How was 2018 as a year for philosophy books?
It seems to me that philosophy publishing, taken in the broadest sense, is in a great place. There have been lots of really interesting, diverse books published. Obviously, I haven’t read every philosophy book that’s come out this year—this is a personal selection of the best books of those that I’ve read or known about.
Philosophy is one of the most interesting subjects you can study, particularly when it can be applied to your own life in some way. I’m not someone who believes that by reading philosophy you’ll automatically become a better person, or that your life will suddenly start going well. It might get worse. But perhaps more than any other academic subject, philosophy has direct connections with life.
“Perhaps more than any other academic subject, philosophy has direct connections with life.”
Recently there have been many books coming out which make those connections—whether with politics, with how people understand their own lives, or what they might do about things in their lives after reflecting on philosophy. Within the publishing world, it’s becoming very acceptable to make those connections. It’s philosophy coming out of the academy and looking outwards—rather than inwards, just writing articles and books about topics which have been discussed by other philosophers in universities. My selection reflects that.
Of the five I’ve chosen, there is a preponderance of books by women this year. This is really encouraging because within academia, philosophy is very male-biased, in terms of the percentage of female professors and so on. But there are many really interesting women philosophers writing about philosophy. It’s coincidental—it wasn’t that I was going out of my way to find them. These are the best books, in my view, and they happen to be written largely by women.
“These are the best books, in my view, and they happen to be written largely by women.”
I’ve got a broader conception of philosophy than some people. I’ve chosen books that are of general interest. They include a biography and a translation of a major work of philosophy. I’d also like to mention at the end a few books which could have made the list but didn’t. They’re also concerned with philosophical topics but are not mainstream contributions to philosophy.
In two of the books you’ve chosen—Aristotle’s Way by Edith Hall and Hiking with Nietzsche by John Kaag—the authors have taken a philosopher’s writings and applied those to their daily lives. But you’ve also chosen Down Girl by Kate Manne, where she’s taken something that’s in our daily lives—misogyny—and used philosophical tools to define and analyze it. As it’s perhaps the most academic in approach of the ones you’ve chosen, shall we begin with it?
Yes. Kate Manne’s book has been an amazing publishing success, to the extent that the publishers can’t keep up with the demand for it. There are frequent demands on Twitter of ‘Where can I get this book?’ and ‘Why isn’t it in the shops at the moment?’ This is in some ways surprising—not because the book isn’t great, it’s a really excellent book—but because it’s quite a difficult book.
It’s difficult in two senses. On one level, it’s intellectually quite difficult. Kate Manne is uncompromising in the way she addresses the problem of misogyny. She’s very precise about what she means by misogyny, and how to diagnose it in our society. She provides examples and meticulously works them out. That’s quite academic, and makes it a book that requires a certain level of energy to read. It’s not like a thriller—you can’t just sit down and let the momentum of plot and suspense take you through it.
But it’s difficult in another way, too, because it’s dealing with very visceral subject matter. For instance, it opens with quite a gruesome account of smothering, which is a method of attacking women that occurs frequently in the context of domestic violence. It’s very graphic in the details that it includes because, to make her points, she needs to show you what she’s talking about and not just describe matters in abstract terms. So the book is also emotionally difficult to read.
At the heart of the book is the argument that misogyny is a structural phenomenon. Manne isn’t concerned with going after individual misogynists so much as analyzing how misogyny functions within society. What’s been remarkable is that since she wrote the book, there have been so many high-profile #MeToo news stories. There was the Kavanaugh debacle with the surprise outcome: he was made into a Supreme Court judge, despite very credible testimony that he had been physically and sexually abusive to at least one woman in the past.
“Manne isn’t concerned with going after individual misogynists so much as analyzing how misogyny functions within society”
Kate Manne has been in great demand for writing editorial and opinion articles about what’s been going on, because she put her finger on this kind of dynamic that has been lurking beneath the surface but has come out very dramatically in the last year or so. One of the most remarkable feats of this book is how useful her concept of ‘himpathy’ has proved.
Can you explain what she means by misogyny?
I’ll try. In a sense, misogyny is not just about individual people consciously hating women. It’s more ideological. It’s about the way society is structured in forms that permit women to be shamed, attacked, ridiculed, demeaned, gaslit—because of certain social norms that are almost unacknowledged even today, in our supposedly liberated times. Though often completely unconscious, this misogyny is most obvious when a woman violates what she would describe as patriarchal expectations, and then is on the receiving end of, for example, various kinds of put-downs, snide comments, or worse.
Manne’s concept of ‘himpathy’ is a good example of misogyny contrasting the treatment of men and women. ‘Himpathy’ is the widespread phenomenon that when a man is accused of some kind of misdemeanour in relation to a woman, as has frequently happened with #MeToo outings, a very strong counter-reaction is visible. Many people start to feel sympathy for him as a victim. There’s a disproportionately strong sense of ‘That poor guy is just getting publicly shamed’, and so on—far beyond what might seem proportionate or reasonable. This notion of ‘himpathy’ is used by Manne to pinpoint that tendency and draw attention to it and in doing so, hopefully, shame people into not doing it, and focus more on the person who is the purported victim of the incident. Manne coined this name for the phenomenon, which is great, because it allows us to talk about it very easily. That concept is a minor part of the book, but it’s an incredibly powerful tool. I think there are other things in the book which will, in time, emerge in that same way.
