“Li may therefore be understood as organic order, as distinct from mechanical or legal order”
Alan Watts (1915-1973) was a philosopher who popularised an organic and radical way of thinking completely at odds with the modern industrial mindset.
Watts called for “a deep transformation in our view of the world” which involved “knowing and feeling that the world is an organic unity”. (1)
He wrote that the modern human sensation of being lonely and transient visitors to the universe was a sad misunderstanding. “We do not ‘come into’ this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean ‘waves’, the universe ‘peoples’. Every individual is an expression of the whole reality of nature, a unique action of the total universe”. (2)
If people were generally no longer aware of this belonging, in the West at least, this was because “the most strongly enforced of all known taboos is the taboo against knowing who you really are behind the mask of your apparently separate, independent and isolated ego”. (3)
Exploring the reasons for our unawareness of the basic unity between ourselves and the universe, Watts highlighted the pernicious idea of a God who was an authority-figure situated outside or beyond the world we knew.
He also described the evolution of a fragmented and profoundly non-holistic kind of philosophy which systematically denied the validity of the bigger picture, in order to focus on the separate parts.
For the nominalists who emerged in the Middle Ages, wrote Watts, “mankind was no more than the sum total of individual people. Mankind was not a substance but simply a name for a class of creatures; it was not real but merely nominal”. (4)
This approach became the dominant thinking of the Western world and particularly in the philosophy of science.
He saw basically the same mindset among contemporary English-speaking academic philosophers – they were often “tough-minded, rigorous and precise, and like to stress differences between things”. (5)
Watts added: “With their penchant for linguistic analysis, mathematical logic, and scientific empiricism, they have aligned philosophy with the mystique of science, have begun to transform the philosopher’s library or mountain retreat into something nearer to a laboratory, and, as William Earle said, would come to work in white coats if they thought they could get away with it”. (6)
For Watts, the big problem with the modern way of thinking was the tendency to regard the world in terms of opposites, without grasping that they ultimately formed part of the same unity.
He wrote: “The mistake in the beginning was to think of solids and space as two different things, instead of as two aspects of the same thing. The point is that they are different, but inseparable, like the front end and the rear end of a cat. Cut them apart, and the cat dies. Take away the crest of the wave, and there is no trough”. (7)
“So-called opposites, such as light and darkness, sound and silence, solid and space, on and off, inside and outside, appearing and disappearing, cause and effect, are poles or aspects of the same thing”. (8)
This one-dimensional thinking was also always keen to explain the world in terms of cause and effect, which Watts felt was also an error.
To explain his point, he used the analogy of someone watching a cat walk past a slit in a fence. At no point could the whole cat be seen at once and, because its head was always seen first, it would be easy to assume that the head was the cause of the tail.
He continued: “The truth is that in looking at the world bit by bit we convince ourselves that it consists of separate things, and so give ourselves the problem of how these things are connected and how they cause and effect each other.
“The problem would never have arisen if we had been aware that it was just our way of looking at the world which had chopped it up into separate bits, things, events, causes and effects”. (9)
For Watts, everything in the universe, including us, was one “inextricably interwoven process”. (10) Organisms were not just static parts of a greater whole, but they also acted within that wider context: “The organism, including its behavior, is a process which is to be understood only in relation to the larger and longer processes of its environment”. (11)
In this, as in much of his metaphysics, Watts was greatly influenced by the traditional philosophies of the East.
He was particularly interested in Chinese Taoism, with its holistic overview and insistence on the organic cohesion of nature, which was harmed by attempts to interfere with it or to force it to go with something other than its own effortless flow.
In his posthumously-published book Tao: The Watercourse Way, he described the concept of li as being all about natural order; an innate and organic pattern to life that emerged without external control or direction. As such, he said, it was “analagous to Kropotkin’s anarchy”. (12)
Watts explained: “Though the Tao is wu-tse (nonlaw), it has an order or pattern which can be recognized clearly… This kind of order is the principle of li, a word which has the original sense of such patterns as the markings in jade or the grain in wood.
“Li may therefore be understood as organic order, as distinct from mechanical or legal order, both of which go by the book. Li is the asymmetrical, nonrepetitive and unregimented order which we find in the patterns of moving water, the forms of trees and clouds, of frost crystals on the window, or the scattering of pebbles on beach sand”. (13)
He added: “If each thing follows its own li it will harmonize with all other things following theirs, not by reason of rule imposed from above but by their mutual resonance (ying) and interdependence”. (14)
Another important Taoist concept identified by Watts was wu-wei. He wrote that the term wei meant forcing, meddling and artifice – which seemed to amount to much the same thing as authority. Wu-wei, on the other hand, was not forcing or going with the grain.
He concluded: “Wu-wei is thus the life-style of one who follows the Tao, and must be understood primarily as a form of intelligence – that is, of knowing the principles, structures, and trends of human and natural affairs so well that one uses the least amount of energy in dealing with them.
“But this intelligence is, as we have seen, not simply intellectual; it is also the ‘unconscious’ intelligence of the whole organism and, in particular, the innate wisdom of the nervous system”. (15)
For Watts, it was China’s holistic worldview which originally prevented it from taking the disastrous road of Western ‘scientific’ thinking and industrialisation.
He wrote: “It never occurred to them to think of nature as mechanism, as ‘composed’ of separable parts and ‘obeying’ logical laws. Their view of the universe was organic”. (16)
Video link: Alan Watts breaks down what’s wrong with the world (12 mins)
Audio link: Alan Watts. Just Trust the Universe (1hr 11 mins)
1. Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity (London: Rider & Company, 1978), p. 97.
2. Alan Watts, The Book On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (London: Souvenir, 2012), pp. 8-9.
3. Watts, The Book, p. 12.
4 .Watts, The Book, p. 66.
5. Watts, The Book, p. 146.
6. Watts, The Book, pp. 146-47.
7. Watts, The Book, p. 30.
8. Watts, The Book, p. 34.
9. Watts, The Book, p. 32.
10. Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity, p. 98.
11. Watts, The Book, p. 97.
12. Alan Watts, Tao: The Watercourse Way, with the collaboration of Al Chung-Liang Huang (London, Arkana, 1992), p. 43.
13. Watts, Tao, p. 46.
14. Watts, Tao, p. 51.
15. Watts, Tao, p. 76.
16. Watts, The Book, p. 65.