On Philosophers and their Lives

“What was Aristotle’s life?’ Well, the answer lay in a single sentence: ‘He was born, he thought, he died.’ And all the rest is pure anecdote”

This is how Heidegger introduced a lecture on Aristotle. This is conventional wisdom among philosophers. The life of the philosopher has little to do with his or her work. It is ironic that this quote comes from Heidegger, whose affiliations with Nazism and anti-Semitism have forced a reassessment of this conventional wisdom.

The assumption behind the view  articulated by Heidegger is that philosophical thinking does not emerge from an historical context but instead inhabits a timeless realm in which the messiness of life can be cordoned off so as not to infect the pure concept with its immaculate logic. The thought that such an immaculate logic might not have much relevance to ordinary life seems never to have occurred to the proponents of this view.

In the history of philosophy, only Nietzsche vociferously defended the opposing position:

Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir; also that the moral (or immoral) intentions in every philosophy constituted the real germ of life from which the whole plant has grown. (Beyond Good and Evil)

Yet, even many of Nietzsche’s admirers have not followed him on this, especially after the “death of the author” was declared by Foucault and others in the mid-20th century. According to this strain of thought, the author does not precede the text but is born anew with it and indeed with every reading of it. To impose a limit on the text by linking its meaning to the author’s life shuts down interpretation and the proliferation of meanings the text is capable of bearing.

I don’t want to suggest that one can simply read off from an author’s life some facet of her work. Matters are surely more complex than that. Nevertheless it strains credulity to assume thought is not rooted in experience.

An individual author is more than a collection of intentions or ideas. An individual is a conduit through which influences pass—words, relationships, objects, events large and small which affect and are affected by desires and taboos. The individual author doesn’t make all this function. Neither is she a storehouse where the residuum is gathered and doled out in paragraphs.

An author is more like a radio receiver and amplifier taking signals that stream through the atmosphere and modulating them with impulse and motive as they pass rendering them more or less intelligible as the case may be. These modulations are impossible to trace. They leave behind only opaque sentences awaiting some new receiver and amplifier to make them still more or less intelligible. They are events assembled under the name of author but with origins hidden beneath a mask of language, contingency and chance.

But the fact they cannot be traced does not mean they have no influence.

Published by Dwight Furrow

Wine, food, and travel writing, philosophy, aesthetics

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