In Praise of Alan Watts And ‘Popularizers’

I have a confession to make: I enjoy reading Alan Watts‘ books. This simple statement of one of my reading pleasures, this revelation of one of my tastes in books and intellectual pursuits, shouldn’t need to be a confession, a term that conjures up visions of sin and repentance and shame. But it is, a veritable coming out of the philosophical closet.

You see, I’m a ‘professional philosopher.’ I teach philosophy for a living; I write books on philosophy. Sometimes people refer to me as a ‘philosophy professor’, sometimes they even call me–blush!–a ‘philosopher.’  I’m supposed to be ‘doing’ serious philosophy,’ reading and writing rigorous philosophy; the works of someone most commonly described as a ‘popularizer’ do not appear to make the cut. Even worse, not only was Watts thus a panderer to the masses, but he wrote about supposedly dreamy, insubstantial, woolly headed, mystical philosophies. An analytical philosopher would be an idiot to read him. Keep it under wraps, son.

To be sure, I have read some original works in the areas that Watts is most known for popularizing: Zen Buddhism, Daoism, and Indian philosophy–especially that of the non-dualist Vedanta. I have even taught an upper-tier core class on Philosophies of India and China–my class covered the Vedas, Jainism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism. My philosophical training enables me to grapple with the substantial metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, and political issues these writings so richly engage with. But I’m not a specialized scholar in these domains, and hardly ever read modern academic writing that tackles their areas of ongoing disputation and analysis. My current areas of interest–legal theory, pragmatism, Nietzsche–and my current distractions and diversions–mainly the politics of cricket–take up most of my time and intellectual energy.

So I enjoy reading Watts when I can. I always have. He was erudite, he wrote clearly and passionately, and if you’ll indulge me just for a second, I would even describe him as ‘wise.’ He tackles issues that are at the core of philosophical questioning and inquiry and attitudes; he often offers quite lucid insights into matters that emotionally resonate with me. Perhaps I do not have the background necessary with which to evaluate his claims about Zen Buddhism and the Vedanta; those more specialized in those domains have often contested his readings and explications. (Merely being of Indian origin does not, unfortunately, make me an expert on Indian philosophy.) But from my limited perspective, and with an acknowledgment of some expressions of only partial comprehension, and sometimes even disagreement, with his writings, I would venture that I did not find him guilty of too many philosophical sins. (For instance, his ‘The Language of Metaphysical Experience’ is a very clear piece of writing; this was first published in 1953 in The Journal of Religious Thought and later reprinted in Become What You Are (Shambhala Classics.)) 

I do not know if Watts ever featured on philosophy reading lists at universities; my guess is not. He certainly is unlikely to in the future; he is dated now, I think. Perhaps only ageing hippies–dunno if I qualify as one–continue to read him. But I think it would be a shame if our fastidiousness about a certain kind of professional philosophical hygiene were to prevent us from approaching writings like his–that is, those who set themselves to expounding for the plebes–with less than an open mind.

Academic Writing In Philosophy: On Finding Older Writing Samples

Yesterday, while cleaning up an old homepage of mine, I found some old papers written while I was in graduate school. Overcome by curiosity–and rather recklessly, if I may say so–I converted the old Postscript format to PDF, and took a closer look.

The first is titled ‘No Cognition Without Representation'; its abstract reads:

A critical look at the emulation theory of representation [due to Rick Grush] and its claims to have shown a) the dynamical thesis of cognition to be incomplete and b) to have provided a necessary condition on cognition.

The second is titled ‘Quantum Mechanical Explanation, Nonseperability and Causality'; its abstract reads:

Does using non-separable processes (as quantum mechanical processes might be understood) in scientific explanations violate some crucial methodological principle? I argue that the answer is no.

The third is titled ‘Folk Psychology, Connectionism and Constraints on Believers'; its abstract reads:

An examination of the argument that connectionism leads to eliminativist conclusions about the mind; I argue further that often, constraints placed on believers by proponents of folk psychology seem to be arbitrary.

The fourth is titled ‘Contextualism, Skepticism and Kinds of Possibilities'; its abstract reads:

A sympathetic examination of contextualist claims to have solved the skeptical puzzle.

As might be expected, as I looked through these papers (written between 1994-1999), I experienced some mixed feelings. One of them–the first above–was presented at a conference and featured in its proceedings; I submitted it later to Philosophical Psychology and was asked to revise and resubmit, but never got around to it; a publication opportunity missed.  I was advised to rework my conclusion to the third paper into a longer piece and submit to a journal; again, I was overcome by lassitude. Clearly, I didn’t seem to have been overly eager to add lines to my CV, a rather self-indulgent attitude.

Far more interesting, I think, was my reaction on reading my writing and its so-called ‘style': I write very much like a generic Anglo-American analytic philosopher. There is a forensic quality to my analysis; I pick arguments apart with some care and precision, deploying the tools of the trade that I had learned, not just by reading journal articles but also by observing verbal disputation at philosophy colloquia (a paper I wrote on Michael Slote‘s From Morality to Virtue was found particularly devastating by my professor; he suggested I had ‘really gone to town on Slote’); I use standard turns of phrase; like all good ‘analytic types’ I sprinkle abbreviations and faux mathematical symbols throughout; my writing has little ornamentation or flourish; it is also not distinctive in any interesting way.

By that stage in my education–as I worked through the large amount of coursework required in my program–it is apparent I had started to learn some of the tricks of the trade: writing in a knowing voice, subconsciously taking on the verbal mannerisms and tics of the writing that I had been exposed to. I was seeking to blend in, to become part of this new group I was seeking admission to; emulation seemed like the best way to do so. There is little doubt in my mind that had I continued to travel in roughly the same philosophical neighborhoods as above–philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, and epistemology–I would have settled into a writing groove, perhaps churning out papers on what I saw as the latest trends and topics in philosophy. (Each of the four topics above was in ‘vogue’ in the 1990s.)

Success–such as it is–in academic writing can very often be a matter of writing in a way that does not induce too much dissonance or discomfort in your referees, your peers; these were, very often, trained just like you were. They regulate membership and admission; to be heard you often must sound like them.

Two Bad Ways of Liking Pop Music

Numero Uno: The easy academic way. The interest in pop music needs to contextualized by making your interest and listening pleasure part of a project of aesthetical investigation: What makes a pop song “listenable”? What is the semantics of “catchy”? What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for a track to be “pop”? I realize these are the kinds of questions only an analytically trained philosopher would ask; so we could also, as an alternative, think about framing questions like: What values does pop music seek to inculcate in us? Where did they come from? What is its history? Is pop music just ideology? What power relations does pop music preserve and enable?

Numero Dos: The plebeian, quasi-religious way: Describe your interest and pleasure in pop music as a “guilty pleasure”; this instantaneously grants oneself the virtue of modesty and self-effacement, acknowledges the “sin” involved in listening to pop music (thus rendering oneself distant from the ranks of the unrepetant). So, yes, I have partaken of the pop music temptation, but my heart is in the right place, because I know well enough to feel guilt when I listen to it. Of course, there is little talk of penance (perhaps by listening to all of Chopin’s Nocturnes), so it is unclear how much guilt the guilty really are feeling. The “confession” of this listening pleasure is supposed to indicate the presence of a guilt that cannot be repressed any longer; but I’m inclined to think that the reason the offender confesses is that the pleasure cannot be.