Taxi Driver and Philosopher Kenneth Knisely

Kenneth Knisely, cable access philosopher and taxi driver, died in September. For 15 years, he produced a show called No Dogs or Philosophers Allowed, which aired on channels around the world.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

We read today in The Washington Post of the untimely death last month of Ken Knisely, who was just 48 and suffered a heart attack after surgery. C.H. Kenneth Knisely was a Georgetown University philosophy major who later in life took his passion for philosophical dialogue onto public-access cable television, philosophy as television.

(Soundbite of "No Dogs or Philosophers Allowed")

Mr. C.H. KENNETH KNISELY: Arguments may be convincing in the sense that they come through to you with a picture or, as I said earlier, a vision.

SIEGEL: This was a 1992 show. Imagine Ken Knisely, then in his mid-30s, a man with a frizzy beard and thick glasses. He was engaged in conversation about justice, wearing what appeared to be Army fatigues, but where his name would have been, the word `Philosopher' was written instead.

(Soundbite of "No Dogs or Philosophers Allowed")

Mr. KNISELY: When we give our assent to a vision like `All humans are created equal'...

Unidentified Man: I'd like to ask that...

Mr. KNISELY: ...we make it true in the manifestation...

SIEGEL: I interviewed Ken Knisely that year, and as I wrote in the introduction to that interview, his program, "No Dogs or Philosophers Allowed," made analyses of the European monetary system or debates on the federal deficit sound downright frivolous by comparison. Ken Knisely explained that he'd started out teaching in a high school philosophy program in Richmond, Virginia; smart kids, he said, but not well-read.

(Soundbite of 1992 interview)

Mr. KNISELY: I mean, these are the very brightest kids and, as I say, no "Huck Finn," no "Ivanhoe," no newspapers, very depressing.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KNISELY: But they were watching MTV, and I never thought of television much. And kind of as a gimmick, I used a video camera, videotaped some dialogue, platonic dialogues they read, and just, I guess, because they were trying to watch the boob tube, they watched them and I kept working with cameras, with video. I love books. A lot of people have kind of--you know, a lot of bibliophiles hate TV, but it can be used to inspire thought.

SIEGEL: This was low-tech television: Producers' cues that should have been off mike were on mike; no fancy camera work. Socrates, welcome to "Wayne's World." It was low-wage television, too. Ken Knisely drove a cab to support his philosophy habit and his family, but he was passionate about the importance of rigorous inquiry.

(Soundbite of 1992 interview)

Mr. KNISELY: One of the important things about philosophy is that it's--well, it was born in conversation. We go back to the ancient Greeks, Socrates and his work in the marketplace, you know. And there are people out there selling stuff, and Socrates is out there asking questions trying to bring about a conversation.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KNISELY: It's an art of philosophy that is pretty much lost today, and yet it's important. It's important because we live in a philosophical nation, or at least one that was founded as a philosophical experiment. It's fun. It talks about the biggest issues facing us. I mean, it should be done. And we're not there yet, but we're developing a--I don't know--electronic philosophy.

SIEGEL: That was 13 years ago, and he kept at it, eventually getting the show aired in more than 25 countries. He would pick a topic, then, together with his guests, proceed to pick it apart.

(Soundbite of 1992 interview)

Mr. KNISELY: We've talked about democracy. I'm very interested in the whole natural rights philosophy that the Declaration of Independence came out of because most people don't buy it. And yet here we have a big, huge, continental nation which, in some way, is still based on these ideas. Well, if we don't buy that, what happens to this insistence upon rights, this insistence upon the equality of human beings? What if you can't justify the equality of human beings? Where are you left? I don't know. I think it's a good question.

SIEGEL: Ken Knisely, the Diogenes of public access, died in Arlington, Virginia, on September 25th.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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