Category Archives: Articles

Wittgenstein in Norway’s Østerrike

Der Standard, 2. Juni 2017

Østerrike über dem Fjord: In einem Kaff in Norwegen schrieb der große Philosoph einige seiner wichtigsten Texte Österreich heißt auf Norwegisch Østerrike. Für die Bewohner eines kleinen, eher abgelegenen Dorfs in Norwegen ist damit freilich nicht nur ein kleines Land in Mitteleuropa gemeint, sondern ein ganz besonderer Ort in ihrer unmittelbaren Nähe. Um dorthin zu gelangen, ist freilich eine längere Reise vonnöten, die man am besten in der Stadt Bergen an der Südwestküste Norwegens beginnt. –



Wittgenstein in Norwegen: Welcher Weg führt zum Genie?

Wer auf Wittgensteins Spuren wandert, kann nicht nur Logik lernen: In der Welt des Philosophen lag Österreich an einem Fjord.
Clemens Panagl, Salzburger Nachrichten, 22.5.2017

SKJOLDEN. Der Weg zur Erkenntnis ist steinig. Und er ist stellenweise ziemlich schmal. „Aber allzu leicht sollten es sich die Besucher ja auch gar nicht machen“, erläutert Harald Vatne. Der Lokalhistoriker führt eine Besuchergruppe durch ein Waldstück nahe dem Örtchen Skjolden. Mitten in Norwegen, am Endpunkt des längsten Fjordes von Europa, liegt die Gemeinde. Hinter den Häusern von Skjolden ruht ein kleiner See, begrenzt von steil abfallendem Wald. Und mitten im Wald weht eine österreichische Fahne.


Egon Schiele in the Light of the Philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Theory of Musical Composition of Arnold Schönberg


by Carla Carmona

The question of the limits of language is deeply connected to one of the pillars of modern art, that is, the desire to extend the formal possibilities of an artistic medium. One could read under that light the relationship between the ready-made and modern sculpture. As Hermann Broch pointed out, the development ought to take place from within the medium itself:


This is precisely how the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein approached both ethics and language in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. What appeared to be a treatise on logic was much more than that. Wittgenstein wrote that the purpose of the book was ethical and explained that it consisted of two parts, the written and the unwritten. Wittgenstein considered that the unwritten part was the most important. The key was the very thing that was missing in the text, and the gesture to keep quiet about it. One of the aims of the Tractatus was to delimit the field of ethics, and that could only be done from within. Wittgenstein thought he had settled those limits by precisely remaining silent about ethical issues. His demarcation between the world of facts and the world of value intended to make clear that logic, and consequently philosophy, could only deal with facts. The language of logic could not go further than that, and thus the world of value – that is, of ethics – was out of its reach. Facts belonged to the realm of saying, and value to that of showing. There were certain things that could only be shown, and art was an appropriate path toward that domain.

Read the full essay: Egon Schiele Symposiumsband 120-133

Carla Carmona is a professor of philosophy at the University of Extremadura in Spain. She specializes in aesthetics, philosophy of language and fin de siècle Vienna. She has published numerous articles on the paintings and the worldview of Egon Schiele, as well as the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein and its aesthetic dimension. In recent years she has also dedicated herself to the study of aesthetic and political thought by Peter Sloterdijk. In 2014 she edited the Siruela Voluntary Taxation and Citizen Responsibility. Her books include Egon Schiele’s pictorial idea: An essay on representational logic (Genueve Editions, 2012), On the tightrope of the eternal: On the hallucinated grammar of Egon Schiele (Cliff, 2013), Egon Schiele: Writings 1909- 1918 (La Micro, 2014), and Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Consciousness of the Limit (Library Discover Philosophy, The Country, 2015). Carmona is also editor of the Egon Schiele Jahrbuch.

Wir danken dem Leopold Museum für die freundliche Genehmigung zur Veröffentlichung.
29. und 30. September 2016, Leopold Museum, Wien
Herausgeber: Hans-Peter Wipplinger
ISBN 978-3-9504025-5-1


by Steven Beller (Washington DC)

It is now more than forty years since one of the greatest books about the history of Viennese modern culture at the turn of the 20th century was published: Wittgenstein’s Vienna.  Its insights remain vital at a time when the heuristic power of “fin-de-siècle Vienna” has increasingly been found wanting by scholars (if not by sellers of Klimtiana). Much excellent work has been done on Wittgenstein since 1973, but there is still much that we can learn about Wittgenstein and his Vienna, and I think it is high time that we reinvest our time and attention in Wittgenstein’s Vienna, both conceptually, as a work in the history of ideas, and, historically as a subject of immense contemporary relevance, especially to the Vienna of today.

The reason why this is so effective is due to the great compass of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s own world.  He himself, and his family, were not confined to a parochial Viennese context.  The family had roots in Germany and there was also the fact of Jewish descent on both sides of Wittgenstein’s family tree.  Ludwig’s father had gone off to America for some time as a young man, and Ludwig himself went to Berlin and Manchester to further his education, and then, most significantly, Cambridge.  He became fascinated with Scandinavia and especially Norway.   His world extended far beyond Vienna’s city limits or the Habsburg frontier.  Put another way, “Wittgenstein’s Vienna” was a very cosmopolitan, internationally open and outward-looking one, expansive and inclusive at the same time.  Partly this was due to the immense wealth and economic power and connections that the family had accumulated, but partly it was due to the fact that the family lived beyond the local, on the global plane.  This is an aspect that should make Wittgenstein’s Vienna most attractive to contemporary Vienna, emphasizing as it does its role as an international (UN/OPEC/OSCE) city, open to the world.

Karl Wittgenstein and the Austrian Steel Industry
One aspect of Wittgenstein’s Vienna that remains insufficiently researched and understood, and yet was a necessary condition of Ludwig’s upbringing, experience and career as well as one of the largest legacies to modern Vienna and Austria, is the material underpinning of it.  The source of the family’s immense wealth was the father, Karl Wittgenstein’s, phenomenal success in developing the Austrian steel industry.  Had the father not amassed such economic power and created such a strong, advanced industry, the son would not have had the opportunities for studying abroad, or the time for studying and thinking, that contributed to his intellectual achievement, nor would modern Austria have had the sort of steel industry that proved so vital in creating and maintaining Austrian prosperity after 1945.  Ludwig might still have proved himself a genius without the material support, and there were other sources for technological advantage in the Austrian steel industry, but I think it fair to say that Karl Wittgenstein’s economic achievement made much more likely his son’s achievement and modern Austria’s chances for economic well-being.  Some research has been done on Karl’s career, but much more could be done, and the question of what the entrepreneurial culture, what the economic, technological and financial context was that allowed him to have such a stellar career, remains intriguing, and of central importance to Austrian history, given the economic prominence in Austria of the heir to Wittgenstein’s company, VOEST-Alpine.

Vienna’s First and Second Societies
Another, closely related aspect of Wittgenstein’s Vienna that is still only fuzzily understood is the social setting of the family which was supported by Karl’s economic success, and in which Ludwig grew up.  The Wittgenstein family has usually been seen to have been part of Vienna’s “second society”, but how exactly has not been all that clear.  Partly this is because it is not quite clear what constituted the “second society”.  We have a fairly good idea that it meant the elite of Habsburg society that was excluded from the “first society” (the high nobility).  An eyewitness from the turn of the century put this quite succinctly.  Talking of Carlsbad as a socializing centre, Lady Paget commented: “Princes, statesmen, and diplomats went there, and many members of great Austrian families, also some of the bankers and rich merchants came from the capital; but these latter formed a completely different society, for then, as now, the line was clearly and firmly drawn, and when Viennese society is spoken of, it must be understood that it means the score or two of noble families, some of which have been mentioned, and that no exception is made to this rule.   A second society does exist; it is wealthy and very fashionable, and said to be amusing, and some of the young men belonging to the first society frequent it.  It consists of bankers, artists, merchants, architects, engineers, actors, employés, and officers, with their families.  The only occasions on which the two societies meet are the great public charity balls; but even then they have hardly any intercourse.” [Lady Paget, “Vanishing Vienna. A Retrospect” in The Living Age, vol. 246 (Boston: 1905), p. 796.]

The Protestant Class
It is less clear what the composition of this second society was, because not all members of those categories listed necessarily belonged to a second society, and the term has come to cover a host of various groups, some of which were connected, some not.  The “Ringstrasse society” included a large percentage of the “second society”, but not all.  The Protestant industrial class, consisting of families such as Krupp and von Schoeller of which the Wittgensteins were prominent members (despite Karl’s children being Catholic), had its own annex of the second society, as did the academic world, the bureaucratic world, and the theatrical and musical worlds.  Quite who did and did not belong here was a question of familiarity and connection, snobbery and exclusivity, style, intelligence and charm—or the lack of it, that made for a very extended, yet sometimes patchy network (perhaps like all social elites).

The Wittgensteins and the Jewish Aspect of the Second Society
The complexity of the question is increased by the Jewish aspect of it.  Another vignette of Viennese society, with a similar sense of a divided “first/second society” elite, puts the division somewhat differently.  In “Paul Vasili”’s [probably Catherine Radziwill], Die Wiener Gesellschaft [Leipzig, 1885], the same absolute division between the high aristocracy and the banker/merchant elite is there, but it is made an ethno-religious one, namely between the “high aristocracy” and the Jewish “barons of finance”.  “Der Finanzadel hat sehr wenig Beziehungen zur wirklichen Aristokratie.  (…)  Im Allgemeinen…äussern die Wiener Aristokraten die entschiedenste Missachtung vor den Söhnen Israels, die ihre Freiherrnkrone nur kraft ihres  Geldes erlangt haben.” [p. 358-359]  According to Vasili the finance barons are not themselves very intelligent or creative, but their families are the ones in whose salons artists, writers, and “other interesting people” circulate, much as Lady Paget described.

So one question about the Wittgensteins and the “second society” was how much their Jewish descent was a normal feature of this society.  When we talk of Vienna’s “second society” are we, in effect, talking of the social world of the (Jewish) financial elite, perhaps their Protestant industrialist allies, and the various cultural and intellectual figures who gravitated to the financial and social power of this society?  It is striking that recent research into the Ringstrasse development has shown that around half of the owners of properties in the “project” were Jewish or of Jewish descent, and that is before we even look at the more specific groups of families, such as the Wertheimsteins, Liebens and Gomperzes, that supported the cultural and intellectual life of the Ringstrasse society.

Understanding the extent to which this Second Society was Jewish, and then tracing the social strategies that the members of this group employed to establish and confirm their social position, by, for instance, marrying members of “respectable” groups in Viennese society, such as government officials, or even perhaps successful scholars, musicians or writers—or marrying within the group of financiers and industrialists (Jewish or not), is a fascinating long-term research project of the Wittgenstein Initiative.

The Wittgensteins and Patronage of Culture – Then and Today
One major way in which the members of the “Second Society” chose to secure and foster their social position was through patronage of, and engagement with, the various intellectual and cultural worlds of Vienna, whether artists, writers, musicians, architects, scientists and professors, or the like.

In many respects the Wittgensteins were exemplary, such as in Karl’s funding of the Secession building, and the very active musical salon that was held in the Palais Wittgenstein for many years and with many prominent composers, performers, and guests.  In other respects, though, the Wittgensteins were just being typical of their social peers in the (largely Jewish) financial and industrial elite. Margaret Stonborough’s is one of Klimt’s finest portraits, but is only one of many other (second) society ladies, most of them Jewish.  The same could be said for the Wittgensteins’ patronage of the musical world.  There has been much work done on the patrons of Vienna 1900, especially when it comes to art, but there is more to do in terms of understanding the reasons for the patronage and the mechanism by which the arts were supported by this group, how significant (or not) the support was compared to that of the state, and yet also the extent of the influence that this group (in league with their favoured artists) exercised over government cultural policy, one example being the founding of the “Modern Gallery” in 1903 in the (Lower) Belvedere.  In music, perhaps the classic instance would have been Mahler’s successful campaign to be director of the Court Opera House, and the way it was facilitated by his supporters outside the government, but close to the government officials who purportedly made the decision.  There are obvious parallels and contrasts here with how cultural policy and support is decided in modern day Austria.

Ludwig in Vienna 1900
Beyond the question of material and social support for modern culture in Vienna, is the way in which the Wittgensteins, especially Ludwig, interacted with the larger world of Vienna 1900. The Wittgenstein family members took a lively interest in what was going on intellectually and culturally in Vienna, so that their patronage was aimed at cultural groups they wished to encourage, such as the Secession.  We know that Ludwig read and was influenced by, among others, a particular subset of intellectuals and artists in Vienna 1900, those around Karl Kraus and his critical and satirical journal, Die Fackel.   Ludwig might have been directly linked to figures such as Paul Engelmann (Ludwig’s co-designer of the Wittgenstein Haus), through his interest in the work and thought of Adolf Loos, but indirectly he was also linked in with the whole of Vienna’s cultural and intellectual society, with one coffeehouse Stammtisch, one set of academics (the Vienna Circle) connected by various individuals to others.  There were really not that many degrees of separation to much of this, even though there were famous examples where people apparently lived parallel, unconnected, lives, as in the case of Sigmund Freud and Arthur Schnitzler.  The networks out of which Vienna 1900 arose, and the more material aspects by which those networks were facilitated, such as coffeehouses, salons, journals and seminars, have been researched, but more could be done.

High and Low Culture
Then there were the links between the modern high culture of Vienna 1900 and the more quotidian world in which most Viennese lived, whether it was the popular secular culture of the various ethnic groups that immigrated into Vienna, or the various religious cultures that they brought with them, or encountered once they got here, chief among them being the Catholic-Habsburg Baroque culture that appears to have still been predominant in the Viennese populace around 1900. One of the more significant of the links between high and “low” culture was that of the quasi-mass popular culture of the commercial theatre, especially Viennese operetta, and then, even before 1914, film.  The Wittgenstein family might have thought themselves beyond such mundane interests, but, one way or another, they were also tied to, involved, and subject to, the consequences of how this popular culture developed in the first half of the twentieth century, and especially the mutual interactions between it and the politics of the time.

Here again, it is difficult to understand what was going on within the high cultural world of Vienna 1900 or in mass popular culture and “middlebrow” pursuits such as operetta without recognizing the very large Jewish participation in these areas.  We have seen Jews as prominent members of the “Second Society”, but Jews were also very prominent in many, perhaps most, of the intellectual and cultural fields of Vienna 1900’s modern culture.  What is perhaps not so well known is that this was also true of Viennese popular  and “middlebrow” culture, at least as far as the modern mass popular cultural fields were concerned, including operetta and film.  That the Wittgenstein family was largely of Jewish descent but thoroughly assimilated, members of the financial and industrial elite that was such a significant part of the “Second Society”—and provided not only patronage for, but also participants in the modern cultural and intellectual world of Vienna 1900, makes it almost a paradigmatic example of the “Jewish” part to Vienna 1900.

Today’s Vienna Embarrassment with Its Own Past
This legacy was an exceptionally positive one, one that modern-day Vienna should do all it can do to recognize and indeed emulate.  It should not be denied, nor should it be usurped or downplayed, even if in many respects it is an awkward legacy, because of the other side, the antisemitic and reactionary side of Viennese and Central European history, that culminated in the Holocaust, and destroyed this positive, largely Jewish side to Vienna 1900.  The embarrassment of today’s Vienna about its own past should not be an excuse for denying the good side of that past, nor for not claiming that past as the source of inspiration in the future.

Wittgenstein’s Vienna Anticipating the Future
Ultimately the legacy that Vienna 1900 left, that Wittgenstein’s Vienna bequeathed, was a moral one that anticipated, and even partly inspired, much of the critical modernism that keeps, or attempts to keep, our modern world honest.  It stressed the individual’s place in economics and politics, Austromarxism did this even in Marxian theory, and it emphasized how in a modern, civil society, truth had to be spoken to power, in order to get beyond the illusions of absolute value systems, such as integral nationalism or the closed ideology that emanated from the Soviet Union after 1917.  Wittgenstein’s Vienna was about recognizing the limits of socio-political absolutes and the falseness of partial totalities such as the nation.  And it also anticipated the other, post-modern, side of our world, in its embrace of and respect for difference, and its instinctive emphasis on bringing disparate aspects, disparate groups and different viewpoints together, an emphasis on inclusive logic rather than the exclusive variety.  One can see this in the multi-ethnic and even multi-racial character of operetta protagonists, where love relations crossed class, religious, and racial lines in surprising frequency, anticipating the similar, liberal pluralism of the classic American musicals.  One can also see this in the logic of Otto Neurath’s embrace of the encyclopaedic method, whereby separate fields with their own languages could nonetheless communicate across the purported linguistic barriers, just as had been the case with the original encyclopaedists of the French Enlightenment.  Difference was not a complete barrier to practical understanding.  Karl Popper’s idea of a (positive) clash of cultures similarly was a typical product (Popper’s feud with Wittgenstein notwithstanding) of the embrace of pluralism and difference by the world of Wittgenstein’s Vienna.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “Two Philosophies”
And here, as a final link to Ludwig Wittgenstein himself, is the irony that both  of Ludwig’s philosophies reflected and perpetuated this legacy.   Wittgenstein I of the Tractatus set the limits of scientific knowledge and the truths of the intersubjective world of politics and society, at a place where it could not reach the aesthetic and ethical, but primarily ethical, values by which the individual should live.  When Wittgenstein radically revised his outlook, in “Wittgenstein II” of the Philosophical Investigations, language became a far more functional phenomenon, with meaning based on usage rather than any language, even scientific language, being a perfect mirror of reality.  In its basic moral implications for the place of individuals in politics and society, however, this philosophy maintained its denial of the absolute truth of any political system, any “partial totality”.  There was never one, entirely right answer to any question, there were always other possibilities, depending on a panoply of complex circumstances.  Hence the lists of possible answers Wittgenstein offered to the questions that he posed about the meaning of apparently simple sentences.

Both of these philosophies end up denying the possibility of straightforward answers to what is higher, and in that sense they are classically liberal pluralist, even when Wittgenstein’s own views, as expressed in his notes, put together in Culture and Value, could appear (aesthetically at least) quite conservative at times.  But then one person’s conservative is another person’s liberal pluralist, which is as it should be.  That is why, I think, the arguments that I have often witnessed as to whether someone was “Austrian” or “Jewish” is at some level beside the point, because they were both.  Wittgenstein’s philosophies, both of them, have many aspects that reflect Austrian approaches (as well as German and Central European ones), but they are also both, in their emphasis on the limits of knowledge and the lesson of the diversity and different, multiple meanings of languages, very much within a Central European Jewish tradition.

And that over-determination is what makes them still such influential and powerful systems of thought.  They, and the world that produced them, Wittgenstein’s Vienna, should remain a lodestar and an inspiration to the Vienna of today.

Steven Beller
Washington DC, April 2016

Steven Beller is a historian and independent scholar. He is author of: Vienna and the Jews 1876 – 1938, Cambridge University Press (1989), Theodor Herzl, Peter Halban Books, London (1991), Francis Joseph, Addison Wesley Longman (1996), A Concise History of Austria, Cambridge University Press (2006), Antisemitism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press (2007)


Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire


224 pages | 8 color plates, 26 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Among the brilliant writers and thinkers who emerged from the multicultural and multilingual world of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were Joseph Roth, Robert Musil, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. For them, the trauma of World War I included the sudden loss of the geographical entity into which they had been born: in 1918, the empire was dissolved overnight, leaving Austria a small, fragile republic that would last only twenty years before being annexed by Hitler’s Third Reich. In this major reconsideration of European modernism, Marjorie Perloff identifies and explores the aesthetic world that emerged from the rubble of Vienna and other former Habsburg territories—an “Austro-Modernism” that produced a major body of drama, fiction, poetry, and autobiography.

Perloff explores works ranging from Karl Kraus’s drama The Last Days of Mankind and Elias Canetti’s memoir The Tongue Set Free to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notebooks and Paul Celan’s lyric poetry. Throughout, she shows that Austro-Modernist literature is characterized less by the formal and technical inventions of a modernism familiar to us in the work of  Joyce and Pound, Dada and Futurism, than by a radical irony beneath a seemingly conventional surface, an acute sense of exile, and a sensibility more erotic and quixotic than that of its German contemporaries. Skeptical and disillusioned, Austro-Modernism prefers to ask questions rather than formulate answers.


by Ray Monk, University of Southampton

Lecture given at a conference on “Wittgenstein: Biography and Philosophy,” on March 25, 1999, at Virginia Tech, organized by James C. Klagge; and at a symposium on “Philosophy and Biography,” on May 18, 1999, at the University of Athens, organized by Vasso Kindi. We thank James C. Klagge and Ray Monk for their kind permission to publish the text on our website.

The purpose of philosophical biography is very simply stated: it is to understand a philosopher. By ‘philosopher’ here I do not necessarily mean someone who earns his or her living from writing and teaching philosophy. Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, wrote philosophical biographies of Charles Baudelaire, Jean Genet and Gustave Flaubert, none of whom wrote or taught philosophy. To regard someone as a philosopher in this sense, i.e., as an appropriate subject for a philosophical biography, it is enough to see them as someone whose thought – whether expressed in poetry, music, painting, fiction or works of philosophy – it is important and interesting to understand.

And now, of course, the central question is raised: to understand somebody’s thought, why is it necessary to understand them? Can’t we, for example, understand The Critique of Pure Reason, or indeed Madame Bovary, without knowing or understanding anything at all about Kant or Flaubert themselves? In one sense, the simple answer to this is `yes, of course we can’. Indeed, not only can we separate life and work, but, for certain purposes we must do so. Whether the arguments in Critique of Pure Reason are valid or not cannot depend on anything we know about the details of Kant’s life, nor can the value of Madame Bovary as a work of fiction depend on what we think of Flaubert himself. I have no difficulty in accepting the view urged by Richard Rorty and others that the assessment of Being and Time as a work of philosophy must be kept quite distinct from the question of whether Heidegger himself was a coward and a liar with regard to his Nazi associations, just as I can happily concede the point recently urged upon me that the evaluation of Principia Mathematica can have nothing to do with the fact that Russell was horribly insensitive to his first wife, Alys.

But to concede all this is not to strip biography of its purpose; it is simply to accept what is in any case obvious: that biography is irrelevant to the assessment of the greatness of a work, whether it be philosophy, fiction, poetry or whatever. Were the understanding of a person’s thought restricted to its evaluation, the conclusion would have to be that biography is the futile and even pernicious activity that many believe it to be. However, it seems to me that there is an important sense in which to understand what somebody says is to do something other than to evaluate it. To take a reductively simple example: suppose you are in a room with someone and you hear them say: ‘There is a mouse under my chair’. Whether this is said with a tone of delight or fear has nothing to do with evaluating its truth, and yet, if you do not hear the delight or fear in the voice, there is an important sense in which you have not understood what is being said. Or again, suppose you are talking to someone and they say: ‘Bill Clinton is a liar and a cheat who has made his wife’s life a misery’. Whether this is true or not has nothing to do with who says it, but, if you later discover that the person you were talking to was President Clinton’s daughter, you would be missing something if you did not attach a new significance to it. The task of a biography, I think, is to enrich understanding in these two ways: by attending to, so to speak, the tone of voice in which a writer expresses himself or herself and by accumulating personal facts which will allow us to see what is said in a different light.

