Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Dead Philosophers and Public Philosophers

The Radio 4 programme Start the Week had a philosophical representaiton in its 9th June edition with Simon Critchely talking about his new book which is a catalogue of the weird and wonderful ends that philosophers have met over the last three thousand years. Also Kate Soper discusses the role of the philosopher and philosophy in public life both in the UK and on the continent. Worth a listen!


  1. The point of Simon Critchley’s book is to establish a link between the philosopher's enquiry into ‘how to die’ as the crux of philosophy, leading to what a philosopher’s death may teach us. Is it just me or are these two things completely unrelated? I do not see a logical conclusion from the premise that philosophy is about learning how to die and learning from philosophers' deaths. Let’s try the ‘All men are mortal, Socrates is a man’ formula:
    1. Philosophy is to learn how to die
    2. Philosophers study how to die
    Leading to the conclusion that Simon Critchley bases his book:
    3. A Philosopher’s death teaches us something about Philosophy
    - I wouldn’t even say that Premise 1 is correct – I am repeating it verbatim from the radio program which presumably is repeating it from the book. I don’t think this book is philosophical at all. In a generous mood I would say that it uncovers the talkative pulp of irony, fitting for tea-time, idle tongue-wagging in ‘cultured’ sitting rooms in the Parades or Circles of regency towns - and has diminished 3000 years of philosophers’ lives for celebrity chattel. Critchley has managed to reduce Death and Humour to the template of magazine pop culture grafted for the purpose of tidy sitting room coffee tables. It may be an idiosyncratic point in Rousseau’s life that he received an ecstatic experience due to a collision with a Great Dane; but, being fanciful enough to claim that this blow caused his death ‘a couple of years later’ (Critchley), seems wildly enthusiastic. Critchley mentions the uncanny coincidence of Derrida and his father dying from the same disease, pancreatic cancer, but he is silent about Derrida’s book about Death. What is ‘weird’ about a father and son sharing the same disease? I do think it IS ironic that after Critchley has a say, Kate Soper comes in with the (dubious) role of the philosopher and philosophy in public life tracing differences between England and France in each country's embrace of its philosophers. What worries me is that books like Critchley’s will become synonymous with philosophy and ‘its public image’, aimed at pacifying the masses with vain prattle, instead of creating the voltage necessary to vault the masses from its skin. The role of the philosopher is not nodding and throaty agreements behind a public microphone. It is an attempt to uncover and re-focus perspective; and, if this leads to an early, peculiar death, than a philosopher’s death, like anybody else’s, remains in the realm of the unknown.

  2. As I happened to buy the book (on the Sunday before the programme) on pure speculation, I was going to try to defend it against Shelley's criticisms. But having just had a brief flick through it, I can't.
    It isn't a philosophical book nor even a book on philosophy. It is simply a collection of biographical footnotes about the deaths of people that have thought or written about philosophical problems.
    I agree with Shelley's criticism of the fallacy of equating philosophical questions about death with the anecdotes of individuals' deaths, but if I could defend it at all, it would be to try to take a Wittgenstenian approach and to say that perhaps simply by (re)arranging what we already have, we will see the solution (or rather, resolution) in front of us. In other words, the very act of reading about death, may encourage those who do not naturally ask philosophical questions, to be confronted with such questions.
    Perhaps this is being too sympathetic to Critchley, and as I've still to read the book, I'll reserve further comment until later.