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The Uses and Abuses of Philosophical Biographies

Tim Madigan on the Lives of the Great Saints (not!).

O.K. Bouwsma on Wittgenstein’s objections to The Library of Living Philosophers: “Perfectly silly! He had never read any of these – had opened the Moore volume – read about Moore’s boyhood – very nice, but the shoemaker also had a boyhood, very nice. Dewey – was he still living? Ought not to be.” Wittgenstein: Conversations 1949-51.

Schopenhauer is said to have once remarked: “It is difficult enough to devise a philosophy – one cannot be expected to exemplify it as well.” Nonetheless, the question still arises: How much should we know about a philosopher’s personal life (if anything) in evaluating his or her philosophical views? The uproar over Victor Farias’s book Heidegger and Nazism is demonstration enough that this remains a live issue. Can one write about Heidegger’s philosophy now without grappling with the matter of his Nazi membership?

A fascination with the lives of famous philosophers dates back to at least the time of Diogenes Laertius, whose work depicts in often excruciating detail the manner in which the learned met their end. The Confessions of Augustine and Rousseau, the Historia Calamitatum of Abelard, and the Autobiographies of Mill and Russell show that some philosophers, at least, are not reticent about revealing even the most scandalous or intimate details of their personal affairs, presumably in the hopes of enlightening their readers as to how their lives relate to their thought. Augustine’s taste for prostitutes and Rousseau’s predilection for being spanked must have some moral lesson for us all.

But how important is such information when evaluating the worth of their philosophical positions? One is hard pressed, when studying Plato’s Theory of Forms, to see any significance in the fact (as Diogenes tells us) that he died after partying at a wedding feast. And while some feminists have tried to prove that Bertrand Russell’s logical writings on paradoxes and types contain evidence of his patriarchal views on women, it seems that – at least in regards to his technical writings – one should avoid drawing connections between his logical and sexual exercises.

Still, philosophers do not exist in a bodiless and timeless void (much as some of them would like to). They are all a part of some definite historic epoch, and the product of specific upbringings and influences. Studying philosophy ahistorically leads one into the danger of assuming that a philosopher’s life is unimportant in-and-of-itself, and plays no role in his/her reflections. While it is merely amusing to note that Kant was bothered during the composition of his first Critique by the crowing of a neighbor’s rooster, it is crucial for any student of philosophy to note that Aristotle was Plato’s student. Without this bit of information, it would be difficult to understand what Aristotle himself was talking about.

There are, of course, different approaches to looking at philosophers’ lives. One way is to take a strictly reductionist approach, dismissing the views of those addressed because of their ways of life. A good example of this is the book Intellectuals by Paul Johnson. In its opening pages, Johnson writes: “This book is an examination of the moral and judgmental credentials of certain leading intellectuals who give advice to humanity on how to conduct its affairs. I have tried to make it as factual and dispassionate as possible.” While it is certainly chockfull of ‘facts’, it is hardly dispassionate. Intellectuals is less a series of biographies of such philosophers as Rousseau, Marx, Russell and Sartre than it is a demonstration of the fine art of ad hominem argumentation. For Johnson has chosen to deal with the lives (and loves) of people he clearly despises. His aim is to call into question their importance as thinkers, by showing what despicable lives they led. Why, he wants us to ask, should we take such reprobates seriously? He tells us, in great detail, about Rousseau’s sexual abuse of his long-suffering mistress Therese (“who could do for him things animals could not: operate the catheter to relieve his stricture, for instance”); Marx’s atrocious bathroom habits, bad smells and carbuncles (“the boils varied in numbers, size and intensity but at one time or another they appeared on all parts of his body, including his cheeks, the bridge of his nose, his bottom, which meant he could not write, and his penis”); Russell’s inability to perform the simplest mechanical tasks (“He loved tea but could not make it”); and Sartre’s amazing ingestion of mind-altering substances (“The book on dialectical reason, indeed, appears to have been written under the influence of both drinks and drugs”).

