On Wednesday, December the 15th 2004, at precisely nine minutes past eight in the evening, I pressed the ‘send’ button on my email notifying Colin Wilson about a website I’d designed which discussed his work. At exactly eleven minutes past nine I received a reply –
Fascinating! I have just spent half an hour reading it, and am delighted. I am in process of making a massive website of my own that will include all my books in summary, and I attach what I have done so far herewith. The bits on BEYOND THE OUTSIDER and THE NEW EXISTENTIALISM are some of the best writing I’ve done in a long time. Thankyou for your spirited defense – this ‘middle aged’ (i.e.ancient) writer is grateful.
A few months before I’d written a letter to Wilson showing my appreciation of his work. I didn’t expect a reply but I thought perhaps he might actually read it. Yet by virtual return of post the next day the stamped addresssed envelope I’d sent came back with a sticker bearing the familiar address Gorran Haven. Inside was a postcard, and scrawled on one side in familiar handwriting – I’d been collecting signed books via the fanzine Abraxas – was this message –
Thanks for most interesting letter. Are you, by any happy chance on email – which is much easier. If so, send me your email address to____________
An email correspondence was started, and I later got to speak to Wilson on the two occasions I visited his house in Cornwall. The ‘massive website’ Colin mentioned never materialised, but the document he attached on that first email – with a the number 36 at the top of the page – contained a ‘shorter CV’ and a longer biographical sketch, plus a bibliography. Then the précis of his books. Unfortunately he only go up to Eagle and Earwig. As he thought the “bits on Beyond the Outsider and The New Existentialism are some of the best writing I’ve done for a long time” I include them here.
Beyond the Outsider (1965)
In September 1961 I set out on my first lecture tour of the United States. It proved harder work than I expected. I often visited several colleges or universities a week, and probably talked non-stop for five or six hours every day. And at every college I had to start again at the beginning, and summarise the ideas of The Outsider, Religion and the Rebel, The Age of Defeat (which had been called in America The Stature of Man, the Americans preferring an ‘upbeat’ title) and The Strength to Dream (which had been written but not yet published).
Repeating my basic ideas over and over again made me familiar with them in a new way, and made me more aware of their implications. For example, I began to see that existentialism was simply a new form of 19th century Romanticism – Romanticism Mark II, so to speak. Romanticism Mark I was the ‘Eternal Longing’, that craving for something beyond mere material existence, which tormented them like a sickness. Most of them concluded that it was unattainable, and sank into a despair that shortened their lives – hence those poets of the late 19th century that Yeats called ‘the Tragic Generation’ – Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, James Thompson, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, who seemed born for tragedy.
On the other hand, the existentialists philosophers, who had their roots in Kierkegaard, faced life with grim acceptance. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus says that Sisyphus is doomed to roll a rock uphill and watch it roll down again forever – yet we must consider Sisyphus happy, for he possesses the inner-freedom of his own mind – that freedom that Byron had spoken of in ‘The Prisoner of Chillon’: ‘Eternal spirit of the chainless Mind/ Brightest in dungeons, Liberty thou art!’. Whereas the Romantics gave way to despair, existentialism took a more stoical attitude. As Hemingway put it in The Old Man and the Sea: ‘A man can be destroyed but not defeated’.
But Husserl’s phenomenology had shown me the way out of the cul de sac of existentialism. The intentionality of perception means we are free. And if we are free, we are not helpless and passive. The passivity is a mistake, a fallacy.
Sartre and Camus had failed to recognise this. Sartre’s most famous statement is: ‘Man is a useless passion’. But how can we be useless if we are free? We can change our thoughts, change our lives, change the world.
More to the point, we can change our inner worlds.
This is why I feel Beyond the Outsider to be one of my most important books.
It begins by considering the fundamental human problem: whether we have to accept that life is meaningless. Eliot clearly thinks so in The Hollow Men; so does Samuel Beckett. Camus thought we should live ‘without appeal’ – that is, accepting that there is no greater meaning, and that this is our human lot. In a story called The Natural History of the Dead Hemingway argues that violent death negates all our human delusions about meaning and says he would like to see the death any so-called humanist (i.e: someone who does not believe in God but believes that life is nevertheless meaningful) and see what noble exits they make. I refer to this attitude as ‘unheroic nihilism’.
I then point out the inconsistencies of this attitude – for example, in Beckett’s short play Act Without Words, in which all a man’s efforts to reach something above his head are futile, because every time he tries to grab it, it goes up beyond his reach. Beckett is implying that fate is not merely indifferent, but malicious. So does Camus’s play Cross Purposes (Le Malentendu), about parents who rob and kill their son – a sailor home from the sea – without realising who he is. But to say that life is not only meaningless but actively malicious is illogical and self-contradictory. Graham Greene, whose view of the universe is obviously jaundiced, admits that when in a dangerous situation in Africa, he experienced something he had not suspected he possessed, ‘a love of life’. He seems to be unaware that this is tantamount to admitting that his usual grim view of existence is something to do with his perception rather than with the universe.
The real problem, I suggest, lies in the dullness of our senses, which keeps us a state akin to sleep. The Greek poet Demetrios Capetanakis remarks that at the beginning of the Second World War, he reflected: ‘Well, it will be horrible, but if it will be so horrible as to frighten and wake up the mind, it might become the salvation of many’. But that proved to be untrue. ‘Even war cannot frighten us enough’. And he goes on to suggest that Rimbaud subjected himself to a life of insecurity out of this desire to ‘shake the mind awake’. He might have added that saints and ascetics subjected themselves to harsh disciplines for the same reason.
