PUBLISHER’S NOTE TO
THE NEW EXISTENTIALISM
“It is extremely important to grasp the notion that man does not yet exist.
This is not intended as a paradox or a play on words; it is literally true.”
Colin Wilson, Introduction to The New Existentialism
Given the name, the new existentialism and its revolutionary philosophical proposition might seem to suggest a summary or synthesis of the premises known to us as existentialist philosophy. Nothing could be further from the truth.
If the new existentialism is the heir to any philosophy, it is Romanticism. Each shares a boldness and creative impulse, as well as an impassioned dream of immortality and desire to be on an equal footing with the gods. The new existentialism has more in common with Nietzsche and Goethe than with Sartre or Camus.
The shift in consciousness and the new ideal of man forged by the Romantics find unparalleled and vital expression in the new existentialism. They were the first to speak of the unconscious and its inherent power, and to reclaim certain concepts and beliefs generally held to have become obsolete. And like Colin Wilson, they did so with unprecedented enthusiasm and verve, recognizing that the last word had not been said as regards man.
Romantics upheld the central importance of man in the cosmos; the existentialists saw man as contingent. Romantics made the infinite mystery that surrounds us the basis of their enquiries and everything they went on to create, and, compelled by its heroic spirit, they viewed this mystery not as an affront but as proof of the existence of the sacred and of God; existentialists renounced imagination and its creative power and sought refuge in the narrow limitations of daily life with all its many trifles, thereby losing sight of the majestic and with it the idea of God and transcendence. Romantics aspired to change the world and looked to the future; existentialists thought nothing was worth the effort, that the world was finished, empty of all meaning.
Broadly, these same differences distinguish the “old” existentialism and the new existentialism proposed by Wilson.
The new existentialism is an ideological breakthrough, something entirely novel. In constructing it, Wilson drew on the canonical legacy and the insights he liked in the “old” existentialism. But he did so in order to highlight the failure of past philosophies when it came to fashioning a method or tool truly capable of teaching us how to live well and make the most of our potential.
Wilson’s basic proposition is that the ideal man conceived of by the Romantics still does not exist. We still have to traverse an inner path that will free us from past fears and forebodings, from a debilitating culture and anxieties embedded in our unconscious by our distant nomad ancestors. Wilson proposes a philosophy for the healthy.
By healthy we here mean man’s natural condition when liberated from the asphyxiating atmosphere inherited from Freudian psychology, with its emphasis on neurosis, anxiety, repression, the libido, the death drive, complexes, etcetera. Only when one is healthy is it possible to find the bravery and honesty to look fearlessly inside oneself. As Abraham Maslow said: “The healthy person wants truth even if it is painful”.
In order to find this truth Wilson proposes the use of phenomenology as an exploratory method of consciousness. Why? Because as we know, our consciousness is constructed through everything we have seen and learned from the moment we were born. This is crucial. We forget that we were all born in somebody else’s home. When we come into the world, we are yet to build our own home, our own self, and have to learn to live with what those before us adjudged to be the world, life, and above all, man. We inherit our beliefs and habits from those closest to us – the family – but also from the society in which we live and its culture. If the normal thing in this culture is to underestimate man and his potential, our idea of what we are and what we are capable of becoming will naturally be diminished by these beliefs: as the philosopher José Antonio Marina puts it: “The idea we have of ourselves is a real component of what we are”.
Wilson’s philosophical proposition is bold because it invites us to chart a terrain still considered the reserve of the gods or of fate; it is heroic because its goal is the most elevated, challenging thing that man can aspire to; rebellious because it faces down thousands of years of emasculating teaching and beliefs that undervalue us, lucid because it requires our full attention and awareness, and honest because it presents each of us with our self, free of mediators and outside judges. We become the architects of our own characters and lives.
In this book, Wilson claims Nietzsche as the true founder of the new existentialism because it was he who heralded the coming of the superman, with his valiant optimism and zeal, so utterly removed from passivity, complacency and herd-following. Whereas the optimism of the new existentialism entreats us to achieve a state of constant awareness, to become conscious of every thought that comes into our heads, every belief that underpins our personal value system, every act that expresses our most intimate, truest self. This is what Husserl meant when he said that consciousness is intentional. The new existentialism is pure attention. Wilson proposes that we make a science of our happiness and fulfilment. By applying ourselves, by bringing our willpower and attention to bear, every day will become a site of potential, an adventure, that is, a chance to put our abilities to the test. Because as with science, the premise of the new existentialism is optimistic, which is to say, it believes in the success of its mission, of its quest.
Wilson clearly establishes the relationship between existentialism, Romanticism and science:
“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 creature 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.”
The new existentialism is the philosophy of the future because its goal is to create the ideal man. The man yet to be born. It urges us to recognise the active part we play in constructing our lives, reminding us that we do not need to go on suffering the “passive fallacy”. The new existentialism empowers us, awakens our ontological ambitions and brings awareness of all that we can achieve. Furthermore it rekindles and marks a return to our lives of words such as “majesty”, “health”, “freedom, “heroism”, “potential” and “optimism”… It is a dynamic, practical philosophy, a tool to be used. To do so, we must first recognise the intentional aspect of consciousness, namely, the fact that we ourselves create our reality, establish the breadth or otherwise of our perceptions, and design the splendour of our horizons. The path that lies ahead is utterly enthralling. As Novalis said: “Who can tell what wonderful unions, what unanticipated new births we have yet to discover within ourselves?”
Samantha Devin is the publisher and co-founder of Aristeia Press. She is the author of the novels Bilis Negra, Arcadia and Heroica. As a playwright, she has written MEN, The Great Pretender, Topophilia and The Silence.
