes Germinal his masterpiece” writes Wilson. “But his overall view of human existence is still that it is tragic and futile”. Zola thought that to truly see things they must be seen in “as sordid and pessimistic light as possible” he comments. “The phenomenologist’s objection is that the meaninglessness is as imposed as any other meaning. Art therefore cannot be regarded as an escape from reality unless it it is a total rejection of the natural standpoint” – i.e. a rejection of the fallacy of insignificance, the given cultural attitude of ‘meaninglessness’, which according to Merleau-Ponty cannot be taken seriously. 

Husserl himself was a logician and mentioned artists such as Dürer and Böcklin only in passing. Wilson sometimes remarked that Husserl and Merleau-Ponty are rather unsatisfying as philosophers. For instance, neither are as stylistically enthralling as Nietzsche; although Husserl sometimes sounds strangely similar (“calling to us like a mystic voice from a better world … as though such a voice would have something to say to free spirits like us” he writes in the first book of Ideas, § 145). Husserl essentially jotted as he thought – very, very rapidly – and so his philosophy is not a ‘system’ and his terminology is often modified without any warning. Therefore the ‘phenomenology’ (descriptive psychology) of the Logical Investigations is nascent compared to the phenomenology presented in Ideas twelve years later. Wilson thinks that this unsatisfactoriness “is inherent in the nature of the task” and suspects that Husserl was a poet by temperament as he would eventually speak of uncovering the secrets of the transcendental ego (the true ‘I’) with reference to the ‘Mothers’ in the second part of Goethe’s lengthy poem Faust. Goethe was inspired by a passage in Plutarch who described a realm of cosmic truth “wherein lie motionless the causes, forms, and original images of all things, which have been and which shall be” – the Mothers. In the first act (‘A Gloomy Gallery’) Mephistopheles gives Faust a key and tells him that it’s “hidden power” will guide him to these Goddesses. “Then to the deep!” says Mephistopheles. Wilson remarks that the ‘hidden achievements’ of the true ‘I’ and the search for the ‘keepers of the key’ of being are part of Husserl’s feeling that the phenomenological quest would give us the possibility of occult (hidden) experience without recourse to standard yogic or ritual disciplines, two ways that Gurdjieff rejected as partial methods to enlightenment [6]. 

Despite these frustrations – Husserl was working during a chaotic period of European history – Wilson is adamant that Husserl’s method was startlingly brilliant and original and he is correct in saying that Nietzsche would have benefited from it, had he not died in 1900 when the first volume of the Logical Investigations appeared. Husserl’s method quickly sharpened Wilson’s creative ideas into a tool – an adjustable spanner that could both dismantle and assemble or simply knock someone unconscious. Despite his slight criticism Wilson placed Husserl’s method in a central position in his own philosophy of ‘new existentialism’. His real scorn was aimed at overtly academic post-Husserlian thinkers who quickly backed out of the phenomenological journey – Heidegger, Sartre, Derrida, and avowed anti-phenomenologists like Foucault who “explained how important it was to break off from the phenomenological tradition, I remember his phrase, he ‘emancipated himself from the grips of the transcendental subject’”. Familiarly with his life makes it clear that his statement was little more than a narcissistic pose [7]. The frustrating thing about the existentialism and postmodernism that grew out of or reacted to Husserl’s method is not so much that most of it was such a lifeless, tedious academic bore, it is the fact that virtually all of it fails to grasp what Husserl actually said about this ‘transcendental subject’. The mystifying sight of philosophers-cum-messiahs continuing to frantically pace around the exit that Husserl had already pointed towards is something that Wilson found exasperating, bewildering and not a little bemusing. ‘There is a very clearly marked exit” he wrote at the end of The New Existentialism. Anybody with the strength of insight to break the hypnotic spell of the natural attitude and find the exit is free from the castle. 

[1] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, RKP, 1967, p. xix 

[2] Colin Wilson, ‘Beyond The Outsider’ in Declaration, MacGibbon and Kee, 1957, p. 36

[3] Colin Wilson ‘The Question of Identity’ in The Outsider, Gollancz, 1956, p. 147. Edmund Husserl, ‘Philosophy as Mankind’s Self Reflection’ in The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Northwestern University Press, 1970, p. 338 

[4] Husserl quoted in Herbert Spiegelberg’s The Phenomenological Movement, first volume, Marcus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1976, p. 203. “The transcendental ego in us is nothing more than the mundane ego; phenomenological reflection is in no way a literal division of consciousness. It is just a reminder that, in the final moment, I am a being that is not completely absorbed into any objectification, thereby preserving my freedom and responsibility”.  Klaus Held, ‘Husserl’s Phenomenological Method’ in The New Husserl, Indiana University Press, 2003, p. 29. In the same sense Wilson has pointed out that religion tends to speak of two ‘worlds’ rather than weaker and stronger (or nearer and further) perceptions of the same world.

[5] The Beast Inside, originally serialised then published as La Bête humaine in 1890. The Zola quote is from the Penguin edition, 1982, p. 7. One of Zola’s warring railway workers, Jacques Lantier, is based upon the French murderer Eusebius Pieydagnelle; see Colin Wilson, Origins of the Sexual Impulse, Panther, 1966, p. 176. Wilson recalls his reading of Zola’s novel when he was twenty in The Books in My Life, Hampton Roads, 1998, p. 246. Like today’s left-right political zealots, Zola was obsessed with hereditary. 

[6] Colin Wilson, Introduction to the New Existentialism, Hutchinson, 1966, p. 62. Wilson was referring to Spiegelberg, ibid. p. 160. Spiegelberg comments that Merleau-Ponty helped introduce these ideas via access to Husserl’s unpublished manuscripts. For Goethe see Faust Part Two, Penguin, 1967, pp. 15 and 78. 

[7] Jurgen Habermas quoted in James Miller’s The Passion of Michel Foucault, Harper-Collins, 1993, p. 338. Bafflingly, Foucault thought phenomenology “passive rather than active” (ibid. p. 141) and in a footnote Miller comments that in the original French texts Foucault refers to the life-world as le vécu – ‘the lived’ or ‘lived experience’. The latter phrase is now a tiresome glamorous slogan amongst many in the circular anti-arguments of identity politics and has more in common with Zola’s grim obsession with hereditary than with Husserl‘s philosophy of freedom. Wilson correctly described Miller’s book as one of the best philosophical biographies ever written (Wilson, Below The Iceberg, Borgo Press, 1998, p. 85). Like the life of that other pampered bourgeois turned shaven-headed fake messiah Aleister Crowley, it is a sordid story of ever-diminishing returns, though not as fascinating or exciting.

Against the glamour of new slogans*

Gurdjieff once “made something altogether impossible” when attempting to pronounce the title of Ouspensky’s early masterpiece Tertium Organum and remarked that if his pupil had understood everything he had written in it, he would reverse roles and beg Ouspensky to teach him. “But” he said “you do not understand either what you read or what you write. You do not even understand what the word ‘understand’ means”. Like most of Gurdjieff’s recorded utterances this is a penetrating insight. And while Colin Wilson held Gurdjieff in extremely high regard he also offered his own valuable critique, dismantling Gurdjieff’s stern description of ‘mechanical’ man via the more subtle analysis of Husserl’s phenomenology.

Wilson was in no doubt of Gurdjieff’s strange and enigmatic genius. In his exhaustive history of occultism (1971) Gurdjieff is described as the greatest magician encountered in that large book, with the likes of Blavatsky and Crowley relegated to status of “talented eccentrics”. Certainly, Ouspensky’s indispensable account of Gurdjieff’s ideas, In Search of the Miraculous, is notable for its sober, precise tone. Gurdjieff’s direct statements are free of the hectoring irrationalism of The Secret Doctrine (“And we ask the materialists: Have you ever seen Ether, or your Atoms, or, again, your FORCE?”) or the tiresome egocentricity of Crowley (“The grotesque barber Alliette, the obscurely perverse Wirth, the poseur-fumiste Peladan, dawn to the verbose ignorance of such Autolycus-quacks as Raffalovitch and Ouspensky”). Reading Ouspensky’s book after overdosing on ‘classic’ occult literature is like opening a window in a stuffy, overheated room. Wilson commended the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead for his expressive precision – such as describing Latin as a tightly packed suitcase and English as luggage with its contents strewn around the room – and rightly celebrated Ouspensky for the same reason.

Gurdjieff not only tops Wilson’s list of occultists. His system is described as “the complete, ideal Existenzphilosophie” in Wilson’s own existential salvo The Outsider, which is not bad considering that Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Sartre are also discussed. And in a short biographical study of Gurdjieff (1980) Wilson describes his system as “the greatest single-handed attempt in the history of human thought to make us aware of the potential of human consciousness”. The phrase ‘single-handed’ could perhaps refer to Gurdjieff’s rather mysterious origins and the unique presentation of his ideas, while the use of the word ‘potential’ recalls Wilson’s connection with Maslow’s humanistic psychology. In fact, Wilson basically regards Gurdjieff as a highly original psychologist: after all, the Work deals in self-actualisation. But like all the other thinkers he analysed both Gurdjieff and Ouspensky are treated as part of larger philosophical picture. So despite his high praise Wilson came to believe that they both based their ideas on unnecessarily pessimistic foundations – i.e. that man is a machine, a somewhat reductionist metaphor which has stunted philosophical endeavour since Descartes first used it. Looking back on this ‘age of machinery’ in his book on Maslow, Wilson remarked that it has taken almost three centuries for psychology to assert that human beings posses a mind and a will. 

This overt use of the human-as-machine metaphor can be corrupting. Ouspensky’s question and answer sessions, posthumously documented in The Fourth Way, are nowhere near as exhilarating as In Search of the Miraculous or for that matter, his pre-Gurdjieff works. Books such as Tertium Organum, A New Model of the Universe, the novel The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin and the two amusing short stories collected in Talks with a Devil show that Ouspensky was a romantic wanderer of the Hermann Hesse type (read, for instance, his poetic thoughts on the ‘fashions of nature’ in the first chapter of A New Model of the Universe). Perhaps, as Wilson suggested in his study of Ouspensky (1993), meeting ‘G’ was not necessarily a good thing for a such a temperament. Never a member of any Gurdjieff group, Wilson could honestly describe his friendly relations with several devotees and observe that they hadn’t quite found what they were seeking, despite sitting at the feet of both Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. 

Gurdjieff’s starting point is that we are mechanical. We are sleeping automatons like one of those semi-aware simulacrums in Philip K. Dick’s science fiction stories. In The Outsider Wilson remarks that Gurdjieff’s idea “seems to be no more than the blackest pessimism” but goes on to describe the startlingly original methods to wake up from of this – the system, the Work or the Fourth Way. As previously noted there is no better introduction to it than Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous, where as Wilson notes, he is Plato to Gurdjieff’s Socrates. But as he later observed this over-stressing of mechanicalness is no way to start: he thinks that Ouspensky would have been better off meeting someone like Rudolf Steiner. Like Husserl and Freud Steiner was once a pupil of Franz Brentano, a key influence on Husserl’s development of phenomenology, first as a descriptive psychology then as the drastic Erste Philosophie of the later years. Brentano’s stamp can also be felt in Steiner’s early book The Philosophy of Freedom. Both Gurdjieff and Ouspensky could almost be as paternally dogmatic as Freud in over-stressing the helplessly mechanical nature of humanity. Gurdjieff’s assertion that it is better to scrub floors consciously rather than write books mechanically is satirically spot-on but would we really wish to replace the finest things in our rich cultural heritage with some neatly polished floors?

Gurdjieff diagram

Knowledge of Husserl’s method of intentional consciousness would have doubtless freed Ouspensky from his formal dogmatism (his lectures reminded one pupil of his own cheerless Presbyterian childhood in Scotland). Yet ironically enough, Ouspensky had almost grasped this principle of intentionality in his own books. Tertium Organum has a different heading on every right hand page, so in the section entitled ‘What is Materiality?’ he writes that “we segregate a small number of facts into a definite group” – Husserl’s selective perception, but probably arrived at via Ouspensky’s reading of Nietzsche (“there are no facts, only interpretations”). Later (‘The World of Causes and the All’) he states that what we take for ‘the world’ is “merely our incorrect perception” of a larger, total world. Husserl himself would have easily understood what was meant by this “wondrous” larger world. For Wilson this recognition of a larger, more wonderful ‘world’ – rather, a broader perception than our usual narrow everyday beam – is the driving force behind true poetry and is the foundation of all mystical experiences. 

Near the end of his life Ouspensky essentially renounced Gurdjieff’s system and suggested that his pupils find their own methods.

Wilson is correct to elevate Gurdjieff above all other occultists, but quite frankly it’s hardly stiff completion. Gurdjieff’s biographer James Webb once defined revived occultism as ‘rejected knowledge’. It is obvious that Gurdjieff’s ideas stand apart from this usual rehash of formulae found in occult literature. Wilson’s earlier description of the Work as “the ideal, complete” existential philosophy is given weight by the stark language used throughout Gurdjieff and Ouspensky’s dialogues. “Man In himself is not one, he is not ‘I’, he is ‘we’, or to speak more correctly, he is ‘they’”, “the actual situation of humanity”, “contemporary culture requires automatons” – and so on. However, with his post-Outsider discovery of Husserl’s method this allusion would be modified. 

In The Unknowable Gurdjieff, Margaret Anderson describes her reaction to Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. “I read on and on – discovering, indeed, ‘nothingness’”, and enthusiastically quotes Gurdjieff’s own distaste for philosophy. But further on we read her comment on Gurdjieff’s methods. “To SEE is passive. To LOOK is active”, a phenomenological statement if there ever was one. Anderson’s thoughts on Sartre’s magnum opus aren’t too far from Wilson’s own, but when she paraphrases Gurdjieff’s attitude towards this active looking, there is a notable difference. “Live a life of friction. Let yourself be disturbed as much as possible, but observe”. Wilson analysed many people living frictional lives, observing and disturbing themselves (and others) but none really found the answer they were expecting. This paradox is illustrated in the case-histories of the Outsider books and in the true-crime volumes. “The whole history of humanity is ‘the history of crime’” wrote Ouspensky in his study of eternal recurrence. Wilson once wrote a vast history of crime (1985) but he was more optimistic than Ouspensky, understanding crime as a defect of perception, the price we pay for narrow, rational vision. Therefore ‘active looking’, what Husserl called intentionality, is the key. Frictional living or disturbing ourselves are as unnecessary as the fakir’s bed of nails or the monk’s hair shirt, both rejected as partial ‘ways’ by Gurdjieff. According to him, the ‘Fourth Way’ reaches all sides of our being simultaneously. This simultaneous perception runs through Ouspensky’s own early works and is also analysed with typical thoroughness by Husserl. 

In The Occult Wilson critiques the idea that Gurdjieff was ‘unknowable’ or that his system is beyond human comprehension. “There are even vital matters upon which he was relatively ignorant”: the most important being Husserl’s discovery of the workings of intentionality. “As I go through conscious, everyday life, I am unaware of the amount of deliberate work I am putting into ‘living’”. This deliberate work is intentional, through we usually mistake it as passive or mechanical. Wilson thinks Gurdjieff grasped the latter point but not quite the former. Husserl’s importance lies in the fact that he cleared the philosophical ground of all the useless clutter and debris that had been accumulating since Descartes had first erroneously suggested that humans are machines. In his own analysis of intentional consciousness and it’s role in evolution (Beyond The Outsider, 1965) Wilson uses Husserl’s phenomenological method to dismantle man-machine philosophy. He insists that what we understand as ‘mechanisms’ are willed intentions which were originally learned, slowly or clumsily, but which soon become habitual due to repetitive effort. These habits have become ‘mechanical’ but they are not mechanisms as they were brought into being by an intentional process. Basic ‘mechanical’ (sic) or ‘robotic’ skills like driving or typing could be on the uppermost layers, but like archeological strata deeper intentions descend back to our prehistory, phenomenologically speaking. Wilson’s books such as Origins of the Sexual Impulse and The Occult are essentially attempts to describe these descending layers, via case-histories (the ‘lived philosophy’ of The Outsider et al). In making his ‘robot’ layers of compacted intentions Wilson avoids the usual literal-minded technological metaphors of the behaviourist (significantly, J. B. Watson was baffled or possibly offended at a reading by Gurdjieff). The subtle difference between the terms mechanical and robotic can be understood by recalling Wilson’s interest in the cybernetic theories of Dr. David Foster in the early seventies. In his Gurdjieff study a decade later Wilson says that Gurdjieff would have happily used a computer rather than machine metaphor had he lived closer to our time. A programme suggests a programmer; a ‘controlling consciousness’ i.e. Husserl’s transcendental ego. As Husserl tirelessly reminded us, this state marks the beginning and not the culmination of the phenomenological ‘first philosophy’. A mere starting point and not a blissful end-goal.

According to Wilson mechanisms, so-called, are willed intentions which have become automated (‘habits’) so stressing our mechanicalness is therefore unnecessarily over-dramatic, and worse, untrue. Despite the brilliant originality which excited Ouspensky so much, the Work is tainted by a basic and needless misconception, one that Husserl set out to destroy at the same time that Ouspensky was searching jungles and deserts for anything miraculous. Husserl also attacked the positivism which Ouspensky mocked in Tertium Organum and in Talks With a Devil (where the devil himself states that he is a positivist). “Positivism” says Husserl in his final, uncompleted book, “decapitates philosophy”. But Husserl strove for exacting description of things. ”Generally speaking” starts Ouspensky, “everything said in words regarding the world of causes is likely to seem absurd, and is in reality it’s mutilation” – a very strong word, also used by Husserl in the Sixth Investigation of the Logical Investigations [§ 29]. “The truth is impossible to express” continues Ouspensky, “it is possible only to give a hint at it…” Describing “mutilated” or partial intuitions, Husserl states that a true or adequate perception depends on the grasp we have on the object (“grasps it more and more vividly and fully” he says). This grasp requires a more complex act than our usual passive perception where an object is merely ‘there’ in, Husserl says, “it’s unenriched familiarity”. What Husserl is saying is not far from Ouspensky’s own arguments, but making statements like ‘truth is impossible to express’ or that humans are sleeping automatons is something he would have regarded as philosophically irresponsible. As Wilson says, we cannot be making such overarching statements until we have a fully functioning consciousness, Husserl’s starting point, the transcendental ego. 

As Wilson comments, Ouspensky essentially ‘knew’ this. A section in Tertium Organum with the misleading heading ‘Body, Soul, Spirit’ bears this out. “in saying ‘I’, a man means […] that which is in a given moment is in the focus of his consciousness” – in other words our ‘focus’ is what Husserl meant by intentionality, what we choose to focus on. But such important values “usually refer not at all to every side of his being simultaneously, but merely to some small and insignificant facet, which at a given moment holds the focus of consciousness and subjects to itself all the rest, until it in turn is forced out by another equally insignificant facet”. These differing ‘I’s’ in Gurdjieff’s sense are the same as Husserl’s intentions towards objects or situations as perceived in time-consciousness (another of Ouspensky’s obsessions – “which at a given moment…”). The key word is ‘holds’ – intentional consciousness grasps or handles perceptions in a tactile sense. Tertium Organum, A New Model of the Universe and In Search of the Miraculous are replete with these ‘phenomenological’ insights. The first chapter of New Model compares these different ‘I’s’ to a Tower of Babel, an image also used by Wilson to describe the post-Kant, pre-Husserl philosophical mess. 

Ouspensky diagram

Anybody who has attempted to read part one of Gurdjieff’s unfinished trilogy All and Everything will see a stylistic parallel with Heidegger’s Being and Time (another unfinished book: only the first part was completed). Gurdjieff’s huge tome even has its own separate indexical guide (1971) to help neophytes with the bizarre terminology. Such neologisms – “Being-as-having-been” (Heidegger), “Required-intensity-of-ableness” (Gurdjieff) – aren’t that different from the passage of Sartre that Margaret Anderson derisively quoted in her book (“a being-which-is-not-what-it-is” etc). Wilson himself makes use of simpler neologisms occasionally – ‘close-upness’, ‘upside-downness’ – and has often pointed out another similarity between Gurdjieff and Heidegger. Both suggested that the best way to wake from sleep or forgetfulness would be to become intensely aware of our own death – “useful” thinks Wilson, “but not very helpful”. Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene both toyed with imminent death and it hardly changed them. Despite the big game hunting and the Russian roulette they remained in what Husserl would call the natural standpoint or naive attitude; Gurdjieff’s ‘mechanicalness’, dependent on outer stimuli and situations. Husserl would suggest moving out of this into phenomenological consciousness and Gurdjieff and Ouspensky would recommend practising  ‘self-remembering’. Both involve a careful standing apart from our usual attitudes: Ouspensky had already spoke about standing outside ourselves when he was writing about Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence and Wilson noted that the young Nietzsche was constantly attempting to capture this state through his own self-dramatisation. His term ‘Outsider’ means someone who stands outside regular perceptive attitudes, not a mere eccentric. 

