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Alan Watts:
The First Alt-Academic

4,334 words


Alan Watts

Alan Watts
Alan Watts — In the Academy: Essays and Lectures
(SUNY series in Transpersonal and Humanistic Psychology)
Edited and with an introduction by Peter J. Columbus and Donadrian L. Rice
Albany: State University of New York Press, 2017

“I have a confession to make: I enjoy reading Alan Watts’ books. This simple statement [is] a veritable coming out of the philosophical closet.” — Philosophy professor Samir Chopra[1] 

It’s no secret that we here at Counter-Currents are Big Fans[2] of Alan Watts.[3] If your image of Watts comes from the legacy media, or that hippie teacher in high school, then that may seem odd; but then, like most everything you got from the legacy media and the hippies, it’s wrong.[4]

Editors Peter J. Columbus and Donadrian L. Rice previously gave us Alan Watts — Here and Now: Contributions to Psychology, Philosophy, and Religion (SUNY, 20112, reviewed here [2]), which presented contemporary evaluations of Watts’ legacy. In what amounts to a companion volume, they go back to the source, assembling a “much needed” collection of his scholarly works so as to facilitate an answer to the still-vexed question, just what was Alan Watts?


Alan Watts — or Dr. Zaius. Surely Watts deserves a better cover than this abomination.

Despite its somewhat steep price tag (perhaps justified by the number of permissions required) and rather ghastly cover, this will be a must-have volume for Watts’ fans, as much of this material has never seen the light of day since publication, but is known to us through tantalizing hints given out in his autobiography, In My Own Way (Pantheon, 1972); while those who want to know what all the fuss is about will find more than enough here to show why serious people take Alan Watts seriously (although as we’ll see he would have detested the word “serious”).

The editors’ Introduction, “Alan Watts and the Academic Enterprise,” starts with a rehearsal of Watts’ remarkably conventional and literally old-school background: “educated at elite Anglican preparatory academies” and Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, ordination as an Episcopal priest, chaplain, and theologian at Northwestern University, professor of comparative philosophy at the American Academy of Asian Studies, visiting scholar at Harvard, an honorary doctorate from the University of Vermont.

And yet at each stage Watts eventually found some way to get expelled — or to free himself, as he saw it (though perhaps only later). Right from the start, his conventional academic career was scotched when he failed to get a scholarship to Cambridge, due to answering the essay question on Courage “in the style of Nietzsche, whose Zarathustra I had just read.”

This section might be called Who Watts, and what follows could be said to add three more w’s to Watts: Why Watts, What Watts, and Which Watts.

Why Watts?

Ultimately, despite a formidable classical education, much of it self-taught,

[He] dubbed himself a “philosophical entertainer” because, he wrote, “I have some difficulty in taking myself and my work seriously — or perhaps the right word is ‘pompously’.”[5]

In approaching their formidable task of presenting Alan Watts as worthy of academic attention, the editors see it as involving three preliminary questions.

First is the question of validity: Does Alan Watts have a body of work that could reasonably and justifiably be called academic or scholarly?

Based on the 30 papers gathered here — described by the editors as “contributions to professional journals,” “papers presented at academic conferences,” works produced under grants from various foundations, and writings and lectures during his tenure at various academic institutions — the answer to that question must be a resounding “Yes.”[6]

A second question is: “Does Watts’ thinking count as a dependable voice or relevant topic of conversation within contemporary academe?” Here too the editors marshal an impressive array of bibliographic evidence that

There is in the second decade of the twenty-first century an identifiable renaissance of interest in Alan Watts. His work is garnering renewed attention from emerging scholars and established thinkers in psychology, philosophy, religion, history, art and literary theory.

A third question asks “Is there a clear and present need for a comprehensive assemblage of Watts’ academic works? The editors locate that need in the “differing opinions concerning the degree of continuity versus change in . . . his earlier and later works,” as well as determining what represented “the apex of Watts’ thinking [and] when and how his philosophical vision was most vital and perceptive.”

Rather than taking a stand on this here and now,[7] the editors have arranged the works thematically, and then chronologically therein. Thus, the collection “provides a database for readers to gauge comparisons and contrasts of Watts’ developmental trajectories reflected in and across a range of topics, including language and mysticism (Part 1), Buddhism and Zen (Part 2), Christianity (Part 3), comparative religion (Part 4), psychedelics (Part 5), and psychology and psychotherapy (Part 6).” 