THE NEW EXISTENTIALISM
‘In The New Existentialism Colin Wilson does what no Continental thinker would dream of doing: he presents a positive, life-affirming existential philosophy. Avoiding the dreary cul-de-sac that philosophers such as Sartre, Camus, and Heidegger entered, and in which practically every European thinker who followed them also found a place, Wilson returns to existentialism’s roots in the work of Edmund Husserl, for whom the essence of consciousness is its “intentionality.” Wilson takes Husserl’s insight and, with hefty doses of Abraham Maslow, Alfred North Whitehead, and William James, creates a philosophical vision that is at once robust, thrilling,and inspiring. Be forewarned: if you read this book, you’ll never look at things in the old way again.’
‘I first read Colin Wilson when I was sixteen, avidly. What I liked so much was the clarity of his prose and the sense that he was talking about important things. His career had a strange path, and he was never going to please the literary critics, who felt they had been duped by their own enthusiasm for his first book, The Outsider, and never forgave him. I continue to feel a great respect for his life and work, which seems to me to be an ideal introduction to some aspects of modern philosophy especially for young readers, and for his life, which was an exemplary illustration of how to work cheerfully and energetically despite the complete indifference of the fashionable literary world. I am very glad to see his work being reissued, and I hope it will find the audience that the best of it undoubtedly deserves.’
‘In The New Existentialism, Wilson identifies existentialism – old and new – as “a philosophy of man without an organised religion” and traces its origin to the Romantic movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The Romantic rejection of organized religion granted the individual “a new freedom and a new dignity” but also placed a heavy burden upon him: if the God of organized religion did not exist, “man himself must become God – or a god”.’
‘If the new existentialism is the heir to any philosophy, it is Romanticism. Each shares a boldness and creative impulse, as well as an impassioned dream of immortality and desire to be on an equal footing with the gods. The new existentialism has more in common with Nietzsche and Goethe than with Sartre or Camus. Wilson’s basic proposition is that the ideal man conceived of by the Romantics still does not exist.’
‘”Existentialism…is the only modern philosophy with a long and clear road of development ahead of it.” Thus wrote Colin Wilson in 1966 and his ‘development’, his ‘new’ optimistic existentialism, remains as relevant today as it was then. Aristeia Press must be commended for bringing back this important book, inexplicably out-of-print for over thirty years, for the benefit of a new, twenty-first century, audience.’
‘Wilson’s best philosophical book, this reprint of The New Existentialism will help readers understand the continuity running through his varied interests and provide a well needed alternative to today’s cultural impasse.’
‘Colin Wilson was a true outsider, which enabled his striking originality. Incredibly erudite and bold in his thinking, philosophically his greatest contribution is that of turning existentialism on its head, from something nihilistic to something yea-saying of life. He was also a generous intellectual door-opener for a generation. John Shand is an Honorary Associate in Philosophy at the Open University, and studied at the University of Manchester and University of Cambridge. The most recent book he has edited is A Companion to Nineteenth-Century Philosophy (Wiley-Blackwell, 2019).’
‘[Introduction to] the New Existentialism is, along with the seminal The Outsider, Colin Wilson’s most important book. Wilson remains unique among existentialist philosophers because of his focus in this book on building a positive practical philosophy via a stringent phenomenological examination of human consciousness. Importantly also, Wilson stresses the vital requirement to construct an entirely new language, which captures advanced states of inner cognizance. In so doing he is actually conjoining so-called analytic philosophy with existentialist thought; a major accomplishment never previously attempted, and a further mark of his significance as a leading British philosopher.’
‘The New Existentialism (1966) is unquestionably Colin Wilson’s clearest exposition of his life-affirming philosophy. Lucidly and passionately written, it condenses over a decade of Wilson’s most intensive philosophising on the crisis of the Western mind – crystallising a vision for a more engaged and less passive form consciousness, and, as a result, a practical way for a more fulfilled sense of Being.
Although our terminology changes with each age, we are at present going through what is known as a collective ‘existential crisis’, where all our values have been uprooted and civilisation suffers from a lack of unifying vision. Wilson studied the sickness of the modern man in his first book, The Outsider (1956), and sought for a way out that was not simply a return to the old religions; he was a seeker for a new way of being that felt truly authentic and affirmative, and that provided an evolutionary impetus based on knowledge.
By examining our perceptual biases through applied-phenomenology, Wilson logically affirmed the value of higher states of consciousness – related to the mystical experience – which allows for a deepening of our inner vision, of a type of gnosis, which unveils the essential meaning of man’s existence. Stepping up from the ‘old’ existentialism of nausea and absurdity, he emphasised man’s ability to grasp reality and mould it, representing the evolutionary spearhead that goes beyond being merely an Outsider – but as one of civilisations’ most positively alluring and heroic figures embodied in the notion of the Superman.
The New Existentialism strikes a chord of positive affirmation much needed in the 21st Century and does so with a firmness of purpose and conviction too often lacking in the endless relativisms of postmodernity.’
‘The seventh volume in Colin Wilson’s revolutionary ‘Outsider cycle’, integral to the author’s lifelong quest to understand the ‘mental mechanics’ behind the visionary experience, explains his optimistic philosophy of intuition.
The new existentialism, pragmatic and inspirational in its transformative aspects, seeks to improve the world by widening the scope of consciousness and giving the spur to our evolutionary potential and the impetus to break free from what Wilson said was the ‘imprisonment in time, consciousness and personality’ imposed upon us by materialism.
To this end, and most importantly in our day of post-modern disenchantment, the new existentialism with its phenomenological examination of consciousness lays emphasis on the key issue of what constitutes human values. Uniquely, Wilson sought recognition of a standard of values external to everyday consciousness to provide a sense of purpose and an authenticity of living on which human evolution would depend.’