It’s controversial in some ways as well, but this is a book which is timely and intellectually rigorous. It’s a book that will last as a serious contribution to philosophy, but is outward-facing because it’s talking about contemporary issues relevant way beyond the academic philosophy department.
So an important book on an important topic, but quite a tough read.
Yes, and that’s a kind of trigger warning as well, because if you’ve been a victim of physical violence, you might be a bit cautious about opening up this book on the commute to work. You ought to know that it has descriptions of real life cases that are disturbing to read.
Let’s go on to the second book on your list, Aristotle’s Way by Edith Hall, which is subtitled ‘How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life.’
Edith Hall is a classicist, and unlike many academic philosophers who write about Aristotle’s philosophy, she’s read the whole of Aristotle’s works. She’s read not only his philosophical writings, but also what he wrote about science and politics—all in the original language. So her take differs from a typical philosopher’s.
She is also a complete devotee of Aristotle, and has been for many years. She’s tried to live her life by Aristotle’s principles. She argues in the book that this has helped her and is something which should be taken seriously as a guide to how to live, which is what Aristotle intended. The point of moral philosophy for many ancient philosophers was not just to dispute the meaning of words, but positively to affect how people lived, and Aristotle was definitely in that game.
“She is also a complete devotee of Aristotle, and has been for many years. She’s tried to live her life by Aristotle’s principles.”
Oddly, within academic philosophy, Aristotle has been (as Edith would see it, and as I certainly do) hijacked by quite right-wing, conservative, Catholic (not in the open sense, but in the religious sense) thinkers. An extreme case would be the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe. She had certain Aristotelian elements in her thought, certainly. Her take on Aristotelian ethics—which is based on human nature and how human beings flourish—is that certain organs of the body are made for certain things. They have particular purposes, and so to use your sexual organs for anything but intrinsically procreative acts would be morally wrong. For her, that included oral sex, masturbation, and of course homosexuality. This is completely incongruous from a historical point of view, of course, and a bit ridiculous. But this was Anscombe taking Aristotelian arguments and applying them within a conservative Catholic framework.
Edith Hall is nothing like that. Her Aristotle is nothing like Anscombe’s version. Aristotle was a writer who was very much concerned with what will make a human life go well, and so she treats him as a source for good advice on just that: good advice on how to be human.
She writes, “Wherever you are in life, Aristotle’s ideas can make you happier.” How?
Firstly, it’s important to realize that for Aristotle, being happy is not about being in a blissful mental state. It’s about a certain kind of contentment over a life. ‘Eudaimonia’ is the Greek word that’s often used, because it doesn’t quite map onto our everyday sense of feeling happy. The word ‘flourishing’ is one translation of this. Just as plants flourish in a well-kept garden, human beings flourish if they organize their lives in ways that are consistent with their nature and avoid doing that which harms them.
For Aristotle, the main thing that makes a life go well is acting virtuously. A virtue is just a pattern of behaviour of a good kind. Each of the virtues lies between two extremes. Bravery, for instance, is one of his virtues. It lies between the extremes of foolhardiness—it’s not bravery if you jump in because you are completely oblivious to danger or don’t care about being harmed; that’s just stupidity—and cowardice, where you are too frightened to act. You recognize the fear and that’s appropriate but are too influenced by it, and unable to do the right thing.
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Bravery—the virtue, the disposition, the set of behaviors that we value highly in society, which we would want to try and achieve—lies between those two extremes. For Aristotle, bravery is recognizing the danger, but being able to overcome it sufficiently to, say, save a wounded comrade, or intervene on a train when somebody’s being racist. You recognize there is a risk involved, but you don’t sit there quietly out of cowardice, nor do you jump in between people and get punched in the face. You do something that is brave, but not foolhardy.
This is a really useful framework for thinking about what we value as morally good behaviour. But for Aristotle it’s not just about that. It’s that the morally good behaviour contributes to a worthwhile life. In other words, a flourishing life. It makes you not just a better person, but a more fulfilled person. Edith Hall is a strong advocate of this sort of behaviour, which is the result of instilling good habits in oneself or having them instilled early on by others.
Are these fixed virtues? Might we want to emphasize different ones today?
Aristotle certainly identified things which he thought were virtuous. It’s possible his list wasn’t complete, for sure, and that we would want to add to it.
But the other important thing about Aristotle—and this is something that Edith Hall brings out very strongly—is that he was a scientist. Or a proto-scientist, let’s say. He was concerned with the real world. This is in contrast with Plato, his predecessor (and Socrates, as far as we can tell), who were concerned with what they thought was the real world, but we would call the world of ‘Ideas’. Plato thought true reality was this abstract world of forms with a capital ‘F’, and everything about our everyday reality was an imperfect copy of the perfect version that exists in this world of Forms beyond our ordinary perception.
