The Book of Dead Philosophers
By Simon Critchley
Random House, 265 pages, $15.95
Whatever you think of his philosophy, or his celebrity, give Simon Critchley this: He’s a courageous writer. It takes an author possessed of true courage (or utter folly) to follow these sentences—“Philosophy begins, then, with … the cultivation of a love of wisdom. Philosophy is erotic, not just epistemic”—with this one: “There has never been a more important time to emphasize this distinction between philosophy and sophistry.”
Mr. Critchley writes these words in “Learning How to Die—Socrates,” one of three stone-cold-serious essays preceding 240 or so chronological pages on “190 or So Dead Philosophers,” from Thales (sixth century B.C.), who “believed that water was the universal substance” and died of thirst, to Simon Critchley (1960–?), whose one-line entry reads “Exit, pursued by bear.” The sympathetic reader can’t help cringing a bit—a collection of gee-whiz obituaries is perhaps not the best place to be stressing the difference between rhetorical suavity and intellectual rigor.
But that’s the minor miracle of The Book of Dead Philosophers: Well before its author’s Shakespearean exit, this would-be novelty item somehow confirms itself as courageous rather than foolish, profound rather than sophistic. Which is not to say that Mr. Critchley, who, since his arrival at the New School in 2004, has been (arguably) the most prominent philosopher in our philosophically starved city, takes the easy path to scholarly probity. The Book of Dead Philosophers is neither erotic nor epistemic; it’s entertainment, and at first glance the main thing it seems to cultivate is a trove of wisecracks, some quite lovely.
So if these deliriously readable entries are also edifying, it’s in the cocktail-party manner. Factoids abound, delivered in prose that’s always tartly jocular (and sometimes groan-inducing). During his wartime exile, Mr. Critchley tells us, Theodor Adorno lived in sunny Los Angeles, in Brentwood, “just a knife’s throw from where O.J. Simpson ‘allegedly’ murdered his ex-wife.” And: “It was perhaps the No in AdorNo that precipitates his demise,” referring to his “critical ‘No!’” to the 1968 uprisings. John Rawls, meanwhile, “slipped behind the veil of ignorance after heart failure” in 2002.
The jokiness works best in the early chapters devoted to deaths, and lives, predating the fall of Rome. (There are 18 pre-Socratics, physiologists, sages and Sophists alone!) These ancients are well served by a light touch, and a deft insouciance when distinguishing biographical fact from mythological tradition. The consensus may be (“sadly”) that Pythagoras never existed—but Mr. Critchley reports on his aversion to beans, and his ironic death at the edge of a bean field, with extended relish. Beans become, improbably, one of several absurdist leitmotifs (see Metrocles, the Cynic who tried to starve himself after “reportedly fart[ing] when rehearsing a speech”); death-after-castration is another. Indeed, for every Pythagoras or Diogenes or Epicurus (to say nothing of the blockbuster Socrates–Plato–Aristotle trilogy), Mr. Critchley unearths three or four lost Greeks only to bury them deeper in philosophical obscurity. The full entry for Demetrius, a (big-“P”) Peripatetic: “Fatally bitten by an asp.”
In his 12-page research bibliography, the good professor has the rare decency to admit to using Wikipedia (cautiously), and it’s no slight to say that the body of his book reads like a fine example of that new, infinitely amusing art form, the Wikipedia list. The problem, then, remains Mr. Critchley’s intermittent insistence that his history of “philosophical deaths” is itself a work of philosophy. “[M]y hope,” he writes in his (first) introduction, “is that … a cumulative series of themes will emerge that add up to a specific argument about how philosophy might teach one how to die and, by implication, how to live.”
Whatever the pleasures of asps and beans—of Pascal’s gangrene and Rousseau’s collision with a Great Dane—no specific philosophical argument ever emerges. Perhaps that’s by design. Might the thrill of death give cover for a different project altogether? Since The Ethics of Deconstruction (1992), Mr. Critchley has occupied a rather strange position: with his brevity and levity, a very English Englishman aloft in the post-Heideggerian cloud generally termed “Continental.” Today’s wary demilitarized zone between the “obscurantist” Continentals and the “reductionist” Anglo-Americans (or “analytics”)—with each tradition claiming sovereignty over all philosophy—runs deep. Or, as Marx wrote in 1848, in “The Poverty of Philosophy”: “The Englishman transforms men into hats, the German hats into ideas.”
These divisions are transitory and, finally, illusory. By placing Levinas and Derrida, longtime foci of his work, alongside Rawls, Quine and Donald Davidson in a chronology reaching back to Thales and including Cicero, Copernicus, Confucius and Carnap, Mr. Critchley is perhaps engaging in a most dangerous, and arguably courageous, philosophical activity: syncretism.
If The Book of Dead Philosophers is any guide, 2,000 years from now, our fiercely patrolled academic borders will seem as arcane as the third-century B.C. stand-off between Stoics and Epicureans. The question will be how our philosophers—how our collective philosophy—dealt with the intractable realities of human embodiment given the peculiar constraints of the era. It would be wise, Simon Critchley suggests, for self-declared philosophers to consider all the tools available, lest our thinking end up like Strato of Lampsacus, who “became so thin that it is said he felt nothing when he died.”
Jonathan Liu, a writer living in Brooklyn, reviews books regularly for The Observer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.