My biography of Wittgenstein was motivated in the first place by my feeling that his tone of voice was being misheard in much of the secondary literature written on him. Wittgenstein’s tone – so manifestly different from that in which most analytic philosophy is written – is one of the most striking things about his work. To read anything by him is to see immediately that the spirit and personality expressed is greatly at odds with the spirit that informs, say, the work of Russell, Ryle, Quine and Ayer. Wittgenstein himself attached enormous importance to this. He was deeply concerned that the spirit of his work might be misunderstood and deeply conscious, too, of the difficulty in preventing such a misunderstanding. In the various prefaces he wrote to his later work, he tried again and again to ensure that his readers would read him, so to speak, under the right aspect. In an early draft of the preface for Philosophical Remarks, for example, he insisted that he was indifferent to whether or not his work would be understood by ‘the typical western scientist’, since `he will not in any case understand the spirit in which I write’.1 In an unpublished version of the preface to Philosophical Investigations he declared that it was with some reluctance that he delivered the book to the public since: ‘It will fall into hands which are not for the most part those in which I like to imagine it’. May it soon, he urged, ‘be completely forgotten by the philosophical journalists and so be preserved for a better sort of reader’.2

Despite these statements, of course, the spirit in which Wittgenstein’s work was written has been, by and large, neglected in the vast amounts of philosophical commentary devoted to it. This is not to say that it has been ignored altogether. The situation when I began my book was roughly speaking this: two almost entirely separate bodies of literature on Wittgenstein were developing – one which discussed his ethical, cultural and spiritual attitudes as revealed in the memoirs of him, his personal correspondence and the records of his conversation published by his friends, and another which discussed the themes of his philosophical work. My over-riding aim was to show that there was no reason why these two aspects of Wittgenstein should be discussed in isolation from each other, that one could look at his work, no less than his private conversation, as an expression of his most fundamental attitudes. And, by seeing the connections between his spiritual and cultural concerns and his philosophical work, one might perhaps be able to read the latter in the spirit in which it was intended.

As I conceive it, biography is a peculiarly Wittgensteinian genre, in that the kind of understanding to which it aspires is precisely the kind of understanding upon which Wittgenstein lays great emphasis in Philosophical Investigations, namely, ‘the understanding that consists in seeing connections’. In Wittgenstein’s later work, this is explicitly contrasted with theoretical understanding, and this is precisely one of the most important respects in which he believed himself to be swimming against the tide of what he called ‘the spirit which informs the vast stream of European and American civilization’. Whereas that spirit seeks to construct theories, Wittgenstein seeks merely to see clearly. Thus, the form Wittgenstein’s later work takes is not to advance a thesis and then to defend it against possible objections, but to say: ‘Look at things this way’. Biography, I believe, is a non-theoretical activity in the same kind of way. The insights it has to offer have to be shown rather than stated. Like Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, it is descriptive rather than explanatory and this means that its elucidatory value is perpetually liable to remain elusive and misunderstood.

Drawing out connections is a perilous business because it can often appear as if one is making assertoric statements, truth claims, to the effect that there is such and such a connection, and then there can arise the question: ‘Well, is there, in reality, such a connection or not?’ Think, for example, of seeing a likeness between two faces, say those of a mother and her baby. Some people can see it and others can’t, and sometimes it can help to say to those who can’t things like: ‘Look at the nose, look at the shape of the eyes’, etc. But, if a dispute breaks out about whether this likeness is real or only imagined, how is it to be resolved? Is there a fact here that one can appeal to? Can one say: ‘Look, there either is a likeness here or there isn’t’. One can point to one face and then to the other, but can one point to the connection between the two? One can draw one face and then the other, but can one draw the similarity between them?

Seeing connections provides at once the most familiar form of understanding and the most elusive. And, in particular, what eludes us are direct statements of what, exactly, is understood. Stanley Cavell tells an illuminating story of his days as a student at Berkeley, when he attended Ernst Bloch’s music theory class. Bloch, he recalls, ‘would play something simple, at the piano, for instance a Bach four-part chorale, with one note altered by a half a step from Bach’s rendering; then he would play the Bach unaltered. Perhaps he would turn to us, fix us with a stare, then turn back to the piano and repeat, as if for himself, the two versions. The drama mounted, then broke open with a monologue which I reconstruct along these lines: “You hear that? You hear the difference?” … He went on: “My version is perfectly correct; but the Bach, the Bach is perfect; late sunlight burning the edges of a cloud. Of course I do not say you must hear this. Not at all. No. But,” the head lowered a little, the eyes looked up at us, the tempo slowed ominously, “if you do not hear it, do not say to yourself you are a musician. There are many honourable trades. Shoe-making for example”.’ 3

Understanding a person is like understanding a piece of music; it is not a matter of accepting the truth of some statement or theory but of seeing the connections – and of course the differences – between the various things people do and say. Faced with someone who cannot see these connections, we cannot say that they are making a mistake, only that they are missing something, that they are suffering, as it were, from a kind of blindness, what Wittgenstein called ‘aspect-blindness’.

Towards the end of Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein raises the question of whether there is such a thing as ‘expert judgment’ about mental states, about, for example, the genuineness of expressions of feeling. He answers by saying that, yes indeed, ‘there are those whose judgment is “better” and those whose judgment is “worse” ’.4 Correcter prognoses, he says, ‘will generally issue from the judgments of those with better knowledge of mankind’. Can one learn this knowledge? ‘Yes: some can. Not, however, by taking a course in it, but through experience – Can someone else be a man’s teacher in this? Certainly. From time to time he gives him the right tip – This is what “learning” and “teaching” are like here. – What one acquires here is not a technique; one learns correct judgments. There are also rules, but they do not form a system, and only experienced people can apply them right. Unlike calculating rules’. It is certainly possible, he goes on, to be convinced by evidence that someone is in such-and-such a state of mind, that, for instance, he is not pretending. ‘But “evidence” here includes “imponderable evidence”’:

Imponderable evidence includes subtleties of glance, of gesture, of tone. I may recognize a genuine loving look, distinguish it from a pretended one (and here there can, of course, be a ‘ponderable’ confirmation of my judgment). But I may be quite incapable of describing the difference. And this is not because the languages I know have no words for it.5

In the manuscript published as Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology, Wittgenstein tried to elaborate further on what he means by ‘imponderable evidence’ and ends up comparing the man who understands people, who can tell the difference between real and feigned expressions of emotions, with an art connoisseur who, though able to distinguish a real from a fake painting, is unable to explain his reasons to a panel of non-experts. He can, however, says Wittgenstein ‘give intimations to another connoisseur, and the latter will understand them’.6 The other connoisseur will understand these intimations because, having a similar breadth of experience and knowledge, he will be able to see what the first is talking about, just as musicians will be able to hear what Ernst Bloch was intimating to his class about the difference the two pieces of music he played.

There are those who will say that this is all nonsense and that, just as Wittgenstein is – despite his protestations to the contrary – putting forward a theory of meaning in Philosophical Investigations, so a biographer who claims insight into the mind of his subject is, whether he or she acknowledges it or not, operating with a theory of human psychology. To those I would say this: read a truly great biography, such as Boswell’s life of Johnson or Richard Ellmann’s life of Oscar Wilde, and then compare it with the biographies of Jean Paul Sartre and then you will see the difference between revealing character through description and trying to explain it through theorising.

Sartre’s biographies are philosophical in a bad sense. Reading them, one is reminded of Virginia Woolf’s complaint about the novels of Arnold Bennett. Quoting a passage from Bennett’s novel, Hilda Lessways, in which Bennett introduces his central character with a long and tedious description of the row of houses in which she lives, Woolf complains that we cannot, in all this, hear Hilda’s voice, ‘we can only hear Mr. Bennett’s voice telling us facts about rents and freeholds and copyholds and fines’. Bennett, she says, ‘is trying to hypnotize us into the belief that, because he has made a house, there must be a person living there’.7 Similarly, in Sartre’s Baudelaire, it is not the poet’s voice we hear, but Sartre’s own telling us his theories of narcissism, consciousness, being and non-being.

At the time of writing Baudelaire, Sartre had a theory that we are each of us entirely responsible for the kind of life we lead, and, in particular, that our lives are shaped by a decisive original choice that determines the kind of person we will be. His central interest in describing the events of Baudelaire’s life, one feels, is to demonstrate the truth of this theory. Thus, when Baudelaire’s mother remarries, Sartre decides that this is the moment when Baudelaire decided to be the kind of self-absorbed character he became. ‘The sudden break and the grief it caused’, writes Sartre, `forced him [Baudelaire] into a personal existence without any warning or preparation. One moment he was still enveloped in the communal religious life of the couple consisting of his mother and himself; the next, life had gone out like a tide leaving him high and dry’:

The justification for his existence had disappeared; he made the mortifying discovery that he was a single person, that his life had been given him for nothing. His rage at being driven out was coloured by a profound sense of having fallen from grace. When later on he thought of this moment, he wrote “Sense of solitude from childhood. In spite of the family - and above all when surrounded by children my own age - I had a sense of being destined to eternal solitude”. He already thought of his isolation as a destiny. That meant that he did not accept it passively. On the contrary, he embraced it with fury, shut himself up in it and, since he was condemned to it, hoped that at any rate his condemnation was final. This brings us to the point at which Baudelaire chose the sort of person he would be - that irrevocable choice by which each of us decides in a particular situation what he will be and what he is. When he found himself abandoned and rejected, Baudelaire chose solitude deliberately as an act of self-assertion, so that his solitude should not be something inflicted on him by other people.8

This passage may or may not contain insights into Baudelaire’s character, but think how much more convincing it would have been if the short quotation from Baudelaire himself, instead of being embedded in a lot of Sartrean theorising, had been placed alongside other remarks by Baudelaire and put into context with some pertinent facts about, and perhaps even some quotations from, his mother. For as it stands we do not see Baudelaire reacting as Sartre tells us he did. We do not, for example, see him make the choice to be solitary that Sartre imputes to him. Indeed, the one quotation that Sartre produces in this connection might easily be taken to imply that Baudelaire did not experience his solitude as a choice, but rather as something that was foisted upon him by fate. Nor do we hear Baudelaire’s rage at being abandoned and rejected. What we hear is Sartre’s confidence that this is what Baudelaire felt.

Faced with Sartre’s attempts to explain Baudelaire’s character, one is reminded of Wittgenstein’s furious reaction to Sir James Frazier’s attempts to explain magical rituals as if they were early forms of science, as if the savage who sticks a pin in an effigy of his enemy does so because he has formed the mistaken scientific hypothesis that this will cause physical injury to his opponent. It would be better, more elucidatory, Wittgenstein thought, to describe this ritual alongside some of our own – such as beating a pillow when we are upset with a loved one – so as to build up something akin to a Galtonian composite photograph, in which we can see the connections between what we find it natural to do and what was done in earlier cultures. Such a ‘perspicuous presentation’ would allow us a view of ritual that is clear, precisely because it is not obscured by theory. ‘For us’, Wittgenstein writes, ‘the conception of a perspicuous presentation is fundamental … [it] makes possible that understanding which consists just in the fact that we “see the connections”.’ 9

Sartre’s biography of Baudelaire is often criticized for its attempt to, so to speak, get inside Baudelaire’s mind. He speaks of its being ‘easy enough to describe Baudelaire’s inner life’10 and then proceeds to devote several pages to an account of Baudelaire’s indecisive struggle between being and existence, between, that is, living as an autonomous, free agent and merely existing as an object determined by outside forces and other people. ‘Because [Baudelaire] wanted at the same time to be and to exist’, writes Sartre, ‘because he continuously fled from existence to being and from being to existence, he was nothing but a gaping wound’.11 I find this account intriguing, and even, in a certain sense, plausible, but I want to see the ‘imponderable evidence’ upon which these judgments are based, so that I can see this struggle for myself. It is not just that, without the evidence I have only Sartre’s word for it that this struggle was taking place (though that certainly comes into it); it is that the best, most convincing, account of that struggle would be a description of its external manifestations, the things that Baudelaire did and said that reveal it. If, in a movie, you want your audience to understand that a character is angry, the best way to do it is to show him behaving angrily, not to have a narrator or another character saying: ‘Gosh, he’s really angry now’. Similarly, in a biography you have the opportunity, indeed the duty, of revealing your subject’s character by describing his actions. I was once taken to task for being ‘too lenient’ with Wittgenstein by not criticizing his appalling treatment of the young children he taught at elementary school. But, it seemed to me – and still seems to me – that, if you describe someone beating a schoolgirl until she bleeds because she is unable to grasp logic, it adds nothing to the description to follow it with a comment such as: ‘That wasn’t very nice, was it?’

The problem with Sartre’s biography of Baudelaire is not that he tries to reveal Baudelaire’s inner life, but that he tries to say what ought to be shown. Wittgenstein’s dictum that an inner process stands in need of outward criteria is often taken to imply a general suspicion about the notion of an inner life, but it seems to me that this is a crass misunderstanding. Wittgenstein, of all people, knew that we have an inner life, that we have thoughts that we do not share with other people and desires which we deny even to ourselves. He knew what it was to have an inner struggle between inclination and duty and a split between what we say and what we mean. His thorough-going attempts to be a decent person almost invariably took the form of attacking his own inclinations to give other people a false impression of himself. The most important link between his philosophy and his life, indeed, is provided by his sense that he couldn’t be a decent philosopher, couldn’t think clearly, until he had ‘settled accounts with himself’, until he had, as he put it, ‘dismantled the pride’ that stood in the way of both clear thinking and honest, decent living. The confessions that he made in 1937, at a time when he was writing what he thought would be the final version of Philosophical Investigations, all took the form of owning up to deceptions. And all the deceptions were, he made clear, prompted by vanity, by his wish to appear better than he was. This impulse to come clean, to confess, was also what lay behind his expressed wish to write an autobiography. He wanted to remove the obstacles that lay between him and clarity. For as he once said to Russell: ‘Perhaps you regard this thinking about myself as a waste of time – but how can I be a logician before I’m a human being! Far the most important thing is to settle accounts with myself!’12 To think clearly and to dismantle one’s pride were, for Wittgenstein, essentially linked. And to dismantle one’s pride it was necessary to reveal that which, through vanity, one would prefer to remain secret. ‘Nothing is hidden’ is, for Wittgenstein, an ethical as well as a logical remark.

And yet, it is important that ‘nothing is hidden’ is a descriptive rather than a prescriptive remark. It is not that Wittgenstein thought one ought to reveal the less admirable aspects of one’s character, but that he was convinced that, to a sufficiently perceptive observer, they would be revealed, whether one wanted them to be or not. A lack of integrity, for example, would infect one’s style of writing, or the clarity of one’s thought. It may even be revealed in one’s face. There is such a thing as an inner life, but it will invariably have outward manifestations, and, to one with the necessary experience and wisdom to interpret the ‘imponderable evidence’, nothing is hidden. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky describes the figure of Father Zossima, of whom, he writes, it was said by many people that ‘by permitting everyone for so many years to come and bare their hearts and beg for his advice and healing words, he had absorbed so many secrets, sorrows, and avowals into his soul that in the end he had acquired so fine a perception that he could tell at a glance from the face of a stranger what he had come for, what he wanted and what kind of torment racked his conscience’.13 Discussing this passage with his friend, Maurice Drury, Wittgenstein remarked: ‘there really have been people like that, who could see directly into the souls of other people and advise them’.14 An inner process stands in need of outward criteria, but this does not mean that they are manifest to everybody. To see deeply into a person’s inner life requires a rare attentiveness to and understanding of its outward manifestations. We can hear anxiety in a tone of voice, see fear on a person’s face, recognise insincerity in a person’s prose style. But the depth and sensitivity with which we do so varies with our experience, our understanding and the extent to which, like Father Zossima, we are willing to absorb the secrets, sorrows and avowals of others.

The first requisite for a successful biography, then, is a willingness to be deeply absorbed in the inner life of another person, and this is where Sartre falls down. It is not Baudelaire or Genet or Flaubert that he finds fascinating, but his own theories of philosophical psychology. To write a really great biography a certain self-effacement is required. The paradigm here is Boswell’s life of Johnson. Boswell finds everything about Johnson fascinating, and though there is no theorising in his biography and very little reasoned reflection, he succeeds in capturing the ‘imponderable evidence’ upon which any judgment of Johnson’s character must be based. Even Virginia Woolf, who was sceptical about the entire genre of biography and inclined to believe it to be an impossible task to understand the inner life of another, acknowledged that Boswell had succeeded in conveying the spirit of Dr. Johnson, largely through allowing us to hear Johnson’s own voice. When we hear Johnson say things like ‘Nay madam, stark insensibility!’, Woolf says, then we feel we know what kind of man he was. The example is interesting, I think, as an illustration of ‘imponderable evidence’. Why is this exclamation so revealing of Johnson’s spirit? It is difficult, if not impossible, to say. If pressed, I would reach for some phrase like ‘touchingly bombastic’ to describe it. But, in the end, it is imponderable. If somebody did not find that a whole personality was expressed in that phrase, all one could do is say, a la Ernst Bloch: ‘If you do not hear it, do not say to yourself you are a biographer. There are many honourable trades’.

Having said what I think the point and the appropriate method of philosophical biography is, and pointed to the extent to which Wittgenstein’s later work provides an intellectual framework for the genre, I want to end with some troubled and inconclusive reflections about my unfinished biography of Bertrand Russell. I have been critical of Sartre’s attempts at biography, but there is at least one remark of his that rings a loud bell with me. In talking about the unity of Baudelaire’s life, Sartre says: ‘Every event reflects back to us the indecomposable whole that he was from the first day until the last’.15 There are, of course, very great dangers in taking this view, the chief of which is that of falsifying a life by imposing upon its chaotic multiplicity an artificial uniformity. Montaigne was alive to this when he wrote in his Essays: ‘There is some justification for basing a judgment of a man on the most ordinary acts of his life, but in view of the natural instability of our conduct and opinions, it has often seemed to me that even good authors are wrong to insist on fashioning a consistent and solid fabric out of us’.16 ‘In all antiquity’, Montaigne writes, `it is hard to pick out a dozen men who set their lives to a certain and consistent course’.

The thought that has been troubling me is this: in revealing the unity of Wittgenstein’s emotional and spiritual concerns and his philosophical preoccupations, in describing his life and work in a seamless narrative, have I done anything other than demonstrate that Wittgenstein was one of those very rare individuals for whom one could do such a thing. After all, Wittgenstein was, from the biographer’s point of view, conveniently monomaniacal. Everything in his life was subordinated to the twin search – the single search, as I would claim – for philosophical clarity and ethical Anständigkeit [decency]. Convenient, too, was his tendency to strip his life down to its bare essentials: he never owned a house or got married, he had little money, few possessions and a rather small circle of friends. Furthermore, he published just one book and one article in his lifetime, and devoted himself, during the last twenty years of his life to just one task: that of putting his later philosophy into a satisfactory book. Russell, on the other hand, married four times, had countless lovers, published sixty books and over two thousand articles, was involved in many complicated public activities and corresponded with an almost unbelievably large number of people – friends, relatives, colleagues and members of the general public. The Russell Archive in Canada estimates that it has over forty thousand letters by Russell. Future generations, I am convinced, will refuse to believe that the name ‘Bertrand Russell’ denotes an individual and will conclude instead that it is the name of a committee.

Faced with this multiplicity, diversity and sheer bulk, the question arises: is the search for connections, for unity, not simply futile and bound to lead to falsification? My anxieties on this score are compounded by the reviews of the first volume of my biography of Russell, many of which, to my extreme discomfort, focused not on Russell but on me. What my book revealed, many thought, was not Russell’s inner life but my own, and, in particular, my passionate dislike of Bertrand Russell. I have said that self-effacement is a requirement in a good biography. Of course, I do not mean that an author is ever invisible. From Boswell’s life of Johnson we learn quite a lot about Boswell himself, and we know, of course, that the portrait of Johnson has been fashioned by Boswell, in accordance with his own understanding of Johnson’s character. And yet, so convincing is the portrait that we do not take it to be about Boswell’s thoughts on Johnson, but about Johnson himself. Similarly, few took my biography of Wittgenstein to be about me even though it was clear that the portrait of Wittgenstein presented in it had been painted by me. How did I inadvertently manage to paint myself into my portrait of Russell when I had successfully left myself out of my painting of Wittgenstein?

One possible answer to this is that, in my search for unity in Russell’s life, I have imposed too restrictive a framework on his multi-faceted life, squeezing out some aspects of his character that others regard as essential. I see Russell’s life as dominated by his fears of madness and of loneliness. Unlike Sartre, I do not simply assert this, but show these fears being expressed in countless letters, remarks and autobiographical writings and describe their consequences in various actions. However, in concentrating on these things, I have left out others, and some people have demanded to know why I have not included episodes revealing Russell to be kind, generous, witty, funny and happy. The answer to that touches on Wittgenstein’s question about whether there is such a thing as expert judgment about the sincerity of a person’s expressions of emotions. For the truth is that I suspect Russell’s expressions of happiness to be, often at any rate, insincere, while I regard his frequently expressed fears of madness, his misanthropy and his feelings of solitude to be entirely sincere. After one has spent eight years reading several thousand documents revealing his private thoughts and feelings, one, in Wittgenstein’s phrase, ‘develops a nose’ for these things.

But, after all, as has been forcefully and painfully pointed out to me, these are my judgments and it is open to other people, with perhaps equal claims to mine to possess such a ‘nose’ to make other judgments. I can, and would, claim that more aspects of Russell’s life and work fit into my picture than into the alternatives, but, with a bit of straining, almost anything can be made to fit. I have known people, for example, determined to maintain their picture of Russell as an essentially happy, kind and loving man, to deny that his repeatedly brutal treatment of those closest to him is the expression of fear and hatred and insist instead on regarding it as the perfectly reasonable response of an eminently rational man to the actions of stupid, selfish and dishonest people. That this drama of rejection and recrimination was played out time and time again in four marriages, countless love affairs and a tangled web of unhappy familial relationships, leading to much heartbreak and several nervous breakdowns, is dismissed by them as a sign only of Russell’s bad luck in being surrounded by so many mentally unstable people. Here we see the limitations of appealing to ‘the understanding that consists in seeing connections’. I can say: ‘Look at it like this and you will see that everything fits’, but if I am met with ‘No, look at this like this and you will see that it all fits together in quite a different way’, then the opportunities for reasoned debate look rather slender.

Another possible answer to the question of how I managed to put myself in my picture of Russell when I avoided doing so in my picture of Wittgenstein is suggested by a remark of Douglas Collins in his book, Sartre as Biographer. ‘The understanding of another person’, Collins writes, ‘is inseparable from the understanding, and even the provisional acceptance of his values’.17 Is it that I understand and accept Wittgenstein’s values but not those of Russell? I don’t think so. If I were asked to summarise in a sentence the difference between their respective values I would say that Wittgenstein sought to improve himself, while Russell sought to improve the world and that therefore Wittgenstein’s values were essentially religious and Russell’s essentially political. Am I closer to Wittgenstein than to Russell in this dichotomy? No, if anything, I am closer to Russell.

