It would, of course, be vulgar to mention the fact that the book Jeremy Stangroom and I recently wrote, The Story of Philosophy: A History of Western Thought, has just landed on the shelves. So I’ll keep that to myself, and also refrain from mentioning that there’s a review by a fundamentally decent human being here.
But what I do want to consider is a question that arose quite often while writing it: how much bearing should the lives of philosophers have on our interpretations of them? In recounting the history of philosophy, you bump into a number of stories about philosophers. It’s said that Thales fell into a ditch while stargazing. Diogenes did some fairly revolting stuff in public. Aquinas paced back and forth between scribes, dictating the lines of separate philosophical treatises to them at the same time. Kant held carefully organized house parties, with time allocated to political discussion and the telling of amusing anecdotes. Schopenhauer pushed a woman down a flight of stairs. Suicide runs in Wittgenstein’s family.
Take a second to get a feel for what you think about the value of biography when it comes to understanding philosophy. I’ve got a view to push on you, but it won’t be interesting unless you’ve got a ideas of your own.
I used to think that whether or not biography matters depends on whether the philosopher in question waded into value theory. Frege was an anti-Semite, but what bearing could that have on his work on logic? Aristotle owned people, and maybe that matters when it comes to thinking through his ethics.
Ray Monk changed my mind on this, or at least made me think the question of the value of biography is more subtle than I thought. In tpm 56, he considers a distinction, owed to James Conant, between two kinds of views on philosophical biography. Reductivism is the view that if we learn enough about a philosopher’s life, we’ll know exactly why she wrote what she wrote, and finally achieve a real understanding of her work. Compartmentalism is the view that biography is irrelevant to understanding philosophy. I’d guess that most philosophers are compartmentalists – perhaps holding that the truth or falsity of a claim is independent of the person who makes it. Monk argues that both views are wrong, in a way, and so is the question that gives rise to them. We shouldn’t wonder about the value of knowing a life in general. Instead we should value biography that describes a life and work in an integrated, interleaving narrative. ‘Catching the tone’, as he puts it, getting to know a philosopher better, can help us along in particular instances. Not always, not never, but now and then, and in a certain, nuanced way.
His example is Wittgenstein’s philosophy of mathematics. Monk says that Dummett and Wright attribute to Wittgenstein full-blown theories of mathematics, but in doing this,
‘they were trying to force his work into a tradition that he himself loathed and thereby flying in the face of the spirit of Wittgenstein’s work. I thought, that, if one understood what sort of person Wittgenstein was – what motivated him, what repelled him, what kinds of thing he treasured, to what he aspired, etc. – then one would stand a better chance of reading his work in the right way, just as when we know someone well we are more likely to interpret correctly the tone in which they speak, more likely to tell, for example, when they are being sarcastic.’
Monk goes on to consider the famous last sentence of the Tractatus: ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’. If you’re of a certain frame of mind, you might take that as a solid bash at transcendental nonsense – and logical positivists did take it that way. But you might also take it as being silent about something, reverential silence, affirming the existence of something transcendental. Monk asks, ‘But how is one to tell the difference between a person who is being silent about something and another who is simply being silent?’ You’ve got to take the time to get to get know Wittgenstein. So too, maybe I now think, with the other greats.
So which is it? Are you a compartmentalist? A reductivist? Or is Monk right, and a grip on biography really is needed to help us, sometimes, catch a philosopher’s tone?
I have the horrible feeling that my reading list just got longer. Maybe we’ve got some biography to read alongside philosophy, if we really want to get a handle on what philosophers think.