NYT: Writing About a Life of Ideas


Writing About a Life of Ideas

By Richard Reeves, May 19 2014.

When an intellectual dies, there are no heaps of flowers or public mournings. The odd wistful editorial will be written in upmarket newspapers; colloquia organized in ivy-clad colleges. Few Americans will know, for instance, that Ronald Dworkin, a formidable figure in American liberal philosophy, died last year.

In part, this is because intellectuals occupy a small corner of the public imagination. Nobody ever proposes a lecture from Michael Sandel for the Super Bowl halftime show. Also, ideas outlive individuals in any case. Intellectuals stop writing when they die, but they don’t stop publishing. Ideas are immortal. Indeed the true measure of intellectual greatness, according to Goethe, is “posthumous productivity.”

Writing the life of a thinker seems, then, an eccentric activity. As we toil in the archives, any biographer of an intellectual is haunted by a terrible question: “Who cares?” Who cares whether John Stuart Mill (my own biographical subject) had sex with Harriet Taylor or not? (I don’t know. Probably.) Who cares if John Locke traveled from Holland to England with Queen Mary after the Glorious Revolution? (He did not.) Who cares if Ronald Dworkin or John Rawls were nice people, or not? (One of each, it seems.)

When the subject of a biography is a great politician or military leader, the life is what makes the story: what they did, and said, not what they thought. A subject who has had an important and interesting life during interesting times can, in skilled hands, be brought to life like the character of a good novel.

For intellectuals, the life is secondary to the thinking. It is the quality and utility of ideas that count, not the qualities or heroics of their producers. “On Liberty” and “A Theory of Justice” do not require biographical buttressing. They are self-supporting. In which case Martin Heidegger’s succinct note about Aristotle — “the man was born, he worked, and then died” — is more than sufficient.

And yet the ideas cannot be cleaved, in their entirety, from the life — or at least, that’s what biographers have to tell themselves.

There is an inescapable interiority to intellectual biography, since the story is of the mind as much as of the body. Sometimes that interior story is, in itself, gripping. The mental illness and recovery of John Nash — brilliantly captured in Sylvia Nasar’s biography “A Beautiful Mind” — is a case in point. But these are rare exceptions to the rule.

Sometimes the intellectual has played a part on other stages, too: John Stuart Mill, for instance, was a controversial Member of Parliament, and an important polemist in Victorian political life. The contemporary scholar Amartya Sen directly influences Indian politics, has established new divisions of the United Nations and new universities, and advised countless governments. When the intellectual is a public one, the biographical task is less arduous.

But more often than not, the daily lives of intellectuals are, bluntly, rather dull — and have become more so since the professionalism of philosophy in the 20th century. John Rawls, who died in 2002, was the towering figure of 20th-century American philosophy, but I do not envy his biographer: quiet life, happy marriage, great thoughts.

Michael Ignatieff, the Canadian academic-cum-politician who has written admiringly about Isaiah Berlin — “what can I say, I loved the guy!” — suggests a different motivation. “Our thoughts and lives are constantly interacting,” he told me. “We think about our lives, sometimes we change our lives because of our thoughts, and vice versa. That’s the human condition.

“Intellectuals are ordinary people, with the same tragedies and the same frailties as the rest of us. But they are elite thinkers. So they can offer a case study of how ideas spring from and shape the content of a life.”

The life of an intellectual, Mr. Ignatieff claims, provides a petri dish for the universal human experiment of thinking, being and doing. It’s a lovely idea. The trouble is that intellectuals seem no better at it than anyone else. They often think great thoughts, while being ignoble characters. Maybe Mill and Berlin and John Dewey were noble characters. But Marx was a serial adulterer, Karl Popper was a pompous narcissist, and Heidegger was a fascist. Elite thinkers, maybe: but as amateurish humans as the rest of us.

Rather than attempting to turn a great thinker into a greater person, our goal is simply to cast a different light on our subject’s ideas, in the hope of seeing them a little more clearly. Berlin’s liberalism is expressed in breezy, almost flimsy, prose. But once you know that as a Russian Jew, he escaped from Lenin’s Petrograd and that he wrote against the backdrop of the Holocaust and at the height of the Cold War, you read him differently. Knowing that Mill lost his utilitarian faith at the age of 20 explains, in part, why his “Utilitarianism” is, by his standards, such a shoddy piece of work.

By animating the motivation of the intellectual, biographers can also help to prevent misunderstandings, or an inappropriate retrofitting of modern concerns onto old ideas. “On Liberty” was written as a warning against Victorian social conformity, not against state power — which is the use to which contemporary conservatives put the essay. Of course we can use the intellectual tools intellectuals leave us to tackle modern problems — otherwise there is little point in reading them. But we should know the purposes for which they were originally fashioned. We need the history of an idea to use that idea well. And that means, very often, the history of the person too.

Weaving together the drama of the mind and the earthly events of real life is a delicate task. There is a constant danger of turning a life event into an explanation for an idea, thereby creating an “aha!” moment. “Aha! So that’s why Freud hated women/Mill turned to Coleridge/Keynes feared unemployment.”

These connections are deliciously tempting to the biographer, since they validate our entire enterprise. Sadly, it is rarely possible to connect life event A with idea B with any degree of plausibility. The most we can usually do is point to a potential relationship between the development of an idea and the trials of everyday life, and leave the judgment to the reader.

But on the other hand, the fear of creating inauthentic connections can lead biographers to treat the person as entirely distinct from the intellect, and simply narrate the events of their ordinary life. For one thing, this is often spine-crackingly dull; no sane person cares what John Locke ate for breakfast in Holland. More important, a “what-John-did-next” approach to intellectual biography misses the point. We care about the ideas, and so we care about the life to the extent that it bears upon, illuminates and revivifies them.

“Us biographers can render visible the drama of intellectual life,” says Mr. Ignatieff. “And this can give life to what intellectuals write, and help people understand them more deeply.”

Biographers of intellectuals are, in the end, biographers of ideas rather than of individuals. Our hope is to bring those ideas into higher definition, by describing their human provenance. It’s a modest enough task. But it’s enough.

Richard V. Reeves is the author of “John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand” and a Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

See Richard Reeves, Writing About a Life of Ideas, The New York Times, May 19 2014.

(Emphasis added)