I confess that I do not really understand why, in the case of Russell, I have slipped off the frame and onto the picture. I mention it only to draw attention to one of the many perils of the undertaking of writing a philosophical biography. The purpose of such a biography, as I have said, is to understand a philosopher and thereby to shed deeper light on their thought. If I have been understood as expounding my thought in my biography of Russell, then something has gone wrong. A similar peril besets the Wittgensteinian conception of philosophy. Wittgenstein once began a series of lectures by announcing that everything he was about to say, if it was making a truth claim at all, was trivially true and that, if anyone disagreed with anything he said he would drop it immediately. When, however, Turing began an objection by saying ‘I don’t agree’, Wittgenstein responded, not by dropping what he had said, but by recasting Turing’s objection. ‘Turing doesn’t object to anything I say’, he claimed. ‘He agrees with every word. He objects to the idea he thinks underlies it’.18

The reason it was important to Wittgenstein that there could be no substantial disagreement on any philosophical point is not that he thought that everything he said philosophically was true, but rather that, in so far as it was philosophical, it was not – indeed, could not possibly be – making a truth claim at all. I would claim something similar for biography. In so far as truth claims are made in a biography they are, or ought to be, trivially demonstrable by citing the appropriate document or other piece of evidence. In so far as the biography is genuinely insightful, however, it is not making a truth claim and therefore disagreement is impossible. What then do I say to my critics? Following Wittgenstein I could claim that they are wrong even in thinking that they disagree with me. If they saw things clearly, they would see that they don’t really object to anything I say. They agree with every word.

If my critics retort that they find this unsatisfying, all I can say is that I do too. The most that can be said in my defence is that, if this sense of unease points to a fundamental flaw in my conception of philosophical biography, it points equally to a fundamental flaw in Wittgenstein’s later conception of philosophy.


1 Culture and Value, p. 7 (p. 9 in the 1998 revised edition)

2 ibid, p. 66 (p. 75 in revised edition)

3 Stanley Cavell, A Pitch of Philosophy: Autobiographical Exercises, Harvard 1994, pp. 49-50

4 Philosophical Investigations, p. 227

5 ibid., p. 228

6 Last Writings, volume 1, paragraph 927

7 Virginia Woolf, A Woman’s Essays, Penguin, London 1992, p. 80

8 Jean-Paul Sartre, Baudelaire, Hamish Hamilton, London 1949, pp. 17-18

9 “Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough,” in Philosophical Occasions, p. 133

10 Sartre, op cit., p. 76

11 ibid, p. 77

12 Letters to Russell, Keynes and Moore, p. 58 (pp. 65-66 in Cambridge Letters).

13 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Part I, Book I, Chapter 5 “Elders”.

14 Recollections of Wittgenstein, p. 108

15 Sartre, op cit., p. 245

16 Montaigne, ‘Of the Inconsistency of Our Actions,’ in Essays, Stanford, 1958, p. 220

17 Douglas Collins, Sartre as Biographer, Harvard 1980, p. 79

18 Wittgenstein’s Lectures on the Foundations of Mathematics: Cambridge, 1939, p. 67.


by James Conant, University of Chicago

Lecture given at a symposium on “Philosophy and Biography,” on May 18, 1999, at the University of Athens, organized by Vasso Kindi. We thank James Conant for his permission to publish the text on our website.

This paper is indebted to conversations that took place in and around the symposium in Athens with Aristides Baltas, Vasso Kindi, Ray Monk and Lisa Van Alstyne, to comments by Jim Klagge, and to conversations over the years with Stanley Cavell and Arnold Davidson.

The biographies and autobiographies, ... lives of great men, ... that stand cheek by jowl with the novels and poems, are we to refuse to read them because they are not “art”? Or shall we read them, but read them in a different way, with a different aim?... How far, we must ask ourselves, is a book influenced by its writer’s life – how far is it safe to let the man interpret the writer? How far shall we resist or give way to the sympathies and antipathies that the man himself rouses in us – so sensitive are words, so receptive of the character of the author? These are questions that press upon us when we read lives and letters, and we must answer them for ourselves.
 Virginia Woolf1

How about the biographies and autobiographies – in short, the lives – of great philosophers (those many books that stand in our libraries and bookstores cheek by jowl with the volumes of their philosophy), are we to read them or not; and, if so, how? Let’s call this “the first question”. It is a very general question.

And how about the possibility of a certain genre of biography (or autobiography) — which I will call philosophical biography – a mode of representation of the life of an individual philosopher which aspires to facilitate the understanding of that individual qua philosopher? A philosophical biography (or autobiography) aspires to confer through the genre of biography (or autobiography) — that is through the depiction of a life — a sort of understanding which itself has a claim to being termed philosophical. Is such a genre of biography so much as possible? Let’s call this “the second question”. It is a fairly specific question.

It is difficult to get a hearing for the second question. The possibility of its being heard, let alone addressed, tends to be drowned out by the din of controversy surrounding various specifications of the first question – such as the following: Are we to refuse to read biographies and autobiographies of philosophers because they are not “philosophy”? Or shall we read them, but read them in a different way, with a different aim; and, if so, how different? Are we to read them with the aim of learning some “background” that will help us to a better understanding of the philosophical writings of the person whose writings they are? Or are we to read them with an interest in the person of the philosopher that is only permissible if kept clearly distinct from an interest in his or her philosophical work proper? How far shall we resist or give way to the sympathies and antipathies that the philosopher himself or herself (as revealed, say, through biography or autobiography) rouses in us? To what extent do the sympathies and antipathies thus roused bear on an estimate (not only of the person, but) of the philosophical work itself? Can the words which comprise the philosophical work be expressive of the character of the author in a way that makes an assessment of that character integral to an assessment of that work? Or is an estimate of the person of the philosopher always irrelevant to an understanding of his or her philosophical work?

I take these to be important and difficult questions. In what follows I will have something to say about each of them. Like the first question, however, I do not think any of them admits of a general answer; and I will, accordingly, not attempt anything of the sort here. In so far as they do admit of answers, they are the sorts of questions we must each answer for ourselves and on a case by case basis. The trouble is that it is easy to fall into the confusion of thinking that questions such as these do admit of a general answer, thus obstructing our view of the second question.

The aim of this paper is to lend credence to two suggestions: (1) the suggestion that the answer to the second question should be affirmative, i.e., that philosophical biography (in sense of the term specified above) is possible – not: that it is always possible (i.e., possible for all philosophers, regardless of the character of their work), and not: that it is sometimes indispensable (i.e., that there are philosophers whose work cannot be understood without the aid of this genre) – but merely that is possible; and (2) the suggestion that, where it is possible, it can also sometimes be a good thing.

A Deadlock

There seem to be, nowadays, two standard ways to understand the relation between philosophy and biography: the first is that biography holds the secret to understanding the work of a philosopher, the second is that the understanding of a philosopher’s life is irrelevant to an understanding of his work. I will call these reductivism and compartmentalism. The reductivist and the compartmentalist have this much in common: each thinks that the first question admits of a general answer.

The reductivist thinks that if we learn enough about a philosopher’s life, we will see why he wrote what he did and thereby discover the real meaning of his work. There are many models for how to write a reductivist biography. There is (what we might call) the psychoanalytic model in which one looks for the real causes and hidden meanings latent in an author’s work by pointing to the symptoms of pathology in his work and then weaving them into a narrative of the aetiology of the broader pathological symptoms that marked his life as a whole. There is also (what we might call) the Marxist model in which one looks for the real causes and hidden meanings latent in an author’s work by pointing to the way in which his life is shaped by the ideological false consciousness of the class into which he is born and how that consciousness gradually evolves (and perhaps breaks up) as he struggles to come to terms with the contradictions inherent in a capitalist form of social organization. And there are many other such models of reductivist biography. (I do not mean to suggest that psychoanalytic theory, on the one hand, or Marxist theory, on the other, cannot shed a great deal of light on why an individual acts or thinks as he or she does; but only to suggest that, when such theories are employed reductively in the practice of writing biography, the resulting brew is inevitably a travesty of both biography and psychoanalysis or Marxism.)

The mark of such reductivist varieties of biography is that they seek to understand and evaluate an author’s work by locating his work in a broader set of causal forces acting upon the author. The work comes to be viewed as an effect of those forces; and evaluation of the work is grounded in features of the author’s life that are external to his work. Compartmentalism is best seen, I think, as arising out of a kind of recoil from these evils of reductivism. Part of the reason that compartmentalism is the dominant point of view in serious intellectual circles today is because we have so few good examples of the practice of intellectual biography. Most biographies, where they are not utterly superficial and without pretension to confer intellectual understanding, tend to slide, to some degree, into reductivism. The compartmentalist rightly senses (1) that there is something wrong with restricting one’s view of an author’s life to a causal analysis of how he came to think and act as he did (e.g., “Wittgenstein was obsessed with issues of purity because of his childhood toilet training”), and (2) that there is something wrong with evaluating an author’s work in terms of criteria drawn from wholly outside that work (e.g., “You only have to consider the way Russell treated his many wives and lovers to see that Principia Mathematica cannot be the work of a great mind”). This leads the compartmentalist to conclude that an understanding of the life is utterly irrelevant to an understanding of the work.

The compartmentalist therefore has (at least) two sound reasons for resisting reductivism: (1) we shouldn’t mistake a story about the external causes that might have led a philosopher to say certain things for an internal understanding of the work itself, and (2) we shouldn’t base our evaluation of a philosopher’s work simply on our evaluation of the man. I will call the conjunction of the two sound reasons for resisting reductivism “the truth in compartmentalism”. The question that I want to explore in a moment is the following: can we hold on to the truth in compartmentalism while rejecting the main thesis of compartmentalism?

The compartmentalist concludes that everything that is relevant to an understanding of a philosopher’s work is to be found in the pages he wrote. To look beyond the pages he wrote to anything of a more “personal” nature he said to a friend, or wrote in a diary or in private correspondence, or did during his life, is to look to something that is not part of the work, and thus has no bearing on the task of seeking insight into what is happening on the pages of the philosopher’s work. The compartmentalist can allow that we may have our reasons for being curious about the lives of great men and women, and that there is nothing wrong, in and of itself, with the practice of reading and writing about the lives of such men and women; and he can allow that there is much that we can seek to understand about why these lives come to assume the sorts of shapes that they do. But the compartmentalist thinks that we should not confuse the task of understanding these lives and what happens in them with the utterly distinct task of learning to understand the philosophical works written by the individuals who happened to live those lives. Each of these activities (biography and philosophy) is fine in its place, says the compartmentalist, but they should be kept wholly apart and should never be confused with one another. These two activities should take place in separate compartments of our intellectual lives and what goes on in each of these compartments should be kept from spilling over into the other.

Contemporary thinking about the topic of philosophical biography thus tends to find itself in the following deadlock: we are offered a forced choice between reductivism and compartmentalism – an understanding of an author’s work is to be found wholly outside his work (in the external events of his life) or an understanding of the work is to be sought by attending solely to what lies wholly within the work (and the life is held not to be part of the work).

An Example of an Ancient Philosopher: Socrates

With a view to easing this deadlock, it might help to consider Socrates. Precisely because he did not write anything, the example of Socrates forces us to clarify our thinking about the crudely drawn distinction between “life” and “work” that informs the debate between reductivists and compartmentalists. Socrates’s life is his work and his work is his life. He strived to live – and to provide an example of what it means to live – a certain kind of life: the life of one who loves wisdom, a practitioner of philo-sophia. There is no understanding of Socrates’s philosophy apart from an understanding of the sort of life he sought to live.

What the example of Socrates makes immediately evident is that at least in the case of this philosopher we need a non-reductive conception of philosophical biography. We need a way of understanding the relation between philosophy and life that preserves the truth in compartmentalism without its compartmentalization of philosophy and life. We need a way of understanding a philosopher’s life that allows us to see that life (not as an effect of forces wholly external to his philosophy, but rather) as something that is internally related to his philosophy — as an expression of his philosophy. When and how Socrates challenges the charge (of corrupting the youth of Athens) brought against him, when and how he accepts the verdict of the court against him, when and how he refuses the opportunity to flee from prison, when and how he behaves in his final moment when he drinks the hemlock and lies down to die – these are all expressions of his philosophy. No understanding of what Socrates thought philosophy was is possible apart from an appreciation of how philosophy is meant to find expression in a life such as this – that is, in a life such as the one that Socrates himself sought to live.

A compartmentalist might reply by protesting: “Yes, but Socrates is a very special case just because he did not write anything: there is no place to look for his philosophy but in his life; but other philosophers do write things and, in such cases, we must separate the task of understanding what they wrote from the task of understanding how they lived.”

What is odd about this reply might be put as follows: it seeks to marginalize the fountainhead of Western philosophy. When Aristotle asks his rhetorical question “What more accurate standard or measure of good things do we have than the Sage?”2 he is the first of a long line of philosophers to bear implicit witness to the way in which the figure of Socrates leaves its mark on the whole of ancient philosophy. If one turns to the great schools of Hellenistic philosophy – the Skeptics, the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Neo-Platonists – they all sought to practice (what we might call) a broadly “Socratic” conception of philosophy; that is, they all sought to encourage the pursuit of a kind of life – the life of the Sage — for which, for all their differences, they all took Socrates to offer a (more or less adequate) model. Philosophy was not something you simply learned – say, by reading certain books and taking an examination on them — it was something you practiced. Yes, of course, it consisted, among other things, of long stretches of argument; but those arguments were an integral part of a set of (what Pierre Hadot has called) “spiritual exercises” through the employment of which one sought to transform oneself. (This is perhaps particularly clear in the case of the ancient skeptics – you will have misunderstood the role of any particular argument, as deployed within the practice of the ancient skeptics, if you think the skeptic wants you, in the end, to prefer that argument over the equipollent argument for the opposite conclusion.) The spiritual disciplines internal to each of the Hellenistic schools of philosophy seek to promote a certain kind of existential telos – for the Skeptics, the telos is ataraxia; for the Neo-Platonists, it is ecstatic union with the cosmos; etc. – and the telos in question is not a merely theoretical (as opposed to practical) matter: it is a matter of successfully giving a certain sort of shape to one’s self and this is achieved in part by giving a certain sort of shape to one’s life.

A nostalgia for this aspect of ancient philosophy, along with the correlative contrast between ancient and modern philosophy, is a theme common to the writings of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. A contemporary scholar of ancient philosophy who has picked up their theme, and laid particular emphasis on its importance for a proper understanding of the ancients’ conception of philosophy, is the French historian Pierre Hadot. During the Hellenistic and Roman eras, philosophy was, Hadot tells us, “a way of life”:

This is not only to say that it was a specific type of moral conduct.... Rather it means that philosophy was a mode of existing-in-the world, which had to be practised at each instant, and the goal of which was to transform the whole of the individual’s life. For the ancients, the mere word philo-sophia – the love of wisdom – was enough to express this conception of philosophy.... Philosophy was a method of spiritual progress which demanded a radical conversion and transformation of the individual’s way of being.... Thus, philosophy was a way of life, both in its exercise and effort to achieve wisdom and in its goal, wisdom itself. For real wisdom does not merely cause us to know: it makes us “be” in a different way.3

On this conception of philosophy, a philosopher’s life just is the definitive expression of his philosophy. For such a philosopher, his writings (i.e., that which we are tempted to identify as his “work”) are a mere means to facilitate the achievement of that work on the self which is (properly identified as) a philosopher’s work. This has implications for the sorts of role that writings which aim to depict the life of the philosopher are able to assume in ground-level philosophical practice. It also helps to explain the frequent deployment of anecdotes regarding the lives of philosophers in ancient Greek and Roman texts. Anecdotes about philosophers wedded to this or that philosophical teaching often seem to be adduced by the ancients as an instrument not only for describing but also for evaluating the teaching in question.4 Arnoldo Momigliano, in The Development of Greek Biography, writes:

Anecdotes served to characterize modes of life, of thought, of style. If Phanias of Eresus in his book on the Socratics said that Aristippus was the first of the Socratics to pay for tuition and to make money by teaching, the story must have been meant to characterize, or perhaps to discredit, the hedonistic inclinations of Aristippus. Books of this type on philosophic schools, though probably first written in the Peripatos, soon became the common patrimony of Hellenistic culture.5 

Momigliano distinguishes, quite properly, this ancient practice of liberally deploying anecdotes from the ancient practice of biography proper (i.e., the practice of constructing a narrative of an individual’s life from birth to death). Nevertheless, he argues that the two practices had this much in common: both were “used by philosophers at large as a weapon against hostile schools”.6 Arnold Davidson (commenting on the implications of Hadot’s thesis that philosophy for the ancients was a way of life) develops the point:

The significance of philosophy as a way of life can be seen in the importance given to biographies in ancient philosophical work.... [A] philosophical biography was not predominantly a narrative intended to allow one to understand an author and his doctrines; it was not just a report of what the author said and believed. Rather, “it was, in the first place, a tool of philosophical battle”, since one could defend or condemn a philosophy by way of the characteristics of the mode of life of those who supported it.7

The role of biography in the practice of ancient philosophy was not limited to this purely negative polemical function. It served an important positive function as well: to provide a representation of the philosophical life. The tradition of philosophical biography, so conceived, was initiated by Plato’s and Xenophon’s respective accounts of the life of Socrates. The influence of this mode of representing a life was not confined to the representation of the lives of philosophers. In ancient Greek and Roman times, all biography contained an element of philosophical biography. That life which the ancient art of biography seeks to depict, whatever else it may be, will be the embodiment of a conception of philosophy. Biography, so conceived, is an account of the life of the individual — whether it be the life of a poet, statesman, general or saint — qua hero. That which such an account aims to highlight is that which is exemplary in such a life.8 What such an account seeks to highlight, for the ancients, is not — and could not be — independent of what philosophy is. (Thus, e.g., Plutarch’s depiction of the life of, say, a statesman will aim to show how philosophia finds expression in that life).

If historians such as Hadot and Momigliano are right about the role that depictions of the lives of philosophers play in the ancients’ understanding of the practice of philosophy, then the problem that the compartmentalist so evidently faces in the case of Socrates (whose writing cannot be understood apart from his life because he wrote nothing) confronts him no less pointedly in the shape of the whole of ancient philosophy. For, if they are right, then, at least for much of the corpus of ancient philosophy, the only understanding of those writings available independently of an understanding of the lives its authors aspired to lead is an anachronistic one.9

To this a compartmentalist might reply: “O.K. Perhaps you have a point about ancient philosophy. Perhaps philosophy was once about living a certain sort of life – and you are right that there is, in such a case, perhaps no separating an understanding of the life which a particular philosophy enjoins its practitioners to lead from an understanding of the philosophy itself. But my objection is to biographies of modern philosophers. The relation between one’s life and one’s philosophy is no longer for us what it was for the ancients. We, contemporary philosophers, no longer look to the Sage for an accurate standard or measure of anything. Nowadays, we look only to the well-reasoned philosophical theory; and one does not need to be a sage to put forward exemplary instances of such theory: all one needs to be is a good philosopher.”

The compartmentalist has a point here. His point does not secure his thesis; but it forces one to reflect on what has become of the ancient conception of philosophy in the course of the development of philosophy in the modern era. To put the point simply, there is certainly this much of a difference between ancient and modern philosophy: what Kierkegaard and Nietzsche claim was generally true of ancient philosophy is by no means generally true of modern philosophy. Hence the possibility of their interest in the difference between ancient and modern philosophy. (But why were these two philosophers so interested in this difference? Their interest was not confined to the scholarly ambitions of the historian of ideas but was itself philosophically motivated. This interest was premised precisely on a refusal to accept the difference in question as a difference in kind with regard to the possibilities for philosophy in the modern era.)

What is sound in the compartmentalist’s “point” above is perhaps best formulated as two separate points: (1) the relation between philosophy and life is no longer as perspicuous as it once was, and (2) there is no longer, in contemporary philosophy, any such thing as the relation between philosophy and life – there are as many species of this relation as there are conceptions of philosophy, and, across these conceptions, widely varying degrees and kinds of intimacy obtain among the relata.

An example of a Modern Philosopher: Wittgenstein

A useful example of a modern philosopher who shows that the separation that the compartmentalist seeks to effect between ancient and modern philosophy has, at the very least, its exceptions is Wittgenstein. In a manner strikingly reminiscent of ancient accounts of a philosopher’s thought, many recent accounts of Wittgenstein’s philosophy adduce a wealth of anecdotes and biographical details regarding Wittgenstein’s life. Wittgenstein, like Socrates or Pythagoras, seems to many of his expositors to call for this sort of treatment. This is surely not merely because Wittgenstein lived in a manner which caused anecdotes about him to proliferate, but because the authors of such accounts take the anecdotes and details in question to illuminate something about Wittgenstein qua philosopher. Yes, he was an odd fellow who lived an unconventional life; and, yes, of course, this provides colorful material for the occasional entertaining digression. But the authors of the accounts of Wittgenstein’s philosophy at issue here do not take themselves to be digressing when adducing the material in question; they tend to see an intimate if elusive connection between the extraordinariness of Wittgenstein’s life and the difficulty of his thought.10 And it is doubtful that most of them would imagine that they are able to see such a connection if they did not take themselves to be encouraged to look for one by something in Wittgenstein’s philosophical writings. By what?

Consider the following five passages from Wittgenstein:

  1. You cannot write anything about yourself that is more truthful than you yourself are.11
  2. Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself.12
  3. If anyone is unwilling to descend into himself ... he will remain superficial in his writing.13
  4. Working in philosophy ... is really more a working on oneself.14
  5. That man will be revolutionary who can revolutionize himself.15

Numerous remarks similar to these can be found scattered throughout Wittgenstein’s writings.16 Such a remark — when one comes upon it, in the middle of an extended Wittgensteinian philosophical investigation (on, e.g., whether it is possible for me to give myself a private ostensive definition, or for another person to have my pains, or for there to be only one occasion on which someone obeys a rule, etc.) — is apt to strike one as a non-sequitur. Why do such remarks crop up in the midst of Wittgenstein’s philosophical investigations, apparently changing the topic and interrupting the course of the investigation?

