“To begin with, when I published The Outsider, the main streams were logical positivism and linguistic analysis. They gradually lost their grip and disappeared completely, but they haven’t really been replaced by anything. All they’ve been replaced with is a kind of vague scepticism of the type you find in Rorty, or someone like that. All these people seem incapable of getting beyond this feeling that there’s no next step.”

In New Pathways in Psychology Wilson noted that “it is one of the absurd paradoxes of psychology that it has taken three centuries to reach the conclusion that man actually possesses a mind and a will.” (p.47). Philosophy has been just as resistant. Edmund Husserl’s important philosophical discipline of phenomenology has been misinterpreted by Heidegger, Sartre, Camus and Derrida. Wilson was understandably baffled at how they all irresponsibly fled from Husserl’s notion of intentionality. As long ago as 1958 he wrote: “The disease of our time is the diffidence, the sense of personal insignificance, that feels the need to disguise itself in academic objectivity when it attempts to philosophize.” Unfortunately, the rise and fall of postmodernism has actually made it worse.
Wilson has a sporting analogy for philosophy: “You could say on the billiard table of philosophy there are only two pockets – the positive and the negative. In philosophy, all kinds of people who belong to the negative side like David Hume, don’t really believe that the human will serves any purpose whatever. In other words it seems to me that in philosophy you’ve got people who believe that to a large extent, will really matters, and that we human beings have a certain control over our lives, and people who belong to the other side. And basically Derrida is one of these.” He describes intentionality with another sporting analogy here: “Intentionality should not be seen as a synonym for ‘directionality’, an essentially static attribute, but as a dynamic description, involving consciousness and its freedom to act. It is better described by analogy with a baseball pitcher than with a signpost. Paul Ricoeur was the first to state this with clarity. I will suggest that Husserl saw intentionality as a creative act, capable of altering consciousness, and potentially as a kind of mystical discipline.” That is to say, consciousness is active (perception is intentional). You can see this in Fitche’s statement “to be free is nothing; to become free is heavenly.” This is completely opposed to the passive “signpost philosophy” (semiotics) of Barthes and the “language speaks us” of Derrida.
All of Wilson’s work is concerned with Husserl’s techniques [and Nietzsche’s optimism]. Not just his philosophy books though: the true crime paperbacks, the luridly covered supernatural volumes, the pulp fiction and even the books on booze or music are all in the positive pocket. In The New Existentialism he explains why – “Phenomenology is not a philosophy; it is a philosophical method, a tool. It is like an adjustable spanner that can be used for dismantling a refrigerator or a car, or used for hammering in nails, or even for knocking somebody out.” (p.92).
In the seven volumes of his excellent ‘Outsider cycle’ (1956-1966), Wilson demonstrates the phenomenological method. “Husserl has shown that man’s prejudices go a great deal deeper than his intellect or his emotions. Consciousness itself is ‘prejudiced’ – that is to say, intentional.” (ibid. p 54). So, in order to really experience phenomena, we have to grasp it, like a hand picking up an object. This selectivity is so deeply entrenched in our perceptions that we fail to see it operating and think that things just ‘happen’. But it is not so: perception is intentional, rather like an arrow fired by an archer. The illustration below shows this selectivity in action, as we can choose to see either the faces or the vase, rather like flipping a coin.

