Colin Wilson considered this book to be the pinnacle of his philosophy. It is an attempt to show how recent developments in understanding of consciousness, of ‘peak experiences’, aesthetic and mystical, and of language, can bring back meaningfulness, and provide 20th and 21st century man with a relevant and satisfying philosophy.
Some years ago, an American psychologist, Abraham Maslow, felt the same kind of instinctive revolt against the ‘atmosphere’ of Freudian psychology, with its emphasis on sickness and neurosis, and decided that he might obtain some equally interesting results if he studied extremely healthy people. He therefore looked around for the most cheerful and well-adjusted people he could find, and asked for their co-operation in his studies. he soon discovered and interesting fact: that most extremely healthy people frequently experience of intense affirmation and certainty; Maslow called these ‘peak experiences.’ No one had made this discovery before because it had never struck anyone that a science calling itself ‘psychology’ and professing to be a science of the human mind (not merely the sick mind), ought to form its estimate of human beings by taking into account healthy minds as well as sick ones. A sick man talks obsessively about his illness; a healthy man never talks about his health; for as Pirandello points out, we take happiness for granted, and only begin to question life when we are unhappy. Hence no psychologist ever made this simple and obvious discovery about peak experiences.
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.
A child might be overawed by a great city, but a civil engineer knows that he might demolish it and rebuild it himself. Husserl’s philosophy has the same aim: to show us that, although we may have been thrust into this world without a ‘by your leave,’ we are mistaken to assume that it exists independently of us. It is true that reality exists apart from us; but what we mistake for the world is actually a world constituted by us, selected from an infinitely complex reality.
In a book called Symbolism, Its Meaning and Effect, Whitehead points out that perception is usually a matter of symbols, just like language; I say I see a book when I actually see a red oblong. The Transactionists (who have been influenced by Whitehead rather than Husserl) take this one stage further, and point out that when I ‘perceive’ something, I am actually making a bet with myself that what I perceive is what I think it is. In order to act and live at all, I have to make these bets; I cannot afford to make absolutely certain that things are what I think they are. But this means that we should not take our perceptions at face value, any more than Nietzsche was willing to take philosophy at its face value; we must allow for prejudice and distortion.
The effects of mescalin or LSD can be, in some respects, far more satisfying than those of alcohol. To begin with, they last longer; they also leave behind no hangover, and leave the mental faculties clear and unimpaired. They stimulate the faculties and produce the ideal ground for a peak experience.
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.
Now the basic impulse behind existentialism is optimistic, very much like the impulse behind all science. Existentialism is romanticism, and romanticism is the feeling that man is not the mere he has always taken himself for. Romanticism began as a tremendous surge of optimism about the stature of man. its aim — like that of science — was to raise man above the muddled feelings and impulses of his everyday humanity, and to make him a god-like observer of human existence.
It is the fallacy of all intellectuals to believe that intellect can grasp life. It cannot, because it works in terms of symbols and language. There is another factor involved: consciousness. If the flame of consciousness is low, a symbol has no power to evoke reality, and intellect is helpless.