There are various ways one might answer this question. The reductivist and compartmentalist will each favor a certain direction of answer to this question. A certain stripe of reductivist might want to insist that the real sources of Wittgenstein’s philosophical preoccupations come to the surface in remarks such as these: it is through a prior and independent understanding of what prompts Wittgenstein to break out into remarks such as these that one finds the wellsprings of his philosophy. The reductivist thereby seeks an understanding of such remarks in a prior understanding of his life. He thus takes himself to be able to arrive at a key to understanding Wittgenstein’s philosophy via a route which enables him to understand such remarks prior to understanding the rest of Wittgenstein’s corpus. This inevitably prompts a certain stripe of compartmentalist to insist that these remarks (not only do not provide a key to understanding Wittgenstein, but) do not really belong to Wittgenstein’s philosophical corpus at all: he used his notebooks to record all sorts of observations and a good editor of his philosophical manuscripts would have sound grounds for culling such remarks from a final published edition of his (properly) philosophical writings. (Such a compartmentalist would concede that it is, of course, still fine to collect and publish such jottings separately, as long as one does not fall into the confusion of thinking they are part and parcel of the philosophy proper.17) Thus this stripe of compartmentalist seeks to understand Wittgenstein’s philosophy independently of any understanding of such remarks.18

In a previous paper, I had occasion to quote these same five remarks from Wittgenstein19; and D. Z. Phillips, in a reply to my paper, observed that Wittgenstein, in each of these five passages, should be understood as “referring to difficulties in doing philosophy, difficulties in giving the problems the kind of attention philosophy asks of us”.20 I agree with this.21 And if this is right, it helps to explain why these remarks are not non-sequiturs, and how it is that they touch on a dimension of difficulty which is pervasively, if often only tacitly, in play in Wittgenstein’s investigations.22 We can put Phillips’s point this way: when such a remark occurs in the midst of one of Wittgenstein’s investigations, it does not introduce an abrupt change of topic; it interrupts the investigation in order to step back for a moment and comment on a difficulty in doing philosophy which one runs up against in such investigations. Thus one will not understand what such remarks are about, unless one understands why they occur in the sorts of contexts in Wittgenstein’s work in which they characteristically do.23

Phillips goes on to remark that the sort of difficulties that are at issue in the five passages from Wittgenstein quoted above will be “missed if one equates the difficulties with personal difficulties”.24 This is surely right if by “personal difficulties” Phillips means merely personal (as opposed to philosophical) difficulties. But it is equally wrong if by this Phillips means “philosophical, and therefore in no way personal, difficulties”.25 Erecting an opposition here between mutually exclusive categories of “the personal” and “the philosophical” will block the way to understanding why Wittgenstein thinks that work in philosophy (properly conducted) is a kind of working on oneself, and why he thinks that one cannot be any more honest in one’s philosophical thinking than one can be with oneself, and why he thinks that the greatness of a philosophical work is expressive of the greatness of the particular human being that is its author. Phillips is certainly right that the wrong sort of insistence on the (idea that the sorts of difficulty with which Wittgenstein, in his philosophical work, is concerned are) “personal” can lead to disastrous misinterpretations of Wittgenstein’s work.26 But too sharp a recoil from such misinterpretations – with its complimentary insistence upon too sharp a separation between (merely) personal and (properly) philosophical difficulty – is equally obstructive of an understanding of Wittgenstein’s conception of the nature of the difficulty of philosophy.

Wittgenstein’s remark “nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself” is neither more nor less a remark about a particular difficulty which arises in philosophy than it is a remark about a general ethical difficulty. For Wittgenstein’s thought here is that one’s ability to avoid self-deception in philosophy can be neither more nor less than one’s ability to avoid it outside philosophy. (Wittgenstein concludes a meditation on the effects which the all but inevitable tendency to “lie to oneself” has on one’s writing with the remark: “If you are unwilling to know what you are, your writing is a form of deceit.”27) If you are unwilling to descend into yourself, then you will remain superficial in your thinking and writing generally, and a fortiori you will remain superficial in your efforts to write philosophy. Hence Wittgenstein writes Malcolm: “You can’t think decently if you don’t want to hurt yourself.”28 The issue here — as in each of the five remarks from Wittgenstein quoted above — is at once personal and philosophical.

“If anyone is unwilling to descend into himself … he will remain superficial in his writing.” Wittgenstein is equally committed to the converse of this remark: if someone remains superficial in his thinking or writing this can (where it is not a function of immaturity or ineptitude) be a reflection of the character of the person whose thinking and writing it is. It is, for Wittgenstein, not only possible to discern aspects of a person’s character in the character of their philosophizing, but essential to the formation of any true estimate of their philosophy that one be able to do so. The exercise of such discernment is never far below the surface in the judgments Wittgenstein himself offers of the philosophical work of others.29 But this means that the line between “the personal” and “the philosophical” cannot be as sharp, for Wittgenstein, as Phillips imagines it to be. To put the point more positively and in a more Wittgensteinian idiom: the spirit of a person shows itself in the spirit of his philosophy, which in turn shows itself in the way he philosophizes.

The numerous remarks about other thinkers sprinkled throughout Wittgenstein’s notebooks and recorded conversations furnish vivid documentation of the manifold sorts of ways in which Wittgenstein himself exercises such discernment. When Wittgenstein says about Frank Ramsey: “Ramsey’s incapacity for genuine enthusiasm or (what is really the same thing) reverence came to disgust me more and more”30, he is commenting on something about Ramsey’s sensibility that reflects itself in, but certainly not only in, the character of his response to philosophical ideas. What is at issue here is a kind of limitation of sensibility that is neither merely personal nor merely philosophical, but rather equally – and, in Wittgenstein’s eyes, equally fatefully – both. When Maurice Drury tells Wittgenstein: “I always enjoy reading William James. He is such a human person.”, Wittgenstein responds: “Yes, that is what makes him a good philosopher; he was a real human being.”31 That James is “a real human being” is something Wittgenstein takes himself to be able to discern as a reader of James’s philosophical writings. And the estimate he forms in this regard of James qua person is not – and, for Wittgenstein, cannot be – utterly independent of his estimate of James qua philosopher. When Wittgenstein remarks about A. J. Ayer: “He has something to say but he is incredibly shallow”32, this is, in the first instance, of course, a remark about the shallowness of Ayer’s philosophizing. But it is not merely a remark about the quality of Ayer’s efforts at philosophizing, and as such wholly without bearing on an estimate of the shallowness or depth of the sensibility of the person whose philosophizing it is.33

Similarly, when Wittgenstein says about the anthropologist James Frazer: “Frazer is much more savage than most of this savages”34; this is a comment on both the man and his thought. It is a comment on something that shows itself in Frazer’s writing about the forms of life he studies — where part of what shows itself is something about what sorts of possibilities of thought and life are (and are not) closed to Frazer himself.

“You cannot write anything about yourself that is more truthful than you yourself are.” That is simultaneously a remark about a personal and a philosophical difficulty. (If you cannot write anything that is more truthful than you yourself are, then you cannot write anything in philosophy that is more truthful than you yourself are.) For Wittgenstein, the two difficulties are inseparable — they are aspects of a single difficulty.35 One can, if one will, take the words “perspicuity” and “clarity” to stand for things Wittgenstein struggles to attain in philosophy. And one can, with equal justification, take the words “honesty” and “Anständigkeit” to stand for things Wittgenstein thinks everyone should struggle to attain in life. If you do not think of yourself as ever practicing philosophy, then you may take yourself only to have reason to think of yourself as caught up in the second of these two kinds of struggle.36 If you evidently do practice philosophy, but most decidedly not in the spirit of Wittgenstein, then these two struggles may strike you as utterly independent of one another. (Though, it is worth remembering, they did not seem so to philosophers as different from one another as Socrates, Augustine and Nietzsche.) But if you wish to think of yourself as practicing philosophy in anything like the spirit of Wittgenstein, then these two struggles must become for you – as they did for Wittgenstein – twin aspects of a single struggle, each partially constitutive of the other.

Ray Monk puts it well when he says: “‘Nothing is hidden’ is, for Wittgenstein, an ethical as well as a logical remark.37 Thus when Wittgenstein writes his sister “Call me a truth-seeker and I will be satisfied”, he specifies the character of his striving in terms of something which is for him equally a philosophical and an ethical ideal. 38 All philosophical thinking and writing accordingly has, for Wittgenstein, its ethical aspect. Wittgenstein thought that what (and more importantly how) we think is revelatory of

who we are (and how we live), and that learning to think better (and, above all, to change the ways in which one thinks) is an important means to becoming a better – i.e., to becoming (what Wittgenstein calls ) “a real” – “human being”.39 So, even though Wittgenstein, in one sense, “has no ethics” (if “ethics” names a branch of philosophy with its own proprietary subject matter40), in another sense, his thinking and writing – on every page of his work – takes place under the pressure of an ethical demand. And if qua biographer (or reader of biography) one turns to examine his life, if one has the eyes to see (which requires that one have some understanding of his philosophy), one will discover the pressure of such a demand equally pervasively manifest in the conduct of his life and in his understanding of the relation between his philosophy and his life.

Such a philosopher will naturally attract biographers. If those biographers have reductivist proclivities, their biographical narratives will necessarily give a distorted picture not only of the life but also of the thought. They will give a distorted picture of the life of a philosopher such as Wittgenstein because there is no understanding the life of such a man apart from an understanding of his thought.41 They will give a distorted picture of his thought because there is no understanding the thought of any interesting philosopher — and certainly not this one — as a straightforward function of his life, especially when the requisite understanding of the life is taken to be unproblematically available independently of an understanding of the thought.42

All of this naturally feeds the compartmentalist’s anxieties and leads to his overreaction. I take it to be an overreaction because the compartmentalist’s thesis goes well beyond the perfectly sensible claim that (pace reductivist biographers of Wittgenstein) it is both possible and important to attain an understanding of Wittgenstein’s philosophy independently of making a study of his life. The compartmentalist insists that attention to a thinker’s life cannot possibly shed any light on his thought. Thus the compartmentalist ends up attempting to enforce a veto on that genre of biography — (which I have been calling) philosophical autobiography — in which the biographer seeks to illuminate aspects of a philosopher’s thought through an attention to his life. And, in the case of a philosopher such as Wittgenstein, whose thought embodies an understanding of what it is to lead the philosophical life which is in turn reflected in how he lived, such a veto deprives us of a non-negligible resource for better understanding (that unity comprising both) the philosopher and his philosophy.

In the case of a philosopher such as Wittgenstein, the compartmentalist deprives us of a genre of writing about the philosopher which, if it is done well, can be a good thing. The problem is that it almost never is done well, thus fuelling the suspicion that there is no possible thing of the relevant sort to do well.

Two Examples of Philosophical Biography

One time-honored way of demonstrating the possibility of something is to demonstrate its actuality. It is in this spirit that I conclude by gesturing at two actual examples of philosophical biography: Ray Monk’s biographies of Wittgenstein43 and Russell44.

Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein not only shows that Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophy is broadly “Socratic” (in the sense elucidated above), but it shows it in a way that only (that genre of writing known as) biography can – that is, by literally showing it: by presenting us with a picture of Wittgenstein’s life. As anyone who reads Monk’s biography is put in a position to see: Wittgenstein neither wanted to, nor thought he could, separate the task of becoming the sort of human being he wanted to be from the task of becoming the sort of philosopher he wanted to be. Indeed, it would be missing the point of Monk’s biography to think that the point of that book could be summarized as follows: there were two different things Wittgenstein wanted to do – become a certain kind of person and become a certain kind of philosopher – but he thought that these two pursuits somehow presupposed one another or were in some way entangled in one another. These were not “two different things Wittgenstein wanted to do”. There is only one “thing” here – the kind of living that is here in question and the kind of thinking that is here in question were, for Wittgenstein, two different aspects of a single unitary pursuit – which Wittgenstein called, as did the ancients, “philosophy”.45

The compartmentalist might now try the following reply: “O.K. I see that there are certain modern philosophers who should be exempted from my veto on trying to understand the work of a philosopher in tandem with trying to seek an understanding of how and why they lived as they did. There are philosophers, such as Wittgenstein, whose conception of philosophy and whose conception of how one should live are so deeply integrated that biography becomes a useful tool for illuminating the spirit in which such individuals seek to do philosophy and thus attaining a proper view of what philosophy is for philosophers of this funny sort. But, among modern philosophers, these philosophers are the exception. For most modern philosophers – for a typical analytic philosopher like Bertrand Russell – philosophy is one thing and life is another.”

The example conveniently adduced here by the compartmentalist allows me to move straight to the following observation: Ray Monk’s recent biography of Russell shows not only that this reply works almost as poorly in the case of Russell as it does in that of Wittgenstein, but also that the line that the compartmentalist seeks here to draw (between two kinds of philosophers) is in fact very difficult to draw – it is a difference in degree and not in kind. It is the rare person whose motivations to philosophy are completely out of touch with the original ancient – we might call them “Socratic” — motivations to philosophy. And it is even more rarely the case that such motivations are wholly absent from the work or life of a truly great philosopher (that is, a philosopher whose biography we might have some interest in reading).46 There is certainly something right about the thought that among modern – unlike among ancient – philosophers there is a great deal of variety in the ways in which, and the degrees to which, such a Socratic moment is legible in the life and the work, and in the ways in which, and in the degrees to which, life and work do or do not form a genuine unity. Monk’s two very different biographies illustrate two very different ways in which such a Socratic moment can be legible in the life and work of a twentieth-century philosopher, as well as two very different ways in which and degrees to which life and work may cohere with one another.

Monk’s biography of Russell shows how deeply divided a person Russell is and how those divisions shape and are given shape by the movement of his philosophical thought. Russell is, of course, famous for being a philosopher who changed his mind a lot. But what Monk’s biography makes almost painfully vivid is that Russell not only changed his mind with alarming frequency when it came to his first-order philosophical convictions about topics such as the existence of abstract entities, the nature of perception, the structure of judgment, or the analysis of matter, but that he was equally fickle in his second-order convictions about the nature, purpose and value of philosophy as such. This shows itself, above all, in the breathtaking fluctuations in Russell’s understanding of his own motivations to philosophy. Is this irrelevant to an understanding of his philosophy? Before addressing that question, perhaps a brief sample of the evidence is in order.

At times, Russell looks upon his work in mathematical logic as possibly the most exalted form of human occupation:

Pure mathematics is one of the highest forms of art; it has a sublimity quite special to itself, an immense dignity derived from the fact that its world is exempt from change and time.... [M]athematics is the only thing we know of that is capable of perfection; in thinking about it we become God. This alone is enough to put it on a pinnacle above all other studies.47

Russell’s conception, however, of what it is that confers supreme value on this activity fluctuates between two poles — a quaintly contemplative, vaguely neoplatonist one and a highly modern, defiantly disenchanted one. These might be termed the warm conception and the cold conception respectively of the significance of mathematics. On the warm conception (which finds eloquent expression in the above quotation), the ennobling aspect of mathematics lies in the eternal character of its objects (a “world exempt from change and time”). Contemplation of such objects liberates the soul, allowing it to ascend to the heights. Other forms of knowledge accordingly pale in comparison with the sort of knowledge afforded by mathematics and those branches of philosophy properly associated with it:

I hold all knowledge that is concerned with things that actually exist – all that is commonly called Science – to be of very slight value compared to that knowledge which, like philosophy and mathematics, is concerned with ideal and eternal objects, and is freed from this miserable world which God has made.48

On the warm conception, (what Russell calls) “technical philosophy” represents the purest and noblest strain of philosophy because it, above all other disciplines, seeks to cut mathematical reality at its joints, revealing its true structure and nature. This contemplative conception of the importance of mathematics is, in turn, tied to a further yearning – a yearning for a world which will not disappoint:

The contemplation of what is non-human, the discovery that our minds are capable of dealing with material not created by them; above all, the realization that beauty belongs to the outer world as to the inner, are the chief means of overcoming the terrible sense of impotence, of weakness, of exile amid hostile powers, which is too apt to result from acknowledging the all-but omnipotence of alien forces…. [M]athematics takes us still further from what is human, into the realm of absolute necessity, to which not only the actual world, but every possible world, must conform; and even here it builds a habitation eternally standing, where our ideals are fully satisfied and our best hopes are not thwarted.49

But, at other times, nothing strikes Russell as more deluded than such thoughts (thoughts such as that we could be “freed from this miserable world” or that our ideals could be “fully satisfied” and our best hopes remain “unthwarted”); and this triggers the recoil to the cold conception of the value of philosophy. In this mood, the thoughts expressed in the above passage are apt to strike Russell as of a piece with the illusions of the traditional religions — indeed, such thoughts are themselves species of religious illusion – and the goal of philosophy should be to free us from all such illusion: to enable us to look things hard in the face and see them as they really are.

On the cold conception, technical philosophy is, again, taken to represent the purest strain of philosophy; only now it is because, in the quest to see things as they really are, mathematics is the helpmeet of philosophy precisely because it is so “cold and passionless”50. Russell’s eulogies to coldness are no less fervent or picturesque than his odes to warmth (to “the immense dignity” of a world “exempt from time and change”); with the paradoxical result that in these eulogies the spirit of dispassionateness often appears in the guise of a passion: “Philosophy is a cold mistress — one can only reach her heart with cold steel in the hand of passion.”51 Thus the aim remains one of seeking to avoid disappointment, but the strategy changes (from seeking a safe haven for one’s hopes) to seeking to free oneself of illusion through the practice of dispassionate analysis.52 At yet still other times, Russell declares himself able, in turn, to see through the pretensions of the cold conception of the value of mathematics, unmasking it too as only a more subtle and rarified species of romanticism, one still in search of that “shiver of feeling” which a more thoroughgoing gospel of coldness would renounce but at the cost of losing all its appeal. For the cold conception, too, seeks to ennoble the study of mathematics by subliming the object of its study, thereby elevating the Self who studies. As Russell astutely observes: “[T]he reflection that such beauty is cold and inhuman is already romanticism – it gives a shiver of feeling in which Self has its share.”53 This observation also contains a clue to understanding the possibility of the sorts of syntheses of features of the cold and the warm conceptions one also finds in Russell’s writings — such as the following: although the world of time and change in which all human endeavor must transpire is squalid and bleak and to be acknowledged as such, Man is at least vouchsafed the small consolation of being able to contemplate the beauty of a better and higher realm – a realm in which Man cannot live, but upon which he may at least gaze. On this hybrid conception, technical philosophy acquires its value by providing a (very temporary) refuge from the world in which we live.

These fluctuations within Russell’s view of what confers value on technical philosophy are reenacted in an even sharper register in the fluctuations in his view of whether technical philosophy as such really has value at all and, if not, what does. One source of the occasional ambivalence in Russell’s attitudes toward technical philosophy is a fear of the dehumanizing effect of such philosophy on the philosopher:

Abstract work, if one wishes to do it well, must be allowed to destroy one’s humanity; one raises a monument which is at the same time a tomb, in which, voluntarily, one slowly inters oneself.54

This passage still leaves room for the view that such self-destruction is itself a form of heroism: one sacrifices oneself but in the service of a greater good – the Truth. But the tone sometimes turns bitter; and the fear of disillusionment takes on additional bite in the form of a fear of retrospective disappointment: “I feel as if one would only discover on one’s deathbed what one ought to have lived for, and realize too late that one’s life has been wasted.”55

This occasional horror of the dehumanizing barrenness of technical work has its opposite pole in an intermittent attraction to alluringly momentous moral and political causes and, most strikingly, to religious modes of thought. Russell is famous for his fierce attacks on Christianity; but what is less well known is that he is also the author of passages such as the following:

Religion is the passionate determination that human life is to be capable of importance.... To assert religion is to believe that virtue is momentous, that human greatness is truly great, and that it is possible for man to achieve an existence which shall have significance.56

Here the very possibility of believing that one is able to achieve an existence which has even a modicum of significance is tied to a sort of hope that it is the special office of religion to confer. Rather than mathematics, here it is religion which holds out the means of conferring value on this sordid and miserable world, of satisfying our deepest desires and not leaving our best hopes thwarted: “[T]he things that make religion are the great things; they are what make life infinite and not petty.”57 What religion, in numerous remarks such as these, is represented as able to confer is strikingly reminiscent of the solace which mathematics (on the warm conception) is represented as able to afford; only now a new wrinkle is added — the solace comes not by fleeing the world of “human sordidness”58 (as mathematics enables us to) for a timeless inhuman world, but by escaping the sordidness and petty selfishness of everyday existence via a route towards humanity, with the aim not only of coming closer to others but of bringing humanity as a whole together:

What we know is that things come into our lives sometimes which are so immeasurably better than the things of every day, that it seems as though they were sent from another world, and could not come out of ourselves.... Religion, it seems to me, ought to make us know and remember these immeasurably better things, and live habitually in the thought of them.... I have hitherto only seen the greatest things at rare times of stress or exultation.... When [that vision] ... is strong, the kind of philosophical work I do seems not worth doing, and so when I have to do this work that vision fades.... What the vision seems to show me is that we can live in a deeper region than the region of little every-day cares and desires – where beauty is a revelation of something beyond, where it becomes possible to love all men.59

This is not a mood Russell is ever able to sustain for long — at least not in this otherworldly key. Yet there is an underlying attitude — we might call it one of utopianism — to which Russell recurs throughout his life, which fuels his enthusiasm for various (sometimes astonishingly harebrained) political schemes, and which cyclically both eclipses and is alternately eclipsed by his enthusiasm for technical philosophy. But, whether it be in connection with his relatively enduring stretches of enthusiasm for technical philosophy or his comparatively ephemeral fits of enthusiasm for (some watered-down form of) religion or some other project of utopian renewal, Russell never fails at some point to succumb to the feeling “that some element of delusion is involved in giving so much passion to any humanly attainable object”.60 The effect of such recurrent disillusionment is that “irony creeps into the very springs of one’s being”.61

Consequently, “the revelation of something beyond, where it becomes possible to love all men” finds its counterpoint in another vision:

[I]n this vision, sorrow is the ultimate truth of life, everything else is oblivion or delusion. Then even love seems to me merely an opiate – it makes us forget that we draw our breath in pain and that thought is the gateway to despair.62

The defense against the pain such disillusionment brings is a ruthlessly disenchanted view of the cosmos and one’s place in it. Thus the pair of complementary conceptions which form the poles of Russell’s thought about the significance of technical philosophy are paralleled by similar poles in Russell’s conceptions of the value of philosophy as such. We might term these Russell’s utopian conception and disenchanted conception of philosophy (and of the character of the reality it discloses) respectively. Here, too, we come upon striking hybrids at certain phases in Russell’s thought. Even in his ultra-disenchanted mode, Russell’s tone is able to take on, if not a utopian, at least an edifying aspect. He accomplishes this by first assuming the mantle of the staunch defender of the scientific outlook and then characterizing the requirements of a strictly scientific attitude in ways that appear to have straightforward ethical implications. Paradoxically, on a first look, however, the nature of reality as disclosed by science appears to be merely ethically neutral:

The kernel of the scientific outlook is the refusal to regard our own desires and tastes and interests as affording a key to the understanding of the world.... The scientific mind involves a sweeping away of all other desires in the interests of the desire to know.... Until we have learnt to think of ... [the universe] in ethically neutral terms, we have not arrived at a scientific attitude in philosophy.63

But this apparently ethically colorless view of the nature of things is sometimes able to take on an astonishingly vibrant aspect. In certain writings, Russell manages to convert a description of the universe as consisting of nothing more than mere clouds of particles in motion into a prelude for an edifying discourse – one that climaxes in the rousing tones of a gospel of salvation. This tendency is already manifest in as early an essay as “A Free Man’s Worship” (written in 1902).64 The essay starts with observations such as that “the world which Science presents for our belief” is “purposeless” and “void of meaning” — observations which Science has allegedly established to such a degree that today “no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand”.65 We must acknowledge the truth of these observations not only for reasons of intellectual honesty, but in order to protect ourselves from false hope and crushing disappointment: “Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation be safely built.”66 The essay rapidly moves from thus insinuating that what Science reveals is (not just ethically neutral, but) ethically dismal to apparently asserting it: the world as revealed by Science is positively “inhospitable” to human hopes and values; Science reveals an “opposition of fact and ideal”.67 This sets up the question “How, in such an alien and inhuman world, can so powerless a creature as Man preserve his aspirations untarnished?”68 In its answer to this question, the voice of sober-minded, scientifically-informed common sense rapidly gives way to that of someone who has looked deep into the abyss, lived to tell about it, and now returns to show the rest of us how to become skeptical heroes undaunted by the task of living in a meaningless cosmos.69 Though, when he enters this post-scientific sermonizing vein, his cadences are sometimes dishearteningly hard to distinguish from those of as comparatively inconsequential a philosopher as, say, Albert Camus — of all Russell’s many personae, this is probably the one which remains best known outside professional philosophical circles.

