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Age Saturday 7/6/2008 Page: 29 Section: A2 Region: Melbourne Circulation: 301,000 Type: Capital City Daily Size: 321.53 sq.cms. Published: MTWTFS-

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PHILOSOPHY It's not a science, Simon Critchley tells Ray Cassin, it's all about learning to live well and, ultimately, learning to die well.

the small matters of life and death PHILOSOPHY, AT LEAST AS IT IS TAUGHT

in universities in Australia and other Western countries, is usually divorced from the lives of actual philosophers. You can study philosophy and learn a great deal about what Plato or Aristotle or Kant or Wittgenstein thought about life, the universe and everything; but you won't be expected to pay much attention to how they dealt with life, the universe and everything. Simon Critchley, a professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York, thinks this is a problem, and The Book of Dead Philosophers is his attempt to answer it. "There was an ancient tradition, most prominent in late antiquity, that philosophy is a way of life - a way of life that can be taught," Critchley says. "And the way you do that, the way it was done in that period, is through exemplary lives - the lives of the philosophers. "Most professional philosophers believe that biography is unimportant ... but it's never made any sense to me to want to reduce philosophy to science, to say that the history of the discipline is a history of mistakes. It's not: philosophy is a constant return to the same problems." Some of the problems aired in the potted biographies that make up The Book of Dead Philosophers will be familiar to anyone who has ever wandered into an ethics seminar: "justice, love and what it means to be human," as Critchley says. But much of the book consists of incidental, and often amusing, details that will puzzle and perhaps irritate those who are accustomed to having their philosophy served neatly in syllogisms. "I am a great fan of Laurence Sterne, of Tristram Shandy," Critchley says. "I love irrelevant historical detail, especially of the more bizarre and anecdotal kind." So readers of The Book of Dead Philosophers should not worry that they are

missing something when Critchley goes to some length to explain, for example, that Hobbes did not live a life that was solitary, poor, nasty (not by 17thcentury standards, anyway), brutish or

because the ideal of solitary contemplation takes no account of birth, of entering into our shared human existence, a fact about the human condition that the political theorist Hannah Arendt

short. It's just interesting that he didn't. Critchley concedes that the thread of argument running through the book, the bit that those intent on shredding a syllogism or two will want to grapple with, is to be found in the entries on a select few of the "190 or so" who rate a mention. "This book could just be Socrates, Seneca, Montaigne, Spinoza and so forth - the monumental greats who have said something on this issue." And "this issue" is the one alluded to in the title of the book, a reminder of the Socratic view that the point of doing philosophy is to learn to live well, which in turn amounts to learning how to die well. Philosophy, to be unphilosophically blunt, is about dispelling the fear of death. And in the particular philosophical tradition that Critchley is referring to, the argument goes like this: death is literally nothing to be feared, because after it there is no "I" to suffer its imagined terrors. The consequence is that happiness involves learning to live within our human limits, above all the ultimate limit imposed by the fact that we will

called "natality".

die. Critchley condenses that thought by citing a tag from Spinoza's Ethics: "A free man thinks of nothing less than

death." "That's the philosophical ideal of solitary contemplation," Critchley says. "I find that a compelling ideal but not a convincing ideal." He is not convinced partly because it is an ideal that takes no account of the place that mourning and grief, our responses to the deaths of others we love, have in human life. The fact that we grieve tells us something about the very unsolitary nature of human existence. And, partly he is not convinced

"Arendt is always associated with the idea of the vita activa, the active life, as opposed to the contemplative life," Critchley notes, "though in The Life of the Mind, her last book, there's an awful lot about contemplation. "On the one hand, she ridicules a certain preoccupation with death among male philosophers; on the other hand, she's deeply committed to the activity of thought." What male philosophers may have missed gets considerable attention in The Book of Dead Philosophers, unlike conventional histories of the subject, in which women do not feature prominently unti l the late 20th century. "If the history of philosophy is just the history of treatises - the history of books, written by men - that's the standard view," Critchley says. "One of the things I'm out to revise is that view. If you view the history of philosophy through epistolary exchange, you end up in a very different place because women, who usually did not write treatises, who were not allowed access to higher education in the standard way, were engaged in elaborate correspondence with the key figures: the correspondence between Descartes and Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, for example, or the correspondence between Locke and Damaris Cudworth. "These women were not insignificant figures. They were philosophers in their own right, who should be considered as such."

The Book of Dead Philosophers by Simon Critchley is published by Melbourne University Press at $29.95

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Age Saturday 7/6/2008 Page: 29 Section: A2 Region: Melbourne Circulation: 301,000 Type: Capital City Daily Size: 321.53 sq.cms. Published: MTWTFS-

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Simon Critchley: reviewing deaths.

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