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.

4 comments on “In Praise of Alan Watts And ‘Popularizers’

  1. Tom Gething says:

    I have always enjoyed his books, too. In particular, The Wisdom of Insecurity. He was very adept with analogies and metaphors that made you get his point. Although I agree with you, he’s a bit dated now. Still, I think he did a very important thing by helping to bring Eastern ideas to the West.

  2. Thank you for this post. Enjoying Alan Watts can feel alienating and I’ll never understand why. Always nice to be reminded that I’m not the only one 🙂

  3. […] about how I often am burdened by my past and anxious about the future. That’s when I remembered how fondly you mentioned Alan Watts and “Become What You Are.” I read that particular essay briefly before but spent most of the […]

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