Near the end of chapter nine in Miraculous, Gurdjieff tells Ouspensky that without sufficient preparation ‘ecstatic’ experiences are useless. “Only very seldom does it happen that a mind which has been better prepared succeeds in grasping and remembering something of what was felt and understood at the moment of ecstasy”.  Even so, he says, this is usually translated back into distorted three-dimensional consciousness via everyday language and ordinary concepts. Ouspensky’s early books are essential for understanding this dimensional consciousness although Wilson would probably describe these as layers rather than dimensions. For Ouspensky existence on one dimension or plane is the ‘blandest’ whereas on the fourth (or beyond) an infinitely richer simultaneous perception is achieved. This is the same spirit as Husserl’s ingenuous overturning of Descartes’ idea of the cogito as a flat plane mirror merely reflecting reality. 

An intentional consciousness will indeed be better prepared at ‘grasping’ these moments: Wilson’s writings are full of creative people who did. Husserl means the same thing when he insists that a firmly intentional grasp requires a more complex action than passively normal or naive conscious acts. “Generally the greatest energy will be displayed by the act-character which comprehends and subsumes all partial acts in it’s unity – whether it be particular act-intention like joy, or a form of unity that pervades all parts of the whole act” [1]. Blake said that energy is eternal delight and Wilson remarks that his devilish statement “anticipates the method of phenomenology, and the realisation that the ‘filter’ [i.e. an unconscious will that selects, like the ‘spectre’ In Blake] becomes more ruthless as the mind grows tired”. Alfred North Whitehead thought the same. An energetic optimism is needed to drive ‘real perception’ and despite Ouspensky’s obvious debt to Nietzsche, this joyful wisdom is mostly absent from his book of lectures, The Fourth Way

“Our energy” said Gurdjieff to Ouspensky “in one or another direction which suddenly increases and afterwards just as suddenly weakens; our moods which ‘become better’ or ‘become worse’ without any visible reason; our feelings, our desires, our intentions, our decisions – all from time to time pass through periods of ascent or descent, become stronger or weaker”. For Gurdjieff this is part of a cosmic law which he suggests was part of ancient knowledge. His thoughts on moods are similar to those of Heidegger in Being and Time [V § 29] but Wilson has criticised this by describing ‘moods’ as intentional value judgements (because, like Gurdjieff’s conflicting ‘I’s’, each mood “seems to offer [us] a different piece of advice on the question of how to live”). Gurdjieff describes our intentions becoming stronger or weaker but the simple solution to this problem would be to follow Husserl and strengthen the intention. As for ‘laws’, Wilson said of the phenomenological method that “in attempting to discover laws it is not unlikely that we shall discover that we are the makers of the laws”. Phenomenologically speaking we cannot comment on any ‘cosmic laws’ until we have a stable consciousness.  

Armed with Husserl’s method the problem of multiple, conflicting ‘I’s’ can be clearly understood as simply different viewpoints of the same object or situation. In Tertium Organum (‘Personal Emotions’) Ouspensky writes that the “constant shifting of emotions, each of which calls itself I and strives to establish power over man, is the chief obstacle to the establishment of a constant I”. Correct, but none of these selective viewpoints are trying to “establish power over man” like Cthulhu did with Randolph Carter; they are merely different viewpoints which can be controlled with careful phenomenological practice. To understand what we do strive for, read on for a Husserl quote from Ideas [§ 96] below. 

The first practical discipline of Wilson’s new existentialism, influenced by Husserl’s techniques, is to become aware of the intentionality in all conscious acts. Constant awareness and meditation (in the philosophical rather than yogic sense) on this strengthens the ability to grasp experience. There is no need for ‘shocks’, no need to live ‘frictionally’ or to disturb ourselves. Practised use of this ‘phenomenological faculty’ certainly changes daily experience in a subtle manner. It soon becomes difficult to accept that we are passive victims of life – how can we be if we ‘intend’ or build the structure of our own life-world? This is the first responsibility.

Wilson was more concerned with this ‘everyday’ practicality rather than with the overwhelming ecstasies of Proust, William James and all the poets and mystics he wrote about. Discussing Gurdjieff in The Outsider he focuses on ‘self-remembering’, with the further state of ‘objective consciousness’ put aside for the time being. As Gurdjieff more or less said to Ouspensky, mystical ecstatics are fine, but if we cannot grasp them they flow though our fingers like fine sand. The trick is to learn to grasp, to hold. But neither this nor the constant awareness of the intentional nature of perception that precedes it can be put into operation under a negative ‘victim’ mentality, the kind that Wilson labelled the age of defeat. As this unfortunately describes our own time more thoroughly than the post-war years Wilson was writing in, developing the phenomenological faculty is a challenge which only very serious outsiders will accept. As previously noted, Wilson’s term ‘Outsider’ refers to someone practising these phenomenological disciplines rather than any regular misfit. Outsiders are outside of what Husserl called the natural standpoint, not outside of society. “At first glance, the Outsider is a social problem” begins Wilson’s debut. But as the book and its series progress, this first glance is proven incorrect. The real problem is with consciousness itself, not it’s outward manifestations. 

One example of intentionality in action Wilson gives in the ‘practical disciplines’ section of The New Existentialism (at the beginning of the second part) is “reading the political news in various newspapers, or listening to speeches by members of opposed political parties”. Any “intelligent person practices an intellectual kind of phenomenology as a matter of course” he commented in 1966. This is already becoming a rare skill in the 21st century thanks to the new media. “There are periods in the life of humanity, which generally coincide with the beginning of the fall of cultures and civilisations, when the masses irretrievably lose their reason and begin to destroy everything that has been created by centuries and millenniums of culture” said Gurdjieff to Ouspensky a century ago. “Such periods of mass madness, often coinciding with geological cataclysms, climatic changes, and similar phenomena of a planetary character, release a very great quantity in the matter of knowledge”. The age of defeat is the information age, after all. “Thus the work of collecting scattered matter of knowledge frequently coincides with the beginning of the destruction and fall of cultures and civilisations”. Gurdjieff was obviously referring to valuable ‘esoteric’ knowledge back then and he was indeed correct as the occult revival (theosophy and it’s variants) preceded the gigantic events which provide a backdrop to Gurdjieff and Ouspensky’s working relationship: the Bolshevik Revolution and the First World War. However, this type of apocalyptic warning is now everywhere in the “very great quantity” of information itself – these words about the fall of cultures and civilisations could have appeared in any recent broadsheet. “Phrases, phrases, sympathetic, critical, ironical, blatant, pompous, lying and, worst of all, utterly automatic, phrases which have been used a thousand times before and will be used again on entirely different, perhaps contradictory, occasions” – this is Ouspensky remembering his days as a journalist circa 1906. Nothing has changed apart from the speedier method of delivery. Gurdjieff himself would very probably say that the outward form has changed, but not the ‘essence’. 

A more realistic appraisal of our predicament is found in the last few words from Wilson’s occult trilogy – that is, as long as we accept our mental stagnation as ‘normal’ we will continue to mark time, as far as our evolution goes. This is obviously less scintillating than the atmosphere of apocalyptic doom ‘n gloom that vies for attention on our screens, but nevertheless it is far more accurate. 

Gurdjieff told Ouspensky that there cannot be any “compulsory” mechanical evolution. “Evolution is the result of conscious struggle”, the power of ‘doing’ and this doing or willing “cannot be the result of things which ‘happen’”. In Wilson’s phenomenological existentialism things do not just ‘happen’ as we innocently presume because phenomenology is the study of how (not ‘why’) things appear in our consciousness [2]. “In that case” writes Wilson, “some phenomenologist of the future will have difficulty in making [infants] understand that reading is ‘intentional’, not something that just ‘happens’ when the eye falls on written language”. In our own time we forget just how intentional, prejudiced and selective our perceptual lives are and view ourselves as victims of things which happen to us, passively. “We think of reality as a bully” says Wilson. But Brentano and Husserl reversed this: “it is our minds that are the bullies” (Wilson’s satirical horror novel The Mind Parasites plays on this irony). So claiming to be a ‘victim’ of reality makes no real philosophical sense. Performing the phenomenological operation is the equivalent of swimming against a current, or going against evolution, if evolution means entropy, that is. Obviously, it didn’t for Gurdjieff, Ouspensky or Wilson. 

“Nature does not need this evolution; it does not want it and struggles against it” says Gurdjieff. This evolution is the development of possibilities “which never develop by themselves, that is, mechanically” – therefore these evolutionary possibilities are intentional. “There is, and there can be, no other kind of evolution whatever”. In Beyond the Outsider Wilson refers to an ‘intentional evolutionary structure’ which is doubtless influenced by Gurdjieff’s pronouncements as much as Husserl’s methods (and those of that other philosopher-turned-mathematician, Whitehead). Husserl, In the first book of Ideas [§ 96] describes you, the phenomenologist, as an explorer of these new structures. “But one thing we may and must strive for: that at each step we faithfully describe what we, from our point of view and after the most serious study, actually see”. This is what we strive for – control over differing perceptive angles or ‘I’s’ (Nietzsche’s ‘perspectivism’) into “a life of universal self-responsibility, and correlatively, to shape oneself into the true ‘I’ , the free autonomous ‘I’” [3]. 

“Experiencing” says Husserl “in general, living as an ego (thinking, valuing, acting) – I am necessarily an ‘I’ that has it’s ‘thou,’ it’s ‘we,’ it’s ‘you’ – the ‘I’ or the personal pronouns. And equally necessarily, I am and we are, in the community of egos, correlates of everything to which we address ourselves as existing in the world” [4]. Ouspensky sounded uncharacteristically Lovecraftian when he said that these conflicting ‘I-viewpoints’ strive to establish power over man but Lovecraft himself introduced his most celebrated Mythos tale with the baleful statement that the most merciful thing in the world is the mind’s inability to correlate all it’s contents. However without this correlative aptitude we will never be able to explore these new relational structures. In his letters, Lovecraft referred to himself as a “rational indifferentist”. He was living below what Wilson called the indifference threshold (the latter word used in many Mythos tales, of course). Wilson’s threshold is also known as ‘the law of entropy in prehension’ – prehension being Whitehead’s ‘eating’ of experience, not too far a step from Husserl’s grasping of the same (in his cosmology, Gurdjieff insisted that sleeping humans are ‘food for the moon’). Under the indifference threshold we are only moved to action – and then, ironically, to optimism – by crisis or other negative situations. Wilson was adamant that it is the force or intention of the action and not the crisis or external event that triggers the optimism. As a self proclaimed indifferentist Lovecraft claimed to be neither optimist or pessimist, but it is obvious from reading his tales that he lived mostly under the indifference threshold like the narrator of Sartre’s Nausea, bewildered in a world of alien objects. Of course, Sartre himself famously said he had never felt so free as when he was living the ‘frictional’ life during the Second World War In Occupied France. 

Husserl diagram

We are in the position of those future infants who do not realise that reading was originally a slowly learned intentional activity. Like them, we think that things just ‘happen’, unaware of the complex layers of intentional effort which brought reading (for instance) into being. These are the possibilities “which never develop by themselves” – our intentional evolutionary structure. If we cease to think of these as mechanisms and instead understand them as programmable intentions, then the possibilities are endless, but this ‘understanding’ must be the kind that Gurdjieff was hinting at when he mispronounced Tertium Organum. In his novel Ivan Osokin Ouspensky writes “I want you to understand that when I speak about knowing, I do not mean the sort of knowing which, in reality, is only supposition.” Nietzsche claimed that neither science nor philosophy have been free of presuppositions. “He was right”, remarked Wilson, “this is inevitably so before Husserl”. Starting his work proper with the Logical Investigations, published in the year of Nietzsche”s passing, Husserl prepares the reader for his first Investigation with a section [§ 7] on the principle of freedom from presuppositions which “only seeks to express the strict exclusion of all statements not permitting of a comprehensive phenomenological realisation”. Phenomenology attempts to describe our inner states minus any subjective distortions. By the time of his final work The Crisis of European Sciences [§ 69] Husserl discusses the idea of the ‘disinterested observer’ who views the “outer surface of the spiritual world, which first becomes visible to him, and only gradually do the intentional depths open themselves up”. Without this self-observation, Wilson thinks, we will be continuously – philosophically speaking – mistaking parts of ourselves for an alien or intruder, alienated and ‘victimised’ by reality [5]. 

So Wilson thinks that the knowledge or understanding that Gurdjieff and Ouspensky spoke of is indeed possible to attain via intellectual means – for as he says in Beyond the Outsider, once properly understood, Husserl’s phenomenological intentionality will be ‘lived by’ and not merely speculative. This is a practical, immediate aim, free of the tinge of religious pessimism that runs through Gurdjieff’s cosmology and Ouspensky’s ‘Calvinistic’ interpretation. Now, this is in no way to discredit any of their achievements as there is no doubt whatsoever that Gurdjieff’s and Ouspensky’s central ideas tower over almost everything from the occult revival, in terms of originality and intellectual possibilities. And the potentialities they discuss are in truth more exciting than the dour post-Husserl existentialism of Heidegger and Sartre and more useful than the trend of anti-intentional postmodernism that followed. “Let us give them their due” says Beelzebub to his grandson; “during recent centuries [humans] have really mostly artistically mechanised themselves to see nothing real”. And of course Gurdjieff and Ouspensky’s influence on Colin Wilson’s own new existentialist philosophy is notable, despite his later criticisms. If anything, Wilson genuinely added to the usefulness of the Work when he brought in Husserl’s phenomenological analysis. “As long as we remain passive” Gurdjieff said in the third part of All and Everything, “we shall have in the course of our further existence to submit slavishly to every caprice of all sorts of blind events”. But, if we strive to understand our ‘I’ – “you who have cognised this – should not be greatly, as it is said, ‘disheartened’ and should not fall into the so-called ‘pessimism’ prevalent everywhere in the abnormal life of people […] even for you, everything is not yet lost”.

*The ‘glamour of new slogans’ – Ouspensky, Miraculous, p. 60

[1] Husserl on the “function of attention in complex acts”. Logical Investigations vol. II,, Investigation V § 19 (RKP, 1970, p. 582) 

[2] “According to the scientific method, ‘Why?’ often demands an unnecessary amount of theorising, but ‘How?’ can be observed by anyone who goes to enough trouble”. Colin Wilson, Beyond The Outsider, Carroll & Graf, 1991, p. 82. And: “the ‘how’ of the appearance the surrounding world” – Husserl on the ‘new method’ of descriptive science. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Northwestern University Press, 1970, p. 330

[3] ibid. p. 338

[4] ibid. p. 335

[5] See ‘The Problem of Vision’ section in the third chapter of Wilson’s Origins of the Sexual Impulse

The notes [§ -] reference relevant sections in the books mentioned. 

Also used: 

Anderson, Margaret – The Unknowable Gurdjieff (RKP, 1962) 

Blavatsky, H. P. – The Secret Doctrine (Theosophical Pub. House, 1938) 

Crowley, Aleister – The Book of Thoth (Kashmarin Press, 1969) 

Heidegger, Martin – Being and Time (Blackwell 2004) 

Husserl, Edmund – Ideas, First Book (Martinus Niijhoff, 1983)

Gurdjieff, G. I. – All and Everything: Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, (RKP 1956);

Gurdjieff, G. I. – Life is Real Only Then, When ‘I Am’ (Triangle Editions, 1975) 

Lovecraft, H. P. – ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ in The Haunter of the Dark and other tales (Panther, 1970)

Lovecraft, H. P. – Selected Letters vol. III (Arkham House, 1971)

Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Gay Science (Cambridge University Press, 2001) 

[no author] – Guide & Index to Gurdjieff’s All and Everything: Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson (Traditional Studies Press, 1971) 

Ouspensky, P. D. – Tertium Organum (RKP, 1957)

Ouspensky, P. D. – A New Model of the Universe (RKP, 1953)

Ouspensky, P. D. – In Search of the Miraculous (RKP, 1950)

Ouspensky, P. D. – The Fourth Way (RKP, 1972)

Ouspensky, P. D. – The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin (Penguin, 1971)

Ouspensky, P. D. – Talks with a Devil (Arkana, 1988)

Spiegelberg, H. – The Phenomenological Movement (Martinus Niijhoff,, 1976) 

Walker, Kenneth – Venture with Ideas (Spearman, 1973)

Webb, James – The Occult Establishment (Open Court, 1988) 

Wilson, Colin – The ‘Outsider Series’ (7 volumes), The Mind Parasites, The Occult, The War Against Sleep, A Criminal History of Mankind, Rudolf Steiner: The Man and his Vision, Beyond the Occult, ‘Husserl and Evolutionin Existentially Speaking, The Strange Life of P. D. Ouspensky (cf Wilson’s bibliography here

The distorting medium is the message

The projected documentary on the life and work of Colin Wilson has achieved it’s financial goal via a combination of a crowdfunding campaign and from a very generous benefactor. The film will go ahead this year. This very interesting development deserves some reflection on Wilson’s main ideas and their relevance to today. 

“Human beings of the 21st century will be born into a forbidding world: a civilisation that is immense, aloof, heartless, and highly mechanised” wrote Colin Wilson in 1970, a fairly accurate prediction now that we’re living in it. The ‘attention economy’ is one description of this era and as one of Wilson’s primary concerns was with the fluctuations of attention in consciousness, it’s worthwhile looking into his arguments for strengthening our grip on reality. 

Nietzsche made the distinction between freedom from and freedom for. The first is negative and passive; the idea that if we throw off our chains we will be ‘free’. This was satirised by Dostoyevsky in The Devils (“We shall reduce everything to one common denominator. Full equality”) and Nietzsche dismissed it in Zarathustra (i.e. ‘On The Tarantulas’ in the second part). Wilson demonstrated it’s faults by acknowledging the ‘romantic’ origin of last century’s crime explosion and all it’s unpleasant excesses when he said that Rousseau’s “muddied anti-authoritarianism [has] created a reservoir of resentment” which is now a commonly held attitude. But Nietzsche knew that freedom is a creative act – his ironic line about throwing away values by casting off chains and Zarathustra’s question  ‘free for what?’ appears in the section ‘On the Way of the Creator’. This question was analysed via the lives of creative people in Wilson’s first book The Outsider, a meditation on identity and values. That and Wilson’s subsequent writings are concerned with the puzzle of ‘freedom’. Discussing Dostoyevsky in The Outsider Wilson remarks that “freedom is the greatest burden of all”.  We want it more than anything but when we get it, it bores us quickly. What goes wrong? Wilson thinks a quirk in perception is the problem – we have developed a strong ability to focus on minor details which has weakened our understanding of any larger patterns of meaning. Negative values (freedom from) dominate over positive (freedom for). Like Nietzsche Wilson was concerned with a re-evaluation of our values, from negative to positive. This fairly straightforward insight powers most of his output.

He cheerfully admitted that this ‘single obsessional idea’ held his large body of work together, despite the seemingly diffuse subjects he covered. Essentially a philosopher, he wrote fiction and literary criticism as well as criminology, psychology, ‘occultism’, biographies and autobiographies, and one-off examinations on everything from alcohol to astronomy. Once a common tactic in the era of ‘men of letters’ this has now fallen into disrepute in an era of academic specialisation (back in 1970 Wilson thought there would be a “discouraging amount” of this in the 21st century and unfortunately he was right). Therefore this specialisation itself is something of a handicap when it comes to understanding what Wilson actually did. Readers who specialise in one thing only – say, Jung or Jack the Ripper – will only know one or two of Wilson’s books and make the presumption that he was trying to be an expert on one or too many things. Unable to see the larger pattern of his work (which he called ‘an existential jigsaw puzzle’) they usually dismiss him as unacademic for refusing to concentrate on one subject only. Ironically enough this is the very thing that Wilson was concerned with as a philosopher, how consciousness can sharply focus on details at the expense of broader meanings. Science would be impossible without this attention to detail but the drawback with this attitude is that it makes judgements on the ‘meaninglessness’ of everything appear more plausible. Two mathematicians turned philosophers, A. N. Whitehead and Edmund Husserl, were also concerned with this tricky problem, and Wilson pays back the debt by making their ideas central to his own investigations. 