Aristotle stands in complete contrast to that. He was concerned with what actually occurs out there in the world. He effectively set up teams of researchers who worked with him to describe not just morals and political behaviour, but things like octopuses and how the tides work. Aristotle was a bit like Leonardo da Vinci, a real genius absolutely concerned with how things are, endlessly fascinated by the world.
“Aristotle was a bit like Leonardo da Vinci, a real genius absolutely concerned with how things are, endlessly fascinated by the world.”
That carries across to his thinking about how we should live. It all ties together very neatly. We are the kind of being that flourishes within certain sorts of natural frameworks. Also, he does all this without using God as the entity that judges you. It’s very much focused on the human being as part of the natural world, which sounds like a very modern, almost a post-Darwinian idea. So it’s very attractive.
The big problem is that most of Aristotle’s writings have come down to us in a really difficult form, from a literary point of view. He was certainly capable of writing beautifully (or so his contemporaries believed), but unlike the writings of Plato, which are polished dialogues, from Aristotle we have combinations of lecture notes and things that were designed to be given to students rather than the more literary versions. So, in some ways, it’s better to read somebody like Edith Hall singing the praises of Aristotle than to go back to the primary texts.
I was going to ask about that. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is one of our most frequently recommended books. Should we read it?
You should, if you’ve got the energy. But you shouldn’t expect it to be satisfying anything like the crafted Socratic dialogues by Plato, or Seneca’s letters. That’s just one of the things that happens with fragments and texts and the loss of manuscripts.
Last year, we recommended How to be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci as one of the best books of the year. It’s interesting that Aristotle’s Way is another book in that genre: going back to classical philosophy and renewing it for the present day. It’s a very interesting phenomenon and I’m sure we’re going to have more books along these lines in the future. We’ll have ‘Why you should be an Epicurean’, or maybe ‘Why you should be a Cynic’, which might be a bit subversive. It’s going to happen.
It’s a very interesting way to think about past philosophy. Philosophy isn’t a museum of dusty ideas; you can find ways in which philosophy can directly affect how you live. Particularly with classical philosophy, there’s a sense that many thinkers of those times were trying to put forward not just abstract theories, but guides to life.
“Philosophy isn’t a museum of dusty ideas; you can find ways in which philosophy can directly affect how you live.”
Aristotle stands in direct contrast to the Stoics. The Stoics thought you could be impervious to external circumstances, whereas Aristotle thought that whether you were rich or poor, for example, made a big difference to your chance of happiness. You need to have a certain minimal level of wealth before you can have a good chance of happiness. You have to have a certain degree of luck in what befalls you. Whereas for the Stoics, there’s a sense in which even if you suffer the most extreme tragedy—such as a child dying—you should be able to cope, because you’re resilient. You’ve trained yourself in Stoic methodology to be impervious to external events. Aristotle is not like that at all. He acknowledges that the truth about life is that there are things which happen to you which affect your capacity to be content and to have a worthwhile, fulfilling life.
Which is more realistic, I would say.
I agree. Certainly that’s Edith Hall’s line, too.
Next up you’ve chosen two books about Friedrich Nietzsche. Seems to be a big year for Nietzsche.
They’re two very different books, though they overlap in biographical detail. Both are very much driven by the life that Nietzsche led.
Let’s talk about the biography first, I Am Dynamite by Sue Prideaux. I didn’t know much about Nietzsche before reading it—I suppose I suspected connections with Nazism—but Prideaux paints a very positive portrait of him.
It’s certainly true that Nietzsche’s writings were used in the context of Nazism. That’s an interesting story—how his sister took control of his papers when he went mad and edited them in ways which made them much more amenable to use by Nazis. They were then circulated and read by Nazis, and much of his popularity in the 1930s came from that National Socialist readership.
Sue Prideaux is a biographer rather than a philosopher. She’s written two excellent biographies before: one of Strindberg and one of Munch, both of whom had some connection with Nietzsche’s ideas. As a biographer, she was immersed in that late nineteenth-century milieu and fascinated by it. When she turned to Nietzsche, she did what all good biographers do: go to the primary sources as much as possible.
There’s a huge amount of philosophical writing about Nietzsche. Because he’s such a fragmentary, often contradictory writer, just about every commentator has a different take on him. I don’t think there’s an orthodox interpretation of Nietzsche. There are overlapping ways of interpreting him, but everyone can find what they’re looking for somewhere amongst Nietzsche’s writings, which may have been, to some degree, deliberate.
“Because Nietzsche is such a fragmentary, often contradictory writer, just about every commentator has a different take on him.”
But Sue Prideaux’s book is not focused exclusively on his philosophy. It’s more a book about a man who was a philosopher—a very great philosopher, a very original thinker, a very stylish writer. He famously said, “The one thing needful: to give ‘style’ to one’s character.” That’s the governing principle of his writing and life—that you have a distinctive way of being who you are.
