The Bad Boys of Philosophy


Here’s a passage I so admired in a review in the Times Literary Supplement, my weekly reading, five years ago, that I’ve kept it earmarked ever since. It sums up what philosophy means to many of us who take it seriously, and it offers a view of the advantages and disadvantages of its popularization:

 Philosophical waking tours, cafes tendering courses on “how to live”, blogs     promoting “thinking” as the way to get the most out of our lives, the rising popularity of news-stand philosophy magazines and of philosophical counselling (Plato not Prozac): these are signs of the times. They seem to offer one answer to the problem of filling the great secularist hole in modern life, without asking us to sign up to the weirdness of one religious cult or another. At the same time they provide a tonic reaction to the narrowing of philosophy to a technical discipline. After all, philosophy, the love of wisdom, has never entirely come to terms with being one academic specialism among others. Its subject matter – truth, morality, embodiment, finitude – raises questions that concern us all. The new café culture provides space for people to think about things squeezed out by the compartmentalization of the academy. Yet they remain artificial, leisure-time spaces, and to this extent part of the problem, rather than a real answer to the deracination of knowledge. (Claire Wills, TLS, Oct 30, 2009, my emphases in bold)

This is an excellent summary of what has happened to philosophy over the last 100 years in terms of both its academic and social status. It reminds us how those big questions which concern us all have moved out into the margins precisely because of extreme technicality and fracturing within the discipline.

  1. The Great Secularist Hole

The great secularist hole is I think what Nietzsche called the death of God.

My 1996 book on Nietzsche

My 1996 book on Nietzsche

Many academic philosophers today would say this is irrelevant to what they do, or only relevant insofar as work on the brain, rather than the soul, or even the mind, is commonly, though not uncontroversially, accepted as the way to understanding how have knowledge and make decisions. For other philosophers, however, including two principal naughty boys I want to talk about here, Heidegger and Derrida, the death of God meant confronting the problem of deracination – a term that Heidegger himself might have used in the 1920s, had he not been inventing his own terminology. It meant worrying about the fact that knowledge was not grounded or guaranteed by any principle greater than the mechanics of the individual human mind, which is hardly itself constant and universal when it comes to perception. Descartes, when he founded modern scientific method with his requirement that we doubt everything we know until we can be absolutely sure we are not deceived, brought God in by the back door; made it the way God had designed the universe that our right perceptions should correspond to what in fact was true and real. Descartes couldn’t himself quite make that radical step and abandon the Christian faith altogether. Besides, these were treasonable thoughts for a philosopher in the early 17th century. As late as the later nineteenth century Nietzsche didn’t get a certain university job because he was an atheist. But, come the twentieth century, deracination could no longer be ignored, in the face of massively disorienting industrialization, great wars and political disasters. The old empires and the warring nation states were still claiming God was on their side, but with that they collapsed. Meanwhile mechanisization destroyed the compensations of a life close to nature, and bedded in slow-changing community. All this had an effect on the viability of ‘eternal’ concepts, as well as the concept of eternity.

Derrida translated philosophy’s new problems into the difficulty of capturing truth as ‘presence’. He wrote of the omnipresence of the ‘trace’, something like Freud’s unconscious, into which ideas and events slip back, away from presence, into a state without energy or direction or motive, as if all that were human about them had been suspended.

See my article 'The Sad Rider' in Common Knowledge Vol 20 No 3 Fall 2014

See my article on Derrida ‘The Sad Rider’ in
Common Knowledge Vol 20 No 3 Fall 2014

  1. The Narrowing of Philosophy to a Technical Discipline

If ‘the death of God’ meant philosophy lost its status as the discipline of disciplines, if it meant philosophy lost its godlike claim to omniscience then perhaps  ‘the compartmentalization of the academy’ was a measure of professional self-defence. Nietzsche and Heidegger, inveterate critics of the academy, both felt their place was therefore outside it. Philosophy in the early twentieth-century, in Britain, and in Vienna and parts of Germany, became quite deliberately and self-consciously a handmaiden to the sciences. It became a way of cleaning up concepts, a way of stopping philosophy at least from using words like truth and goodness which didn’t obviously apply to something in the world. This move on the part of Logical Positivism, and on the part of individual giants like Russell and Wittgenstein in Cambrdige, tended to shut out as embarrassing and unprofessional talk of ‘the big idea’.