The problem seems to be the feebleness of the human mind. Or, as I was to express it later: ‘Human beings are grandfather clocks driven by watch springs’. Schopenhauer says that life is a pendulum that swings between misery and boredom. We experience some anxiety or inconvenience, strive to overcome it, feel momentary relief as it vanishes, then forget to feel relieved and relapse into boredom. And if this is true, then we had better accept ‘unheroic nihilism’ as the truth about the human condition.
But H. G. Wells had another explanation for the unsatisfactoriness. Men like himself, he says – ‘originative intellectual workers’ – find normal human existence boring because they long for a more meaningful kind of existence. ‘We are like early 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 to emancipate ourselves from…necessities. At last it becomes a case of air or nothing. But the new land has not definitely emerged from the waters, and we swim distressfully in an element we wish to abandon.’
In other words, we want a new kind of freedom than any animal has ever known.
The chapter that follows, ‘The Strange Story of Modern Philosophy’, seems to me one of the most important I have ever written. I begin by considering the ‘world rejection’ of Socrates, who tells his followers that since the philosopher spends his life trying to separate his soul from his body, his own death should be regarded as a consummation. And this is consistent with his belief that only spirit is real, and matter is somehow unimportant and unreal. This notion would persist throughout the next two thousand years, harmonising comfortably with the Christian view that this world is unimportant compared to the next.
Then came scientific thought, in the person of Galileo, who introduced the spirit of experiment. He demonstrated that gravity makes all bodies fall at the same speed, and invented the telescope through which he discovered the moons of Jupiter. From then on, human thought began to take a more purposeful direction. In 1642, the year Gaileo died, Newton was born, and within forty years, science had advanced further than in the previous two thousand.
In philosophy, a similar leap forward had taken place while Galileo was still alive. René Descartes attempted to bring into philosophy the same kind of certainty that Galileo had brought to science. Galileo had explored the heavens with a telescope; Descartes decided to examine the human situation through a kind of magnifying glass.
His new method of achieving certainty was simplicity itself: to doubt everything. After seeing some toy robots driven by water in the park at Versailles, it struck him the human beings are almost entirely mechanical; we need stimuli to make us do something. Of course, men could not be made of clockwork, because they have souls. (Descartes was a good Catholic.) But animals could be, and probably are, machines.
How do I know I am not a machine? Because a machine has no self-awareness. On the other hand, I can think, ‘therefore I am’.
Such an assertion obviously leaves room for doubt. If some god could endow a washing machine with self-awareness, it would probably assume that it operates of its own free will, and would say ‘I think, therefore I am’. It would clearly be mistaken.
The British philosopher John Locke – who was 18 when Descartes died – recognised this. He did not actually argue that men are robots, but came very close to it when he said that we cannot know anything that does not come from our experience. There is nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses. When man is born, his mind is like a blank sheet of paper, a ‘tabula rasa’. Everything he then learns arises from things that happen to him. So what we call the mind – all his thoughts, responses, reactions – is a ‘construct’, like a house built of pieces of Leggo.
Plato thought that we are born with a certain knowledge already inside us.In the Meno, Socrates makes a slave solve a geometrical problem merely by asking him questions, and then argues that this knowledge must have been already in the slave’s mind, and only needed bringing out. Locke denied this.
Descartes had launched modern western philosophy with a dubious proposition, and now Locke continued it with an even more dubious one (for anybody who kept pigeons could have told Locke that they are born with all kinds of innate knowledge). This seems to be a typical characteristic of western philosophy: if someone makes a stupid howler, his successors try to justify it and carry the thing to even further lengths of absurdity, when common sense would suggest that they get their foundations right by going back to square one.
So it was perhaps inevitable that Bishop Berkeley should go a step further. If we can only know things through the mind, then why should we assume the outside world exists at all? Jam is not really sweet; it only produces a sensation of sweetness on the tongue. The sky is not really blue; it only produces a sense of blueness on the eyes. Perhaps objects only exist when we are looking at them, and when there is no one there to see them, they vanish. Or at least, they would if God was not there to see them.
This was obviously inviting some clever trouble-maker to suggest that, since there is no evidence that God exists, perhaps everything is an illusion? Which is more or less what the next ‘great philosopher’ did by carrying doubt even further. David Hume set out to reduce everything to materialism. The soul, which Descartes thought he had proved, is an illusion, because when I look inside myself, I do not become aware of ‘the essential me’, but merely of thoughts and sensations. So human beings are also made of Leggo.
And when you look at things in this piecemeal way, they simply dissolve. Even cause and effect are seen to be an illusion, for ‘every effect is a distinct event from its cause’, and therefore ‘cannot be discovered in the cause’. Perhaps God is pulling our legs when He makes a kettle boil on a fire; perhaps it is really supposed to freeze.
What Hume did was to sweep the world bare of all certainty, leaving philosophy looking like a landscape after the dropping of an H-bomb.
The philosopher who tried to repair the damage was the Konigsburg professor Immanuel Kant. And what he did was, in effect, to take a step backward to Bishop Berkeley, and make the mind the creator of reality.
He noticed the existence of what Husserl would later called ‘intentionality’ – that the mind makes sense of this chaotic world that surrounds us by imposing order on it. We divide things into categories – for example, everything I can see around me is either a liquid, a solid or a gas. We use clocks to impose order on the chaos of time, and measuring rodsS to impose it on space. We call things by words we have invented – that four legged creature is a ‘cat’, and that one a ‘dog’. You could say we invent space and time to make our world orderly enough to live in comfortably. It is as if we had invented a pair of spectacles that impose categories on the world.