Husserl’s name for the archer who fires the arrow of intentionality was borrowed from Kant – the ‘transcendental ego.’ This is the ‘I’ which presides over consciousness and both Husserl and Wilson insisted that it can be detected by a subtle process of filtering out mental prejudices. This existence of an I, a “real you” has been rejected by most post-war philosophers. [1] The turn away from Brentano and Husserl’s notion of intentional perception into the gloomy relativism of postmodernism has been one of the more depressing abdications of responsibility in the present age. Wilson has the interesting suggestion that there is little difference between these thinkers and “charlatan messiahs” such as the ‘Reverend’ Jim Jones and David Koresh: “The conclusion that emerges is that if the definition of a messiah is one who is more concerned with collecting disciples than with the truth of what he is saying, then most of France’s post-war intellectual gurus qualify as messiahs rather than philosophers… [their followers] being expected to nod in agreement as they are subjected to a barrage of increasingly absurd propositions.” (Below the Iceberg, chapters cut from The Devil’s Party). This is an important insight, and goes far in explaining the slightly ludicrous nature of philosophy, post – Nietzsche and Husserl. Wilson saw the slide from Brentano and Husserl’s intentionality into Existential absurdity and ‘postmodernism’ as a series of subjective prejudices masquerading as natural, objective observations. Wilson’s idea was to continue Husserl’s foundation work away from all subsequent misconceptions and to locate it in the real world, the world of lived experience. (Husserl called this the ‘lifeworld’ or lebenswelt). This can be seen in his assertion that philosophy is “intuition aided by intellect”. It can also be observed in his presentation. His books have a conversational tone; they are “keen to speak plainly in the language of the common man”.
Acknowledging the existence of the ‘transcendental ego’, the I (or genius or the “true will” as mystics call it) [2] – Wilson locates it not at any specific part of the brain but as a synthesis between the left and right hemispheres. To simplify greatly, you could say that the left brain constructs perception like a Renaissance painting with it’s fixed perspective point, and objects receding into the distance, as in linear space; the right brain perceives space in the manner of a Cubist painting – the viewer “taking a stroll” around the object and seeing all sides simultaneously. Westerners still perceive ‘reality’ with the Renaissance aesthetic of perspective, but this is little more than stage scenery. Wilson has a good literary metaphor to describe the difference between the two hemispheres. L. H. Myers “called it ‘the near and the far’ (in the novel of that title). The young Prince Jali gazes out over the desert in the light of the setting sun, and reflects that there are two deserts, ‘one that was a glory for the eye, another that it was a weariness to trudge’- the near and the far.” (Frankenstein’s Castle, p. 15). He goes on to say that ”the horizon, with all it’s promise, is always ‘the far’. The near is trivial and boring.” (ibid.)
Huysmans wrote about this in his classic ‘decadent’ novel A Rebours. His hero reads Dickens and has a craving to travel to London. Before boarding the train he eats in an English tavern and decides it would be a disappointment to actually travel there and experience a mere “clumsy change of locality.” This kind of ‘substitute experience’ is often more real than reality itself. Unlike Baudrillard Wilson does not see this as a problem, probably because he is not a materialist puritan in search of some kind of Rousseau-esque Arcadia. Rather, he sees the development of the imagination as a force for human evolution. Substitute realities – the drama, the novel, the computer game – are technologies which empower the imagination. He insists that the imaginative faculty can be developed to completely solve this problem of the ‘near and the far’. His concept of ‘Faculty X’ will eventually be known as one of the most important aesthetic disciplines of our age.
In Cults of the Shadow Kenneth Grant describes this new aesthetic in terms of “infinity, endurance, and remoteness, of the infinitesimally near and the infinitely fleeting: the finest, and normally imperceptible gap between thoughts that yields to hypersensitive awareness, a sudden insight into the real substratum of Being.” This, he notes is the “sole Reality”. (p.167).

Edmund Husserl

Wilson describes the differences between the two types of perception in anthropological terms: “When Charles Darwin arrived in Tierra del Fuego on the Beagle in December 1832, he was astounded that the natives were such excellent mimics. Although they knew no English, they could repeat a whole sentence with a good English accent. Moreover, they could join in sea shanties as they sat round the fire with the crew of the Beagle, by the simple expedient of repeating each word a moment after the English sailors had sung it. (Darwin said ‘the manner in which they were invariably a little behindhand was quite ludicrous’.) Darwin was baffled. ‘How can this faculty be explained?’ he asked. ‘Is it a consequence of the more practised habits of perception and keener senses, common to all men in a savage state, as compared with those being civilised?’ He is on the right track; but his essentially English habits of thought make him incapable of going to the heart of the matter.” (Afterlife p. 41). This is the essentially the difference between auditory and visual cultures, which was well described by Marshall McLuhan. In other words, there is a disjointing between the auditory right hemisphere and the scientific left hemisphere, resulting not just in cultural clashes but also in ‘divided’ human selves. Wilson insisted, and not without good reason, that the Faculty he spent his working life delineating would heal this cultural bicameralism…