Wilson became first known as Britain’s only home grown existentialist and this a fair description. In terms of his public image in English speaking countries he is generally known for the successes of his first book The Outsider (1956) and The Occult (1971) when he was welcomed back into the fold by the same critics who dismissed the sequels to his debut. But this regular interpretation obscures a few things. Firstly, The Outsider was only one part of a seven volume series which took ten years to complete. The seventh volume, Introduction to the New Existentialism (1966) summarises all six previous titles and is both the starting point for understanding Wilson’s own philosophy (in part two of the book) and a superb primer for Husserl and his method in part one. New readers should really start with this slim volume and then tackle The Outsider and the other five books (the first has never been out of print, the rest are currently undergoing a reissue programme). Secondly, The Occult was Wilson’s first commissioned book. So for the first fifteen years of his career he essentially wrote what he wanted; 1956 to 1971 is perhaps the purest expression of his interests in both his non-fiction and the novels. This is not in any way to denigrate the work after 1971 – far from it – but afterwards it becomes more necessary to sort major from minor works as Wilson’s productivity increased. Despite that, the ‘central obsession’ never flagged until Wilson ceased to write around 2011 due to a crippling stroke (he died in 2013). 

Part one of The New Existentialism (as it’s usually referred to) remains a brilliantly concise introduction to the method of phenomenology. Wilson had noted in 1966 that such a thing was non-existent as far as the non-academic reader was concerned, and the situation has hardly improved in the past half-century. As one commentator on existentialism has noted, Husserl’s difficult method is easier to betray than to follow, and Wilson illustrates this problem by including a brief history of the phenomenological movement in the first part of his book. Considering that The New Existentialism was originally only 188 pages long, it’s quite an achievement. A new introduction to the reprint of 2018 notes that Wilson revisited and re-wrote quite a lot of it which was unusual for him. It’s also pointed out that the book enables the reader to put these ‘phenomenological’ methods into practice immediately – which it does – and indeed the second part even suggests some practical disciples for everyday use. 

Husserl himself wrote (or rather lectured) a few introductions to his method, most notably the Cartesian Meditations in the late 1920’s. But as Wilson said in his own book none are useful to the beginner, despite Husserl’s keenness to stress that phenomenology is the most useful method in all philosophy. “If the right attitude has been won, and made secure by practice, above all, however, if one has acquired the courage to obey the clear eidetic data with a with a radical lack of prejudice so as to be unencumbered by all current and learned theories, then firm results are directly produced…” (Husserl, Ideas I § 87). “The first practical necessity for the existential philosopher is to become conscious of the intentionality of all his conscious acts” (Wilson, The New Existentialism, part two, chapter one). Wilson says elsewhere that the gift of existentialism and the phenomenological method that preceded it was in it’s recognition that it is not the ‘senses’ that distort reality – as previous philosophers had thought – but in it’s insight that the ‘distorting medium’ is active human intentionality. Wilson offers a wonderful metaphor for intentionality in his book. Descartes’ cogito is like a detective questioning a room of suspects, weighing up the evidence and trying to get to the truth by doubting everybody and their excuses that they are innocent. But Husserl has pointed out that there is something that Descartes didn’t doubt – his own innocence. “Husserl has suggested a new and disturbing possibility. Suppose the detective himself is the murderer?” Nietzsche claimed that there never has been a science free of suppositions and that all philosophy is really just the autobiography of philosophers themselves. Wilson thinks this is a fair criticism, but only when aimed at the immediate period before Husserl ‘invented’ his phenomenological method (i.e before 1900, the year of Nietzsche’s death and the publication of the first volume of Husserl’s Logical Investigations). “It was Husserl who pointed out this simple mistake that had kept philosophy at a standstill for two hundred years” –  and Wilson wrote a brilliantly informative and amusing chapter on this ‘strange story of modern philosophy’ in the preceding Outsider volume in 1965. Descartes had said that the only thing which we can be certain of is our consciousness – ‘cogito ergo sum’ – and that philosophy should primarily study consciousness, but this is the very thing he neglected to do! It took a few centuries for Husserl to point out that consciousness is not a flat, passive reflection but an active distorter of reality. Wilson summarised this insight with his maxim ‘perception is intentional’. Becoming aware of these intentional distortions is the first practical discipline of Wilson’s new existentialist philosophy, the basis of his life’s work, whatever the subject. Quite frankly, it’s not that difficult – no more than learning a foreign language or appreciating the history of painting. For the politically engaged, one example Wilson gives is of not reacting during a party political broadcast of the party you oppose – and we could do with more of that these days. This ‘bracketing out’ of unconscious prejudices was described by Husserl as the phenomenological reduction (epochē or suspension). 

Sartre’s existential classic Nausea is an attempt to perform this ‘operation’ as Husserl called it. Phenomenologists aim to describe phenomena without emotional prejudices or distortions – Husserl’s ‘right attitude’, a ‘radical lack of prejudice’ – but Sartre, who started out as a Husserlian, doesn’t quite get there. His description of taking a seat on a tram, for instance, sounds like something out of the horror fiction of H. P. Lovecraft – ‘I am in the midst of Things, which cannot be given names. Alone, wordless, defenceless, they surround me, under me, behind me, above me”. Sartre’s operations are always tinged with malevolence or pessimism, and Wilson analyses this fault in the fourth instalment of his Outsider series, a study of literature and the imagination (or rather, “a study of the inaccuracies of the imagination”). 

Husserl’s pupil Heidegger had access to his tutor’s notes on time-consciousness and Wilson says that Heidegger’s main contribution was to analyse the impact of time and of human relations in the distorting medium. The neo-Kantian Fichte had already said that to be free is nothing but to become free is heavenly and Wilson points out that this is important because it involves an active time dimension (becoming, not just ‘being’) in freedom. Philosophy is an active and not static business, it is – as Wilson points out in the Outsider books – lived or ‘lived by’, not merely speculative. Throughout the series of 1956 -‘66 Wilson developed this philosophy of intentional consciousness or ‘phenomenological existentialism’ although he shortened it to ‘new’ existentialism to distinguish it from that of Heidegger or Sartre (ironically enough he was actually going back to Husserl’s original method which they both abandoned fairly quickly). Sartre once fondly remembered that he had never felt so free as when he was in the Resistance and could have been shot at any time – Nietzsche’s ‘freedom from’, again –  so therefore commitment to action was freedom. Heidegger said that we only truly know ourselves in the face of death (when “ones potentiality-for-Being becomes authentic and wholly transparent”). But as Wilson points out, Gurdjieff – who is more like Heidegger than he first appears – essentially said the same thing as a semi-serious joke. Hemingway acted out this type of adventure, but ended up a drunk and then a suicide. Wilson names this the ‘paradox of freedom’ and it is the obsession that runs through his works. Consciousness without crisis, he says, tends to become negative (significantly, the latter term was introduced into common language via the Gurdjieff ‘work’). So does this mean, as Sartre and Hemingway think, that we should seek out danger? No – “Husserl’s discovery of ‘intentionality’ meant that the danger and hardship are not essential; they only trigger the mechanism”. By separating the object (the danger or crisis situation) from it’s intention in the reduction, it can be seen that it is a vital upsurge of energy that keeps us ‘free’ or ‘awake’ in these circumstances, not the dangerous circumstances themselves. Blake and Nietzsche said that ‘antediluvian’ or ‘cyclopean’ energies power our concepts, but their poetic inspirations were free of the the kind of emotional distortions later found in Lovecraft or Sartre. Wilson noted that underpowered perception will indeed distort the object it ‘intends’ towards; Husserl meant the same thing when he said that ‘pure perception’ requires a more complicated act than our usual passive state. “If I carry out the [transcendental] reduction for myself, I am not a human ego” he wrote in a draft for the Encyclopaedia Brittanica

This is a step towards creative ‘freedom for’, or at least a move away from it’s resentment driven opposite. We should be able to do this in any situation, especially in pleasant surroundings, but mostly this is not so. We are usually bored by that. Wilson calls this the ‘indifference threshold’, an odd handicap in which we are motivated by crisis rather than comfort. This, thinks Wilson, is a legacy of our evolution – as Wells said, most creatures have been ‘up against it’ since the dawn of time, humans included. Against this he made the intriguing alternative suggestion of an ‘evolutionary intentionality’ in his Beyond the Outsider (1965). Ideally we should no longer need danger to make us alert to meanings as meaning is ‘out there’, independent of our moods and prejudices. The ‘mechanism’ that is triggered is intention which Wilson has compared to a ‘kind of hand’ or pseudopodium. Husserl’s point was that we actively grasp reality rather than passively consume it as a spectator (significantly, Sartre was an influence on situationism and ‘the society of the spectacle’, nowadays, the attention economy). We must, Wilson stresses throughout his work, train or flex this intentional organ in order to actively become free. 

Wilson worked on his phenomenological ‘new’ existentialism thoroughly and mostly uninterrupted for the first decade or so of his career, and an interviewer once pointed out in 1993 that even some of his critics hedgingly admired his resilience in weathering endless attacks which were intended to derail it. After The Outsider he was pilloried and then virtually ignored (in his homeland, mostly) until the early seventies when he was gradually forgotten as the boy wonder of the ‘50’s and slowly became something of a sage on subjects such crime and the paranormal (the 1993 article began by saying that he rarely appeared on television or radio unless the subject was murder). However Wilson remained a philosopher and such subjects were grist for his existential and phenomenological enquires; his interest in crime and mysticism long predate even his first book. In a study of Rasputin (1964) he writes that “the distorting power” of intentionality “can be much better studied through the psychology of sex or religion, since the mind’s strongest forces are here in question”. These ‘forces’ are the antediluvian or cyclopean energies of Blake and Nietzsche and are discussed in The New Existentialism. Add to that the “fine network of human relations” (personal or social, embedded in the distorting medium) as analysed by Heidegger and the continuity of Wilson’s post-Outsider, pre-Occult method can be clearly or subliminally felt in the many studies he made of the dark sides of human nature. The Occult is a history of hermeticism – and it’s a brilliant one at that – but it’s really a continuation of The New Existentialism from five years before (discussing the cabbala, Wilson writes that there is “a fundamental error in the way human being grasp the world. We think of the mind as a helpless imponderable in a world of solid matter, a mere passive observer”). Written In Blood (1989) can be read as history of forensics but it ends on a philosophical note as he cheerfully admits that even this “grimly practical field” is a intellectual endeavour, the eradication of crime by intellect (a phenomenologist could say ‘the destruction of ambiguity by intention’). At the end of that book he again takes on Rousseau’s half truth “which can be far more dangerous than an outright lie. Freedom is a quality of consciousness…” 

Wilson’s writings could perhaps be seen as being more accessible from The Occult onwards as they’re not so densely packed with philosophical detail, but they are all part of the same quest. It’s only the lack of awareness of his central philosophy that makes his work appear haphazard (patronising journalists wanting to avoid discussing his phenomenology “at all costs” didn’t help much either). Understand the phenomenological method that underpins it and Wilson’s aims are clear (this website attempts to draw attention to it). 

Reading his work these days may be a matter of taste or expediency. Beginners could start with the compendium The Ultimate Colin Wilson which contains excerpts from many of his major works. There’s his autobiography Dreaming To Some Purpose and Gary Lachman’s study Beyond The Robot. For the philosophically minded, there’s The New Existentialism and the Outsider sequence that preceded it; for mystics, the ‘Occult trilogy’; for hardened crime aficionados probably any of the crime books. At the deeper end are the ‘Colin Wilson Studies’ series from Nottingham’s Paupers’ Press. None of this contradicts the fact that Wilson is a pleasurable read to many readers (myself included) who have simply enjoyed a few of his books – I’ve encountered a lot of people from all walks of life who have – but putting him into historical context requires standing back and seeing the larger picture. Not for nothing did he call his efforts an existential jigsaw puzzle – Husserl’s third phenomenological investigation tackles ‘the theory of wholes and parts’ (“the remotest of these parts are no further from the whole than the nearest”). 

With the publication of The Occult in 1971 Wilson discussed a concept he called ‘Faculty X’, an awareness of the reality of other times and other places (he had previously examined how ‘otherness’ is filtered out by what Husserl called the natural standpoint – our ‘normal’, naive or passive consciousness). One of the most famous examples he gives of it in action is via Proust from his novel Swann’s Way when he recalls his childhood as a reality rather than a slightly faded memory. Certainly Husserl himself would have enjoyed Proust’s description regarding “this unremembered state, which brought with it no logical proof but the indisputable evidence, of it’s felicity, it’s reality, and in whose presence other states of consciousness melted and vanished”. Originally the ‘phenomenological faculty’ but rejected by Wilson as rather a clumsy mouthful [1] it became ‘faculty x’ circa 1967 and then Faculty X soon after. As it bridges the phenomenology of Wilson’s new existentialism to his interest in hermetic thought, it’s apt that it appeared in it’s finished form in a history of occultism (I have written about the connections between the two in more detail here). Faculty X is the sense of the reality of other times and other places; Proust could talk about his childhood and actually mean it. Husserl concerned himself with meaning with his first investigation of his Logical Investigations. His follower Maurice Merleau-Ponty once said that we are ‘condemned to meaning’ perhaps as a retort against his colleague Sartre who famously remarked that we are condemned to freedom. (Wilson called Merleau-Ponty “an existentialist stoic”). 

Faculty X is the ‘phenomenological faculty’ because it makes us clearly aware that the far is as real as the near (Husserl’s ‘remotest and nearest’, and his theories on internal time consciousness). Wilson insists that Faculty X is the key to all poetic and mystical experiences and a solution to the paradox of freedom. As a concept it is a concentrated form of Wilson’s ‘new’ existentialist philosophy and he obsessed over it in most of his books, even before it had a name. A novel from 1969, The Philosopher’s Stone, was devoted to it and it appears in nascent form throughout The Outsider – Wilson remarks that Blake “developed a certain faculty”, and Blake himself engraved some delightfully gnomic thoughts about “this faculty” circa 1788. Despite being drawn from the rigours of phenomenology Faculty X is fundamentally a visionary faculty. Rudolf Steiner, who was once the subject of a short but penetrating Wilson biography (1985) was taught by Husserl’s master Franz Brentano. Pay close attention to his words and the influence can be felt. “We have to take this step, this turning of one’s own active thinking into an organ of touch for the soul, so that we may feel ourselves thinking in the same way that we walk, grasp or touch; so that we know we are living in a real being, not just in ordinary thinking which merely creates images, but in a reality, in the soul’s organ of touch which we ourselves have become”. This is Husserl’s ‘grip’, Wilson’s ‘kind of hand’ feeling around reality. Here is Steiner again. “The third step in higher knowledge, necessary for rising to Intuition, can be achieved only by developing to its highest point a faculty which, in our materialistic age, is not recognised as a cognitional force”. According to Steiner faculties have to be willed into existence by creative effort, rather like Wilson’s layers of willed intentions (which he says, we mistakenly think of as ‘mechanisms’ because they have become automated habits, a kind of ‘robot’). Steiner’s notions on evolution of faculties are similar to Wilson’s in The Occult. “Evolution consists in one faculty being acquired at the expense of another, and thus as the epochs took their course, the faculty which man once possessed of understanding the spiritual world became less and less. Our clear reasoning and cognitional faculties, our present logical thinking which we regard as the most important feature of modern culture — these did not exist in those early times. They had to be developed by man in the epoch to which we now belong, at the expense of the old clairvoyant consciousness. Clairvoyant consciousness will have to be cultivated again in the future evolution of mankind, but in a different way. It has to be added to the purely physical consciousness that is bound up with the faculty of intellectual logic”. This is not too far from Wilson’s definition of philosophy – ‘intuition aided by intellect’. In fact it’s not that far from the philosophy of Whitehead, a critic of the ‘bifurcation of nature’. [2] 

The problem of life-devaluation has not gone away since Wilson’s time: in fact, it has seemingly become more acceptable. Steiner thought our era would involve a severe imbalance in consciousness, an obsession with what Blake called ‘number weight and measure’, the literalist and unimaginative obsession with statistics and data that drives the attention economy. We all know it well. 

“Time is the currency of human existence” wrote Wilson in 1970. And every single moment wasted in anti-intentional robotic action is completely destroyed as surely as if you burned your own money. Any genuine individualist will have already calculated the priceless value of their attention at the dawn of this century. 

[1] In the 1965 essay ‘Phenomenology and Literature’, collected in Eagle and Earwig (originally published by John Baker in the same year, now reissued

[2] Thoroughly explained in Wilson’s early books and in some excellent later essays. Like Wilson, Steiner is likely to be misunderstood unless we see the basic historical link with Brentano. Wilson states Steiner cannot be understood unless a reader starts with an early book – the aptly titled Philosophy of Freedom – and one of his last, an autobiography. 

Colin Wilson documentary crowdfunding page is live

A crowdfunding page for a projected Colin Wilson documentary entitled Dreaming To Some Purpose: The Life and Times of Colin Wilson is now live and seeking donations. The award winning filmmakers are “extremely passionate about our campaign to realize this authorized biography of the life and work of the internationally acclaimed writer and philosopher because seven years after his death, the need for a Wilson documentary is increasingly apparent. We are seeking support from Wilsonians the world over to contribute what you can to help fund this project. The plan is to make a comprehensive, two-part history of Wilson’s life, from his early days as a disaffected teenager to the success of The Outsider and Wilson’s unexpected celebrity, to his later career as a leading philosopher of consciousness and his last days as a grand old man of English letters. Wilson’s family, people who knew him, and people deeply influenced by his work, will contribute onscreen interviews to tell the story of the original Outsider”. 

This is a vital project which needs your support – for as the filmmakers go on to say, despite Wilson’s huge body of work (now housed at the University of Nottingham) and his continued cult status, “it seemed that there was a reluctance by the media to acknowledge his unique contribution to the literature of the 20th century”. This project will address that imbalance by treating Wilson’s philosophical ideas seriously and “ensure that Colin’s unique contribution to the world of literature will finally be recognised”. 

Please donate at this page

The Sage of Tetherdown

The Sage of Tetherdown: Personal recollections of Colin Wilson by his friends (Paupers’ Press, £14.95). In 1988 Cecil Woolf published Colin Wilson: A Celebration, an appreciative collection of Wilson and his work by various friends and critics. “It enjoyed some success but has been out-of-print now for many years. The current book reprints the personal recollections and adds several more contemporary ones by Laura Del Rivo, Gary Lachman, Steve Taylor, Terry Welbourn and Colin Stanley, providing a picture of Colin Wilson the man over the years”. Replacing the reviews (some of which are available elsewhere) which appeared in the original Celebration with more personal reflections gives The Sage of Tetherdown a continuity the original volume lacked. At 187 pages including 16 colour and 9 black-and-white photographs, the book is available here.

20013459-02FE-4006-BAA2-7F9AD89AF1D7436B4130-3EE9-465E-BA86-DAFBF7B76CD8

 

“We colour our world with attitude”

“What human beings find extremely difficult to grasp” remarked Colin Wilson to his first biographer Sidney Campion, “is that when they open their eyes and see the world, they are, as it were, seeing one of a thousand possible worlds. We colour our world with attitude”. The idea that we can simply choose one world out of thousands sounds extremely difficult to grasp, if not actually fanciful. However we can change our attitude towards the world and this must be remembered in order to understand the context in which Wilson was speaking – in fact, in order to understand Wilson’s ideas at all.

Wilson was influenced by the philosophical discipline known as phenomenology, the esoteric precursor to the more popular existentialism. Phenomenology is a method which dismantles our usual presuppositions about perception. Edmund Husserl, the founder of the method, described our so-called ‘normal’ state of perception the naive or natural attitude, the attitude we usually ‘colour’ our everyday world with. For the “naive man” [1] comfortable in the naive attitude, the world is just as it seems, static and unchangeable. But ‘naive man’ is unaware that he is confusing his own interpretation of the world, coloured by his personal attitudes, for the objective world itself. As Wilson observes in The Outsider, this attitude (‘world’) is always well captured in poetry and novels – Sartre’s Nausea is a particularly good example of this colouring (Sartre began as a follower of Husserl). Against the naive attitude which we presuppose as natural, Husserl posited the phenomenological attitude, a stepping away from naivety or acceptance of things as they ‘naturally’ are. The phenomenological attitude rejects this naivety and instead concerns itself with the selectivity (or intentionality) of perceptive acts. We choose our perceptions and therefore we choose our worlds. In the naive attitude we think perception just ‘happens’ but in the phenomenological attitude this naivety is banished (Husserl used a mathematical term, ‘bracketed’) and perceptions are closely analysed for emotional prejudices or distortions before they creep into conscious awareness.