Does that mean there is no ‘true reality’ behind all our categories? Yes, there is such an underlying reality, which Kant called the noumena, to distinguish it from the world of mere ‘phenomena’ that surrounds us. But since we can never remove the spectacles, we can never know this reality.
The dramatist Kleist was so upset by Kant’s bewildering variation on Bishop Berkeley that he committed suicide.
At which point one of Kant’s followers, a now almost forgotten thinker called Johann Gottlieb Fichte, called a halt to the madness – at least, he would have done if anyone had taken any notice of him. What Fichte said was: why bother about this ‘noumena’? If it is unknowable, we may as well forget it. In that case, man is left in a world created by his senses – just as Berkeley said. But if ‘I’ really created the universe, why do I not know that I did? There must be two ‘me’s’, this everyday self who has no idea of who it is or what it is doing here, and another ‘me’ is actually a kind of god who has created this world.
Descartes sat in his armchair, or more likely lay in bed (he was notoriously lazy) and asked: What can I know for certain? He answered: Two things are certain – my own existence and that world out there. We call them the subjective and the objective worlds. Fichte said: No, there are three worlds – that world out there, and two ‘me’s’, the ordinary me and the me who is behind the scenes creating the world out there.
The next question is: how could the ordinary ‘me’ began to explore the extraordinary world created by the ‘other me’? And this, of course, is the true task of phenomenology, to which we shall come in a moment.
Fichte made one more comment that is of immense importance.: that the trouble with philosophy was that its attitude to the world is passive. But philosophy, he said (in Addresses to the German Nation) should regard itself as active, or at least as a prelude to action.
Expressed in this way, this sounds unexciting – as if it is merely an earlier statement of Karl Marx’s statement that the business of philosophy is not to understand the world but to change it. In fact, it was really a blinding flash of insight: that Kantian philosophy turned philosophers into armchair theorists, so that their whole attitude to knowledge was passive, when it should be active.
Consider these lines from Yeats’ last poem Under Ben Bulben:
‘Know that when all words are said
And a man is fighting mad,
Something drops from eyes long blind.
He completes his partial mind,
For an instant stands at ease,
Laughs aloud, his heart at peace…
The crucial line here, of course, is: ‘He completes his partial mind’. For it implies that under normal circumstances, only a part of the mind is awake and active.
In Poetry and Mysticism, I comment:
‘These are the visionary, mystical moments, when man ‘completes his partial mind’. His everyday, conscious self is only a small part of the mind, like the final crescent of the moon. In moments of crisis, the full moon suddenly appears. Petty miseries and oppressions vanish…’ (p. 156)
This is what Fichte meant when he said that man only knows himself in action.
But no one noticed Fichte’s revolution, so no one tried to carry on his work – at least, until the end of the century, when Edmund Husserl came along
Instead, philosophy went back to Hume’s bleak landscape, and set about completing the work of devastation.
Descartes thought men are machines with souls, and his successor La Mettrie developed this idea in Man the Machine (1748), which argues that the soul is a material part of the brain, and that all living beings are self-winding clockwork toys. He was followed by Etienne de Condillac, who followed Locke and Hume is arguing that our mental life is merely physical sensations. Then came a group known as the Ideologues, of whom the leaders were Pierre-Jean Cabanis and Destutt de Tracy, who believed that the brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile.
Until finally one of these ideologues, Maine de Biran, was suddenly struck by the thought that this is nonsense. When I exert my will solve some problem, it feels quite different from, say, writing a note to the butcher or making a cup of tea. In that moment I know I am not a machine.
In fact, there is a simple and obvious difference. It is true that I carry out dozens of activities that I do every day, in a ‘machine-like’ state, (even typing these words is to a large extent mechanical). But the thought that is behind the words must be non-mechanical, otherwise it will soon show in my writing. So we might say that the difference between a good writer and a bad writer is his degree of mechanicalness, and the difference between Wordsworth sonnet on Westminster Bridge (‘Earth hath not anything to show more fair…’) and vast tracts of his later poetry makes us see the difference: one is written by a kind of robot, and the other by what you might call ‘the real Wordsworth’, the living man. I shall speak of this again later.
Unfortunately, French philosophers at the end of the 18th century were so intoxicated at being able to give a two finger salute to the Catholic Church – which had persecuted free thought for centuries – that they had no intention of conceding that man had an immortal soul. So no one paid the slightest attention to Maine de Biran’s discovery that we have free will. And the next major French philosopher, August Comte, directed all his polemical powers at denouncing superstition (by which he meant religion), and declaring that man would never be free until he learned to live by logic and reason. He also regarded metaphysics –i.e. all attempt to deal with larger questions about man and the universe – as another form of superstition. Unfortunately, he was a poor advertisement for his religion of reason, for a disastrous marriage caused a nervous breakdown that drove him into an insane asylum, after which an unhappy love affair made him attempt suicide. In spite of which, his Course of Positive Philosophy had an enormous influence, and he even founded a ‘Church of Humanity’, which went on to become highly successful after his death.
In Germany, metaphysical philosophy showed that it still had plenty of life in it in the thought of G. F. Hegel, who also began as a sceptic and a rationalist, then had some kind of revelation in which he saw the ‘Idea’ as the ultimate reality from which all other things derive, including Nature and Spirit. Perhaps he was remembering St John’s ‘In the beginning was the Word’. This led him to a vision of history that has something in common with Toynbee’s, in which all the miseries and torments of history nevertheless drive man ‘upward and on’, towards the expression of pure spirit. There was something very vital and positive about Hegel’s philosophy that aroused immense enthusiasm in his contemporaries, and led to a revival of interest in metaphysics. At a time when the world was almost ready to surrender to French materialism, it was Hegel who brought a refreshing new impulse of Idealism. If it had not been for an appalling tendency to write in incomprehensible abstractions, he would probably qualify as the most important philosopher since Plato.
