The genre of philosophical biography is flourishing, as we pay attention not only to what philosophers said and wrote but also to how they lived and the intellectual context in which they developed their ideas. Nigel Warburton, our philosophy editor, picks out some of the best philosophy books of the year, from the man who lived in a storage jar in 5th century Athens to the latest contributions of cognitive science to our understanding of how we experience the world. Read more philosophy book recommendations on Five Books
Has 2023 been a good year for philosophy books? Have you noticed any particular trends?
I’m writing a book about philosophy at the moment, and I’m delighted it wasn’t published this year, because so many philosophy books have come out—many of them very good. It’s incredibly difficult to choose just five books this year. There’s a lot of competition.
One of the trends is a huge number of books about philosophers’ lives. I’ve chosen two for my list: first, Jean-Manuel Roubineau’s short biography of Diogenes, although I could equally have picked Robin Waterfield’s biography of Plato, Plato of Athens. That’s also a very good book. And I’ve chosen David Edmonds’ biography of Derek Parfit, but there was also Mark Rowe’s biography of another Oxford philosopher, J.L. Austin, which is excellent in many ways, but a different kind of book, perhaps a bit more niche. What’s fascinating about Rowe’s biography is that he doesn’t just tell the story of J.L. Austin the philosopher, but also that of J.L. Austin the military intelligence expert. Rowe shows he played a significant role in preparing for the D-Day landings. He was a major figure in British intelligence during the Second World War before returning to Oxford and becoming a significant figure in the world of Ordinary Language Philosophy.
On that same theme of Oxford philosophy, Nikhil Krishnan’s A Terribly Serious Adventure is a kind of quirky history of Oxfod in the 20th century, and a very interesting book. Tom Stoppard recommended it recently. I think it’s very difficult to pull off group biographies—the only person I know who has done it completely successfully is Sarah Bakewell with her At the Existentialist Café—but this year we’ve also had Wolfram Eilenberger’s The Visionaries, a follow-up to his earlier group biography Time of the Magicians: this one features four women philosophers: Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Simone Weil, and Ayn Rand. I found the inclusion of Rand slightly odd, and I think this one wasn’t quite as successful as his previous book, but it’s definitely worth reading.
“It’s incredibly difficult to choose just five books this year”
These are just a few of the interesting biographical books that have come my way. There’s a very strong vein of this kind of writing about philosophy at the moment. The history of that is that there were hardly any biographies of philosophers for many years, then Ray Monk published an absolutely superb biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius, in 1991 and publishers realised there was a market for lives of philosophers. Gradually these have been coming through, but there’s a glut this year for some reason. I don’t know whether that’s going to continue.
Another book I almost included in my list was Daniel Dennett’s I’ve Been Thinking, which is his memoir, basically his life in philosophy. I reviewed it for the TLS. It’s a fun book to read and it has plenty of philosophy in it and some great anecdotes, but it didn’t quite make my top five.
Let’s have a look at that top five. First of all, Sarah Bakewell’s book Humanly Possible offers an overview of seven centuries of humanist thought. You were already looking forward to this book when we spoke last year; I take it it lived up to expectations?
I don’t know any other writer who could pull off something like this. I mentioned already that Sarah managed to write a compelling group biographical study of the existentialists, which was no mean feat. But this was an even more difficult writing task. She’s covering the long history of humanism, not just the kind of humanism we think of as an agnostic or atheistic approach to life—humanist funerals that kind of thing—although that’s there. She includes humanism in the sense of the regeneration of interest in the Classical world that was characteristic of some writers of the Renaissance, and the humanistic traditions that can also be found within a religious context. What she’s managed to do is uncover common threads. All these thinkers, though diverse, are passionate in their interest in human beings, rather than in the physical world or the idea of the divine. She tells an interesting story and manages to do it in a very accessible way with humour and colour. It’s memorable, enjoyable to read, and full of insight all along the way. It’s quite brilliant. A book to dip into and return to rather than to read once, I think.
