The Tao of Philosophy 3: Coincidence of Opposites


Alan Watts explains the sense in nonsense and how to enjoy the playfulness of life while sincerely participating in the human game.
00:00

It’s really a very unorthodox and un-academic thing to do to start a discussion with a group of psychologists on the subject of metaphysics, but we have to do that because a lot of people say that their approach to life is scientific—as distinct from metaphysical—and that metaphysics is bosh anyway. But everybody—by virtue of being a human being—is, willy-nilly, a metaphysician. That is to say, everybody starts from certain fundamental assumptions as to what is the “Good Life,” what he wants, what are his—shall we say—axioms for living? And I find that psychologists tend to be blind to these fundamental assumptions. Maybe it’s truer of psychiatrists than it is of psychologists, but they tend to feel that they are scientists. And they’re rather bending over backwards to have a scientific status, because that, of course, is fashionable in our age.

01:15

But you know, it’s so amusing that when, say—let’s take psychoanalysis for example. It’s pointed out to many philosophers that their philosophical ideas are capable of being shown to have a psychoanalytic reference. For example, John Wisdom wrote a book about the philosophy of Berkeley in which he attributed a great deal of his point of view to his experiences in toilet-training as a child. The philosopher is very grateful to the psychoanalyst for revealing to him his unconscious and its emotional contents. But the psychoanalyst must, in turn, await a revelation from the philosopher as to his philosophical unconscious, and the unexamined assumptions which lie in it.

02:08

So if I may start by insulting your intelligence with what is called the most elementary lesson: the thing that we should have learned before we learned one, two, three and A, B, C, but somehow was overlooked. Now, this lesson is quite simply this: that any experience that we have through our senses—whether of sound, or of light, or of touch—is a vibration. And a vibration has two aspects: one called “on,” and the other called “off.” Vibrations seem to be propagated in waves, and every wave system has crests and it has troughs. And so life is a system of now you see it, now you don’t. And these two aspects always go together. For example, sound is not pure sound, it is a rapid alternation of sound and silence. And that’s simply the way things are. Only you must remember that the crest and the trough of a wave are inseparable. Nobody ever saw crests without troughs or troughs without crests, just as you don’t encounter in life people with fronts but no backs. Just as you don’t encounter a coin that has a heads but no tails. And although the heads and the tails, the fronts and the backs, the positives and the negatives are different, they’re at the same time one. And one has to get used, fundamentally, to the notion that different things can be inseparable; that what is explicitly two can at the same time be implicitly one. If you forget that, very funny things happen.

04:07

If, therefore, we forget, you see, that black and white are inseparable and that existence is constituted equivalently by being and non-being, then we get scared. And we have to play a game called, “Uh-oh, black might win!” And once we get into the fear that black—the negative side—might win, we are compelled to play the game, “But white must win!” And from that start all our troubles. Because, you see, the human awareness is a very odd mechanism. (I don’t think mechanism is quite the right word, but it’ll do for the moment.) That is to say, we have—as a species—specialized in a certain kind of awareness which we call conscious attention. And, by this, we have the faculty of examining the details of life very closely. We can restrict our gaze, and it corresponds somewhat to the central field, the vision, in the eyes. We have central vision, we have peripheral vision. Central vision is that which we use for reading, for all sorts of close work, and it’s like using a spotlight. Whereas peripheral vision is more like using a floodlight.

05:37

Now, civilization and civilized human beings—for maybe 5,000 years, maybe much longer—have learned to specialize in concentrated attention. Even if a person’s attention span is short he is, as it were, wavering his spotlight over many fields. The price which we pay for specialization in conscious attention is ignorance of everything outside its field. I would rather say ignore-ance than ignorance, because if you concentrate on a figure you tend to ignore the background. You tend, therefore, to see the world in a disintegrated aspect. You take separate things and events seriously, imagining that these really do exist when, actually, they have the same kind of existence as an individual’s interpretation of a Rorschach blot: they’re what you make out of it. In fact, our physical world is a system of inseparable differences. Everything exists with everything else, but we contrive not to notice that because what we notice is what is noteworthy. And we notice it in terms of notations: numbers, words, images. What is notable, noteworthy, notated, noticed is what appears to us to be significant and the rest is ignored as insignificant, and as a result of that we select from the total input that goes to our senses only a very small fraction. And this causes us to believe that we are separate beings, isolated by the boundary of the epidermis from the rest of the world.