What Watts?

Part I: Language and Mysticism, containing essays from the 1950s (“On the Meaning and Relation of Absolute and Relative,” “The Negative Way,” “The Language of Metaphysical Experience: The Sense of Non-Sense” and “On Philosophical Synthesis”) as well as the posthumous 1975 “Philosophy Beyond Words” shows Watts “employing both apophatic and cataphatic languages toward expressing and talking about mystical experience,” thus already engaging in the chief problematics of contemporary philosophy of religious experience: how does language structure or limit mystical experience, and whether mystical experience is universal or culturally determined.

“The Language of Metaphysical Experience: The Sense of Non-Sense” may seem like a rather rarified and la-de-da topic, but the context shows its continuing relevance. It was presented at a conference at Columbia University, and was organized by, among others, Franz Boas, in order to “create a framework for the preservation of democracy and intellectual freedom thought he collaboration of scholars from a wide variety of disciplines.” Apparently, Boas and the others “blamed the development of “value-free” scholarship for the rise of European fascism,” according to a note in the archives of the conference, housed at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Although the connection to Boas shows what kind of non-value-free scholarship was in mind, it’s interesting to note that such a conference, seeking to “synthesize traditional values and academic scholarship,” would today likely be protested as itself fascist.

The concluding essay here, “Philosophy Beyond Words,” is also interesting for its context; it was published posthumously in The Owl of Minerva: Philosophers on Philosophy,[8] where Watts rubs shoulders, metaphorically at least, with the likes of Karl Popper, W.V.O. Quine, Herbert Marcuse, and A. J. Ayer.

Part II: Buddhism and Zen, includes essays from 1941 “The Problem of Faith and Works in Buddhism” — Watts’ first-ever academic journal article — to a “Prefatory Essay” to Suzuki’s Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism from 1963, and even includes the famous Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen from 1958. At first the latter seems out of place; although technically an essay for Chicago Review, revised versions were published as a booklet (City Lights) and as a chapter in Watts’ This is It, and other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience (Pantheon, 1960), both still in print. However, the editors point out that it “anticipates a genre of postmodern scholarship that deconstructs European and North American approaches to Asian cultures and histories toward uncovering hidden assumptions and biases,” and thus also anticipates Watts’ move from Traditionalism to hermeneutics, of which more anon.

“The Way of Liberation in Zen Buddhism” (1955) “is yet another example in which he was one step ahead of the cutting-edge thinkers of his era,” as this discussion of the “double-bind” problem appeared “one year before Bateson, Jackson, Haley, and Weakland (1956) published their classic essay, “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia.”

“Zen and Politics” (1962) has even more contemporary relevance. This is Watts’ “brief rebuttal” to an article which argued that Zen’s lack of moral concerns led to it supporting World War II atrocities. “The debate foreshadows later controversies concerning the role of Zen in Japan during World War II,” but also the discussion of just this topic in Jason Reza Jorjani’s Prometheus and Atlas (London: Arktos, 2016). Although Watts seeks to defend Zen from this charge, it’s ironic that the editors earlier note that rather than being a “popularizer” of Suzuki, “Watts challenged D. T. Suzuki’s ahistorical narratives by locating Zen within a temporal-developmental trajectory,” which is exactly the approach Jorjani takes in deriving the opposite conclusion.

Part III: Christianity actually consists of material deriving from Watts’ period as an Episcopal priest. The prize here is his 1944 translation, with brief introduction, of the Theologia Mystica of St. Dionysus (now considered “Pseudo-Dionysus” by the scholars), the locus classicus of Western ideas of apophatic theology. Prepared during his seminary training, the translation (thanks to the Greek hammered into him at those Anglican prep schools) and introduction (thanks to his own independent studies) would seem enough to settle the question of his scholarly equipment. It’s been long out of print, except for a 1971 reprint from The Society for Comparative Philosophy (apparently Watts himself) that fetches high prices on Amazon.

