495. Oppression (X)
Yesterday, I considered Colin Wilson—last century’s Stefan Molyneux (aka “a philosopher”). Wilson was a complete autodidact—never went to university, completely self-taught. This type is often lauded, particularly by the right, because they come from outside the system—untainted by decadent intellectual habits, just bluff common-sense blokes who happen to read Sartre and Deleuze. Unfortunately, the autodidact is not quite so brilliant; there are serious limitations to being an autodidact; not least, as in Wilson’s case, arrogance and crucial holes in their knowledge—ignorance begets self-confidence.
Outsiders are undoubtedly valuable, Nietzsche, for example, was a maverick who scorned the intellectual establishment; and yet, he was formed by that establishment—he went to elite schools to prepare him for an elite academic career, he was picked out early. He then happened to burn so brightly that he worked his way through to the other side, burned a new opening in the orthodoxy. However, he was formed by the system in the first place. Autodidacts, like Wilson, never face any pushback; they never sit in a seminar or with a tutor who says: “Well, what about this? What about that? Did you read this? Did you know ‘X’ said this before?” Basically, they have never been properly challenged. At most, as in Wilson’s case, they tested themselves at Speakers’ Corner or in cult-like societies called The Bridge that were intellectual but highly constrained—obsessed with Gurdjieff, Rand, or similar charlatans.
The result is that complete autodidacts like Wilson—who really came from nowhere, lived on Hampstead Heath in a sleeping bag before his first book was published—are often both arrogant and oddly naïve; the naïveté can charm, but sometimes it conceals complete ignorance. Even the most brilliant men—even if they break with the system eventually—were challenged at some point; someone said to them, in good faith or not, “Here is an alternative to what you say…” Hence Wilson has odd gaps in knowledge for someone who fancied himself a philosopher; he claimed to have discovered a psychological phenomenon he called “St. Neot’s margin”—yet it is obviously just a basic observation made by Schopenhauer, and even by the Buddhists.
The truth was, contrary to his own claims, that he had not read Schopenhauer or Heidegger—or at most had read a gloss and then dismissed them. I am pretty sure, having read enough Wilson, that he read they were “pessimists” in a secondary source and dismissed them out of hand because he was “an optimist”. Accordingly, to the intellectual establishment, Wilson often looked stupid and arrogant. He was very like Blake—whom he admired and who also worked in an idiosyncratic idiom. However, even Blake—like Nietzsche—served an apprenticeship…
Although it is true universities and intellectual life are quite corrupt and are politically captured—and that much of the scorn poured on Wilson was snobbery—there is some benefit from at least having to work through a reading list. Wilson’s problem was that he was like a man who said, “I think I’ve worked out dreams might relate to waking life, perhaps to our sexual desires,” and then wrote as if he had made an original contribution to psychology. “Um. Have you heard of Freud?” (“Yes, I glanced at the Wikipedia article. Seems pessimistic, not part of my philosophy.”) This is what makes autodidacts—Molyneux is like this too, though he went to university—oddly learned yet ignorant.
Wilson and Molyneux both feel like clever schoolboys, delivering their end-of-term report on YouTube; yet this attitude also creates a culty atmosphere. There is a market for people who want “philosophy” and like the word “metaphysics”, although they never explain what they mean by the term—only they know it is essential to mention it to be “philosophical”. When Wilson fancied himself as a “philosopher” it was in this colloquial sense: “Ohh, he’s got a philosophy of goalkeeping ‘nd all.” In other words, he said: “My outlook on life is optimistic, that is my philosophy.”