What I loved about this book is that it takes you right into Nietzsche’s life. This is particularly important with him because the life and the work are not so easily separable. With some philosophers, you can understand them and appreciate them without knowing much about them. You have to know when they lived but you don’t have to know too much detail. For Nietzsche, there’s a sense that his life is actually part of what he’s trying to do. A lot of his philosophy is about overcoming things and his life exemplifies that.
He was a very brilliant philological scholar—a student of classical languages—and made a professor at Basel while he was still very young for that prestigious appointment. But he was extremely ill from a relatively early age with blinding headaches, digestive problems, and problems with his eyes. He gave up his job and was basically a wandering scholar producing these extraordinary books which weren’t much read in his lifetime.
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They’re often very fragmentary. Nietzsche is a very famous aphorist. He writes these short, pithy comments, many of which are actually given as an appendix in Prideaux’s book, which is great. That was a direct reaction to not being able to sustain thought and writing because of his illness, his blinding headaches, and his failing eyesight. He just couldn’t sustain things, but he made that into a virtue, an affirmation of something rather than an obstacle.
This book isn’t a primer on Nietzsche’s philosophy. It’s a serious engagement with his life. I think the ideal would be to read it in combination with Nietzsche’s own books, but also with an overview or commentary. Michael Tanner’s Nietzsche: A Very Short Introduction is a good place to start: it’s literally a very short introduction to Nietzsche, an overview of one way of seeing him, written in a very accessible way.
But I Am Dynamite is excellent as an insight into just what kind of a man he was and what kind of life he led. We see pictures of this guy with a big moustache looking incredibly serious and forbidding, but what emerges from his letters—many of which are quoted in this biography—is that he’s got a sense of humour, he’s self-deprecatory sometimes, he’s got a sense of fun. It’s important to realize that it’s not all po-faced, that sometimes he’s pulling your leg. He has a poetic aspect, but he’s also got a kind of irony that, knowing more about his life and seeing him writing in this way, you can appreciate much more.
I would also add that I Am Dynamite is very readable. I kept reading and reading it, wanting to know what happened next. I was quite surprised by the extent to which his aphorisms have become part of our language (such as “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” which is such a cliché in the business world these days.) I didn’t know that was from Nietzsche. This book also makes clear that while he was friends with Wagner (who was very anti-Semitic), Nietzsche himself was not.
This is important because Nietzsche has often been characterized as an anti-Semite, and as a proto-Nazi. Prideaux is very clear about how, when publishing his writing under the title The Will to Power, Nietzsche’s sister self-consciously added parts, engaged in selective editing and so on, to create this ‘false Nietzsche’, as it were, that was for many years thought to be the real Nietzsche. These were supposedly his ideas, and they were dangerous ideas—not just because he was challenging religion and saying, ‘God is dead’ and that we have to reinvent morality, but also because he seemed to be advocating a kind of racial purity, a celebration of the great blond beast, an anti-Semitic story about the weakness of the Jews.
“We must still remember Nietzsche wasn’t an egalitarian. He wasn’t a liberal.”
While that seems to be dramatically unfair to the real Nietzsche, we must still remember he wasn’t an egalitarian. He wasn’t a liberal. He did think that some people were much more important than others. He had a kind of idealized view; he celebrated genius in a certain sort of way, and initially saw Wagner (who was anti-semitic) as a great genius and spent a lot of time with him. He later fell out with him, but there was a phase in his thinking where Wagner was the greatest person alive and was going to renew Germany through, as Nietzsche saw it, a combination of Apollonian and Dionysian art.
Similarly, Nietzsche was in thrall to Schopenhauer for a long time. He felt that Schopenhauer had more or less characterized the nature of reality and what was important in life. Schopenhauer was a great pessimist, but Nietzsche to a degree broke free from that and became a much more optimistic thinker than his mentor. Schopenhauer thinks ‘Things are terrible and dark’, and Nietzsche replies, ‘Yes, they’re terrible and dark, but we can seize control, become powerful, turn bad into good, become stronger and be heroes of our own destiny.’
Is that what is meant by ‘I Am Dynamite’?
I don’t think so. He genuinely describes himself as an explosive thinker because he is. He’s a vain thinker in lots of ways—he’s got a section in one his books called ‘Why I’m so clever’—but it’s sort of true, too. He was initially extremely brilliant in conventional academic terms. Then, he was brilliant as a highly original thinker, diagnosing the late nineteenth-century position relative to religion. The loss of confidence that there was an external God to underwrite morality was a major fallout from Darwinism. Opinion was heading that way anyway, but Darwin gave a very plausible account of how human beings could have evolved through natural processes without some kind of external intervention.
The big question becomes, ‘What does that mean for how we live and how we treat each other?’ We’ve always felt we had to be good because God will punish us if we weren’t. If you don’t believe that, where do you stand? Is everything then permitted?
But in the end, didn’t Nietzsche drive himself mad with his thinking?