The man who now seems to us to be one of the most original thinkers of the mid-century was totally unknown in his own time. Soren Kierkegaard, a brilliant but intensely neurotic Dane, might have been expected to regard Hegel as a fellow-spirit, since neither had the slightest inclination towards what the French called positivism. But studying Hegel at Copenhagen University put him off completely, since he felt this was all too abstract, and therefore had little to say to him as an individual. As a result, he developed an intense dislike of this philosopher who claimed to have answered every major question in the universe. It was Kierkegaard who first used the word existential (to mean the opposite of ‘abstract’) to explain his dislike of Hegel. When books like The Concept of Angst were rediscovered in the 1920s, they immediately found a large audience, because by that time everybody was suffering from it. Probably his best known statement is: ‘Truth is subjectivity’.
Kierkegaard spent most of his short life (he died at the age of 42) in a state of depression, and collapsed on the day he went to withdraw the last of his money from the bank. In this sense he was typical of the romantics who, ever since Rousseau, had been complaining that they found life too difficult and unrewarding to be worth the effort. And this is why Fichte’s insight that there is a part of the mind that creates the world ‘behind our backs’ is so important. It suggested that if poets and philosophers knew enough about the hidden powers of that ‘other self’, they might find life less intolerable.
It was another ‘existentialist’ thinker. Friedrich Nietzsche, who glimpsed this truth and made it the basis of his philosophy. The son of a pastor, was sent to a military academy, then to university. It was when he was a student that the first of his two great revelatory insights occurred. It is related in a letter of 1865 to his friend Von Gersdorff:
‘Yesterday an oppressive storm hung over the sky, and I hurried to a neighbouring hill called Leutch. … At the top I found a hut, where a man was killing two kids while his son watched him. The storm broke with a tremendous crash, discharging thunder and hail, and I had an indescribable sense of well-being and zest. . . . Lightning and tempest are different worlds, free powers, without morality. Pure Will, without the confusions of intellect—how happy, how free.’
The second episode happened some years later, during the Franco-Prussian War, when Nietzsche was serving as an orderly in the ambulance corps. He told it to his sister in later life, when she asked him once about the origin of his idea of the Will to Power.
For weeks Nietzsche had attended the sick and wounded on the battlefields until the sight of blood and gangrened limbs had swallowed up his horror into a numbness of fatigue. One evening, after a hard day’s work with the wounded, he- was entering a small town near Strasbourg, on foot and alone. He heard the sound of approaching hoof beats and stood back under the wall to allow the regiment to pass. First the cavalry rode by at top speed, and then behind them marched the foot soldiers. It was Nietzsche’s old regiment. As he stood and watched them passing, these men going to battle, perhaps to death, the conviction came again that ‘the strongest and highest will to life does not lie in the puny struggle to exist, but in the Will to war, the Will to Power….’
By that time Nietzsche had already been a professor of classics at the University of Bonn for two years. Two years after this wartime experience, his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, interprets the Greek love of tragedy as an overflowing of sheer vitality, ‘the blissful ecstasy that rises from the innermost depths of man, ay, of nature, at the collapse of he principium individuationis…’, this very ‘principle of individuality’ that Kierkegaard had made the basis of his rejection of Hegel. And although forced to retire firm academic life by an illness that brought suffering for the remainder of his life, Nietzsche continued to affirm this principle of ‘blissful ecstasy’. And when he was conceiving his most remarkable work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he described his sensation of being ‘six thousand feet above men and time’. He would write later: ‘I have made my philosophy out of my will to health’.
This gives Nietzsche a very good claim to be the first thinker to have solved that basic problem of ‘Eternal Yes versus Eternal No’, and therefore to have solved one of the greatest of all philosophical problems. But his solution, like his reputation, was undermined by the fact that he did insane, probably as the result of venereal disease picked up from a prostitute.
I can explain his importance by referring to an essay I wrote at this time (1964), and included in Eagle and Earwig. It was about the half-forgotten novelist L. H. Myers, the author of a vast 4-part novel called The Near and the Far, which is fairly certainly a great, or near-great, novel. He committed suicide by taking an overdose in 1944, when he was 65.
The novel begins with one of the greatest symbols in all literature. Twelve year old Prince Jali, whose father has been summoned to a celebration by Akbar the Great, stands upon the battlements of a castle and looks over the desert, over which he has been travelling for six days. And as he is moed by a magnificent sunset, he reflets that there are two deserts: onw od which is a glory to the eye, and the other of which is a weariness to the foot. And the former remains unattainable, for even if he ran out of the palace and towards the sunset, he would only get his shoes full of sand. If only one could somehow grasp the ‘promise of the horizon’, and somehow cross the desert on one great bound. If only one could somehow bring together the near and the far…
This, of course, is the ‘eternal longing’ that fascinated and tormented the romantics. Yeats talked of the waterfall ‘upon Ben Bulebn’s side/ That all my childhood counted dear…’ then says:
I would have touched it like a child
But knew my finger would have touched
Cold stone and water..
Nothing that we love overmuch
Is ponderable to the touch.
But Myers’ ‘near and the far’ is arguably a better symbol.
But even as I was writing this description of ‘the near and the far’, I could see the solution. Myers was a true romantics; his friend L. P. Hartley, said that the thought of one of his characters walking down Piccadilly made him feel ill; he needed to set all his novels in strange and romantic locatins. Myers was also rich, and an incorrigible philanderer; he never had to face the problems of life or ‘pull his cart out of the mud’, whih meant that in spite of his intelligence he failed to see that his problem was weakness, lack of self-discipline. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra was right. The real answer lay in strength, in ‘great health’.