Hardly edifying portraits of the Greats. It is difficult to quarrel with Johnson’s facts, since most of them come from the writers’ own autobiographies or from the writings of sympathetic friends and acquaintances. But it is easy to quarrel with his conclusion: namely, that these men should have their works re-evaluated in light of their less than exemplary lives. One can easily point out, given Johnson’s conservative political bias, that many prominent rightwing thinkers were heavy drinkers, womanizers, louts and technically incompetent, too. And there have been untold numbers of people who cheated on their spouses more times than Rousseau did, smelled worst than Marx did, screwed up even simpler tasks than Russell did, or took more chemicals into their system than Sartre did (although it would be hard to come up with examples for the latter case, other than Timothy Leary perhaps). These untold individuals have long been forgotten, while the philosophers named remain influential. The ad hominem approach may have some merit to it (for instance, it is significant that Rousseau, the author of the classic text on childrearing, Emile, left all his children to a foundling home shortly after their births, and that Marx, the champion of the working class, had servants, whom he treated badly). While none of the intellectuals Johnson rails against were paragons of virtue, since when has that been a criterion for truth? In the case of Johnson’s book, philosophical biography is more entertaining than it is enlightening. (And, in the spirit of “turn about is fair play”, some reviewers of the book felt it incumbent on them to relate stories of Johnson’s own rather colorful past.)

To relate stories – especially scandalous ones – about philosophers in the hopes of thereby discrediting their views seems a case of dirty pool. But what if, in describing a philosopher’s life, you really do try to dispassionately deal with an aspect of that life which others may find objectionable? Such is the case with W.W. Bartley’s book Wittgenstein, which raised a storm of controversy by addressing the philosopher’s homosexual lifestyle.

Unlike Johnson, Bartley bore no ill will towards his subject. The point of his book, which originally came out in 1973, was to try and get a better understanding of Wittgenstein by examining his life and times, focusing upon ‘the lost years’, the decade of his life following the First World War, when he became a teacher of young children in Austria, after having solved, to his satisfaction, all the problems of philosophy, in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The passages which drew the most criticism take up only four pages of a 155-page book, and Bartley was taken by surprise by the vehemence of the attacks he received from Wittgenstein’s surviving friends and followers. Rush Rhees, for example, wrote: “What standards guided the publishers and editor when they brought this book out and sponsored it? … There are certain stories which it would be foul to relate or tell about somebody even if they were true. The word is foul.” The implication is that Bartley’s stories about Wittgenstein’s homosexual trysts were false. But Bartley had done his research in a thorough manner, going to homosexual bars in Vienna and London in search of former lovers and acquaintances, “walking alone and rather apprehensively through the Prater at night … talking with those who remembered Wittgenstein, whether a toothless old school director in his attic room or some ageing homosexual in his own special pub.” Bartley had the goods on him.

The controversy the book generated led Bartley to reflect upon the question: What difference does in make in evaluating Wittgenstein’s philosophy whether or not he was gay? When the book was re-issued in 1985, Bartley added an afterword, entitled ‘On Wittgenstein and Homosexuality.’ In it, he states: “Although Wittgenstein’s homosexuality is, it seems obvious to me, of central importance in understanding the man and his influence, I made no attempt to explain his thought in terms of it.”

Bartley then goes on to look at the ways others had used his book to (in a Johnsonian way) dismiss Wittgenstein’s philosophy in light of Bartley’s findings. Perhaps, some said, one can understand the importance Wittgenstein placed on silence and hiddenness by comparing this to the silence he placed over his own sexuality, and the hidden and furtive life he was thereby forced to lead. Bartley calls this view ‘epistemological expressionism’, the idea that a person’s work, whether of art or philosophy, is an expression of his/her’s inner states, or emotions, or personalities. While granting that a person’s private life may have an impact on that person’s thoughts, Bartley cautions that it is almost impossible to trace such an impact, and warns against the sort of reductionism to which people like Johnson love to resort. He writes: “To understand a philosophy, one must study its content and the constellation of objective problems that stand behind its creation; and one must not be distracted unduly by the personal circumstances of the philosopher … The personal circumstances of the philosopher may sometimes play an important role in the network of problems and theories within which he is working, and sometimes they may play no role at all.” Or, as Sigmund Freud (the father of psychobiography) is reputed to have said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

As a philosophical biography, Wittgenstein is important not so much because of its revelations of the subject’s sexual life, but because it deals with ‘the forgotten decade’. By interviewing former students of Wittgenstein’s, and relating the philosopher’s failed careers as an elementary school teacher, gardener and architect, Bartley truly added a new dimension to understanding this enigmatic figure. And Bartley does see one aspect of Wittgenstein’s homosexuality which connects the man and his influence. “The connection that I see” , he writes, “relates to the fact that Wittgenstein, although not a thinker of great originality, exerted, and continues to exert, immense influence.”

