Caricature Sketch by M.R.P.
Alan Watts—in his time a popular lecturer and philosopher of mind, aesthetics, metaphysics, and religion—was a bit of an oddball. I feel fairly confident in saying that Alan Watts’ interpretations and considerations of Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, and Anglicanism, as well as his general attitude and demeanor, have to some degree shaped the popular image of the field of philosophy (and not for the better).
Much like how producers of pop culture almost always put poet characters in the emotional style and darkly colored trappings of the mid-twentieth-century confessional and beat poets, so the string of airy, unintuitive, and completely self-assured claims that constitute Watts’ works give shape to the nebulous and impractical stereotype of the discipline of philosophy possessed by so many modern students of science in the western world.
It is irrelevant that most of the aforementioned producers and students are not consciously picturing such forebears (in fact, I find it unlikely that most of them have even heard of Robert Lowell or Alan Watts); still, to find the source for a society’s image of an academic pursuit, one often need look no further than the best-selling popularizers of that field in the few preceding generations. These days, philosophical characters seem to always be a caricature of either Freud, Marx, or Watts. (Indeed, the 2013 science-fiction film Her featured an artificially intelligent philosopher who was a reconstruction of the consciousness of Alan Watts.)
Now, because I have already, on multiple occasions in this series, concluded that scientists should study philosophy and philosophers should study science, I will let go of these digressions and move on to my main topic for the day: Alan Watts’ discussion of death. I should start by clarifying that, although he and I would have no end of disagreements, I do still respect Alan Watts; he was a sincere thinker and a captivating speaker.