Come to think of it, doing a philosophy degree at Tech was one of the smartest things I ever blundered into. I read ancient Greek philosophy – painstakingly, slowly – with Nick Smith, who probably knows more about Sokrates than anyone alive; I read Spinoza, Descartes, Leibniz, and bunches of medieval cosmology with Roger Ariew; I read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason – in the old-fashioned manner, a chapter or two at a time, turning in a precis of what I'd read on a weekly basis – with a now-deceased professor with the resonant name of Bill Williams.
I was on the Tech campus again late last week as part of our annual get-out-of-south-Florida-and-see-the-leaves vacation, and spent an extraordinarily pleasant couple of hours strolling the drillfield and the streets of Blacksburg with Tom Gardner, the man I consider my mentor in this business (greyer and perhaps a trifle balder, but otherwise absolutely unchanged from – well, we won't say how many years ago). And then a couple of days later, in the Barnes & Noble in Williamsburg, I came upon a collection edited by James Klagge, Wittgenstein: Biography and Philosophy (Cambridge, 2001).
Most of the essays in the book treat particular topics in Wittgenstein's life or particular cruxes in a biographical reading of LW's philosophy. The opening two pieces, however, struck me as especially fascinating: Ray Monk's "Philosophical Biography: The Very Idea" and James Conant's "Philosophy and Biography." I'm interested in them because biographies of philosophers are if anything even more marginalized within academic departments of philosophy than biographies of poets are within English departments, & there's a concomitant dearth of writing about the significance of biographical writing within the study of philosophy. (I admit that there's been a decent number of books about literary biography, but I'd argue that the really good ones can be counted on the fingers of one mangled hand.)
Monk is of course the author of the widely hailed Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (and a more controversial biography of Bertrand Russell), one of the few biographies of a philosopher I've read that made the figure come luminously alive for me. He draws wonderful parallels in his brief "Philosophical Biography" essay between the mode of biography – "showing" rather than "explaining" – and what Wittgenstein saw the task of philosophy to be. "The insights [biography] has to offer have to be shown rather than stated."
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. Yet, 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?"Ultimately, he argues, the use of philosophical biography lies less in the elucidating of particular cruxes in a thinker's thought than in the illustration or presentation of the overall "tone" of the thinker's intellectual achievement.
Conant, in a much more wordy (call it overtly "analytical") essay, says much the same thing:
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 relationship to the character of his thought as a whole.Conant is especially interested in thinking about the union of thought and life characteristic of early Greek philosophy (think Socrates, for instance), a union whose demise is lamented in Nietzsche & Kierkegaard (not to mention Thoreau) and which is oddly revived in Wittgenstein. (Is there, I wonder, a way of "living" poetry? Did, say, Jack Spicer make more of a "poem" of his life than Louis Zukofsky did?)
Both Monk and Conant quote a delicious anecdote from Stanley Cavell's autobiographical A Pitch of Philosophy, recalling his music theory class with Ernst Bloch at Berkeley:
[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, do not say to yourself that you are a musician. There are many honorable trades. Shoemaking, for example."