The remaining essays — “The Case for God,” “The Meaning of Priesthood,” and “The Christian Doctrine of Marriage” (all from 1946) — seem to show Watts trying very hard to be a respectable Episcopal clergyman, turning out respectable pieces of mildly scholarly uplift, and succeeding all too well. It was his personal doubts about Christianity, and concerns over how respectable his personal views on “the doctrine of marriage” might be, that would lead him to resign from both Church and University.

Part IV: Comparative Religion, consists of four essays which are “excellent examples of Watts’ hermeneutical turn in the 1960s and beyond,” the meaning and significance of which we will return to in the next section, Which Watts.

Part V: Psychedelics contains four essays from the early ’60s to early ’70s. Despite later criticism, especially for “misinterpreting ego regression as ego transcendence,” the editors conclude that “Watts’ qualitative work on psychedelics nevertheless remains pertinent as archival data for theory, pedagogy, and in contemporary analyses of psychedelic experience in relation to psychospiritual narratives, Buddhist practice and postmodern thinking.”

Since room was found for “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen,” despite its availability elsewhere, one wishes the editors could also have included “Zen and the Problem of Control,” which was reprinted in the same This Is It, and is probably Watts’ most important essay on psychedelic experience.[9]

Part VI: Psychology and Psychotherapy collects six essays and an interview, ranging from 1951 to 1973, establishing Watts as “a trailblazer in humanistic and transpersonal psychologies.”[10]

In the final essay, “Psychotherapy and Eastern Religion: Metaphysical Bases of Psychiatry,” Watts considers intellectual assumptions underlying Western psychotherapy affecting the understanding, fear and acceptance of death. Ironically, the essay was given as an invited address at Forest Hospital in Des Plains, Illinois, in January 1973. It was the month of his birth, in the year of his death.”

Which Watts?

It seems clear that Watts was a man of formidable though somewhat eccentric education, fully accepted as a co-worker in the academic world of his time, and he continues to have relevance there today. Why then has he continued to be dismissed as a “guru” or a mere “popularizer”?[11]

Mostly, the answer, if not the blame, lies with Watts himself. He rejected the spirit of seriousness and heaviness,[12] and deliberately set himself another task: a “philosophical entertainer.”[13]

The editors suggest that their synoptic presentation of Watts’ scholarly work leads to the possibility of a more thematic — if not more serious — reason: his rejection of the Traditionalist school of metaphysics and comparative religion.

As Greg Johnson describes it:

Although Watts found Traditionalism useful in liberating his mind from Christianity, he ultimately rejected it. In the Preface to Beyond Theology [4], he explains his reason. Traditionalists claim that Christianity is just an exoteric expression of the one primordial tradition which is the inner truth of all religions. But Watts points out that there is no evidence that the founders of Christianity thought that way. Instead, Christianity has always insisted on what Jan Assmann calls the “Mosaic distinction” between true and false religions. Christianity is the one true religion, and all others are simply false. Thus in The Supreme Identity, Watts treats Christianity as an expression of primordial truth, but in Beyond Theology, he treats it as a mode of illusion.[14]

The editors are scholarly and fair-minded enough to give us Whitall N. Perry’s Traditionalist riposte:

Beyond Theology, The Art of Godmanship, [is] a crazy pastiche of esoteric insights and false deductions, yet typically symptomatic of the ills to which so much of the pseudo-spiritual flesh of our times is heir.[15]

Indeed, up until The Supreme Identity,[16] his most fully Traditionalist book, Watts’ works were pretty “scholarly” and conventionally academic; indeed, most would consider it Watts’ most scholarly work of all. The abandonment of Traditionalism and the adoption of the “philosophical entertainer” were all of a piece.

We can see a hint of what was at stake in Perry’s scornful remark about “a crazy pastiche” and Watts’ refusal of “all or nothing commitment” to a religious tradition. The editors call this Watts’ “hermeneutical turn.” Rather than seeking some supposed “transcendental unity” above, behind, or perhaps beneath the variety of religions and cultures,

Watts . . . turned toward hermeneutical analyses exploring interconnections and disjunctions between localized narratives. Through this kind of interpretive study, one arrives at an expanded awareness and comprehension of perspectives via the dialectical rotation of differing vantage points.

