On speculative philosophical biography: A conversation with Antonio Dias

On April 5, in a post on the work and life of the artist Eric Gill, I wrote that “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.” I suggested that speculative philosophical biography would thus be concerned with testing “whether a philosopher’s way of thinking [though, as yet unrealized] could be realizable at some time or other and in some form of life or other.” There is one further condition that I should like to add to this statement: realizable with the aim of leading to a successful human life. I say more about this rider in my reply below.

This morning, Antonio Dias wrote a  remarkably thoughtful comment. It reads,

You open up provocative questions when you attempt to reconcile Gill’s writings and his “work” with a broken life of damage and physical and psychological destruction. This isn’t in the same league as a statement like Heidegger’s philosophy leading necessarily to Nazism. Philosophical work is a particular kind of work, as you’ve said and say here. It has an internal consistency that ties its statements directly to actions across the spectrum of what it means to be alive.

Gill’s case, and that of so many other fractured people who manage to hold parts of their lives together in spite of whatever damage that has led to committing reprehensible actions, is outside of that type of work, that en-training of intention, of philosophical consistency, and of actions throughout a life focused on the construction of a total edifice.

It begins to seem that this is too much, too narrow even for a philosophical life. The expectation that anyone, even a philosopher should be able to control their lives to such a degree seems unrealistic if held as an absolute standard. We can celebrate those lucky enough to achieve it, while still acknowledging the humanity of those who fall short. I think the Romans believed in the force of Fortuna within their philosophies.

Something like incest is so deeply enmeshed in a person’s history and the aftermath and consequences of actions in their family’s past, present, and continuing reverberations into the future that they cannot be held to a simple straightforward accountancy. Their actions are inexcusable, yet their circumstances are as complex as any human activity could be. This is the realm of Tragedy.

Gill’s work was inextricably linked to all of the circumstances of his life, as are everyone’s. That he posited such a role for work life equaling life work could very well be a compensatory construction as he wrestled with his demons and wished/hoped, such a focus could be maintained, Inshalla!

I think there needs to be room for a #5, maybe even a #6 added to the list. Finding them, and articulating them a worthy process.

And here is my reply:

Let me begin sideways or, rather, slightly far afield. Martin Amis takes what I would call the Party Line in a recent LRB piece on the poet Philip Larkin. Yes, Larkin was a crank, Amis admits, but I’m only interested in how well his work endures. This I call the Party Line because it expresses the assumption I find almost everywhere when I speak with writers. Geoff Dyer, for all his stylistic brilliance, unnerves me because he takes the work-over-here and life-over-there thought on board without question. He therefore makes a fundamental philosophical error and, in so doing, gets his priorities about the aim of life all wrong.

So I’m clearing a new path or, what is the same thing, making way for a very old one. Only yesterday I updated my Writing tab on my website to reflect this: “Writing is an outgrowth of living–and not the other way around. To live well is what matters; to write well only matters to the extent that living well does. Dying well without writing well: that would still be enough, more than enough.”

The joke I’ve been making of late: If I die and don’t finish my book, that’s OK. But if I die and don’t finish my life, that’s not OK.

I see your points about Tragedy and Fortuna. The Greeks were profoundly concerned with tuche (poorly but loosely translated as luck). My reply to your suggestions would be to make a modification: “What does it mean to lead a successful philosophical life?” So I want to rule out #5 and #6 simply on the grounds that, alas, these are not successful philosophical lives. Sad, yes. And the proper response is mourning and compassion.

There’s one further problem which I want simply to allude to here. It is that we take ideas to be on one side on the equation and doings on the other. (I said something about this in my short section on Theory Application from yesterday’s post). Then, once we do this we get in mind to pull out the glue and paste our ideas onto our doings and see whether they match up. (And here I want to add: Then we get into moralizing talk of “hypocrisy” and so forth. I find this moralizing talk unhelpful, wrongheaded, untragic. In short, gotcha journalistic.)

I’m afraid my talk of “consistency” may lead us to that conclusion as well. I’d prefer that it didn’t. More recently, I’ve taken to some more poetic language in order to capture this thinking en actu, this ideas-in-and-only-insofar-as-they-are-lived-out. It’s not for nothing that I keep talking about philosophy AS a way of life. (Probably my first go at this was a post I wrote for New Public Thinking on “trying things out.”)

Speculative philosophical biography, then, was an essay to test whether ideas en actu as potentialites could be ideas en actu as actualities.

P.S. Just saw this entry on footle, v. in my Inbox. Meaning: “To talk or act foolishly, to trifle or potter.” If we could press the definition a little further, we might say, “To talk-act foolishly.” Or, even, “To play the part of a fool.”

Readers, feel free to join in. These thoughts are all in process: yes, aiming at something but as of yet unfinished.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “Eric Gill on Holy Work”

—. “On Drudgery and Artistry.”


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