That is to say, the gap between the near and the far is not inherent in the nature of reality. ‘If one were strong enough, healthy enough, it might not be necessary to trudge so painfully through the present.’ In moments of happiness and intensity, the near and the far seem to come together.
Later in the 20th century, of course, it became apparent that what was wrong with Nietzsche was that this recognition of the need for strength sprang out of awareness of his own physical weakness, and that in the joy of the insight, he was moved to a glorification of ruthlessness. So the word ‘Nietzschean’ took on unfortunate overtones of cruelty that were far from his intention.
But in its primary sense, meaning an overflowing of energy and optimism, this is the solution to that problem of ‘the near and the far’. I recognised this at the age of 19 when – as I have described in my autobiography – I had spent most of an afternoon making love to a girlfriend on a windy hillside in Derbyshire – we were on our way to the Lake District – and as we ran downhill wearing cycling capes that acted as windbrakes, experienced an enormous and total sense of exaltation, which I recognised as the answer to the self-divisions and miseries of romanticism.
This, then, is why I consider the contribution of Nietzsche as so crucial to that fundamental problem of romanticism.
As to that other problem, that philosophical hare set running by Descartes, I believe the solution lies in Fichte’s insight of the ‘two selves’. Elsewhere in Beyond the Outsider, I cite Tolstoy’s story Memoirs of a Madman, in which a landowner, on his way to a distant province to buy more land, suddenly awakens on night with the recognition that this is absurd. He wants to buy more land when the real problem is that we all die. And in that moment he sees that all he has been taking for granted – his home, his family, his background – have been deceiving him into thinking he knows who he is. And he suddenly realises he doesn’t. And he is overwhelmed by the question: ‘Who am I? And the result is a religious conversion that leads his friends to assume he has gone mad. But he would say, of course, that it is the world that is mad.
When we grasp Tolstoy’s question, we can see what is wrong with Descartes. His unstated premise is as follows; ‘Here am I, René Descartes, sitting in my armchair and asked what we can know for certain…’ But he is failing to question his own identity, and this error will lead on to the errors of Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Hegel and the rest. At least Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were aware of that basic question ‘Who am I?’, which is the starting point of existentialism.
And in Chapter 3 of Beyond the Outsider I go on to propound the solution to that accumulation of errors. It was clearly seen by two great thinkers of the 20th century, Husserl and Whitehead.
Whitehead began by returning to Hume, and pinning down the underlying fallacy. Hume argued that we have no true ‘inner self’. He claimed that when he looke inside himself for ‘the real David Hume’, he only came across ideas and impressions, but noting like a ‘self’. And he concluded – as the French ‘Ideologues; would later – that all that can be found inside us is a ‘stream of consciousness’, a lotm of scurrying thoughts whose only ‘identity’ is that they come one after another. This is the realisation that comes, he says, when you look at your inner self through a magnifying glass.
In a little book called Symbolism, Its Meaning and Effect, Whitehead points out that this method of looking at something through a magnifying glass is a good way of missing its meaning. If, for example, you looked at a great painting through a magnifying glass, you would only see the texture of the paint. If you look at a newspaper photograph close-up, you would only see disconnected dots. In both cases you are looking at individual trees and failing to see that they constitute a wood. In order to see the wood, we need to take a bird’s eye view, to stand back.
So we have two kinds of perception: bird’s eye and worm’s eye, close-up and far-off. Both only give half of the truth.
Whitehead calls these two modes ‘presentational immediacy’ and ‘causal efficacy’. The first is easy to understand – what is in front of your nose, The second is more difficult. The example Whitehead gives is the words ‘United States’. You do not grasp these piecemeal: ‘United – that means held together. States – yes, that means states like Florida and California. Oh yes, that mean’s America….’ You see the two words as one, United States, and register that as ‘America’. Cause and effect blend into one.
Now Hume criticised causality by saying that every effect is quite distinct from its cause, and so is not ‘necessarily’ linked to it. Whitehead replies: When you grasp a ‘meaning’ they are not merely ‘linked – they are one.
We might say, then, that we have to ‘modes of perception’, which could be called ‘immediacy perception’ and ‘meaning perception’. When you are very tired and depressed, your meaning-perception becomes blurred (Sartre calls it nausea; the world dissolves into bits and pieces). But this is an illusion, caused by tiredness. On the other hand, when you are drunk and feeling jolly, the world seems to be all meaning. Then it is your immediacy perception that becomes blurred; you cannot even get your key into the keyhole.
On the other hand, there are times – perhaps when you are feeling happy and excited on a spring morning – when the two modes of perception seem to blend together perfectly. You have a wonderful sense of meaning, yet your ‘immediacy perception’ is fully operational.
What happens then could be compared to the film The Dam Busters, in which the British planes had to drop bombs shaped like billiard balls that bounced along the Moener Lake and hit the dam at water level. The problem for the pilot was to know when he was at exactly the right height to drop them. The solution was to place two spotlights on the plane, one in the nose, one in the tail, whose two beams converged at exactly the right height. So when there was just one spot on the surface of the lake, he released the bombs.
According to Whitehead, our most brilliant moments of insight happen when the two beams – immediacy perception and meaning perception – converge.
This, then, is Whitehead’s ‘refutation of Hume’, and it is a breakthrough in western philosophy because it provides new foundations. The question ‘Do we have free will or are we robots?’ becomes absurd. Instead, philosophy can get back to its proper business – ‘understanding the universe’.
