“People always talk about Nietzsche’s childhood, about how ideas like the death of God can be explained away by the fact that his father and grandfather were ministers,” a young philosophy professor told me not long ago, “but they only do that to Nietzsche, never to someone like Hume or Kant.” As a Nietzschean, he found this frustrating, and he continued by asking why it was his guy always being treated as if his ideas weren’t propositions that could be true or false, but symptoms of some psychological condition. Surely, he argued, this said something unpleasant about the people willing to treat Nietzsche this way.
I found the comment fascinating, but it took me a while to understand why. Eventually, I concluded that two things had struck me as odd. Firstly, there was the emphasis on interpretation being correct or incorrect. I expect this sort of thing from people in the Anglo-American philosophical tradition, but I was surprised to hear it from someone specializing in continental philosophy. I’d always taken John Stuart Mill’s distinction between the kinds of questions asked by Bentham and Coleridge as a good way of distinguishing between the English-language tradition and the continentals (Coleridge was educated in philosophy in Germany, and was among the leading English continental-style thinkers of his generation, though, to steal a phrase from Mill, his prominence in that field was due in large part to the flatness of the surrounding terrain). Bentham, said Mill, was interested in whether a text was or was not true; given the same thing to look at, Coleridge was interested in what the thing meant. If we get a bit anachronistic, we might explain Mill’s Bentham/Coleridge distinction this way: confronted with Darwin’s theory of evolution, Bentham would want to know if that’s how things really worked, but Coleridge would want to know what it meant to think of life in terms of evolution. Bentham’s way of thinking would take you in the direction of verification and falsifiability. Coleridge’s way of thinking would take you in the direction of significance and, I suppose, cultural impact. Both paths can take you to interesting places.
Anyway. This second, Coleridgean way of looking at things allows for much greater latitude of significance, beyond the binary of true/not true, and I’d naively assumed that people emerging from a training in continental philosophy would be in sympathy with it. But it seems I may have been wrong: perhaps American philosophy departments are an interpretive community more in line with Bentham’s norms, and we in the English departments are the interpretive community with Coleridgean norms of understanding.
Just as surprising to me was my colleague’s notion that a biographical or psychological explanation didn’t so much explain as explain away, a distinction I’ve never really been comfortable with. I suppose the idea of the explaining away of something entails that the proffered explanation is somehow total, that it accounts for everything that needs to be accounted for, and therefore one needn’t trouble oneself with any further questions. “Why did Nietzsche claim God was dead? To tick off his preacher daddy. Next question!” That would, indeed, be an irksome attitude to encounter. But I’ve known a few biographers, and I don’t think they see their task as being to reduce their subject’s works to symptoms of certain biographical events or psychological trauma. Indeed, I think they see their work as adding a dimension to how we interpret writings, rather than as taking dimensions away.
My guess is that it’s the tendency toward Bentham’s, rather than Coleridge’s, way of interpreting texts that makes so many philosophers wary of looking to the life of a philosopher. Even Ray Monk, who wrote a splendid biography of Wittgenstein, expresses a great deal of caution about the biographies of philosophers. “Can knowing the facts of a philosopher’s life, or gaining an insight into his or her personality, somehow shed light on their work?” he asks in a recent issue of The Philosopher’s Magazine, “I think it can,” he continues, “but, in spelling out how, one has to be very careful, for otherwise one risks allying oneself with some pretty crass points of view.” And what are these crass points of view? Monk cribs some terms from James Conant, “reductivism” and “compartmentalism.” The reductivist, in this view, is the explainer-away of things, the guy who thinks that once we know enough about a philosopher’s life, we’ll be able to (in Conant’s words) “see why he wrote what he did and thereby discover the real meaning of his work.” In contrast, compartmentalists believe that the facts of a philosopher’s life have nothing whatsoever to do with the correct understanding of his work. For both reductionists and compartmentalists, there seems to be a tendency to want to reduce the pertinent frames of reference for a work, to see it as either only conditioned by the life, or as a set of contextless propositions with no connection to the life. This is not how we read in English departments, not lately: we tend to look for a plurality of significances, some contextual, others not. Which is not to say that we don’t come up with some loopy and imbecilic readings. I mean, the price of our kind of freedom is an eternal lack of vigilance.
