Genius and the Dutiful Life: Ray Monk's Wittgenstein and the Biography of the Philosopher as Sub-genre.(Critical Essay)

By Freadman, Richard | Biography, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Genius and the Dutiful Life: Ray Monk's Wittgenstein and the Biography of the Philosopher as Sub-genre.(Critical Essay)


Freadman, Richard, Biography


... to thine own self be true, 
And it must follow, as the night the day, 
Thou canst not then be false to any man. 
                                           Hamlet I. iii. 78-80 
 
One human being can be a complete enigma to another. 
      Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations IIxi, 223e 

THE BIOGRAPHY OF THE PHILOSOPHER AS SUB-GENRE

The later Wittgenstein often cautioned, indeed railed, against what he called "the craving for generality" (Monk, Wittgenstein 338)--a craving that in his view resulted in the formulation of theories instead of the requisite precise description of particulars. In this paper, one that pays particular attention to Ray Monk's biography of Wittgenstein, I don't seek to produce or to deploy anything amounting to a fully developed theory of biography, nor of the sub-genre about which I will be talking: the biography of the philosopher. However, I do want to set what I have to say about Monk's book in the context of a general account, not least because, with the exception of James Klagge's recent edited volume on Wittgenstein and biography, so little of a general kind has been written about this sub-genre. (1)

This is not to say of course that people don't come to biographies of philosophers with significant assumptions and expectations; it's rather that the assumptions and expectations in question tend to be heavily implicit. But implicit or not, these prior readerly dispositions will condition the kinds of readings that are made of such books, the sorts of judgments we make about them, and the registers of understanding we seek to derive from them.

So what sorts of assumptions and expectations do--or should--we bring to biographies of philosophers? Many readers' expectations of a biography of a philosopher will reflect their expectations of biography in general. They're likely to look for a memorable, deeply researched, and significant "portrait" of a biographical subject; a sense of how the life in question relates to and reflects its historical-cultural environment; insight into the "private" as well as the "public" dimensions of the life; an enriched--and perhaps revised-- understanding of the subject's deeds, work, importance; a rewarding and apposite sense of narrative design; and so on. Yet these assumptions and expectations inevitably reflect our own hermeneutic time and place, and even then they may be variable. James Conant draws a useful distinction between two current attitudes to biographies of philosophers: "reductivism," according to which the life of the philosopher "holds the secret to understanding the work of a philosopher"; and "compa rtmentalism," which sees an understanding of the philosopher's life as "irrelevant to an understanding of his work" (17). Conant is healthily skeptical of each of these mutually exclusive, categorical views, and his discussion is informed by the following cautionary observations:

(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. (23)

In view of this, Conant concludes that in writing and evaluating lives of philosophers, the life-work relation should be assessed on a "case-by-case basis" (39). It's important to note that these points are made from a position that is, as it were, internal to philosophy ("in contemporary philosophy"): the life-philosophy relation is seen as philosophers or philosophically trained readers might be likely to see it. But many readers of biographies of philosophers are not themselves philosophers, nor even philosophically literate. Their assumptions about the "relata" in question may owe relatively little to specific philosophical accounts of these matters. …

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