Thursday, November 15, 2012

Biographies, Philosophies, and People of Flesh and Blood

One of the works of philosophy that's had the greatest influence on my own beliefs is Miguel de Unamuno's Del sentimiento tragico de la vida (1913). It's an odd little book: an important precursor to existentialism, deeply personal, less logically rigorous and more creative than most philosophy (but of course that's the point). The main concern is the conflict between faith and reason, framed here as the conflict between our desire to believe in God (which is really a desire for immortality) and our inability to do so. If this topic sounds boring or irrelevant to you, I assure you that I usually feel the same. But with the possible exception of Kierkegaard, no one renders it so urgent and exciting as Unamuno. He writes from a very down-to-earth perspective, although he's not beyond quoting quite often Spanish, Latin, Greek, German, English, French, and Danish texts-- texts which, frustratingly, he rarely bothers to translate.

I was recently reminded of the first chapter of Del sentimiento, "El hombre de carne y hueso" ("the man of flesh and bones"). Unamuno's point is that one cannot separate the ideas from the man (or woman, although in Unamuno it is nearly always the former). If this seems obvious to you, you're probably not a philosopher. Long before Wimsatt and Beardsley introduced literary critics to the "intentional fallacy," logicians identified the ad hominem fallacy. What matters is whether the ideas of Aquinas and Foucault are true (or in today's terms, "useful"), and these are seen as existing in a transcendent sphere, independent of the lives and personalities of the people who thought them up. Unamuno passionately disagrees-- me too-- and what follows is a re-humanization of thinkers such as Spinoza (timid and generally unhappy), Kant (a control freak who did the same things at the same times, every day), Kierkegaard (melancholic and lovelorn), and others.

The ad hominem fallacy still prevails in academia, among other places. I could talk at length about deconstruction and différance and phallagocentrism, but I couldn't tell you what Derrida was like as an undergrad or a friend or a lover. And of course, this is just how Derrida would prefer it, il n'y a pas de hors texte and all that

I now know a small fraction of each of these three areas after reading this piece in the London Review of Books on a new biography of Derrrida. It turns out that Derrida's professors, big surprise, found his papers incomprehensible. Foucault remarked that he wasn't sure whether to give him an A or an F. He was also somewhat of a ladies man and deeply loyal to his friends, even when they turned out to be raving uxoricides or unrepentant Nazi sympathizers. These biographical tidbits aren't just fun, they're important to anyone who takes deconstruction seriously.

Why do women and men of flesh and blood matter? The point isn't to reductively explain the Oedipal Complex solely in terms of Freud's attraction to his mother, or to attribute Calvin's harsh view of the body to the agonizing pain he was in throughout the final decade of his life. It's simply to recognize that our ideas are shaped by our personal circumstances and vice-versa. After all, what good is an idea if it doesn't alter the way you live.

Now, am I about to read a 600-page biography of Derrida? Hell no-- I'm still only half-way through Keith Richards' Life, and haven't even started Derek Pearsall's Life of Chaucer. But I'm glad it exists.

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