“How Can I be a Logician before I’m a Human Being?” The Role of Biography in the Understanding of Intellectuals, Seymour Biography Lecture, 22 September 2014
“I don’t even know who this guy is….” I thought while RSVPing for the Seymour Biography lecture in Melbourne, held last night. When I looked the books he’s written, I understand why. While I’ve read many historical and literary biographies, I must confess to not being overly attracted to biographies of philosophers and scientists. However, in my own work on Judge Willis, I share the problem of working on a man who has a body of work in the intellectual realm (in my own case, an accumulation of addresses to a jury and written judgements) which, while abstract and de-personalized (in a way that, perhaps, a fiction oeuvre for a writer is not), is also integral to his own identity.
Ray Monk is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southampton, coming from a background in the philosophy of mathematics. Although his four works are based on philosophers and, more recently, a scientist, he does not believe that biography necessarily contributes to an understanding of all philosophers and moreover, that you can’t evaluate the philosophy in terms of the life of its proponent. However, he was attracted to write about Wittgenstein after reading two very different appraisals of Wittgenstein’s work and concluding that, if these writers had understood Wittgenstein as a man, they would not have developed particular misunderstands in their analysis.
In a very academic-y way, he investigated the methodology of biography writing before embarking on his biography of Wittgenstein. In effect, he followed Biography 101, commencing with classical biographies, Samuel Johnson and Boswell, Virginia Woolf, and ending up with Richard Ellman’s Oscar Wilde and Andrew Hodge’s Turing: The Enigma as exemplars for his own work.
In his presentation, he focussed on Johnson’s own reflections on biography that he expressed through two articles ‘Biography’ in The Rambler in 1750 and ‘On Biography’ in The Idler 1759. He addressed five questions from Johnson:
1. What is the relation between biography of other genres, most particularly history and fiction? His answer- there’s an overlap.
2. Who deserves a biography? Many philosophers don’t live sufficiently interesting lives to warrant a biography, he said.
3. What details to include? He mentioned that there were facts that he had omitted from his two-volume work on Russell – a publication that he seemed oddly apologetic about. He explained that had he included them, they would have completely skewed the response to the book, and so he omitted them.
4. What are the moral responsibilities of the biographer? He identified three- to the subject; to the public and to the truth. Although he nominated the ultimate responsibility to the truth, he noted that surviving relatives often have a stake as well.
5. Can one know the inner life? Johnson believed that this was not possible: “By conjecture only can one man judge of another’s motives or sentiments”. Monk disputed this very 18th century view, giving examples in his books where he had looked to action as a window on the inner life.
There is a particular challenge, I think, in writing biographies of intellectuals, as opposed to biographies of politicians or literary figures. There is the content of their philosophy, as well as their own life as part of a familial, historical and intellectual milieu. Monk noted the tendency of academic biographers, in particular, to give a quote from the philosopher’s work then in the following paragraph to proceed to paraphrase and explain it. Just leave the quote alone, he advised.
He noted that a biography is not just a collection of facts: that the facts need to be shaped, and that the biographer has a point of view. He finished with a very Wittgensteinian idea that is particularly applicable to biography-writing “The understanding that exists in seeing connections”.
There’s a very good review from the Guardian (10/11/12) of his Oppenheimer book which also discusses Monk as a biographer. You’ll get a good taste of the lecture from this article.
I’ve been frustrated in the past that the Seymour Biography Lecture has been delivered in Canberra and, as far as I’m aware, not in Melbourne as well. But I’ve just found podcasts or transcripts of recent lectures on the NLA site. Ah, isn’t the internet a wonderful thing?