Alan Watts -- In the Academy

Essays and Lectures

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Alan Watts
Editor(s): 
Peter J. Columbus, Donadrian L. Rice
SUNY Press Series in Transpersonal and Humanistic Psychology
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University New York Press
    , July
     2017.
     390 pages.
     $95.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781438465555.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Alan Watts (1915-1973) was once a well-known figure in the academy but never truly a full-fledged member of the guild. He did not contribute to a particular field in academic culture so much as to the lives and imaginations of many individuals who were active in the disciplines of philosophy, theology, and psychology, most notably the architects of what is now known as religious studies. Watts had an enormous impact on popular culture and the generally educated reader of the period stretching from the late-1930s to the mid-1970s. His books, particularly Behold the Spirit (1947), The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951), The Way of Zen (1957), Nature, Man and Woman (1958), Beyond Theology (1964), and The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (1966), confirmed and explained avant-garde trends in mid-twentieth-century intellectual life, especially the relevance of Asian worldviews, and invited an untold number of readers into the vocation of serious scholarship on religion and culture. This collection of essays trains our attention on Watts’ academic influence and reputation. Many of us, it is fair to say, owe at least the first stages of our careers to an unforgettable encounter with a book, an essay, or a talk by Alan Watts.

Peter J. Columbus and Donadrian L. Rice, also co-editors of Alan Watts—Here and Now: Contributions to Psychology, Philosophy, and Religion (2012), have assembled an attractive collection of Watts’s more scholarly essays, lectures, and reviews. Thirty engaging pieces effectively represent his achievements in six broad areas of academic concern: language and mysticism, Buddhism and Zen, Christianity, comparative religion, psychedelics, and psychology and psychotherapy. The texts demonstrate Watts’s impressive range of competence, the contagious catholicity of his mind, his remarkable capacity for direct connection with the serious reader, and his unaffected mastery of an English prose style that, while a bit old-fashioned by twenty-first-century standards, is neither flippant nor stuffy. Altogether the documents constitute a rebuke to the all too durable stereotype of Watts as mere popularizer, inviting what the editors unapologetically seek: a reassessment of Alan Watts as non-academic “polymath” (26), exhibiting an independence of intellect, both analytic and synthetic, marked by a rigor different from but not alien to the standards of critical, institution-based scholarship.

The chapters on Buddhism and psychology will likely be most familiar to contemporary readers. They include Watts’s brilliant and enduring “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen” (the sort of text that gained him a fictionalized cameo appearance in Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums) and examples of his many attempts to draft insights from Asian religious traditions into the service of an ongoing critique of mainstream psychotherapy and conventional ideas of sex and gender in Western society. Arguably the most surprising elements in this collection, especially to a new generation of readers, will be Watts’s exercises in Christian theology. Writing as a Christian intellectual before the debates over John A. T. Robinson’s Honest to God and Harvey Cox’s The Secular City in the 1960s, Watts simultaneous worked for both a rediscovery of classical Christian thought, especially Christianity’s sacramental and mystical traditions, and a full-scale redefinition of the concept of God that would transform the “curious chatter of thought” into the “loving silence of contemplation” (191). His 1946 defense of the traditional Christian doctrine of marriage is potentially the most surprising piece in the entire collection.

Watts’s penetrating insights into topics as various as linguistics and psychotropic drugs are unfortunately blunted by his consistent use of what is now recognized as non-inclusive language. Though standard for mid-twentieth-century discourse, his rhetorical practice today creates a barrier between text and reader that the author never imagined or intended. Readers once enthralled by Watts may now find him more an artifact than a living and provocative source of alternative wisdom. Shifts in style and perspective have rendered the “guru” label (3)— fretted over by the sympathetic editors in a thirty-page introduction—relatively meaningless.

This collection, testament to an astonishingly productive writing and speaking career, serves as a window into an extraordinarily significant era, when Asian traditions and non-theological forays into religion were largely unknown in the academy. Watts’s outsider status is firmly established, but his contributions to academic life and thought deserve to be acknowledged and celebrated. More than anything, we should simply marvel at the uncommon imagination that produced these texts and held the attention of a generation’s most adventurous minds. Watts once characterized the magic of liturgy as “terror and suspense, suddenly bursting into joy” (228). The same could be said of his scholarly best.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Peter A. Huff is director of the John Paul II Center and professor of theology at the University of Mary in North Dakota.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter J. Columbus is administrator of the Shantigar Foundation in Rowe, Massachusetts.

Donadrian L. Rice is professor of psychology at the University of West Georgia. Together they are the coeditors of Alan Watts--Here and Now: Contributions to Psychology, Philosophy, and Religion, also published by SUNY Press.

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