Eventually, Nietzsche had severe psychological problems. He went mad and had to be locked away. It’s debatable why he became mad. It’s a romantic picture, to see him looking too far into the abyss and becoming mad as a result of his thinking. I suspect the reality is much more prosaic. His father died young and had severe psychiatric problems. One story is that he inherited syphilis, another that he contracted it. There were physiological explanations of what happened to him alongside genetic ones. I suspect these were much more significant than any intellectual triggers.
This is a very sad case of somebody who had a great propensity to psychiatric problems and circumstances, the environment, pushed him in that direction. Having been in that position, it was then objectively terrible—though he didn’t realize it was happening—that his sister took control of his ideas in the way they were presented to the public.
Let’s talk about the next Nietzsche title on your list. This one has a great title: Hiking With Nietzsche.
This is a book by John Kaag. I mentioned his book American Philosophy: A Love Story last year—only I came across it relatively late, because it wasn’t widely circulated in England for some reason. It was very popular in America.
John Kaag is a really interesting writer. He’s an academic philosopher by training and profession, but his writings are very strongly autobiographical and highly revealing. In this book, he goes back to his days as a graduate student, when he was just beginning his studies and writing about Nietzsche. He gets a grant to go and revisit some of the places where Nietzsche lived in his life as a wandering scholar, Switzerland in particular. He goes to the mountains.
Hiking With Nietzsche a very skillful combination of narrative about Nietzsche’s life intermingled with John Kaag’s past, but also his present, where he’s found a different kind of satisfaction. If you really want to fill in the details, you need to read American Philosophy: A Love Story because that explains some of the story about where he is now, who he’s married to, and how that came about.
What I love about this book is that Kaag takes Nietzsche’s thinking very seriously as a philosophy for life. He’s fascinated by Nietzsche’s personality, where he actually spent his time and the mountains that he walked in.
It’s quite a shocking book, in some ways, because Kaag is so confessional. I would put it in the same category as Rousseau‘s Confessions, as he too openly discusses things other people might want to conceal about themselves. He talks about his psychological vulnerabilities, his anorexia, even his suicidal tendencies. These are quite raw emotional aspects of the book. But this isn’t a misery memoir or anything like that. This is a serious discussion of how philosophy relates to life, told through part of the author’s own life. It takes a very skilful writer to weave those things together in a way that is readable and interesting without seeming indulgent.
So we’ve talked about Aristotle as a way of leading your life. Can you lead your life in a Nietzschean way?
Clearly it’s very dangerous. In John Kaag’s case, he’s literally looking into the abyss. He’s not just talking about looking into the abyss: he’s actually on a mountain looking down the very precipice that may have inspired Nietzsche to write certain passages as well.
As I said earlier, nearly everyone has their own way of interpreting Nietzsche, so in a way it depends on which version of Nietzsche you adopt. There is the existential Nietzsche, which is a popular interpretation. Nietzsche is a proto-existentialist who says that you have to become who you are. You have to discover who you are and actually pursue the things that really resonate with your soul, the things which you love. What in your life has truly moved you? Find those things, focus on them, become who you are and celebrate life with all its imperfections so that you would live this life again and again without ever regretting an instant. Affirm everything that has happened to you. That’s a positive story of self-creation and self-realization. So you could live that.
“Nietzsche loved other people, but they didn’t love him back. He was probably sexually frustrated.”
But if you want to emulate Nietzsche more precisely, you’re going to have to be troubled, to be brilliant, to be sick, to experience unrequited love. Nietzsche loved other people, but they didn’t love him back. He was probably sexually frustrated. He didn’t have children. I have to mention that John Kaag isn’t like this. He talks about his second marriage, his young child, and how in fact this whole book is initiated by his three-year-old daughter seeing a scar on his ear—a scar acquired through possible frostbite from spending a night on a mountain, an ill-equipped, young graduate student exploring Nietzsche’s landscapes in Switzerland. This leads them back to revisit, as a family, the haunts of Kaag’s own quite traumatic period spent in the mountains. Ultimately, we see how far his life has changed and how different he’s become.
The subtitle of the book, ‘On becoming who you are’—is that the existentialist Nietzsche?
Becoming who you are is something that Nietzsche advocated, and it’s a very common way of interpreting him. It means treating your life as a work of art, really—bringing the parts together in a way that is aesthetically pleasing. That’s another strong theme in Nietzsche: that only as an aesthetic phenomenon is life justifiable. You shape your life to become something that’s stylish and integrated, with your genuine commitment to the things you truly value at its core.
Which seems very attractive.
Yes, if there is something that you truly value, or a way that you truly are. Going back to Sue Prideaux, I think that’s the aspect of Nietzsche’s writing that she picks up and sees as highly positive.
