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Alan Watts on Problems of Modernity: Philosophers and Materialism

Alan Watts was known for placing criticism on various circumstances of our society. This article is about Watts' view that our perception of materialism is wrong and modern philosophers have forgotten an important aspect of philosophy.

Alan Watts made it clear that in his opinion the term materialism would be misinterpreted. Actual materialism presupposes valuing things from which modern man is far alienated.

The problem of modern philosophers, according to Wattsm, is that they may regard philosophy as an ordinary profession and wonder about things.

Here is the video, of the entire talk by Alan Watts on this topic. I recommend you watch it before we get into exactly what he meant by it (if you don't understand English just skip the video):


Meaningful translation

So let us now have a look at the monologue. I have taken the liberty of adding some comments to it in order to explain deeper meanings and also references a little more closely:

"It has become extremely plausible that this journey between maternity ward and crematorium is what life is all about."

Alan Watts has used this metaphor for life quite often. It is meant to refer to the brevity and simplicity of life.

The more you know:
The famous quote from Alan Watts
"I am what happens between the maternity ward and the crematorium," according to Alan Watts, by the way, did not come from him, but from Father Maskell.

And we still have, if we go into our common sense, the nineteenth century myth that replaced the ceramic myth in Western history."

Here he refers to the idea of Western cultures that God is a creator or some kind of architect who created the universe according to a plan. But this image seems to have been overcome by a new concept:

I call it the myth of the fully automatic model:

Man is a small germ living on an insignificant sphere of rock revolving around an insignificant star, at the outer edge of one of the smaller galaxies.

This term and description point to the concept that life came into being through a long chain of coincidences. This concept replaces the idea of creationism.

But then again, thinking about it for a few minutes, I'm absolutely amazed to discover myself on this rock sphere. A spherical fire is rotating. It is a very strange situation.

And the more I look at things, I can't shake the feeling that existence is pretty strange.

Here Alan Watts makes it clear that he views this idea as intriguing and introduces the wonderment of improbable miracles that becomes relevant in the rest of this monologue.

I know that... a philosopher is a kind of intellectual dolt who makes fun of things that reasonable people take for granted. And for reasonable people, existence is simply nothing. She's just being normal. "Go ahead and do something."

And you see: this is the current movement in philosophy. Logical analysis says you can't think about existence. It is a meaningless concept. That's why philosophy has become the discussion of trivia. No good philosopher lies awake at night thinking about the destiny of man and the nature of God and all these things.

Because a philosopher today is a practical guy who comes to the university at 9:00 am with a briefcase and leaves at 5:00 pm.

In his works and lessons, Alan Watts has often criticized the fact that man is increasingly evolving in such a way that he often presses his passions into job forms in which the enthusiasm for the thing itself would be displaced by the dreary daily routine and the earning of money.

During the day, he would engage in philosophy, i.e., he would discuss whether certain sentences had meaning and, if so, what meaning. And then - as William Earl said in a very funny essay - he would come to work in a white coat if he thought he could get away with it.

The problem is that he has lost his sense of wonder. Miracles, as in modern philosophy, are something you can't have. It's like enthusiasm in 18th century England. In a very bad form."

In 18th century England, during the Civil War, the term "enthusiasm" was a dirty word used to discredit religious dissenters as dangerous and fanatical. Watts compares the tabooing of wonder and amazement in philosophy with that of enthusiasm.

"But you see, I don't know what question to ask when I wonder about the universe. It is not a question that I wonder about, but it is the feeling that I have. For I cannot formulate the question that is my wonder.

The moment I open my mouth to speak them, I suddenly realize that I am talking nonsense. But that shouldn't prevent amazement from being the basis of philosophy."

This passage makes clear Alan Watt's fascination with the universe and also shows his conviction of what is the very core of philosophy: to be amazed, even if one is not able to put the reason of amazement into words.

So there is obviously a place in life for a religious attitude in the sense of reverence.

Astonishment at the existence.

And that is also a basis for respect for existence. We don't have much of that in this culture, even if we call it materialistic.

In the culture we now call materialistic, we are naturally bent on completely destroying the material as quickly as possible and turning it into scrap and poison gas.

This is not a materialistic culture because it has no respect for the material, and respect in turn is based on wonder.

To feel the wonder of an ordinary pebble in your fingers."

Thoughts on this monologue

Probably you are like me and you recognize a lot of truth in these words of Alan Watts.

The final example in particular makes me smile - and for different reasons:

On the one hand, because I know exactly how it feels to be in a moment like that and to be completely fascinated by a seemingly small, trivial thing. But on the other hand also because I catch myself enormously often how I go blindly through everyday life for such things and find myself exactly in the criticized position about which I have amused myself in this little speech.

But that's also okay. Because it's perfectly okay to slide back and forth a little. And above all, there is one thing that Alan Watts wanted to make clear:

"Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods have made for fun."

- Alan Watts

And so it is also part of not being too strict with yourself. Especially when you realize that you have once again blindly followed the social conventions. After all, this is a nice opportunity to think again.

If you liked this kind of article, we have a number of others. For example, about Alan Watts' version of the Chinese farmer history.

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