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Philosophy Then

Life & The Mind

Peter Adamson wonders if we can learn philosophy from a life.

Recently I was chatting with some bright young philosophers about the role of biography in the history of philosophy. One of them, Daniel Drucker, offered a nice observation about Friedrich Nietzsche. Just as, for the sake of his philosophical reputation one might see Gottlob Frege as having been lucky to have died before the rise of Nazism (which, given discoveries about his rabid antisemitism, he might well have supported), so Nietzsche was unlucky not to have lived to a ripe old age, for he would then have had a chance to explicitly reject Nazism, a movement whose misplaced association with his thought has tarnished his name.

We are drawn to the life stories of famous philosophers, but Nietzsche’s story has a stronger pull than most. His youthful appointment as a university philology professor, his withdrawal from that post to live a rather isolated life as a philosopher, and his descent into infirmity and madness, possibly as a result of syphilis – to say nothing of his mustache – are at least as well-known as his actual ideas. His sister Elisabeth edited and reinterpreted his unpublished notes to form an association between his philosophy and Nazism, making him seem the harbinger of another descent into madness, this time writ large across the globe. So, more than most thinkers, Nietzsche raises the question of the relevance of biography for philosophy. Is our reading of Nietzsche usefully informed by our knowledge of his upbringing, his illness, his taste in music and art? Or are these distractions? Perhaps it would be better to know less about him, just as we know little about philosophers who came much earlier in the history of thought.

Or is the answer to those questions obvious? Namely, that it depends. Not all biographical information is relevant to evaluating someone’s philosophy, but some of its surely is. If we were ignorant of his impressive mustache, our understanding of Nietzsche would not be diminished. But our understanding is increased by knowing that Nietzsche’s father was a Lutheran pastor who died when Friedrich was very young – a vital fact for contextualizing his searching critique of Judeo-Christian morality.

Happily, there’s plenty of material to sift through if you want to bring his life to bear on his life’s work. One volume entitled Conversations with Nietzsche (1987, Ed. Sander L. Gilman), is devoted to the testimonies of Nietzsche’s acquaintances. In it we find plenty of trivia, and plenty that is not at all trivial. Take just one witness, Resa von Schirnhofer, who met Nietzsche numerous times and wrote reminiscences of him in her letters. We are glad to learn, but probably didn’t need to learn, that to protect her Nietzsche once gallantly chased away a herd of cows with an umbrella. Yet many details in her letters seem more telling. He advised an older Catholic lady not to read his writings as they might upset her. He boasted to von Schirnhofer that his pulse rate was the same as Napoleon’s. He was courtly with her, and with females generally, and somewhat apologetic for having written misogynist lines such as “You are going to women? Do not forget your whip!” As for the appropriation of his ideas by anti-Semites, she tells us that he was generally not disparaging of Jews, although he did speak of Jewish blood in Wagner’s family “with a pejorative nuance.”

We can learn something else from these letters, too, which is that the line between biographical information and philosophical discourse is a blurry one. Von Schirnhofer repeats direct quotes from Nietzsche that are philosophically significant. “One probably never discards prejudices,” he told her, “without falling into a new prejudice: one is never free of prejudices” (p.148). And in response to objections pressed by von Schirnhofer herself, “he often stressed I should not consider him a destroyer of old values; he wanted to build them on a sound foundation” (p.193-4). This isn’t mere gossip, but a (very incomplete) report of a bona fide philosophical dialogue. The writings of, and about, many other philosophers, teach us the same lesson – that life and thought are not so easily kept apart. This is most obvious in the case of authors who used autobiography to explore philosophical ideas, from Augustine in his Confessions (400 AD) to Frederick Douglass in his three autobiographical narratives (1845 on). Douglass stressed, “I have never placed my opposition to slavery on a basis as narrow as my own enslavement.” However, his personal account of the injustice he suffered was a big part of his case for a more just America. Acolytes have also recounted stories about their masters as a way to convey their ideas. The followers of Confucius, for instance, saw deep meaning in his smallest gestures and habits, such as his way of straightening his mat before sitting down. Around the same time, Socrates’ ideas and distinctive way of life inspired the writings of Plato.

There is a strong temptation here – never more powerful than in the cases of Socrates and Confucius – to suppose that the great philosopher must live a great life. That’s why we’re so disappointed to learn that Frege was an anti-Semite, or that Seneca served as a propagandist for Nero. In extreme cases, information about a thinker’s life may make it nearly impossible to appreciate their thought in a way we’d like. Many feel this way about Martin Heidegger, for instance, who did live at the right time to support Nazism, and did so without hesitation. We expect better of our intellectual heroes.

That’s a sentiment we can detect in the letters of von Schirnhofer, who was unable to recognize the Nietzsche of ‘immoderate’ later writings such as Ecce Homo (1888) as the polite and well-mannered man with whom she had enjoyed food, music, and walks. For some philosophers, interpretation begins early. The life is measured against the ideas, and vice versa, even before the life is over.

© Prof. Peter Adamson 2020

Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1-5, available from OUP. They’re based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast.

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