The preceding brief summary of Russell’s intellectual pendulum-swings should suffice to make the following question urgent: How do all these attitudes (expressed in the quotations from Russell which figure in the preceding summary) fit into a single philosophical trajectory? One way of answering this question is by trying to understand the following: how do these attitudes all fit into a single life? One can imagine different directions of answer to the former question (how do they fit into a single philosophical trajectory?) that might emerge through a consideration of the latter (how do they all fit into a single life?). To these different directions of answer correspond different sorts of intelligibility that philosophical biography can confer. At one extreme, one might come to see more clearly how a single overarching philosophical conception does indeed run through the apparently discordant attitudes, harmonizing them into a single coherent unity: when one sees how the attitudes all fit together within the life, one sees better how they fit together philosophically. At the other extreme, one might come to see more clearly how there is no underlying unity in philosophical conception which brings this variety of attitudes into concord, yet may still be brought to appreciate how this particular constellation of tensions and oscillations in philosophical conception fits into a single humanly (as opposed to logically) intelligible pattern: when one sees how the attitudes all fit into a life, one sees better how (although they do not form a coherent philosophical whole) they nonetheless represent an intelligible set of human responses to a certain set of intellectual needs and pressures. Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein aims to confer the first of these two sorts of intelligibility on the material it lays before its reader; and his biography of Russell aims to confer the second of these two sorts of intelligibility on the material it lays before its reader.

With the aid of the narrative Monk painstakingly pieces together, we not only follow Russell through his convulsive changes of heart, but we witness how these changes are coordinated with, how they both trigger and are triggered by, such things as the fluctuations in his relationship with figures such as G. E. Moore, Joseph Conrad, and Wittgenstein, his falling into and out of the grip of the conviction that he has found the love of his life, his contributions as a pamphleteer for diverse social and moral causes, his sojourns in the Soviet Union, the United States, and China, his grueling soapbox tours on behalf of a variety of political movements, his work as a founder of a school and an agitator for educational reform, his efforts to co-author treatises with collaborators as different from one another in sensibility and outlook as A. N Whitehead, D. H. Lawrence and Dora Black, etc., etc. Once Russell’s contributions to philosophy are woven together by Monk into a single continuous biographical narrative — a narrative in which each of the elements of this whirl of seemingly disjointed pursuits finds its place — it becomes possible to see the whirl not merely as a frenzy of activity most of which is extracurricular to Russell’s work as a philosopher. Many elements of the whirl become legible as themselves expressions of Russell’s fluctuating philosophical aspirations, and of the restless oscillation between the poles of yearning and disenchantment which characterize both Russell’s philosophy and his life as a whole.

What emerges vividly in Monk’s pair of attempts to write philosophical biography is that the sort of illumination (of the work of an individual philosopher) that the genre of philosophical biography most naturally finds itself struggling to confer pertains, for the most part, not to particular details of philosophical doctrine or method, but rather to the character – what Wittgenstein calls the spirit – of a philosopher’s work as a whole. Thus the most significant change of aspect (in our view of a philosopher’s work) effected by a successful philosophical biography is unlikely to be local in character. That is, it is unlikely to be such that we will be able to exhibit our understanding of that which we have been helped by means of philosophical biography better to understand (about a given philosopher’s work) by adducing detachable bits of (the philosopher’s) philosophy that we are (now better) able to expound. If there is an important relationship between what philosophical biography shows and how it shows it, then we should not be surprised to learn that the sorts of change of aspect that philosophical biography permits to dawn in our perception of a philosopher’s work are not ones easily brought into view by an alternative genre of writing. In particular, the sort of change of aspect in question will not admit expression via a mode of exposition of a philosopher’s thought proper to the exposition of features of his thought graspable independently of their relation to the character of his thought as a whole. The proper expression of such changes of aspect in our perception of a philosopher’s work will possess the same paradoxical combination of features that Wittgenstein observes are characteristic of the sorts of change of aspect investigated in Philosophical Investigations, Part II, section xi: the expression of the change of aspect in question must be “the expression of a new perception and at the same time of the perception’s being unchanged”; and, as Wittgenstein seeks to show, this is connected to its being the sort of change in view which requires either that “light dawns gradually over the whole” or not at all.70 Thus our estimate of a particular philosopher who forms the subject of a given biography may be augmented or diminished by reading the biography in question; but, if the biography in question is a (successful instance of the genre) philosophical biography, it is likely that the resulting change of aspect will be such that the philosopher’s work will appear, as it were, to wax or wane as a whole.

Contrary to what the compartmentalist urged above, what strikes one as one reads first Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein and then his biography of Russell, is not how Wittgenstein’s life is relevant to an understanding of his work whereas Russell’s life is not relevant to an understanding of his work, but rather how differently relevant the life is to an understanding of the work in each case. In Wittgenstein’s case, seeing the philosophy in the light cast by Monk’s biography helps us to see the rigor and depth and purity that characterizes Wittgenstein’s work as a whole and, more importantly, perhaps to see more clearly what sort of rigor and depth and purity it is that Wittgenstein strove for in his thinking and living. In Russell’s case, seeing the philosophy in the light cast by Monk’s biography help tragic failure – the ways in which and the reasons why Russell was unable to think his projects through to a satisfactory conclusion, so that his entire intellectual life was marked by his restlessly moving from one project of great promise to the next, often failing to carry through on them. Thus, in Wittgenstein’s case, we can be led to be able to see better the resolute single-mindedness of purpose which runs throughout his work – what it means to say and why it is right to say that “Nothing is hidden” is, for Wittgenstein, an ethical as well as a logical remark, and how it comes to pass that Wittgenstein finds himself addressing remarks such as the following to his friends: “I am not a religious person, but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.”71 In Russell’s case, we are led to see the awkward furtiveness in the ways in which Russell struggles to integrate — or at least to rationalize the connection between — his theoretical and practical (his logical and ethical) motivations to philosophy, and how the shape of these struggles correlates with the cyclical pattern in the fluctuations in Russell’s second-order views about the value of philosophy, and how it comes to pass that Russell finds himself addressing remarks such as the following to his friends: “I have developed a certain nausea for the subtleties and distinctions that make up good philosophy; I should like to write things of human interest, like bad philosophers, only without being bad. But perhaps it is the badness that is interesting.”72 One is helped by Monk to see the extraordinary resoluteness of Wittgenstein’s philosophical thinking by seeing how various aspects of Wittgenstein’s life are themselves expressions of that same insistence to achieve a sort of honesty with himself that he took to be a necessary condition of his being able to think things through philosophically. And one is helped by Monk to see the irresoluteness that characterizes Russell’s broader philosophical trajectory – the way he shirks the problems that most haunt his central intellectual projects – by seeing the ways in which Russell’s entire life both in and out of philosophy, his tremendous individual accomplishments notwithstanding, is marked by ambivalence and irresoluteness.

Though there is much to admire in the Russell who comes to light in the pages of Monk’s biography of him and much not to admire in the Wittgenstein who comes to light in the pages of Monk’s biography of him, the following generalization is surely sound: most readers will find the resulting changes of aspect induced in their respective perceptions of Wittgenstein’s and Russell’s philosophical work to be such that the former will appear as a consequence to wax as a whole while the latter will appear to wane. This difference in character in what Monk’s biographies appear to disclose of Wittgenstein and Russell respectively has the inevitable consequence that Wittgenstein’s admirers will, on the whole, tend to admire Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein more than most of Wittgenstein’s detractors will, and that roughly the opposite will tend to be the case with regard to the reception of Monk’s biography of Russell amongst admirers and detractors of Russell. This inevitably leaves Monk open to the charge of a certain bias of sympathy in the one case and antipathy in the other.73

If Monk succeeds in his quest to write the sort of biography he claims to aspire to write, then neither of these charges should be upheld. He aspires to confine himself to showing us the life through a well-documented narrative of the thoughts and actions of the individuals themselves. If he is faithful to this aspiration, then all this pair of biographies could be said to be doing is simply confronting members of these respective circles of admirers and detractors with what there is to notice about the reciprocal interaction of the life and work of each of these two philosophers. The reader would thus find himself or herself confronted with each of these two individuals themselves – confronted with the ways in which each of their respective philosophical sensibilities emerges and finds expression in the course of shaping and being shaped by these interactions. Whether Monk does remain faithful to this aspiration (in each of his two very different efforts to write philosophical biography) is at best a delicate question, and no doubt one which different readers will decide differently (and perhaps differently with regard to each of his two efforts).74

Even if one judges Monk to have remained faithful to this aspiration (in either of his two efforts), this still leaves it undecided whether one should judge the result to be of philosophical interest. Whether one thinks being thus confronted with the entwinement of a philosopher’s life in his thought and vice versa is of philosophical interest will depend in part upon whether one thinks (the genre I have been calling) philosophical biography has any useful role to play in deepening our understanding of the work of particular philosophers. This is a question each of us must answer for him- or herself on a case by case basis. How we answer this question will, of course, depend on our view, in each case, of the biography in question (on how successful we take it to be qua philosophical biography) and the philosopher in question (that is, on what sort of philosopher we take him or her to be); but, more significantly, it will depend on our conception of philosophy – on what we think philosophy now is and what we think it ought to be – and on the ways in which that conception may be either confirmed or challenged by a philosophical biography. These are not matters that someone else can decide for us.

Whatever one thinks of Monk’s work – whether one thinks that it succeeds as philosophical biography or not – one ought to concede that it shows that one can at least aspire to write a philosophically illuminating biography of a philosopher without lapsing into reductivism. The reductivist biographer tries to show us the secret of a philosopher’s work by locating the key to understanding his work outside his work – in his life rather than his work. This is not what Monk does. Monk’s mode of biography, in helping us to see the rigor and depth and purity that characterizes Wittgenstein’s struggles generally, aims to help us to see Wittgenstein’s work afresh: to see the rigor and depth and purity that are there in the work. What we are supposed to be thus helped to see is accordingly there to be seen in the work without the help of Monk’s biography. But it can be hard to see.75

Similarly, the ways in which and the reasons why Russell’s work are tragically flawed in the respects in which Monk’s biography aims to reveal are ways and reasons that are internal to Russell’s work itself. What Monk aims to do is allow us to see that work as a whole more clearly and perspicuously than we were previously able to. Philosophical biography, if it succeeds, can play a role in enabling us to see in the work of a philosopher what we might otherwise miss in the work. Though philosophical biography attempts a depiction of philosophy in vivo (rather than, as it were, in vitro), it is still the philosophy (and not just the philosopher) that it seeks to bring into view. Monk, unlike the reductivist biographer, does not take “the real meaning” of Wittgenstein’s or Russell’s texts to be of a sort that must remain hidden to us as long as we fail to situate those texts in the wider contexts of their respective biographies. He does not seek to explain or evaluate the work of either of these philosophers by privileging what is legible in their lives over what is legible in their work – offering a reading of the texts of their lives that, in effect, pretends that it can serve as a substitute for the hard work of reading the texts that they wrote. He seeks rather to show how an attention to Wittgenstein’s life or Russell’s life can furnish a background against which one can more clearly discern what is already written – and there to be read — in the texts that Wittgenstein and Russell each wrote.

In the previous paragraph, when I speak of what Monk “aims” and “seeks” to do, I am crediting Monk with aiming to write philosophical biography (in the sense defined at the outset of this paper). But it is one thing to claim that Monk’s work aspires to belong to this particular genre of writing, it is another thing to claim that it is a successful instance of the genre to which it thereby aspires to belong. By any discriminating person’s lights, most attempts at philosophical biography must be judged failures. Many people who set out to do something like what Monk aspires to do – to write a biography that illuminates the work of a philosopher — wind up, I think, more or less inadvertently, sliding into writing some more reductivist form of biography; because in order to construct a narrative that offers the appearance of illuminating the work through attention to the life, they slide into trafficking in the forms of pseudo-illumination that reductivist narratives confer. If one judges Monk to have succeeded in his aim then one will have judged him to have succeeded in doing something difficult. There is an art to writing such biographies; and, like any art worth practicing, it is hard to excel at. As with all such arts, people will differ widely in their assessments of whether the efforts of a given practitioner of the art are to be judged a success and, if so, how much of a success. My aim here is not to settle an argument concerning the degree of success of Monk’s particular pair of attempts to practice the art of philosophical biography, but only to show that this argument itself is a sensible one and its outcome is not be decided on a priori grounds. My aim in this paper has been to exhibit the coherence of taking sides in such arguments by showing that the attempt itself – the genre of philosophical biography as such – is in no way incoherent.

Other Honorable Trades: Shoemaking, for Example

Monk has himself written illuminatingly about his own conception of philosophical biography and, in particular, about the role played within that conception of the sort of understanding which consists in being able to see (and allow others to see) connections. In the course of explicating what it means to have the eye to notice such connections, he finds occasion to quote an anecdote from Stanley Cavell. The anecdote is from Cavell’s days as a student at Berkeley when he attended Ernst Bloch’s music theory class. Cavell’s original reason for adducing the anecdote, in his book A Pitch of Philosophy, is as a parable of philosophical instruction. The parable occurs as part of an extended exploration of the twin themes of having an ear for music and cultivating one’s voice qua singer – an exploration within which these twin themes function as figures respectively for what is to have an ear for philosophy and for what it is to find one’s voice qua philosopher. Here’s the anecdote:

He [Bloch] would play something simple, at the piano, for instance a Bach four-part chorale, with one note altered by a half step from Bach’s rendering; then he would play the Bach unaltered. Perhaps he would turn to us, fix us with a stare, then turn back to the piano and repeat, as if for himself, the two versions. The drama mounted, then broke open with a monologue which I reconstruct along these lines: “You hear that? You hear the difference?” ... He went on: “My version is perfectly correct; but the Bach, the Bach is perfect; late sunlight burning the edges of a cloud. Of course I do not say you must hear this. Not at all. No. But.” The head lowered a little, the eyes looked up at us, the tempo slowed ominously: “If you do not hear it, do not say to yourself that you are a musician. There are many honorable trades. Shoemaking, for example.”76

Monk himself adduces this anecdote in the service of exploring the analogy between understanding a person and understanding a piece of music. He is not so immodest as to indicate the respect in which the anecdote might have served equally aptly as a parable for the entire enterprise of philosophical biography itself. For in order to write a biography of the sort to which Monk aspires, you need a finely tuned sense of when and how a philosopher’s personality expresses itself in his work and when and how his philosophy comes to expression in his life. Not everyone has the ear to catch each of these manifestations of a philosopher’s vision as it expresses itself in the other. And when the practitioners of philosophical biography are tone-deaf to what they need to hear, the sounds they produce are no less hard on the ears than those produced by tone-deaf musicians. What the widespread availability of bad biographies of philosophers shows is that to write philosophical biography you need to have (not only considerable knowledge of both a philosopher’s work and his life, but also) the ability to notice connections and hear resonances that not everyone will have the eye or the ear to pick up. Not everyone presently writing biographies of philosophers should obviously be doing what they are doing. To quote Ray Monk quoting Stanley Cavell quoting Ernest Bloch: there are many other honorable trades – shoemaking, for example.

Taking my lead from my epigraph from Virginia Woolf, I have indicated that the question “Should one allow a (philosophical) biography to assist one in understanding a philosopher?” is a question each person must answer on his or her own when faced with a concrete pair of examples – that is, when faced with both a philosopher and a (philosophical?) biography of that philosopher. An additional, relatively straightforward reason why this must be so is to be found in the fact that the sort of understanding that philosophical biography aspires to confer is not a sort that everyone necessarily seeks of a philosopher’s work and especially not necessarily when reaching for a biography. The quest for this sort of understanding may seem to defeat the pleasure of reading biography. What many people want most out of a biography is not to have light shed on elusive aspects of the work of a difficult philosopher; most readers, when they pick up a biography, just want to read an entertaining and edifying story about the life of a great man. Moreover, even if one takes oneself to have a use for the sort of understanding that philosophical biography (as I have here sought to define it) aims to confer, regardless of how successful an instance of the genre one takes up – as with all forms of understanding properly termed “philosophical” — such understanding can only come if earned. Thus, even if one deems a philosophical biography successful, not everyone who reads such a book will come away with the variety of understanding it aspires to confer merely as a consequence of having attentively turned its pages — especially if the reader turns the pages eager to see how it will all turn out, consuming it like an adventure story, without looking for connections that are left to the reader to draw himself. For it is a hallmark of good philosophical biography that a great deal of work be left to the reader. (Wittgenstein’s remark about how philosophy ought to be written applies equally here: “Anything your reader can do for himself leave to him.”77) Hence a reader may come away without any sense of gratitude; he may well feel, with justification, after reading even an exemplary philosophical biography of, say, Wittgenstein, that he is in no better position than before to see who Wittgenstein was and why he wrote what he did – let alone why he wrote as he did. That is only to say that philosophical biography is not for everyone: the sorts of connection that this genre of prose-writing seeks to bring to the fore, even when brought to light, will not seem salient to certain readers; and, in such cases, the sorts of change of aspect in our perception of a philosopher’s work which philosophical biography seeks to bring about will fail to dawn. But there are many worthwhile ways to spend your time other than reading philosophical biography.



