Ludwig Wittgenstein believed that the history of philosophy had been dominated by linguistic confusions he referred to as “pseudo-problems.” His remedy was to reconceive philosophy’s perennial questions as conundrums attributable to improper language use. In Wittgenstein’s view, questions pertaining to the ultimate nature of reality or the problem of other minds, to cite merely two examples, are classical instances of scratching where it doesn’t itch. He argued that by paying greater attention to ordinary linguistic practice, or “language games,” we could make these problems cease to matter or disappear altogether.
Much has changed since Wittgenstein’s day. Now, by simply hiring a good publicist, philosophers can clear up such problems once and for all. “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, and a healthy helping of popular culture clears the cobwebs from Kant,” declares a recent sales pitch from the editor of Blackwell’s Philosophy and Pop Culture Series. “Philosophy has had a bad public relations problem for a few centuries now. This series aims to change that, showing that philosophy is relevant to your life—and not just for answering the big questions like ‘To be or not to be?’ but for answering the little questions, ‘To watch or not to watch South Park?’” Blackwell is hardly the only player in the “pop goes philosophy” market. Similar books offered by the publisher Open Court include Jimmy Buffett and Philosophy: The Porpoise Driven Life; Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale; The Atkins Diet and Philosophy: Chewing the Fat with Kant and Nietzsche; and The Undead and Philosophy: Chicken Soup for the Soulless.
Among contemporary philosophers, even the best and the brightest can’t resist the blandishments of the pop philosophical turn, and there is no way of avoiding the fact that the net result has been to define philosophy down. Two years ago New School philosophy professor Simon Critchley published, to considerable acclaim, The Book of Dead Philosophers. Inspired by Cicero’s adage, later adopted by Montaigne, “To study philosophy is nothing but to prepare one’s self to die,” Critchley advanced the premise that we can tell a lot about philosophers—and about their philosophies—by examining the ways they died. According to Critchley, although we are accustomed to viewing philosophers as paragons of virtue, the exemplar effect can prove rather onerous for the layperson. Yet to study great philosophers’ modalities of morbidity “humanizes them and shows that, despite the lofty reach of their intellect, they have to cope with the hand life deals them like the rest of us.” From Critchley’s lighthearted tome, we learn that Heraclitus suffocated to death in cow dung; Diogenes committed suicide simply by holding his breath; La Mettrie succumbed at a dinner party to the effects of a rancid truffle paté; Heinrich Heine’s droll last words were “God will pardon me. It’s his métier”; Michel de Montaigne was struck by a horse, and Nietzsche may have died after kissing one. As one wag quipped, Critchley’s originality lies in the fact that he takes his bearings from the tombstone rather than from the philosopher’s stone.
With Examined Lives, James Miller presents us with an eminently serious and readable study of the relationship between philosophy and life conduct, one that, to employ a metaphysical analogy, subsists on a higher ontological plane than Critchley’s droll morbidity or Blackwell’s pop philosophical indulgences. Miller laments that “Modern textbooks generally scant the lives of philosophers, reinforcing the contemporary perception that philosophy is best understood as a purely technical discipline, revolving around specialized issues in semantics and logic.” In many respects, it was Wittgenstein who set the tone for modern philosophy’s retrenchment when, in Philosophical Investigations, he meekly observed that philosophy “leaves everything as it is.” As a specialized, technical discipline, philosophy has become part and parcel of the “intellectualization and rationalization” of all spheres of life that Max Weber bemoaned in the early twentieth century. As a result, philosophy has lost touch with its original, existential moorings. It was born in the robust marketplace of Athens 2,400 years ago; today it subsists on life support in arid seminar rooms. It is the experiential origins of philosophy—philosophy as a mode of “being-in-the-world”—that Miller, to his credit, sets out to resuscitate in Examined Lives.