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Colin Wilson

Psychological Ideas about Human Potential

James Neill
Last updated:
11 May 2004

About Colin Wilson

Colin Wilson (1922-) is a prolific English writer of non-fiction on human potential, psychology, existentialism, criminality, literary criticism, and the occult.  Wilson has also explored his theoretical ideas through many novels.

Wilson, by his own admission, makes the same point over and over again in all his books.

The human mind tricks itself into underperformance.  Humans too easily fall prey to unnecessary defeatism.  Certain kinds of experience trigger our full capabilities, e.g., on receiving surprise good news we get a sudden surge of enthusiasm, optimism and meaning.  When we are threatened, we suddenly spark into action.

Wilson has an very indepth background in literature and reading many many literary, philosophical, and psychological writers and thinkers.  He has also studied the lives of many famous and not-so-famous individuals. 

Wilson's work belongs in several disciplines, but is unified by a focus on the human condition and how "it can be solved".  Yet Wilson has been somewhat maligned by mainstream literature, science, and spirituality fields, perhaps for his outsiderish autodidactism.

Wilson became famous with his 1956 book, "The Outsider", published when he was 24, written in a library during a summer when he slept in the park.  It quickly attained cult status and is still cited by many people as a 'life changer'. 

The original title of the book was "The Pain Threshold".  The basic thesis of 'The Outsider' is that the health of a society can be measured by how it treats its "outsiders".  Outsiders are about the 1 in 20 people who do not "fit in".  Outsiders may be artists, religious people, writers, criminals, adventurers, etc.  They may also be society's shamans, seers, visioneers, and litmus testers.  Cultures which incorporate and tolerate outsiders get to enjoy the knowledge contributions of outsiders.  Cultures which alienate outsiders by rejecting and repressing them, risk losing the contributions of their visioners and innovators, an unhealthy situation.

Wilson also places a great responsibility on outsiders themselves for failing to meet their duty to society.  Wilson identifies the main flaws that outsiders tend to suffer from.  Wilson sees many outsiders as failures since they didn't fulfill their potential to themselves or society, e.g.,:

  • by being overly physical: e.g., adventurers who overemphasize the physicalness of adventure e.g., in exploration or war

  • overly emotional: e.g., romantics who who fall prey to depression and negative thinking

Essentially, this boils down to outsiders who "give up" on the real task of creating truthful meaning from life by being overly active or overly passive.

By looking at the failings of outsiders and illustrating through numerous literary and biographical examples and anecdotes, Wilson attempts to map some solutions to the ways of life for the outsider.  It is a difficult path to tread for outsiders to remain relevant to society and continue to find ways of helping the human race evolve through access to its incredible potential.

Keys concepts

  • Fallacy of insignificance

  • Jonah complex

  • Faculty X

  • The outsider

Key ideas

  • The will needs a purpose

  • What we accept as everyday consciousness is thoroughly sub-normal.

  • Human beings experience a range of mental states which is as narrow as the middle three keys of a piano.

  • Everyday consciousness is a liar.

  • Freedom is a quality of consciousness.

Key quotes

  • Dr. Miller says we are pessimistic because life seems like a very bad, very screwed-up film. If you ask "What the hell is wrong with the projector?" and go up to the control room, you find it's empty. You are the projectionist, and you should have been up there all the time.

  • The average man is a conformist, accepting miseries and disasters with the stoicism of a cow standing in the rain.

  • The mind has exactly the same power as the hands; not merely to grasp the world, but to change it.

  • It is true that there are exercises that can strengthen the 'muscle' that enable us to push back the bounds of acceptation. But these are relatively unimportant. The real problem is that we are trapped in misconceptions that always deceive us, as the matador's cape deceives the bull; that continue to deceive us a million times over the course of a lifetime. Wittgenstein once said that traditional philosophy causes a form of mental cramp, and that the aim of his philosophy was to remove this mental cramp, or to 'show the fly the way out of the bottle'. Our misconceptions involve the passive fallacy and notion that consciousness is a plane mirror that cannot lie about the world it reflects.
    From Poetry & Mysticism

  • But my central point is this. Man is a very young creature: his remotest ancestors only date back two million years. (The shark has remained unchanged for I5,000,000 years.) And although he longs for this ‘third world’ as his natural home, he only catches brief glimpses of it. For it can only be ‘focused’ by a kind of mental eye. This morning, as I cleaned my teeth in the bathroom a fragment of Brahms drifted through my head and caused that sudden feeling of inner-warmth. The person labelled ‘Colin Wilson’ ceased to matter: it was almost as if I had floated out of my body and left him behind, as if the real ‘I’ had taken up a position somewhere midway between myself and Brahms. In the same way, when I am working well, I seem to lose my identity, ‘identifying’ instead with the ideas or people I am writing about. But very often, I cannot even begin to focus the ‘third world’; the real world distracts me, and keeps my attention fixed on its banal ‘actualities’ like some idiot on a train who prevents you from reading by talking in a loud voice. [From New Pathways in Psychology]
    More Colin Wilson quotes (mystical)

Blurb from "The Outsider"

The outsider is the seminal work on alienation,  creativity and the modern mind-set.  First published over thirty years ago, it made its youthful author England's mos controversial intellectual.

The Outsider is an individual engaged in an intense self-exploration - a person who lives at the edge, challenges cultural values,  and "stands for Truth."  Born into a world without perspective, where others simply drift through life, the Outsider creates his own set of rules and lives them in an unsympathetic environment.  The relative handful of people who fulfilled Wilson's definition of Outsider in the 1950s have become a significant social force in the 80's, making WIlon's vision more relevant today than ever.

Through the works and lives of various artists - including Kafka, Camus, Eliot, Hemingway, Hesse, Lawrence, Van Gogh, Nijinsky, Shaw, Blake, Nietzsche, and Dostoyevski - Wilson explores the psyche of the Outsider, his effect on society, and society's effect on him.  Wilsom illuminates the struggle of those who seek only the transformation of Self but also the transformation of society as a whole.  The book is essential for everyone who share's Wilson's conviction that "a new religion is needed."

Links to Colin Wilson's work

General pages about Colin Wilson

Interviews with Colin Wilson