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The Life Philosophical

Where Do Philosophers Get Their Ideas?

Martin Cohen says they get them the same sort of places as everyone else.

If you ask people to suggest a book that changed the way they think, it should be no surprise if philosophical works pop up as influential texts more often than others. After all, philosophers are supposed to be the ‘big ideas’ people. But we usually imagine such thinkers starting from scratch, maybe by meditating in a closed, warm room in the fashion made famous by René Descartes. Yet that’s not quite right. In fact, philosophers, just like the rest of us, are often following up something they were told or read.

Take Plato. His writings have been aptly described as the source for which all subsequent philosophy is merely ‘footnotes’ – and yet Plato himself was clearly influenced by his reading mystical figures such as Pythagoras. In fact, the characters in Plato’s books are sometimes chosen to indicate that the theories they voice are not Plato’s own but rather summaries of other well-known figures’ ideas, against which Plato uses Socrates as a foil.

As for Descartes, the French thinker is remembered for giving us the famous dictum, ‘I think, therefore, I am’; yet he did not really come up with that conclusion through personal introspection, as his books Discourses on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy pretend; he merely repeated an old Jesuit lesson in a new form. I say ‘in a new form’, yet even the style of his writing – informal, gently witty, written in the first person – was borrowed from something he’d read: the highly popular writings of Montaigne, whose Essays (1580), consisting of sets of carefully self-deprecating rambling observations, had delighted French aristocrats for a good fifty years already. Actually, Descartes opens the Discourses with a crafty reference to his predecessor, when he says that “Good sense is the most evenly distributed thing in the world”. Montaigne had used that saying in his own book. He went on to say that this is only because it seems that no one is dissatisfied with their own share of it. Descartes misses the irony completely.

Montaigne isn’t Descartes’ only unacknowledged source. As befits one educated under the most stern and orthodox Jesuit masters, Descartes repeats many of Saint Augustine’s credos in his philosophy. Augustine himself referred to the assistance of ‘divine revelation’ in coping with the uncertainties of human knowledge; this is recast as ‘natural light’ by Descartes, when he says that all that appears most obvious to us – ‘everything perceived clearly and distinctly’ – must be true. And though Descartes wrote the famous words cogito ergo sum, the Saint had already taught that: “He who is not can certainly not be deceived; therefore, if I am deceived, I am.” (On the Trinity, 400-415 CE).

Wittgenstein Sips Shandy

Descartes’ books, which inspired so many subsequent writers, were themselves very closely linked to things he’d read. But to see more deeply how books influence books, let’s look more closely at possibly the most famous (if by no means the smartest, let alone the most productive) philosopher of the Twentieth Century, the Austrian eccentric Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein published only one book in his lifetime, obscurely called the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. But Wittgenstein’s second, posthumously-published book, Philosophical Investigations, is both rather better and more interesting to us. This later work, without doubt, was inspired in crucial ways by another text, the Irish clergyman Laurence Sterne’s account of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, which was written in nine chunks, with the first appearing as long ago as 1759.

Venerable, yes; but this is not the sort of book you would expect to be influencing an earnest, even monomaniacal, philosopher like Wittgenstein. After all, Tristram Shandy is not, on the face of it, a serious book. It is not, apparently, a work of philosophy. Rather it is an extended parody of what is otherwise offered as the autobiography of the life of a humble pastor living in the north of England.

The book is ostensibly Tristram’s woeful narration of key episodes in his life, from the time as a toddler that the sash window fell on him, accidentally circumcising him (“'Twas nothing, I did not lose two drops of blood by it –’twas not worth calling in a surgeon, had he lived next door to us – thousands suffer by choice, what I did by accident”) to his father’s neglect of his education on account of his determination to first write a book to outline the system under which Tristram was to be educated. And all the time one of the central jokes of the novel is that Tristram cannot explain anything simply, that he must make explanatory diversions to add context and colour to his tale, to the extent that it is well into Volume III before he manages to even mention his own birth.