In terms of ‘hiking’ with Nietzsche, Nietzsche himself says that “all truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”
Yes. Obviously, that’s not true. Many great thoughts have been conceived in other circumstances. But that’s the kind of thing Nietzsche does: he turns autobiographical idiosyncrasies into universal truths. In a way, that’s demonstrating, again, this ability to be a yes-sayer to life. Whatever befalls you, you find a story. He did a lot of walking, possibly because he loved walking, possibly because it was therapeutic for him, given his sickness, to be in the Alps breathing the mountain air and being outdoors.
He’s not alone among philosophers for doing a lot of walking. Rousseau, famously, was a great walker. Hobbes was a great walker. There are many philosophers who were great walkers, who did their thinking while walking. In terms of philosophical creativity, there probably is something in it. If you’re just sitting down facing a blank sheet of paper, it may be quite difficult to generate ideas. But when you’re going somewhere, you’ve got the rhythms of walking. There’s a style of meditative thought that lends itself to that rhythm.
“But that’s the kind of thing Nietzsche does: he turns autobiographical idiosyncrasies into universal truths.”
Not so much Nietzsche, but some other philosophers such as Socrates and Kierkegaard walked and talked to people. They held intellectual conversations as they walked. The fact that two people face the same direction when they walk together is relevant. I think it liberates a different way of communicating from face-to-face discussion.
I’ve actually already applied Nietzsche to my family life. One of my kids was struggling with her maths, and I was able to say to her, ‘Don’t worry, Nietzsche was a great philosopher, and he was terrible at maths. He said the subject doesn’t make any sense because no two things are alike.’
According to Nietzsche, in a deeper way, maths is just a waste of time. How convenient. Again, that’s this autobiographical thing: whatever Nietzsche is like becomes a universal and a good way to be. Taken to extremes that’s ridiculous, of course. But with Nietzsche I think it’s often slightly tongue-in-cheek. Going back to the biography, when you see how witty and self-deprecatory he could be, there’s some sense in which he’s not always boasting, really. He’s just playing with you, teasing you.
Let’s move on to your last book, which is slightly different from the others: a new translation of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.
This is a book that was published during the Second World War in occupied Paris by Sartre, who has since become known as a great existentialist thinker alongside his lifelong friend and lover Simone de Beauvoir.
Being and Nothingness became the Bible of existentialism. It was last translated into English some 60 years ago, which is surprising. The first translation, by Hazel Barnes, is the one I owned as a student. As far as we knew, that was what Being and Nothingness was. But Sarah Richmond has taken on this phenomenal task of translation. It’s a huge book and very difficult, in parts. The latest translation is over 800 pages long.
The way Sarah Richmond translated Being and Nothingness wasn’t by going to to the existing translation by Hazel Barnes and trying and improve it. Instead, she went to the French. When she had difficulties, she would then see how Hazel Barnes had dealt with it. The result is a much clearer version of a very difficult book than the one that existed before.
“When you read the book having read large parts of the of the previous translation, it feels like putting on a pair of new glasses.”
She discusses one of the reasons for this difficulty in her translator’s introduction. Sartre wrote in very long sentences at times, a stylistic tic possibly more common in French than in English. For clarity, Richmond felt free to break those up into shorter sentences. When you read the book having read large parts of the of the previous translation, it feels like putting on a pair of new glasses. Suddenly things come into focus that were a bit fuzzy before. It’s not always clear exactly what’s going on, but I think a lot of the new-found clarity has to do with this way of breaking the sentences down. It makes it much, much easier to follow. The hardest bit of the book, probably, in any translation, is Sartre’s own introduction, which is just about impenetrable. It’s probably deliberately impenetrable. I don’t know that there’s any way of translating the introduction that would make it palatable to an ordinary reader.
But Being and Nothingness has got these amazing novelistic passages. Most famously, there’s the example of the café waiter. Sartre is sitting in a café, watching a waiter who he thinks is in ‘bad faith.’ It’s a kind of self-deception, a denial of his own freedom to be other than he is in terms of his role and what other people expect him to be.
Can you explain that a bit more?
A big theme for Sartre is that human beings are much freer than they realize. In fact, human beings don’t have any essence: we are an empty space that gets filled up by our choices, if you like. Most people act most of the time as if they aren’t free, in all kinds of respects. They’re determined by their history, by their location, by what other people think of them, by their social role, and so on. Sartre’s big argument is that human beings are fundamentally free to make of their lives what they want to make of them. It’s a particular variety of self-deception to play out a pre-given role rather than to make choices yourself. So Sartre’s sitting in the Deux Magots or Café de Flore or wherever it is in Paris, watching the waiter and imagining that this is what’s going on with him. It’s slightly patronising towards the waiter, of course, but it’s a very famous passage. Perhaps the waiter was thinking ‘Oh, there’s someone sitting there playing out the role of a philosopher writing in a café.’
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Sartre was a novelist as well as a philosopher, and there are long passages in this book which are accessible and feel very rich in detail. He’s using a scenario to make a philosophical point. There’s another famous example with a voyeur looking through a keyhole at what’s going on in the room beyond, his consciousness completely immersed in the events unfolding in the room. He hears footsteps behind him, and he’s suddenly acutely aware of the look of the other—the shame of a ‘looked at look,’ as Sartre puts it.