Conant himself advocates another path beyond that of the reductionist or the compartmentalist: he says we can turn to the lives of philosophers in order to avoid certain misunderstandings of their work. One thinks, for example, of Ray Monk’s Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, which argues that the logical positivist take on Wittgenstein is misguided, and that his life (as opposed to his published texts) proves the case. Long story short, many positivists have interpreted the last statement in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent” as meaning that mysticism is empty. Monk points to Wittgenstein’s statements to his friends to support the view that Wittgenstein meant something quite different: that mysticism and the holy were real and powerful, but were beyond our capacity to voice, and that any attempt to paraphrase the ineffable was doomed to fall so short as to constitute a lie. On the one hand, I find this quite convincing. On the other hand, I find the whole debate that runs “he meant this,” “no, he meant that” sort of naïve. Haven’t we learned enough from Freud (and, for that matter, from Marx, from Jung, from Lacan, from Surrealism, from…) to see that what we think we’re saying is only the small, visible part of a much bigger iceberg of meaning?
Biography, of course, is not an art limited to the recording of someone’s off-the-record statements, and one of the great things it can accomplish is to give a sense of the concrete situation out of which an idea or set of ideas emerge. This needn’t be the absolute limit to the significance or meaning of those ideas, but it can provide a sense of the problems initially being addressed: both (the great) Karl Popper’s theories of tolerance in The Open Society and its Enemies and (the odious) Leo Strauss’ sense that liberalism paves the way to nihilism and eventually to fascism take on more significance when we note how they were written by men whose lives were scarred by the Holocaust.
Or consider Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and the concept of identity and difference. Deleuze argued that we have traditionally considered difference to be something that derives from, or comes after, identity: things have essential identities in themselves, and we compare them and note how they are unalike. This isn’t really the case, though: for Deleuze, identity is constituted by difference: something is what it is because it differs from one thing in one way, from another thing in another way, and so on: identity is negatively defined, not something with an unchanging essence. If you read François Dosse’s excellent, exhaustive dual biography Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari: Biographie croisée, you see why the mild-mannered Deleuze hit it off with the extraverted, manic Guattari so well: the kind of thing Deleuze had been theorizing was a conceptual version of something Guattari had been putting into practice at the experimental LaBorde clinic, where he was revolutionizing French mental health care. The French had been treating mental health problems fairly crudely, more or less keeping patients locked up in isolation. Guattari felt that this only allowed mental health problems to continue. Instead, he put patients into constantly shifting group environments, and into different roles, having them perform many tasks at the clinic (the same went for the medical staff, who would rotate into dishwashing or social group leadership roles or whatever). The notion was that these patients didn’t have a set identity as ill people, but that they were who they were in relation to others, and that their identity would be different if they were in different groups. It’s not just that you’d be person X wherever you were. You’d be defined by your relation to those around you, and the differences constituted your (contingent, changeable) identity. Deleuze took to this immediately, and together Deleuze and Guattari developed, from this notion of difference, the concept of identity as a desiring machine connecting to other desiring machines. Much later, when Deleuze is interviewed by Claire Parnet, he insists that the resulting text isn’t the product of his own contextless intellect: it is the product of what he is when he is connected to Claire Parnet: hence he says the author of the book of interviews is Deleuzeparnet (something the publishers did not honor, by the way). This is clearly something with connections, and to a degree roots, in Guattari’s clinical practice.
But why is the biographical information about what Guattari did at LaBorde important? My historian pal LeMahieu put it better than I could when the question came up at lunch a while back. “So,” he said, “it’s an example of that French philosophical tradition, where they take something concrete and specific and convert it into something as abstract as possible.” He’s right, I think, and right in a way that shows us both the strength and weakness of the continental tradition in philosophy.