For example, in what would be his last book, Tao: The Watercourse Way, Watts pursues

a historical hermeneutic in that he seeks to understand what the “far-off echoes” of fifth- and fourth-century B.C. Daoism mean to the contemporary state of affairs. The analysis is a cultural hermeneutic in that he seeks to “interpret and clarify the principles of Lao-tzu, Chuang-tzu, and Lieh-tzu” in relation to Euro-American thinking. The text also is a personal hermeneutic because, writes Watts, “I am . . . interested in how these ancient writings reverberate on the harp of my own brain, which has, of course, been tuned to the scales of Western culture.”

Needless to say (although the editors do say it) this kind of position was not only a way to overcome the extreme specialization and isolation of the academy (fewer and fewer knowing more and more about less and less)[17] but was also an extremely valuable tool for navigating, or guiding others through, the increasingly inter-connected “global village” that McLuhan, another “popular” Trickster, was already predicting in the 1960s.

Navigating and guiding are indeed the roles of a somewhat more respected “entertainer,” Hermes/Mercury.

Greek folklore suggests that Hermes, often considered the etymological root of hermeneutics, was himself a kind of philosophical entertainer inhabiting and playing within the flux and flow of language and communicative processes. In this way it seems the epithet was Watts’ lighthearted tactic for acknowledging his transition toward hermeneutical writing.

Moreover, the editors locate Watts’ reputation in a “a Sartrean triad in the semblance of No Exit”:

 Academic intellectuals reject Watts as a popularizer; popular audiences problematically idolize him as a guru; and gurus, that is to say, mystics, spiritual teachers, and religious practitioners criticize him as too intellectual. It seems plausible to suggest that Watts’ philosophical entertainer moniker was his way of “exiting” the existential dilemma . . . in other words, an interpretive strategy intended (successfully or not) to disarm critics and fanatics alike.[18]

The editors also locate an influence from “the tutorage from 1934 to 1936 of Serbian philosopher Dimitrije Mitrinovic (1887–1953),” whom they identify as

A formative thinker in the pre–World War I Young Bosnia movement and subsequent New Europe Group and New Britain Movement, Mitrinovic integrated mystical metaphysics and transformative political-social philosophy.

Readers of Counter-Currents may have a different view of the significance of Mitrinovic.[19]

Watts himself must have been slyly giving the game away when he said that, “I have some difficulty in taking myself and my work seriously—or perhaps the right word is ‘pompously’.”[20]

The editors quote this and although they take it (I think) as the inspiration for titling their biographical section “Pomp and Circumstance,” they do not pick up on the other association of “pomp,” for one of the chief functions of Hermes was as psychopomp or guide to the soul, usually on the journey to the underworld.[21]

We may find a contemporary analogue of Watts the philosophical entertainer right here and now on the alt-right in the work of the aforementioned Jason Reza Jorjani, whose Prometheus and Atlas emphasizes the need for a “mercurial metaphysics” and a literally playful or childlike use of language in order to explore the liminal or “spectral” aspects of our globalized and globalizing Western Weltanschauung.

That Jorjani has recently published a denunciation of Traditionalism[22] (online here [5]), and that both authors are fascinated with the occult, Taoism, Zen, and Japan (though perhaps reaching different evaluations of the latter) only adds to what both would likely call the synchronicity.

Of course, as a philosophical entertainer, Watts was unlikely to talk about such things as hermeneutics, at least as applied to himself. In Beyond Theology (the book of “crazy pastiche” that upset Perry so much) Watts describes his technique as the “Chinese Box method” (although it sounds more like the Russian Doll method): what happens when we fit, say, Christianity into Hinduism, and — if we can — vice versa?

All of which boxes may remind one — or at least me — of Mad Men’s Bert Cooper, who, in perhaps the greatest moment of surprise in cable TV history [6], dismissed the revelation that Don Draper[23] [7] was “a fraud, a liar, a criminal even” with the laconic Japanese proverb, “A man is, whatever room he is in.”

Bert Cooper in fact recalls the mid-century Watts, well-dressed and goatee’d in his midcentury modern office splashed with Japonaiserie, including a very Wattsian touch: a classic of tentacle porn.[24] He dies in the middle of the last season, but returns now and again to give Don advice, and in the finale Don receives enlightenment — or at least the inspiration for a Coke commercial — from this rather Wattsian [8] dude at a rather Esalen-ish retreat.