But before man can go any farther, he needs to develop a new faculty – the faculty I am trying to so painfully to develop, sitting in front of this typewriter for days, a new way of grasping life. [The Sex Diary of Gerard Sorme, Nov. 5th]

Wilson saw left brain supremacy as a triumph for language, rationality and science, but was well aware of the sense of unreality such structures enclose us in. “Shades of the prison house begin to close”/ “We think of the key, each to his prison” say the poets. Part of the problem is due to our mechanicalness, what Wilson calls ‘the robot’. Marshall Mcluhan meant the same thing when he stated that we are all robots when uncritically involved in our technologies. The robot is absolutely necessary; he is a kind of automatic servant, (what sci-fi genius Philip K. Dick called a simulacrum) who does all our boring tasks, and does them better than we would if we attempted to do them consciously. Unfortunately he does the things we don’t want him to do, and often robs us of the beauty and reality of the world.
Wilson offers clear descriptions of both the problem and the solution. The simplicity of these methods and their application to everyday life has led critics to dismiss them as superficial, but this is hardly surprising in a culture which thrives on repackaging cynical world weariness. This pose of neurotic world weary rejection is no longer radical; it is as formally conservative as Victorian etiquette, yet it is an unquestioned assumption amongst too many intellectuals. He spoke about this problem from the start: “They mistake their own stagnation for the world’s. The Spectre’s (i.e. the robot) mark is Unreality.” He was talking about Existential anti-heroes Roquentin, Meursault, etc. in The Outsider (p.238), but it applies to any intellectuals who think that the ‘age of defeat’ is a perfectly reasonable and logical attitude to live with. There are obvious parallels between this type of philosophical pessimism and the active life devaluation of the criminal and these are discussed in Order of Assassins and the other crime volumes.

Wilson sums up that book with the insight that the ‘crime explosion’ is a byproduct of a culture which constantly blocks our optimistic self-actualisation with limitations set by a traditionally pessimistic set of values. “But we cannot even begin to understand the violence of our society unless we understand that it has it’s roots in the same urge that produced the […] search for messiahs and gurus and führers. If man is deprived of meanings beyond his everyday routine, he becomes disgusted and bitter, and eventually violent.” A philosophy and a culture which reinforces a wallowing pessimism as a tradition is a complete dead end, and no amount of linguistic pyrotechnics and obscurantist mystification can disguise that fact. Ages are to be assessed according to their positive forces, as Nietzsche put it. The major problem, Wilson clearly observes, “lies in the intellectual negativity that our age takes for granted […] this arises from confusion and (in Sartre’s case) bad phenomenology.” As for the fashionable nihilism of postmodernists, when “their grounds for pessimism are examined closely, they turn out to be muddled or trivial.” (Below the Iceberg, p. 14). But this a problem which is easily overcome, and how to do it is lucidly described in Wilson’s many works. Getting beyond the negative perceptual structures that enslave the likes of Beckett or Foucault requires merely recognising that they are illusory and built by us: an unlearning process. In The New Existentialism, Wilson comments “If anything is an illusion, it is the present mode of consciousness; or rather, it’s content.”

“Once we can see how this question of freedom of the will has been vitiated by post-romantic philosophy, with it’s inbuilt tendency to laziness and boredom, we can also see how it came about that existentialism found itself in a hole of it’s own digging, and how the philosophical developments since then have amounted to walking in circles round that hole.” (The Angry Years, page 214)

A journalist once asked Wilson if he thought he has any influence as a philosopher, to which he replied “none at all.” It’s true of course – in terms of publicity his New Existentialism was obliterated by Deconstruction in the mid Sixties. Yet Wilson not only predicted the demise of postmodernism – at the height of it’s fashion – he also outlived all of it’s main cult members. Thirty years after Wilson formulated his (as yet unnamed) theory of Faculty X in 1966, the culture critic Jon Savage could write that we have moved beyond postmodernism into “something with does not yet have a name” before describing this something as “today’s perceptual conundrum… the fact that you can live in several time zones at once” and observing it everywhere in popular culture. Wilson’s Proustian notion of “the reality of other times and other places” will eventually be seen as a very central concern well after the whimsical fancies of haute couture philosophy have faded away.