08:05

You see, this is also the mechanism involved in not noticing that black and white go together. Not noticing that every inside has an outside, and that what goes on inside your skin is inseparable from what goes on outside your skin. You see that, for example, in the science of ecology. One learns that a human being is not an organism in an environment, but is an organism-environment—that is to say, a unified field of behavior. If you describe, carefully, the behavior of any organism, you cannot do so without at the same time describing the behavior of the environment. And by that you know that you’ve got a new entity of study. You’re describing the behavior of a unified field. You must be very careful indeed not to fall into old Newtonian assumptions about the billiard-ball nature of the universe. The organism is not the puppet of the environment, being pushed around by it. Nor, on the other hand, is the environment the puppet of the organism, being pushed around by the organism. The relationship between them is, to use John Dewey’s word, transactional. The transaction being a situation, like buying and selling, in which there is no buying unless somebody sells and no selling unless somebody buys.

09:50

So that fundamental relationship between ourselves and the world, which is in an old-fashioned way—by people such as Skinner, who has not updated his philosophy—interpreted in terms of Newtonian mechanics. He interprets the organism as something determined by the total environment, he doesn’t see that, in a more modern way of talking about it, they’re simply describing a unified field of behavior—which is nothing more than what any mystic ever said. That’s a dirty word in the modern academic scientific environment. But if a mystic is one who is sensibly—or even sensuously—aware of his inseparability, as an individual, from the total existing universe, he’s simply a person who has become sensible—aware through his senses—of the way ecologists see the world. So when I’m in academic circles I don’t talk about mystical experience, I talk about ecological awareness. Same thing.

11:09

And so the next aspect of our metaphysical introduction must be about games. You know, I think there are really four questions that all philosophers have discussed from the beginning of recorded time. First is: “Who started it?” The second is: “Are we going to make it?” The third is: “Where are we going to put it?” And the fourth is: “Who is going to clean up?” When you think these over it poses a fifth question: “Is it serious?” And that’s the one I want to discuss; Is existence serious? Like you say, “Doctor”—after he’s looked at your x-ray—“is it serious?” What does that mean? It means: “Am I in danger of not continuing to survive?”

12:16

But the basis of it all is this, now: if we say, “You must survive,” or “I must survive,” life is earnest and I’ve got to go on. Then your life is a drag and not a game. Now, it’s my contention and my personal opinion—this is my basic metaphysical axiom, shall we put it that way—that existence, the physical universe, is basically playful. There is no necessity for it whatsoever. It isn’t going anywhere; that is to say, it doesn’t have some destination that it ought to arrive at. But it is best understood by analogy with music. Because music as an art form is essentially playful; we say “you play the piano,” you don’t work the piano.

13:30

Why? Music differs, say, from travel. When you travel you are trying to get somewhere. And of course, we—because being a very compulsive and purposive culture—are busy getting everywhere faster and faster and faster, until we eliminate the distance between places. I mean, with the modern jet travel you can arrive almost instantaneously. What happens as a result of that is that the two ends of your journey become the same place. So you eliminate the distance and you eliminate the journey, because the fun of the journey is to travel, not to obliterate travel.

14:19

In music, though, one doesn’t make the end of a composition the point of the composition. If that were so, the best conductors would be those who played fastest and there would be composers who wrote only finales. People would go to concerts just to hear one crashing chord, because that’s the end! Say, when dancing, you don’t aim at a particular spot in the room; that’s where you should arrive. The whole point of the dancing is the dance.

