Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Death of Philosophers

Since we've been thinking about the end of philosophy (and the end of the university), it might be appropriate to note a book about the end of philosophers: Simon Critchley's The Book of Dead Philosophers--a compendium of the deaths (and lives) of 190 philosophers, from the Pre-Socratics to relative contemporaries like Jacques Derrida and Dominique Janicaud.

It's one of those books that just about any adequate philosopher could pull off, given the concept--any philosopher, that is, with a year off at the Getty, granting the leisure to browse Wikipedia and an array of philosophical biographies. There's nothing particularly profound or brilliant about Critchley's execution of the concept. And given that it's appearing from Vintage, I was expecting some kind of literary heft, some sort of creative punch. But that never materialized. Indeed, I think the book is a bit like a Will Ferrell movie: the trailer is much better than the movie. In this case, the book's project (and dark humor) is better appreciated in the brief visual distillation that appeared in the February issue of The Believer.

And yet we have the book. So I suppose, in addition to the concept and the leisure to do a bunch of legwork, you'd need a third element: to be a philosopher in Manhattan who cleary has friends in New York literary circles.

That said, it is also undeniably just the sort of book that you can't put down: the plethora of brief entries grants immediate satisfaction. Curious little tidbits show up on each page in an easy-to-digest format. I don't deny that Critchley has done his homework, and I could see this book making for entertaining reading in an Intro to Philosophy class. But when Critchley does get down to being somewhat philosophical, I find he is a bit sloppy. His rejection of Christian conceptions of death (and afterlife), for instance, are simplistic, naive, and rejected with such animated disdain that methinks he doth protest too much. Or consider his plea at the end of the book for a recovery of "creatureliness"--though he wants "a less theistic variant of this thought," which simply amounts to saying "human existence is limited." Well, first, I'm not sure what "less" theistic could mean. Is there a sliding scale of "theistic-ness?" Is there a similar one for pregancy? Second, why invoke the theological capital loaded in the term "creatureliness" if all you're after is "limits?" Is that the best Critchley's non-theistic imagination can come up with? If you don't want the theology, then get your own lexicon. Otherwise, own up to the fact that you're living on borrowed capital.

Finally, while I have no interest in stoking the fires of animosity between "analytic" and "continental" philosophy, I do find myself sympathetic to a diagnosis and claim that Critchley offers near the end of the book, in an entry on A.J. Ayer:

When one considers influential analytic philosophers like Quine, Donald Davidson or John Rawls, it is clear that they led wonderfully successful and influential professional lives and died in an undramatic manner which has absolutely no bearing on their philosophical views. By contrast, if one considers Continental philosophers like Arendt, Foucault or Derrida, it's not so much the case that they led more complex and interesting lives and had more dramatic deaths, but rather that the line between philosophy and life is much harder to draw.

I often--at least lately--find myself disenchanted with my "profession," which tends to reduce philosophy to puzzle-solving. Then--even worse--it convinces some of our best and brightest that philosophy is puzzle-solving, a game we play which has little bearing on either wisdom or a way of life. As a result, "serious" students of philosophy retreat into narrow logical enclaves to parse the Getttier problem and then pride themselves on their syllogisms.

So I find myself sympathetic when Critchley writes:
The idea that philosophy is something transformative or disruptive of a self is...a commonplace in and after antiquity. To this extent, sentences of death, exile or punishment imposed on philosophers seem to respond to a deep need that philosophy and life should fit together, but that its transformative power can come at the cost of one's life. To this extent, Alasdair MacIntyre is surely justified when he writes, "Imprisoning philosophy within the professionalizations and specializations of an institutionalized curriculum, after the manner of our contemporary European and North American culture, is arguably a good deal more effective in neutralizing its effects than either religious censorship or political terror." The effect of the professionalization of philosophy is the sense that it does not and should not matter to the conduct of one's life.

While teaching Plato's Apology this semester--which recounts Socrates' (unsuccessful) defense of his vocation--I was uncomfortably reminded that nobody is going to be executed for improperly exegeting Husserl's Krisis texts or for failures in modal logic. Despite my quibbles with Critchley's book, it has got me thinking that any philosophy worth pursuing should be one worth dying for--and that should be especially true of that scandalous notion of a Christian philosophy, a cruciform philosophy for which martyrdom should, ironically, "make sense."