On speculative philosophical biography

The strange thing about philosophy is that it is supposed to be lived or, if not lived, then livable. I call this “strange” because no one would say that a biologist should live biology or a surgeon live surgery. But for a philosopher not to live philosophically seems a contradiction in terms.

At least that was how the ancients understood philosophy. For them, philosophy was a way of life. For us moderns, however, philosophy is numerically identical with professional philosophy, and professional philosophy seems to bear no relation to everyday life. Good-bye philosophy of life!

These two views–namely, consistency and autonomy–seem to cover the terrain of philosophical biography. Do they? But then: What exactly is philosophical biography?

Philosophical biography is the  study of how well a philosopher’s ideas are realized in his life, in the core of his being, in his thoughts, habits, and actions. It would be a mistake to suppose that ideas are theoretical objects that then get applied to reality. That would be to suppose that ideas exist in one realm, reality in another, and the first fits, doesn’t fit, or bears no relation to the second. To say instead that ideas are “realized in one’s life” is to mean that ideas only take on substance and meaning insofar as they are lived.

Philosophical biography admits of four understandings, two of which I have already mentioned.

  1. Autonomy. A philosopher’s ideas are different in kind or nature from his life. This modern understanding I reject inasmuch as it is a scientific understanding. So-and-so does research on a certain topic, and his research proceeds independently of his life. A brilliant scientist, say, but an awful family man. A Professional through and through.
  2. Consistency. A philosopher’s ideas are consistent or inconsistent with his way of life. I may write about the need for trust but then be untrustworthy. I may honor marriage in thought but not in deed. And so on.
  3. Entailment. A philosopher’s statements entail a way of life. In a recent book on the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, Emmanuel Faye argues that Heidegger’s philosophy necessarily leads to Nazism. Hence, it was no coincidence that Heidegger ended up sympathizing wholeheartedly with the Nazi cause.
  4. Speculation. A philosopher’s ideas carry the potential of being realizable in some estimable form of life. This is the line of thought I am now trying out.

With respect to “speculative philosophical biography,” the case I have in mind is that of Eric Gill (1882-1940). We now know that Gill was not just a remarkable craftsman and devout Catholic; he was also an exceptionally erotic creature. Among other things, he had sex with his daughters and had multiple extramarital affairs. According to 1), we might not bother with the biography and pay attention only to his thoughts on work. Yet were we to follow this approach, we would be effectively transforming philosophy into science.

According to 2), we would conclude that Gill was a hypocrite. Perhaps he was, but that sounds like gotcha journalism to me–hardly the stuff of great philosophical thinking.

According to 3), we would track how his understanding of work leads of necessity to a life of the flesh. Yet in this case I can’t conceive of how writing about the holy nature of work–to work is to pray–has to result in incest. Nonsense.

In my life and my work, I am trying to examine sustainable models for leading the life of the mind. Here, I want to consider more fully whether a philosopher’s way of thinking could be realizable at some time or other and in some form of life or other. In this respect, the project is speculative but speculative in a good and useful sense. Let me bring the project closer to home: Can we live according to Gill’s fundamental understanding of work life = life work? My conjecture is that we can. Where might this conjecture take us?

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