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"Wild Philosophy": a Conversation with Jonathan Rée (Keywords: Public Philosophy; History)

White house on hill

Jonathan Rée is a philosopher, historian and author, whose most recent books include A Schoolmaster's War: Harry Ree, British Agent in the French Resistance (2020) and Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English (2019). In this conversation with Ciaran Cummins, Jonathan talks about his notion of “wild philosophy”, how the activity of philosophising and its past are often misunderstood, and the need to look at concepts in their historical settings.

Ciaran Cummins (CC): Prior to the pandemic, you were due to speak on the subject of “Wild Philosophy” for an event organised by this journal. Could you tell me more about it?

Jonathan Rée (JR): One way of defining philosophy, if you’re trying to write a history of it, is to say that it’s about people who were aware of themselves as inheritors of a tradition which they think goes back to the ancient Greeks. They use the word “philosophy” to describe what they’re doing, and they’ve probably read history books saying, “This is what Descartes thinks and this is what Locke thinks.” And they see this as giving them their intellectual identity. My idea of “wild” philosophy is that it’s the kind of philosophy whose practitioners have never heard the word philosophy: they don’t know that there’s any such thing, but they give themselves over to simply thinking things through. They are aware that there are loose ends in their thinking that they need to sort out.

My idea of “wild” philosophy is that it’s the kind of philosophy whose practitioners have never heard the word philosophy.

One of the obvious prompts for wild philosophy is something of a cliché: going out on a clear night and looking at the stars. There is this wonderful Dudley Moore joke, where he says that you would look at the stars, and you take a deep breath, and you think “how bloody insignificant they all are!” There’s a Thomas Hardy twist on this in his poem “Waiting Both”:

A star looks down at me,

And says: “Here I and you

Stand, each in our degree:

What do you mean to do, –

Mean to do?”

I say: “For all I know,

Wait, and let Time go by,

Till my change come.” – “Just so,”

The star says: “So mean I : –

So mean I.”

The idea that the star might think of itself as a very brief flash of existence – that is a wonderful turnaround, a wonderful thought. And it’s exactly the sort of thing that I think can really turn over people’s minds. Take the 1969 moon landing for example. I remember thinking at the time, “What a bore! What a waste of money!” If you can get to Watford, then you can get to the moon, you just go a bit further. But I now know that a lot of people say that knowing that astronauts were looking back on the Earth from the viewpoint on the moon somehow changed everything for them. And maybe all that expenditure on getting a person to the moon was justified because it sparked off all this wild philosophizing. Even if no genuine scientific results had come from it, it caused many people to think hard about their place in the universe – and that in its way is a result!

There are other examples. Experiences of love and friendship can be fertile ground for wild philosophising. Obviously, there is joy and pleasure in them, but often there’s also a certain fear – a fear connected with mortality. You think, “I love this person, and they’re going to die at some point. Maybe I’ll be alive when they die, maybe I won’t”. And perhaps such thoughts form part of what love really is.

Those are just a couple of examples of wild philosophical thinking. But it’s not rare: I reckon it comes as naturally to people as singing or dancing or trying to cook a better meal. I have in fact spent most of my time writing about what you might call “cultivated” varieties, the kind practiced by those who have a strong sense of inheriting “the” philosophical tradition, but I would love to try and write something about this other thing, which is, in some ways, rather more important, but harder to pin down.

CC: That’s really interesting and I really like your examples. Particularly about the moon! I like the idea of, what if it sparked something rather than discovered something?

JR: Indeed, a global philosophy lesson!

CC: In Proletarian Philosophers, you write that you hope to have brought out to the reader the “ordinariness of philosophy as well as its magnificence and power to change people’s lives”, and that you hope that they will see that philosophy is “a carnival not a museum [...] inviting you to join in and make something new”. This attention to the presentation or facilitation of philosophy to bring out its truest, most welcoming form is considered also in your recent book Witcraft. For example, you examine a number of institutions and environments which were deliberately organised for the purposes of nurturing philosophical lives, such as 142 Strand and Thomas Davidson’s numerous such projects. In addition to being “welcoming carnivals”, what do you think the best such endeavours get right?