Well, I guess it’s time to leave this room; “when you get the message, you hang up the phone.” Academic, priest, theologian, boarding school scholar, guru, popularizer, philosophical entertainer — on the evidence of the essays collected here with such scholarly devotion, I propose that Alan Watts was not so much “anti-academic” as he was the first alt-academic.


[1] Quoted by the editors from his online blog, September 24. 2014.

[2] Though not in the Patton Oswald sense; see Gregory Hood’s review of his Big Fan here [9].

[3] See Greg Johnson”s annual tributes, as well as his “The Spiritual Materialism of Alan Watts: A Review of Does it Matter? here [10]; and see my own “’PC is for Squares, Man’ Alan Watts & the Game of Trump” here [11], as well as “There & Then: Personal & Memorial Reflections on Alan Watts (1915-1973),” here [2], which reviews the earlier companion volume to this one.

[4] The hippies themselves were a creation of the (now) legacy media; see Miles Mathis, “The Hippie Matrix,” here [12].

[5] Quoted by the editors from In My Own Way (New York: Pantheon, 1972), p. 252. For some reflections on Watts and his distinction between being serious and being sincere, see my “PC is for Squares, Man,” loc. cit. Reviewing Amadeus, Roger Ebert observed that “True geniuses rarely take their own work seriously, because it comes so easily for them. Great writers (Nabokov, Dickens, Wodehouse) make it look like play. Almost-great writers (Mann, Galsworthy, Wolfe) make it look like Herculean triumph.” The Great Movies II (New York: BroadwayBooks, 2005).

[6] The editors also point out that Watts’ publications were reviewed in academic journals and other professional media. An appendix lists “Academic and Literary Reviews of Watts’ Major Texts,” which reveals that apart from the expected Anglican theological journals and, later, various psychedelic and religiously comparative reviews, it would appear that Antony Flew reviewed Beyond Theology: The Art of Godmanship (an oddly dated title for probably his best book) in the New York Review of Books (under the title “Hip Homiletics,” presumably panning it) and someone reviewed that ultimate work of guru/popularization, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, in the Review of Metaphysics.

[7] In their previous collection, editor Columbus said that “Watts’ mature offerings were qualitatively and creatively different from his earlier output in terms of his approach to various topics, selection of content, methods of analysis, and modes of discussion.” (quoted in the book under review).

[8] Not the “peer-reviewed academic journal focusing on the work and legacy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel” (Wikipedia) but a collection edited by Charles J. Bontempo and S. Jack Odell (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976).

[9] Michael Hoffman considers it the most important essay of the 20th century. “Breakthrough from applying Minkowski block universe with frozen future to Alan Watts’ writings on Zen and the problem of control. More powerful ego death and transcendence came from this idea than from practice of (non-drug) meditation and idea of nonduality (current in late ‘80s).” See “Michael Hoffman Interview on Expanding Mind podcast with Erik Davis,” here [13].

[10] The conspiracy-minded might notice that “Watts’ early psychological writings were inspired by the tutorage (1936–1938) of psychiatrist Eric Graham Howe (1896–1975), a cofounder of the famous Tavistock Clinic.”

[11] It’s somewhat ironic that academics dismiss “gurus,” since many fashionable intellectual movements, such as Marxism, psychoanalysis, “critical theory,” etc. are essentially cults led by charismatic rabbis. See Kevin MacDonald, The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth-Century Intellectual and Political Movements (Bloomington, IN: 1stBooks Library, 2002; originally published in 1998 by Praeger, Westport, CT).

[12] The word “guru” actually means “heavy” in Sanskrit.

[13] Ironically, Watts admired but rejected the method of Coomaraswamy, who demonstrated his unquestioned scholarly chops by writing papers and articles where the main text was swamped under footnotes that could go on for pages; the joke being, as Watts pointed out, that the “good stuff” was often hidden in that forest of notes. Watts attributed this to Coomaraswamy’s adherence to the guru tradition, where students are expected to “work for it” rather than be spoon-fed. See In My Own Way, p. 227.