  1. From “How Should One Read a Book?”, in The Collected Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume II (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967); pp. 3, 5.
  1. Aristotle, Protrepticus, fragment 5; in Aristotelis Fragmenta Selecta; ed. W. D. Ross (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955); p. 33.
  1. Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life; ed. Arnold Davidson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); p. 265.
  1. The question of exactly what role such anecdotes are meant to play in ancient philosophical writings is a complex and delicate one. This much seems clear: if one thinks that a consideration of the manner in which a philosopher lives can contribute in some way to an assessment of the cogency of his philosophical doctrines then this will have implications for what one takes the role and standing of (what we would tend to consider merely) ad hominem forms of argument to be. Nonetheless, it is difficult for a modern reader not to be struck by the abundance of (what is apt to strike one as) apparently irrelevant biographical detail in ancient philosophers’ discussions of each others’ views. As an amusing yet representative sample, consider the manner in which Aristotle introduces his discussion of the political doctrines of Hippodamus: Hippodamus the son of Euryphon, a citizen of Miletus, was the first man without practical experience of politics who attempted to handle the theme of the best form of constitution. He was a man who invented the planning of towns in separate quarters, and laid out the Peiraeus with regular roads. In his general life, too, [apart from these innovations] he was led into some eccentricity by a desire to attract attention; and this made a number of people feel that he lived in too studied and artificial a manner. He wore his hair long and expensively adorned: he had flowing robes, expensively decorated, made from a cheap but warm material, which he wore in summer time as well as in winter. (Politics, 2.1267b22; tr. E. Barker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1946; p. 68). Can the observation that a philosopher lives “in too studied and artificial a manner” shed light on the character of his philosophy?
  1. Arnoldo Momigliano, The Development of Greek Biography (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 71.
  1. Ibid., p. 84.
  1. Arnold Davidson, “Editor’s Introduction”, ibid., p. 30. The embedded quotation is from Giuseppe Cambiano.
  1. Momigliano argues that, precisely because the model of how to live furnished by such representations embodies an ideal, the practice of philosophical biography among the ancients must be distinguished from that of history: The Socratics were infuriating in their own time. They are still infuriating in our time. They are never so infuriating as when approached from the point of view of biography. We like biography to be true or false, honest or dishonest. Who can use such terminology for Plato’s Phaedo or Apology, or even for Xenophon’s Memorabilia?… [T]he fact we have to face is that biography acquired a new meaning when the Socratics moved to the zone between truth and fiction which is so bewildering to the professional historian. We shall not understand what biography was in the fourth century if we do no recognize that it came to occupy an ambiguous position between fact and imagination. Let us be in no doubt. With a man like Plato, and even with a smaller but by no means simpler man like Xenophon, this is a consciously chosen ambiguity. The Socratics experimented in biography, and the experiments were directed towards capturing the potentialities rather than the realities of individual lives. Socrates, the main subject of their considerations …, was not so much the real Socrates as the potential Socrates. He was not a dead man whose life could be recounted. He was the guide to territories as yet unexplored… The Greeks and the Romans realized that writing about the life of a fellow man is not quite the same as writing history…. By keeping biography separate from history the Greeks and the Romans were able to appreciate what constitutes a poet, a philosopher, a martyr, a saint. (Op. cit., pp. 46-7, 104)
  1. I do not mean to be claiming here (or anywhere, for that matter) that one cannot understand ancient philosophy (or any other kind of philosophy, for that matter) without recourse to philosophical biography, but only that one has not understood what philosophy is for the ancients if one fails to understand that there is a distinctively philosophical role for the practice of biography to play in the practice of ancient philosophy. Hence the point here is not that one must be familiar (through biographical accounts or other forms of documentary evidence) with the concrete details of some particular individual ancient Skeptic’s or Stoic’s, or Epicurean’s life in order to understand what ancient Skepticism, Stoicism, or Epicureanism is. The point is simply that one must have some general understanding of the way of life of the Skeptic, the way of life of the Stoic, or the way of life of the Epicurean in order to understand what ancient Skepticism, Stoicism, or Epicureanism is. Hence I say: one must have some understanding of the lives that the authors of Skeptical, Stoic or Epicurean texts aspired to lead in order to understand these texts. One way of acquiring such an understanding is, of course, simply through, while reading such texts, imaginatively entering into the conception of how one ought to live which the texts themselves presuppose.
  1. The case of Saul Kripke can serve as a useful contrast here. There are many anecdotes about Kripke circulating in contemporary philosophical circles. But no one is tempted to adduce any of them in the context of explicating Kripke’s philosophical writings.
  1. Culture and Value, ed. G. H. von Wright, tr. Peter Winch, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980/revised edition Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1998); p. 33/38.
  1. Ibid, p. 34/39.
  1. Rush Rhees, ed., Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections, p. 193.
  1. Culture and Value, p. 16/24.
  1. Ibid., p. 45/51.
  1. “But these passages”, someone might complain, “are mostly taken from a single work: Culture and Value — the work which Wittgenstein devotes exclusively to topics in ethics, aesthetics and religion!” This is not true. Wittgenstein never wrote (nor ever planned to write) such a work. The passages in Culture and Value are drawn from all over Wittgenstein’s Nachlass. (See the Revised Edition of Culture and Value, with annotations by Alois Pichler, indicating the manuscript sources of the remarks.) The passages from Culture and Value which are quoted here (like many such passages) occur, in their original home in Wittgenstein’s manuscripts, in the midst of investigations of questions such as what is it to follow a rule?, or name an object?, or understand the meaning of a word?, etc.
  1. In the opening sentence of his editor’s preface to the volume, G. H. von Wright appears to be prepared to claim that the remarks he has chosen to bring together in Culture and Value are remarks of Wittgenstein’s “which do not belong directly with his philosophical works although they are scattered amongst the philosophical texts” [my emphasis] (ibid., p. i/ix). A subsidiary aim of the present essay is to cast doubt on (the italicized portion of) this description of these remarks.
  1. Some of the paragraphs which follow overlap paragraphs in my “On Going the Bloody Hard Way in Philosophy” (in The Possibilities of Sense, ed. John Whittaker (Macmillan, forthcoming)) where the topic is treated at greater length.
  1. “On Putting Two and Two Together”, in The Grammar of Religious Belief; ed. D. Z. Phillips (New York: St. Martins Press, 1995); pp. 248-331.
  1. D. Z. Phillips, Philosophy’s Cool Place (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999); p. 46.
  1. Phillips seems to assume that I would disagree with this. (I presume this is because he –mostly rightly — takes himself to disagree with so much of what I say elsewhere in my paper.)
  1. Having read thus far, the reader may have formed the impression that the topic of this section of the paper is one which could be summarized under the heading “Wittgenstein’s remarks about ethics”. Is that my topic? Are these remarks about ethics? It depends upon what you think “ethics” is. Stanley Cavell remarks upon the “pervasiveness of something that may express itself as a moral or religious demand in the Investigations“, and goes on to observe that “the demand is not the subject of a separate study within it, call it Ethics” (This New Yet Unapproachable America (Albuquerque: Living Batch Press, 1989); p. 40). I take the five remarks from Wittgenstein quoted above to be attempts to articulate (aspects of) that demand.
  1. To put a somewhat more polemical edge on the point: one cannot understand many of the remarks that occur in a text such as Culture and Value by engaging in a close reading of that “work” alone and neglecting Wittgenstein’s investigations of the sorts of questions with which the bulk of his work is concerned (questions such as is it possible for me to give myself a private ostensive definition?, or for another person to have my pains?, or for there to be only one occasion on which someone obeys a rule?, etc.) — neglecting, that is, what he thought philosophy is.
  1. Phillips, Philosophy’s Cool Place , p. 46.
  1. And this does appear to be what Phillips means. The most he seems to be prepared to concede by way of a connection between “the personal” and “the philosophical” is an analogy “between working on philosophical problems and working on moral problems” (ibid., p. 46). Phillips is unwilling to allow for any connection more intimate than this because it seems important to him to be able to maintain that “Wittgenstein … is not saying, as Conant thinks, that a shoddiness in how we speak is, at the same time, a shoddiness in how we live” (ibid.).
  1. Many of these misinterpretations have been occasioned by picking up Wittgenstein’s oft-repeated analogy between philosophy and therapy from the wrong end.
  1. Quoted by Rush Rhees in Recollections of Wittgenstein, ed. Rush Rhees (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 174. See also, in this connection, the remark about the relation between cheating others and cheating oneself in “Notes for the Philosophical Lecture,” in Ludwig Wittgenstein: Philosophical Occasions, 1912-1951; eds. J. Klagge and A. Nordman (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993), p. 450.
  1. Letter to Norman Malcolm, November 16th, 1944; quoted in Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).
  1. Such discernment is essential to the capacity for distinguishing (genuine) philosophy from, what Wittgenstein was fond of calling, (mere) cleverness — a distinction which underlies a great many of Wittgenstein’s judgments of the work of other “philosophers”.
  1. Ludwig Wittgenstein: Denkbewegungen, Tagebücher 1930-1932/1936-1937; edited by Ilse Sommavilla (Innsbruck: Haymon-Verlag, 1997); p. 21.
  1. “Conversations with Drury”, in Recollections of Wittgenstein; p. 106.
  1. Ibid., p. 159.
  1. See, in this regard, Ray Monk’s review of Ben Rogers’s A.J. Ayer: A Life; in The Sunday Times, June 13, 1999, Book Section, p. 12.
  1. Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough, ed. Rush Rhees; reprinted in Ludwig Wittgenstein: Philosophical Occasions, 1912-1951, p. 131.
  1. A related double-faced “difficulty” that surfaces repeatedly in Wittgenstein’s notebooks as an urgent topic for him is the danger of pride (or vanity). Consider the following remark: “The edifice of your pride has to be dismantled. And that is terribly hard work” (Culture and Value, p. 26). Phillips’s mutually exclusive opposition between the personal and the philosophical gets in the way of an understanding of this remark. The question “Is ‘dismantling the edifice of one’s pride’ a personal or a philosophical difficulty?” is, by Wittgenstein’s lights, misconceived from the start. In one of the possible prefaces he drafts for a possible book, Wittgenstein writes: I would like to say “This book is written to the glory of God”, but nowadays that would be chicanery, that is, it would not be rightly understood. It means the book is written in good will, and in so far as it is not so written, but out of vanity, etc., the author would wish to see it condemned. He cannot free it of these impurities further than he himself is free of them. [my emphasis] (Philosophical Remarks (ed. R. Rhees, trs. R. Hargreaves and R. White; Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1975), Preface)
  1. Though it is a mistake to assume, as some commentators do, that Wittgenstein thinks that there can be a kind of person — call him an “ordinary” person or a “nonphilosopher” — who is in full possession of his intellectual faculties and yet utterly free from philosophical perplexity and hence the need for philosophy and the forms of perspicuity and clarity which it aims to confer.
  1. Ray Monk, “Philosophical Biography – The Very Idea”.
  1. The remark occurs in a letter to his sister; Letter to Helene Salzer (née Wittgenstein), quoted in M. Nedo and M. Ranchetti, eds., Ludwig Wittgenstein, Sein Leben in Bildern und Texten, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1983; p.292.
  1. Wittgenstein therefore does not only think that the limitations of a person qua person limit his possibilities of imagination and reflection qua philosopher; he also thinks that the activity of philosophy itself represents a possible means of overcoming such limitation in oneself. Hence both the promise and the danger of philosophy. Throughout Wittgenstein’s life, an important ground of his motivation to philosophy (to, that is, what he hopes philosophy, at its best, can be) – and of his fear of philosophy (of, that is, what he knows philosophy, at its worst, can do to a person) – is the thought that in developing her philosophical sensibility a person is thereby (for better or worse) profoundly shaping herself as a person.
  1. I take it that the term “ethics” in Wittgenstein’s vocabulary no more names an independent subject matter or separable area of philosophy than does the term “logic” (or “grammar”). For Wittgenstein, logic and ethics are each, and each differently, concerned with a pervasive dimension of human thought and action.
  1. In his review of W. W. Bartley’s biography of Wittgenstein, Rush Rhees puts it well: “Unless you know what his [Wittgenstein’s] work means to him and what he tries hardest to bring into his work – and unless you know what other features of his living and his relations to other people he counts important – you cannot say whether some … desire or ‘practice’ is significant or rather insignificant in his character and his life” (The Human World, no. 14, February 1974, p. 73).
  1. Those who imagine, for example, that Wittgenstein’s homoeroticism (“the love that dare not speak its name”) is the key to understanding everything else in his life including his philosophical preoccupations (“no wonder he’s interested in what cannot be said but only shown!”) invariably end up offering a shallow and skewed representation of his philosophical thought. I discuss how this happens in the biographical representations of the relation between Wittgenstein’s philosophy and his sexuality offered by W. W. Bartley and Bruce Duffy in my “Throwing Away The Top of the Ladder”, The Yale Review, Vol. 79, No. 3, pp. 328-364.
  1. Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (London: Jonathan Cape, 1990).
  1. Of which so far only the first volume has appeared: Bertrand Russell: The Spirit ofSolitude (London: Jonathan Cape, 1996).
  1. Wittgenstein, both early and late, employs the words “philosopher”, “philosophy” and “philosophical” in (among others) the following two distinct senses: to denote that which he seeks to combat through his practice (e.g., “the philosopher is someone who is prone to …”, “the crucial trick in the philosophical conjuring game is the one which…”, etc.) and to denote that practice itself (e.g., “philosophy is the battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence…. ”, “there is not a philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, like different therapies”, “my aim in philosophy is to …”, etc. ); and, for Wittgenstein, each of these two opposed senses of the word “philosophy” has equal claim to inherit the ancient sense of the word. I mean here to be referring only to his use of “philosophy” in the second of these two senses.
  1. This is not to say that the extreme opposite end of the spectrum is entirely unoccupied. Quine is perhaps the clearest example of an important contemporary analytic philosopher who resolutely eschews any (what I am here calling) “Socratic” motivation to philosophy. (See, for example, his essay “Has Philosophy Lost Contact with People?” in (Theories and Things; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), passim but especially p. 193.) It is a not uninteresting fact, though, that when such a philosopher undertakes to write an autobiography, the result is likely to be not only a singularly boring book but one that is, in any conventional sense, a remarkably unilluminating autobiography. Or more precisely: if it is illuminating it will be so mainly in ways utterly independent of the author’s design and mainly through the character of the void it discloses – that is, through the enormity of that which is absent from its pages and the pervasiveness of its absence. Both Quine’s and A. J. Ayer’s autobiographies are examples of books that possess this sort of unintended sublimity: even at those moments where one expects to catch a glimmer of involuntarily disclosed human depth one glimpses only surfaces all the way down. Does that mean that, with regard to philosophers who occupy this opposite end of the spectrum, there is nothing about their work for (the genre I am here calling) philosophical biography to illuminate? Can one only write (as it were, mere) biographies (as opposed to philosophical biographies) of such philosophers? That depends upon whether there is an interesting relation between that which is necessarily absent from the representation of the lives of such philosophers and that which is present (if only elusively so) in their philosophical thought, and, if so, whether the following two conditions are additionally satisfied by this relation: (1) it illuminates something important about the character of the philosophical thought as such, and (2) what is thus illuminated can be brought to light with particular clarity or poignancy by means of the genre of philosophical biography. Or to put the point less delicately: it depends upon whether there is a philosophically interesting reciprocal relation between the poverty of the life (the magnitude of its accomplishments notwithstanding) and the poverty of the thought (its significance as a contribution to philosophy notwithstanding). I am inclined to think that there is indeed something here for philosophical biography to disclose, but that it takes tremendous talent and tact (not to mention courage) to do it well. Lest this be taken as an invitation, I ought also to add that I take this particular species of philosophical biography to belong to that category of activities (like shooting an apple off your son’s head) which — however spectacular if successful — are far better left unattempted by those of us who possess a merely average prospect of success. The topic of an internal relation between the poverty of the life of a philosopher and the poverty of his philosophy is arguably the central topic of J. S. Mill’s Autobiography (as well as other of his writings, such as his essay on Bentham). It is a matter of some interest, in the light of the topic of this paper, that Mill should at some point have felt the need to resort to the genre of autobiography in order to do justice to the grounds of his most profound dissatisfactions with Benthamism. The point of the conclusion of the preceding paragraph might be put as follows: it takes a different order of delicacy and tact to do by means of biography what Mill there attempts (by means of autobiography).
  1. Quoted by Monk in Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, p. 142.
  1. Quoted by Monk, ibid., p. 147.
  1. From “The Study of Mathematics”, in The Collected Paper of Bertrand Russell, Vol. 6; ed. by John G. Slater (London: Routledge, 1983); p. 88.
  1. Quoted by Monk in Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, p. 142.
  1. Letter to Ottoline Morrell, May 24th, 1912; quoted by Monk in ibid., p. 262.
  1. There come to be, later on, of course, additional reasons for the demise of the warm conception of mathematics — ones that are strictly internal to the development of Russell’s first-order views in technical philosophy – most of which are connected, in one way or another, with Russell’s eventual conversion to Wittgenstein’s conception of logical truth (as mere tautology). That conversion spells the demise in Russell’s thinking of the idea that philosophy of logic constitutes an inquiry into fundamental features of reality. From this point on, Russell becomes able to look for warmth only outside technical philosophy.
  1. Letter to Helen Thomas, June 10th, 1902; in The Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell, Vol. I , ed. N. Griffin (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992).
  1. Letter to Lucy Donnelly, May 23rd, 1902; quoted by Monk in Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, p.150.
  1. Letter to Goldsworthy Lowes Dickenson, February 13th, 1913; quoted by Monk, ibid., p. 292.
  1. From “Pilgrimage of Life”, in The Collected Paper of Bertrand Russell, Vol. 12 (London: Routledge, 1985); pp. 53-4.
  1. Letter to Ottoline Morrell, January 1st, 1912; quoted by Monk in Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, p. 244.
  1. Quoted by Monk, ibid., p. 142.
  1. Letter to Ottoline Morrell, January 3rd, 1912; quoted by Monk in ibid., pp. 244-5.
  1. Letter to Goldsworthy Lowes Dickenson, February 13th, 1913; quoted by Monk, ibid., p. 292.
  1. Ibid.
  1. Letter to Ottoline Morrell, January 3rd, 1912; quoted by Monk in ibid., p. 245.
  1. “Science as an Element in Culture”, in The Collected Paper of Bertrand Russell, Vol. 12 (London: Routledge, 1985); pp. 395-6.
  1. Originally published in the Independent Review, 1903; first collected in Philosophical Essays; reprinted in Mysticism and Logic (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1919), pp. 46-57 (all references to this essay will be to this edition).
  1. Ibid., pp. 47-8.
  1. Ibid., p. 48.
  1. Ibid., p. 51.
  1. Ibid., p. 48.
  1. Here is a taste of what the answer sounds like: Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate, to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve his mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power. (Ibid., pp. 56-7).In “A Free Man’s Worship”, in the task of facing up to the coldness of the physical universe (the omnipotence of matter, the imperiousness of chance, etc.), Man’s capacity “to burn for eternal things” is adduced as a crucial support — “this is emancipation, and this is the free man’s worship” (ibid., p. 55). As Russell’s attachment to a warm conception of mathematical reality cools and his ontology accordingly dwindles — so that the reality that Science discloses increasingly coincides with the whole of reality — the contemplation of beauty that was to be a free man’s worship gradually yields to a gospel of a resolutely disenchanted prometheanism. The only posture which remains open to an intellectually honest free man is “to defy with Promethean constancy a hostile universe” (ibid., p. 51).
  1. Philosophical Investigations; eds. G. E. M. Anscombe and R. Rhees, tr. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1953); p. 196.
  1. Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections, p. 94.
  1. Letter to Lucy Donnelly, January 21st, 1912; quoted in Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, p. 296.
  1. I would argue that it is constitutive of the enterprise of philosophical biography that a successful philosophical biography must remain open to (at least) one of these two charges. If, in the light of the biography, the philosopher’s work appears neither to wax nor wane as a whole, then the biography will have failed as philosophical biography.
  1. If one suspects a bias (whether it be one of sympathy or antipathy), one may imagine one detects its influence not only in the manner of the presentation of facts, but in themanner of their selection as well. Since no biographer worth his salt fails to exercise considerable restraint in the selection of detail as well as considerable discrimination in the arrangement of detail, the charge of having misjudged the salience of particular details (through their manner of either inclusion or omission) will inevitably remain a live one among unsympathetic readers.
  1. One, of course, might not need such help; and, as I will suggest in a moment, even if one does need it, one might not be able to receive it.
  1. Stanley Cavell, A Pitch of Philosophy (Cambridge. MA: Harvard University Press, 1994); pp. 49-50. The anecdote is quoted by Monk in his contribution to this volume.
  1. Culture and Value, p. 77/88.


von Ray Monk

"Die Menschen heute glauben, die Wissenschaftler seien da, sie zu belehren, die Dichter & Musiker etc., sie zu erfreuen. Daß diese sie etwas zu lehren haben; kommt ihnen nicht in den Sinn."
 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Vermischte Bemerkungen

Auch wenn Wittgenstein weithin als der bedeutendste und einflussreichste Philosoph des 20. Jahrhunderts gilt, gibt es einen Bereich innerhalb seines Denkens, der trotz dessen zentralen Bedeutung für alles, was Wittgenstein gemacht hat, in den zahlreichen, über ihn verfassten und von ihm inspirierten Arbeiten überwiegend ignoriert wurde. Dies ist seine ablehnende Haltung zum Szientismus, der Auffassung, nach der echte Erkenntnisse nur in wissenschaftlichen Erkenntnissen, echtes Wissen nur in wissenschaftlichem Wissen bestehen sollen.
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Wittgenstein & Kraus: some speculation

by Peter Winslow
(first published on 24 January 2016 on the “a bit of pitch” blog)

In a well-known remark from 1931, published in Vermischte Bermerkungen (Culture and Value), Ludwig Wittgenstein writes that he had been influenced by Karl Kraus:

There is, I believe, some truth in thinking that I am really only reproductive in my thinking. I believe that I have never invented any movement of thought, but that they have always been given to me by someone else. I just passionately seized them outright for my clarification work. Boltzmann, Hertz, Schopenhauer, Frege, Russell, Kraus, Loos, Weininger, Spengler, Sraffa have influenced me in this way. Can you take Breuer and Freud as examples of Jewish re-productivity? What I invent are new Gleichnisse [my translation].

But this remark is extremely difficult; it is excerpted from a longer remark where Wittgenstein contemplates “Jewish ‘genius,’” the “Jewish thinker,” the “Jewish mind,” and other topics worthy of earnest consideration, but all beyond the scope of this blog post. … What follows cannot be new, someone had to have written or spoken about it somewhere else; I just don’t remember ever having seen or heard it before. Be that as it may, what follows is little more than speculation any way—speculation, that is, regarding how Kraus may have possibly influenced the early Wittgenstein.


Peter Winslow is a professional German to English legal translator and holds a BA in philosophy from Southern Connecticut State University and an MA in German/Austrian studies from the University of Connecticut, where he wrote his MA thesis on the relationship between Karl Kraus’s use of juxtaposition and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s language games. He lives in Lüneburg, Germany.


by Ray Monk

"People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians, etc. to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them - that does not occur to them." 
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value

Though Wittgenstein is widely regarded as the greatest and most influential philosopher of the twentieth century, there is an aspect of his thinking that has been largely ignored by much of the work that has been written about him and inspired by him, even though he himself thought it centrally important to everything he did. That is his opposition to scientism, the view that all real knowledge is scientific knowledge, all real understanding scientific understanding.
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This interview appeared for the first time in the Nordic Wittgenstein Review, Volume 2 / Number 1 (Aug 2013), eds. Alois Pichler, Simo Säätelä, Yrsa Neuman. We kindly thank the editors, James Conant and Niklas Forsberg for their permission to publish the text here.

James Conant                     Nordic Wittgenstein Review                      Niklas Forsberg

James Conant is interviewed by Niklas Forsberg about his philosophical development
Part 1*

Forsberg: What brought you to philosophy? Or, to make room for a number of different kinds of answer, what in philosophy spoke to you?

Conant: Well, I don’t think I started out knowing what it was about philosophy that spoke to me – or, for that matter, even that philosophy spoke to me at all. I think I discovered that to some extent in a rather indirect, roundabout, way. I started out thinking that I was supposed to be doing something in mathematics or physics because those were the subjects that I was good at when I was young. When I got further into those subjects, I did not know enough about what philosophy was to know that it was the philosophical aspects of physics and mathematics – the philosophical questions that lay at the foundations of those forms of inquiry – that spoke to me most. At the time I would have just said that I am interested in certain fundamental issues that come up in physics and mathematics.

Forsberg: Was there some particular reason that you were first drawn to physics and mathematics? And is there some particular reason why you had trouble recognizing the questions that most interested you there as philosophical?

Conant: Yes, I suppose so. But the reasons were merely biographical. I was named after my grandfather, James Bryant Conant, and I was supposed to be his reincarnation. There was a sort of an unspoken contract to this effect between myself and my parents. It was never really clear to me what was the chicken and what was the egg here: That is, if they thought I must be the reincarnation of him because I was good at subjects such as math and physics, or if they thought I was good at subjects like math and physics because I was my grandfather reincarnated. I just knew I was supposed to be good at them, because I was supposed to be just like my grandfather. It was part of my childhood self-conception that I had to be good at these things. Yet, at the same time, I had the sense that I had been placed on a set of rails: No matter how far I travelled, I would just have to keep going in the same direction as I had already been travelling, and I would never arrive at my destination. That is, I would never grow up to be my grandfather. So I was fated to disappoint both my parents and myself, because I wouldn’t live up to this picture of who I was supposed to become – which involved things like winning a Nobel Prize, becoming the President of Harvard, and a few other accomplishments on that order… So by the time I reached the university I was eager to get off the rails. But every time I got off for a moment, I got nervous, so I hopped back on. This led to my having, as a student, a somewhat schizophrenic pattern of study, where I’d take these math and physics courses which I’d do rather well in, but wasn’t completely excited by, and then I’d take various more humanistic courses (on topics like Dostoyevsky or Kierkegaard, or existentialism) and then I would no longer feel I knew what I was doing, or where I was heading. So I came to think of myself as having a kind of split intellectual personality. I think I even thought, for a time, that there was something deep and interesting about being split in two in this way.

Forsberg: Did you feel that this was something unique about you?

Conant: Unique? No. Special? Yes.

I had a couple of teachers who fit this mold. I thought they were special in an interesting way. This was wrapped up for me, at the time, with a question about what it meant to be Jewish. These teachers were themselves Jews, as it happens. (Perhaps I should say that my mother is Jewish and my father is not.) If I had to sum up my picture of the shape of this mold, which seemed to me at the time worth fitting myself into and emulating, I would say it consisted in my wanting to be a “Positivist Rabbi”.

Forsberg: What do you mean by “Positivist Rabbi”?

Conant: Good question! What do I mean by that? Well, the official teaching was positivist on the outside, with a softly whispered intimation that the positivist worldview left out the deep and important things, but that these things were deep and important anyway. So, on the official teaching, there was a kind of logical-positivist view of the natural sciences and what they deliver, how they give us the truth about things. This was combined with a sense that that view of the world was somehow deeply incomplete: That what it is to be a full Mensch, a full human being, is to be interested in the many things that come to be left out in that picture – aesthetics, ethics, and so much else which ended up seeming as if it could only have a mystical sort of importance, given that it had no place in the official world-picture. So that these important matters became things one cultivated in an unofficial capacity, so to speak. One cultivated them in a kind of sublime and understated way, while at the same time recognizing the deep incompatibility between them and what is possible according to one’s first-order scientific world-picture. I don’t think I felt at the time that there was anything incoherent about this; just self-consciously schizophrenic. Or, to put things more accurately: I perhaps sensed that at some level there must be something incoherent about this, but this very incoherency seemed deep and interesting to me, rather than philosophically troubling. I learned this attitude from some of the teachers I admired, my positivist rabbi exemplars, as it were. These teachers were not necessarily in the first instance philosophers. They were mathematicians, astrophysicists, historians of science. So in learning mathematics and physics from them, I was unwittingly swallowing a whole philosophical attitude without being able to recognize it yet as a form of philosophy. I just thought that that is what it is to see the world aright.