Wittgenstein liked Tristram Shandy so much that he constantly referred to it, and his contemporaries recall him claiming to have reread it a dozen times. Maurice O’Connor Drury, psychiatrist and loyal follower, for example, notes in his book, Conversations with Wittgenstein (2002), that the celebrated philosopher once told him, “Now a book I like greatly is Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. That is one of my favourite books.”

Tristram Shandy
A day in the life of Tristram Shandy
The siege of namur by captain shandy and corporal trim, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1959

In the scholarly work Wittgenstein’s Place in Twentieth-Century Analytic Philosophy (1996), the British professor Peter Hacker, who is counted as one of the principal commentators on Wittgenstein’s work, observes that “although the Investigations is written in brief and often apparently disconnected remarks, although it frequently jumps from topic to topic without indicating the reasons for such sudden transitions, and although it has seemed to many readers to be a philosophy that revels in lack of systematicality, it is in fact… a highly systematic, integrated work, and anything but a haphazard collection of aperçus.” Exactly the same could be said of Tristram Shandy – although Hacker, like nearly all Wittgenstein experts, doesn't make the link. But then, as I say, Sterne was not a philosopher.

The debt of Wittgenstein – and hence of much modern English-speaking philosophy – to Laurence Sterne’s humorous novel, is as remarkable as it is unexpected. The first influence is stylistic; but the style produces new ways to see issues. Wittgenstein found inspiration in the continual digressions that thwart the telling of Shandy’s story, as well as in the way that Sterne plays with words, often teasing the reader with the many ways they can be used. Sometimes Sterne’s words are a straightforward record or a conversation, but at other times they point beyond the text and force the reader to suddenly reevaluate what has come before. Much of the humor lies in such changes of perspective.

In the world of philosophy, Wittgenstein is celebrated for his ‘language games’; yet the first round, indeed the invention of the sport, clearly belongs to Sterne. And the same playfulness that leads Sterne to use typographical tricks and techniques, such as dots, dashes, blank pages, and even a black page, reappears in Wittgenstein’s book as intriguing graphics, including the famous doodle of a duck that might be a rabbit depending on what you’re thinking as you look at it. Likewise, both Sterne and Wittgenstein demand ‘reader participation and response’. Or as Wittgenstein says in the Preface to Philosophical Investigations, “I should not like my writing to spare people the trouble of thinking. But, if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own.”

In a recent account of Wittgenstein's thinking for the New York Review of Books, the Canadian philosopher Ian Hacking says, “in the later philosophy, Wittgenstein came to see that language is not one monolithic system of representations for picturing reality. Instead it is composed of myriad fragments that loosely overlap and intersect. Most of these are not used to represent anything. We are told to look at little bits of real or invented discourse to see what nonlinguistic activity – what social context or use – must accompany each one in order for it to make sense.” This is true of many novels, and is exactly how Sterne writes too.

At least Beth Savickey hints at a connection in Wittgenstein’s Art of Investigation (1999). She identifies key elements in Wittgenstein’s work that are more literary than philosophical, let alone ‘logical’, saying, “Wittgenstein’s later writings are, perhaps, the only truly twentieth century philosophical writings we have. They are characterised by a participatory mystique, the fostering of a communal sense, the concentration of the present moment, and the repetition of grammatical techniques” – all of which is deeply Shandyean. Savickey sees Wittgenstein enthusiastically following Sterne in his explorations of “the strengths and limitations of textualized language”; but even so, she sees only a superficial link between the two writers. On the other hand, she claims several other German-language philosophers, from Hegel and Schopenhauer to Marx and Nietzsche, as writers whose thinking was directly affected by the Irish humorist.

So many philosophers inspired by a work of scurrilous humour! That seems a stretch, but it certainly makes two important points: first, that all kinds of books can have an influence well beyond their intended audience; and second, that that influence can sometimes be completely forgotten.

© Martin Cohen 2023

Martin Cohen is a writer on philosophy and social science whose books include 101 Philosophy Problems and Critical Thinking Skills for Dummies. He explores the unexpected influence of the things people read in The Leaders’ Bookshelf: 25 Great Books and their Readers (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).

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