One point of focus for her is that quotation from Terence: “I am human, and so nothing human is alien to me.” She points out that it was originally a kind of joke, the response of a character who is very nosy—‘the reason why I’m so nosy is that I’m human, I can’t help it.’ But it’s become a kind of motto for a certain type of interest in human beings, and the relationships between human beings. Bakewell’s not scared of taking on the darker, more disconcerting side of humans either, the side which is sometimes ignored by what I would call ‘happy clappy’ humanism, the optimistic, everything’s-going-to-turn-out-well view of the human predicament.
Her other motto is from E.M. Forster—“only connect”. What she sees her book doing is connecting up lots of different strands of humanism. She’s generous in her inclusivity and the way she traces complex patterns of influence in the various forms of humanism.
It sounds like an incredible achievement.
Yes, I think it’s superb. I’m a huge fan of Bakewell’s writing. She’s very modest and doesn’t show off, but everything is based on deep and serious scholarship. And she’s an absolutely brilliant writer. So this book is a joy.
Next up, you’ve selected The Dangerous Life and Ideas of Diogenes the Cynic by Jean-Manuel Roubineau. Another book about Diogenes made your best-of list last year.
I don’t think Diogenes had been given enough airtime until very recently, and now that’s happening. I regret not including him in my Little History of Philosophy. I should have done, but perhaps in the back of my mind I felt he was a bit risqué for a younger readership—you know, he famously masturbated and defecated in public and was renowned for being provocative and obnoxious. He’s the great performative philosopher, up there in that respect with Socrates. But Socrates gets all the attention. He was sometimes known as the mad Socrates.
Socrates didn’t write anything down, but lived the life of a philosopher and died rather than compromise his conscience. Diogenes famously thought that human beings don’t need much to be happy, and owned just a cloak and a stick—he had a cup too at first, but he threw that away when he saw a boy drinking water with his hands and realised he didn’t really need it. Diogenes allegedly lived in a barrel at the edge of the city of Athens. One of the things I like about this very short book by Roubineau is that he has four or five pages discussing whether Diogenes did actually live in a barrel. It was more likely a big clay storage jar, and he wasn’t unusual in that, actually. There is a kind of resonance with contemporary Britain in the sense that homelessness became an issue in fifth-century Athens as a result of certain political decisions about going to war and the insistence that everyone lived within the city walls. A number of people were forced to live in very unsuitable accommodation, including these earthenware storage jars that—although smelly—offered protection from the elements.
I suppose the modern-day equivalent might be living out of your car.
Yes, or maybe sleeping in a skip or a wheelie bin. A car sounds a bit luxurious. Diogenes was not doing it because he had to, but as a kind of philosophical statement. He enacted his philosophy and was very critical of philosophers who didn’t. There’s a quotation from him:
Those who have virtue always in their mouths, and neglect it in practice, are like a harp, which emits a sound pleasing to others, while itself is insensible of the music.
So Plato, to Diogenes, was like a harp, because he didn’t really live his philosophy, he just talked about it. Whereas for Diogenes, the whole thing was that if you believe it, you should do it. He was an environmentalist too. He was also arguably the first cosmopolitan, the first to say that he was a ‘citizen of the world’ when people asked where he was from. And he tried to live consistently as his own person, not accepting the values of those around him.
Again, we know of him not from his own writings, but from the stories about him that other people wrote down. When asked about what should happen to him after he died, he basically said that he didn’t care, and the punchline implied that he would be just as happy to be torn apart by animals after death as buried. But Roubineau tells us that his wishes weren’t actually fulfilled—that there was a grave. All this really complements the book I recommended last year, How to Say No, which is more of a collection of anecdotes told by ancient authors of Diogenes; Roubineau’s book puts all that in the context of a life story, told in 106 pages. So it’s a good, quick read about somebody who embodied his philosophy.