Forsberg: So how did you go from these subjects to philosophy?

Conant: What I set out to do was to follow a course of study that would allow me to graduate as a Physics major, so that I could then go on to become a physicist. Many of my fellow undergraduate friends were on that track too, and they went on to get jobs at huge labs. But I realized that they ended up leading lives, working in those labs, that struck me as completely uninteresting; and those lives no longer had anything to do with what originally drew me to physics. What was that? It was, I was discovering, the large fundamental questions I mentioned before – for example, philosophical questions about the nature of space, the nature of time, the nature of explanation, the relationship between theory and reality, and so on.

One of the ways in which I solved this problem (that my studies were threatening to lead me into a boring life) was by increasingly taking courses in the history of science. This subject drew on both my knowledge of physics and of mathematics, while at the same time letting me stick with these more fundamental questions. Eventually, after six years of being at the university on and off, I looked over my course requirements and the courses I had taken, trying to figure what I should major in, if I wanted finally to be done with college and graduate immediately. I was still a couple of courses short of a Physics major. I was also a few courses short of a History of Science major. But it turned out that I already had everything I needed to major in Philosophy. Actually, I hadn’t taken that many courses in the Philosophy Department per se, but some of the courses I’d taken in the Physics Department, for example, on space, time and motion, counted towards a Philosophy major. Similarly, some of the courses in the Math Department, for example, on introductory and advanced mathematical logic, also counted. So, too, for some of the Lit courses on Kierkegaard and even Dostoyevsky. So I could be finished and graduate if I declared myself a Philosophy major and then enrolled in a number of so-called “Tutorials” in the Philosophy Department. So I took these and graduated as a Philosophy major. So part of the way that I first discovered that philosophy was my calling is not because what was happening in the Philosophy Department at Harvard at the time seemed to be calling to me. Rather, I first discovered something superficial and institutional: namely that a great many of the courses I had taken counted, according to Harvard University, as Philosophy credits. It seemed to me at first that the unity was merely institutional. At first, it seemed like a happy miracle that this Philosophy Department thought all of these courses were relevant to the study of philosophy somehow. I think that one reason I didn’t myself become a Philosophy major earlier, and in a more self-possessed way, was because when I actually went to so-called “philosophy courses”, I often didn’t find those courses as exciting as the others. The courses that took up philosophical issues but were listed in other departments and taught by non-philosophers originally excited me more. In retrospect, as I look back, and compare my case with that of similarly-minded undergraduates in my own university now, I recognize that this aversion to Philosophy courses was, to a large extent, a mark of my own intellectual immaturity and my own underdeveloped intellectual appetite. At the time, like many people when they first come to the subject, I preferred the way philosophy tasted when it came wrapped in another subject to the way that it tasted when it was served raw.

Forsberg: Do you think this was your fault or the Philosophy Department’s fault?

Conant: Probably some of both. One part of the explanation lay in the ways in which the institutionalization of philosophy can help kill off almost anyone’s appetite for the subject. Courses in a philosophy department can involve a form of over-specialization that chokes off one’s original motivations to the subject. There is a tendency to package the subject in ways that make it hard for undergraduates to recognize what draws them to philosophy in what becomes of philosophy when it is taught as a university subject. But another part of the explanation just had to do with me at the time: I was confident in my ability to do well in courses that involved math and physics. There was there a certain kind of technical currency that was fungible from one course to the next; whereas it was much less clear to me what I was doing in a philosophy course and what was required of me there. So even though these courses attracted me, I wasn’t sure what they were about and I was afraid of failing in them. I didn’t understand the standards by which intellectual competence was measured there. This was connected to the fact that I would sit in on a number of philosophy courses but not take them for credit. I did not really know what was going on in these classes; I had no idea how to write a paper that would hit the bull’s eye. So I made sure, when I was not confident that the paper would receive a good grade, that I did not have to write a paper. I would just sit in on those classes.

Forsberg: Could you give me an example?

Conant: Perhaps the clearest case was the first course I went to that was taught by Stanley Cavell. I saw the course description. It sounded very interesting somehow and it had these names in it that I somehow knew were important. It was called Heidegger’s Writings on Nietzsche, or something like that. I went to the class and I sat in on it, and Cavell was standing in the front of the room talking to the class, and I literally could not understand anything that he was saying. I just didn’t understand it. I didn’t know what it was about. I looked around at the faces of the people in the room and they seemed like very intelligent, interesting, young people. Some of them were graduate students in Philosophy whom I had come to know in other contexts. I respected these people, and they were engrossed, completely absorbed. They would ask serious-sounding questions and they would get serious-sounding answers. I could see that something was going on here that was serious and interesting, but it was completely over my head. And that scared me. So I think there was a kind of approach/avoidance conflict with regard to philosophy that was generated in me by these experiences.

Forsberg: How did you overcome this anxiety?

Conant: I am not sure how. I am not even sure I ever completely did. It took me a long time to just learn to live with the insecurity that comes with choosing a subject in which the different practitioners of the subject did not themselves agree about what their subject is or is supposed to be. That fact scared me. What I liked about mathematics or physics was that at least everyone had some shared understanding of what the game was supposed to be that we were all playing together. But I think it was also this very difference between philosophy and every other subject I encountered in the university – namely, that what philosophy is constitutes one of philosophy’s central, and most contested, questions – that was also part of what attracted me to philosophy, even as it also repelled me.

Forsberg: How did you go from an interest in the philosophy of mathematics and physics to one in the rest of philosophy?

Conant: Hilary Putnam, who was one of my teachers at Harvard, said to me: “If you want to be a good philosopher, even if you want just to be a good philosopher of science, you can’t just do philosophy of science; you have to learn about all of philosophy and understand how this part of philosophy is related to other parts of philosophy”. So I took his advice, and started signing up for all kinds of courses that I otherwise might not have had the courage to take, and the result was that I was naturally drawn into the rest of philosophy. Indeed, philosophy of science is now a very tiny part of my overall interest in the subject.

Forsberg: Let us return to the intriguing image of the “Positivist Rabbi”. Because if you look at logical positivism, it’s hard not to see it as a movement of thought that is more or less inherently torn. If one looks, one finds a lot of philosophers who say that “This is what we can do in philosophy in a scientific manner” but then they keep reading Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer for themselves, in private…

Conant: Well, there are different kinds of positivists. I certainly got to know different kinds in my own life. I was using the word “positivist” before in a very inclusive and indiscriminate way, where the relevant specification of the generic worldview here at issue does not rhyme precisely with that found in the writings of some of the classical logical positivists. What matters – or what came to matter to me – about the worldview of the figure I was calling the Positivist Rabbi, is how all sorts of things that he himself deems important have an importance which he has deprived himself of the intellectual resources to be able to account for. There is something here the positivist rabbi shares with a typical positivist, and there is something here that differentiates him from the typical positivist. His conception of the kinds of knowledge that are susceptible of intellectual vindication undergoes the usual positivist kind of constriction, and his conception of the nature of reality, and what can be found in it, undergoes a parallel constriction. The typical positivist, however, revels in the very narrowness of the conception of reality with which he saddles himself. He wants to say “Everything else is nonsense”. He wants to emphasize the unclarity of everything that does not meet his philosophically refined standard of clarity. He wants to wield this as an instrument of intellectual terrorism – an instrument with which to embarrass people who think there could be anything more to reality than what his worldview permits. This person, the one I have just described, is simply a positivist. The Positivist Rabbi, on the other hand, is the person who not only says with the positivist: “Everything else is nonsense”, but then also goes on to add: “But not all of it is mere nonsense; some of it is deep nonsense!” This person feels that there is something genuinely impoverished or incomplete about the positivist world-picture but despairs of being able to find a way to fit those things he himself experiences as most important back into his world-picture.

Forsberg: Yes, so there is this kind of strand of positivism that feeds on the idea of a double or divided world?

Conant: Yes, right. Another person who was on my horizon, who was a professor of philosophy at Harvard in the years when I was a student there, was Quine. In various ways, Quine is a not a logical positivist. He is a critic of logical positivism. So if we were to be very careful about what we should mean by “positivism”, careful in a way that I was not being in this conversation, we would not be able to characterize Quine as a positivist. But with respect to the distinction I was drawing, between two different ways of inhabiting and adhering to a scientific worldview, Quine belongs in the category of the first kind of character. There’s nothing schizophrenic about Quine at all. There was no “rabbinicalism” in him at all! He was somebody who really, resolutely, wanted to argue that there was nothing to reality other than what physics, in the end, tells us there is. There’s a passage in his review of Nelson Goodman’s Ways of Worldmaking, where Quine says something like this: “Nothing happens in the world, not the flutter of an eyelid, not the flicker of a thought, without some redistribution of microphysical states”. This goes with the recurring refrain in Quine’s work that he prefers a desert landscape – that he wants an austere ontology. This ontology is to be dictated by what we quantify over in a regimented language, one which allows only for those things which physics – where physics has been promoted to first philosophy – tells us there is. That’s not the kind of character I had in mind when I was talking about the Positivist Rabbi.

Forsberg: So who would be a paradigmatic case of this here?

Conant: The kind of character I had in mind was personified above all by one of my teachers whose name was Burton Dreben. (He was a philosopher. Some of the other important exemplars of such a type among my teachers were physicists.) Dreben was a close colleague of Quine’s; he is footnoted in many of Quine’s papers; and he felt the power of Quine’s worldview. But he was also somebody who was interested in a great many other things and cultivated some of his philosophical mystique by giving one the sense that there were these important and deep things, but, alas, one couldn’t really put them into words without speaking nonsense. This way of thinking about things was originally presented to me together with a certain way of reading Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. For me, working myself free of that reading of the Tractatus was in part a way of working myself free of the attraction that that whole way of looking at things originally held for me.

When I became a more mature philosopher, I became interested in elaborating a more inclusive sense of what philosophy is, what knowledge is, what thought is, what rationality is – such that logical, mathematical and scientific aspects of human achievement could fully enjoy their pride of place in our view of things without crowding out the other things that matter to us as well. I became interested in distinguishing between a metaphysical interpretation of what science supposedly tells us and science itself. My philosophical interest therefore turned towards examining the deepest features of this underlying metaphysical interpretation – the features of that interpretation that had become a kind of post-scientific common-sense in much of contemporary analytic philosophy, so that to believe in them no longer even seemed to most analytic philosophers to have anything to do with any particular thing that science teaches us. It just seemed to have to do with wanting to avoid anything needlessly mysterious or supernatural in one’s thought about how things are.

Forsberg: I think that it is now easy to see that a lot of your work is a form of response to the problems inherent in the picture of the “Positivist Rabbi”, that you have struggled to reach a way of looking at things where this kind of schizophrenia is, as it were, “cured”. Indeed, many of your readings of classical texts are readings in which you go against the current, as it were, reading these texts as themselves seeking to show that this picture of a split personality collapses, when it is thought through.

Conant: Yes. I was unhappy as an inhabitant of this picture. So that unhappiness itself, I suppose, was a ground for provocation to further thought.

One thing I think I learned from Wittgenstein is the following: The target of one’s philosophical criticism should be a form of philosophical temptation that one is able to get going in oneself. I have taken this maxim to heart in my own philosophical work. I try to take as central targets of criticism in my work only forms of philosophical confusion which I can make alive for myself, which can truly move me and perplex me. I think it is hard to do philosophy well, if what one is doing is criticizing something that one really thinks is just intellectual garbage to begin with. The tone becomes polemical and contemptuous, and then one is simply preaching to the choir of the converted. If one practices philosophy in that way, one is not going to move the person who is the object of one’s criticism. The only point that remains to writing in that way is to further some political or ideological agenda. It doesn’t really lead to the achievement of philosophical clarity for oneself or for one’s readership. So what I have always tried to do is to identify ways of thinking that I find powerful but perplexing, and then try to figure out why those ways of thinking lead to those forms of perplexity, so that in the process of criticizing those ways of thinking I am also seeking to further free myself from those perplexities. This has implications for how one writes philosophy. I try to write in each case about one of these ways of thinking in a manner which would allow somebody else (somebody who also feels gripped by the philosophical way of looking at things in question) to be able to recognize himself in my characterization of what he thinks. I try to hold on to a sense of what is powerful in the way of thinking, even as I am trying to criticize it. I, of course, can only do this where I myself have succumbed, at least for a time, to the way of thinking that I am trying to criticize. So, in short, it’s no accident you are able to discern that one of the targets in my work is the figure who I have been calling the “Positivist Rabbi”!

Forsberg: In which paper can we first see you criticizing this figure?

Conant: In my first published essay, “Must We Show What We Cannot Say?”. The person who is my interlocutor, as it were, in that essay, works with the picture of there being deep things we want to say that language will not let us say. Language cannot get a hold of them. And that itself is a sign of their depth – their depth is marked for one precisely by one’s sense of impotence in the face of what happens when one tries to word them. This interlocutor is the philosophical voice of my earlier self. I am very much criticizing an earlier version of myself there and writing my way out of that philosophical picture in writing that essay.

Forsberg: Yes. I think that this idea that you cannot really move someone away from something that you think is false unless you yourself understand what moves someone to it…

Conant: …unless you can at least occupy it for a moment: This sense that “This is what it’s like from the inside to think this is true” is very important here. Let us come back in a moment to the idea that what one criticizes in philosophy is something that one takes to be false.

Before we go into that, I want to be clear about something else. What I was saying above, about the kind of writing that I find I am able to do well, is simply the report of a fact about myself. I am not putting this forward as a general principle of authorship. There is something which is the writing of a good polemic in philosophy. I don’t anymore tend to want to mount a polemic when I do philosophy myself, but not because I think polemic is, in and of itself, a dishonorable form of authorship. Some people are able to do it well; and I admire people who are able to do it well. So it’s partly a comment on me that I find I cannot do this well. But I do think it is very hard to write a good philosophical polemic. The attempt, in most cases, tends to degenerate into an exercise in self-congratulation. I try to steer students away from writing about something that they are only going to be able to write about in a way which will involve a note of contempt for their philosophical adversary creeping into their voice. I think for instance that the whole debate that rages in contemporary philosophy, often more in popular, than in serious academic publications, by and about people who are for God, on the one hand, and people who are against God, on the other, is incredibly superficial and shallow – simply because you have people on both sides who are not trying very hard to understand how it is that the people on the other side, who are moved to think differently than themselves are thus moved. So the authors on both sides of this debate are criticizing straw men of their own construction. This yields a very shallow literature. It is a good example of the danger in writing about a topic where one has no sympathy for one’s opponent.

But I will also just say, as a second comment on what you said before, that I am not sure whether the true and the false are the primary categories here. I mean this: The things I’ve been most moved to criticize myself, the things to which I myself was previously most attracted in philosophy, turned out not to be cases where I once thought such and such was true and then later came to think the negation of that, so I ended up concluding that such and such was false rather than true. The overcoming of philosophical “error”, if one wants to call it that, seldom assumes so straightforward a form. That is why I have preferred to speak above, following Wittgenstein, of philosophical temptation and confusion. That’s also why I have sketched the Positivist Rabbi as a certain kind of a person, rather than simply as the proponent of a certain kind of position. The deeper attractions of the positions that most move us in philosophy tend to lie deeper: in ways of looking at things that are much more inchoate, far less determinate than any particular philosophical position (that is, anything that anyone could straightforwardly argue for or against) ever is. The positions which we end up trying to defend in philosophy are often just ways of trying to flesh out these more inchoate ways of looking at things. In the case of the positivist rabbi, it’s that initial inchoate sense that certain things that are important are nonetheless such that you can’t fit them into a scientifically respectable worldview, followed by a certain kind of response to that initial sense: a deeply felt sense of the tragedy of what the modern intellectual world seems to be disclosing to us about the nature of our mindedness. My discussion of this topic, earlier in our interview, did not turn on my first identifying certain propositions that were previously taken by me to be true, and then claiming about them that actually one should advance from the thought to the truth-value in the opposite direction in these cases, affirming the negation of what I previously affirmed. Rather, I wanted to bring out something about the underlying philosophical assumptions that brought about this constriction in thought in the first place, the underlying picture of what there is. What a proper philosophical critique of such a picture would amount to, however, is a subject that I managed to answer your question earlier without ever broaching!

Excavating such philosophical pictures and showing how they are needlessly constricting is generally not a matter of identifying propositions that are mistakenly taken to be true and showing that they are false. It’s much more a matter of eliciting various forms of confusion in thought. Often the moments that I have most been concerned to focus in on in my own writing therefore are precisely the sorts of moment in philosophizing when I’ve found that I am moved to insist upon something, to lay down a requirement, and where, if I really think through what it is that is pushing me to insist in this way, I find, in the end, that it is empty. But at the time it grips me, it does not seem empty: indeed, it strikes me as deep, as having an aura of profundity and necessity. But when I try to think it through, it falls apart on me. Often there is a truth in it, but not one that one can get into focus either by affirming or denying what I initially wanted to insist upon. Much of my work therefore is about thinking things through to the point where they fall apart, while trying to excavate and salvage the underlying insight that pushes one in such cases initially to insist in this way.

Forsberg: Do you think that is the right way to do philosophy?

Conant: I do not think that this is the only way to do philosophy, or that what I have just described is the only kind of philosophical criticism that is worth doing. But that’s the kind that has proved most fruitful for me in my own efforts at philosophical self-criticism. Similarly, I am moved to criticize those authors that I take the trouble to write about because I see something in them that strikes me as having evident charisma and power. What I find myself trying to do with respect to such cases is to isolate the crucial, seemingly innocent moments when one finds oneself, while doing philosophy, laying down a requirement on how things must be, or on how one must think about things. This requirement tends not to come about because one has committed oneself to a claim, but rather because one has fallen into a way of looking at things that strikes one as completely banal and innocent. But, in fact, if one tries to think it through, it is completely unclear what the requirement actually comes to. So it isn’t that, at the end of the day, the well-executed criticism in such cases will disclose that there is something which could have been true, but turns out to be false. Rather, at the end, one finds that the words one was drawn to in philosophizing, in order to formulate the supposed requirement, are not able to bear the intellectual freight that they are called upon to bear.

But, again, this is only a report of the form of philosophical criticism that I have found most powerful, and, in the end, most liberating for the sorts of cases of philosophical perplexity that I have explored in the most detail in my own work. This exploration does not represent part of an attempt on my part to lay down a requirement on how one must philosophize if one is to philosophize well.

Forsberg: You are talking about it as your own personal way of doing philosophy, but it also shows what you think philosophy is, or what a particular form of philosophy is. I mean, it shows that the nature of the philosophical problem has a certain character…

Conant: I think philosophy is an incredibly rich thing. The Western philosophical tradition is an incredibly rich tradition and I think it would be tragic if one way of doing philosophy, or one form of criticism, became the model that everybody was forced to adjust themselves to, and every other way of doing philosophy were to die out, simply on account of its difference from this particular model or template of what philosophy can be. Our adherence to a particular way of doing philosophy should not lead us to place all other ways of doing philosophy on the index of forbidden pursuits. Any serious way of doing philosophy, of course, must exclude certain others. But a way of doing philosophy that is unable to tolerate most of the history of philosophy, and unable to find anything of value in it, is a form of intellectual fanaticism which will not itself be able to secure any lasting place in that history.

By the way, I don’t think this possibility of a plurality of forms of disciplinary excellence is unique to philosophy. I mean, we could be talking about natural science or literary criticism, and some version of this point could still be made. There are very different kinds of excellent physicist and different kinds of excellent literary critic. The excellence of the one kind of each does not preclude the other. The richness of the full practice that makes up the entirety of either one of those two forms of pursuit is such that very different forms of excellence can flourish side by side within the practice and jointly conduce to the flourishing of the practice. So I am happy to admit that the very particular way I do philosophy reflects just the ways I have found that I am most able to contribute to the ongoing practice of philosophy. I am disinclined to endorse any general proclamations of the form “Philosophical problems must have the form of… if they are genuinely philosophical” or “Philosophical progress must take the form of discovering that where one, … one really… else it is not philosophy”. I don’t think that there is only one form of philosophical problem or one form of philosophical progress. There are philosophers I admire but who have not turned out in the end to be models of how to do philosophy for me. But they are still making important intellectual contributions. I think philosophy would be the poorer for the elimination of these other models for how to do philosophy. I want a conception of philosophy that is rich enough, and tolerant enough, to allow for different conceptions of how to do it and for these conceptions to learn from and enrich one another.

Forsberg: I see. What form do you think a philosophical community should take then?

Conant: You’re visiting us here – we are conducting this interview here – at the University of Chicago. This is a department that, along with my colleagues, I have put a lot of work into over the years, in the hope that a certain sort of community could come to flourish here. I was also the Chair of this department for a number of years. Just speaking institutionally for a moment, what building such a community meant, in the first instance, was trying to hire faculty and attract graduate students with very different conceptions of how to do philosophy – attract people, that is, who could learn from each other, rather than their all just sharing some single picture of how philosophy ought to be done. What we wanted to avoid is a community that just seeks to replicate over and over again a single hegemonic model of philosophy, in effect thereby simply seeking to advance the institutional interests of a single intellectually provincial “school” of thought. I think that as soon as one starts down that road, in building one’s philosophical community, one quickly begins to straightjacket one’s conception of the subject and one’s conception of who one’s circle of interlocutors ought to be. Very quickly one falls into forms of intellectual narrowness. I have been using certain words here, such as “narrowness” and “provincialism”. Kant and Wittgenstein both speak in this connection of dogmatism. This is a form of philosophical vice one is not going to be able to recognize in oneself for what it is unless one can view oneself sufficiently from the outside so as to be able to appreciate how one appears to philosophical interlocutors who do not share one’s own fundamental philosophical commitments. In the absence of that sort of sounding board, one is not going to be very good at discerning the limits of one’s own way of doing things, because one’s not going to run up against those limits in a way that discloses them for what they are. Those limits will not come into view if they are perfectly replicated in each of one’s philosophical conversation partners. So I think a first requirement of good philosophy must be a willingness to question one’s own philosophical assumptions and prejudices in one’s encounter with fundamentally different ways of thinking – a willingness, at least initially, to try to discern how the difficulties that plague one in philosophy might have their origin in one’s own overly narrow conception of what the problem is, or overly narrow imagination of what the possible solution might be. And if that much is right about what philosophy is – I should say that I don’t think there can be anything like a complete description of what philosophy is – but if even that partial description of what philosophy is has any truth to it, then we do well to engage in the sort of philosophical conversation that has a chance of helping us uncover our own limitations as philosophers. That it is important to keep a capacious, tolerant, ecumenical conception of what philosophy is, and to be open to other ways of doing philosophy, is something I learned from my teacher Hilary Putnam.