JR: It’s a good question, but I’m not sure I really know. Maybe I could approach it from another direction. I’m currently working on a book about Karl Marx, designed to show what an interesting, broad-ranging, imaginative, inventive and witty philosophical thinker he was. He may have been lots of other things as well, but he was at least that. I’ve been working on it for a year and he’s still only 21! At present, he’s reading Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy, which had just been published, and there are some extraordinary statements in it which he wrestles with. Hegel says that the history of philosophy is very different from the history of art. Philosophy doesn’t consist of works of art, according to Hegel: they are all different from each other and each has its context and its influences and its maker. But philosophy is not many things, Hegel says: it is one thing. It is a concept, indeed it is the concept. It stems from a universal wish for complete spiritual self-knowledge. That’s all it’s ever been, and the people we call philosophers are people who have contributed, over time, to constructing this single thing, which is bigger than them. Hence, throughout history there’s only been one philosophy. And Hegel does it brilliantly, explaining how all philosophers were essentially, if unwittingly, saying the same thing. Respect to Hegel: his version of the history of philosophy is, in its way, a magnificent construction. What I wanted to do, certainly in Witcraft, was to say “sorry, Hegel, you got it wrong: actually, the history of philosophy does consist in works of art, and they are as individual as particular poems, or as a play by Shakespeare, and you can’t just summarise them.” A phrase that occurs to me here is “a mania for paraphrase”. For Hegel and those who think like him (that is to say for nearly all mainstream historians of philosophy), philosophical doctrines and systems are more real than any of the actual books or words that express them, and more real than the struggles philosophers went through in order to write them. The idea is, in other words, that what matters is the essential philosophical concepts, rather than the ways in which individual philosophers sought to give them expression. And so Hegel assumes that he knows better than them what they were trying to say: for instance, that this is what Descartes really meant – or what he had to mean, in order to pave the way for Spinoza, and so on. Philosophy with all the irregularities airbrushed out.

Basically, what you learn in a philosophy degree is how to paraphrase. That’s why philosophers are such good civil servants and lawyers!

What Hegel created wasn’t quite unprecedented, but it was incredibly influential, causing people to think of philosophy as a subject whose content can be abstracted from works of individual practitioners, unlike, say, poetry or narrative or painting. And it seems to me that even people who think that they have nothing to do with Hegel have been influenced by him to the extent that they think that their task as philosophers is to paraphrase. Basically, what you learn in a philosophy degree is how to paraphrase. That’s why philosophers are such good civil servants and lawyers! They learn how to get the gist, get to the skeleton of ideas, and to write the executive summary. And then after that, you put aside the original text, you don’t read Hegel or Derrida again, you don’t bother with that, you just refer to the summary.

In some ways, Bertrand Russell regarded himself as the most passionate anti-Hegelian you could imagine. But his History of Western Philosophy is in some ways thoroughly Hegelian. Instead of saying, for example, “it’s very intriguing to witness the difficulty Spinoza has with the concept of substance” he says, “this is the essence of what he thought and that’s why he’s an idiot, and that’s why we moved on!”

Peter Salmon recently published a biography of Derrida called An Event, Perhaps, which I have reviewed for The New Humanist. Reading it, I came to think that the wonderful thing about Derrida is that he’s the opposite of Russell and all the other mainstream historians of philosophy. He never discusses a philosophical work in order to argue that it is flatly mistaken. Whatever he writes about, he tries to finds out what’s going on, without ever reaching for some simple summary that you could use as a substitute for the text. You need to confront the text neat – “wild” if you like!

I wouldn’t have put it like this at the time, but I think that when I was a student what really put me off philosophy was the mania for paraphrase. If anyone tried to say something interesting, the response would be: “I take it that what you really mean is this?” and then they would riff off their re-worded version instead. This brings me back to the idea that we would do well to treat individual works of philosophy – or all kinds of philosophical utterance – with forbearance or respect, as we might if they were works of poetry or works of art.

CC: The thing is, even when I speak to people doing public philosophy where it’s very much a social way of doing philosophy, I think this personal dimension you’re getting at is still there; indeed, it’s a hugely motivating factor in the way you touched on earlier. There is a re-evaluation of many assumptions about academic and Western philosophy at the moment which, as you argue in Witcraft, is about re-evaluating the story we tell about the history of philosophy. Do you see your work as related to these efforts or as pursuing something else?

