The School of Athens, representation of the greek philosophers (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

The lives of philosophers

British philosophy has become much more interesting, but they just don’t make philosophers like they used to

Artillery Row

Back in the 1970s and ‘80s there were two main kinds of books about philosophy. First, there were English-speaking academic books about moral philosophy, the philosophy of language, logic, ethics, metaphysics and philosophy of mind. Mostly quite dry and largely restricted to a university audience. There was a sense of coming after, that the great revolutionary moments in philosophy had happened some years before. In Bryan Magee’s famous series, Men of Ideas (1978), seven out of the fifteen philosophers were born before 1920 and none were under forty-five. Of the seven under fifty, five were from North America.

Perhaps this helps explain the huge appeal of Continental philosophy to a younger generation. Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre seemed more exciting than PF Strawson’s Subject and Predicate in Logic and Grammar. And then there was French Theory, largely influenced by German philosophy, including figures like Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard and Deleuze. These ideas swept through literature departments in Britain and America and were hugely fashionable in the last third of the 20th century. British philosophy, by comparison, seemed very quiet.

Most of the Vienna Circle had to flee for their lives

At the turn of the century things suddenly changed. There was a wave of acclaimed biographies of famous British philosophers. In 1991 Ray Monk published his acclaimed biography of Wittgenstein, closely followed by his two-volume biography of Bertrand Russell. In 1998 Michael Ignatieff published Isaiah Berlin: A Life and the following year Ben Rogers published his biography of AJ Ayer. In 2001 David Edmonds and John Eidinow brought out their hugely popular book, Wittgenstein’s Poker, about the famous encounter between Wittgenstein and Karl Popper in post-war Cambridge, and Malachi Hacohen published his superb book, Karl Popper – The Formative Years, 1902-1945. In 2004 Henry Hardy edited the first of four volumes of Isaiah Berlin’s Letters. British philosophy and, above all, philosophers’ lives suddenly seemed much more interesting.

What is striking is that all of these philosophers were born during the forty years before the First World War. None of these popular biographies were of British philosophers born since 1918.

All then went quiet for a few years. Now we have a second wave of books about philosophers. Henry Hardy has edited three more volumes of Berlin’s Letters and in 2018 published his memoir, In Search of Isaiah Berlin. This year Cheryl Misak has brought out her acclaimed biography, Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers, Wolfram Eilenberger’s Time of the Magicians: The Invention of Modern Thought, 1919-1929, about Walter Benjamin, Heidegger, Ernst Cassirer and Wittgenstein has just appeared in translation and now David Edmonds has published, The Murder of Professor Schlick: The Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle.

All of these books have attracted considerable attention and received rave reviews. “Misak tells a more colourful story than one might have thought possible so long after such a short life ended,” wrote The New Yorker about her biography of Frank Ramsey. The Wall Street Journal called it “an enthralling and glorious book.” “Time of the Magicians”, according to the TLS, “certainly demonstrates that the interwar years were one of humanity’s greatest periods of intellectual creativity.” And Jonathan Derbyshire, reviewing it in the FT, called it a “splendid book”.

It is not hard to see what these books have in common. They are all biographical accounts of extraordinary thinkers, bringing these figures to life in an accessible mix of philosophy and life-writing. Benjamin Moser, himself author of a prize-winning biography of Susan Sontag, wrote that Eilenberger “turns famous names into all too human characters.”

Many of them lived dramatic lives. Frank Ramsey died tragically young at twenty-six. Benjamin committed suicide. Most of the Vienna Circle had to flee for their lives. Isaiah Berlin worked for the British government in wartime Washington and post-war Moscow. He wasn’t just an Oxford don. He knew famous people on both sides of the Atlantic. He sat with Margot Fonteyn and Cecil Beaton to watch the trooping of the Colour ceremony in 1954, met Picasso and Shostakovich, Maria Callas and Garbo, Khruschev and Nixon.

Second, these biographies all focus on philosophers who were at the height of their fame in the middle third of the 20th century, between Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, the publication of the Vienna Circle’s manifesto in 1929 and Ayer’s Language, Truth, and Logic (1936) and post-war classics like Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies (1945), Wittgenstein’s posthumously published Philosophical Investigations (1953) and Berlin’s inaugural lecture at Oxford, Two Concepts of Liberty (1958). The appearances of Berlin and AJ Ayer on BBC2’s Men of Ideas in 1978, both still on top form, was a sort of swansong, the end of a golden age. There are still no acclaimed biographies of the next generation of philosophers, thinkers like RM Hare, Quinton, Hilary Putnam.

