Five Best Biographies of Philosophers

From a Wall Street Journal story headlined “Five Best: Biographies of Philosophers”:

Selected by David Edmonds, the author of “Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein
By Ray Monk (1990)

1. It’s barely 30 years old, but this feels like the Great Granddaddy of philosophical biography. The book’s subtitle, “The Duty of Genius,” perfectly captures the subject. If the Austrian-born Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) doesn’t deserve the “genius” tag, then nobody does—but his intellectual gifts were for him a heavy psychological burden. Ray Monk brilliantly portrays Wittgenstein’s tortured soul (he was often on the verge of suicide) and his brutal, uncompromising approach to life.

The philosopher grew up in one of Europe’s richest families, but after World War I gave all his money to his siblings. At around the same time, believing he had solved all the problems of philosophy, he abandoned academic life, becoming, variously, a schoolteacher, a gardener and an architectural assistant. His subsequent return to philosophy propelled the discipline in an entirely new direction. Although more has emerged about Wittgenstein’s life since the book’s publication, this will forever remain the definitive biography of its subject.

Frank Ramsey
By Cheryl Misak (2020)

2. How could someone so young have contributed so much? When Frank Ramsey died in 1930 at the age of 26 (the medical cause remains unclear), he had already made seminal contributions to philosophy, mathematics, logic, probability, decision theory and economics. He was a far more benign character than Wittgenstein, whom he knew well; indeed, while he was still an undergraduate, he translated “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” (1921), the only philosophy book Wittgenstein would publish in his lifetime.

Ramsey was also close to other intellectual luminaries, such as John Maynard Keynes and Bertrand Russell. Cheryl Misak’s biography has helped shine some much-needed light on this shockingly underappreciated figure. There are numerous discoveries named after Ramsey, including the tongue-in-cheek Ramsey Effect, the realization that a breakthrough is not a breakthrough after all because it has already been discovered—by Ramsey.

At the Existentialist Café

By Sarah Bakewell (2016)

3. Look at that cocktail, Raymond Aron said to his fellow French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre as the two sat in a café. “You could make a philosophy out of this.” Hence the subtitle of this book, “Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails.” This is a group biography of the philosophers who together fashioned what became known as existentialism, the study of our supposed freedom to choose how we act.

The book’s main characters are Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, with strong supporting roles from Albert Camus, Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The Nazi-supporting Martin Heidegger looms large—magnetic and evil. We read how French existentialism was imported from Germany, but took on a sensibility of its own. We read about some of the complex personal relationships—including the incongruous love affair between Heidegger and the Jewish Hannah Arendt. And we discover how existentialism and its philosophical cousin, phenomenology—the study of things as they appear to our experience—are linked to communism and fascism. All masterly explained by a writer with a novelist’s sensibility.

Becoming Beauvoir
By Kate Kirkpatrick (2019)

4. This is far from the first biography of Simone de Beauvoir. However, she is usually presented as the junior partner to Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom she had a lengthy relationship. According to the received wisdom, Beauvoir was Sartre’s popularizer, his disciple or muse, with little intellectual originality of her own. Using recently published documents, “Becoming Beauvoir” sets the record straight. Beauvoir and Sartre engaged in intense arguments, and she influenced him as much as he influenced her. Kate Kirkpatrick shows that Beauvoir’s own accounts of her life are at least as interesting for what they leave out as what they reveal. And it turns out her love life was more tangled than bindweed.

Metaphysical Animals
By Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman (2022)

5. Meticulously researched, “Metaphysical Animals” paints a vivid portrait of the friendship between four remarkable female philosophers: Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley and Iris Murdoch. In the initial years following World War II, Oxford became the center of analytic philosophy. Fashionable at the time were philosophies that stressed ethics as being subjective, perhaps even meaningless. The thesis of “Metaphysical Animals” is that these women shared a common project: to nail morality back into firmer ground. “This task was made all the more urgent,” Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman write, “by the darkness of the reality that surrounded them: war, murder, displacement, trauma, suffering.”

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