And what of that other question: of the ‘me’ behind the scenes, whose existence was recognised by Fichte?
This was the problem to which Edmund Husserl devoted his life.
When he was at university, in the 1880s, philosophy was still struggling to throw off the toils of Bishop Berkeley, and the notion that ‘meaning’ is something created by the mind. John Stuart Mill, for example, argued that the feeling of logical certainty is no more than that – a feeling – and that all logic can be therefore reduced to psychology. This notion is called ‘psychologism’, and in its broadest sense it holds that philosophy, logic – even mathematics – can be explained in terms of psychology. This outraged Husserl, for it implied that all truth is ‘relative’, and Husserl could see that philosophy is never going to escape from muddle and confusion while it accepted such vagaries. So his starting point was the acceptance that logic deals with objective truth, not with relative ideas.
His first major work, Logical Investigations, was a sustained attack on psychologism, and an attempt to show that philosophy should be nothing less than a science.
This, of course, is what Descartes wanted to do when he asked the question: ‘Of what can we be certain?’ Husserl gave Descartes full credit for this, and even entitled one of his most important series of lectures Cartesian Meditations. But, as we have seen, Descartes’ problem was that he began with the wrong question: ‘What can I know?’ He was failing to ask who was this ‘I’ who wanted to know.
Let me try putting this another way. In her book about ‘female outsiders’ Alone, Alone, Rosemary Dinnage discusses Bertrand Russell’s affair with Ottoline Morrell, and says:
‘It is important to understand…that it was his underlying need to know whether anything could be established as true that shaped his whole mind… He himself felt that his search had made him into a ‘logic machine’, a ‘spectator and not an actor’, with a ‘mind like a search light, very bright in one direction but dark everywhere else’.
What Russell had recognised was what Fichte had said a century earlier: that real philosophy demands an active attitude, rather than the passive one of the philosopher sitting in his armchair. To ‘know’ something merely with the mind is hardly to know it at all. Our whole being is somehow involved in true knowing. And when this happens, knowledge has a ‘weight’ that is not found in merely intellectual knowing.
And this is also the essence of Husserl’s revolution: that consciousness is intentional, that it is active, not passive. It is like a hand reaching out and grabbing things, not just a search light. And Russell’s own career is a sad example of what happens when a thinker stayed in the ‘Cartesian’ attitude to philosophy. Russell spent his whole life asking: ‘What can we know for certain?’ And the result is oddly disappointing, for he never found a satisfactory answer.
But if, like Rosemary Dinnage, we remove our attention from Russell the thinker to Russell the person, we become aware of the consequences of his ‘passive’ attitude to philosophy – that is, he totally failed to bring his interior philosopher and human being into line. As his second wife Dora put it to Rosemary Dinnage: ‘Bertie could behave rottenly’. Until he was a very elderly gentleman he continued to pursue women, and to behave like an adolescent. As a person, he remained deeply unsatisfying to all the women he got involved with, and was dumped innumerable times. (I imagine his lifelong desire to screw any attractive female, from 15 to 50, was due to a gloomy conviction in adolescence that a person so ugly and preoccupied with ideas would remain love-starved, and by the time he learned different, the neurosis was too deep to be unrooted.)
But how could a person like Russell have benefited from Husserl’s phenomenology? In fact, we may as well open the question out and ask: How could anyone?
Let me start by quoting the French phenomenologist Paul Ricoeur. He is talking about the ‘reduction’ or epoché, that method of ‘standing back’ and viewing things from a distance – rather like standing back from a large picture in an art gallery.
‘By means of this reduction consciousness rids itself of a naiveté which it has beforehand, and which Husserl calls the natural attitude. This attitude consists in spontaneously believing that the world which is there is simply given. In correctoing itself about ths naiveté, consciousness discovers that it is in itself giving, sense-giving. The reduction does not exclude the presence of the world; it takes nothing back. It does not even suspend the primacy of intuition in every cognition. After the reduction, consciousness continuers seeing, but without being absorbed in this seeing, without being lost in it. Rather, the very seeing itself is discovered as a doing (opération) , as a producing (oevre) – once Husserl even says ‘as a creating’. Husserl would be understood – and the one who thus understands him would would be a phenomenologist – if the intentionality which culminates in seeing were recognised to be a creative vision’.
But how?, the reader wants to ask. What is the trick of transforming ordinary perception into creative vision?
The simplest answer is: poets do it all the time, so do great painters like Van Gogh. Read Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, and you can feel the ‘phenomenological vision’. Or look at a great painting by Van Gogh or Vlaminck or Soutine. When I was working in a tax office in Rugby in my teems, I remember my boss saying with disgust that he thought Van Gogh simply distorted everything he painted. He was missing the point: that Van Gogh was saying: ‘This is how I see things when I put on my creative spectacles’. Rupert Brooke said that on a spring morning he sometimes walked down a country road feeling almost sick with excitement.
Brooke realised that he could bring on this feeling by looking at things in a certain way. And what was really happening when he did this was that he had somehow become aware that he could see more, become awae of more, by looking at things as if they possessed hidden depths of meaning. For it is true. He was becoming conscious of the intentional element in perception, that his ‘seeing’ was in itself a creative act.
We can suddenly begin to see what Ricoeur meant
Let me try putting his another way.
A normal young male feels spontaneous sexual excitement if he sees a girl taking off her clothes. He feels this is ‘natural’, like feeling hungry when you smell cooking. But supposing he is looking through an art book with reproductions of paintings, and he sees a picture of a model taking off her clothes. She is attractive, and he stares at the painting, and then – let us suppose – deliberately induces sexual excitement. How does he do this? In that question lies the essence of phenomenology. You could say that he looks at the picture, and deliberately puts himself in the state of mind of a man about to climb into bed with her. He ceases to see the picture from ‘the natural standpoint’ (this is just a picture) and deliberately endows it with a dimension of reality. And it can be seen that he is again ‘putting on his creative spectacles’. In fact, the act of masturbation is a textbook illustration of intentionality in action.
