Saturday, 24 November 2012

The Lives of Philosophers

So, there is a new biography of Derrida, reviewed in theLRB. I was reflecting on why I have little interest in reading this, or indeed any biographies of philosophers, including those I’m more familiar with (such as Deleuze).

We read that Derrida is rejected by his son and in his work there are reflections on paternity; that his work is ‘obsessed’ by the concept of secrecy and he had a ‘secret’ mistress. And so on. Of course, being rejected by your son might well be an enabling condition of reflecting on paternity, it might be the ‘shock’ that thought needs. But the ensuing reflections also have their intelligibility within themselves. The suggestion with biographies, and with their reviewers, is too often that the philosophical reflections help to somehow repair, prolong, compensate or ‘deal with’ the biographical fact. That is, the biographical approach tends towards psychologism. The intelligibility of the ideas resides outside the texts, outside the movement of words and concepts. These are attempts to ‘earth’ the philosophy, to bisect the line of thought with a biographical line.
Most of these attempts to ‘earth’ the philosophy work only by suggestion or insinuation. In the LRB review we get formulations such as:

But in his last two decades, he began to evolve into a different sort of thinker, a globally attuned ethicist, as if in response to the charges made by his adversaries.
He began to write more explicitly about his Algerian-Jewish roots, as if he wanted the world to know who he was after years of hiding from view.

Alongside the implication that philosophy is grounded in the life is of course frequently the reverse implication that the ideas are at variance with the life. This from a review of a Deleuze biography:

For someone who frowned on la vie d’intérieur, Deleuze led a life of unruffled domesticity, and rarely strayed far from the home he shared with his wife and two children.

Now the philosophical critique of interiority clearly has nothing to do with the amount of time one spends in one’s flat. But this is something other than a simple misunderstanding. The subtext is ‘the ideas don’t translate into practice, they are empty talk’. And this subtext in turn seems to repose on a certain received image of the philosopher or thinker as someone removed from even his own reality. At the same time, the critique of inner life is, by implication read as an ‘antidote’ to the enforced confinement of the philosopher due to illness. 

Indeed, behind the biography seem to stand a number of all too familiar personae: the unhappy philosopher, trying to repair personal failings; the idealist philosopher immured in a world of thought that has no bearing on life, his thought often hypocritically at variance with practice. It is these familiar personae that seem to be, time and again, the re-appearing subjects of philosophical biography.

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