Philosophy at this point very readily divided itself into an analytic branch, which is to say largely anglo-american, and a Continental, or European, or Franco-German-Italian branch. From Cambridge all professional scrupulousness and caution seemed to reside in anglophone inquiry, and all inadmissable fantasy flourished in a misty German twilight and a willful French intellectualism and obscurity. The division was very marked when, with a little hindsight, after the war, one could set Russell and Wittgenstein against the likes of Husserl and Heidegger and Sartre and so assess the way philosophy had developed in the first fifty years of the century. An absolute divide has become less obvious in our own time with greater understanding of the subtleties of Wittgenstein, and with contemporary analytic philosophers like Hillary Puttnam and John McDowell crossing the line, and with sober-minded Continentals like Paul Ricoeur insisting on staying with the big picture. To some extent now perhaps the anglo-saxon/continental divide has been replaced by a division between those who feel philosophy is a science, and whose work is close to neuroscience, and those who would retain philosophy for the humanities. With certain philosophers – Nietzsche is one – there is a tug of war going on to place them in one or other camp. While the scientists have a tendency towards the utilitarian, the humanists evoke art, imagination and history. Well, you can see where my bias tends.

It’s also the case that these are grand generalizations to which exceptions can be found at every point.

Still I’m risking them to help draw the map of where we stand, in the present century, confronting ‘that problem’ which requires a real answer, of the ‘deracination of knowledge’. In searching for that answer we have perhaps not moved on much from the 1920s when Heidegger was at his most innovative, just as in art we have not moved on from Duchamp’s famous urinal, presented, and rejected, to the Academy as a work of art. We don’t quite know what to base our accounts of ‘truth, morality, embodiment and finitude’ on. (And by the way what a great list that is, which could seduce any of us into devoting the next few years to philosophy.)

  1. The Great Secularist Hole (ii)

Let’s stay with the art parallel for a moment. Insofar as Heidegger and Derrida devoted their careers to confronting the ungroundedness of knowledge, both of them had something of the artistic 1920s about them. I’ve seen Heidegger and Dada mentioned in the same sentence, for instance. And indeed Heidegger, born in 1889, did his most innovative work in the 1920s and 1930s. As for Derrida, one of his inspirations when his career took off in the late 1960s was Ulysses, with its richly associative, meandering, anti-utilitarian language. Joyce’s landmark and inimitable novel was published in 1922.  Do these two have answers to the Great Secularist Hole that the specialization of philosophy was trying to cover over? Are they the bad boys of philosophy, or something else altogether, either to be celebrated or, like the big question, pushed aside? Certainly the mainstream in anglo-saxon philosophizing still either dislikes or misunderstands them, or both. All readers of Heidegger have to confront his brief Nazism, rightly, but that may also give them an excuse for not considering his contribution. Derrida’s enfant terrible image and as one who disrupted accepted procedures and mocked compartmentalization, and always had the unconscious in mind, has slightly faded since his death in 2004 but in many quarters he is remembered as a destroyer.

On Derrida see my article 'The Sad Rider' in Common Knowledge Vol 20 No 3 Fall 2014

On Derrida see my article ‘The Sad Rider’ in
Common Knowledge Vol 20 No 3 Fall 2014

