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.”

On prescribing Aristotle: Show transcript and clarifications

Here’s a transcript of my live chat on philosophical counseling, “Prescribing Aristotle: Philosophical Counseling 101.” It is pared with the Washington Post story by Emily Wax,“Philosophical Counselors Rely on Eternal Wisdom of Great Thinkers.”

First off, thanks to Haley for guiding me through the chat. Thanks also to Emily for writing such a positive story about philosophical counseling.

Regarding Emily’s story, I’d like to make a few clarifications.

1.) Tbeory Application. In my philosophy practice, I speak of philosophy as a way of life, not as a theory to be applied. Conversation partners and I don’t take big ideas or eternal wisdom and then apply them to our lives. Rather, I work with conversation partners on developing models for living. As I write elsewhere,

For the ancients, logic was the living-out of right thinking, metaphysics the living-within the natural world, politics the living-alongside others, ethics the living-out of virtues… Epicureans, Aristotelians, Stoics, Platonists, Cynics: all built competing schools with the aim of making philosophy an art of living, an art to be practiced, reflected upon, honored, and refined.

The split between thinking and doing is a modern invention and one that I don’t follow in my life or in my work. Wisdom is not an object to be possessed but a path to be followed.

2.) Book Prescriptions. In my philosophy practice, I don’t typically prescribe this or that, especially not books. I’m not sure that the concept of prescribing makes much sense in a philosophical context. “Prescribing” carries certain legal and medicinal connotations that don’t apply to my philosophical practice. I like to essay, invite, and converse.

Note also that the basis for our conversations is life in general and your life in particular. The aims of our conversations are wholeness, clarity, and meaning. If we read books together, it is a question of kairos: just the right thing at just the right time for all the right reasons. And, let me add, in just the right way.

3.) Relation to Psychology. For the past 20 years or so, this question has been getting raised again and again. However, it seems to me that the relation of philosophical counseling to psychology and psychiatry is, quite simply, not a very interesting topic of conversation. Not to me anyway and not to those I work with. I’ve addressed this somewhat in the FAQs section on Philosophical Counseling, but here, perhaps, I manage to take a clearer line.

In my work, I start from the premise that man is a social animal. Taking this thought seriously involves conceiving of each individual as enmeshed in and as living out a certain model for life. An analogy may prove instructive.

Imagine you’re a swimmer and that you’re following the example of an excellent guide. If something in you is deficient or unworkable or untenable, your guide should examine this problem not in isolation but as something that arises within a larger practice and takes place within an established institution. Perhaps your shoulder is not rotating properly and that, in turn, is causing structural problems with the rest of your stroke. And that stroke is being repeated time and time again, showing up in other places and at other points. Indeed, this structural deficiency is working its way–poorly at that–through the rest of your body, your mind, and your world. Still, we’ve not gone far enough, not by a long shot. Have you noticed that you’re swimming in a certain pool, surrounded by certain swimmers, at a certain historical moment, in a certain kind of world? Well, you are, and all this matters to the shape and success of your overall practice.

Like a swimmer’s practice, an individual’s model for living can be either sound or unsound, workable or unworkable, sustainable or unsustainable, resilient or collapsable. The same is true of our culture’s models for living, which are currently, I gather, in the midst of slowly collapsing. Attending to one problem, such as family or love, work or home, sorrow or strife, therefore involves attending to how that problem relates to the whole: the whole of one’s life and the whole of one’s culture.

My conclusion is that many of our problems are not just in our heads. They are in our practices–and only, as it were, in our heads in part. They may show up there but they reside elsewhere.

As we get older, we must learn to look wider in order to live better.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “A Few Essays on Philosophy as a Way of Life”

A few essays on philosophy as a way of life

We are entering an unsettled time when our previous ways of life have started to unravel but  new ways of life have not taken root. The economy, civil society, the state, the family–all these are, in one way or another, undergoing world-historical changes. And these changes, in turn, are being reflected in our general uncertainty about how we live and how we raise our children. In the past, it was to philosophy–as a practice, as a reflective activity, as a way of life–that individuals and groups had turned in order to find renewal and in order to discover a higher purpose. My query is, “Why not today? Why not return, again, to philosophy?”

