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PHILOSOPHICAL  ANTHROPOGRAPHY

 

Some readers have grasped by now that my version of philosophy differs from the standard exegesis of academic modern Western philosophy. Nevertheless, many figures found in the latter subject are included in my format, including Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, and David Hume (Pointed Observations, 2005, chapter 32). I also refer to numerous other figures, situations, and contexts not belonging to the conventional philosophy package.

The unfamiliar word anthropography is sometimes mentioned in my philosophy of culture; this term is associated with ethnography, not philosophy. The ultimate origin of the word goes back centuries via a mathematical treatise dating to 1570, composed by a graduate of Cambridge University, "a somewhat esoteric allusion to anthropos, which achieved a more literal stylisation in a medical dictionary of 1839" (The Resurrection of Philosophy, 1989, p. 40). Some recent dictionaries define the key word in terms of a study of the geographical distribution of human races. That description is useful, though very minimal. I will here attempt to further explain the complexities and subtleties involved in my own rendition.

My early book Meaning in Anthropos (1991) was written in 1984, and projected a citizen interdisciplinary ideal that drew upon my library studies at Cambridge University Library. Various subjects from psychology and philosophy to anthropology and sociology were included. The history of religions was a pivot for some themes and arguments, and that subject is extensive, like the history of philosophy.

At that time, only a minority of academics in Britain were serious about interdisciplinary research. The subject did gain some logical consideration, but frequently in terms of lip service rather than commitment. There was consternation as to how such an innovation could be incorporated in the conservative curricula of universities. Myself being an unofficial researcher, I was comparatively bold in declaring the prospect in my sub-title, which was Anthropography as an interdisciplinary science of culture.

I have since emphasised that I regard my version of anthropography in terms of a philosophy of culture, and not a science of culture. I do not claim any scientific ability, only a commitment to philosophical horizons. This factor is complex, because philosophy is not interpreted in any uniform manner.

Philosophy is quite often regarded as a totally abstract intellectual activity, in which concepts and theories are analysed according to conventional patterns. For instance, the "problems of philosophy" are customarily presented in the format favoured by Bertrand Russell and analytical philosophy, which nevertheless does show variations in the coverage of theories and materials. In another academic camp, many traditional arguments and contentions are denied by the "deconstructionists," including Jacques Derrida. The prevalent ideological background in these formulations is sometimes said to be in "Eurocentric" moulds of contemporary expression, though transmission to countries such as America and Australia has occurred.

A typical criticism from citizen ranks is that both of these recent academic trends in philosophy are too remote from ordinary life. This viewpoint has been diversely expressed, varying from flippant dismissals to more reasoned treatments. Even some academics have been in friction with certain developments. A primary target has been the emphasis on "language philosophy," an improvisation well known in cerebral zones like Cambridge and Oxford.

The thoroughgoing citizen analyst has the option to assess these trends without violating academic archival resources. My own format early opted for a cross-cultural angle, moving at a tangent from modern Western philosophy into the history of Asiatic cultures and religions, and also the output of non-Western philosophers. In this way, Islamic philosophers and Sufi mystics were incorporated, and likewise diverse Indian exponents varying from Gautama Buddha and Mahavira to Shankara and Vivekananda. Chinese philosophers are another ingredient (as in Meaning, pp. 97ff.; Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals, 2004, pp. 122ff.)

The ancient Greeks are likewise considered a marginal factor by contemporary scientific disposition, but nevertheless do merit enquiry. See further my coverages in Plotinus and the Enneads; Investigating Neoplatonism; Voegelin and Plato. I am not one of those commentators who favour theurgy. There are some anomalies and discrepancies in antique traditions, and these cause confusion, which is one reason to investigate.

In my perspective, anthropography does not merely signify the ethnographic criteria generally associated with that word. Ethnic categories are conspicuous in the geographical distribution of human populations, but intellectual and philosophical occurrences can alter or enrich the cultural mix. The subject of minority repertories (discussed in Meaning) is relevant; cultural climates can be influenced both positively and negatively by such modes of thinking. For instance, politicians can wreck a society, and philosophers can supply inadequate concepts. Theologians have committed serious blunders. Occultists like Aleister Crowley have been surprisingly influential in the so-called greatest civilisation to date (Pointed Observations, chapters 5 and 18), which currently harbours much superstition and reckless license. "The analysis of repertory should include thoughts, feelings, speech, and actions" (Meaning in Anthropos, p. 30).

A citizen philosophy of anthropography should not be dismissive of social science. My version acknowledged the merits of three major social sciences (mentioned above), and also archaeology. Conflicting theories have arisen in those sciences. My first book related to the history of science (Psychology in Science, 1983). From a citizen perspective, I found many features of relevance in the scientific attitude, though I remained independent of the strictly empirical approach. Psychological activity in the scientific world varies markedly.

The term "philosophical anthropography" is improvised in the present article, and describes the attempt to overview human events in a manner elusive of the parochial conveniences detectable in some versions of history and ideation. In covering thinkers of different nationalities and periods of time, a critical faculty has to be partnered by some degree of empathy. Nevertheless, a critical faculty is a crucial rudder. For instance, it would be an error to elevate Plato and Aristotle without recognising drawbacks evident in the form of socioculture prevalent in their era. Such a lop-sided approach is detectable in some "Eurocentric" versions.

