A brothel, a piano and Nietzsche's search for a soul

Philosophers Behaving Badly

October 21, 2005

This book has a dreadful title and a lousy jacket (a collage of Nietzsche thumbing his nose at something or other), but do not let that put you off: the text is excellent. The premise is simple, though I am not aware of it having been done before - or at least not so well. The authors do not give us an introduction to philosophy so much as an introduction to philosophers, or at least to a small band of them. Their main aim is to show us what these men (their subjects are all men) were like as people.

The blurb for the book says that it explores "the perils of philosophy", that philosophers' mad, bad and sad behaviour "is seldom entirely unconnected with their thinking".

That is not how I saw it. I read the eight chapters - on Rousseau, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Russell, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Sartre and Foucault - in a pretty straightforward manner. I enjoyed in particular their picture of Nietzsche and his trip, perhaps inadvertent, to a brothel.

He found himself "suddenly surrounded by half-a-dozen apparitions in tinsel and gauze, looking at me expectantly. For a moment I was speechless. Then I made instinctively for the piano as being the only thing with a soul present". The idea of Nietzsche as speechless, the idea of a brothel with a piano, the idea of Nietzsche believing in a soul... The incidents are well chosen and the authors are to be congratulated, whether or not you accept their main thesis. Any student or beginner reading this book will want to know more about these extraordinary men. That is an achievement in itself.

As to the authors' aim to relate philosophers' shortcomings, mistakes and failures to their ideas, I found this interesting but rather less than conclusive.

A few years ago, Paul Johnson produced a book called Intellectuals, in which his main aim seemed to be to show that intellectuals (the ones he selected anyway) were a bunch of unpleasant liars and cheats who never lived up to the high ideals they (theoretically) espoused.

Nigel Rodgers and Mel Thompson do not follow this path, I am pleased to say. Their aim is more serious and better realised. Let us consider the chapter on Heidegger as an example of their approach. Heidegger is probably as famous among philosophers for his treatment of Hannah Arendt and his espousal of Nazism as for his great work, Being and Time . The story of his affair with Arendt, then a young student, and the way Heidegger, married with two children, would signal his availability by the pattern of lighted lamps in his house is straight out of a Brian Rix farce. His subsequent behaviour - turning his back on Arendt and Husserl, because they were Jewish, and on Karl Jaspers, who had a Jewish wife - is rather less farcical.

Exploring whether such behaviour is of a piece with his philosophy may be legitimate, but the very phrase "of a piece" rather begs the question. We must beware of imposing a consistency where there is none. T. S. Eliot famously said that art is an "escape" from personality as much as a reflection of it, and the same must be true of a scholar's work. Being and Time was an enormously influential work, but Heidegger's influence has been as much through those he taught as through his writings. Two of those, Arendt herself (who was reconciled with him after the war) and Herbert Marcuse, were very different, in some senses espousing views diametrically opposite to those of their mentor.

But these are not negative criticisms of this book. The authors'

discussions of the link between philosophers' weaknesses and foibles and their ideas are invariably enjoyable, even if the conclusions are tentative. The fact that Arendt allowed herself to be reconciled with Heidegger, after his personal and political betrayal of her, suggests - to me at least - that she was a true existentialist: she took a deliberate decision, however painful it must have been at one level, that gave both of them a release from the past. She learnt from him, for the benefit of both of them. Which just shows that however much fun it is trying to match the personal life of creative people with their published works one should not expect it to be always enlightening.

After reading this enjoyable book, my only regret is that it is not a hardback. Had it gone into stiff boards first, there would at least have been a chance to change the awful jacket. As it is, there is a danger that readers will mistake what is a serious book for a spoof.

Peter Watson's latest book is Ideas: A History from Fire to Freud .

Philosophers Behaving Badly

Author - Nigel Rodgers and Mel Thompson
Publisher - Peter Owen
Pages - 228
Price - £13.95
ISBN - 0 7206 1219 5

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