Bartley ascribes this to the religious aura surrounding Wittgenstein, an aura he compares to that of mystical figures of the past like Saint Francis or Buddhist saints. This interpretation is open to debate. Since it was Wittgenstein’s former students and friends who raised the greatest ruckus over Bartley’s revelations, and since he is essentially comparing them to religious disciples taken in by their ‘leader’s’ ambiguous sexuality, one should be wary about Bartley’s conclusions. Still, he raises an interesting point. Those who knew Wittgenstein (and readers of his Philosophical Investigations) cannot avoid being drawn to his overwhelming personality. Why did he ask the questions he did? From whence did his observations and reflections arise? How might his own background have influenced the views for which he is most known?

In his 1965 essay ‘The Idea of a History of Philosophy’, John Passmore writes: “How much trouble we should have been saved if Wittgenstein had given references to those passages in Russell on which the Tractatus is in large part a commentary! But Wittgenstein seems positively to delight in writing like an oracle rather than in the manner of a rational animal, who has learnt from experience.” And Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin, in their 1973 work Wittgenstein’s Vienna, make it quite clear that Wittgenstein did indeed learn from experience. His philosophy, which seemed arcane and mysterious to his Cambridge audience, was a direct outgrowth of various discussions that were all the rage in fin-de-siecle Vienna during his early days there. Rather than look upon Wittgenstein, as his followers tended to do, as a sui generis genius whose ideas sprung entirely from his own head, Janik and Toulmin write that: “We would have done better to see him as an integral and authentically Viennese genius … In fact, much of his material had origins that his English audience knew next-tonothing about, and many of the problems he chose to concentrate on had been under discussion among Germanspeaking philosophers and psychologists since before the First World War.”

The two authors do a masterful job of tracing the origins of this material, describing such seminal figures as Karl Kraus, Hugo von Hofmannssthal, Robert Musil, and Ernst Mach, each of whom dealt with matters that would later be synonymous with Wittgenstein: the importance of language and the ways in which it has been debased; the limits of expression; the social basis of meaning; and the impossibilities of direct communication.

What emerges from Wittgenstein’s Vienna is a clearer understanding of how a philosopher’s views emerge. Wittgenstein no longer seems so peculiar. One can understand that the issues that so perplexed him, and almost at times drove him into a frenzy, were issues that hung in the air in countless coffee shops of old Vienna, where the intelligentsia read with delight the witty and pointed aphorisms in Kraus’s Die Fackel (‘The Torch’), or discussed the poetry of von Hoffmannsthal, the novels of Musil, and the scientific writings of Mach. They correct the inappropriate view of Wittgenstein as a man without a culture. Lonely he may have been (and sexually frustrated too), but Janik and Toulmin show that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, his philosophical investigations were following up on leads he took from others before him.

To know something about a philosopher’s life need not be a useless exercise, even when that something could be a sordid event or a secret the philosopher would have preferred remained buried. So long as one does not engage in the sort of reckless reductionism Paul Johnson revels in, one can come to a better understanding of who that philosopher is, and why he or she chose to grapple with certain issues. To quote from William Gass’s review of yet another Wittgenstein biography, Brian McGuinness’s Wittgenstein: A Life, philosophy is a strange business. “To persevere in such a difficult and unrewarding course,” Gass writes, “requires the mobilization of the entire personality – each weakness as well as every strength, each quirk as well as every normality. … Valery’s belief that every philosophy was an important piece of someone’s autobiography need not be rejected as reductive; for whatever the subliminal causes and their kind are like, the principle put forth must stand and defend itself in a stockade of arguments, it must make its own way out into who knows what other fields of intelligence, to fall or flourish there.”

Thus, while Marx’s boils may have fueled his ire against the bourgeoisie, one cannot dismiss Das Kapital on those terms. The origin of a thought and its impact are not one and the same. Likewise, Wittgenstein’s Viennese upbringing gave him issues to grapple with, but it was his own genius that propelled them forward. If such thoughts were caused at least in part by strudel and coffee, so much the better. As Abraham Lincoln is said to have remarked, when told that his best general, Ulysses S. Grant, was an alcoholic: “find out what he’s drinking and give it to my other generals.”

© Dr Timothy J. Madigan 2002

Tim Madigan is Editorial Director of the University of Rochester Press and a U.S. Editor of Philosophy Now.

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