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
Published in September 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 the machines of history and, in the form of ideologies, sciences, political or social theories, commitments and ideals, they are the human factor behind the events that drive historical change (droughts and plagues have their part too). Furthermore, most philosophers were not sealed off from their times; they observed them with unusual sharpness of vision, often interacting with the other best minds of the day. In many cases, they were actively engaged in them. Descartes fought in the wars of religion, and was present at the battle of the White Mountain outside Prague; Wittgenstein served in the first world war, and was imprisoned in Monte Casino, carrying the manuscript of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in his knapsack. In this, they followed Socrates’ example, who was a hoplite (a heavily-armed infantryman) in the Athenian army at the battle of Potideae. Spinoza was a refugee from religious persecution and Locke was exiled from England to the Netherlands, where he helped bury the doctrine of the divine right of kings. Bertrand Russell went to prison for his pacifist activism in the first world war, and again half a century later, for his opposition to nuclear weapons. Martin Heidegger was a Nazi and Jean-Paul Sartre a communist; Louis Althusser went mad and strangled his wife; Friedrich Nietzsche went mad and his sister strangled his works into a shape congenial for Nazism. Madness, the fear of madness, genius, dedication, passion (not a few great philosophers were great philanderers too) and conflict with their times, mark many philosophical lives. Even more peaceful lives can be informative. David Hume earned his sobriquet of “le bon David” in the salons of Paris, where his wit was greatly appreciated; and his failure to secure a chair at the University of Edinburgh remains a reproach to that city. Immanuel Kant-the one philosopher of modern times to share the stature of Plato or Aristotle-scarcely stirred from Königsberg but, given that he was an atheist in a city wracked by religious strife, there is high interest in the risky path he followed by remaining there. It partly explains why, in a way reminiscent of Hume, whom he admired, he succeeded in getting a secure academic post only in middle age. It must be admitted, however, that most philosophical biographies suffer from one of two shortcomings. Either they are well written, because written by professional writers, but fail to give an adequate account of their subjects’ thought; or they succeed in doing the latter because written by philosophers, but reflect all too well the latter’s stock-in-trade-the dry academic paper. Examples of the former include Ernest Mossner’s 1954 life of Hume, still the standard work, and yet unsatisfying as an account of Hume’s thought. Another case is Ronald W Clark’s 1975 biography of Russell; Clark did not understand Russell’s work in logic or philosophy, and had no sense of its provenance. Examples now abound of philosophers writing biographies hampered by lack of literary skill. A classic example is Terry Pinkard’s life of Hegel. If one wants an overview of Hegel’s thought, there is no better place to start. But the non-philosophical parts of his book are stylistically clumsy and pedestrian. This is a fault that betrays the otherwise excellent Manfred Kuehn biography of Kant too and, although one might point a finger at poor editing by the publishing house responsible for both-Cambridge University Press-no publisher has a monopoly on philosophically sound biographies which are repugnant in literary respects. By chance, the two biographies that spring to mind as examples of success on both fronts are about Wittgenstein: Ray Monk’s excellent Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius and the peerless Young Ludwig by Brian McGuinness, the first of two projected volumes whose sequel, alas, seems destined not to appear. Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein is deservedly well known. Written with grace and clarity and buoyed by Monk’s admiration for his subject, it is also a useful introduction to Wittgenstein’s main ideas. It is better for a biography that its author feels sympathy for its subject (although best of all is tolerant objectivity) and Monk is a Wittgenstein sympathiser. One result is that his Wittgenstein, who, in reality, was an egregiously difficult character-arrogant, resentful and egocentric-is painted as a tortured genius who should, in Monk’s view, be forgiven much. Compare Monk’s two-volume account of Bertrand Russell’s life. Monk self-confessedly hates Russell, and his increasingly hysterical distortions of the life threaten to reduce his account to a mountain of waste-paper. Brian McGuinness’s beautifully-written account of the first half of Wittgenstein’s life is the closest thing in existence to a paradigm of philosophical biography. It weaves life and thought seamlessly together and with elegant dispassion presents Wittgenstein as a creature of his place and time. No one in Vienna at the start of the 20th century regarded Wittgenstein as unusual or notably clever, but when he arrived in Cambridge in 1912, one of the smuggest and most self-enclosed enclaves in the most self-satisfied country in the world, he was a bombshell. Russell, who thought everyone he met either a fool or a genius placed this strange Austrian into the latter category, and his reputation was made. Wittgenstein’s career thereafter had much to do with resenting Russell’s help. McGuinness shows where in the rich soup of 19th-century Viennese culture Wittgenstein’s always unacknowledged ideas came from and, as one of the translators of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, he gives a lucid rendition of that work’s principal themes. Among the most notable contributors to the recent spate of philosophical biography is Rudiger Safranski, not an academic but a fine writer