This is all tied up with why we couldn’t possibly be solipsists, believing we’re the only people in existence in the world. There’s a psychological reality to our involvement with other people, how other people’s judgments of us make us partly what we are. We are fundamentally aware of being part of a group of people, with all the problems that entails. That’s another example of one of these passages which are more accessible to read and very memorable. There are these moments of clarity and drama in the book, as well as a jungle of very abstract Hegelian and Heideggerian prose, which is very difficult to find your way through.
In another famous example, somebody goes into a cafe looking to meet Pierre. But he isn’t there, and the experience of the cafe is completely one of what’s not there rather than what is. We have this simple idea that when we perceive things, we perceive what’s in front of us. Sartre makes the point that there’s a more projective sense of our interaction with the world. Everywhere he looks, Pierre isn’t there. Pierre’s absence is almost physical: it’s a concrete nothingness that forms an important part of our conscious experience of the world, the absence as much as the presence. It’s a beautiful moment. These passages really come to life in this new translation because they’re so elegantly done.
Obviously, anyone attempting to read this translation of Being and Nothingness is making a bit of a commitment. Do you think it’s very important to read Sartre—or at least to have tried?
I suspect there are very few people who have read Being and Nothingness from cover to cover, and if they have, it’s probably because they have professionally committed to being commentators on Sartre.
“For Sartre, our thinking is to some degree spread across the world. ”
But this is a very important book historically, and it’s also inspiring and thought-provoking in many ways, not merely because of the existential themes about human choice. Many people think those claims have been exaggerated—the degree to which we are free to choose how we think of ourselves. The thoughts he has about the nature of the mind have present-day sympathizers. For Sartre, our thinking is to some degree spread across the world. It’s not as if our thoughts are exactly in our head. It’s not as if there is a reality that we then describe—that’s a Cartesian picture. Rather, we are in the world connected with reality, not picturing reality all the time. Elsewhere, he also wrote very interestingly about imagery and the mind.
Sartre is writing about how we understand a human life. Although this book is threateningly abstract in places, it’s also fundamentally practical. It’s about the nature of what it is to be human. He may be wildly wrong, but he is definitely worth engaging. He’s a major thinker who throws out all kinds of highly original ideas, often mangling other thinkers when he talks about them in the process. It’s as if they are there simply as catalysts to his own thought.
“Although this book is threateningly abstract in places, it’s also fundamentally practical. It’s about the nature of what it is to be human.”
When it comes to Sartre’s thoughts on death and how we experience it, he has some memorable phrases. At death you become ‘prey to the other’. There’s a sense that you are only what you do and have done, not what you might have done. While you’re conscious and alive, you can always choose to subvert other people’s expectations. When you die, who (or what) you were falls completely out of your hands. Your entire identity becomes fixed by other people’s view of what it was. Up until the moment of death, you could always deny the way people thought about you, the categories and labels they projected onto you.
Sartre was fundamentally opposed to categories, to labels, to people constraining how you think of yourself by their version of what you are. Even if you don’t believe he’s completely right about human life, elements of his philosophy can be liberating, for sure. And he’s the kind of philosopher, like Nietzsche, that inspires people.
For me personally, I became interested in studying philosophy because I wanted to try and understand some of Being and Nothingness and Sartre’s ideas, which were difficult to understand without a formal philosophical education. I actually switched from a Psychology course to Philosophy at university partly to be able to attend lectures on existentialism. You’d be surprised how many philosophers have been inspired by Sartre, even though they’ve gone on to become very different sorts of philosophers from him.
“Like Nietzsche, Sartre is the kind of philosopher who once you’ve studied his work, however much you like it or dislike it, you remember it”
Like Nietzsche, Sartre is the kind of philosopher who once you’ve studied his work, however much you like it or dislike it, you remember it. You apply or refuse to apply his ideas to your life. There are many philosophers you can read and think, ‘Okay, that was really interesting’, but their work is unlikely to make you live differently. Personally, I don’t apply Kant’s moral thought to my life, for example.
John Stuart Mill is closer to Sartre in that respect. His little book On Liberty does have quasi-existential themes about the importance of choosing for yourself rather than having other people choose your life for you. That’s a very attractive way of thinking about the value of choice.
Yes. Occasionally, I found myself thinking about the example of Pierre not being there.
Once he’s said it, you go, ‘Oh, of course! An empty room is an empty room because someone is not there—it’s not just because it hasn’t got any furniture.’ It’s usually because you’re looking for something or someone and this colours your whole consciousness. It’s a different experience.
Sartre was very much within the phenomenological tradition. This is something that Sarah Bakewell, another author that we’ve chosen as one of the top books in past years, talks about in her book At The Existentialist Café. For the phenomenologists, accurate description of how things seem to us was incredibly important. This is the reason why there are these highly-detailed descriptions of real life or real-life type scenarios in Sartre. He’s trying to capture what our consciousness is actually like, not what is it is theoretically, but what it feels like to be a human being experiencing the world.
