“Philosophers Behaving Badly”

Reading Philosophers Behaving Badly by Nigel Rodgers and Mel Thompson (2005). The book is a popular treatment of the philosophical ideas of Rousseau, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Russell, Witttgenstein, Heidegger, Sartre and Foucault, intermingled with biographical anecdotes. The assembly of personalities is well-chosen, both for ideas, influence and personal behavior. Thus we have miscreant Rousseau, misanthropic Schopenhauer, philandering Russell, Nazi Heidegger, autocratic Wittgenstein, faithless Sartre, sado-masochist Foucault, etc. Informative, even entertaining, if not disheartening in a way.

The fundamental question is whether philosophical ideas can be disengaged from the philosophers who propose them. The authors show how complex the issue can be, and how even the personalities involved never completely uderstood the ramifications of their ideas — or of their behavior, for that matter. We are left a little overwhelmed by the contradictions of their behavior and start to wonder if their ideas are just the epiphenomena of their overheated brains (and libidos).

But if we read the philosophical texts without knowing the phiosophers, we would probably just concentrate on the ideas. Rousseau’s naturalism, the existentialism of Heidegger and Sartre, the soaring logic of Wittgenstein and the early Russell, the explorations of self and society in Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, the historiography of culture and ideas in Foucault — it’s all intriguing and compelling in the original, abstracted from the thinker. We ought to resist the temptation to dismiss ideas with an ad hominem flippancy. After all, might we all be dismissed for our personality quirks, too?

But the quirks in these philosophers are, well, very bad. To be charitable we could conclude that it all seems more of an issue of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. What constitutes a brilliant mind but an human aberration? Schoolchildren were once advised to imitate the virtues of the saints — but not their habits! Or, as Nietzsche says paradoxically somewhere (not quoted in this book): “If you are praised by others you can be sure that you are not following your own path but somebody else’s.”