Biographies offer a fresh view of philosophers
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, June 8, 2002)

If a German philosopher dons a Nazi uniform in 1933 and endorses Hitler, you have to be extremely subtle, or extremely stupid, to conclude that this event sheds no light on his ideas. And if the same philosopher has an adulterous love affair with a Jewish student, then you must be either exceptionally high-minded or totally unconscious in order to argue that their relationship should not interest people who study his work, or hers.

Nevertheless, philosophy teachers argued during much of the 20th century that the lives of philosophers had no bearing on what they thought. At the same time, professors of English agreed that poetry should be studied without reference to the lives of poets. For most of a century, scholars in the humanities believed that we can best understand the world if we segregate information in strict compartments. Academe adored specialization. It opposed "the biographical fallacy."

Martin Heidegger, the philosopher in the Nazi uniform, considered biographies of thinkers pointless. Hannah Arendt, his student and lover, resented any discussion of her mentor's politics, because it drew attention away from his Plato-class philosophy.

But if philosophers discuss how humanity should live, then their lives will naturally interest us. To deny that reality, as George Orwell said in another context, you have to be a member of the intelligentsia, because "no ordinary man could be such a fool." But the connection between thinkers and their thoughts has been discussed only recently in the philosophy departments, and usually with reluctance. Many professors cling to a priggish belief that thought is pure and life is messy. Others just lack curiosity.

And then there are times when an aversion to biography becomes a way to avoid hideous embarrassment. Heidegger's academic admirers, most of them leftish, have had the damnedest time accepting that he was (as Hugo Ott makes clear in Martin Heidegger: A Political Life) not only a Nazi in the 1930s but a defender of Nazi principles until his last unrepentant breath in 1976. Books detailing his relationship to the Nazis are routinely described by Heideggerians as vicious, sensationalist and (worst of all) irrelevant.

But the tendency to ignore biographical evidence may finally be reversing itself. An article by Danny Postel in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week notes that serious biographies of philosophers have been appearing at an unprecedented rate -- more than 30 since 1982, and 20 of those in the last decade. He suggests that the universities may be going through a transition, a "biographical turn." Perhaps the high quality of the best biographies has simply drowned out professorial objections. They can be hard to ignore. Biography may well be the only art form that has developed to a higher level in our time than in any earlier epoch.

James Miller's The Passion of Michel Foucault caused a particular scandal. Foucault taught a generation to look at democracy, liberalism and even knowledge itself with suspicion and contempt. He made power and domination his major theme. All human relations became, in his thinking, power relations. Mr. Miller's book made the connection between Foucault's writing and his sadomasochism, which he liked to express in gay bathhouses. When the AIDS era began he decided not to alter his behaviour; AIDS killed him in 1984.

Would Foucault have wanted that story told? He argued that all ideas emerged from social relations and regimes of power, yet discouraged interest in his own life. His admirers denounced Mr. Miller for (as Danny Postel says) undercutting the great man's legacy with "salacious details of his sex life."

Increasingly, we also understand Canadian philosophers through their lives. George Grant grows more interesting when William Christian, in George Grant: A Biography, explains that though Grant combined his hatred of modern civilization with his hatred of the Liberal Party (in Lament for a Nation), he emerged from the Liberal world (his "Uncle Vincent" was Vincent Massey, a Liberal titan). His struggle with what Canada called progress was enacted within his personality as well as in his writings. Last year, Ted Honderich, a Canadian who became Grote Professor at University College London, brought out his memoirs, Philosopher: A Kind of Life, in which he broke traditional barriers by emphasizing biographical material that would once have been considered inconsequential: a constricted childhood, university politics and sexual relations with students.

W.H. Auden decreed that no one should ever write his biography, usually adding some lordly nonsense about a poet's work being all that mattered. If someone asked Auden, as I once did, how he reconciled this with his own affection for gossip and his habit of enthusiastically reviewing biographical works on earlier writers, he replied that he didn't pretend to be consistent and why bring up such trivialities?

Biographers have set to work with enthusiasm on Auden, despite his instructions, and have dealt with that flagrant inconsistency along with all the others. Contradiction provides the energy in biography, as it often does in everyday existence. We may all dream of living a consistent life, but on examination our lives usually turn out to be crammed with dissonance, surprise, mystery.

Happily, a biography written with craft and insight reminds us that humans are not the stereotypes depicted in shallow journalism and bad movies. Life, including the life of the mind, should be as unpredictable as art -- and always turns out to be, when we take the time to notice.

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