Richard Smith: Dead philosophers can make you laugh

Richard SmithPerhaps I should have realised from the title, but when I began to read The Book of Dead Philosophers I didn’t expect it to be funny. In fact Simon Critchley’s stories of how “190 or so” philosophers died and some of what they said about death is at times hilarious—as well as rich with meaning.

Let’s begin with Freddie Ayer, the Oxford logical positivist whom as a student I saw lecture in Edinburgh. The story of his encounter with Mike Tyson the New York party of an underwear designer is well known, but I’d not heard it. Tyson had begun to assault Naomi Campbell, and Ayer confronted him. “Do you know who the fuck I am?” asked Tyson. “I’m the heavyweight champion of the world.” “And I,” replied Ayer, “am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both eminent in our fields; I suggest we talk about this like rational men.”

In the mid-70s Ayer was asked what was the most important defect in his hugely important book Language, Truth, and Logic. “Well,” answered Ayer, “I suppose the most important defect was that nearly all of it was false.”

Later Ayer had a near death experience after choking on a piece of salmon, and his wife said of him “Freddie has got so much nicer since he died.”

Schopenhauer was arguably the most pessimistic philosopher ever, but he had a way with words that (perhaps because of my warped sense of humour) makes me laugh. “Life is an expiation of the crime of being born…We begin in the madness of carnal desire and the transport of voluptuousness, we end in the dissolution of all our parts and the musty smell of corpses.” A notorious misogynist he wrote: “Marriage means to grasp blindfold into a sack hoping to find an eel in an assembly of snakes.”

Wittgenstein is not thought to be a bundle of laughs, but he had his moments. The last months of his life were spent working intensely and living with Dr and Mrs Bevan. He would go to the pub every night with Mrs Bevan, and on his birthday she wished him “many happy returns.” Staring back at her, he said “There will be no returns.” He lived a life, writes Critchley, of “austerity, fighting inner torment, a deeply troubled relation to sexuality, and utter ethical earnestness.” No wonder his jokes were so deadpan.

Some of the same epithet might be applied to Oscar Wilde, a philosopher of a milder type, whose last words were “Either that wallpaper goes or I do.”