Pierre A. Riffard recently published essays examining the lifestyle of philosophers from a psychological and sociological point of view (Les philosophes: vie intime [“Philosophers: private life”], 2004; Philosophie matin, midi et soir [“Philosophy morning, noon and night”], 2006. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France). In Les philosophes: vie intime, he draws attention to some of the philosopher’s human traits, which are not generally mentioned, covering everyone from Thales to Sartre:
- a handicap: being female. Only one woman philosopher (Hannah Arendt) featured on an official list of 305 classical philosophers compiled in 1991.
- an opportunity: being an expatriate. More than 13% of philosophers are born outside their parent’s home country, in the colonies. More than 54% of philosophers have lived abroad. Aristotle was born in Macedonia. Descartes spent 20 years in Holland.
- an advantage: being an orphan. 68% of major philosophers are orphaned by the age of five.
- no precociousness. As a statistical average, the first work is published at the age of 27, the masterpiece at the age of 42. Kant was already 57 years old when he published his masterpiece, The Critique of Pure Reason
- acceptance of the culturally dominant language. It is necessary to speak a scholarly language. 23% of major philosophers have written Latin (until 1905 in France), 21% Greek and French, 13% English (this is becoming the dominant language).
- rejection of the ideologically dominant religion. One enters philosophy in the same way that one enters the Mafia, by committing an assassination, of the God of the time, the beliefs of the time. The major philosophers are 51% Christian, 27% without religion and 19% pagan.
- clumsiness in matters of the heart. The glories of love are not on the agenda for philosophers (apart from Auguste Comte). Giordano Bruno: “Truly, with respect to that sex [the female sex], what I abominate is that zealous and disordered venereal love which some are accustomed to expend for it, so that they come to the point of making their wit the slave of woman, and of degrading the noblest powers and actions of the intellectual soul.”
- the risk of madness. A good philosopher keeps his insanity in check: Heraclitus’s melancholia, Auguste Comte’s manic-depression, Hegel’s anxiety, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s paranoia, Nietzsche’s syphilitic meningoencephalitis, etc.
- triumph over illness. Many philosophers suffer, but overcome, whether it be nephritis (Epicurus), kidney stones (Montaigne), paralysis (Blaise Pascal, Feyerabend), poor eyesight (Democritus, Plotinus, Condillac, Cournot, Gonseth), etc.
- obscure identities. Philosophers play around a lot with pen names, anonymity, etc. Descartes and Kierkegaard advance in disguise.
- a mixed bag of curriculum vitae. 43,7% of philosophers have been teachers, the rest have been members of the clergy (20,9%), politicians (9,3%), without profession (4,9%), doctors (4%), lawyers or jurists (3,1%), editors or journalists (3,1%), none or almost none have been artisans (Henry David Thoreau), farmers (Gustave Thibon) or sailors (Michel Serres).
- feet! Aristotelian = περιπατητικός, peripatetic = “walking”. Nietzsche: “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”
- and, of course, a head (one head or two, or three, if the philosopher changes philosophy, like Schelling, Wittgenstein, Carnap). A major philosopher shows themselves to the world as such thanks to their vast personal semantic memory and a universal metaphysical obsession. About Leibniz, we know that “his memory was so strong, that in order to fix anything in it, he had no more to do but to write it once”, and he was obsessed by harmony.
“Philosophy is like a nutcracker. There are some who merely end up pinching their fingers in it, professionals who are completely comfortable using it, and then there are people who use it to open those marvellous nuts called thoughts. To philosophise is good; to philosophise oneself is better. To philosophise oneself each day, on the routine, the commonplace, is best.”
“Pierre Riffard’s vision of philosophy is that of a being torn between opposing demands: analysis and synthesis, the singular and the universal, certainty and doubt.” (“La vision qu’a Pierre Riffard du philosophe est celle d’un être tiraillé par des sollicitations contraires : analyse et synthèse, le singulier et l’universel, certitude et doute.”) — Thomas Régnier.
- : P. Riffard, Les philosophes: vie intime, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France (PUF), 2004, 33-232.
- : Giordano Bruno, The Heroic Frenzies (1585), argument. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1964.
- : Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols (1888), I, 34.
- : P. Riffard, Philosophie matin, midi et soir, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France (PUF), 2006, 177.