The influential British historian Edward Gibbon (1737-94) tended to identify himself strongly with Roman socioculture. His History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is sometimes interpreted in terms of a glorious precedent comprising the early Empire period, more or less ending with the reign of Marcus Aurelius (d. 180 CE), who gained a Stoic reputation. Aurelius was socially far removed from the earlier Stoic philosopher Epictetus (d. 135 CE), originally a slave (and one reputedly tortured by his Roman master), and who is credited as a strong influence upon the emperor's Meditations.

The drawbacks in Roman Empire society were sufficiently pronounced to merit a sympathy for the persecuted Christians, who included such figures as Origen (d. 254), the ascetic theologian (or Christian philosopher) of Alexandria. The accompanying subject of the Desert Fathers is ethnically complex, this activity in Egypt involving both Copts and members of other nationalities, including the Greek ascetic (or monk) Evagrius Ponticus (d. 399), who gained heretical profile along with Origen in Christian ecclesiastical circles. The formerly persecuted minority religion had now become the majority repertory, and one developing new canons of clerical intolerance and censorship.

A religious majority in Sassanian Iran subsequently became a minority population. I have given some attention to episodes in Zoroastrianism, whose founder lived at an uncertain date (Minds and Sociocultures Vol. 1, 1995, pp. 234ff.); that ancient Iranian religion has recently existed as a subset in both Iran and India, though in different social guises involving Iranis and Parsis respectively. During the Mughal era, a migration of Iranis to India was in process, a flight from the severe underdog status imposed by the Safavid monarchy and clergy. The present writer commemorated such events in From Oppression to Freedom: A Study of the Kaivani Gnostics (1988).

I have expressed objections to "new age" approaches which promote a so-called "holistic" attitude that effectively undermines scientific criteria and historical detail. Much of this scenario is commercial. I discovered that many consumers of the "holistic" vogue are substantially illiterate in the history of religion. As a consequence, they frequently have little or no idea of what occurred and when, and are accordingly at a disadvantage with complexities in traditions like Vedanta and Buddhism that have been popularised in Western countries. The mushrooming confusions have frequently lodged in well known transmissions like Wikipedia, where reliable real name editors are scarce.

In contrast to the surrealist landscape of the "holistic" and integralist interpretations, I prefer geographical demarcations and studies which incorporate scholarly findings. There is a need for realistic assessment of celebrities favoured by "integralism," as in the case of an American guru endorsed by Ken Wilber. In general, the distractions of commercial workshops, alternative therapy, and occultism are a disaster zone for education, like so many novels which capitalise on casual reading. Contrary to the general assumptions of advanced literacy in the 21st century, we are currently living in a dark age, further implemented by the blogosphere (though some worthy educational blogs fortunately do exist). The fashionable invective favoured by too many bloggers is no more convincing than commercial rap.

In the book Meaning, I envisaged as a component of anthropography "a comprehensive philosophy of history," though a component employing "a series of sectional studies which devote attention to historical detail," and amounting "in large part to synthesis coverage [of core materials] rather than the philosophy of history as generally conceived" (Meaning in Anthropos, p. 157). I furthermore described my projected version of anthropography in terms of a focus "for instance, upon dissenters and reformers in the religio-mystical field, the history of philosophy, the rise and fall of cultures, arts and crafts, the vicissitudes of scientific discovery, and factors of cognition and conditioning in the psychology of elites, majorities, and minorities" (ibid.).

Reflecting upon problems involved in the presentation of history, an endeavour afflicted by incomplete data even in comparatively recent times, I commented that "the body of relevant theory is liable to gain philosophical proportions, but these do not have to be anything like the speculations of a Hegel, a Marx, or a Spengler" (ibid.).

Nearly thirty years later, I am continuing this project, modifying some guidelines and extending others. For instance, I no longer employ the phrase "research strategy," a resort that arose as a consequence of resistance to the ideology (or research strategy) of cultural materialism, which featured in anthropology.

My recent web coverage of Eric Voegelin (1901-85) involved a critical appreciation of a controversial philosopher of history. The first instalment centred on ancient Israelite religion, a subject which now lies somewhere between Old Testament studies and archaeology. A prodigious amount of research and discovery has occurred in this field since Voegelin wrote his major work, and my endeavour was to synthesise something of the spectrum involved. The pre-exilic phase of Hebrew religion is considered largely mythological by some scholars, though many issues still await definition. The late date redaction methods of post-exilic compilers were a filter for existing Biblical texts.

The fall of dynasties and sociocultural decline is a relevant subject. The formative centuries of Islam furnish materials for "rise and fall" trends within the parameters of a more stable religious cultural identity. The celebrated commentary of Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) is significant for developments in North Africa. At an earlier date, the Sufi dissident Hallaj (d. 922) relates to dramatic events in Iraq which involved his execution. The Hallaj materials comprise a variant of the biographical (and hagiological) legacy in early Islamic mysticism, involving Arab and Iranian ethnic factors existing in the Abbasid era, and serving to underline political corruption at Baghdad. The social and administrative problems escalated into the downfall of the powerful Abbasid dynasty, and rarely is such a profile afforded to political and aristocratic participants in sociocultural decline, a phenomenon opposed by the complex figure of Hallaj (an Arabic-speaking artisan and distinctive ascetic whose grandfather was an Iranian Zoroastrian).