Forsberg: This suggestion that dogmatism is, more or less, the thing about yourself that you cannot see, is interesting. Dogmatism does not lie in the beliefs that you firmly believe in, but precisely in that which you don’t see.

Conant: Well, the moment in which you can recognize it as a form of dogmatism is the moment at which it no longer can figure in your thought as a mere form of dogmatism. I think that is right. But I think that one of the things one is often trying to do in philosophy, or at least one ought to be trying to do in philosophy, is discovering one’s own forms of dogmatism. And in my experience, that is an endless task. There’s something very wrong with somebody who thinks “Well, I have finished with that part of the philosophical task! I have identified all the aspects, or possible moments, in my own conception of what philosophy is that could possibly partake of any form of dogmatism. I have solved that problem! Now I can move on to the other difficulties that might beset one in philosophy!”

Forsberg: We have already mentioned Putnam and Cavell as two formative thinkers of your work. Both of them were on your dissertation committee. And John Rawls was as well. So you have three of the most prominent thinkers of contemporary philosophy on your committee. And one must ask how that has influenced your way of philosophizing. And, on a more general level, what does it mean to inherit philosophy?

Conant: Yes. Let me first be honest and say that my dissertation committee might sound slightly grander than it really was. I was in my penultimate moment in graduate school, still trying to write a dissertation on Wittgenstein, when I decided to change my topic. I was finding I was out of temper with, or at any rate writing things not to the liking of, some of the professors who were supposed to be advising my Wittgenstein dissertation; and that was making it difficult to finish it. As a perhaps overly desperate solution to this problem, I wound up changing my dissertation topic altogether, and therefore also reconfiguring my committee. Putnam and Cavell were already a part of the committee and remained part of it, but it was only at that point that Rawls was officially added to the committee, basically at the last minute. He was someone who I had just been in philosophical conversation with only rather casually until then. He had been a friendly and interested member of the faculty with whom I did a little bit of work early on. He agreed to be a member of my committee, basically so I could once again have the required complement of advisers. But it was more of a compassionate rescue operation on his part than anything else: He was not somebody who was playing a central role in guiding the path of my dissertation. He was never a central teacher for me in the way that Putnam and Cavell were, even though I admired him. He was at the periphery of my intellectual identity, not at the center.

Putnam and Cavell, on the other hand, were two very central teachers for me, and two very different teachers. They each had an enormous influence on me, and…

Forsberg: Still have!

Conant: Still have. Yes, certainly. If a philosopher has had an enormous influence on you, then he probably always will have – whether you realize it or not. So, in saying that they had an enormous influence on me at that time, I am just sort of taking it as analytically true that they also still do. Probably in ways beyond what I can appreciate.

I also was conscious, in working with the two of them, that I was using each of them partly to balance out the other. One of the things I had a fear of in graduate school was losing my own intellectual identity. I do think this can be a serious problem for a student who is working with a powerful dissertation adviser or intellectual mentor. The well-balanced dissertation committee can help alleviate some of the oedipal problems that otherwise come with having a strong – to employ a German turn of phrase –Doktorvater. The most primitive form of the problem is a kind of intellectual ventriloquism, where the knowledgeable listener and observer is able to recognize even very subtle inflections of the voice, mannerism, and gesture of the teacher, recurring in a less nuanced, sometimes even caricatured, form in the student. In the worst case, the entire philosophical personality of the student is essentially derivative and parasitic on that of the teacher, and the work that the former student goes on to do tends to involve little more than a kind of secondary orbital movement. The student in such cases ends up simply being a satellite – his work faithfully orbits around that of the primary celestial/professorial body. But an overly dramatic attempt to break out of such a form of orbit can also lead to an intellectual trainwreck. I was very conscious in graduate school of trying to avoid both of these traps. I could see them befalling a number of my peers in graduate school. They were becoming Rawlsians, or Cavellians, or Drebenians, certain kinds of, as it were, continuations of their teachers. Or they were trying so hard not to be that, in a second phase of rebellion, the sort of thing that they were now trying to be against in philosophy ended up defining their entire philosophical outlook, completely overwhelming their relation to the subject. I did not want to wind up on either of these trajectories. So I was consciously placing myself in an intellectual force field in which I was pulled in different sorts of directions at once. The magnetic field within which I was working was multiply polarized, so I was drawn in different directions depending upon how I chose to move in it. I had to learn to keep my own balance within it. If I was not going to be ripped apart by opposing forces, I really had no choice but to cultivate my own form of philosophical integrity and unity – one which reflected aspects of each of these two exemplary teachers in such a way that I was not pulled apart by their joint effect on me.

Putnam and Cavell were very different personalities, very different philosophers; I think more different than they themselves wanted to admit, when they were for a period trying to form a philosophical friendship.

Forsberg: What did they each represent to you?

Conant: One of the things Putnam represented for me was somebody who helped me preserve continuity with my intellectual past, with the kinds of topics, for example, in the philosophy of science from where I’d come, while also sharing with me a concern about what could be intellectually impoverishing and philosophically constricting in what one might simply call a scientistic worldview. Putnam was interested in exploring and marking the gulf that separates science from scientism. In this respect he had a set of philosophical interests that were utterly alien to Cavell. Cavell represented for me someone very different: a very powerful model of how to try to inherit the philosophical achievement of the later Wittgenstein. Putnam and Cavell were thus two very different philosophers, and their ways of doing philosophy were equally inspiring to me. But they had something important in common: neither one of them had a need to put their stamp on a student. They were both extremely supportive and encouraging, while giving me a lot of latitude to pursue my own interests. Some of these interests that I cultivated at the time were in no way primary interests for either of them, but each of them was willing to serve as a dialogue partner for me. So I remain extremely grateful to them.

If I had to say something about the intellectual virtues that Putnam represented for me, the first thing to mention was his sense of philosophy as forming a unity: that all parts of philosophy are parts of one thing, and that in order to do philosophy well it is important to be interested in how all the different parts of philosophy hang together as one thing. Putnam was especially concerned with how things which might look philosophically unrelated, as they occur in ethics or the philosophy of science or mathematics, can actually be versions of the same problem, simply disguised in a different clothing. For Putnam, part of what it meant to make progress in philosophy is to be able to distinguish between the real form of the problems and their mere clothing and thus to see how the same problems repeat themselves across different areas of philosophy. This requires, among other things, seeing ways in which assumptions from one area of philosophy, from metaphysics or philosophy of language, are simply imported into another area of philosophy, say ethics, and seeing how they then hold sway over there, in that other area, as unexamined assumptions. Putnam was, and is, someone who appreciates that there can be tremendous intellectual cost to instituting a professional division of labor in philosophy. Physics is a field in which division of labor is extremely conducive to the flourishing of the field. Dividing physics departments up into sub-specialties such as solid state physics, and particle physics, relativistic physics, evolutionary cosmology, and so on, allows you to make progress in each of those different areas in a way you could not without those forms of specialization. Putnam made me very suspicious that that sort of division of intellectual labor is generally as productive in philosophy. It very often leads to the institutionalization of intellectual blind-spots and the celebration of new ways of reinventing the wheel. Through his own struggle to attain what the Germans call a Gesamtüberblick of philosophy, Putnam taught me that this is a worthwhile aspiration. There are very few contemporary philosophers, especially in the analytic tradition, who even have such an aspiration, let alone many who get very far in realizing it. Putnam may prove to be one of the last. I admire the seriousness with which he embodies that philosophical ideal.

Forsberg: That was a lot about Putnam. What about Cavell?

Conant: Cavell had no such ambition. He very much had the sense that there are all sorts of things in philosophy that just weren’t for him and he was not going to read those books or think about those issues that were not meant for him. He wasn’t going to be good at those parts of philosophy and he was going to focus on his strengths. I think it is good to have a teacher like that too. I think I have tried to retain Putnam’s aspiration to attain some degree of overall literacy in philosophy, while also trying to learn to play to my own strengths in ways that I partly learned through Cavell’s example. But there are other things in Cavell I tremendously admired that go well beyond this.

In particular, I encountered in his way of philosophizing a powerful conception of what philosophical criticism is. Some of what we discussed earlier, under the heading of ways in which I have sought to single out for philosophical criticism precisely those views that I myself am able to feel the intellectual power of from within, this is something that I learned from Cavell. Those earlier remarks in this interview can be seen as ways of adapting or interpreting some of the various things Cavell says under this heading. Cavell says, for example, that he thinks it is methodologically fundamental to what he calls “ordinary language philosophy” that philosophical criticism proceed in just this way.

In the past couple of decades “ordinary language philosophy” has come to mean something much narrower and much less interesting than it might. In our present ways of writing the history of analytic philosophy, it has come to name a particular remarkably dogmatic understanding of the role that an appeal to language might play in intervening in an ongoing philosophical dispute. To that extent it has come to name something that is almost the complete opposite of what Cavell himself meant by that expression. At the moment I don’t want to quibble about what those words should stand for, but Cavell’s description of what is methodologically fundamental to ordinary language philosophy, his various ways of putting what the ideal of criticism there is, has had a tremendous importance for me in shaping my own practice of philosophy.

Forsberg: I know that you worked a lot with Thomas Kuhn as well, another major philosopher. How did that come about? What kind influence can we trace from him?

Conant: Well. I don’t know. I don’t think that with regard to any of these people – Cavell, Putnam, Kuhn – that I am the best person to figure out exactly how they have influenced me. Probably someone looking at me from the outside can assess that matter better than I can. But I’m very grateful for the friendship I had with Kuhn. He himself was someone who was passionately interested in philosophy, while thinking of himself as not a philosopher in the first instance, but rather always a historian of science. He helped me make some transitions: First, the transition of someone who went from science to the history of science; then that of someone who was trying to go from history of science to philosophy. And then, once I had made that second transition, part of our friendship consisted in me going and meeting with him once a week in his office at MIT and telling him about what philosophers thought about this or that. As I got older and I was a graduate student and was learning more and more about the world of contemporary philosophy, I became something of a native informant for him. He’d ask me questions like “What exactly is the disagreement between Kripke and Putnam about the causal theory reference? How are their theories different?” or “What is this criticism that Rorty has of Putnam in this passage?” And so on. So I would often just be talking with him about issues that he wanted to be clear about in contemporary philosophy. But he was also interested to relate these topics to the kinds of topics in the history of science that he’d always been interested in.

He was therefore someone who helped me preserve a sense of the importance of what goes on in philosophy for people who are not in philosophy. I think that that is something that people who move only along certain confined corridors within institutionalized philosophy sometimes no longer possess any sense of. Sometimes to their detriment, because they then get caught up in conversations in which philosophers only talk to other philosophers, without even knowing how out of touch with the rest of the intellectual world they are. I think that part of doing philosophy well ought to involve some degree of worry about how what one does in philosophy might be fruitful for, or at least have a bearing on, conversations that take place outside of the philosophical community, narrowly conceived. Kuhn was someone who constantly kept me in touch with my own sense of this dimension of the importance of philosophy.

Forsberg: I still want to press you on what it means to inherit philosophy. I know this a theme that has a specific interest for you, well beyond the immediate context of the teacher-student relation.

Conant: Yes. It is not something I have really written about much, but it is something I am glad to have you ask me about. I do think it is a good question. No doubt, one’s conception of what philosophy is shapes one’s conception of what it is to inherit it. To inherit philosophy means to look at what philosophy’s past is and to understand what the relationship between that past and its present should be. There are two models out there of how to do philosophical work, both of which I find I want to resist when I am relating myself to the philosophical past. One possible approach here, embodied in the practice of many contemporary analytic philosophers, is just an attitude of unscrupulous opportunism with respect to the philosophical past. One can look at past philosophy as a treasure trove in which to look for interesting ideas and take what one likes and leave what one doesn’t like. And the past can come to represent nothing more than this to one – a place to raid for ideas. That’s not a very rich conception of what it is to inherit philosophy, to say the least. In reaction to this conception, there are those who have sought to cultivate what we might call a strictly historical interest in past philosophy. They think of themselves as wanting to take past philosophers more seriously. They do not want to have an intellectually cavalier or merely opportunistic relation to them. But often that cherishing of the historical past takes the form of a mere antiquarianism, within which the task of understanding the past philosopher simply comes to this: seeking to attribute to the philosopher only those things that we can know that he would be prepared to attribute to himself. This yields a conception of the philosophical past that has no obvious bearing on the philosophical present, and so again it isn’t really a conception of inheritance. It is really simply a form of preservation, a way of making a kind of intellectual museum of the philosophical past in which we embalm the corpses of the dead philosophers we venerate most.

I am not denying that good philosophical work has resulted from both of these ways of approaching past philosophers. But I myself think it would be a pity if those were the only two models we had of how the philosophical present can relate to the past. Your question was about philosophical inheritance of the past. And I think that what that requires is that an aspect of each of the two attitudes I described above is retained, but transformed in such a way that it is no longer incompatible with the important aspect of the other. The first view makes much of the idea that the philosophical past has a bearing on the conversation of the present; that we want to learn from the philosophers of the past, not simply memorialize them. I do think that in order to do that we have to try to think with them, using our contemporary tools, and that means that we have to have a critical attitude. We have to ask: “What is powerful in their view and what isn’t?”; and: “What is living and what isn’t?” We can’t simply have the attitude of the preservationist, there has to be a critical edge. There has to be ways in which we can outgrow them. But, on the other hand, I do think doing this well involves cultivating some of the tools of the historian. It involves some sense of fidelity to their thought.

Forsberg: But the hard question is, I take it, what fidelity is supposed to mean here.

Conant: “Fidelity to their thought” means having some conception of where they differ from you, and why, and not just being concerned to read your views into them where you can and dismissing the rest. One of the main ways in which we can often learn from the philosophers of the past is by appreciating them for being different, seeing them as philosophically strange, seeing them as not taking our assumptions for granted. They can allow us to familiarize ourselves with a very different philosophical landscape from our own. This means features of our own landscape can come into view for us as salient – features that might otherwise remain invisible to us. This can allow us to see at least what is parochial, and perhaps even questionable, in the assumptions that we make in contemporary philosophy. It allows us to see them at the very least as philosophically optional.

But this cannot happen if our only interest in reading past philosophers is one of wanting to mine them for things that we would like to say anyway. Only if we are able to measure our difference from them can we encounter them as philosophically alien. And only then can we learn from them the most important lessons they have to teach us.

What this requires is a different sort of a relation to a philosopher of the past than either the merely opportunistic or the merely antiquarian one. It requires a relation which is neither one of taking only what one can already use, nor one of trying to understand him or her merely for the sake of historical accuracy with no bearing on the philosophical present. It requires a complicated form of alternating movement. One must be equally capable of appreciating the pressing problems of the philosophical present and of appreciating what the past philosopher considers philosophically pressing and urgent in his way and for his purposes. And, finally, one must be capable of seeing how each of these forms of appreciation can bear on the other. Doing that, I think, involves something that Kant called “trying to understand the philosopher better than he understood himself”. So one is not just doing what the historian is doing, telling us what the dead man thought. But one is also not just ignoring what he actually thought in trying to say instead what we ought to think now. One is trying to say what the past philosopher’s own philosophy, if fully thought through, strictly, to its own end, would commit even him to. And that can lead to something which, if properly held in thought, possesses the potential to transform philosophy, as we now know it, in unforeseeable ways. This idea of “thinking through a philosophy to its own internal conclusions” is something that I have described, borrowing a turn of phrase that comes up in secondary literature on Wittgenstein, as a resolute reading. Giving a “resolute reading” does involve a principle of fidelity. One is trying to understand the past philosopher’s thought from the inside, but not necessarily in such a way that everything one ends up ascribing to him is something that he would have ascribed to himself at the time of writing. The fantasy, I guess, underlying such a reading is this: If one could have a philosophical conversation with the past philosopher, and bring him to see what his own deepest philosophical commitments obligate him to, he would come to see things in the way one is seeking to bring out in one’s reading of him.

I think that something like that way of relating to a philosopher – trying to understand the thinker better than he understood himself – is the fundamental mechanism of philosophical progress in the history of philosophy. It characterizes relationships otherwise in their details as different from one another as those involved in Aristotle’s relation to Plato, Spinoza’s relation to Descartes, Hegel’s relation to Kant, Heidegger’s relation to Husserl, early Wittgenstein’s relation to Frege, or John McDowell’s relation to Sellars, just to take a few not so recent and a few more recent examples of the way in which philosophy comes to grow by one thinker engaging with the thought of another in the aforementioned kind of way.

Forsberg: You talked about this as a “principle of resolute reading” – the reading in which you try to reach beyond saying merely the things the philosopher would attribute to himself…

Conant: One is trying to put things in a way that the philosopher would not immediately recognize as a description of what he thinks but nevertheless a way that he could come to see as nonetheless something that he does (already, in some sense) think, and in such a way that it illuminates what is most fruitful, as well as what is most problematic, in his entire philosophy. To achieve this end it can no longer be mere paraphrase or exposition that we offer of the philosopher’s thought. It involves thinking with the philosopher, not just repeating what he thought. So, the interpretive task is at one and the same time a philosophical task. If I had to say what connects my work on thinkers as different from one another as Kant, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Frege, and Wittgenstein, I would say that it is this: in each case what is involved is an attempt to read these philosophers in the manner I have just sought to characterize. This is a kind of unity in my work which lies in a place where I think most people have not looked for it, but I think it serves to bring out underlying affinities among the very different things I do.


James Conant is the Chester D. Tripp Professor of the Humanities, Professor of Philosophy, and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, as well as co-director of the Leipzig Center for German Idealism. He has published numerous articles and several books in a variety of languages, on topics in philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, aesthetics, and the history of analytic philosophy, as well as on the interpretation of Kant, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein. He is currently working on four book-projects concerning skepticism; the resolute reading of Wittgenstein; the aesthetics of film; and the interpretation of philosophical texts. He has been a Fellow of the Michigan Society of Fellows, the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, and the Lichtenberg-Kolleg in Göttingen. In 2013, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation awarded him the Anneliese Meier prize for research.

James Conant is member of the International Advisory Board of the Wittgenstein Initiative.

Niklas Forsberg is a researcher/lecturer at the Department of Philosophy, Uppsala University. He is the author of Language Lost and Found: On Iris Murdoch and the Limits of Philosophical Discourse (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013) and Co-editor of Language, Ethics and Animal Life: Wittgenstein and Beyond (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012) and Making a Difference: Rethinking Humanism and the Humanities (Stockholm: Thales, 2011). He has previously written on Wittgenstein, Cavell, Murdoch, Austin and Derrida.

The interview took place at the Department of Philosophy, University of Chicago, May 16, 2012.
*Part 2 is forthcoming in Summer 2016
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Paris, November 13-14, 2015


The horrible events last week in Paris force a lot of hard thoughts upon us. In the first instance the very possibility that the fanatics could pull off a coordinated set of terrorist attacks in the heart of the French capital that in sum add up to the greatest act of violence that Paris has seen since the end of World War II have to force a chill down our spines. In the light of the shockingly nightmarish quality of these events we cannot but shudder for fears about security in the face of fanaticism and violence in Europe today. If such things can happen there, they can happen more or less anyplace in Europe.

So there is a rush to call a state of emergency, close boarders and initiate police action of all sort to protect ourselves. No doubt what happened in Paris will be fuel to the fires of right-wing nationalist anti-Europeans who are sure to exploit our weakness in the face of terrorism to the utmost. They rub their hands with glee at the prospect of a European Union weakened to the point of exhaustion from which they can take their leave with ease. It remains to be seen to what extent this anticipated scenario will play itself out in the coming months and years. We shall have to wait and see, just as we shall have to wait and see to discover just what actually lies behind these deplorable attacks in all its complexity.

To the extent that these deplorable actions were carried out by Frenchmen, they are a totally distressing index of the failure of European political values. To become a suicide commando in one’s own society is to give up hope in yourself and your society. You have to believe that life as we live it is not worth living. No established religion believes anything like that. The hardest question we have to face is: what drives young people so far? The answer is disquieting. It seems to be the case that the pluralism that we preach does not correspond to social practice. Our vision of a common life is an illusion to certain vulnerable types of person, our political institutions something foreign and oppressive. Wealth and privilege separate the haves from the have-nots in ways that we have not seen since the early Industrial Revolution. Add to that poverty the ethnic and religious isolation in the banlieus and similar ghetto-like quarters of our cities and you end up with an explosive mixture. Terrorists’ alienation from our society is itself a phenomenon as complex as that society and it fact an aspect of its bad conscience. The values we live by tolerate what is in fact intolerable: a gap between grandiose social promise without an inkling of performance in the eyes of the alienated. A century ago G. K. Chesterton somewhat glibly asserted that the world was not tired of justice but tired of waiting for it. Little did he know what that fatigue could produce. In fact, this is nothing new in our culture. Two generations ago we were confronted with politically-motivated terrorists such as the Red Brigades; whereas a generation ago we experienced a less violent but similar psycho-social phenomenon in the middle classes as disaffected children grasped at the straws extended to them by sects that spoke in the name of religion but could scarcely be recognized as such. With the wisdom of hindsight we can see that this was the farce that is now followed by genuine tragedy, a tragedy of our own making.

Here it should be reiterated that this is not all that so-called Islamic terrorism represents but it is an aspect of the problematic nature of our very society and its crisis of values.

So, what should we do? Lots – even if we cannot do much to change people who are already alienated. There is no question that we must be resolved across Europe to hunt down people who hate our society to the point of slaughtering helpless innocent people as ruthlessly as they attack us. There is a certain amount of truth that we are at war with them (but it is wise to point out that speaking of such a conflict as “war” distortingly dignifies a cowardly enemy). The point of waging war is to win. But anti-terrorism cannot mean simply wiping out the enemy in this case; for, if any of what has been said here up to now is true, the enemy is in a way part of us. Furthermore, that enemy is so alienated that (s)he cannot talk, as the experience of French authorities with incarcerate terrorists indicates. We need a new kind of policing to deal with such an enemy but we also need something akin to missionary activity aiming a re-converting the potentially alienated to western values. Missionary activity is as tedious as it is heroic but how else can we win back the defectors from our society. So we need to find our ways into the banlieus and, above all, the prisons where fanaticism can grow and flourish. Changing the material conditions under which alienation grows with have to be essential. Prisons are an especially important place to begin because they have a way of becoming “universities for crime” as the great Italian prison reformer Cesare Lombroso said a century ago. Sadly that remains the case as students of the spread of ideological pseudo-Islamism indicate. Success implies close co-operation with wise, enlightened Muslims who can be a bridge to their alienated brethren. Like successful missionaries we need to work from within a foreign, hostile culture to transform it from within. First and foremost, we have to convince people, especially those not yet entirely alienated but in danger of being swallowed up in a pseudo-religious ideology of hate, that our form of life is indeed worth living. The challenge is enormous as it is inescapable. Above all, the measure of success is what we do, not what we say, which makes it all the greater for European politics today.