well-grounded in philosophy. His intellectual biographies of Schopenhauer and Heidegger were well received, the latter including a frank account of Heidegger’s Nazism; and his recently published biography of Nietzsche follows suit. Safranski disdains spending too much time on a subject’s sexuality, a topic hijacked by so-called “psychobiography.” In the case of Nietzsche, this may be a mistake. Joachim Kohler’s Zarathustra’s Secret, published a decade ago in German but now available in English, is a study of Nietzsche’s erotic life and it is very illuminating. Safranski ignores it-except obliquely, in a few paragraphs accepting but downplaying Kohler’s thesis. Yet Kohler succeeds in showing that Nietzsche’s masochistic homosexuality explains much that he said and suffered-for Nietzsche himself pointed to sexuality as the summit of an individual’s spirituality and his concept of an ideal existence embraced Dionysian orgiastic freedom, as expressed in his own day by the naked, sun-kissed youths of Sicily. For Kohler, Nietzsche’s attack on Christian morality is the product of this repressed erotic longing and explains his ideal of the “Superman,” who overthrows life-denying inhibitions in order to live passionately and supremely. Nietzsche poured contempt on the view that the feeble, the fearful, and those that weep and mourn, shall inherit the Kingdom. Man should instead “overcome himself,” by expunging the weaknesses in his nature. Nietzsche was born in Saxony in 1844, the son of a mild-mannered pastor, who died when Nietzsche was five years old. He was a precocious child and was already a professor in Basle by the age of 24. But academic life did not suit him; his first book was regarded as so bad that he resigned. There followed a life of solitary wandering in Switzerland and Italy, writing and thinking, publishing increasingly provocative and controversial books, until at last he produced his masterpieces, Thus Spake Zarathustra and On the Genealogy of Morals. In the first, he gave a full statement of what he regarded as his greatest insight: the doctrine of “eternal recurrence,” which says that everything that happens will happen again, exactly as before-and therefore one must live so that one won’t mind repeating one’s life endlessly. No one could wish to reprise Nietzsche’s own life: he went mad ten years before his death, probably as a result of syphilis. The lives of Wittgenstein and Nietzsche, Locke and Descartes, with their wars and wanderings and, in the first two cases, their personal struggles, could not seem to be more contrasted to the externally eventless existence of the great Immanuel Kant. But Kant’s biography is every bit as gripping. It might smack of hyperbole to say that he is one of the greatest philosophers of all time, but it is true. His great works-Critique of Pure Reason, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals-are not easy reads. But they are monuments of the mind of man. Kant was the son of a harness-maker, and his parents were adherents of Pietism, a form of fundamentalist Christianity which Kant rejected. His gifts ensured that he had the best education Königsberg could offer, but he was not a prodigy, and was 31 when he began his academic career, and 46 before he secured a salaried position. It was another ten years before he produced the first of the great works by which he is remembered, making him a late developer indeed. But the long years of preparation were not unproductive. Kant lectured and published much on a wide variety of subjects, from physics to cosmology, from geography to anthropology. In part it was a requirement of lecturers’ hand-to-mouth existence that they were jacks of all intellectual trades but, in Kant’s case, it was also a product of large interests. This wide reading, thinking and teaching fed into his mature work, not as its subject matter but as the background to the abstract reflections they embody. In the first of his Critiques, Kant argued that the world we experience is in part determined by our cognitive faculties, which shape the way the world appears to us by contributing very general structural features to it-such as its spatial and temporal character and the fact that experience is always governed by concepts such as causality. Kant’s moral philosophy builds on this basis an austere ethics of duty, in which the obligations by which we must live are identified by reason. On the big questions of metaphysics-the existence of God, the immortality of the soul and the freedom of the human will-Kant argued that we cannot prove any of them but that we need to assume them to make sense of morality, so that people can be persuaded that evildoing will be punished posthumously. This view is reminiscent of Plato’s view that although religious beliefs are false they are useful as a means of controlling the unlettered. The austerity of Kant’s views and his bachelor life give a misleading impression. He was a sociable being who enjoyed dining out and playing billiards. In the last years of his life, he suffered progressive dementia, ending as a helpless child. The cases of Kant, Nietzsche and Althusser, with their descents into madness or dementia, are, in fact, untypical of philosophers, who tend to live long and enjoy alert old ages, as exemplified by Thomas Hobbes and Bertrand Russell. Hobbes sang every evening into his 90s, convinced that it cleared the lungs. Russell, by contrast, smoked a pipe into his 90s, convinced of nothing but the folly of mankind. Reading biographies of philosophers is an excellent way to gain a first purchase on their thought. As the number of such biographies increases-explained by the rising interest in philosophy as religion wanes and people seek intellectual and ethical alternatives-so the hope is that they will become better both in literary and philosophical respects. Modesty should, but will not, forbid mention that the definitive account of the life and thought of René Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, will soon be on its way.