Diogenes was a bit like Joseph Beuys. Do you know Joseph Beuys? For one of his performance art pieces, he shut himself in a room with a coyote. That’s the kind of thing I could imagine Diogenes doing. He famously walked about an Athenian marketplace with a lit lamp in daylight, inviting people by his actions to ask what on earth he was doing. His answer was that he was looking for an honest man in Athens and hadn’t yet found one. You could imagine someone doing this outside parliament. There’s a great anti-Brexit protester, Steve Bray, who stands outside and shouts at Tory politicians as they walk into parliament. That’s the same kind of anarchic spirit, a bit punk, a bit unexpected, as Diogenes displayed in the ancient world. And Diogenes clearly had a good sense of humour – a rarity amongst philosophers.
Great. Thank you. Let’s move to your next 2023 philosophy book recommendation, which is David Edmonds’ biography of Derek Parfit, who died in 2017. It’s subtitled: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality. Could you tell us about the man and his mission?
So Derek Parfit was an unusual figure and David Edmonds has collected a lot of information about just how unusual he was. As a philosopher, he came to notice in the early 1970s with a couple of articles about personal identity—what it is to be a self over time. I remember reading these as an undergraduate student, and they were very different to the typical philosophical journal article. But his basic position was that there could be good reasons for thinking that we might have more in common with the people around us now than we might with our future selves. That’s a Buddhist-like concept of the self, and he did explicitly draw some analogies with Buddhism. It was an unusual position to take for a mainstream Oxford philosopher, though elements of it were in a tradition that stems from John Locke.
Then he went quiet for a bit before he produced, in the mid-1980s, under great pressure, a book called Reasons and Persons. It elaborated on what he thought about the nature of the self and how that impacts on morality and questions about altruism. Then he went on to the mission that occupied the rest of his life, which was that he thought he could and should prove conclusively the objectivity of morality—according to him what is right or wrong is not subjective, but absolutely objective. He wanted to do that without bringing in any kind of divine guarantee for this objectivity. He was very much an atheist, but as Edmonds’ biography makes clear, he followed a family tradition of being a missionary.
What do you mean?
His parents were literally missionaries. And Parfit had a sort of missionary zeal for proving and persuading people beyond doubt that morality was objective, meeting every possible objection and persuading his most eminent colleagues that this was so. Or at least trying to. He even said that his life would have been a waste if he didn’t succeed in showing that morality was objective.
I think it’s generally accepted that he didn’t succeed in that. But he became obsessed … when I say obsessed, I mean he was obsessive as well. Quite a lot of the biography charts the fascinating arc of his life—from the good-looking, intelligent, young man, a brilliant student, who had always been exceptional in his intelligence, and the transformation that happened in later life. He was somebody who was…neurodiverse, let’s put it that way. He had some OCD characteristics, would clean his teeth for hours, would work absolutely obsessively. He doesn’t seem to have had the same kinds of connections with people that you might have expected of someone who writes in such an elegant, sophisticated way.
I used to share an office with his wife, Janet Radcliffe Richards.
Prospect once described them as having “the world’s most cerebral marriage.”
She used to tell me some stories about him. He was always working—writing a paper, or reading a book, or commenting on other people’s writing. But he needed the fuel of coffee to keep him going. So rather than waste time making a decent cup of coffee he would use instant coffee and just turn on the hot tap. Janet said he sometimes didn’t even wait for the water to warm up. Parfit would be reading a book at the same time as making the coffee.
He was unusual in other ways too: he could be incredibly generous with his time. For someone considered a high flyer—he had an All Souls fellowship, didn’t have to teach, could devote himself entirely to his research—he had a huge amount of time for anyone who wanted to discuss ideas with him. If somebody sent him an essay on something he’d written, he would return the next day with comments even longer than the essay. This was partly because he wanted to get everything right.
For exercise, he would happily sit on an exercise bike in his underpants in front of the main window overlooking the street, absolutely oblivious to people looking in. And maybe he didn’t always put underpants on. It just wouldn’t have occurred to him that this might be found offensive or disturbing.
Are there some parallels here with the Diogenes biography? Is there something in the genre of philosophical biography that explores the application of philosophy, praxis versus theory?