JR: First I’d like to say something about the idea of public philosophy. It is of course a wonderful idea, in theory, and I admire some of the people who practice it. But there are others who risk betraying what they ought to be celebrating. Their stance is, “trust me, I’ve read all these great big books, so you don’t have to bother, and I will tell you what they’re really about.” Maybe the proper word for such people is “popularisers”. And if you’re a democratically-minded person then you will be inclined to think that popularisation is a good thing. But there’s a paradox here: take the situation in which someone, probably someone older and male, stands up in front of an audience, and says, “Kant is of course very hard to understand, but I thought I’d just give you a quick sketch of what his ideas are all about.” And then they will use expressions like, “Well, of course, it is extremely complicated, but just to give you a very simple version of it”. I think this can be absolutely pernicious: rather than giving your listeners the sense that here’s an interesting book that they might like to struggle with, you leave them with the opposite impression, that “these books are far too hard for you, but don’t worry, I will tell you what’s really in them and then you won’t have to bother with them anymore”. And what’s more, when they tell you what’s in them, they will reduce it to something which leaves you thinking, “Well, why did Descartes think he proved he existed? What kind of guy was this?!”

Maybe popularisation is always like that: on the surface it’s a generous gesture of offering information to people who lack it, but it’s really confining them to a space where they’re the kind of people who don’t understand, and who have to make do with little summaries. And it’s often a con: when someone says, “Kant’s argument is extraordinarily complex, but to simplify brutally, the gist of it is as follows” they probably don’t know anything beyond the “gist” they’ve given you, which they themselves have gleaned from someone else’s popularistion. It’s not only a pretence but a betrayal, because while pretending to introduce people to these extraordinary books, it is in effect saying: “not for you”.

Nearly all histories of philosophy put the reader in the position of someone who has to recognize that philosophy is too difficult for them.

To get back to your question, nearly all histories of philosophy put the reader in the position of someone who has to recognize that philosophy is too difficult for them. I am referring to a very specific tradition of books called The History of Philosophy or something like that. The tradition began in the 17th century, and since then they have become all too familiar. Everybody who has had an education in philosophy will have consulted such books, and they may well have depended on them rather more than they like to admit. Teachers too: they probably make rather more use of them than they admit. They’re not very prestigious. Russell very explicitly said his was a stupid book, but it was going to make a load of money. Or else people write them when they’re very old, a bit like scientists when they write histories of science, and memoirs and things. It’s a very, very tight tradition. They all tell basically the same story: ancient, mediaeval, modern, or Thales, Plato, Aristotle, Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics, Christians, and so on. And that story is told in such a way that you’re invited to think that it all started in ancient Greece, or it started when “oriental” wisdom arrived in Greece, and they started putting it into the Greek language, and then it was translated into Latin, and then it pushed itself forward and it became Scholasticism, and then it became Bacon and Descartes, and so on. But no one would have thought that until the 17th century! Until the 17th century, the word “philosophy” basically meant something that had been over and done with by the birth of Christ. It was a closed set, like Greek tragedy. And so the idea of a continuous line of philosophical development was an invention, a retrospective invention. We need to remind ourselves that historical traditions are not really generated from the past towards the future. Quite the reverse! They’re a result of people looking back and thinking, “What kind of past would I like to give myself?”

It’s also worth remembering that these versions of philosophy’s past were constructed at a time when human history was supposed to be no more than a few thousand years old. Some of them actually began with Adam and Eve, and most of them assumed that history was essentially Biblical history – the history of the Jewish and Christian world, expanded to include the ancient Greeks. And at that time it did make sense to think that the history of philosophy was co-extensive with the history of the world. Hegel was very explicit about it: for him, the history of philosophy was the epitome of world history. Obviously, today’s historians of philosophy would not say any such thing, but still they tend to suffer from the same self-importance, and I think they can do an awful lot of damage. Pierre Boulez said, “Let’s blow up the opera houses”, I’d say, “Let’s blow up these histories of philosophy”. They do nothing but harm, and they are extraordinarily powerful.

And the funny thing is that histories of philosophy are such a hermetically enclosed discourse. Historians, real historians who work with documents, baulk at this kind of thing. If they wanted to figure out what Hobbes was all about, they would have to put in masses of fresh archival work. But if you are a historian of philosophy, you will just read a few printed sources and not have to bother with these other research practices. I reckon I first got a bee in my bonnet about histories of philosophy when I was studying at Sussex University. I did a course on the history of science, and courses on 17th century general history, and a course on Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. In the history of science, Descartes was this amazingly progressive materialist, but in the philosophy course he was this mad person who invented these ideas about the separateness of the soul. But I knew that Jesus had said similar things about the soul, without having to wait for Descartes. So I started to see that there was something seriously crooked about the histories of philosophy I was expected to read.

