After writing my recent appreciation (and critique) of Colin Wilson, I found that one of my favorites books of his was available on Kindle, so I bought it and re-read it. I’m glad I did. It reminded me of what I find so valuable in Wilson (and it reminded me of some annoyances as well). This is Wilson at his best. He started the book as a biography of Abraham Maslow, with whom he met and corresponded, but it turned into more than that. In addition to it's appreciation of Maslow, it’s a history and appraisal of how psychology developed from the early moderns through the publication of the book in 1972.
Wilson reports that when he first came upon Maslow’s work he ignored it, only to have it come back to his attention at a later time. We should be happy for that second look. Wilson’s first book, The Outsider, and continuing through a cycle of books that bore the imprint of the first, explored the contemporary human dilemma. How do we successfully engage in life? In the Outsider cycle, Wilson examined the dilemmas of modern life through extraordinary individuals, many of whom failed to find a satisfactory resolution to their problem of existence, such as Van Gogh, Nietzsche, and T.E. Lawrence, to name but three. Wilson explored the European existentialists such as Sartre, Camus, and Heidegger, but he found their responses unsatisfactory. Wilson went on the construct a “new existentialism” that gloried in choice and will. When Wilson got around to looking at Maslow’s work, he found a kindred spirit. Maslow’s most well-known contributions to psychology, his hierarchy of needs and the reality of peak experiences, fit with Wilson’s growing belief that we ignore opportunities and abilities to summon peak experiences at will.
After some initial reflections touching on many of Wilson’s favorite themes and examples, as well as a brief introduction to Maslow’s work, Wilson begins a summary of modern psychology and philosophy starting with Hobbes and Descartes. I found this brief history valuable and instructive. Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, and Hume, despite their rationalist-empiricist differences, all premised their understanding of humans as essentially mechanistic with little (if any) room for free will. But there is another current of thought that blossoms later in the 19th century. It manifests in the work of Brentano and Husserl on the Continent and in America through the work of William James. Wilson quotes James a lot, and rightly so. Wilson finds James, especially in his essays, pointing in the right direction, although James doesn’t connect all the dots for Wilson. But while James was pointing in the right direction, Sigmund Freud was taking a different perspective in Vienna.
Freud gave us depth psychology, but his “depth”, with its reference to hidden sexuality and Greek myths, overlays a deterministic and mechanistic outlook. While prying deeply into psychic injuries, Freud's theories reflected a rigid idea of how our psyche works. Freud, who had a deep personal rigidity about him, dismissed various disciples who tried to take the master’s work in different directions, like Adler, Jung, and Rank. Wilson does an excellent job of mixing biography and ideas in this section (something that he tends to do well). Each of the three apostates (Adler, Jung, and Rank) pointed psychoanalysis in new and promising directions, identifying different sources of psychic disturbance and motivation. But still, Wilson concludes, this viewpoint focused on the disturbed, unhealthy individual.
After this informative and entertaining history of psychology and philosophy, Wilson turns to Maslow’s biography and work. I was surprised to learn that Maslow started in the rat and monkey business. Stimulus-response theory was all the rage at the time (1930’s), and Maslow worked that angle. He also came to terms with Freud and considered himself a Freudian. However, Maslow realized that Freud and his cohort focused on the sick individual, and Maslow decided to explore the psychology of the healthy. Maslow follows a path similar to Wilson’s in turning his focus from the sick to the healthy. Wilson explores and appreciates Maslow’s insights and how Maslow developed his theories. The down side of the tale is that Maslow died relatively young (bad heart) and wasn’t able to further develop his perspectives.
In the final chapter, we get Wilson’s synthesis of his own insights, Maslow’s, and a host of others, especially those connected with “existentialist psychology”. Existential psychologists, such as Victor Frankel and Rollo May, draw upon Husserl’s intentionality and its concern with will to help put a patient back in control of his or her destiny. Meaning, intentionality, and will once again become important aspects of psychology. As Wilson does, he dances between psychology, literature, and anecdote to make his points. This trait is both delightful and frustrating, as Wilson can be. But Wilson is a man of ideas, not a scientist or academic who does the necessary grunt work of the lab or field, necessary as that is. Sometimes Wilson seems dated, as in his adherence to the right brain-left brain dichotomy or his understanding of schizophrenia, but I don’t think that these dated conceptions have much affect on his arguments. (I am interested to learn if Leah Greenfeld’s work Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Experience of Culture on Human Experience about mental illness or Ian McGilchrist’s work on the different brain functions in The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World provide any vindication of Wilson’s larger perspective.)