PHILOSOPHICAL BIOGRAPHY – the Very Idea
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.