Philosophers’ Lives

Philosopher-biographer Ray Monk last week told The Guardian that “Some philosophers are scornful of the notion that the life can help us understand the work. Wittgenstein had a notion of understanding as seeing connections rather than building a theory. When you understand a person you see connections, you don’t build a theory about them. Biography can be like that.” 

I think the connection can be made in a stronger way than Wittgenstein made it. Recounting the life in philosophy of my friend George Ross (1935-2011) before an audience at Conway Hall this week, I took Goethe as my model. The personality of Goethe (1749-1832), poet, novelist, scientist, minor statesman, sensualist, watercolorist and so on and so on was so rich and so diverse that it seemed exactly to underpin what he called his method in the natural sciences. He thought that the weakness of science was that it was only a set of theories and, yes, just as Wittgenstein meant it, that experience was more flexible. Goethe called it ‘An active scepticism: which is tirelessly concerned to overcome itself, in order, through regulated experience, to arrive conditionally at a kind of dependable knowledge.’ [My translation of Maxims and Reflections No. 299]

One of George Ross’s great philosophical heroes was Goethe, and what Goethe did was stand up to  Kant on the question of whether we could really know the world aroundus as opposed to what our human faculties made of it. Goethe found Kant narrow and his theory deadening. Where Kant had a theory of mind, Goethe avoided defining any specific organ or location for knowledge. He preferred rather to talk of Geist, a notoriously difficult term to translate, and which Hegel would use after him. The philosopher Walter Kaufmann, Goethe’s greatest twentieth-century champion in philosophy, defined what Goethe intended as ‘an inclusive term for feeling and intelligence, reason and emotion, perception and will, thought and unconscious.’ (Kaufmann Goethe Kant and Hegel (1980) p.24. Geist was a poetic, rather than a philosophical term, but one which had the virtue of not over-defining, not defining at all, those components which are not only cognitive in the narrow sense, but make up the human person. My friend George seemed to embody that Goethean openness towards the world.

This is Goethe in a decade when he held a position of state. It’s a pity we don’t have any image of him, say, conducting his research into plants.


For George what mattered as an attitude to life were self-knowledge and ongoing inquiry. The core of the Goethean attitude was the desire, and exercise,  of personal autonomy. As a refugee from Communist Romania George cared about that autonomy intensely. By it he also meant what Vaclav Havel meant by ‘living in truth’, something the Communist system of corrupt collective dissembling made impossible.  

The philosophical point would be this. What Goethe meant by happiness shouldn’t be confused it with pleasure.  For Goethe, as for Spinoza, happiness was philosophy’s greatest goal, because inseparable from reality and truth. My friend George Ross was a mathematician and a physicist. But as a philosopher he had a larger-than-Newtonian understanding of reality, exactly, I think, as Spinoza and Goethe did. For both Spinoza b. 1632 and Goethe b.1749 happiness had to do with a receptive attitude to reality. 

Here’s a letter Goethe wrote from Italy in 1786:


I have finally achieved what I wished for and live here with a clarity and peace that since you know me you can well imagine. My habit of seeing and reading all things as they are,  my faith in letting my eye be my complete rejection of any pretention, silently make me so very happy here. Every day a remarkable new object, daily new, great, rare images and an entirety of things that however long one thinks about it and dreams of it, one can never purely imagine [literally: reach in imagination]…what I love most of all is the effect that I can already feel on my soul: it is an inner solidity with which my mind has as it were become stamped; seriousness without dryness and a staid life with joy. The blessed consequences I think I can feel affecting my whole life. [BriefeHamburg edition, II, p.20]


A month later Goethe wrote of his belief that


…a life full of activity and praxis hardly suffices to bring our knowledge to the highest degree of purity. And yet I would contend that the sureness and certainty that we are taking things for what they are, that we can subordinate one to another even the best things, that we can understand everything in relation to other things, is the greatest pleasure that we should strive after, in art as in nature, and in our experience of life. [Briefe II p.30]


For Goethe happiness was a matter of focusing on reality and not being swayed by demons. In an essay on scientific method eight years later,  he described how the elements of subjectivity and objectivity combined in a way that allowed him to judge reality:


…in the transition from experience to judgement, from knowledge to how we put it to use, is where for a human being all his inner enemies threaten, the capacity to fantasize…impatience, hastiness, complacency, stiffness, given ways of thinking, minds made up in advance, taking the easy way out, frivolousness, changeability…all these lie in wait and, unnoticed. overwhelm the observer who, whether engaged in private work or work in the world, appears [my emphasis LC] to be a dispassionate observer. [Der Versuch als Vermittler von Objekt und Subjekt HA XIII, 13-14.]


Because Goethe was an exceptional figure, of the order of Socrates and Dante, and Shakespeare, his method for seeking truth was bound up in an all-embracing personality. That personality was much celebrated in the hundred years after his death. Nietzsche praised his willingness to resist the crowd. [Twilight of the Idols: 49.] Georg Simmel writing before the first world war saw in Goethe an exceptional man who overcame in himself the great divisions that befell modern philosophy, between mind and nature, and the realm of science and that of value. Goethe was the man whose challenge in turn to Newton and to Descartes was the starting-point of an alternative modern tradition carried on by Hegel, Nietzsche and Freud.


Goethe had in the poet Schiller a close friend and fellow writer of great stature, but who had a far less adaptable personality. Schiller was also, as Nietzsche would be, blighted by illness, and so coveted Goethe’s wholeness and roundedness all the more. Together Goethe and Schiller passed through one of the great philosophical friendships, and correspondences, in history in search of the possibility of happiness in the modern world. They worried over how much theory, and self-conscious searching endangered existential well-being, giving rise to a theme that would run right through German literature/thought/philosophy from Goethe to the second world war.


Kaufmann is one source for my thinking Ray Monk’s claim that the personality of the philosopher is part of his philosophy could be made more strongly. Kaufmann insisted that in Socrates, Wittgenstein, J.L. Austin, was the truth of real minds in bodies, not just theories. Of course Ray Monk wrote a marvellous biography of Wittgenstein. The involvement of philosophers’ lives in their work was also a lesson I learnt from Nietzsche, who said that there were no philosophies only philosophers. See the preface to my book Nietzsche in Turin.

George, my dear friend, I hope I honoured you appropriately, by calling you ‘A Goethean in Postmodern London’. For what that postmodernism consisted in, twenty years and ago and still now, watch this space.

This entry was posted in Things German, Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.