The mind can deliberately change the way it sees things. Brooke tells how he can wander about a village wild with exhilaration. ‘And it’s not only beauty and beautiful things. In a flicker of sunlight on a blank wall, or a reach of muddy pavement, or smoke from an engine at night, there’s a sudden significance and importance and inspiration that makes the breath stop with a gulp of certainty and happiness. It’s not that the wall or the smoke seem important for anything or suddenly reveal any general statement, or are suddenly seen to be good or beautiful in themselves – only that for you they’re perfect and unique. It’s like being in love with a person… I suppose my occupation is being in love with the universe’.
We can grasp what Ricoeur meant by ‘the very seeing is discovered as a doing’. Brooke is so excited because he realises he can make himself see things in a certain way, and respond to them – just as an adolescent is excited when he discovers that this body can produce a heady brew called sexual excitement. And this is the very essence of phenomenology: you might say that phenomenology is a prosaic way of developing the mystical faculty.
These examples show that there is a creative way of seeing and feeling and that, to some extent, we can do it at will – or can easily learn the trick. What it amounts to, of course, is inducing ‘the peak experience’. Chesterton’s ‘absurd good news’.
Again, I might cite Maslow’s comment that when his students began to talk to one another about their peak experiences, they began having peak experiences all the time. They had simply learned the trick of ‘putting on their creative spectacles’.
There is another vitally important concept in Husserl: the lebenswelt, or ‘life-world’, which Spiegelberg, in his classic work on the phenomenological movement, defined as ‘the world as experienced by a living subject in his particular perspective’ (p. 161). An illustration will make this clearer. Anyone can see that the world of Jane Austen’s novels is so different from the world of Aldous Huxley that it is hard to believe they lived on the same planet; their two life-worlds are quite different. Of course, the only way of experiencing someone else’s life-world would be to be behind their eyes, but novels give a pretty clear idea of what I am talking about.
Speaking of the life-world, Spiegelberg says: ‘The Lebenwelt, so Husserl thought,
would yield a particularly revealing clue (Leitfaden) for the study of intentionality in action. Actually the some ninety pages devoted to this subject do not contain more than first indications as to the direction of this next step. Apparently even from here the approach to the ‘mothers’, the keepers of the key to the ultimate sources of being, as Husserl called them repeatedly in allusion to the well-known episode in Goethe’s Faust (Part II) remained anything but easy. But whatever the Lebenswelt might contribute to the confirmation of Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology and to the unveiling of the hidden achievements of the transcendental ego, there can be no doubt that this was one of the most fertile ideas in the history of phenomenology after Husserl.’ (The Phenomenological Movement. P. 160).
When I first read this passage more than forty years ago, it suddenly dawned on me that phenomenology is more than a plodding scientific method; that it is a method for the creation of ‘visionary consciousness’, of seeing things as Blake and Boehme saw them.
Let me offer a personal instance of the way in which I made use of this insight for the practical purpose of transforming my perception.
I had gone to Cardiff with my wife Joy to take part in a weekend of lectures. It all took place in a modern hotel that looked like a red-brick polytechnic, by the side of a motorway. It was not an inspiring place. And after breakfast on Saturday morning we glanced at the schedule, decided there was nothing we wanted to hear, and set out to walk into the centre of Cardiff and do some shopping. It was a dull, cold day, and walking along by a concrete road with traffic roaring past was not conduce to the ‘holiday feeling’. But I reflected that perception is intentional, that I was stupidly allowing myself to collapse into the ‘natural standpoint’, and that this was a boring waste of time. So I proceeded to decline to allow my inner-pressure to sink; on the contrary, I began to concentrate my mind. It had the desired effect, and by the time we had walked under a motorway bridge and found ourselves a few hundred yards from the shops, I had begun to ‘see’ the world far more positively.
We wanted to buy something from the chemist; but as we were walking through an enormous Boots, Joy told me that she felt she had ‘flu coming on. At the start of a weekend that was intended to give her a break from housekeeping, this was about the most unwelcome news I could have heard. If she had told me ten minutes earlier it would have depressed me, but as it was, I concentrated my energies again , found her a seat, and went off to buy ‘flu medicine and cold cure. And because there seemed no point in returning to the hotel, since she was not feeling too low, we decided to go to the Municipal Art Gallery, where there was an exhibition of Gwen John. We did this, enjoyed the exhibition and the lunch that followed, then took a taxi back to the hotel, where Joy retired to bed, and I went off to a lecture.
Joy’s ‘flu lasted the weekend, but prompt action had prevented it from getting worse, and by the time we travelled back to Cornwall the next day she was feeling a little better.
As to me, I noticed that from the moment I made this act of determined concentration, everything suddenly looked better, and things in general seemed to improve. If I had let myself stay in the negative mood, I am certain things would simply have got worse. Refusing to accept the ‘natural standpoint’ made all the difference.
All this might help to explain why I feel that Beyond the Outsider, which is basically an attack on what has happened to philosophy since Descartes, is one of my most important books. (The other is Beyond the Occult.)
