Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Few Thoughts About Colin Wilson and Outsiders

     Colin Wilson, a British philosopher, died recently (at the advanced age of 82), and I knew absolutely nothing about him until a friend told me of his own recent discovery of Wilson, and Wilson's own recent passing.  My friend, it happened, had already ordered one of Wilson's books on line; and when it arrived, he promptly lent it to me.  (I am very fortunate in my friends.)

     To bring anyone else up to speed who is as ignorant of Wilson as I was, I will note that there is a decent quick summary of his life on Wikipedia, and an excellent, slow-spoken video on Youtube by Howard Dosser.  (There is also a Colin Wilson website.)  Briefly this:  while he was in his early twenties (in the 1950s) he wrote The Outsiders, a best-selling treatise on modern philosophers, emphasizing some contemporary existentialist themes.  But as he wrote other books, he found himself increasingly marginalized by the British and American intellectual establishment -- only certain types of approved Outsiders are welcome, after all -- although this did not keep him from continuing to write dozens and dozens of books on a wide variety of subjects throughout a long and creative life.

     It is easy to see why he was considered somewhat irrelevant to the mainstream.  To religious people (such as myself) to whom intellectual integrity is important, he was summarily dismissive of some important orthodoxies of Christian faith, so what did he have to say?  And as for the scientific materialists and logical positivists and marxist existentialists who prevailed in mid-century, he rejected their premises outright, too, so what did he have to say to them either?  Nothing much that anybody wanted to hear, especially from a relative youngster.

     But in fact I think that he had much to say that is valuable and important, at least to persons who are interested in the history of philosophy;  that is to say, the history of ideas;  that is to say, human history.

     Perhaps he has just caught me at a good time to listen to what he has to say:  sometime a year or so ago I found my way to Bertrand Russell's 1959 opus, The Wisdom of the West, which lives up to its title and summarizes the main themes (and characters) in the Western philosophical tradition.  Russell is a good thinker and a fine writer; but at the end of his book, I thought I could detect that his thinking had in some important way "stopped too soon."

     It appears that Colin Wilson thought so too, at least in the sense that Western philosophers, including Russell, have placed unnecessary and unnatural restrictions on themselves, and urgently need to get past their self-imposed blind spots and blocks.

     So far I have read only one of Wilson's books, his second, Religion and the Rebel.  I think it is the one that got him into trouble with his, umm, elders.  In this book, written in 1957 while he was still in his mid-twenties, he allows his ideas, interpretations, and insights to range all over the place -- from ancient cultures, through mystics such as Jacob Boehme and Nicholas Farrar, to the rationalists and romantics, and right up to the 20th century's Ludwig Wittgenstein and Alfred North Whitehead in his own day.                            

     To follow Colin Wilson, we must understand his terminology.  For Wilson, the term "Outsider" does not refer only to "alienated" or "despairing" men who are the common subjects of many of his fellow existentialists; to him, the best Outsiders are the ones who, by some combination of insight and discipline, become true visionaries, experiencing an unusual degree of personal transformation and even, we hope, real self-transcendence.  The key here is the need for real discipline and insight to produce the visionary man of action.  This distinction, or distinctive advantage, he believes, is crucial -- because the whole body of the status-quo "Insider" civilization always needs transformation, too, and in fact depends upon the visionary and active Outsider to provide it.

     And now I skip over everything and jump directly to his book's final chapter, which deals with Wittgenstein and Whitehead.  At this point,  Wilson is discussing the limitations and possibilities in logic and language.  Here are a few observations he makes in his discussion of Wittgenstein:

     *  "True existentialism canot be communicated in ordinary logical language; it can only be expressed in the drama, in poetry (and it is no coincidence that Eliot has stated that all great poetry is dramatic in essence), in the novel.  True existentialism is the dramatic investigation of human nature through the medium of art."

     *  "A philosophy which is not existentialist is only half a philosophy; it is philosophy without arms or legs.  All European philosophy since the seventeenth century has been a half-measure.  An abstract philosopher is a half-man."

     *  "The twentieth century has produced this 'clever schoolboy' type of writer in abundance. . . . And the 'clever schoolboy' is a fitting image for Western civilisation, brilliant in mind, but immature in all other things.  We are too 'clever' in the worst sense of the word."

     *  "Abstract philosophy is a symbol of Western civilisation.  The Outsider is the man who revolts instinctively against abstraction, against our infant-prodigy civilisation.  The Outsider is the man who yearns for a return to ancient standards -- the standards which recognise that 'cleverness' is of the intellect alone, that wisdom is a complex of intellect, emotions and body."

     It is unfair of me to lift these quotes from the final chapter, ignoring the nearly three hundred pages of good analysis, good thinking, and good commentary that has preceded them.  Furthermore, I selected only the shortest items; and they come across, in this post, hardly half as alive and significant as they are in context.  And it is even more unfair to Mr. Wilson for me to leave out what I consider the best parts of all, his insights into the remarkable thinking of Alfred North Whitehead, who shares this final chapter with Wittgenstein.

     But I do leave them all out.  This post has gone on quite long enough; I only meant it as an invitation to dip into the ideas of Colin Wilson; not to abridge them, let alone digest them.  Suffice it to say that, more than fifty years after they were written, his words, and his ideas, are relevant to some of the real questions and problems of the twenty-first century, and he points with optimism -- muted, yes, but real -- in the direction where fresh insights and possibilities may be sought and found.

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