“I know of no task more difficult than becoming aware of one’s act of selection, and trying to control it” commented Wilson to Campion. A change of attitude from the naive to the phenomenological is the first step in realising this selectivity in action. Simply becoming aware that consciousness is selective is a major step forward: Wilson summarised this awareness in his maxim ‘perception is intentional’. On a personal note, I can now recall a subliminal change of attitude when I first encountered Wilson’s writing – in his Mysteries (1978) – despite Husserl being just another obscure name amongst most of the others. It wouldn’t be until I read the last few volumes in Wilson’s ‘Outsider Cycle’ that I’d gradually begin to understand phenomenology as a specific technique with a history, but the requisite change of attitude happened quickly after contact with his writing. Husserl’s books and lectures are formidably dense but Wilson expounded those rigorous phenomenological ideas in clarified and compulsive prose while demonstrating their efficiency via numerous and seemingly unrelated metaphors and comparisons – from literature and poetry to criminology and even occultism (truth be told, none of this is surprising if the intention behind it all is known). Once this change of attitude is understood and Husserl’s method is grasped, Wilson’s ideas can be understood and appreciated properly. It must be remembered that sightings of the magic word ‘phenomenology’ are alarmingly thin on the ground in Wilson’s press reviews and actual discussions of his use of the method are virtually non-existent outside of his occasional appearances in philosophy journals. “Talking to him about phenomenology was a sure way of putting him to sleep” said Wilson about one philosophically challenged interviewer who nodded off on Wilson’s sofa. A British ‘highbrow’ broadsheet once began an interview by refusing to discuss Wilson’s philosophy at all. Writing about Wilson without at least a basic grasp of Husserl’s method is essentially pointless and makes for an exasperating read. “His books can be best understood against the background of the European philosophical tradition; in fact, no real understanding can be arrived at without some knowledge of this background” wrote Sidney Campion.

F3D4D1FA-8C15-4D48-A930-17CC9914B209Wilson has dealt with the historical schisms of the original phenomenological movement in some of his writings but what really concerned him was making his readers understand and practice the discipline of becoming aware of and controlling our selective acts in perception, to grasp our freedom to choose whichever angle we see the world from. Nietzsche called this choice of viewing angles ‘perspectivism’ but was unaware of the beginnings of what one historian has called the “phenomenological current” which started with Franz Brentano. [2] Nietzsche’s swooping “guerrilla raids” on presuppositions (our ‘colouring’ attitudes) make enthralling and inspiring reading, but he lacked Husserl’s basic technique to truly explode them. A guerrilla, Wilson commented, “is at a psychological disadvantage, being a man without with a home, without an established position”.  At his base camp (the phenomenological method) “Husserl was luckier” says Wilson. “He was also irritated by the by the psychologism, the relativism, the nominalism, that had permeated philosophy since Locke. But he demolished them with irrefutable arguments in the Logical Investigations, and laid his own foundations”. Nietzsche’s perspectival statement that there are no facts, only interpretations is much closer to Husserl’s intentional method than to postmodernism (a philosophy stuck in Locke’s relativism, his ‘blank slate’, which both Nietzsche and Husserl rejected). Despite being strongly influenced by British empiricism  – what Nietzsche described as an “English-mechanistic-world-stupidification” – Husserl offered a precisely cutting critique of Locke’s “obviousness” in his Logical Investigations (Investigation II, chapter two, §9 – §11). Nietzsche’s statement about interpretation appears in his mid-1800’s notebooks amongst other thoughts which do suggest an intuitive affinity with what Husserl would later conceive. He writes that no event happens in isolation, what happens “is a group of phenomena selected and synthesised by an interpreting being”. And if, he later asks, this being or “our ‘I’ is our only being, on the basis in which we make everything be, or understand it to be, fine! Then it becomes very fair to doubt whether there isn’t a perspectival illusion here” – that is to say, a distortion, the kind that Sartre let slip into his rather gloomy descriptions (phenomenology depends on accurate description of intentional states). In his notebooks Nietzsche muses on a theme which he insists runs through his writings: that “the world’s value lies in our interpretations” and suggests that there could be a possibility to go beyond “merely human” or “narrower interpretations”. The world which matters to us (the one we naively ‘value’) he says, “is false, i.e., it is not a fact but but a fictional elaboration and filling out of a meagre store of observations”. It wouldn’t be too far fetched to say that these meagre observations are identical to the naive or natural attitude (also known in Husserl’s terminology as ‘the natural standpoint’ – a concept similar to Nietzsche’s metaphor of perspectivism). Our values are entwined with how we interpret, and if our selective interpretations are narrow, as Nietzsche, Husserl and Wilson insist they are, then our values will also be narrow. Analysing a ‘world without values’ in The Outsider, Wilson asked how it was possible to be less of a daily victim of circumstance, to feel less stuck in the present moment which makes us easily forget our aims toward purpose and meaning. He would find the answer in the faculty of poetic inspiration (Blake described it as the ‘Poetic Genius’, a pre-imagining of Husserl’s transcendental ego) with it’s associated expanded consciousness. Like a kind of negative proof, examining the shadows of negativity throws light on positive values. Wilson used literature to analyse such narrow or even nihilistic values and criminal cases to debunk real (as opposed to fictional) nihilism. Like Dostoyevsky, Wilson studied crime for philosophical and not morbid reasons. In The New Existentialism he makes the important point that the “first major work of existential philosophy in the twentieth-century was Jaspers’ General Psychopathology […] it should be clear that questions of mental sickness belong to philosophy as much as to psychology”. Hence Wilson’s pioneering true crime writings and the original subtitle for The Outsider: ‘an inquiry into the sickness of mankind in the mid-twentieth-century’ (on more modern editions it reads the more sellable ‘classic study of alienation, creativity and the modern mind’).

The existential study of murder starkly illustrates the inverse of positive values and their terrible social perils. “By it’s negative nature” says Wilson, “the act creates a resistance in the reader; when the cause of this resistance is analysed, the result is an insight into positive values”. Reading about a murder case produces a violent jolt to our naive attitudes; we are thankful to be uninvolved in such negativity. Yet very quickly this insight is forgotten and natural or naive banality returns. Aware of Husserl’s method, Wilson rejects this naive attitude as normal and notes that we are “actually selecting which things to include in [our] attention and which to dehydrate into symbols and leave in cold storage” (Nietzsche’s “meagre store of observations”). We are, Wilson continues “unconsciously valuing life. Out of thousands, perhaps millions, of facts that could be actively present to your consciousness, you choose a dozen or so”. This is what is meant by Nietzsche’s central insight that “the world’s value lies in our interpretations”. With the knowledge of crime in mind, we should be wary of negative values and choose our ‘worlds’ accordingly.

“The highest value is represented by the person who habitually bestows the highest motivational power on the genuine, true, valid, and free decisions” said Husserl in the second book of Ideas, sounding rather like Nietzsche and throwing in some unexpected thoughts on murder along the way [3]. In his later notebooks Nietzsche writes of huge numbers of habits that have become “so hardened that whole species can live upon them”. These habits, he says, constitute their external world and the oldest habit that humans themselves possess is intention – although he did not interpret ‘intention’ as Husserl did, unaware as he was of the strict technique of stepping out of the naive and into the phenomenological attitude. William Blake intuitively knew this crossing from one to the other and he anticipated  phenomenological existentialism with uncanny accuracy – “He who sees the Ratio only, sees himself only”; “the true faculty of knowing must be the faculty which experiences. This faculty I treat of”; “all sects of Philosophy are from the Poetic Genius adapted to the weaknesses of every individual” etc. “Phenomenological analysis has confirmed what Blake asserted a century earlier” remarks Wilson. In the natural, naive attitude, Husserl says, [4] we “wear the blinders of habit” which can become “rigid” if unchecked: Blake’s mind forged manacles. As Wilson says, we are like blinkered horses in traffic [5]. Wilson thinks that Nietzsche’s poor health helped him observe ideas from different angles. People who do not suffer from such fluctuating health problems as Nietzsche did tend to take up “a certain attitude towards the world – what he enjoys, what is a nuisance – and maintains it year in and year out, until it becomes a habit”. Wilson described consciousness as mostly composed of solidified habits which he labelled ‘mechanical intentions’. These intentions have become mechanical or robotic (automated) through willed repetition (learning to type or drive for instance). They ossify into habits and we forget they were once intentionally willed. We misunderstand them as ‘mechanisms’, a metaphor which drives behaviourist thought – Blake’s the “same dull round” which he envisaged as a grinding mill with complicated wheels.

71C51B16-C3DB-4CDF-A85C-169712B3F573We have forgotten that most of our mechanical actions were originally intentional and live robotically as a consequence – what Husserl called our “well known forgetfulness”, a concept later appropriated by his pupil Heidegger. Husserl’s phenomenology has much in common with the anti-robotism of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky who also concerned themselves with remembering the self via constant and vigilant meditation on the mechanicalness (sic.) of the body, it’s actions, the emotions and perception. To get around this mechanical illusion we must not forget that our intentions are willed. For Husserl, the body is an “organ of the will”, what Nietzsche meant by the will to power and Blake saw as a dynamic extension of the Poetic Genius. This keen awareness that our ‘mechanicalness’ is layer upon layer of willed intentions is the choice between the naive and phenomenological attitudes or worlds. [6] It is the choice between ‘meaninglessness’ and meaning – the former can appear valid in the naively nihilistic attitude but like ‘mechanicalness’ it is merely the product of a narrow, partial perception, a “feeling isolated in a world of objects” as Wilson puts it. In the early pages of Nausea Sartre accurately describes this state when observing a cafe proprietor – “when his establishment empties, his head empties too […] the waiters turn out the lights, and he slips into unconsciousness: when this man is alone, he falls asleep” – a statement that Gurdjieff would have perhaps appreciated (Wilson noted in his debut that ‘Outsiders’ have no problem being alone). Our consciousness is selective but as Wilson points out an “enormous area of [our] own being is inaccessible to the beam of consciousness” (the ‘beam’ is intentionality or selectivity; Husserl used the term ‘ray’).

Both Nietzsche and Husserl were adept at analysing these deep seated drives and habits – ‘habitual sedimentations’ according to Husserl – and Wilson thinks of them as a kind of archeological strata made of layers. These layers of willed intentions stretch back into our past and ‘prehistory’ phenomenologically speaking (Proust’s lengthy series of novels analysing lost and regained time contain many important insights into this theme: they compliment works on time consciousness by Husserl and Heidegger). Wilson marked out a few steps in the phenomenological investigation of this “intentional structure of consciousness”. Firstly, the rejection of Descartes’ passive consciousness, or the shift from the naive to the phenomenological attitude – the awareness that perception is intentional. Secondly, the investigation into the intentional structure of all forms of consciousness: Whitehead’s list of experience normal and experience abnormal and everything in between (Wilson’s eclectic works give numerous living or existential examples). Most fundamental is the descriptive analysis of what Wilson called the ‘indifference threshold’ (or the ‘law of entropy in prehension’ which was Wilson’s nod to Whitehead, ‘prehension’ being a kind of hunger for significance). This threshold could be imagined as a margin in consciousness, easily stimulated by inconvenience or pain but bored or indifferent by pleasure or stability. As I write this, a third of the world is in lockdown to combat the COVID-19 outbreak. I’ve lost count of how many articles I’ve seen recently which are already misty eyed and nostalgic for the world as it was only few weeks ago – a world that the same newspapers never stopped complaining about for the past few years (ironically enough the paper which refused to discuss Wilson’s philosophy, mentioned earlier, is one of the worst culprits). The writer J. W. N. Sullivan understood this grim irony when he was in a Serbian hospital during the First World War: sickened by the stench of gangrene, he dreamt of regular life back in England. “If I were ever permitted to live again my ordinary life I would never, I reflected, commit the blasphemy of thinking it dull”. Wilson often illustrated this paradox by recalling a fairy tale about an old woman who lived in a vinegar bottle. A passing fairy, hearing the old woman’s complaints, turned the bottle into a small house. Returning later to hear the woman complaining again, the spirit turned into a large palace, but this, it later found out, was too big and draughty, it took too much effort to clean and so on. It was then transformed back into the vinegar bottle. “The old woman is at the mercy of the poor quality of her consciousness”, comments Wilson. “She is a symbol of Western man, blinkered like a horse by evolution, unaware that perception can be more than peering through a slit”. This narrowing of perception – which Wilson believes was to a certain extent voluntary – has of course served a good purpose in terms of evolution for we have the scientific method. However, the more we develop “this faculty of selecting and excluding” the further we retreat from what Whitehead described as ‘meaning-perception’. Husserl’s master Brentano had noted that all conscious acts are intentional or about something, but Husserl took it further. “Husserl recognised that it is intentional in a profounder sense, that the mind is perpetually engaged in what could be called ‘subconscious prehension’” says Wilson. This may appear to be “silent, apparently purposeless”, but careful phenomenological analysis will uncover the purpose behind it, our “intentional evolutionary structure”. Evolution is the opposite of ‘entropy’, or running down, the opposite of the ‘law of entropy in prehension’ (the indifference threshold). Husserl has shown that consciousness is not passive – this goes against everything we have become accustomed to with regards our conscious lives for a very long time. We take passive consciousness for granted and wait for a stimulus to drive us into action. But as phenomenology insists on separating the intention from the perceived object this is ‘naive’ or passive, not active or intentional.

8BB1124B-13D0-4C9D-92B2-0F95182D0799As Wilson has noted, consciousness without crisis tends to become negative. We appear to be mostly unable to appreciate things until they’re threatened or have disappeared completely. When they’re in front of us we regard them with indifference, boredom or they’re simply not noticed at all. His concept of the threshold illustrates the “curious inadequacy of human consciousness”, our very limited capacity for freedom – Nietzsche understood it as freedom ‘from’ (passive) rather than freedom  ‘for’ (active).

Wilson was fond of quoting a section from H. G. Wells’ Experiment In Autobiography where Wells describes “originative intellectual workers” or people who prefer the world of the mind to that of simply existing. “Yes, you earn a living, you support a family, you love and hate” says Wells, “but what do you do?” This, he says would have been an unusual question half a century ago. These workers – Gurdjieff called his philosophy ‘Work’ – are, Wells writes, “like amphibians, so to speak, struggling out of the waters that have hitherto covered our kind, into the air, seeking to breathe in a new fashion and emancipate ourselves from long accepted and long unquestioned necessities”. Wilson says that his ‘Outsiders’ were early amphibians. As Wells remarks however “the new land has not definitely emerged from the waters” and most nineteenth-century Romantic Outsiders drowned. Nietzsche had already glimpsed this metaphor. “Never has more been demanded of living creatures than when dry land emerged” he scribbled in his notebook in the mid 1800’s. “Habituated and adapted to life in the sea, they had to turn around and overturn their bodies and customs and act in every respect differently from what they had been used to before – there has never been a more remarkable change on earth. – Just as then, through collapses, through the earth slowly breaking apart, the sea sank into the ruptures, caves and troughs and gained depth, so (to continue the metaphor) what is happening today among men perhaps offers the exact counterpart: man’s becoming whole and rounded, a disappearance of the ruptures, caves and troughs, and consequently also – a disappearance of dry land. For a man made rounded and whole by my way of thinking, ‘everything is at sea’, the sea is everywhere: however, the sea itself has lost depth”. [6]

9DF19FE9-63F7-4E15-95BE-363183226255
H. G. Wells

Wilson’s Outsiders thought ordinary life in the ‘sea’ intolerable (“as for living, our servants can do that for us”) and craved to walk on this strange new continent, a ‘New Atlantis’. But their perceptions were as feeble as the flippers of the first land creatures. Without land-legs they had to return to the sea, against their will. The strengthening of intentional perception is therefore an exercise in evolution in Wells’ sense. Nietzsche’s comment that the sea is everywhere but lacks depth sums up this problem. “If man is really to evolve” wrote Wilson, “then he must develop depth, and power over his own depths”. This ‘power’ is no different from the ability to walk on land, physically speaking, but Nietzsche and Wilson have both been misunderstood by their critics who remain more or less settled in the foamy brine of the natural or naive attitude. Wilson notes that questions about ‘evolutionary intentionality’ can only be of interest to a very small minority of people. Truth be told, only a tiny fraction of that minority will ever seriously get around to practicing these phenomenological disciplines – academics who write about that subject spend most of their time debating terminology and wondering if Husserl’s epoché is even possible. With regard to this Wilson comments that “Whitehead writes: ‘Religion is what man does with his solitude’. In that sense of the word, the human race has never possessed more than five per cent of religious – or potentially religious – individuals”. (Outsiders are happy with solitude). This is perfectly reasonable historical logic, and as Wilson comments “not a disguised form of fascism”. When Sidney Campion writes that Wilson was described as a ‘filthy fascist beast’ by the poet Christopher Logue, it’s obvious that Logue was not understanding Wilson’s phenomenological position. Critics should be careful to not confuse intentional concepts with naive attitudes. The latter must be left behind (bracketed) in the phenomenological reduction or epoché. [7] An important definition of the term ‘Outsider’ was made by Wilson in the sixth volume in the series of books of that name. Although the term is vague in a social sense, “as a description of a state of consciousness definable by phenomenology, it is precise”. An Outsider wishes to leave the sea and walk on the land, phenomenologically speaking. The opening line in The Outsider itself is “At first sight, the Outsider is a social problem” but those first three words suggest the problem is deeper. The Outsider has an appetite for progress, Wilson later states, but “not primarily for social progress” [my italics]. Social progress is essential but it rarely addresses the frustrating paradoxes that Wilson concerned himself with. “Our ‘human condition’ (as we grasp it from the natural standpoint) is determined by the way we act and live, and consequently become known to ourselves” he writes in The New Existentialism. “But our actions are determined by our assumptions about their possibility of success. And our assumptions about their possibility of success are determined by our idea of the ‘human condition’ (as we grasp it according to the natural standpoint)”. This vicious circle has occasionally been interrupted by works of art, scientific Ideas and philosophies, but the impulse to break out of this self-defeating circle has been steadily diminishing in all those fields. Wilson named this problem the fallacy of insignificance in the third Outsider book, The Age of Defeat.

But all is not lost. In Beyond the Outsider Wilson writes that “if the human race ever develops it’s five per cent of human beings who are capable of an intuitive grasp of evolutionary intentionality, and a certain control of the ‘St Neot Margin’ [another term for the indifference threshold] by means of phenomenological disciplines, these beings will not experience the need for ‘subjective religion’ in Kierkegaard’s sense, since the need will already have been fulfilled on another level”. This is again in line with Blake’s attitude in works such as There Is No Natural Religion. Phenomenology – “the descriptive analysis of intentional structures” as Wilson has it – “must proceed until it becomes the descriptive analysis of evolutionary intentionality. This would be a fundamental step in the process that Nietzsche called ‘the revaluation of values’ – the changing of the direction of our pessimistically-orientated culture by reversing it’s fundamental premises”. This is implicit in Wells’ image of the amphibians. Reversal is also integral to Husserl’s method which aims to destroy the natural standpoint, Descartes’ passive spectator.

“One thing which fish know exactly nothing about is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to to perceive the element they live in” wrote media theorist Marshall McLuhan. [8] Our own daily environment is the natural or naive attitude, Nietzsche’s ‘sea’ which is losing depth, Wells’ ocean of “long accepted and long unquestioned necessities” (interrogating unquestioned presuppositions was the central drive of Nietzsche and Husserl’s philosophies, and of Wilson’s). Following on from such images Wilson compares the human condition to life in a fish tank. The glass is dirty and distorts the outside world, but occasionally we catch glimpses of that ‘world’ (attitude) and we see reality – strange, alien and above all, meaningful. Blake understood this environment as the ‘vegetable glass of nature’ or the ‘mundane shell’. Wilson pointed out that mystics tend to speak of two worlds when we should really be considering two attitudes towards reality – the natural (naive) and the phenomenological. “The problem” writes Wilson, “is the distorting medium, which Husserl labelled intentionality. The greatest achievement of existentialism has been to recognise that it is active human intentionality, not the ‘senses’, that is the distorting medium”. Again, Blake understood and anticipated this, especially in his short didactic works There Is No Natural Religion (both parts) and All Religions Are One, both etched a century before Nietzsche’s notebook musings. Becoming aware  that “the ‘world’ we naively take for granted is being seen through a distorting medium”, the glass of the tank (or the water of unquestioned habits in Wells’ image) is the first step towards what Wilson called the phenomenological quest, unveiling the secrets of the transcendental ego. Husserl insisted that until this ego is uncovered – once subconscious prejudices have been banished like demons from Faust’s circle – then and only then can philosophy finally begin.

