Friday, February 10, 2006



[Abstract: Recently academic philosophy increasingly distanced itself from the concerns of common humanity, losing all relevance to human life. Independent philosophers are sprouting here and there, trying to reach intelligent readers to whom academic philosophy has ceased to be meaningful. Here I present one such independent philosopher, Richard Schain.]

Throughout the past century academic philosophy increasingly distanced itself from the concerns and interests of common humanity until, during the past five decades or so, with very rare exceptions, the work of professional philosophers ceased to have any relevance to human life. It is not that academic philosophy became so abstruse or technical as to be inaccessible to lay readers. That in itself would not have been irremediable. Spinoza and Kant, for instance, wrote difficult texts that can only be negotiated by a dedicated and well-trained reader. But the substance of their writings was immediately and essentially relevant to the meaning and value of human life. The problem with the main current of recent and contemporary academic philosophy is that it plumes itself on being concerned with 'objective' disciplines and technicques and neglects or utterly denies the reality of the subjective life of humans which is the locus of all values and ideals.

Though there have been some protesting voices arising against this situation from within academic circles, what may in the end rescue philosophy from turning into a mere shadow of its true self, is that a number of independent philosophers are sprouting here and there all over the globe, trying to reach intelligent readers to whom academic philosophy has ceased to be meaningful. Taking advantage of the immense possibilities of digital technology, they are speaking their word through e-journals, personal websites, and Print-On-Demand publications.

Of course the phenomenon of independent philosophers is nothing new. Even if we confine ourselves to modern philosophy, we can say without exaggeration that, by and large, the most important developments in philosophical thought were due to non-professional philosophers. Neither Descartes nor Spinoza nor Leibniz nor Locke nor Hume held university posts. Schopenhauer and Nietzsche taught for a while in universities but did their best work when they were on their own. Even Kant, who began his academic career lecturing on physics before being appointed professor of logic and mathematics, produced his epoch-making philosophical work 'on the side' as it were.

I referred to independent philosophers taking advantage of the possibilities of digital technology. It is obvious that these possibilities with their ubiquity and indiscriminate availability are open to the worthy and the worthless alike, and what is worthy is likely to be as a drop lost in the deluge of what is worthless. This is a problem that has to be faced, but it is not a problem that I intend to tackle here. Let us put our faith in the intrinsic potency of the good to survive. In this essay I present one of this group of independent philosophers who, hopefully, may succeed in bringing philosophy once again to relate to human life.

Richard Schain is not as completely unrelated to the academic horizon as some other independent philosophers are. Schain graduated at New York University (philosophy, medicine) and had neurology training at Yale. For a time he held a university professorship in neurology. But he had been enamoured of philosophy from boyhood and his choice of neurology seems to have been made under the illusion that he would thereby keep close to his first love. He discovered that neurology as an objective science and philosophy as the search for our inner reality are distinct. Disappointed of that fond dream, he resigned his professorship and devoted his time and energy to producing book after book and article after article in which he affirmed the reality and primacy of the subjective life of a human being.

In the preface to his Radical Metaphysics (2002) Schain defines the underlying theme of his philosophical project as "the task of building a metaphysical self". He re-affirms this in slightly varied phraseology: "Virtually all of my writings … represent an effort at developing a metaphysical consciousness … a distinct form of being that is superior … to material existence" (p.11). This metaphysical consciousness relates to the inner, subjective reality which is denied and negated by the materialist world-view which dominates our age. I would say that not even the religious masses are exempt from this dominance, for apart from the few for whom religion is a personal experience, most followers of institutionalized religions are fully under the sway of the materialist world-view. Their dogmatic belief in a non-material reality, outwardly inculcated, is not sufficiently vibrant with life to turn the mind's eye inwards to discover its own reality.

The emphasis on the development of the interior self presupposes that we be convinced of the reality of the soul, "one must intuit that the soul exists" (p.18). Schain accordingly finds himself poised against all the forms of reductionism that are currently rife among both professional philosophers and scientists. As a neurologist he finds himself opposed to the majority of his colleagues who think that the description of objective neural processes exhausts the meaning of mind or soul.

But Schain's insistence on the primacy of subjective reality is not merely a theoretical stance. It is in the first place a protest against the culture of this technological age which smothers individuality and spirituality. A citizen of the country that ranks first in the world in scientific, economic, and technical achievement, Schain does not find a home for his soul there.

In his latest work, In Love With Eternity (2005), Schain dwells on the idea of eternity, more specifically the eternity of the soul. Beside the insights of philosophers and theologians, he finds support for his view in the Einsteinian conception of time. He weds the idea of eternity to the idea of development of the self: "The task of an individual is to develop the spiritual self that will be his or [her] contribution to eternity" (p.12). Eternity is a crucial concept in my own writings too, but while Schain equates eternity with personal immortality, I draw a sharp line between the two. But this is not the place to discuss the question.

Judging by his writings, Schain's sources of inspiration spread over a remarkably wide span: Kierkegaard beside Nietzsche, Thoreau beside Schopenhauer, Sartre beside Berdyev, Goethe beside Paul Tillich. He writes passionately, as one would expect from someone whose object in writing is to build his metaphysical self. In A Fanatic of the Mind (1987) he writes, "No Greek philosopher was taken seriously whose life did not reflect his thoughts even though he wrote with the pen of angels" (p.12).

I have given this brief account of the philosophy of Richard Schain as an example of what I (perhaps too fondly) see as a burgeoning phenomenon of independent philosophy. I do not mean to suggest that Schain is representative or typical of this phenomenon. Independent philosophy is not a school of thought or a 'movement' voicing a unified philosophy. If there is one trait common to the individuals active in this area, it is that for them philosophy is an anxious, earnest search for the meaning of life.


Blogger Zetetic_chick said...

Another good independent philosopher is William Vallicella, he's a trained philosoher who's "recoveried" from Academy:

Vallicella's blog is one of the best I've read.

2:30 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home