Read Philosophers’ Biographies








I once spent three and a half months reading the complete works of John Dewey, pretty much all day every day. He was an extremely prolific writer; his complete works number thirty-nine volumes. I had a lot of time on my hands in those days. Over those months, I gained a pretty solid grasp of how this philosopher thought. I still regard him as the greatest philosopher of his time. I then began reading the scholarly literature on Dewey; there’s quite a bit of that too. One book still stands out in my memory. I read it a couple of times. It’s a book by Jay Martin titled The Education of John Dewey: A Biography. Jay Martin is a first-rate biographer. This book isn’t what’s called an “intellectual biography,” which is essentially the biography not of a philosopher but of an intellect, and there’s a difference between the two. I’ve read lots of intellectual biographies over the years, and what they often amount to are straightforward analyses of someone’s ideas with a tiny bit of biographical material squeezed in. Martin’s biography is a real biography, and I immediately gained a different and richer perspective on Dewey which reading his many books didn’t quite offer.

There are examples like this, of biographies that shed a kind of light on a philosopher that’s different than the texts themselves and that’s also very valuable. Think of Ray Monk’s biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. There are plenty of books on Wittgenstein, but if I were to recommend just one, it would be this one. Again, it’s the story not of a depersonalized mind but of a human being which, after all, every writer is. Or think of a couple of Nietzsche biographies: Ronald Hayman’s Nietzsche: A Critical Life and Julian Young’s Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography are two of the better ones (and I’m aware of the controversy surrounding the latter book). A couple of other examples are Suzanne Kirkbright’s brilliant book, Karl Jaspers, A Biography: Navigations in Truth and Jean Grondin’s Hans-Georg Gadamer: A Biography. Whenever I teach a philosopher in any of my courses, I always spend the first class or two discussing their biography before turning to whatever book we’re looking at, and the reason is that there’s an important value in understanding the person behind the text, or so I believe. Heidegger used to say to his students that there are just three things you need to know about the person behind the thinker: they were born, they thought, and they died. I disagree. There are plenty of books on this philosopher too, but one of my favorites is once again a biography: Rüdiger Safranski’s Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil. Here again is a book that sheds a very different light on this philosopher than more standard, non-biographical treatments.

What light is that? Why read a philosopher’s biography at all—when, that is, a good one exists? Many, likely most, philosophers today would say biographies don’t matter, not really. What matters are the ideas, the arguments, that’s it. Who came up with them, the context in which they came into being, is immaterial. A philosopher’s biography at best is a curiosity. I disagree, for a couple of reasons. Philosophy, as I see it, is personal. When you understand a philosopher and understand them well, you can’t help but notice that there’s something more than an accidental connection between the person and the texts that person produces. Nietzsche compared ideas to fruit: an apple tree bears apples; there’s necessity there, and when you come to understand something about a thinker like this one, it’s not an accident that he should write on a particular set of questions. Those questions didn’t appear out of nowhere. They arose from the lived experience of a particular human being who lived in a particular time and place. The questions that became his questions, the vital ones that drove him through book after book, reflect the experience and the personality—you might say the “soul”—of an individual.

I’m not suggesting any kind of determinism here. No writer is caused to write in the way that they do. It’s more complex than causality. What I’m suggesting is that we understand the relation between a philosopher and the texts they write as analogous in important ways to the relation between an artist and the works they create. A work of art, we often say, is an act of self-expression, an expression of the artist’s sense of life, or that in some way or other has an organic relation to the person who brought it about—and then again to an audience. The connection between a philosopher and what they write is neither causal nor accidental but organic, and the best way to see this is by reading their biographies.

The hypothesis isn’t provable in any empirical way, but the impression is hard to avoid when you read good biographies of philosophers often, as I do. The view I’m suggesting isn’t that philosophy itself is merely a psychological phenomenon—that it’s “merely subjective”—but that, as Nietzsche put it, philosophy is the “personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary an unconscious memoir,” a confession of its author’s instincts perhaps. The American philosopher-psychologist William James took a similar view. Philosophy is personal in the sense that it’s confessional, an expression not of an impersonal or disembodied reasoning machine but a human being who is someone, comes from somewhere, some particular time and place, who has lived a certain kind of life, with a particular set of experiences, an identity, a character, and a way of being-in-the-world. In my own experience of being a writer, I’ve never managed to bracket myself while thinking, to climb into a realm of pure reason, or anything of the kind. If any such place exists, I’ve never been there—and I have looked. I’m down here in Plato’s cave with all of you.

The point is probably not provable, but maybe a bit of anecdotal evidence will help. I’ve mentioned John Dewey already. In its early days, pragmatism was widely dismissed by European philosophers as so much “crass Americanism” (James’s phrase), a naive expression of New World optimism and the can-do spirit. Dewey’s European reception, or dismissal, reflected a good deal of Old World arrogance, but there was also a grain of truth in this. Dewey’s pragmatism and its other forms had something profoundly American about it. Dewey himself was as unmistakably American as Descartes was French and Hegel was German. Can you imagine Dewey as a Frenchman? His thought isn’t a simple consequence of his origins or experience, but it does reflect them, and how could it not? It’s a reflection not just of a nineteenth-century American but of a certain kind of person, and when you come to know a good deal about the person, the ideas themselves begin to make a kind of sense or take on a certain complexion. It makes sense that one Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in the highly eccentric way that he did, once you gain some understanding of the man. I think you can say the same of any philosopher, and also their readers.

The point of reading a philosopher’s biography isn’t to explain why they thought and wrote as they did—there’s no explaining this—but to shed a different light on their texts. It adds a dimension of meaning, and it’s important, or so I’ve come to believe. Philosophy isn’t subjective, but nor is it objective. This is a false dichotomy. It’s rational, or it tries to be, at the same time that it’s profoundly personal, instinctual, and in a way visceral. Unless you’re made of stone, I imagine you’ve have the experience of reacting viscerally to some philosopher or writer of whatever kind, in either agreement or disagreement. Don’t imagine that writers are any different. When a writer engages in what’s called “critical thinking,” what they’re doing isn’t limited to inspecting the logical credentials of an argument but letting an idea resonate in that internal echo chamber that any writer has, letting it sit with them for a while, deciding not only whether it makes sense but whether it makes sense to them. Nothing about it is impersonal, unless your conception of philosophy is limited to “If P then Q.” By all means, mind your Ps and Qs, but once you’ve done that, don’t imagine your work is done. Writers and thinkers bring themselves with them when they write. 

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