Many of these philosophers lived through the dark history of the mid-20th century

Thirdly, what sets many of these philosophers apart from the younger generation of academics that followed them, was that they lived through the dark history of the mid-20th century. Walter Benjamin committed suicide trying to escape from the Nazis in 1940 whereas Heidegger embraced the ideas of the Nazis. Isaiah Berlin witnessed the Russian Revolution in 1917, his family fled from Latvia after the First World War but those left behind were murdered by the Nazis during the liquidation of the Riga Ghetto. Popper came to Britain as a refugee from Vienna and then fled to New Zealand where he spent the war. He lost sixteen relatives in the Holocaust. Wittgenstein served in the Austro-Hungarian army in the First World War and he and his siblings, with three Jewish grandparents, were lucky to escape the Holocaust.

As David Edmonds shows in fascinating detail, the philosophers from the Vienna Circle, many of whom were Jewish, mostly managed to escape to America. “Remarkably,” Edmonds writes, “not a single member of the Circle was a direct victim of the genocide. Three non-Jewish philosophers … stayed in Austria and survived the war. By the time World War II broke out, with the exception of Gödel, who left early 1940, all the others had gone.”

The generation born in the 1930s and ‘40s lived through years of peace and had quieter lives. It’s hard to think of a modern British philosopher who like Berlin knew Churchill, met Kennedy in the White House or Akhmatova and Pasternak in the Soviet Union. Or who, like Wittgenstein, returned to Vienna to try and save his family from the Nazis after the Anschluss.

Fourth, their careers coincided with a revolution in philosophy. Their work on language, mathematics and logic changed the nature of modern philosophy. “Analytic philosophy – the dominant form of philosophy in Anglo-American philosophy departments with an emphasis on the analysis of language,” writes Edmonds, “would not exist in its current form without the [Vienna] Circle.” They were writing about philosophy at a time when intellectual culture was changing everywhere: theories of language, mathematics, modern physics. They were not simply philosophers. They brought these new ideas from different disciplines together.

There was also their extraordinary range. These were not narrow specialists. Between them they had a huge influence on almost every kind of philosophy: the philosophy of science, political philosophy, language, logic and mathematics. And, above all, they were brilliant. Frank Ramsey wrote of a meeting with Keynes: “Talked of difficulty of writing, philosophy epistemology, Occam’s Razor), history of mathematics, probability in mathematics, object interest, puzzles, games, history of economics, Marshall, books to appear shortly, Keynes on probability.” Ramsey was seventeen at the time.

Their impact was felt everywhere, from sketches about philosophy in Beyond the Fringe to Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers. In his memoir, Going Up, the writer Fredric Raphael describes going to Bertrand Russell’s last public lecture. Almost twenty years later, in 1970, Clive James wrote, he would sit in the Copper Kettle, a popular tea-room in Cambridge, reading Wittgenstein’s Blue and Brown Books every day.

They didn’t just talk about ideas over tea or port

Thanks to TV and radio they reached audiences beyond Cambridge lecture halls. In 1948, Bertrand Russell delivered the Reith Lectures on the BBC. In 1946 Isaiah Berlin gave his first lecture on the Third Programme. When he died, fifty-one years later, there were two programmes about Berlin on BBC2 and a whole evening on Radio 3 celebrating his life and work. In 1964 Ayer and Berlin discussed robots and Communists on the BBC. Thirty years later they were being interviewed by Bryan Magee on BBC2. They became household names because of their ideas, but also because large audiences heard them on the radio and on TV.

Finally, there is the drama of encounter. They didn’t just talk about ideas over tea or port. Wittgenstein famously threatened Popper with a poker; Heidegger had an affair with Hannah Arendt and played a dark part in Husserl’s decline and fall at the hands of the Nazis; Ayer travelled to Vienna to meet the logical positivists; Ramsey argued with Wittgenstein over Freud and they didn’t speak to each other for two years; Russell and GE Moore examined Wittgenstein’s PhD at Cambridge and Wittgenstein famously told them, “Don’t worry, I know you’ll never understand it.”

This mix of genius, the dark history of the mid-20th century and wonderful anecdotes and gossip about intellectual life in Oxford and Cambridge make for a good read. There are some fine philosophers around today but the smart money would still bet that the next major biography of a philosopher will be about someone born before the First World War.

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