[14] “Alan Watts at 100,” here [14].

[15] Whitall N. Perry, “Anti-Theology and the Riddles of Alcyone,” Studies in Comparative Religion, vol. 6, no. 3, here [15]. Perry goes on to say that “He tells us he broke away from the philosophia perennis outlook because ‘there is not a scrap of evidence that the Christian hierarchy was ever aware of itself as one among several lines of transmission for a universal tradition,’ whereas ‘the so-called “traditionalist school”. . . regards every orthodox spiritual tradition as a more-or-less deliberate adaptation of the philosophia perennis to the needs of different cultures.’ The truth is, exclusivity is not the prerogative of Christianity: there never has been a religion East or West that did not require what Watts calls ‘an all-or-nothing commitment,’ and certainly none of the above named proponents of the perennial wisdom ever claimed otherwise.”

[16] The Supreme Identity: An Essay on Oriental Metaphysic and the Christian Religion (New York: Noonday Press/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1950).

[17] Similar concern led Hermann Hesse to propose a similarly playful solution: a game. “They say it is a substitute of the arts, and that the players are mere popularizers … artistic dilettantes…. The strict scholars and scientists despise it.” The resultant novel also explores the perils of seeking to become an “all or nothing” Chinese scholar, and the need to reject the role of “guru” (Knecht dies so that his student can, as Watts would say, “hang up the phone.” When asked by Knecht “isn’t there some kind of dogma?” the wise old Music Master gives the Wattsian response: “There is truth, but no doctrine, absolute perfect dogma. Perfect yourself. The deity is within you.” See my “Two Orders, Same Man: Hesse, Evola,” here [16].

[18] McLuhan also attempted to disarm critics by insisting his pronouncements were not dogma or conclusions but “probes” meant to stimulate thought. Wikipedia says [17]: “While some critics have taken issue with McLuhan’s writing style and mode of argument, McLuhan himself urged readers to think of his work as “probes” or “mosaics” offering a toolkit approach to thinking about the media. His eclectic writing style has also been praised for its postmodern sensibilities and suitability for virtual space.” See also Paul Grossweiler, The Method is the Message: Rethinking McLuhan through Critical Theory (Montreal: Black Rose, 1998), 155-81, and Paul Levinson, Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Millennium (New York: Routledge,1999), p. 30.

[19] Greg Johnson writes that “Politically, Watts was a man of the right. In his youth, he was a follower of the mysterious Serbian guru and operator Dimitrije Mitrinovic, an advocate of such quasi-fascistic ideas as Guild Socialism, Social Credit, and European Unity (as long as it was not Hitler who was doing the unifying).” See “Remembering Alan Watts: January 6, 1915 to November 16, 1973,” here [18].

[20] Cloud-hidden, Whereabouts Unknown: A Mountain Journal (New York: Pantheon Books, 1973), p. 252.

[21] Perhaps most familiar to contemporary readers as a device in Mann’s Death in Venice, where Aschenbach is “led on” by a series of mysterious male figures, finally culminating in the image of the beautiful boy waving at him from the sea as Aschenbach succumbs to the plague.

[22] His objections – the intellectually stultifying consequences of assuming pre-existing “perfect” body of knowledge, which can then only be acquired by attendance on a guru – parallel Watts’ own.

[23] Himself a Hermetic figure, who “dons” and “drapes” himself as the situation requires. The producers no doubt intended all this to be a bitter satire of the “fakeness” of WASP culture, their Semitic seriousness failing to grasp the value of Hermetic play. See my essays collected in End of an Era: Mad Men and the Ordeal of Civility (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2015).

[24] “What man imagined her ecstasy?” is his hermeneutical comment. The octopus print, from 1814 and usually known in the English-speaking world as The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, is by Katsushika Hokusai, otherwise known for The Great Wave. See “Bert Cooper’s Freaky Octopus Picture,” here [19]. “Not unlike the world of Mad Men, modern Japanese culture blends the button-down salaryman with the libidinous rake.” Watts however was rather censorious about modern Japan – “There’s no square like a Japanese square” – and bemoaned how all the trappings of antique Zen he loved were regarded by young Japanese as hopelessly boring and rather creepy.