One of the Western citizen responses arising is equivalent to: "Well, OK, it is valid enough to investigate past events, and cross-cultural studies are an advantage, but surely the most important thing to dwell upon is what is happening now."

I am able to interject that I have expressed a contemporary edge in some of my output, as reflected in my first three websites, for instance, and in the book Pointed Observations. What is happening now at the intellectual level may be much less visible and dramatic than political and social events that have far more media profile. The effort to clarify the past (both in terms of history and philosophy) remains pressing, and especially when the preferred "now" includes (in the West) so many escapist versions of present-centredness and other contemporary diversions, some of which can be dangerous.

What is happening now in the political and social spheres can be very disconcerting. The newspapers are so often full of reported problems, many of which persist. Ethnic tensions, technological abuse, wars, and crime attest to the severe backwardness of the human condition. The acute ecological drawbacks are regularly obscured and distorted by commercial forces. The drug problem is chronic, and was furthered by the British government not so long ago (via the misleading arguments for cannabis). In 2008, there were press revelations of horrific murders committed by Satanists in Russia, who were apparently influenced by horror films/videos; teenage victims were each stabbed 666 times, and then reputedly burned and eaten by the killers. Core values of Satanist cults were stated to be pride (or self-assertion), indulgence, and the gratification of sexual desires. The resemblance to some forms of alternative therapy was here noted.

In my Minds and Sociocultures Vol. 1 (1995), a version of Iranian (Zoroastrian) and Indian religion was charted, and going back, e.g., to the evocative ruins of the Indus civilisation which are such a feature in archaeological discussion. That lengthy work included a fairly substantial introduction (202 pages, annotated) confronting various problematic themes and entities in contemporary Western thought, thus fulfilling the obligation to cover what is happening now.

Elsewhere, I have stated that "citizen philosophy represents the interaction with contemporary problems, while the overall project of 'interdisciplinary anthropography' resorts to a more extensive database relating to earlier centuries" (Publishing Statement). This two-layered approach is not particularly easy to sustain, and differs from academic formats. The flexibility possible in a philosophy of culture is potentially substantial. What is happening now, and what happened yesterday, can in this way converge.

Almost contemporary was my early biography of a Pathan female Sufi associated with Afghanistan. Hazrat Babajan eventually gained fame in India, and died in 1931 at Poona (Pune), in a bastion of the British Raj, but with strong Muslim support. A Sufi Matriarch (1986) was my shortest book, the brevity imposed by sparse data. The subject is of interest for several reasons, and not least because women frequently reaped obscurity in religious annals. Although my contribution represented the first published treatment of the subject in annotated book format, the Wikipedia sectarian tendency deleted it from a web bibliography, as described in Hazrat Babajan, a Pathan (Pashtun) Sufi (the deleted work was reinstated on Wikipedia after this article appeared in 2011). Contemporary media are frequently unreliable and unsatisfactory.

A further comment can be offered here concerning the phrase "philosophical anthropography." Usage of the word anthropography basically represents my acknowledgment of social science, which has attempted global explanations of human events. Yet the philosophical dimension of the phrase signifies an orientation in a mode of analysis not confined to social science. That mode is currently split into contrasting methodologies within the sphere of academic philosophy, indicating an unresolved mode, and one which may therefore be open to citizen contributions also.

The commitment to global analysis is still fairly uncommon, and does require much background study (to say the least). This effort does not deny specialist study (which is necessary), but demonstrates a different and complementary aptitude.

Not so many years ago, any tendency to global analysis was considered a questionable endeavour by European academics, who were strongly rooted in the monodisciplinary disposition and training. The more inclusive interdisciplinary orientation has since gained concessions as to validity, and may eventually prove to be the most viable and realistic course in study programmes of the future. Certainly, the increase in international communications and attendant intricacies, occurring during the past thirty years or so, has involved a widespread recognition that the "geographical distribution of human races" is a phenomenon requiring due attention and description. There are different methods of description in evidence.

A philosophy of culture, employing historical materials, is not the same as political history, which can easily obscure other factors of interest. Culture can be relatively primitive or advanced, e. g., the Inquisition which afflicted Europe, or the mentation of thinkers like Spinoza and Leibniz. The philosophy of culture resembles far more an intellectual history, where this convergence proves possible. Yet that avenue of expression is not the only one involved; other aspects are less familiar.

Such a project as I am discussing here is long-term. Firstly, the research has to be done, and this is ongoing by the very nature of the project. Secondly, published studies need to work through the materials, or rather some of those, and in addition to unpublished manuscripts. The latter may need revision over the years. After a while, the published output requires to be more prolific, and web facilities can perhaps assist at this stage. The revisionist action possible on websites is an advantage, despite the notoriously erratic Google Search name lists of a conglomerate nature.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

October 2011