14:57

But we don’t see that as something brought by our education into our everyday conduct. We’ve got a system of schooling which gives a completely different impression. It’s all graded. And what we do is we put the child into the corridor of this grade system with a kind of, “C’mon kitty, kitty, kitty!” And now you go to kindergarten, you know? And that’s a great thing because when you finish that you get into first grade. And then—c’mon!—first grade leads to second grade, and so on, and then you get out of grade school and you go to high school, and it’s revving up—the thing is coming!—then you’re going to go to college, and by Jove then you get into graduate school, and when you’re through with graduate school you go out to join the World. And then you get into some racket where you’re selling insurance, and they’ve got that quota to make. And you’re going to make that. And all the time this thing is coming. It’s coming! It’s coming! That great thing, the success you’re working for.

15:57

Then, when you wake up one day—about 40 years old—you say, “My God, I’ve arrived! I’m there!” And you don’t feel very different from what you always felt. And there’s a slight let-down because you feel there’s a hoax. And there was a hoax. A dreadful hoax. They made you miss everything by expectation. Look at the people who live to retire and put those savings away. And then, when they’re 65, they don’t have any energy left, they’re more or less impotent, and they go and rot in an old people’s—“Senior Citizens”—community. Because we’ve simply cheated ourselves the whole way down the line. We thought of life by analogy with a journey, with a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at the end and the thing was to get to that end. Success—or whatever it is, or maybe heaven—after you’re dead. But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing and you were supposed to sing, or to dance, while the music was being played. But you had to do that thing. You didn’t let it happen.

17:17

And so in this way the human being sometimes becomes an organism for self-frustration. Let’s take—Korzybski called man a “time-binder.” That means that he’s the animal peculiarly aware of the time sequence, and as a result of this is able to do some very remarkable things: he can predict. He studies what’s happened in the past and he says the chances are so-and-so of that happening again. And so he predicts. Oh, this is very useful—to be able to predict—because that has survival value. But at the same time it creates anxiety. You pay for this increased survival ability involved in prediction by knowing that, in the end, you won’t succeed. You’re all going to fall apart by one way or another. It might happen tomorrow, it might happen fifty years from now. But it all comes apart in the end, and people get worried about that; they get anxious. So what they gained on the roundabout they lost on the swings.

18:33

If you see, on the other hand, that existence—this is, as I said, my basic metaphysical assumption which I won’t conceal from you—that existence is musical in nature, that is to say, that it is not serious, it is a play of all kinds of patterns. We can look upon different creatures as we look at different games; as we look at chess, checkers, backgammon, tennis: there’s the tree-game, the beetle-game, the grass-game, or you can look at them as you look at different styles of music: mazurkas, waltzes, sonata, et cetera, et cetera. All down the line. They’re all these different things doing their stuff. And they’re going “Be-doo-de-doo-de-doo-de-doo-de-hoo-jee-doo-dee-doo,” you know, in different rhythms. And we’re doing that!

19:24

If you were in a flying saucer—from Mars or somewhere—and you came and looked to try and make out what was living on this world, from about 10,000 feet at night—or early morning—you would see these great ganglia with tentacles going out all over the place. And early in the morning you see little blobs of luminous particles going into the middle of them, see? And then, in the late afternoon or early evening, it would spit them all out again. And you’d say, “Well, this thing—the thing’s breathed.” And it does it in a special rhythm. It goes in and out, in and out, in and out, once every 24 hours. But then it rests a day and doesn’t spit so much; it spits in a different way. That’s a kind of irregularity, and then it starts spitting all over again in the same way. You’d say, “That’s very interesting.” That’s the kind of thing we have, see? This is something that goes this way, you see? Just like music goes, “Umm-pa-pa, umm-pa-pa, umm-pa-pa, umm-pa-pa.” Did you ever see a lady go this way, go that way? That’s what it does.

20:28

And when you think a bit about what people really want to do with their time; what do they do when they’re not being pushed around and somebody’s telling them what to do? They like to make rhythms. They listen to music, they dance, or they sing, or they do something of a rhythmic nature; playing cards, or bowling, or raising their elbows. Everybody wants to spend their time swinging. That’s the nature of this whole thing we’re in, you see? It likes to swing. That’s why it does it.



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