Thursday, 12 November 2009

Citizen Philosophy

I have described myself as a citizen philosopher, and some people wish to know more about that theme. Perhaps this theme could be successfully adapted in a blog format, and I am now willing to try this resort, which I formerly resisted, despite the advice of some acquaintances. The criterion is that of an intellectual blog, as distinct from the more popular versions.

Some people understood what I meant by citizen philosophy. Yet others did not, and queried in the vein of: “I have never heard of that; so what on earth is it ?” Their response made me smile, and I will here attempt to explain why. Please note that humour is one ingredient of contemporary citizen philosophy in the intellectual mode.

Readers noticed that David Hume and Spinoza were represented in my “citizen philosopher” book Pointed Observations (2005). In their own respective ways, both of these thinkers were citizen philosophers, neither of them possessing an academic role. Spinoza actually refused an academic appointment. I do not agree with all the views of those two thinkers, and indeed am very critical of Hume on many points. I do not share his tendency to extreme scepticism. However, I am prepared to admire his efforts in writing a multi-volume History of England that remained the standard work on the subject for a century or so.

Other citizen philosophers were Descartes, Leibniz, John Locke, Denis Diderot (the encyclopaedist), Rousseau, and Schopenhauer. That list is not exhaustive. These entities varied enormously in their output and outlook. I do not agree with all their views. Many other Western philosophers were academics such as Kant and Hegel, Russell and Wittgenstein, Foucault and Derrida. These academic celebrities generally had the upper hand in gaining attention, having the benefit of prestigious identity and formal recommendations. The majority of canonical philosophers in the last two centuries have been thinkers situated in an academic role.

The trend in academic philosophy has generally been one tending strongly towards isolation from the citizen sector. Yet anomalously, it is academics who have elevated antique citizen philosophers to celebrity. University students can now write prestigious doctoral theses on citizen thinkers who could not understand why their works were ignored during their own lifetime. Early works of Hume and Schopenhauer were a total failure when first published, and the struggle that Spinoza had in gaining recognition is surely memorable. Spinoza was defamed as an atheist for many years after his death. He was definitely not an atheist, though he was a freethinker.

Karl Marx really was an atheist, and he is generally ascribed to the annals of sociology. Yet some academics have insisted that he should be regarded as a philosopher. He was definitely one of the most influential thinkers in recent times, despite the fact that he early lost an academic career and chose to live in virtual poverty while furthering his studies at the British Library. One of his well known assertions is: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the real task is to change it.” It would seem that Marx did not regard himself as a philosopher, but as a communist revolutionary. Like many other influential thinkers, he was little known during his lifetime.

For those who desire a testimony of intellectual orientation, I can here state that I am not, e.g., a Spinozan, a Marxist, a Humean sceptic, or a Cartesian. I do fundamentally regard myself as a philosopher, though my output has extended into other fields also, a feature denoted by the adventurous word anthropography, which in my case refers to a philosophy of culture and not to ethnography. I fear that it will never be possible to compress that extending subject into a blog without risk of misunderstandings.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
November 12th, 2009

ENTRY no. 1

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