Heidegger of course came from a simple but devout religious background. His father was the village cooper and sexton at the local church  and he received a Catholic education and scholarships and might have become a Jesuit priest if his nerve had not failed him. Interested in biology in the wake of the theory of evolution and also a competent mathematician, once he was at university he switched from theology to the natural sciences and philosophy. He wrote a thesis on an interesting medieval thinker, Duns Scotus, who in a way is the earliest naughty boy of this story. It’s from his name ‘Duns’ that we get our word ‘dunce’ – the boy or girl at the bottom of the class, made to wear the dunce’s hat because they just don’t get what the teacher is saying. So it was with Duns Scotus. He went metaphorically to the bottom of the class for not having learnt his rote lesson on Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas correctly. This Franciscan monk from Scotland, disagreed with the Thomist view of creation as hierarchical, from cabbages to kings, and insisted that every object had its own value in its here-and-now-ness. This idea that nothing, in its actual present existence, was inferior or superior to some other object, let’s say a diamond or a book, had a radical effect on Heidegger as he finished his doctorate in 1916.  It had that effect because Heidegger was already looking for a way out from the hierarchical philosophical authority of the church. Haeccitas became for him, I think, a lead-in to a kind of protestantism, or faith grounded in personal inwardness, although that opened him up to the worry that in subjectivity was no ground for certainty.  One of his key ideas pre-war was that truth, and philosophy itself, still had to have a foundation, a Boden as he said in German, that grounded its authority. He once wrote to his student Hannah Arendt, with whom he was having an affair – a naughty boy in more ways than one – that the only way he could grasp the idea of eternity was what struck him when out on a walk in the mountains he came across a single flower growing beside a rock. So he had to find a way making the event of that flower an intimation of true being; at the same time as finding a new language in which to say it, not to slip back into traditional forms of metaphysics (Plato and Aristotle) that had informed Church teaching.

Heidegger wanted to get away from metaphysical abstraction, and in a way every time a mainstream philosopher complains about Heidegger’s invented language for a new philosophy he or she either misunderstands what that project was or prejudges it a failure, because it doesn’t ‘mean’ what philosophy has meant before.

Heidegger was a master of classical philology, and one of the ways he attempted to do philosophy was by paying close attention to derivations, and historical meanings, and nuances. He read the history of human minds into the etymology of key terms, and found in that history moments when philosophical understanding broke away from the sheer presentness of ‘being’. Above all he believed that with the Romans a tradition of abstraction was born in philosophy which led away from the real presence of things around us and beside us, towards a science based upon knowledge and perception, which rendered being subordinate to knowledge. He believed, and set out in his masterwork of 1927, Being and Time, that first philosophy had to become ontology, the philosophy of being, once more, and not epistemology, or the method of knowledge. Descartes called his Meditations of 1641 ‘first philosophy’ and premissed that method on the capacity of the knowing subject to say: I know. But against Descartes’ cogito ergo sum Heidegger set his own notion of the human as Dasein, which means literally Being Here. He said our condition was to be thrown into a state of being among beings in this space and this time, and we had to begin from there.

I talk a lot about Heidegger in my latest book.

I talk a lot about Heidegger in my latest book.


The subject of knowledge, the I of I think, was not valuable to Heidegger insofar as he rejected knowledge as an appropriation of the object by the human subject, rather like a butterfly set on a pin. He could trace this prejudice in favour of the knowing subject back to Plato, but in modern terms Heidegger’s attack was against the Enlightenment conception of reason, instrumental reason, as is often said, with its roots in the Cartesian cogito, all of which seemed to Heidegger confrontational, whereas the way to be in being was to come alongside fellow objects, to be part of the same whole. As you can hear from this gloss, a great deal of what has passed into contemporary politics, and also a branching out of philosophy into something close to lifestyle, seems to have taken its cue from Heidegger. Our world really has changed to resemble his much more closely but, perhaps because of the Nazi taint, there has not been any rush to give him the credit.

Actually I have many qualms about this relinquishing of Enlightenment values, but I think historically we should understand Heidegger’s position, the better to understand our own.

He wasn’t dismissing scientific procedure. But he was doing something other philosophers have also done from time to time, namely to insist on a human relationship to being which is not only cognitive, which doesn’t depend on abstract learning. For reasons which also lay deep in his own psyche, but which made philosophical sense, Heidegger pointed to a foundational way of being in which the inanimate, animate, and the human overlap and in which we are above all we are conscious of our human being as thrown into a world where sooner or later, with death, we will vanish again.

As I say, other philosophers had also travelled in Heidegger’s direction, long before he did. There was Duns, and then there were a host of anti-Enlightenment rebels across Europe in the ninteenth century, who were his immediate predecessors. Among them you could find perhaps the anti-Western Russians, who wanted to keep their simple culture free of abstraction, and certainly the German Romantics, like Schelling who cherished an anti-modern closeness to nature. Nietzsche was also suspicious of the overstretched claims of reason. There’s no philosophy, he once said, only philosophers. In his turn Nietzsche’s tool to undermine reason was a kind of super-subjectivity, based on the kind of psychology that Freud – another naughty boy of philosophy – would disclose to the world in the next generation or so.