Below, you’ll find a few samples of how my thinking has evolved over the past 6 months. Please also, in the spirit of inquiry, feel free to roam about the Archives. I welcome your thoughts, your insights, your doubts, and your questions. Thanks for stopping by.



“The Life Need of Philosophy,” Huff Post (May 2, 2011).

“Our Failure of Imagination,” Inside Higher Ed (April 8, 2011). Part 2.

“Models for Post-University Life,” Inside Higher Ed (March 16, 2011). Part 1.

“On Fish’s ‘Does Philosophy Matter?’ Answer: No…and yes.

“The Puzzle of Financial Prosperity and Spiritual Cultivation.”

3 jokes about Flaubert, Bergman, Ingmar, & dear hubris

Hugo and Flaubert are sitting down to lunch. They have been writing all day, and they’re meeting to report on their progress. Hugo says he’s just finished a chapter; he’s quite satisfied. Good day so far. Flaubert says he’s been wrestling with a comma. He’s decided to leave it in. Excellent thing.

After lunch, they get back to work. They return later to dine together. At dinner, Hugo’s ecstatic. Another chapter. Great day, marvelous day. Flaubert’s also pleased. He’s decided to take out the comma. Perfect day. Couldn’t be better.

From Ingmar Bergman’s inestimable Smiles in Summertime (1956): “If people only knew how unhealthy it is to pay attention to what people say, they wouldn’t bother to listen and they’d feel so much better.”

And then they’d become therapists.

“You’re always quoting yourself.”

“I’m imminently quotable.”


“Thank you.”

The poet Mary Oliver on poetry and prose

The following is the Foreword, posted in its entirety, of Mary Oliver’s book, Long Life: Essays and Other Writing (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2004), xiii-xiv. Oliver, an American poet living in the Northeast, is the winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

Please enjoy.

I would rather write poems than prose, any day, any place. Yet each has its force. Prose flows forward bravely and, often, serenely, only slowly exposing emotions. Every character, every idea piques our interest, until the complexity of it is its asset; we begin to feel a whole culture under and behind it. Poems are less cautious, and the voice of the poem remains somehow solitary. And it is a flesh and bone voice, that slips and slides and leaps over the bank and out onto any river it meets, landing, with sharp blades, on the smallest piece of ice. Working on prose and working on poems elicit different paces from the heartbeat. One is nicer to feel than the other, guess which one. When I have spent a long time with prose I feel the weight of the work. But when I work at poems, the word is in error; it isn’t like any other labor. Poems either do not succeed, or they feel as much delivered as created.

Still, the endeavors of narrative, or the amble of descriptions toward thought, have their enchantments. And there are so many moods of prose—the explanation, the exhortation, the moral instruction, the comedy. And do not forget the fantastical story made buoyant with glitter and the shadows of glitter, too small and sweet, perhaps, for any other use.

We talk about poems turning the line—that magical device—but of course prose turns, too, where the paper is about to run out. Such steadiness! But the prose-horse is in harness, a good, sturdy, and comfortable harness, while the horse of poetry has wings. And I would rather fly than plow.

I have written two books about writing poetry, and this is not another one. I hoped to shun that subject altogether. I have failed, but only very briefly and I hope in a sporting manner. In time I will keep silence altogether. Poets must read and study, but also they must learn to tilt and whisper, shout, or dance, each in his or her own way, or we might just as well copy the old books. But, no, that would never do, for always the new self swimming around in the old world feels itself uniquely verbal. And that is just the point: how the world, moist and bountiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you each morning. “Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?” This book is my comment.

One more thing I want to mention before the pages actually begin. Writing poems, for me but not necessarily for others, is a way of offering praise to the world. In this book you will find, set among the prose pieces, a few poems. Think of them that way, as little alleluias. They’re not trying to explain anything, as the prose does. They just sit there on the page, and breathe. A few lilies, or wrens, or trout among the mysterious shadows, the cold water, and the somber oaks.