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Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Vocation of a Philosophe

Not long ago a group of students at the University of Cambridge invited me to give a talk at the ‘Career Expo’ event about my eclectic vocational journey, which zigzagged through academic research and lecturing; policy work for local authorities; support for activist organisations; publications on politics, management practice, and global history; leading government strategies on matters ranging from crime reduction to civil renewal; and writing dystopian novels.

Afterwards, someone asked if there was a central thread to the path I had taken and if so, whether or not I would recommend it for others to follow.

On the question concerning a central thread, what may appear as an unconventional mix of activities is in essence the vocation of a philosophe. While it is common to think of ‘philosophes’ (as distinct from ‘philosophers’) as referring exclusively to the anti-establishment writers/intellectuals active in 18th century France, the characteristics that actually mark them out as philosophes, can be found in the careers of many others outside as well inside France, extending into the 19th century and beyond (e.g., Joseph Priestley, Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Owen, George Eliot, William Morris, H. G. Wells, Albert Camus, to name but a few).

And I would certainly encourage anyone possessing the attitudes and aptitudes outlined below to embark on the vocation of a philosophe:

[1] Critical Empirical Reasoning
You are quick to spot dogmatic claims and good at debunking fallacious arguments. You reject assertions that rely on mere traditions or unverifiable revelations. Instead, you are systematic in applying empirical evidence to differentiate what warrants people’s belief from attempts to deceive the public with misleading pronouncements.

[2] Empathic Promotion of Reciprocity
You have a universal sense of empathy that is not bound by prejudices against any group of people. You recognise that reciprocity is fair and effective in enhancing the common good, and you are disposed to oppose discrimination and exploitation by reminding people of our shared humanity.

[3] Targeting Obstacles to Democratic Equality
You appreciate how the biased distribution of power can widen social divisions, and trap many in ignorance and oppression. You are driven by a concern to expose attempts to con people into surrendering control to a manipulative elite, and you are drawn to practical ways to empower all to shape the decisions that affect them.

[4] Spreading Educative Influence
You acknowledge the necessity of using force as a last resort if there is no other way to protect innocent lives. But in general you prefer to rely on education, in the broadest sense, to change people’s attitudes, help them learn to reason effectively, enlighten them of better options, and advise them of new approaches to try and test.

[5] Utilising Genre Flexibility
You are skilled at switching between means of educating minds – lecturing, informal talks, detailed exposition, popular polemics, dramatic fiction, reports and commentary, guidance on public policies, training, mentoring. You make use of a variety of genres and outlets to engage people rather than devoting yourself to a single discipline or craft.

As contemporary plutocracy is reviving the arrogance and excesses of the Ancien Régime, we need philosophes more than ever to detoxify the oppressive atmosphere that deifies the superrich and and demonises vulnerable scapegoats. With indefatigable philosophes dispelling ignorance and prejudice, and showing how a better future is possible, we may yet see the changes we desperately need without having to endure the madness of a violent revolution.