0358E400-21DB-45D1-AABF-EBD325217CC5
Blake

Post Husserlian existentialists like Heidegger and Sartre concerned themselves with clearing away these distortions. Heidegger, inspired by Husserl’s lectures on time consciousness, emphasised that the problem is kinetic, not static – it is, as Fichte had noted, concerned with action (Wilson praised Fichte’s central insight that to be free is nothing, but to become free is heavenly). Sartre also emphasised action in his remarks that he had never felt so free as when he was part of the French Resistance and in danger of being shot by the Nazis at any time (the indifference threshold, again). “Sartre had stated, in less abstract terms”, says Wilson “what Husserl had already stated: that the first step in freedom lies in recognising the natural standpoint for what it is, a temporary convenience”. The destruction of this natural standpoint (naive attitude) must, Wilson says, be incorporated into everyday consciousness. This, Wilson states, is no more difficult than learning a new language which is a true enough statement. It began for me with the first Wilson book I read and had been ongoing ever since. There’s no doubt the the phenomenological method is “difficult to grasp” at first, but so is learning a language or driving a car. A rejection of (or initially, a certain cynicism towards) cultural pessimism is essential in starting this ‘revaluation of all values’. And unless the pessimistic attitude is finally abandoned, the switch from the naive to phenomenological attitude can never be truly thorough – Sartre’s misunderstanding of Husserl’s notion of intentionality bears this out. Husserl described conscious activity with the dynamic image of a ray or arrow of perception fired towards the object of attention; for Sartre, consciousness is sucked by the gravitational pull of objects – an ironic philosophical position to take after his observation of the empty headed cafe proprietor in Nausea. For his fellow existentialist Jaspers, “man encounters his true self only in the boundary situations of existence – death, suffering, guilt, sudden violence”. The same anti-intentional pessimistic fallacy can be seen in Heidegger and Camus – whose novel The Plague is back on the best seller lists these days – and even in writers like Hemingway. Genuine optimists, says Wilson, have either swallowed a large dose of pessimism early and then firmly rejected it, or were unable to afford the luxury of self-pity in the first place – Blake, Shaw and Wells are good examples. Wilson ticks both boxes as a working class provincial who ended his pessimism – rather than his life – by almost swallowing hydrocyanic acid aged sixteen. Spending the rest of his post-Outsider career in a remote part of rural Cornwall, Wilson had yet another handy metaphor for intentional consciousness. Commenting on Sartre’s narrator in Nausea who is struck by a wave of ‘absurdity’, Wilson writes that this is merely a drop in the ‘pressure’ (intentionality) of consciousness, likened to what happens to “the current supplied by the electricity board [when it] falls to a lower voltage” – as it often did in Wilson’s Cornish cottage during the winter. “It takes half an hour to boil a kettle” said Wilson of his fluctuating electricity current – phenomenology has itself been described as a current – and “the electric light becomes so dim that you begin to wonder if you need new glasses. The purpose of consciousness is to illuminate the objective world. When we are full of energy and optimism, everything looks fascinating; when we are tired, everything looks dull” – the kind of dullness that J. W. N. Sullivan looked back on as a “blasphemy” from his hospital bed. The philosopher Whitehead questioned this ‘dullness’ as a genuine perception when he spoke of Galileo’s bifurcation of nature (into primary and secondary qualities) as “a dull affair…merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly”. Whitehead also suggested that we often make gloomy perceptions into the futility of life when we are simply tired, when consciousness has dropped to a lower voltage. But intentionality takes many forms – we could go to bed exhausted and unfocused but would be fully alert if roused and told next door was on fire. To anyone skilled in phenomenology, this is not the simple stimulus-response action it seems. Sleepiness itself is intentional. According to Gurdjieff what we call normal consciousness (for Husserl, the naive attitude) is indeed ‘sleep’.

“Whenever we experience problems or serious crises” Wilson remarks “we grasp the central truth about human existence: that a life without serious problems is, in the most precise sense of the word, blessed”. Sullivan knew this in the Serbian hospital. Then why can’t we realise this all the time? Hemingway and Sartre launched themselves into action and commitment, but their solutions seem mostly unsatisfactory, much like traditional (or for that matter, non-traditional) religious solutions. ‘Yet it seems to me” Wilson continues “that the answer might be closer than we realise. It is necessary, first of all, to grasp that this is an evolutionary problem”. For this reason Wilson felt more affinity with Shaw or Bergson than with the proclamations of Eastern religions (for instance) which suggest that we are already God (remembering that Wilson was an avid reader of the Gita and practiced meditation in his younger years, and that Eastern philosophy is tackled in his first book). As Wilson noted, the intuitive grasp of  evolutionary intentionality will supplant lapsed religious cravings, at least for those keen enough to to focus on these problems very seriously – Wells’ intellectual workers desperate to leave the sea, those comfortable with solitude as per Whitehead and Wilson’s own Outsiders (if the term is properly understood).

“What distinguishes religion from speculative thought is that it is ‘lived by’; when the laws of evolutionary intentionality have been uncovered and brought to consciousness, they will also be ‘lived by’, continuously present to inspection”. So wrote Wilson in the aptly-titled Beyond The Outsider. Husserl began his lectures on time consciousness by suggesting we look into Augustine’s meditation on time in his Confessions (Book XI, chapters 14 – 28). Existentialism is “closely bound up with the problem of time” according to Wilson. Heidegger has shown that the problem is kinetic, not static, but as Wilson notes, Sartre “keeps appealing to the present as his standard of reality”. However, being stuck in the present can cause us to fall into a kind of hypnosis where we are at the mercy of triviality and negativity (it was the Gurdjieff Work which coined the term ‘negative’ in this sense). This is the ‘world without values’ or rather, an attitude without values. “Once we are stuck in negativity” writes Wilson, “it becomes one of our subconscious premises, and it is almost impossible to escape because it is, so to speak, lurking beneath the threshold”. The philosophy behind this Lovecraftian turn of phrase would bubble below the narrative of Wilson’s parodic novel The Mind Parasites. A science fiction romp set around about now, it anticipates the mood of the early twenty-first century with uncanny accuracy. Based on phenomenological conceptions from The New Existentialism via Blake’s symbol of the Spectre (or robot in Wilson’s terminology), it was anticipated in the discussions of the ‘vastations’ of William James (and his father) in The Outsider – “it attacks the mind, not the body”. [9] This is the ‘nature of the sickness of mankind in the mid-twentieth century’ and in the early twenty-first. The existentialism of the post-Husserl era – and this includes postmodernism – insisted that there are no transcendental values outside of our everyday consciousness and we should simply not bother looking for them, rather like the dreary logical positivism that Wilson was up against in the mid-fifties. Instead, amuse yourselves with commitment to causes or language games (or both, today). This overlooks the possibility that Wilson and his ‘new’ (phenomenological) existentialism grappled with: that there are specific states of consciousnesses which are neither everyday or transcendent but produce a definite sense of values – scores of these experiences are documented in The Outsider. If we analyse these properly the old dogmatic values of religion can be replaced with something more objective and ‘lived by’. Blake understood this when he wrote that sects of philosophy are adapted to the weaknesses of individuals from their (mis)understandings of the Poetic Genius. Nietzsche and Husserl made the same point.

“Evolution is simply the capacity to register meanings that are already there” wrote Wilson. But our limited perceptions limit our horizons; they inhibit our ability to see further. This is not so much ‘mysticism’ as simple observation made outside of the natural standpoint of everyday consciousness. This switch is initially difficult to grasp, much like the difference between the physics of Einstein were from Newton, “but the consequences of the change of viewpoint are as momentous in both cases. Phenomenology is a Copernican revolution in thought, whose full implications were hidden even from it’s founder Husserl”. Those willing to develop the phenomenological faculty can never again “mistake their own stagnation for the world’s” as Wilson put it in the Blake section of The Outsider. Blake escaped this narrow triviality by what he called imagination, but which Wilson referred to as ‘Faculty X’, his shorthand for the phenomenological faculty. We commonly think of perception as passive and imagination as active, with a sharp delineation between the two, but once we realise that perception is active this “old dichotomy” vanishes. [10] Faculty X is the knowledge of the reality of other times and places – J. W. N. Sullivan acutely understood it in his Serbian bed, but it took the First World War to make him realise it. This is the paradoxical nature of freedom with which Wilson’s philosophy is so concerned.

Notes.

[1] The ‘naive man’ in Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations, Volume Two, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970 p. 852. Husserl critiqued empiricism in the first volume (RKP, 1970, p. 114) by asking “what happens in hypnotic states, in delirium tremens, etc?” (cf Whitehead’s ‘experience drunk’, ‘’experience abnormal’ and so on) and protesting ideas about the “normal individual” and “normal mental constitution”. On p. 124  Husserl questions generalisations which relate to “merely normal individual minds, for how abnormal minds behave is something in which the everyday experience here adduced has nothing to tell us”. This is completely in line with Wilson’s Outsider thesis (in his debut, ‘bourgeois’ is Husserl’s ‘naive man’) Heidegger’s authentic and inauthentic, Riesman’s other and inner directed are similar concepts.

[2] Herbert Spiegelberg, The Phenomenological Movement, (second volume), Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1976, p. 396. It is noteworthy that Freud and Rudolf Steiner attended lectures by Brentano.

[3] Edmund Husserl, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, second book, Kluwer Academic Pub. 1989, p. 280. Husserl discusses murder as a “wrong act” in phenomenologically forensic terms on p. 277 and in a supplement to that section on pp. 342/3.

[4] Husserl ibid p.193.

[5] For ‘forgetfulness’, Husserl, ibid. p. 280. Section § 57 (ibid. pp. 259 – 263) analyses self-apperception or self perception – conceptually similar to self remembering in the Gurdjieff Work. Ouspensky notes a disagreement with a friend in his In Search of the Miraculous (RKP, 1950, p. 121) who stated that self remembering was merely an ‘apperception’ from Wundt’s Logic but Ouspensky believed that Wundt had “not seen the magnitude of the idea which was hidden behind his thoughts about different forms of perception”. For Husserl (Logical Investigations, ibid. pp. 187/8) Wundt and his book were guilty of psychologism. Spiegelberg (ibid. p. 92) notes that “even the great Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzig” failed to make an impression on Husserl in the mid-1880’s. For the body as organ of the will, Husserl, Ideas II, ibid. p. 159. For attitudes, ibid. p. 219 where Husserl speaks about “an uncomfortable difficulty” regarding the naturalistic (naive) world of science (“This naturalistically considered world is of course not the world”). This is the attitude he previously warned could turn into a rigid habit. In his Notebooks (cf [6] p. 15) Nietzsche criticised philosophical systems for their unconscious bias – “they have always trained up one of the mind’s forces in particular, with their one-sided demand that things be seen thus and not otherwise” – against multi-perceptive techniques such as perspectivism or later, phenomenology. Wilson’s book on charlatan messiahs, The Devil’s Party, gives many illustrations of ‘blinders’ ossifying into rigid habits (Yeats’ ‘mask of power’) with catastrophic results.

[6] Friedrich Nietzsche, Writings from the Late Notebooks, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 22

[7] Sidney R. Campion, The Sound Barrier: a study of the ideas of Colin Wilson [Colin Wilson Studies # 19], Paupers’ Press, 2011, p. 50. This sequel to Campion’s The World of Colin Wilson (Muller, 1962), was written in 1963 but remained unpublished until this century.

[8] Marshall McLuhan with Quentin Fiore, War and Peace in the Global Village, Bantam, 1968, p. 175. McLuhan later praised Husserl’s “new strategy for philosophy” for including analysis of “occult or psychic experiences” but dismissed Derrida’s “visual matching” of language. Marshall McLuhan, Laws of Media: the New Science, University of Toronto Press, 1988, pp. 60-62, p. 122

[9]  Colin Wilson, The Outsider, Gollancz, 1956, p. 148. H. P. Lovecraft, who once described himself as an “indifferentist” in one of his numerous letters, lived mostly below the indifference threshold (his best tales are driven by the concept of a threshold being crossed). One of his finest stories begins with the assertion that “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all it’s contents” – a statement which Husserl would have found rather naive (see his Crisis of European Sciences, § 48). I have dealt with Wilson’s pioneering treatment of Lovecraft and phenomenology in my The Lurker at the Indifference Threshold [Colin Wilson Studies # 28], Paupers’ Press, 2019

[10] Wilson on the “old dichotomy” between imagination and perception; The New Existentialism, Wildwood House, 1980, p. 108. See also: Husserl, Logical Investigations Vol. 1, ibid. p. 791, and: Edmund Husserl, On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (1893 – 1917), Kluwer Academic Pub., 1991, p. 300

Super Consciousness 2019

Super Consciousness: The Quest for the Peak Experience (Watkins, 2019)

Partly published in Japan in 2007, Super Consciousness first appeared in English under Watkins imprint two years later, near the end of Wilson’s writing career. This reprint, with it’s redesigned cover and larger format, has a new introduction by Wilson’s bibliographer Colin Stanley who alludes to an obituary which noted that Wilson’s legacy lies in the growing field of consciousness studies. The paradoxical limitations of ‘everyday’ existential consciousness – “the law of entropy in prehension” as he once philosophically put it – was indeed Wilson’s primary obsession from his debut and it runs through every other thing he wrote. Generally critics and interviewers did not share his single minded devotion towards this problem, or the problem (as he saw it) and sometimes even went out of their way to avoid talking about it. As the 21st century advances, the problem has become more and more acute, but an understanding of Wilson’s phenomenologically influenced philosophy can help combat it. A deep immersion in and careful practice of these disciplines can essentially thwart this “law of entropy” in consciousness, although the latter depends on the kind of commitment that the existentialists and their philosophical ancestor, the founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, demanded we live out.

“It has always seemed to me that Husserl is the greatest of modern thinkers” writes Wilson In Super Consciousness. There follows an excellent short analysis of Husserl; readers wishing to know more should turn to the recently reissued Introduction To The New Existentialism to find out why Wilson thought so highly of this very challenging philosopher. “But how can a person [benefit] from Husserl’s phenomenology?” Wilson quotes the philosopher Paul Ricoer, who is speaking about what Husserl called ‘bracketing’, the ability to train the perception to stand apart from our innate prejudices towards experience. Ricoer states that this bracketing helps rid consciousness of the naïveté it usually holds, a state which Husserl called the natural attitude, a fundamentally passive attitude which takes the world as-it-is (a ‘given’) for granted. Against this, Husserl’s ‘phenomenological attitude’ constantly questions and interrogates reality – in artistic terms, it is a brisk and active stroll around an object (Cubism) rather than a passive single viewpoint (Renaissance perspective, standing still). Phenomenological consciousness (essentially the ‘Super Consciousness’ of the book’s title) is like a kind of hand or appendage, a tactile and active investigation into reality. Flat, passive consciousness merely reflects it’s outer environment, dimly: ‘super consciousness’ can illuminate and essentially change the meaning of that supposedly ‘outer’ environment. Despite what hostile critics have written about Wilson, few if any have tackled the phenomenological foundations of his views on consciousness.

“But how?, the reader wants to ask. What is the trick of transforming ordinary perception into creative vision?” Wilson’s question sounds mystical but it is rooted in the most influential philosophical discipline of the past century, a philosophy which is noted for it’s rigorous scepticism. However, as Wilson explained in the early part of his career, religion and mysticism, when stripped of their local dogmas, essentially question what we perceive as ‘ordinary’ reality, thereby suggesting that ‘normal’ perception is at best partial. This, Wilson goes on to say in Super Consciousness, is the key to understanding the work of the most astute poets (“Read Shelley’s Ode To The West Wind, and you can feel the ‘phenomenological vision’”). Both Blake and Yeats criticised the partial mind and Rupert Brooke developed a technique of looking at ordinary objects or scenes and transforming them into an intense poetic vision rather like Van Gogh’s canvasses of sunflowers or corn fields. Wilson interprets this as a use of the phenomenological method of ‘intentionality’, the ability to grasp the reality of experience, rather than our usual dull and passive ‘reception’ of everyday events. Transforming this drab perception into an active phenomenological or poetic one requires a shift from the naive (natural) attitude to the intentional attitude – the attitude that “‘seeing’ was in itself a creative act”. A serious recognition and understanding of this intentional nature of perception is essential to this transformation – “what Ricoer meant by ‘the very seeing is discovered as a doing’”.

Wilson’s core philosophy is summarised in the twelfth chapter of Super Consciousness, itself modelled on a section of his Beyond The Outsider (1965; this book is currently out of print but the relevant chapter is reprinted in Watkins’ compendium The Ultimate Colin Wilson). Super Consciousness, he notes, is “constructed rather like one of those seminars I used to give in the 1960’s at the Esalen Institute”, the hub of the Human Potential Movement which counted the psychologist Abraham Maslow amongst it’s visitors. Maslow, a supporter of Wilson’s philosophical stance, made him aware of the ‘peak experience’, a bubbling state of joy in seemingly ordinary circumstances (Wilson had already described this experience in his debut, The Outsider, Hesse spoke of ‘Mozart and the stars’ in his novel Steppenwolf, for instance). Despite their mutual support – Maslow references Wilson in several of his works and Wilson eventually wrote a full length study on Maslow’s post-Freudian psychology – neither could agree on how the peak (here, also ‘flow’) experience occurred. For Maslow, they just happened randomly, for Wilson, they were products of intentional consciousness. “I disagreed with Maslow for a simple reason” writes Wilson in Super Consciousness. “I had noticed that if a crisis looms before us, then suddenly disappears, we are hurled into a state of happiness and optimism”. This is well documented in the ‘case histories’ presented throughout The Outsider and later in the series (the ‘Outsider Cycle’ 1956 – ‘66) and could easily be misunderstood as too much of a commonplace to be a subject for philosophy. Surely once a crisis is over we feel relieved and happy, and that’s all? Analysing this experience phenomenologically, Wilson thinks this is too simple – it is not, as we commonly imagine, the crisis itself which forces us into a peak experience, but the amount of intentionality we throw into this experience that causes the peak or flow. Our minds focus, grasp and hold reality, briefly, and then let go, but it is this intentionality which is responsible, not the arbitrary stimulus of a crisis. The peak experience is an awareness of what is already there, but we quickly forget due to our ingrained laziness and habit (Husserl had much to say about the latter). An Outsider like Dostoyevsky, reprieved in front of a firing squad, never forgot it.

The Romantics, Wilson believes, were the first mass type of this ‘Outsider’, wanting more life and more freedom but not sure how to achieve it. Too many, as discussed in his work (including here) suffered from addictions, depression and chose to commit suicide – Wilson calls this ‘The Ecclesiastes Effect’ in a chapter of that title. The young Wilson, no stranger to such bleak moods, read poetry to stave off what William James called ‘vastations’. Good poets, Wilson thinks, possess a faculty for tuning in to the reality of the ‘otherness’ of things. This is latent in almost everyone although at present it functions mostly on a level of sexual fantasy – eventually, he thinks, it will be developed to “bring the same intensity to all fantasy”, what he labels ‘Faculty X’ (originally, the ‘phenomenological faculty’). So Wilson dismisses the ‘sexual explosion’ of Romantics such as Rousseau and his descendants – Foucault’s works, for instance, are “a disguised polemic, arguing for a kind of Dionysian explosion of repressed impulses”. Wilson, a criminologist as much as a philosopher, understood too much about the psychology of sex crime to let such philosophical sleight of hand go unnoticed. “It is slightly alarming”, he writes, “to realise that many perfectly respectable philosophers have been saying the same kind of thing for the past two centuries”. This, thinks Wilson, is due to a philosophical misunderstanding of our own conscious lives, the idea that our minds respond only to painful stimuli such as crisis or become imaginatively creative via sexually charged fantasy (which ends up with the baleful result of sex crime, if taken to it’s illogical conclusion). What we need to do is understand how our minds interpret the world, shape and colour it’s meaning, and try to harness this power or faculty of ‘cosmic consciousness’.

This innate yet slumbering ability was given the term Faculty X as Wilson thought his way around such problems in the first fifteen or so years of his investigations. He would often discuss this as the problem of the ‘near and the far’, a romantic longing for the distant horizon obscured by frustration with the repetitive boredom of the everyday details of living. This motif is plentiful in Romantic literature –  “as for living, our servants can do that for us” is one of Wilson’s most used examples – and in Super Consciousness he writes at length about two obscure Romantics, Ludwig Tieck and Wilhelm Wackenroder. The chapter in which they appear (‘The Near And The Far’) is one of the most absorbing in the book and deserves close reading. We think of the near as familiar, obvious and trivial – the sixth chapter discusses this type of nihilism and it’s paradoxes – and the far as ineffable, distant, magical yet fundamentally unreachable. This is the pessimism of Beckett, Sartre, Camus and the existentialists, of Derrida and Foucault and the postmodernists. And as Wilson was at pains to point out, it is rooted in a fallacy which first became apparent with the Romantics who tried (and mostly failed) to bridge this yawning abyss between the near and the far, to develop the allusive Faculty X.

