Simon Critchley teaches philosophy at the New School in New York. I don't generally like pulling information straight from Wikipedia, but this was just too succinct and accurate not to use it: Challenging the ancient tradition that philosophy begins in wonder, Critchley argues that philosophy begins in disappointment.
He's written a number of academic books (of course) on his philosophic specialties but has also crossed over as it were with several books on serious subjects deserving of contemplation by great readers and composed in ways suitable for a wider audience. Amongst the latter are attention-grabbing titles as these: How to Stop Living and Start Worrying; The Faith of the Faithless; Having Been Born – Tragedy, The Greeks and Us, and most recently, Notes on Suicide. These are all matters which will never depart the human experience so might as well face them with a clear-eyed guide like Simon. But before any of those, start with his The Book of Dead Philosophers, it is witty and uplifting and simply and effectively re-affirms Cicero's timeless maxim that "to philosophize is to learn to die."
Ok, ok, if that all sounds too bleak for you (it's not, I promise), then Simon has also written seriously, and again accessibly, on these matters: humour (British spelling), football (not the American version and a perfect subject for Simon to tackle since this Liverpudlian has said of the Liverpool Football Club that it is his only religious commitment and is the governing passion of his life), and David Bowie.
Last week I asked Edwin Frank how reading was preparing him for dying and did he know what he thinks he'd turn to if given the time and faculties at the end? Looking back I should have saved this one for Simon. Edwin evaded the question (which is no knock on Edwin!) and Simon did the same in his own way with a few of this week's. I told Simon there wasn't as much Simon as I desired, but that knowing him through his writings I wasn't surprised with what he gave me. His response: "Call it English reserve. Less is sometimes more." Perhaps I should have taken that second sentence advice when writing this introduction...
Anyway, I’m not disappointed, I just wanted more. If this is too little Simon for you, too, then there is plenty else readily available and you know where to start. -WDV
WDV: What does reading do better than anything else?
SC: It opens up a world and gives you license to cultivate your legitimate weirdness.
With the topics you write about I’d love to know regarding your own “legitimate weirdnesses.” Which books and writers have left the deepest impression of “weirdness” upon your life? I feel “weird” is such a subjective concept that I’m ever intrigued to know what have been islands of relatability and/or comfort for a great reader who has ever felt out of step with their peers or society.
Can we just leave the sentence as it is...I like it for its weirdness.
Which are the most enjoyable books about philosophy that are under 200 pages?
I’m not sure whether philosophy should be enjoyable. It should feel as if your mind is on fire. Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals is shortish and viscerally powerful. You could just read the second essay where he uses a scalpel to examine our stupid views about morality.
Who has left you shaking your head at the cleverness of their thinking and writing?
It happens fairly regularly, as long as you avoid philosophical crap about Stoicism, neuroscience, the brain and spirituality. I reread Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit recently and it left me breathless, especially the chapter on Religion. And it’s a book I thought I knew well. I didn’t. In a more mundane mood, I reread Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue and had forgotten how brilliant it is. It is a wonderful example of analytic methods used to real historical and moral effect.
Since you list two books which you recently re-read, are there others you’re keen to re-read, particularly if you feel time or life experiences would provide fresh insights?
Bataille’s Inner Experience and the German sermons of Meister Eckhart.
What have you read in your life which has made you most uncomfortable?
What makes me most uncomfortable is the depthlessness of human folly and the kinds of book that people use to buttress that folly. I could name names, but any book that claims to know the nature of things and then tells you what to do morally and politically is to be avoided. But I also know that getting older is largely defined by impotent rage at human idiocy that could be easily avoided if people read more.
Please do name names! We’re all curious what you have in mind.
I’d rather not. Anyone who claims to have a theory of everything should be avoided.
And what are top recommendations which have assisted you in avoiding impotent rage?
Reading Greek tragedies and Shakespeare’s Hamlet really helps.
How do you feel about illegal ebook download sites? For instance, of which I’m sure you’re aware, I’m one click away from dozens of your books which could be mine with one additional click.
Yeah, I don’t care. I have a day job teaching philosophy. And if I expected to make a living from the books I write, I would have written very different books. I’m proud to say that everything I’ve done has been on my own terms, although I’ve had some tempting offers to sell out. Which I very nearly did. More than once.
Any comments on the ethics of using such sites?
It’s immoral, of course.
Do publishers and/or writers gain anything from having their titles uploaded on them?
Is it better for an author to potentially gain a wider audience due to such sites,
or strictly be in front of only those people who paid to read, which would probably constitute a smaller number?
I don’t really have a view on this.
I’m just very curious about your thoughts on all this as a philosopher, regardless of how you feel about them as pertains to your own titles and occupational/financial realities.
I think people should get paid for their work and writing is work. What has shifted are boundaries between what people will pay for (coffee, sushi) and expect to get for free (books that took many years to write).
Do your students ever give you satisfying reading recommendations?
Yes, that’s what students are for. Last fall semester, in my Zoom seminar, I had a student living in Bangalore, India, who was trained in classical Buddhist commentaries, such as Nāgārjuna. So, we read some texts and he led us through them. It was very illuminating. This kind of thing happens a lot in my classes.
Nearly everything I have written has been worked through graduate seminars. This is a great good fortune of my job. It also means that my seminars can get messy because I am always trying to figure things out. I am like a vampire with students and feed from their recommendations. Not all of them, but a good number.
What are “depressing” and/or dark subjects you like to read about which always make you feel better during and after?
Take your pick. The last thing I wrote last summer was a new preface to my little book on suicide. So, you can imagine that the research was a lot of fun. I came to some alarming conclusions about the correlations between social media and suicidal ideation. But I guess I felt better when I was able to explain all that in clear prose.
You get to spend a whole uninterrupted week doing anything you wish that is book/reading-related, so you could read the whole time, go to bookstores or libraries, organize your collection, etc, you get the idea. What do you do?
I would make notes. The key to reading and writing is note taking. I cannot stress that enough. The key to writing is the art of the precis.
What a fascinating, unexpected answer. What books have you taken the most notes about in your life?
Books written in languages other than my own, so mainly French, German and Ancient Greek.
Do you take notes only for books you’re reading for professional purposes, or also pleasure,
and do you write in your books?
I write all over them. I think it is important to not respect the sanctity of books, but make them your own. A teacher of mine, who was brought up in a very religious household, used to write in ballpoint pen over his copy of the Bible. I found that instructive.
If you could write a biography about anyone, who would it be?
Julian of Norwich, the first woman to write a book in English. We know very little about her life. So, a biography would be nicely speculative. She is a real hero of mine. And the name ‘Norwich’ always makes me laugh.
Look at your shelves. Which three publishers’ books are taking up the most space?
Fitzcarraldo, Penguin Classics, Faber.
A real Brit’s list! And which specific titles do you own the most copies of, whether classics from different publishers or some in different languages, or perhaps some you collect in different editions.
I don’t collect books, on purpose. I don’t like preciousness around books. I have four copies of Joyce’s Ulysses, because they keep falling apart.
Who is the funniest philosopher to read?
Me, obviously. But Diderot is funny. Kierkegaard can make me laugh. As can Freud. But the funniest, laugh out loud book I read in the last year is Stewart Lee’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate. Maybe the best book on stand-up that I have ever read. And philosophically minded.
The start of the front cover blurb from (then called) Dazed & Confused itself is humorous: “So long, so bitter—and so thoroughly enjoyable.” Thanks Simon!
Simon Critchley in his office at The New School