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]

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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” [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.