With the exception of the two final chapters (‘Philosophy’ and ‘Achieving Power Consciousness’) most of the other chapters and the postscript are short and punchy; a look into Proust’s moments bienheureux (moments of wellbeing) is a mere three pages long but crams a huge amount of information into such a tight space – Wilson had a rare talent of compressing diverse or seemingly contradictory theories into new hybrids. Proust’s famous Swann’s Way episode was one of the primary influences on Wilson’s Faculty X theory, for it was during this moment that Marcel had ceased to be mediocre, accidental or mortal and had remembered with full clarity the reality of other times and places – his childhood in this case. “It is typical of Beckett” writes Wilson, “that, in a slim book on Proust written in 1930, he treats the moments bienheureux as little more than an oddity of memory and habit”. And with typical neurotic thoroughness, Beckett goes on to offer “an abbreviated list of the 60-odd such experiences” though he seems to be, Wilson continues, more obsessed with “man’s slavery to time and to slow disintegration”, the opposite of Proust’s transformative moment. Proust had achieved what Wilson called a “strange double focus” of the near and the far, or Faculty X. Digging deep into Proust’s gargantuan text, Wilson takes note of Proust’s important observation that “we deliver on life a pessimistic judgement which we suppose to be accurate” and suggests that Proust might have well had Beckett and his fellow nihilists in mind when he wrote it. Beckett, preoccupied as he was by ‘the near’, which he interprets as trivial and the boring, was existing in a state of mono-consciousness. In his ‘moment’ Proust was experiencing duo-consciousness, the “strange double focus” of Faculty X. In the eighth chapter of Super Consciousness Wilson investigates this state (‘The Two Selves’) via psychology and split-brain research. Moving through the book, he reassesses these ideas historically (‘the romantic theory of evolution’ a feminine driven development inspired by the ending of Goethe’s Faust) taking in his later interests regarding esoteric archeology. Describing the slow decline of belief after Descartes, Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, Wilson argues that “it was at this point, when religion seemed to have reached it’s lowest ebb, that a new epoch began” – the Romantic era, exemplified by novels such as Richardson’s Pamela, Rousseau’s New Heloise and Goethe’s own explosive and controversial Sorrows of Young Werther. It would be this revolution which would lead to vast works such as Proust’s, which investigate the interior monologue of consciousness, and help to change it. Exiting the pious religious age and entering the Romantic state of inner examination, we “began the most interesting stage of [our] development so far”. Super Consciousness charts this development and points the way forward. Wilson’s philosophy, his ‘new’ or phenomenological existentialism was also known as ‘Romanticism Mark Three’ (the second, according to Wilson, was the existentialism of Heidegger, Sartre and Camus). Here he weaves many different strands from his previous works – his philosophy, ‘occultism’, criminology, literary criticism, bicameral brain theories, history, archeology and (auto)biography – into a seamless whole. No previous knowledge of any of this is needed, though it would be hoped that curious readers will delve deeper into these areas, and look further into the subjects and references Wilson discusses. One of Wilson best aspects was his tireless ability to peak interest in other unorthodox thinkers and present them in a fresh manner. Reviewers of the first edition of Super Consciousness had observed that Wilson was “one of the few thinkers who has stood out against the endemic pessimism and defeatism of our times, and the tendency to reject substance and meaning in favour of image and ephemera”. Wilson  had “clearly followed the key intellectual developments [since The Outsider in 1956] and has interesting observations to make on phenomenology” despite, the second reviewer notes, working outside of the academy – an intellectual luxury which enabled Wilson to avoid the academic trap of obsessing over minor details (the near) in favour of what the reviewer calls “‘big picture’ thinking”. Super Consciousness still presents a panoramic view of our infinite possibilities.

With thanks to Lydia at Watkins.

The Third International Colin Wilson Conference, July 2020

The Third International Colin Wilson Conference will be held in Nottingham on July 3, 4 and 5, 2020.

The event will take place in the George Room of the Mercure Hotel in Nottingham’s Lace Market district: https://www.mercurenottingham.com/

Here is the expected line-up for the three days:

Friday 3rd.

Colin Wilson & T C Lethbridge: a meeting of minds — Terry Welbourn

Colin Wilson’s Double Brain — Gary Lachman

Existential Realism and the discovery of John Cowper Powys — Chris Thomas

From Existentialism to Enlightenment: Wilson as a transpersonal psychologist — Steve Taylor

Seventeen songs that wouldn’t exist without Colin Wilson — David Power

The World and the Mind: Colin Wilson and consciousness theory in the 21st century — Geoff Ward

Life at Tetherdown — Damon Wilson

Saturday 4th

Dr. Crippen — Lindsay Siviter

Colin Wilson and murder — Dr Vaughan Rapatahana

Colin Wilson, Abraham Maslow and Peak-Experiences — Edward Hoffman Ph. D.

New Existentialism and Exceptional Human Experience — Nicolas Tredell

Sanity, Super Sanity, Madness and the Family — George C Poulos

Meaningful Time: Colin Wilson and Synchronicity — David Moore

Colin Wilson and J B Priestley: Brothers in Time — Anthony Peake

Sunday morning 5th

Colin Wilson and Ironfoot Jack, King of the Bohemians — Colin Stanley

Treasures from the Colin Wilson audio and video archive — Simon Brighton

The cost per full day is £35

(this includes lunch plus mid-morning and mid-afternoon refreshments)

Sunday morning is £15

but free to those who attend the previous two days

There will be just 70 places for delegates.

Please indicate whether you would like to attend (and on which days) by e-mailing:

wilsonconf3@hotmail.com

You will not be asked to commit fully nor pay for your place until January 2020

Looking forward to seeing you there!

Introduction To The New Existentialism – an appraisal

Wilson’s sharp philosophical handbook, a summation of his ‘Outsider’ series, is finally back in print. This is something to celebrate.

“I would like to think that I, the supposed reactionary, am far more radical and far more revolutionary than those who in their words proclaim themselves so radical today”. Edmund Husserl [1]

C4F58C3F-664B-4462-9518-3B1465B950F8
Buy the book here

Originally published in 1966, Introduction To The New Existentialism was the summary of a series of philosophical books which began a decade before with Wilson’s debut, The Outsider. The media flurry surrounding that first book, an examination of ‘life failure’ via portraits of various thinkers and artists, overshadowed the following volumes so much that The Outsider is still not generally understood as the first part of a developing series (of course, it hasn’t been out of print since it’s original publication – the proceeding volumes weren’t quite so lucky). The second and third books in the Outsider series, the undeservedly panned Religion and The Rebel (1957) and the unjustly ignored Age of Defeat (1959) have both recently been reissued by Aristeia Press; the remaining volumes, The Strength to Dream: Literature and the Imagination (1962), Origins of the Sexual Impulse (1963) and Beyond The Outsider (1965) are currently out of print. In those latter three volumes Wilson analyses, tentatively at first, the influential philosophical discipline known as phenomenology (‘the study of the structure of consciousness’) which was a primary influence on existentialism. Looking back on Introduction To The New Existentialism, Wilson commented that this densely packed but short work was “perhaps the best and clearest summary of my central ideas”. The first edition quickly went out of print and became a sought after hardcover rarity. Fourteen years later the publisher Wildwood House reprinted a paperback (with the truncated title The New Existentialism) after Wilson suggested a reprint. “If I have contributed anything to existentialism – or for that matter, to twentieth-century thought in general”, he wrote in a new preface, “here it is”. Now, at last, after another thirty-nine years of unavailability, here it is yet again.

Introducing the book, Wilson states that readers need not be aware of either existentialism or of his own interpretation of it throughout his previous ‘Outsider’ volumes, and indeed, one of the most important aspects of Introduction To The New Existentialism is it’s remarkably clear and concise treatment of such difficult subjects: phenomenology, existentialism and thinkers such as Husserl and Whitehead. One critique of Heidegger and Sartre that Wilson offers here is that their Investigations were “immobilised” by their stylistic compromises with academic philosophy. Kierkegaard, one of the grandparents of existentialism, lampooned the philosophy of Hegel by remarking that it was like trying to find your way around your home town via a tiny postage stamp sized map – it was too impersonal, too generalised. So although Heidegger does locate his philosophy in the everyday, “he makes very heavy weather of the business of communication”. Wilson made a point of writing for the average person as clearly, and more importantly, as compulsively as possible. Truth be told, it is not so much the obscurity of the prose of certain philosophers that bothers him – Heidegger’s mentor Edmund Husserl is hardly an easy read – his problem is with their underlying attitude towards existence.

The blurb on the back cover of the 1980 reprint said that the techniques of Wilson’s new existentialism “can bring back meaningfulness, and provide twentieth and twenty-first century man with a relevant and satisfying philosophy”. If there’s one thing that is in severely short supply in the nascent twenty-first century, it’s meaningfulness. “It seems to be generally accepted that existentialism is necessarily a philosophy of pessimism” wrote Wilson in 1966. “Anyone who opens any one of the books on the subject becomes immediately aware of a certain atmosphere of gloom”. Wilson asserts that the ‘old’ existentialism of Heidegger and Sartre “is as dead as the phlogiston theory of combustion or Hamilton’s quaternions”. This doesn’t mean that existentialism itself is dead, however: “only that in it’s Kierkegaard-Sartre form it has reached a point from which it can neither advance or retreat”. So with this problem in mind Wilson summarised the new, optimistic existentialism he had been developing from The Outsider onwards, now “based on the most rigorous phenomenological analysis” in the pages of Introduction To The New Existentialism. Wilson’s ideas had met with an enthusiastic response from audiences in America when he lectured there in the ‘60’s, but when he published his summary in 1966 Jacques Derrida presented his own interpretation of Husserl, language and literature which quickly became part of a new wave of fashionable post-existential practice later labelled ‘postmodern’.

Wilson had offered a potted history of philosophy in his Beyond The Outsider but for him it was the arrival of the modern novel in 1740 and the cultural explosion known as Romanticism that truly revolutionised human consciousness; he sees that blast of rebellion as the pivot on which our current endeavours revolve. According to Wilson, Romanticism – exemplified by Goethe’s Faust, Schiller’s Robbers and Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound – was a demand to know why we are not Godlike. “If the church was an imposture and the scriptures merely inspired poetry” he writes, “then the individual suddenly had a new freedom and a new dignity thrust upon him”. However, this burden was something of a shock and many romantics crashed and burned (c.f. Wilson’s The Outsider, Religion and the Rebel, etc.) and the era ended in ‘romantic defeat’, what Wilson calls the age of defeat in the book of that name. Wilson had previously suggested that although the nascent language of Romanticism – ‘rapture’, ‘ecstasy’, etc. – “lumbered to extinction” like the dinosaurs, it’s decadent attitude of gloomy defeatism was unconsciously carried on by the existentialists despite their greater linguistic precision. Later, he would say the same about that loosely defined group known as postmodernists – that although their use of words and ironic terminology was cutting, their basic philosophy remained gloomy and pessimistic. “I no longer had any reason to attune myself to the superior Life Force […] From now on I could do no more than await my total, undialectical death” lamented the practitioner of a “vague, casual, even cynical phenomenology”, Roland Barthes. [2] It must be stressed that phenomenology cannot be ‘vague’ as it relies on accurate description, it cannot be ‘casual’ as it is a rigorous discipline and it cannot be ‘cynical’ as it’s aim is to eradicate emotional prejudices from conscious activity. Now that postmodernism itself is long dead, it is Wilson’s interpretation of Husserl, language and values in Introduction To The New Existentialism that remains fresh and invigorating. This is an accessible and practical twenty-first century philosophy which avoids the culdesac of ‘meaninglessness’ which existentialist and post-existentialist thought often finds itself sleepwalking towards.

Existentialism failed, Wilson thinks, because none of it’s practitioners could agree that there are any values outside what we think of as our ordinary passive consciousness (for Derrida there was no ‘outside’ of a network of meaningless language signs). Yet Wilson was determined to prove that nodding in agreement to this kind of romantic fatalism was the very opposite of what existentialism was all about. Wilson labelled existentialism ‘old’ and ‘new’ to distinguish philosophical pessimism from optimism.

Introduction To The New Existentialism is in two sections – the first describes the historical problem (the old existentialism) and the second introduces Wilson’s outline of a solution (the new). Via brief portraits of seminal existential thinkers, Wilson questioned their commitment to the thought of “the father-figure of modern existentialism”, Edmund Husserl. A mathematician turned philosopher, Husserl “pointed out the simple mistake that that had kept philosophy at a standstill for two hundred years”. By introducing a method of radical doubt and scepticism into philosophy – “I think, therefore I am” – Descartes gave it a firm scientific discipline. What Descartes didn’t do, Husserl noted [Crisis § 18] was doubt his own presuppositions, his own “I”. Wilson compares the Cartesian method to a detective interrogating a room full of suspects; he questions everybody, making no assumptions about anyone’s innocence. What he doesn’t question is his own innocence – the method that Husserl introduced was, in Wilson’s words, the possibility that the detective himself could be the murderer. “Descartes had said that man cannot be certain of anything except his own consciousness, and that therefore philosophy should begin with a study of consciousness; but this was the very thing that Descartes neglected to do”. He made the naive mistake of presuming that consciousness is truthful because it is passive, reflective like a flat polished mirror. Husserl’s “new and disturbing” phenomenological method pictures consciousness as a distorting mirror, constantly warping perceptions before they even rise to consciousness. This does indeed sound disturbing, but it must be understood that this only means that consciousness is active and not a passive reflector – it is, in Husserl’s terminology, ‘intentional’ – our consciousnesses selects it’s perceptual objects from a vast choice, and our selections could depend on subconscious prejudices. So we can ‘flip’ the image below to see either the four leaved clover or the cross, but we cannot see both petals and cross simultaneously because perception is selective. 4514AC16-B6DD-4B2F-83B7-164B45002DF6This is what Husserl meant by intentionality (active choice, not a passive reflection). Perhaps a horticulturist would be prone to see the four leaved clover first and a soldier the Maltese Cross. Husserl was determined to demonstrate that Descartes’ flat, polished mirror was subject to distortions, and if we “wish to philosophise in a new way” (as Husserl put it) then we must study these distortions or prejudices first. Wilson’s ‘new’ existentialism is new in that it also wishes to philosophise in a new way, and so returns to Husserl’s methods. As one commentator on existentialism put it, “Husserl’s exacting science is easier to betray than to follow”, and Wilson demonstrates this point well in the first part of Introduction To The New Existentialism.

For Wilson, the most exciting thing about the phenomenological method was that it demonstrated that consciousness is active (“perception is intentional”, he would often say). For if consciousness is active, then we choose what to experience, or how to experience: we need not be at the mercy of external pressures, or our reactions to those externals, or to our moods, like a leaf blown around in a breeze. We choose. And choice is the basis of existentialism.

As the term ‘phenomenological existentialism’ was something of a mouthful, Wilson settled on ‘new’ existentialism although they are in fact interchangeable. The first of the ‘practical disciplines’ of the new existentialism, outlined later in the book, is a cultivation of constant awareness of the intentionality of all conscious acts. Husserl was also adamant that this must be practiced at all times [Crisis, § 40] and Wilson had previously stated in The Outsider that the existential Ideas in that book “must be lived”. So the first part of Introduction To The New Existentialism briefly asks just how committed the first generation of post-Husserlian existentialists actually were to this somewhat severe discipline.

Wilson once compared his own writing method to that of Karl Jaspers – by analysing the lives of philosophers, as Jaspers also did, philosophy can be seen in action, within real life. Wilson would apply his ‘existential literary criticism’ method to philosophers, writers, artists, even to fanatics and criminals (Jaspers first major work was entitled Psychopathology); Wilson’s method refuses to separate the life lived from the work developed – they are intwined. So despite being “the best representative of the modern existentialist tradition”, Jean-Paul Sartre was blighted by a temperament spoilt by gloom and pessimism. “He is the opposite of what Heidegger meant by a poet”, comments Wilson. By way of illustration, Wilson compares Sartre’s description of a lake (in his autobiography Words) as a “rippling swamp” to Wordsworth’s description of boating on a lake in the first book of The Prelude (“unknown modes of being” – a phrase worthy of Heidegger). Sartre’s habitual tendency to see everything as alien and suspicious crippled his ability to perform the phenomenological discipline of standing apart or putting away such distortions or interpretations, what Husserl had labelled as ‘bracketing’ or the suspension (epoché) of the ‘natural attitude’ (an attitude illustrated by Descartes’ acceptance of his passive consciousness). Husserl would speak of this as a “total transformation of attitude” for a new philosophy. The word ‘attitude’ is as important as ‘new’ in the new existentialism.

Although he turned “pale with emotion” when the phenomenological method was first described to him, Sartre quickly abandoned Husserl’s techniques. Sartre was doubtless more influenced by Husserl’s former pupil Martin Heidegger whose lumbering Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) probes ‘forgetfulness of existence’, our collective amnesia towards reality. Wilson points out that Heidegger’s critique of modernity and media echoes Pascal’s concern with our constant need for distraction (it is difficult to imagine what either would have made of the present ‘attention economy’). However, Heidegger went out of his way to avoid falling into the religious trap of Kierkegaard; “whatever happened, he would never give philosophers the chance to dismiss his ideas by declaring that they fell outside philosophy” writes Wilson. “Being and Time was a magnificent opening shot in his campaign: brilliant, erudite (strung with Greek quotations), strictly phenomenological in method, and with hardly a passing reference to religion”. Sein und Zeit was meant to be completed by further volumes but all editions remind the reader that these never actually appeared. Wilson compares Heidegger’s thought to a gigantic palace which was too costly to finish building. “We can understand phenomenology only by seizing on it as a possibility” writes Heidegger in Sein und Zeit [Introduction, II, 7c].. Influenced by Heidegger, Derrida would later state that Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology “is perhaps not possible”. [3] Wilson remarks that like Jaspers, Heidegger perhaps spent too much time on the problem and not enough on a practical solution, unlike Husserl.

29DE6BD4-A18B-4578-8AFB-2041138B2CCA
Martin Heidegger

Sartre, like Derrida after him, thought that Husserl’s notion of the ‘transcendental ego’ – the ‘self’ that intends all intentionality – was (Wilson comments) “a survival of romantic idealism, and a threat to the status of phenomenology as an academic philosophy”. But it must be stressed that Husserl’s transcendental ego, which Wilson symbolises as an ‘archer’ firing intentional arrows at objects and situations, is the starting point of this new, barely understood phenomenological philosophy rather than the throwback to ‘idealism’ that critics presume or presuppose. Philosophy can only begin when we are constantly in this meaningful state (Heidegger’s “possibility”) Until then, it will remain the rambling autobiography that Nietzsche described it. Nicholas Tredell points out in his preface to this new edition of Introduction To The New Existentialism that Wilson’s book “enables it’s readers to put it’s ideas into practice immediately”. No amount of academic paperwork is needed to perform these Husserlian operations, just an open minded understanding that the subject is your own consciousness and the gift is your own existential freedom. Wilson quotes a critic of existentialism who said that it “treats life in the manner of a thriller” (think Wilson’s image of the cogito as a detective and note how Husserl analysed it through a series of ‘Investigations’ in his first major work) but this is in fact what makes it accessible and dynamic. Wilson himself thinks existentialism has more in common with science fiction than with academic plodding. Philip K. Dick preferred to be known as a ‘fictionalising philosopher’ despite his apparent status as a SF hack churning out pulp for dime store weeklies, but he was right – his best work asks very probing questions about reality, time, empathy and consciousness, just like Husserl’s philosophy and indeed like Wilson’s similar faux-pulp fiction does. The plot of Wilson’s 1967 novel The Mind Parasites, which anticipates the current vogue for mutating H. P. Lovecraft’s Mythos with philosophy by decades, was drawn from a passage in Introduction To The New Existentialism. It imagines an invisible parasite – similar to the spectre in Blake’s illuminated poems – which blocks us from accessing our ‘source of power, meaning and purpose’ (i.e. the state referred to as the transcendental ego). This parasite or “mysterious agency” is merely a symbol for our narrowed consciousness – an “intentional safety device” – which is rather like those blinkers horses wear in traffic. As a species we have slowly learned to select only ‘relevant’ information but this selectivity has become so much of a habit (Husserl spoke of “habitual sedimentation”) that we often filter off far too much ‘other’ information. Recognising that consciousness is ‘blinkered’ and that we set these limits ourselves is one of the fundamental tenets of the new or phenomenological existentialism.