My 2000 book on Freud

My 2000 book on Freud

What links all the naughty boys of philosophy I’ve mentioned so far is one thing: they were concerned with how to live. Freud was concerned with making life less difficult for his patients. Nietzsche struggled to get free of inherited religious constraints, and then illness, and live at all. Hence the aggressive-assertive edge to the joy at being alive he wanted to reintroduce to philosophy.


I think analytical philosophers are often also concerned for themselves with philosophy as  ‘the way to live’ but that their choice is always subordinate to an intellectual process called philosophy, with rules that pace Derrida make it possible to practise and procedures that pace Heidegger have a validity independent of the threat of metaphysical emptiness.


It’s only that the bad boys had spiritual needs to great to be thus contained. Some would say that Heidegger was all along talking about God when he said Being. Meanwhile Nietzsche, I’ve argued, lost a great deal when ‘God died’ and his philosophy of joy was in his own terminology a ‘superabundant substitute’.

My 1996 book on Nietzsche

My 1996 book on Nietzsche

To Derrida especially, Heidegger’s philosophy of Dasein, Being-Here, made gripping sense as a response to twentieth-century social, economic and political conditions. But not only Heidegger. In Heidegger, Nietzsche, Freud and Marx, all in some way anti-establishment figures in their day, Derrida, born in 1932, found the tools to turn himself into a playful spirit and a mask-wearer, something philosophers weren’t used to and which made them impatient. After he died his most appreciative colleague, Jean Luc Nancy, took him to task for too much personal showing-off. But, in Derrida’s defence, he had the idea of philosophy as a series of performances attempting the truth and never getting there. His was version of philosophy that insisted that if answers were reached they should always be viewed under erasure, so no one could take them as absolute truths.  Above all as a historian of philosophy his message was a a serious one: start anywhere and keep starting again. Don’t stick with the canonical view. Don’t build an establishment.

Derrida broke down the boundaries between philosophy, literature, and literary theory. He was a performance philosopher, whose work also influenced and touched on art. He was intensely political, the result surely of having been born Jewish in North Africa and seeing himself in more than one sense, compared with the culture of Paris, as marginal. What he stripped philosophy of, I think, was its capacity to comfort (which is not to say that his writing could not suddenly sport a beautiful conceit.) He was suspicious of the Platonic-Romantic idea of the inner life as the source of truth, and finding it still in operation, even when reduced to the idea of the first-person warrant and the guarantee of reason, whatever reason was, borrowing from the analytical philosophers he attacked the very reliability of the language in which such kinds of statement were couched. He was suspicious of nebulous concepts of soul and spirit used to summon up vague uncritical agreement and perhaps at the same time being turned into tools of political oppression. In the back of his mind was always the Holocaust and that question of how it could be that a man could listen to Schubert in the evening and commit mass murder the next morning. Derrida didn’t mean there could be no equivalent of the inner life, but that it would need to describe itself differently, and philosophers would need to pay very close attention to that description, to make out of it valid philosophical currency.

Another important feature of Derrida is his sense of the need to defend all writing and saying from the distortions of the media and the market, which means withholding truth, and meanwhile even writing in a way so as not to be quotable.

Recalls for a moment how the Nazis classified bad books in three categories:

Those that should be destroyed by fire

Those that should be kept in the poison cupboard

Doubtful cases that should be reexamined

( See Jean-Michel Palmier Weimar in Exile p.47)

Derrida seems to have turned this practice, from such an abominable source, into a game to undermine Western smugness. He didn’t want the West to feel well about itself.

Probably we should see him as a symptom of the difficulty the West has had with itself, since the war, and with renewed pressure since the end of the cold war. He was a symptom of the difficulty of self-belief for colonial powers in retreat, for Western rationality after the Holocaust. The West had imposed through culture a set of right answers, endorsed by past philosophy and a reading of tradition, but these claims looked naïve and untenable to honest philosophical inspection at the end of the twentieth century. He played a difficult role, and one that he guessed would be reduced to an inert trace after his end.

But at least Derrida has resisted, whereas one feels that Nietzsche and Freud have been emancipated into establishment discourses despite themselves, while it remains easy to keep Heidegger at bay.

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