Introduction to the New Existentialism (1966)
I regard this little book as a kind of appendix to the six volumes of the ‘Outsider series’. It is a conscious attempt to create what I have called ‘Romanticism Mark 3’ (bearing in mind that I regard Existentialism as Romanticism Mark 2). It was a statement of my own non-pessimistic existentialism. In Beyond the Outsider I had already spoken of Heidegger and Sartre, and tried to show that their gloomy view of human existence is not a genuinely logical consequence of their premises, but an expression of their personal temperaments. Sartre, for example, failed to see that if all consciousness is intentional, then Roquentin’s ‘nausea’ must also be intentional, not a revelation of the meaninglessness of human existence. Similarly, Heidegger speaks in Being and Time (. 173) about the ‘manifest burden of Being’ and the ‘burdensome character of Dasein’ (human existence) as if this is something on which we are all agreed, failing to recognise that, for example, Nietzsche would simply declare that, as far as he is concerned, it is not at all ‘manifest’, and would go on to dismiss it as an expression of the kind of poor-spiritedness he condemns in Christianity.
I should mention that there is an important section in The New Existentialism on an interesting new concept in psychology called Transactionalism, for which Hadley Cantril was mainly responsible – it was Julian Huxley who told me about it. This could be regarded as a most interesting application of Husserl’s insights (although, in fact the transactionalists were more influenced by Whitehead).
Transactionalism recognises that we do not simply ‘see’ things by opening our eyes. Perception is a transaction like buying a pound of sugar. I purchase my perceptions by ‘paying’ for them, and the coinage in which I pay is (a) energy, (b) preconceptions.
Cantril and his colleague Adelbert Ames Jnr devised an ingenious ‘trick room’, rather like something one might encounter at a fairground.
I am led to a small peephole in a screen. I look through it, and see what appears to be an ordinary room. Standing in one corner is a small boy, and in the other, a tall man. There are also a couple of chairs standing somewhere near the rear wall. Now the man and the small boy advance towards one another. As they do so, they appear to change size, and when they reach opposite corners, their roles are reversed. The boy is now enormous, and the man has shrunk to half his size.
The secret is a trick of perspective. I assumed it to be a normal, square room because the wall facing me appeared to be an ordinary square. In fact, the wall was really sloping away from me, but the wall which I had assumed to be rectangular was actually trapeze-shaped, with one tall end and one short end.
The short end of the trapezium was closest to my eye, so that it appeared to be exactly the same length as the long end, which was further away. The man seemed to be getting smaller because he was walking away from me; the boy seemed to be getting bigger because he was walking towards me. (The principle is the same as in photographing a man whose feet appear huge because they are close to the camera.) ) Consequently I appeared to be looking at an ordinary rectangle
Sometimes, there are two windows in the wall, also trapeze-shaped, so that they also appear to be square. This can lead to startling effects; if a man’s face looks at me first through one window, then, a moment later, through the other, it seems to me that his head has suddenly changed size.
The chairs in the room are also ‘trick chairs’, made with one leg longer than the other.
But here is the pay-off. Two of the subjects chosen to take part were a man and his wife. The man was highly distinguished and his wife’s attitude towards him was one of love and respect. And when the husband looked through one window, then the other, his wife’s respect for him prevented her vision from distorting him, and making his head. appear first large, then small, and she suddenly saw through the illusion, and she said ‘Hey, those windows are different sizes’. This became known as the ‘Honi effect’ since he always called her Honi (i.e Honey).
Now if you really wish to test how far you have understood what I have been saying about phenomenology, then just imagine that some scientist has invented a device that you put on like a pair of spectacles, and which ‘undistorts’ the world around us, and creates the Honi effect on a massive scale; i.e. it removes all the prejudices and assumptions from your ‘seeing’ and allows you to see things as the ‘really are’.
Here is the question. Bearing in mind how ‘Honi’ saw the trick behind the distorted room, whats difference do you think the inventor’s ‘undistorting’ device would make to your perceptions?
Let me add quickly that there is no single answer to that question. You could go on indefinitely imagining ‘breakthroughs to reality’ – like, for example, the breakthrough I have described in Cardiff when I declined to accept the evidence of my senses that I was in an utterly dreary situation.
Mostly, in fact, the difference made by the ‘Undistorter’ would be of this kind.
Amusingly, the great science fiction writer Stanley G. Weinbaum wrote a story about a pair of spectacles that would show things from other points of view, and I recommend it to all students of phenomenology. (It is called The Point of View). Similarly, C. S. Lewis wrote a delightful story about seeing things through other people’s eyes, called The Shoddy Lands, in which a professor has the strange experience of seeing the world through the unsophisticated eyes of one of his students’ girlfriends.
And as a third example, here is a page from Introduction to the New Existentialism which deals with yet another literary instance of ‘phenomenological distortion’:
George Crabbe has a narrative poem called The Lover’s Journey that would have delighted Husserl. It begins with the thoroughly phenomenological statement:
It is the soul that sees; the outward eyes
Present the object; but the mind descries.
The lover sets out to see his mistress, and as he rides along, everything delights him, and his reflections on the delights of nature are of the kind we find in Goldsmith’s Deserted Village or Thompson’s Seasons. He passes some gypsies, and reflects charitably that even if they are thieves and idlers, they are nevertheless ‘merry rogues.’ But when he arrives at her house, he finds a note saying that she has had to go to visit a friend, and asking him to follow. He sets out in a thoroughly black temper; now everything displeases him:
I hate these long green lanes; there’s nothing seen
In this vile country but eternal green.’
The sight of a newly wedded couple emerging from church arouses cynical reflections. But now he arrives and meets his mistress, and instantly forgets his anger. They go off together, completely oblivious of everything but one another. The passing scenes arouse neither delight nor irritation; they are unnoticed.
These examples offer us a glimpse of how phenomenology could be used to transform our lives.
© Colin Wilson