Well, Diogenes’ philosophy wasn’t a written philosophy. He was performing philosophy as a series of gags, really, some of them visual. Derek Parfit was all theory. It was philosophy through words not performances. All he did for most of his later life was theorise, talk philosophy, write philosophy, communicate about philosophy, talk, give talks, and so on.
Behind all this, there is an interesting question about what you’re doing when you’re writing a biography of a philosopher. There was a much-read profile of Parfit that appeared in his lifetime, by the New Yorker staff writer Larissa MacFarquhar. Like all of those New Yorker pieces, it was a very elegantly constructed profile, and focused very much on how unusual he was as a man. The question is, how connected is that kind of obsessive behaviour with his philosophy? That’s a question that Edmonds had to address too.
It’s difficult to say. There’s a risk that he just gets remembered as this odd guy, who did strange things, was neurodiverse, whatever. There was a critical piece about Edmonds’ biography in the London Review of Books that argued that he should have written more about Parfit’s philosophy and by implication perhaps less about his quirks. And I can sympathise with that to some extent. But someone else can write the definitive book about Parfit’s philosophy. This is a biography.
There’s a sense in which biography gives an opportunity to expound on somebody’s thought in historical context. Philosophers have philosophical ideas, and you have a duty to write about those in a biography. That’s what Ray Monk did so well in his biography of Wittgenstein. Edmonds did a great deal of research, talking to people who knew Derek Parfit well, and what lingers for them is just what an unusual man he was, as a man as well as a thinker. And that’s interesting for a wider readership as well, the mystery around how he developed into that obsessive workaholic from what he was as a young man. So once he’d done that research, Edmonds was right to tell that story. It’s very interesting.
Many of the people who knew Derek Parfit well, (and there were a lot of them because he cultivated a network of philosophers who commented on what he wrote), really admire Edmonds’ book. It’s very difficult to achieve that when your subject has died so recently.
Absolutely. Let’s talk about the fourth book on your list of 2023 philosophy books, Andy Clark’s The Experience Machine. He’s a cognitive philosopher.
So Andy Clark, with David Chalmers—whose book Reality+ was on my list last year—wrote a famous paper about ‘the extended mind’: the idea that something like a phone could be literally part of your mind. They argue it’s a mistake to think of the mind as necessarily contained within the skull or the skin, as people traditionally have. Together they put forward the argument that some things that we use as tools are integrated with our lives, and available to us, and are relied upon in similar ways to the memories in our brains. We might outsource the memory of phone numbers, for example, to our smartphones. And in cases like that, we can talk about literally extending our minds. There’s a long history of people doing just that, using all sorts of devices. But there’s a cut-off where you say, that’s just a tool, not part of the mind.
That idea is discussed in this book by Clark, but the broader aim of the book is to give accessible insight into some of the most interesting interdisciplinary research in the area of cognitive science, about how rather than being passive recipients of information, we project expectations on the world. According to Clark, we should rethink everything about human beings in terms of predictive processing, the ways that our senses supply correctives of our projections, and don’t give us a reliable picture of reality that we receive passively.
This is an idea that Anil Seth discussed in very interesting ways in his book Being You. It’s very much in vogue, as it were. But Clark is a very accessible writer, like Seth, and also like him a researcher in this area. The way he puts it is that potentially the prediction processing model of understanding our place in the world is something that can give us a unifying picture of the mind and its place in nature. It’s one of those hypotheses that has huge philosophical implications if we take it seriously. It’s not just about sensations, how we experience things, but our sense of self, how we relate to the universe, everything. Everything important will be transformed if we understand the world through this model, if we recognise that we’re not passive recipients of information but caught up in a range of hypotheses that we generate about the world. It’s almost as though we are hallucinating the world all the time. It’s one of those approaches to philosophy that is like that famous duck-rabbit illusion: you see the duck, then suddenly you see the rabbit. There’s a shift and you see the world differently. Clark’s book presents an accessible way into this different way of seeing the world. It’s a model of how to make complex ideas accessible to the general reader.