[1] “Like Sartre, Derrida believes there is no ‘hidden me’ hiding inside my head. What is more, there is no genuine ‘meaning’ out there either. He calls this meaning ‘presence’ and explains it is an illusion caused by time.” (Derrida Deconstructed, reprinted in Below the Iceberg). Whilst accepting that Derrida was a genuine philosopher – “if Sartre and Camus are philosophers, then Derrida most certainly is” – Wilson rejects his rejection of will. “Like Marx and Freud – and Foucault and Barthes – Derrida is a determinist; he has simply found somewhere else to lay the blame” (i.e. in the ambiguity of language). Despite his reputation as a Great Philosopher – mostly due to his obscure style – Derrida was merely talking cliches, and “overdoing the complications. All writers know about the ambiguity of language: Eliot says ‘Words slide, slip, crack under the strain.’ But “linguistic slippage” isn’t really cause for a kind of defeatism…. Similarly, Nietzsche once said: “The will to war is greater than the will to peace.” But if Bismarck had tried to use that as a justification of his militarism, Nietzsche would have winced. He didn’t quite mean it that way. Another point for Derrida, apparently.” (ibid) He also notes: “This means in turn that demonstrations of the “impossibility of philosophy,” like Derrida’s and Rorty’s, should not be allowed to depress us too much. In fact, Rorty ends, like Derrida, by contradicting himself… I suspect that the solution, where Derrida and Rorty are concerned, is simple. Neither are original thinkers; they have nothing much to say. But they are very acute critics….” Hence they are embraced by the literati but rejected by philosophers: “If Derrida is taken in the same spirit – of criticism of starry-eyed idealists like Rousseau – then what he is saying is bracing and salutary. Take it too far – as so many idiot “deconstructualists” now do – and it becomes an excuse for not even trying to think creatively…. it has become associated with a shallow and smart kind of scepticism.” (ibid).
[2] It is interesting to see that Gurdjieff described someone who has discovered the I as “man without quotation marks.” (Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, Viking Arkana ed. p.1101). This is very apt as postmodernism ironically placed everything in quotation marks, especially “genius.”

Further reading:

The ‘Outsider cycle’:
The Outsider. (Gollancz, 1956. Many different editions thereafter. Most recent ed. – Phoenix, 2001)
Religion and the Rebel. (Gollancz, 1957, Ashgrove Press, 1984)
The Age of Defeat. (Gollancz, 1959, Paupers’ Press, 2001, also available as a Kindle Book)
The Strength to Dream. (Gollancz, 1962; expanded: Abacus/Sphere, 1976)
Origins of the Sexual Impulse. (Arthur Barker, 1963, Panther, 1966,  e-book from Amazon)
Beyond The Outsider. (Arthur Barker, 1965, Pan, 1966, Carroll & Graf, 1991)
[Introduction to] The New Existentialism. (Hutchinson 1966, Wildwood House, 1980)


Bernard Shaw: A Reassessment. (Hutchinson, 1969, Macmillan, 1981)
New Pathways in Psychology. (Gollancz, 1972, e-book from Amazon)
Frankenstein’s Castle. (Ashgrove, 1980)
Anti-Sartre. (Borgo Press, 1981, reprinted and expanded as Below the Iceberg, Borgo, 1998)
Access to Inner Worlds. (Rider, 1983, e-book from Amazon)
Lord of the Underworld. (Aquarian, 1984, Aeon Books, 2005)
The Bicameral Critic. (Ashgrove Press, 1985)
An Essay on the New Existentialism. (Paupers’ Press 1986)
The Laurel and Hardy Theory of Consciousness (Robert Briggs Associates, 1986**)
The Misfits: A Study of Sexual Outsiders (Grafton, 1988)
Existentially Speaking. (Borgo Press, 1989)

** Important essay originally in The Essential Colin Wilson. (Harrap, 1985)

Collected Essays on Philosophers (Cambridge Scholars Publishers, 2016)


2 thoughts on “Philosophy

  1. Pingback: Colin Wilson online — Intentionality | Psyberspace

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