What explains the recent fashion for biographies of philosophers? Why do so few of them combine both good philosophy and vivid writing?by AC Grayling / September 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Biography is a popular genre, and for good reason. It is a form of history, illuminating the general via the particular, and making the past-even the recent past-additionally vivid by casting it in a personal light. It satisfies a healthy form of voyeurism about lives made notable by achievement or fate, giving us insights into how they became so and providing us with materials for understanding, even changing, our own lives.
The popularity of biography has increased further since biographers allowed themselves frankness about their subjects’ intimacies. That is a good thing: life unfolds more behind closed curtains than on public platforms. What biographers satisfy by opening the curtains is more exigent than prurience. It is the need to be more richly informed about the one thing we all have to do-live from day to day with other people and the unforgiving passage of time.
The natural subjects of biographies are people who have been at the centre of big events in politics, war or culture. It comes as a surprise, therefore, to find that in recent years there has been an explosion in the number of biographies of philosophers. They are people who, on the whole, live lives of quiet reflection; their victories won not with flashing swords or magnificent oratory but in the silence of the mind. What explains the rising interest in philosophical biography?
Given that publishing houses are not charities, and that a biography of Spinoza or Wittgenstein is required to bring in a profit, it must mean that, for a large number of people, a story of the growth and flowering of ideas is as interesting as a cavalry charge into the cannon’s mouth. One reason is inferable from what George Bernard Shaw said of his own life: “I have had no heroic adventures. Things have not happened to me; on the contrary it is I who have happened to them; and all my happenings have taken the form of books. Read them, and you have my whole story; the rest is only breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
The idea that things do not happen to philosophers so much as philosophers happening to things is clearly true of thinkers like John Locke, whose writings inspired the American and French revolutionaries, and Karl Marx. But many others have less publicly altered the complexion of thought in their own time or later. Ideas are the fuel of…