I had an interesting conversation with a cognitive scientist at Oxford called Dick Passingham a few years ago. He said that he essentially thought that neuroscience was making a lot of philosophy of mind obsolete. Coming at it from a different way, through observation: scientific advances meant there was no space for philosophy left.
I’m skeptical about that. It’s true that anybody who wants to understand the mind today has a very rich source of data in the sense that there’s an explosion of interesting discoveries in neuroscience. Computing power allows a much more refined understanding of the physiology of the active brain. There have been many counterintuitive discoveries. That has to be part of your understanding if you’re a philosopher of mind. There are people who don’t keep up with the science, who ignore it and go back to Descartes or other philosophers instead. But it seems very strange to turn away from real discoveries about the neuroscience of consciousness. But even with all this empirical research, philosophical questions about how to interpret and integrate those sorts of theories remain.
Many of the best philosophers of mind, like Andy Clark, are immersed in the world of philosophy and that of neuroscience. There are plenty of philosophers who don’t carve up their way of thinking about the mind into ‘philosophy’ and ‘neuroscience’; we just want a picture of what the mind is like, and any sources of information about that are relevant. There are big questions about where consciousness comes from, how it evolved, what it is, and how we experience the world. There’s a cluster of unresolved issues, and plenty of them still have a philosophical flavour.
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Let’s tackle your final 2023 book recommendation, Rebecca Roache’s For F*ck’s Sake: Why Swearing is Shocking, Rude, and Fun. It’s described as “a new theory of why swearing offends.” Why should we read a philosophy of profanity?
So this is a fun book, but also a serious book. Rebecca Roache is very much a philosopher, and this is really a book on the philosophy of language. It actually draws upon some of the ideas of J.L. Austin, who we’ve already mentioned, the ordinary language philosopher who talked about performative utterances, acts which are performed by saying words—so, for instance, launching a ship by saying ‘I launch this ship’. Or the words ‘I do’ in a marriage ceremony. These are linguistic acts. And one of the themes in Rebecca’s book is how linguistic acts are performed when people utter swear words in different contexts.
It’s a very wide-ranging book, but underlying it is serious philosophy about how we communicate with one another and the value we give to different sorts of words, which might be considered taboo in one context, or maybe just commonplace and expected in other contexts. I remember when I worked in a flour mill in Crayford, years ago, the toaster broke and this old guy said, ‘oh fuck, the fucking fucker’s gone and fucking well fucked itself again.’ It was incredibly expressive and creative, an almost baroque sentence that came out very naturally and perfectly communicated what he felt.
So this is a book about offensiveness, partly, and it’s a book about particular words as well. Chapter thirteen is called ‘Cunt and ‘Cunt’’—so Roache’s not shying away from using taboo words: the fact there’s an asterisk on the front doesn’t mean this and other words are asterisked all the way through. I think it’s a great book because it combines Rebecca’s obvious joy in using swear words with serious philosophy about an issue that is all around us. And I think it’s highly original, because it’s not a topic that philosophers usually address.
There’s an endorsement from Stephen Fry on the back: “Finally, a book that rips the fuck out of the arseholes who claim that swearing is the sign of a poor vocabulary or unnecessary. Bollocks to them.” Many people take great joy in swearing. It reveals all kinds of things about how we relate to people and the different ways in which we can communicate, threaten, or tease. I love this book, and I’m really delighted that she’s written it.
That sounds like a fun way into some meaty subject matter.
There’s no sense in which she’s straining to include philosophy – it explains so much. Indirectly, she’s made a great case for there being much more philosophy about swearing, she has shown how swearing touches on all kinds of important questions. This would make a great Christmas present for your grandparents or parents-in-law…
To close, perhaps you’d advise us whether any new books are coming out that should be on our radar.
Another biographically-driven book that will be coming out before too long is Emily Herring’s – she’s writing a biography of Henri Bergson. This will be excellent, I’m sure. And in the further future, David Bather Woods is writing a book about Schopenhauer. So these are two books in the pipeline by outstanding younger writers turning their attention to this combination of biography and philosophy, the flourishing genre of the moment.
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