The Savage Philosopher

A savage philosopher is someone who believes, among other things, in a certain kind of symbolic or sympathetic magic. He understands that signs (words, sounds, images, etc.) do more than just refer to other signs. For the savage philosopher, signs also participate in and contribute to the expression or realization of the things that they are intended to represent. Signs do not create things, however. Instead, they help to enliven, animate, and describe them.

As a 'modern' savage philosopher, then, my aim is to become familiar with and fluent in those systems of signs that have as their focus the individual human being and his or her experience of the world.

Some of those systems - such as philosophy, art, music, or the arts and humanities in general - are seen by the contemporary, twenty-first century 'intelligentsia' as valid areas of investigation and participation. Other, more 'esoteric' disciplines, such as astrology, are most definitely not. The 'enlightened' savage philosopher ignores all such taboos and instead 'follows the magic' wherever it shows up.

Like the woman in the picture above, then, the modern savage philosopher is tired of pushing the same old 'food cart' around. He or she wants more than the standard 'franks and sausages' fare (not that there's anything wrong with that). Instead, he or she thinks that most people prefer a wide variety of intellectual 'soul food'.

So if you find yourself hungry for something a little less 'civilized' and a bit more 'magical', then this might be the place for you. 


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A Very Short History of the Savage Philosopher

"Savage philosopher" is a term and concept attributed to the nineteenth-century social anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor. He saw the savage philosopher as a hypothetical, premodern individual who contemplated the nature of reality and attempted to understand and explain its workings as best he could. Because the savage philosopher could not draw on the resources of modern science for insight, Tylor suggested, he would often arrive at or adopt an animistic understanding of the world. 

In an animistic view all things, including non-human things and even abstract concepts, are seen to be possessed of an 'anima', or spiritual essence of some kind. Savage philosopher 'animists'  believe that there is no barrier between a thing's anima and its physical appearance. Instead, they are seen to interact seamlessly and completely, comprising two necessary parts of a whole being.

In Tylor's view, however, the animism promoted by the savage philosopher was not to be understood as an accurate picture of the way things actually are in the world. Rather, animism was meant to be appreciated as an early, almost childlike stage of knowledge that had thankfully been replaced by the much more 'adult' view of Western science.

Savage philosophy was, and still is, thus seen by many thinkers as primitive or unsophisticated in its content and structureFor those committed to toeing the Enlightenment line - in which human progress is believed to come about solely through a belief in empiricism, materialism or physicalism, reason, and rationality - all such primitive things are best left behind.

We should understand 'savage thought' not for what it has to teach us about reality, the empiricists insist, but rather so that we can know what to avoid in order that we don't slip back into progress-blocking superstition. As many have noted, and as Christopher Bracken details in his 2007 book Magical Criticism, this is not only an assertion of intellectual/cultural superiority, but often of an unrecognized racial/cultural prejudice as well.

But not all thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were so woozily enamored of Enlightenment ideology. Nietzsche, for example, insisted instead that the Western rejection of the 'savage' tendency for conflating the 'ideal with the real' was blind and unwarranted. The Western dismissal of the savage predilection for seeing signs or symbols as invested with 'magical' or 'revelatory' powers was, for Nietzsche, especially suspect, not to mention deeply self-unaware. As Bracken notes, "For Nietzsche, [...] mistaking an ideal for a real connection is not an error [...]. It is the very 'precondition' of study" (p.7).

This is to say that any and all forms of study begin by either creating or identifying and becoming acquainted with, a system of signs or ideals (a language, in other words) that is believed to have a special or particularly fruitful relationship with the form of 'reality' under investigation or exploration. To call this relationship 'magical' would thus not be so far from the truth. 

The potential for unexpected results or insights to be brought forth simply through the employment, interpretation, and manipulation of a system of signs - as any musician, engineer, writer, computer programmer, artist, etc..., can tell you - is nothing short of magical and miraculous. In fact, anyone who has been raised in a culture that employs a language (which means ALL cultures), is a de facto savage philosopher. Why not recognize this fact, I say, and open the doors to the many forms of symbolic magic that humans have created and continue to create?

While there are a near infinite variety of those forms, for my money the system of signs (the language) that comprise astrological symbolism and interpretation cannot be surpassed in its ability to provide insight into the human being on all its various levels - psychological, physical, interpersonal, material, spiritual, etc... . What is savage, or 'untamed', about astrology is not its effectiveness as a penetrating tool of insight - it is actually quite refined in this sense; rather, it is 'untamed' only in the sense that it lies outside of the confines of 'civilized' -  i.e. Western religious, intellectual, and scientific - discourse. 

But maybe that's not such a bad thing. Perhaps astrology is necessarily savage, incapable of ever being rigidified and finalized, just like the human beings who created it.

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