Husserl wanted philosophy to be a science, says Wilson. Science, knowledge of external nature, frees us from our old childhood prejudices yet it “promises something it cannot accomplish”. We can, like Goethe’s Faust, soak up gallons of knowledge and still feel “no wiser than before” (in Goethe’s words). Science appears to be a discipline beyond the ‘human, all too human’, what Bertrand Russell described in uncharacteristically Nietzschean – even Lovecraftian – language as the “vastness and fearful passionless force of non-human things”. But science essentially retains the Cartesian method and does not analyse presuppositions as Husserl demanded we constantly do (Nietzsche was also adept at analysing presuppositions). “And now it is possible to see the full significance of Husserl’s revolution” writes Wilson. “Science may appear to hurl man out of his world of provincialism and prejudice; but Husserl has shown that man’s prejudices go a great deal deeper than his intellect or his emotions”. Consciousness is prejudiced, selective (intentional). “I am born with habits of perception that have been slowly achieved over millions of years, and which science leaves untouched” he continues. Nietzsche remarked that their are no facts, only interpretations and this is now commonly misunderstood as a pre-echo of postmodern relativism. But Wilson, who once suggested that Nietzsche would have benefitted if he knew about the concept of intentionality [4] remarks in Introduction To The New Existentialism that the “whole point of intentionality means that it is not the ‘facts’ that matter so much as our interpretation of them”. Like Blake’s poetic statement about the cleansing of the doors of perception, phenomenology also understands that there is a real world ‘outside’ but our interpretations colour, filter and distort to such a degree that we take those distortions for the world itself. Sartre often makes this mistake, Wilson observes. “[The] delusions of passive consciousness make man particularly susceptible to pessimism” says Wilson. So in science fiction terms, we are continual prey for ‘mind parasites’ (Blake’s spectre) or our narrowed consciousness which tells us lies about reality. In Wilson’s novel these forces of negation stage a mass invasion during the romantic era. “To historians of the future”, he writes in Introduction To The New Existentialism, “it may well appear that the year 1800 is roughly the dividing line between the old and the new epoch”.

It is apparent from the first part of Introduction To The New Existentialism that there was indeed a difference of attitudes between Husserl and the thinkers he influenced: this can be verified by turning from Husserl’s own writings to those of Heidegger or Sartre (Wilson recommends as “elementary textbooks of ‘the new existentialism’”, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s The Phenomenology of Perception and The Structure of Behaviour). The first part of Wilson’s examination was merely “a clearing of the ground”, the second plots out the development of a new existentialism (“foundation work”). Wilson begins by remarking that Nietzsche is the ‘founder’ of this new philosophy – the full title of his seminal 1886 text is Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future – and perhaps in homage Wilson subtitled his own Beyond The Outsider ‘The Philosophy of the Future’. Husserl would also stress the radical ‘new’ nature of his phenomenological method and attitude. While both Sein und Zeit and Sartre’s Being and Nothingness are genuinely fascinating, they do retain the acrid whiff of decadent romantic gloom that we expect to find in existentialist handbooks. Wilson wishes to to return to the optimistic attitudes of early Romanticism and to the powerful techniques of Husserl, before they were – ironically enough – distorted by the subjective readings of later interpreters.

Wilson quotes William James – an influence on Husserl – who is himself quoting a patient who is attempting to describe a ‘mystical experience’ under ether. The patient laughed at the doctors’ rational interpretations “because he felt that they ‘believed they saw real things and they didn’t…I was where the causes were and to see them required no more mental ability than to recognise a colour as blue…’” He compares them to men in a boat, surrounded by a dense fog, watching a stone skipping over the waves – they cannot see the stone thrower due to the fog, so they presume that the stone is skipping of it’s own volition. It sounds absurd, but we make this mistake with our own perception on a daily basis. Heidegger and Sartre are like the men in the boat surrounded by fog – “there is nothing actually wrong with Sartre’s thinking, or with Heidegger’s” writes Wilson. “It simply does not go far enough”. It would be correct think of the ‘old’ existentialism as fogbound and the ‘new’ existentialism as not; Wilson began his debut by pointing out that the archetypal Outsider “sees too deep and too much”. In the sixth volume of the Outsider series, Wilson would describe an ‘outsider’ not as a social misfit, as commonly understood, but as a precise “description of a state of consciousness definable by phenomenology”, someone who understands that are meanings and values outside of ‘ordinary’ consciousness – a Blake, a Nietzsche. For Sartre and Derrida there was no outside.

10FF7D72-8CB9-4986-BB89-0F3427D7E6C4
Jean-Paul Sartre

Wilson notes how it is historically absurd that phenomenology predated Heidegger and Sartre. “It should have been discovered later; for it is, to some extent, a denial of the contingency they emphasise”. Simply put, the foundation of the new existentialism, it’s first practical discipline, is to realise that perception is intentional. Actually ‘realising’ this seemingly simple point requires effort or intention – as Wilson and Husserl stress, this must be lived, it must be real. When he was previously briefing us on the old existentialism, Wilson remarked that Heidegger’s central insight was that we “live in a meaningless world because [we] find it so difficult to mean anything”. G. K. Chesterton, whose first book appeared in the same year as the first volume of Husserl’s Logical Investigations, pointed out that we say the earth is round although we don’t mean it – even though it’s true. This is Heidegger’s ‘forgetfulness of existence’, an inability to realise anything much, except during danger (or the inevitable march toward death, in Heidegger’s own philosophy). Before he tasted the cake in Swann’s Way, Proust could have easily remarked that he was a child in Combray and not meant it. Yet after the ‘madeleine’ episode he did mean it: the fog has lifted. Wilson describes one of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories (The Invisible Man) in which a murderer manages to escape from a house without being noticed despite the house being under observation. He was dressed as the postman “and no one has noticed him  because a postman is not thought of as a man; he is merely a symbol of a social service”. Phenomenology states that we do not immediately experience reality – Heidegger’s central theme – but instead our senses write down a kind of familiar shorthand or a formula of things that surround us (Husserl’s maxim was ‘back to the things themselves’). In order to notice something we must “give it significance” with our vision. In order to realise or mean something we really must understand it – Gnosis rather than mere ‘knowledge’. [5] It depends on the amount of intentionality we throw into perception, on how far we pull back the bowstring for the arrow to hit it’s target; how much force we use.

In part two of Introduction To The New Existentialism Wilson recommends studying Proust’s huge novel as it is “a kind of fictional counterpart of Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit”. He draws attention to a particular scene in the second volume which is set during a train journey. The narrator laments our habit of forgetting the unique individual beauty of things, “mentally substituting for them a conventional type at which we arrive by striking a sort of mean […] And we deliver on life a pessimistic judgement which we suppose to be accurate…” Which is of course Wilson’s point. “As a rule it is with our being reduced to a minimum that we live; most of our faculties lie dormant because they can rely upon Habit…” Wilson would concentrate on a dormant faculty (the phenomenological faculty, later shortened to ‘Faculty X’) and how habits blunt our awareness of it throughout his writing career.

Proust then describes another moment of realisation like the incident in Swann’s Way: his sedentary habits have been interrupted “and all my faculties came hurrying to take their place”. He then wonders if it is merely the change of scenery which is driving this moment (in a passage worthy of the later Husserl, he writes “it gave another tonality to all that I saw, introduced me as an actor upon the stage of an unknown and infinitely more interesting universe”) but wisely decides against attempting to relive this moment by taking the same train to the same station (the train was stationary) and “providing food for the selfish, active, practical, mechanical, indolent, centrifugal tendency which is that of the human mind”. Here we can easily see what Wilson meant when he remarked that certain sections of Proust’s novel “have a psychological penetration comparable to Heidegger”. It is intriguing that Proust uses the phrase “reduced to a minimum” as this is also used by Heidegger in Sein und Zeit (Division Two, 1.§ 50) when speaking of impending death. According to Heidegger it is only the awareness of this crisis which can induce ‘authenticity’ (Wilson often compared this to Gurdjieff’s genuinely ‘woke’ concept of an implanted organ which counts down to the exact second of our demise). Sartre once said that he had never felt so free as when he was a member of the Resistance during World War Two: the prospect of imminent assassination kept his mind sharp, or so he thought. His contemporary Camus held similar ideas.

However, one of the key concepts in Wilson’s new existentialism is something he called the ‘indifference threshold’ – a kind of margin in consciousness which can be stimulated by crisis but not by simple pleasures: it can be seen in operation in many scenes throughout Proust’s novel and is obviously related to Heidegger’s idea of authenticity in the face of death. In his New Pathways In Psychology (1971) Wilson states that consciousness without crisis has a tendency towards negativity. Heidegger speaks of “pallid lack of mood – indifference – which is addicted to nothing and has no urge for anything, and which abandons itself to whatever the day may bring” [Sein und Zeit, Division Two, IV, (b)]. But Proust, during the famous madeleine scene in Swann’s Way, writes that the “vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me”. The indifference threshold is a paradox; we shouldn’t need to be forced to briefly become ‘authentic’ by inconvenience, crisis or mortal danger unless we take it as a given that we are victims of external circumstance – the opposite of Husserl’s intentionality. With this important concept understood, we can see why it was absurd that phenomenology was followed by the contingency driven ideas of Heidegger, Sartre (and later, Derrida, Barthes, etc.) who all ramble away from the intentionality which Husserl insisted was of in need of urgent and serious investigation.

The indifference threshold is the habit of ‘excluding’ which Proust discussed in the passage from his second volume of In Search of Lost Time quoted above. Obviously it is related to the intentionality of consciousness, the ability to select or choose – an ability we constantly forget, or more commonly, do not realise we possess. Remembering and forgetting link both Proust and Heidegger; realising the ‘things themselves’ (Husserl) or meaning what we say (Chesterton, Proust) cannot be lived without understanding the intentional nature of everyday perception and constantly applying the science of phenomenology to it. As noted in the new introduction to Wilson’s book, it “enables it’s readers to put it’s ideas into practice immediately”, a practice which Husserl suggested we “resolve to take up once and for all”. [Crisis § 40]

Wilson writes that the new existentialism “is founded in a dual recognition: (a) that ‘ordinary’ human consciousness is restricted, and (b) that restriction is, in a certain sense, voluntary”. It is this chosen restriction which gives rise to the paradox of the indifference threshold, the delusion of a passive consciousness which we believe can only be stimulated by crisis (the first part of Introduction To The New Existentialism is entitled The Crisis In Modern Thought; the word ‘crisis’ appears in the titles of several important late Husserl essays and texts). “Man is never so deeply aware of his freedom as when he is in chains” writes Wilson. Rousseau stated that man is free but everywhere in chains, but both Blake and Nietzsche understood that freedom is rather more paradoxical than simply throwing off physical shackles – Blake’s “mind forg’d manacles” (Wilson’s ‘mind parasites’j are far more oppressive than any linked ironwork; Nietzsche made his Zarathustra remark that freedom from is nothing compared to freedom for; the philosopher Fichte remarked that ‘to be free is nothing; to become free is heavenly’. Freedom “is a far more complex matter than Rousseau ever realised” continues Wilson. He thinks that the ‘excluding faculty’ is an inherence from our earliest humanity (he also makes this point in his A Criminal History of Mankind, 1984). “Man has evolved to his present position by his capacity to narrow his attention, to ‘exclude’ whatever has nothing to do with the business in hand” (the latter three words should be borne in mind when reading Heidegger on the ‘ready-to-hand’ in Sein und Zeit). “This excluding has become a habit, so when he ceases to strive, he becomes bored”. And of course, boredom was one of the primary existential dilemmas first noted by Kierkegaard in the 1800’s (see Wilson’s The Mind Parasites, again). 

Sartre observed an excellent image for this problem in his novel Nausea – he describes a cafe waiter with the words “when his establishment empties, his head empties too”. The truly free human, Wilson noted elsewhere, would be powered by a strong, purposeful interior drive. Although Nietzsche was unaware of the concept of intentionality, his ‘will to power’ is not too far away,. At the present, however, we are all in the position of Sartre’s waiter, more or less pushed around by external factors despite there being no real need to be if we understand existentialism correctly. The problem, Wilson notes, can also be observed as a biological one. “As H.G. Wells says, from the beginning of time, animals have been ‘up against it’”. To survive, they had to narrow their attention and remain alert, as humans habitually still do. “The biological approach”, explains Wilson, “enables us to see the problem with a new clarity”. Wells thought present day humans were in the same position as the first creatures who left the water to live on the land – amphibians who “hated the sea”. Sartre’s waiter is still a sea creature dependent on external stimuli. In Introduction To The New Existentialism Wilson discusses the ‘black room’ experiments at Princeton; these demonstrate just how much we are still dependant on external stimuli, but anyone with even a basic understanding of intentionality knows that we need not totally be. The investigators at Princeton set out to study sensory deprivation – Wilson writes that workers with monotonous jobs such as long distance lorry drivers or radar workers would often experience delusions of phantom hitch-hikers or non existent radar pips (many of these are documented in paranormal and UFO literature). Subjects were placed in a completely dark room with basic physical amenities but no ‘distractions’ – generally three days seclusion was the most any subjects could bear (Wilson also wrote a novel based on this practice). It was previously noted how Heidegger echoed Pascal on our perpetual need for distractions. But the important thing about the black room, Wilson suggests, is that it makes us aware of our enormous powers, blotted out by ‘ordinary’ (i.e. voluntarily restricted) consciousness. In the black room, colds disappeared more quickly than usual, ivy poisoning cleared up in a few days and chain smokers did not crave their habit inside the room. So Wilson wonders if intentionality, fully focused in curing a common cold, could indeed cure it. Certainly this “biological approach” can help us see the problem (habits, a consciousness dependent on novelty or stimuli) and a solution (intentionality) in action. Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, thinking about the possibility of imminent execution, realised that he would rather stand on a dark narrow ledge for eternity than die at once. He has become aware of the value of his existence – the “‘indifference threshold’ has been totally destroyed” writes Wilson; “consequently, sensory deprivation ceases to trouble him”.

31D3F0DE-B1D5-4F29-8432-77AB89E7D2F3
Colin Wilson

The word ‘values’, Wilson remarks, “lands us at the heart of the problem of the method of the new existentialism”; in his debut he wrote of a ‘world without values’. Nietzsche was concerned with the ‘re-evaluation of all values’, with self-affirmation and overcoming. Our values – what we regard as worth doing or not worth doing – “are the most intimate response to our conscious perception of existence” writes Wilson. If our ‘ordinary’ consciousness is indeed limited, then our knowledge of the value of existence is also limited or partial – we cannot make sweeping judgements on ‘life’ until we know the full facts. And although Wilson began his book by defining existentialism as a philosophy which asks questions usually thought of as religious – freedom, the meaning of human existence, etc. – he later states that it would be wrong to describe the new existentialism as merely resting on the notion that consciousness tells us lies but no matter, there is a ‘beyond’, another world and so on. “There is no ‘other world’; the ‘ranges of distant fact’ belong essentially to this world. If anything is an illusion, it is our present mode of consciousness; or rather, it’s content”. Wilson stresses that the epiphanies (Maslow’s ‘peak experiences’) of Wordsworth, Proust, William James and Arthur Koestler (in prison, possibly due to face a firing squad, just like Raskolnikov) all appear to have an certain – if not identical – objective meaning content, a stark realisation of the value of life. The obvious explanation would be that this is merely due to danger or death (Heidegger, Sartre in the Resistance) even though only Koestler was in any such predicament. While it is lazily convenient to continue to believe that we are totally controlled by external stimuli, no one who has grasped Husserl’s change of attitude can merely accept it. The ‘phenomenological quest’ is certainly a difficult path; after all, Husserl’s techniques are up against millions of years of sedimented habits. However, even a basic recognition of the idea and the change of attitude which comes with it is enough to start. All religions and mystical schools set out to break habits and habitual thought. However, Wilson comments that the phenomenological quest can “give man the possibility of ‘mystical’ experience without the need for specifically Christian or yogic disciplines”. Perhaps this is why, in The Outsider, he referred to Gurdjieff’s system as the “ultimate Existenzphilosophie”. Gurdjieff’s ‘Fourth Way’ dispenses with traditional yogic and mystical techniques in favour of a self-observational practice located squarely in real life. The radical self awareness that Gurdjieff and his pupils strived for is not that different to Husserl’s – the practice of ‘self-remembering’ has been compared to the ‘apperception’ of the early psychologist and Husserl’s old lecturer Wundt [6] – although neither Ouspensky or Husserl [Logical Investigations, Prolegomena Ch. 8, §49; Ideas, Second Book § 57] think that Wundt truly grasped the specific state of awareness (self-remembering, the transcendental ego) they were describing.

In the important fourth chapter of the second part, Wilson analyses both language and values, suggesting that one “rather pedestrian task” of the new existentialism involves hoisting a scaffolding of language into these foggy realms. Phenomenology depends on the sharp description of subjective states [Husserl, Ideas, First Book § 75] rather like a cartographer mapping out an obscure continent. So to speak vaguely of two worlds, as religion is prone to do, is not entirely accurate: those descriptions are rather like the Mappa mundi from the medieval period. “The difference between the religious standpoint and the ‘natural standpoint’ [Husserl’s term for ‘ordinary’ consciousness] is the difference between the ‘external values system’ of the new existentialism and the ‘total contingency’ of the old” (by ‘external values system’ he means an objective criteria outside the whims of subjective distortions, i.e. ‘meaning content’). Wilson remarks that Heidegger and Sartre are mistaken to think that authenticity towards death or danger is a kind of flash of mystical insight which cannot be carried over into our everyday life. Like William James, Wilson thinks that these epiphanies are actually a “glimpse of a consciousness of purpose” via a change in the threshold of so-called ordinary consciousness (the natural standpoint). For Wilson, like Husserl before him, consciousness is ‘relational’, perceiving parts and wholes. [Logical Investigations VI § 48] “All perceiving and imagining is, on our view, a web of partial intentions, fused together in unity of a single total intention.” [ibid. VI § 10] Wilson often spoke of consciousness having a web like structure, and if the naive or natural standpoint is like perspectival painting, then the new phenomenological perception is more Cubism, with the perceiver wandering around the object. Nietzsche’s confusingly named ‘perspectivism’ is actually closer to the latter than the former, a swooping, shifting viewpoint (“there are no facts, only interpretations”).

Wilson is correct to imagine how Nietzsche would have benefited from exposure to the concept of intentionality. Because the “whole point of intentionality means that it is not the ‘facts’ that matter so much as our interpretation of them”, the same phenomena can be described by the old existentialism as a flash of absurdity or as a “glimpse of a consciousness of purpose” by the new. It is a question of temperament; Sartre’s lake or Wordsworth’s. In Sein und Zeit (Division One, V. 29) Heidegger discusses moods (“we are never free of moods”). In Introduction To The New Existentialism Wilson notes that while we do experience life as a series of moods, these ‘moods’ are actually “intentional value judgements” – interpretations according to our own values. In religious eras we had faith to navigate these moods but in the present humanistic age, says Wilson, we appear to be at the mercy of them. In moods of pessimism, life is sinister (Sartre’s ‘rippling swamp’) but in moods of elation we can experience Wordsworth’s ‘unknown modes of being’ while looking at the same phenomena – a lake. Yet we either forget or simply fail to realise that it is ourselves who are interpreting this phenomena. What we require, Wilson continues, is an objective standard. The new existentialism “consists of a phenomenological examination of consciousness, with the emphasis on the problem of what constitutes human values”. And because moods of optimism are rarer than moods of depression or life-devaluation (negative values) it is “the phenomenology of life-devaluation [which] constitutes the most valuable field of study” (cf Wilson’s The Outsider, his true crime books). In a negative sense, clear investigation of these states can be as rewarding as studying affirmative epiphanies or peaks. The fascinating work of Alfred North Whitehead is, alongside Husserl and his derivatives, one of the main foundations of the new existentialism and I would also strongly recommenced Wilson’s book for his analysis of Whitehead. Whitehead’s assertion that “nothing can be omitted” from conscious experience [7] helps us understand why Wilson wrote about seemingly unrelated topics (his “existential jigsaw puzzle”).

It should not be misunderstood that Husserl’s phenomenological method is solipsistic – he never denied that there is a real world out there – so although we see the world through various shifting moods which Wilson compares to a pair of coloured Kantian spectacles, he remarks that it is “quite ‘other’ than we see it; it is ‘out there’, independent, indifferent to our moods”. But consciousness, being selective, filters off most of this ‘otherness’ and reduces everything to a “kind of mean” as Proust says. 

