Biography is a good way of learning about philosophy when it’s done well. Some excellent philosophical biographies have come out in the past few years and they frequently make our best-of-the-year lists.
An exceptional biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who had a big influence on 20th-century philosophy, was a landmark. The author, Ray Monk, showed that it was possible to do a highly intelligent, well-researched biography of a difficult thinker that could appeal to a wide audience. Monk was able to put Wittgenstein's philosophy in the context of his life. Published in 1990, it paved the way for a much greater interest in the philosophical biography genre—as opposed to philosophy just being about key texts.
Does biography count as 'philosophy'?
Our philosophy editor, Nigel Warburton, argues that it does:
"Some people wouldn’t even see a biography as a philosophy book but, for me, I do like to understand thinkers in their context. Some biographical writing is intellectual gossip, of course, but some of it is incredibly useful in interpreting who people were writing against, why they were so motivated to write in a particular style, or at a particular time, and how the books and articles that they wrote are of their time and have subsequently been reinterpreted. Without some biographical context, it’s very difficult to weigh some philosophers’ work.
There are philosophers who you can read without knowing much about them, but I’ve always found that when you know more about someone, you understand better where they’re coming from, what they mean by what they say. It’s the same when I interview philosophers for Philosophy Bites, the podcast I make with David Edmonds. When I go back to reading the work of people I’ve interviewed, I feel I understand better when they’re being ironic, or whether they’re nitpicking or just very thorough. From the personality, you get a sense of what the writing represents, what the positions they’re occupying really are, what they’re trying to achieve, and so on."