Picture 1901 "Interior en la calle Strand"

CC: You once wrote that “If different kinds of disciplines require different kinds of histories, then the question of the status of philosophy is linked to the problem of what sort of history it calls for”. In Witcraft you dive in to look at how people thought about philosophy in the Anglophone world at 50 year intervals. Do you feel you have found the sort of history that ought to be told about philosophy, or do you feel the method could be improved on further?

JR: The reason I adopted this arbitrary method in Witcraft was that I wanted to prevent myself from giving into the temptation of seeing unities and continuities where they don’t really exist. One of the drawbacks of the utterly unhistorical methods used by traditional historians of philosophy is that they assume that philosophy develops through the influence that earlier thinkers have on later ones. But the word “influence” is misleading. What happens when someone reads an old book, perhaps a classic, is not that they submit themselves passively to its power, but that they actively seek for things that interest them. If, for instance, the works of Descartes still affect the way we think now, it is not because they have spread round the world like a miasma or an infectious virus, but because people have gone on reading his books and getting different things out of them. That’s why I thought having these arbitrary breaks would be useful; it was to break up the assumed narratives, to destroy illusions of continuity.

Every philosophical reader and every philosophical writer and thinker is an individual with their own struggles, and I think that a good history of philosophy needs to explore them with care.

One of the things I tried to do in every chapter was to portray how people at the time conceived of philosophy’s past, and how it kept changing: I wanted to show how even a single author, say Plato, or a single book, say the Republic, meant different things to different readers at different times. And I think that this connects with my sense of how philosophy ought to be taught: that you need to recognise the independent intellectual agency of every philosophical thinker, and of every teacher, and of every student. And intellectual agency implies intellectual responsibility too. You need to recognise it too in the authors that you’re reading. That is why I like to focus on the torments that individual philosophers went through in working out their ideas, or the struggles they had in writing a single sentence that they didn’t immediately despair of and throw away! You don’t get much of that in the standard histories of philosophy, but everyone who has tried to think a philosophical thought will know it from their own experience: nothing pours effortlessly from your head to the page and you may spend weeks looking at a blank page or a blinking cursor, failing to write anything at all. Every philosophical reader and every philosophical writer and thinker is an individual with their own struggles, and I think that a good history of philosophy needs to explore them with care.

CC: You focus on a range of philosophy as it has occurred in the everyday, such as in Proletarian Philosophy and in Witcraft. Where else do you want to look in this vein?

JR: I think there is a job of that kind to be done with Karl Marx. Too many people approach him with a preconceived notion of what Marxism is and what’s good or bad about it: but of course that’s not something that was available to Marx. And the big project that I did before Witcraft was a book called I See a Voice, which is about the history of deafness, and more generally the history of the senses. The deaf, especially those who were born profoundly deaf, so that they could not learn to speak as others do, have often been subjected to all sorts of insults and cruelties, on the basis of what were actually philosophical theories: theories which had the practical effect of concealing the intellectual capacities that deaf people might have, especially when they were allowed to use sign language. I would describe that book as a philosophical history: a philosophical history of deafness and of the senses. The idea is that you cannot separate deafness or sensation from the ways in which they are conceptualized, and that the ways in which they are conceptualized have a history. This brings me back again to when I was a student, and I was expected to engage in something called “conceptual analysis” – trying to get at the real meaning of notions like “mind” or “knowledge”. But these exercises always sidelined the fact that concepts change from time to time and place to place. So, when it comes to doing a conceptual analysis of sensory experience, for example, you cannot confine yourself to your own current intuitions: you need to compare them with those of the past, and also with the institutions in which they’re embedded – in this case, in the forms of deaf education over the centuries. Then I turned to doing Witcraft as a way of getting back to talking about philosophical texts, but with the same sense that we cannot understand ourselves or our world unless we recognize that it arises from the past, and from our attitude to the past, and that it’s going towards the future, in ways that we cannot hope to foresee.


From The Philosopher, vol. 109, no. 3 ("Concept and Reality"). If you enjoyed reading this, please consider making a small donation or becoming a subscriber. We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.


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