Alan Watts and Das Man

I have said on this blog before that I think that Alan Watts was perhaps the first Anglo-American thinker to lucidly espouse Heideggerian philosophy into plain English. Moreover, despite his status as a “stoner” philosopher working outside the academic profession, his thoughts on philosophy of mind and the nature of selfhood were very much ahead of his time in terms of providing an “ecological” or “situated” alternative to traditional Western concepts of cognition and mind.

We are, perhaps, rather dimly aware of the immense power of our social environment. We seldom realize, for example, that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society. We copy emotional reactions from our parents, learning from them that excrement is supposed to have a disgusting smell and that vomiting is supposed to be an unpleasant sensation. The dread of death is also learned from their anxieties about sickness and from their attitudes to funerals and corpses. Our social environment has this power just because we do not exist apart from society. Society is our extended mind and body.

Here we can see a primitive form of Andy Clark’s “Extended Mind” hypothesis, which says that the cognitive border between body and world is porous in terms of the information processing and the shared background manifold for behavioral norms and patterns of thought. Moreover, we see in Watts an echo of the Heideggerian concept of Das Man, which unravels the tight knot of Cartesian self-autonomy into a vast and intricately spun web of social intra-action. We are not just an Ego trapped within a bag of skin, but rather, as Watts emphasizes, members of a social and linguistic community. Accordingly, there cannot be a principled distinction drawn between where I end and the world begins, for I must be defined in terms of my relation to the world, not in terms of the relationship I have to myself.

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1 Comment

Filed under Heidegger, Philosophy, Psychology

One response to “Alan Watts and Das Man

  1. Will

    ~I don’t know about primitive, Watts goes far beyond the social dynamic of the quote above in his other work. This has also been explored at great depth in a non verbal way by Douglas Harding. Following the publication of ‘On having no head’ in the early sixties, Alan Watts frequently referred to a ‘headless’ experience. Check out ‘swimming headless’ by Alan Watts on youtube.

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