Here, in Introduction To The New Existentialism Wilson notes how Husserl’s method of descriptive analysis of consciousness, free of subjective distortions, eliminates those false (passive) ideas about ourselves, much like science attempts to do. And so Husserl suggested  (Wilson continues) “that as man loses all the false ideas about himself and the world through scientific analysis, and as he comes to recognise that he himself is responsible for so much that he assumed to be ‘objective’, he will come to recognise his true self, presiding over perception and all other acts of living. This idea seems common-sensible enough, and our intuitions about ourselves seem to support it”. As Wilson said in a previous ‘Outsider’ volume, these experimental methods can be verified be by anyone who wishes to go to the trouble, they must be lived. Husserl used the term ‘Abbau’ (‘unbuilding’, a precursor to Heidegger’s ‘Destruktion’ and Derrida’s deconstruction) to refer to this kind of dismantling of layers of prejudice. As Wilson notes in his book, a child might be overawed by a city but a civil engineer knows it can be dismantled and rebuilt. It is much the same with our everyday consciousness (one of Wilson’s chapter headings here – Everyday Consciousness Is A Liar – became a useful maxim of his). Gurdjieff thought of his own system as a kind of engineering on the human ‘machine’ and on consciousness, but we could also think of our phenomenological layers in the sense of an archeological dig. Wilson has spoken of the accrued build up of habits in our ‘life world’ (Husserl’s term) from driving a car to learning a foreign language on the uppermost layers to further down, our sexual intentions (see Wilson’s Origins of the Sexual Impulse) and below into the occluded depths (cf Wilson’s The Occult). If we develop skill in phenomenologically descriptive analysis, Wilson thinks, we can bring these layers up to conscious awareness for investigation. One of Wilson’s most brilliant observations was that what we think of as ‘mechanical’ responses aren’t mechanical at all – they are willed intentions which have slowly become automated; anyone who has learned to drive or speak another language can quite easily understand that point. Wilson annotated his personal copy of Introduction To The New Existentialism and a leaflet of these annotations was privately published in 1995. In a typed epilogue, fully reproduced in the pamphlet, Wilson states that the “main point about this book” is that we are unaware of these deeper intentional layers. “We have taken a million years to develop to the present stage, and we have done this because of our ability to turn conscious intentions into habits”. But we remain unaware that ‘perception is intentional’, i.e. a matter of will or effort. “So the secret of life is that there are great unknown layers of will and effort below the conscious level” – these are hidden or occluded (again, see Wilson’s The Occult). We develop intentions, Wilson says, as we get a ‘taste’ for something like an unusual dish, or for that matter, philosophy. But, he stresses, “the original act is intentional, without any help from the object”. [8] So just as there is no need for the head of Sartre’s waiter to empty as his cafe does, there is no need for us to presume that we are totally controlled by external circumstances, as we continue to do. Post Husserlian philosophers maintained that we are controlled by moods, by ‘terror’ or by the ambiguity of language and failed to grasp Husserl’s radically optimistic, phenomenological existentialism. Wilson comments that even Nietzsche, “who announced the advent of this new optimism” did not clearly recognise the inevitability of this optimism. Husserl speaks about the “thoroughgoing meaningfulness” of philosophy “which unifies the whole movement” with a “unity of purpose” [Crisis § 14].

Wilson’s new existentialism remains a highly relevant philosophy for the present era and Introduction To The New Existentialism still sums it up beautifully. It is a tonic challenge to the atmosphere of ‘meaninglessness’ in the early twenty-first century, an attitude generated by various philosophical misunderstandings of Husserl’s basic point (‘old’ existentialism, postmodernism). With effort and imagination, we can free ourselves from our ‘natural attitude’ into something truly radical and exciting. The word ‘imagination’ may seem out of place in a handbook on a ‘science of consciousness’ but as Wilson notes, a major point about phenomenology “is that there is no sharp dividing line between perception and imagination” [cf Husserl, Logical Investigations, Investigation VI, §36; §47]. “The dividing line only applies when we think of perception as passive and imagination as active” continues Wilson. “As soon as we realise that perception is active, the old dichotomy vanishes”. A quarter of a century later, Wilson wrote that “I am inclined to believe that man is on the brink of a new ‘evolutionary leap’, and that it will come about through the deliberate investigation and control of the power of imagination. This may not seem to offer much comfort in our crime-ridden world. But I nevertheless suspect it will prove to be the answer.” [9] Existentialism, far from being dead, is very much alive in Wilson’s ‘new’ interpretation. With it’s roots in the phenomenological disciplines of Husserl, it is actually a living, pulsating philosophical method available to anyone who wishes to see reality anew, to ditch tired old attitudes and embrace a creative meaningfulness. That radical revolutionary Husserl said that we should seize the idea “of a resolve of the will to shape one’s own personal life into the synthetic unity of a life of universal self-responsibility and, correlatively, to shape oneself into the true ‘I’ the free, autonomous ‘I’ which seeks to realise his innate reason, the striving to be true to himself…” [10]

In 1980 Wilson said that Introduction To The New Existentialism was his best book (“I am willing to stand or fall by it”). He would later suggest that the final part of his ‘occult trilogy’ (Beyond The Occult, 1988) was his most important non-fiction work as it united his new existentialism with his interest in the ‘paranormal’ (i.e. occluded deep layers of willed intentions). While that book is an excellent read and does indeed unite these two currents, I would strongly suggest reading Introduction To The New Existentialism first; Wilson’s diverse interests cannot be really understood without a grounding in his new existentialist practices (and if you’re really serious, a study of the phenomenological texts Wilson suggests). I would in fact recommend this book over his most famous work, The Outsider. It is excellent that this important text is finally back in print. [11]

Notes.

[1] Husserl, ‘The Vienna Lecture’ (May 1935) in The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Northwestern University Press, 1970, p. 290. NB: works in square brackets eg ‘[Crisis § 14]’ throughout this essay are suggestions for the budding phenomenologist to look up these ideas in Husserl or Heidegger texts themselves.

[2] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Flamingo, 1984, p. 72. His free interpretation of Husserl’s science of consciousness is on page 20.

[3] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, John Hopkins University Press, 1997, p. 67

[4] Husserl’s teacher Brentano published a book in 1874 which analyses ‘intentionality’ and Wilson imagines how Nietzsche might have benefitted if he read it. Wilson, Dual Value Response (originally 1972) reprinted in The Bicameral Critic, Salem House, 1985, p.102.

[5] Chesterton’s story is referenced by Aleister Crowley in a small manual on yogic techniques (originally 1911) in a chapter concerning ‘Dhyana’ (‘union with God’, theologically); certainly a very illuminating read in the light of Wilson’s new existentialism and vice-versa. Chesterton is merely referred to as “someone or other” as he had been involved in one of the self styled Great Beast’s endlessly petty feuds. See Crowley, Magick, RKP, 1973, p. 30

[6] P.D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching, RKP, 1950, p. 121. Also ibid. p. 107 (“sensations can be indifferent”) and Husserl, ‘Investigation VI’, Logical Investigations (volume II), RKP, 1970, p. 761 and ‘Sense and Understanding’ p. 773 infra

[7] A.N. Whitehead, Adventures In Ideas, Cambridge University Press, 1933, p. 290. Whitehead’s long list is quoted and discussed in many of Wilson’s books.

[8] Colin Wilson, Introduction To The New Existentialism: The Author’s Emendations, Maurice Bassett, Virginia, 1995, p. 5. See also: “Experiences of meaning are classifiable as ‘acts’, and the meaningful element in each such single act must be sought in the act-experience, and not in it’s object; it must lie in that element which makes the act an ‘intentional’ experience, one ‘directed’ to objects”. Edmund Husserl, ‘Investigation V’ in Logical Investigations, ibid. p. 533

[9] Sex, Crime and theOccult’ in Rapid Eye, R.E. Publishing, 1989, p. 118

[10] Edmund Husserl, Philosophy as Mankind’s SelfReflection; the SelfRealisation of Reason, Appendix IV In The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, ibid. p. 338

[11] Not once, but twice! Routledge have coincidentally also just reprinted this book as a ‘library edition’ – designed to be bought by university libraries. A nice thought that one of Wilson’s best books is now ‘academically respectable’ of course, but at £80, you would be financially much better off buying this Aristeia Press reissue (just under £12, and about half that for the kindle version) and putting money into a publisher concerned with bringing important Wilson titles back into print.

Evolutionary Metaphors by David J. Moore: 21st Century New Existentialism

F857D655-07ED-4C76-AA02-A477AC3557B7
Buy this book


“The new existentialism and the UFO are not as far apart from each other as one might think”, writes David J. Moore in his debut book Evolutionary Metaphors. Moore, who has previously published pieces in several scholarly collections investigating the deep end of Wilson’s work and legacy [1] is a researcher who encountered Wilson’s existential thought at a young age and who describes a UFO experience first hand in these pages. He is then the ideal person to investigate such a connection, and if Wilson were alive in 2019 he would have doubtless written an introduction to this book – the ultimate stamp of approval.

Wilson’s influence is keenly felt here: plain autobiographical detail merges with the outlandish and fantastic subject matter, and the writing is clear and compulsive. In February 2008 the then 22 year old author, who was “mainly interested in existentialist literature of the pessimistic variety—writers such as Michel Houllebecq and the Romanian arch-pessimist, Emil Cioran”, shared an odd collective experience with three other people. They witnessed “a silent, apparently amorphous and changing series of lights” 30 feet above their heads. At least that’s what they think they saw – apart from personal memory and subjective interpretation, there “was the added problem of its inherent difficulty to simply describe; it was frankly too unusual and unlikely to convey”. However, all were convinced that what they saw was something ‘other’. Working out his new existentialist ideas in the early sixties through the ‘Outsider Cycle’ books, Colin Wilson noted in one volume that our minds have a tendency to filter out most ‘otherness’, leaving the world looking quite poker faced and seemingly indifferent to us. Wilson’s new existentialist method attempted to look into the mechanisms of this passive state and involved investigating unusual types of perception and phenomena.

Familiar with Wilson’s work, particularly The Outsider, Moore sought out Alien Dawn, Wilson’s concise 1998 study of the bewildering UFO phenomenon and it’s vast attendant literature. “Wilson’s approach to ufology” writes Moore, “retained this evolutionary spirit, for he asked the essential question: ‘What can it tell us about ourselves, our consciousness?’- a question informed by the philosophical discipline of phenomenology, which aims to reveal the mechanisms of man’s psyche, and its dynamic and interpretative role through man and towards reality”. Wilson’s influence Alfred North Whitehead famously urged philosophers that no experience should be omitted from enquiry including ‘experience abnormal’ (his full list, often quoted by Wilson, is also mentioned in the present book). Many of the cases drawn from UFO and abductee literature throughout Evolutionary Metaphors certainly sound abnormal – like the large kangaroo spotted in a car park which turned out to be a UFO, for instance – at least from our everyday rational consciousness, what Husserl called the natural standpoint. But pioneering researchers working at the dawn of UFO writing, such as Jung or Jacques Vallee, saw deeper patterns in the phenomena, recurring symbols from folklore and ancient mythology.

As Moore notes, the act of interpretation itself is significant in the analysis of the UFO enigma. And the clear interpretation of states and phenomena, unclouded by subjective emotional prejudices, is the primary goal of phenomenology, at least in it’s early stages. Wilson’s new existentialism is of course indebted to Husserl’s phenomenology and as Moore remarks, “Wilson, for me and many others, came to represent a fearless explorer of the dark and occulted recesses of the human psyche, but significantly, without a pessimistic bias”. Much classic UFO literature can be dark and forbidding in tone, with many witnesses and abductees recounting experiences of terror and dread amongst the hyper-surrealistic events unfolding around them. Speaking of Sartre’s frightening existential state of ‘nausea’, Wilson remarks that “in nausea man feels isolated in an alien world of objects”, a chaos of unconnected fragments. But, as Moore points out, phenomenology deals with wholes, not parts – Husserl devotes the third section of his Logical Investigations II examining mereology (parts and wholes) – and a phenomenologist like Wilson was always cautious to step back from emotional interpretations (terror, bewilderment, pessimistic doom) when examining paranormal phenomena (or in fact, any phenomena). Husserl and Wilson spoke of ‘relational’ consciousness and both were more concerned, like Whitehead, with delineating the whole picture, a Gestalt, and trying to read the situation as neutrally as possible, free of subjective distortions. This is also Moore’s method – “I suspect that the UFO experience is […] a metaphor towards a new understanding of reality”, he writes. And he notes that it could be interpreted as an “evolutionary metaphor”.

The Whole of the Law

Most perceptively, Moore notes how the “new existentialism enriches the reading and understanding of much occult and paranormal literature”. This is a very important point which is still not widely acknowledged by occultists. “The new existentialism”, he says, “was an attempt by Wilson to provide the foundations for an evolutionary phenomenology in which man could access these meaningful levels of reality”. Running through the large history of esoterica that is Wilson’s The Occult are the same philosophical concerns from his new existentialist period of 1956 – ‘66, a point lost on some of his early readers who presumed he had abandoned existentialism for something less rigorous.

Kenneth Grant, who was originally dismissed by mainstream occultists (but not by Wilson) for his confrontational synthesis of Lovecraft, magick, UFOlogy and decadent literature, is often thought of as one of the originators of Chaos Magic, the postmodern ‘nothing is true, everything is permitted’ strain of contemporary sorcery which is briefly discussed in Evolutionary Metaphors. Like Wilson, Grant put a lot of emphasis on imaginative fiction writing, on poetry and novels: one of his early self published works states that fantastic fiction is a substitute for a long atrophied natural faculty which could originally understand truth directly (think Wilson’s ‘Faculty X’). Grant uses the term ‘adumbration’, often used by Husserl when speaking of parts and wholes, in his analysis of occult experiences (and in fact he once referred to his own work as ‘phenomenology’). Like Wilson said when quoting Yeats, our minds are ‘partial’, but completed in moments of illumination. These moments when this faculty is operative are plentiful in literature; Wilson collected scores of examples from Proust, Hesse and many others and made a careful study of them as accurate descriptions of metal states (i.e. phenomenology) rather than as merely entertaining flights of fancy. Grant once stated that we can accept these truths at a deeper holistic level whereas the conceptualising mind struggles as it can only interpret things piecemeal, via parts, sides or adumbrations. “Chaos magic”, Moore writes, “is basically a scaffolding of a system that recognises the value of phenomenology”; one well known practitioner he quotes recommends the use of pareidolia, the ability to construct forms out of the formless, like Leonardo Da Vinci looking at an old wall and seeing figures and scenes, or the familiar ability to see faces in a fire. Wilson suggested many times that this intentional perceiving is a very important evolutionary creative ability, not just a by-product of daydreaming.

Like Jung, Kenneth Grant often suggested that the UFO was a deep mythological symbol like the grail or saucer of magical lore. “Now, what we might be seeing in the modern world”, writes Moore, “is the re-emergence of a type of magical thinking that had previously gone underground, so to speak, or had remained dormant in the unconscious regions of our collective psyche”. Both Wilson and Grant spoke about a long ‘dormant’ faculty which is slowly reappearing in the post Romantic age and in it’s literature (even Proust spoke of faculties long dormant) and in our modern commercial culture. Science fiction, which once was an underground scene at the dawn of the post war UFO craze, is now big business – Hollywood has made many Philip K Dick stories yet the author of what became Blade Runner and Total Recall spent most of his writing life struggling for money. Dick’s fortunes were turned around by his extraordinary ‘1974’ experience (see chapter 7 of Wilson’s Unsolved Mysteries, Past and Present, 1993) where he was plunged into a world of high strangeness as weird as anything from his own SF books. As documented in his rambling, philosophical Exegesis and in his later novels – referenced here by Moore – Dick’s previously neurotic state was radically changed by the ‘Valis’ events. With typical synchronicity, Dick had a “strange and eerie feeling” that his early novels were coming true. Moore expertly connects Dick’s notion of Valis or ‘Zebra’ – a kind of universal architect hidden in plain sight who Dick sometimes claimed to have intuited, happily building away – with the transcendental ego of Husserl as described by Wilson in his very rare (privately published, 1995) emendation to Introduction to the New Existentialism. “Now”, Moore writes, “by forwarding a basic ‘doctrine of the will’ that aims to uncover the ‘unconscious layers of will and intention, of which you were previously not aware’, it is significant that Wilson points out that the deeper layers of our intentionality awaken in mystical experiences. For in these experiences we lose our general sense of alienation— moreover, an alienation that is ‘due to lack of contact with one’s intentional layers’”. ‘Alien’ experiences, properly understand, may not be alien after all. By developing our ability to know that parts are just that and not misunderstanding them as the totality of a whole – to know the reality of other times and other places as Wilson (and Grant, briefly) said – is to have a completed rather than partial mind, what is commonly termed mystical consciousness. In the Exegesis, Dick speaks of not seeing the Other, but seeing as the Other – Wilson pointed out that our rational minds filter out most otherness due to their relentless need for order, and that Husserl’s aim was to catch them out doing just that, perhaps as Dick did in 1974. “How did we lose certain faculties entirely?” asks Dick in the Exegesis. “Have the remaining ones occluded?” Like Wilson, he found answers in Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind, with the shift from all over mythological consciousness (whole, but innocent) to the sharper rational consciousness (understanding, but only partially knowing). In evolutionary terms, we must use this sharpened consciousness to understand whole, and not merely partial meanings. “The new existentialism”, Moore continues, “lays important emphasis on the essential hierarchical nature of consciousness; lower levels of consciousness become increasingly diffuse, disintegrated, whereas higher forms of consciousness—such as the mystical experience or the ‘peak experience’—become synthesised and integrated into the greater whole of our being”.

Gurdjieff once told Ouspensky that “man cannot reconstruct the idea of the whole starting from separate facts” and he insisted that the unprepared mind, connecting with higher centres, will experience either a total blank or disjointed images and sensations – the distortions that the phenomenologist wishes to exclude. This sounds like some of the confusing abductee experiences of UFO literature. Gurdjieff insisted on training the intentional faculties to ‘grasp’ phenomena before any attempts at accessing the higher centres, and Wilson suggested a similar procedure. “Evolutionary metaphors – along with esoteric ‘correspondences’ and the logic of much anomalous phenomenon – baffle ordinary causal logic precisely by transcending its limits and by inferring beyond itself” says Moore. “Essentially they are symbols of a reality yet to become”. This bizarre sense of past/future is discussed in Philip K Dick’s fiction (Counter Clock World, etc) and in his Exegesis (he ruminated on time flowing backwards, from decay to perfection; Kenneth Grant had similar concerns and Husserl analysed internal time consciousness). Moore quotes abductee author Whitely Streiber: “What we have to learn to do […] is to learn to move out of the time stream so that we can examine it more carefully and come to understand its real meaning”. Proust of course devoted a huge novel to this very problem. And Moore goes on to say that in order to understand these possibilities (evolutionary metaphors) “we must develop imaginative as well as supra-logical faculties which can process this level of reality from which these metaphors emerge, and in doing so, it would be immediately grasped that they can become more than mere symbols but actualities”. In occultism, symbols, fantasies, dreams and desires are reified via synchronicities in the mundane world; in Wilson’s new existentialism, hidden (occluded) phenomenological structures are brought to conscious awareness in order to perceive reality more coherently. Symbols becoming actualities happened throughout the Romantic period: as Wilson has recounted, the fictional fever dreams of Richardson, Rousseau and Goethe had such an enormous impact on the Western world that we still feel it today. Philip K Dick’s novels are full of what he called ‘pre-cog’ about himself (his “strange and eerie feeling” regarding personal events happening after he wrote them) and his startling foresight about the unfolding 21st Century.

“There is the sense that there are meanings that animate the deepest substratum of existence”, writes Moore, “and that, in some odd way, these meanings are the structural blueprints not only of matter and the physical and natural world, but also the structuring forces that underlies experience as well as existence in its interior and mental form”. As Wilson once said, if we could uncover these meanings (he called them “our intentional evolutionary structure”) via phenomenological discipline, we would become a completely different type of creature – his collected ‘outsiders’ are foreshadowings of such a creature (as Moore notes, Alien Dawn concludes with a chapter entitled ‘The Way Outside’ with an analysis of science fiction stories such as Brian Aldiss’ Outside). As we read through case histories in UFO literature, Moore says, “one is reminded of the essential message of Wilson’s philosophy, and this provides a much needed reevaluation of our reductionist culture”. Reductionism is merely a symptom of our closed perceptions, and Blake and his fellow romantics satirised it and railed against it with aplomb. Wilson, who labelled his own analysis ‘Romanticism Mark Three’ (Mark Two was Existentialism) found a bulwark against reductionism in Husserl’s phenomenological method which ironically reduces everything back to the source of the transcendental ego. This, it must be noted, is the start of the phenomenological method, not, as commonly misunderstood, its end or goal. As Wilson, says, only when we rid our mental lives of this emotional colouring can we see things afresh. And as Husserl would say, philosophy can then finally begin. The strange states of consciousness documented by the writers collected and analysed by Wilson and followers such as Moore are portends of what we could become – they are evolutionary metaphors – and as disturbing and uncanny they may appear to be to our fragmented mundane consciousness, I, like the author, have no doubt that they are trying to show us something, if only we could step back and see the whole picture. 

Evolutionary Metaphors is published on the 31st of May by 6th Books

[1] Moore was a speaker at both the First and Second International Colin Wilson Conferences at Nottingham University: all lectures are presented in book form and published by Cambridge Scholars (see both links).