Would it be helpful to read Sarah Bakewell before Sartre himself?
Yes, if you’re interested in reading Being and Nothingness, I strongly recommend that you read Sarah Bakewell’s excellent At the Existentialist Café first. That’ll give you a lot of the context and an overview of some of the key ideas within it as well. If you don’t want to read that, at least read her Five Books interview about existentialism because that, again, will give you a good overview of where Sartre sits in this tradition.
Finally, you wanted to mention a few books you really enjoyed, but that didn’t make the top five.
Yes. The absolutely fascinating book I’m reading at the moment is Henry Hardy’s In Search of Isaiah Berlin. Henry Hardy had this incredible relationship with Isaiah Berlin. Most of Berlin’s ideas were made public in lectures, radio talks and essays that were published all over the place, not necessarily in philosophical journals. They appeared in magazines, often in several different versions.
For over 25 years or more, Henry Hardy worked closely with Isaiah Berlin to bring these out in the form of edited books—to add appropriate footnotes giving sources, and so on. Berlin was a very brilliant, eclectic thinker who was constantly drawing on quotations and allusions to different thinkers. Sometimes he got them slightly wrong and Henry Hardy worked with him to make a more scholarly version of his work and allow it to be disseminated to a much wider readership.
He’s done an amazing service in that, and this book is his memoir, as it were, of that process. It’s really fascinating for anybody who’s interested in Isaiah Berlin’s writing. You see how much work Henry Hardy was doing and how much it was the result of a negotiation with Berlin who was an eccentric character in many ways. Hardy can be a quite self-deprecatory writer. He’s prepared to admit when he made mistakes and did things that annoyed Berlin. That’s all in the book as well in extracts from letters.
This makes for an absolutely absorbing book, which does also discuss some of Isaiah Berlin’s fundamental ideas, in particular the notion of pluralism, which was very important to Berlin’s thinking. This is the idea that there is no one true ‘final solution’—an unfortunate, but deliberately chosen, phrase, that stressed the existence of many incommensurable ways of living. Liberalism is a philosophical stance that tolerates different views of the good life and Berlin was very much in the liberal tradition of thinking.
Some people accused him of a kind of relativism where anything goes, but Berlin was keen not to become a complete relativist. What pluralism is in relation to relativism, that kind of delicate question, Hardy discusses from the most informed position possible because he worked very closely with Berlin and with his writings. And because Henry Hardy is a highly intelligent thinker in his own right, he engages critically with Berlin’s ideas, and points out when he’s being inconsistent. So this book is a delightful read. Even when it seems to be just discussing the copyright or of a particular essay or something very specific, it’s also about the way that these two people worked together. Though it may require a special taste, it’s a book I recommend.
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Another book I enjoyed which was not conceived as a philosophy book but has philosophical implications and is, at times, quite philosophical is by Jaron Lanier. It has a ridiculous title, Ten Arguments for Deleting your Social Media Accounts Right Now, which is the (mildly irritating) refrain of the book. I suspect nobody’s going to do it.
This is a book by a very brilliant insider in the world of Silicon Valley, who argues there are some kinds of social media (he singles out Facebook in particular) that are structurally pernicious. He believes there are no minor tweaks that will make these forms of social media morally acceptable. He shows how the way Facebook is dependent on a certain model of advertising—a certain model of data collection and of manipulation of the people using them—inadvertently produces terrible political and other consequences. Now, that’s not overtly philosophical, but in discussing the morality of these accidentally-pernicious systems, I think he’s very much entering the realm of moral philosophy. There are questions about truth and reality, and about what we believe in the age of fake news, and so on.
“The way Facebook is dependent on a certain model of advertising—a certain model of data collection and of manipulation of the people using them—inadvertently produces terrible political and other consequences”
Lanier’s angle on the mechanisms by which these things get promulgated is highly informed. He provokes real, interesting philosophical questions about how we experience truth and reality and how we interact with each other in the digital age. In spite of the ridiculous title, this is a philosophically very interesting book, and is very readable.
Another book that was published this year that has received some attention is Julian Baggini’s How the World Thinks. This is an argument for global philosophy and how it can inform our thinking. Baggini has explored a range of ideas, some of which have traditionally been thought of more as religious ideas. This book advocates being broader and not so parochial about what counts as philosophy and how it impacts on our lives.
“We would all benefit from greater awareness of not just how many different ways of doing philosophy there are in the world”
This is very much in the tradition of books like one I recommended in a previous selection, Bryan van Norden‘s Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto and, to some degree, The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach us About the Good Life by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh. There seems to be an interesting phenomenon in popular writing about philosophy today. Peter Adamson’s ‘History of Philosophy without any gaps’ podcast is very much in the same mode. There’s a building awareness that what has passed for philosophy within academic circles is predominantly just a Western slice of philosophy. We would all benefit from greater awareness of not just how many different ways of doing philosophy there are in the world, but how many significant philosophers there have been who were not in that great Western tradition.
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