The Philosopher-Historian Rebel: an interview with Jonathan Rée

Emily Thomas talks to Jonathan Rée about Witcraft, his subversive history of philosophy.

“History of philosophy isn’t very prestigious,” Jonathan Rée tells me calmly, “but it’s incredibly influential”. He speaks to me from a study lined with books and curio boxes, stacks of paper illuminated by bendy lamps. Rée’s woolly jumper and jolly demeanour are at odds with his role as a revolutionary - yet, within the history of philosophy, that is exactly what Rée is. ‘Big’ histories of philosophy emerged in English a few centuries ago. Boasting titles such as The History of Philosophy: From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Present Century, these books describe how philosophy was invented by Thales, improved by Aristotle, and stumbled onwards through the medievals to today. Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy follows exactly this formula, telling us sternly, “Philosophy begins with Thales…”. Against this backdrop, Rée’s recent book Witcraft is quietly, determinedly, rebellious. It traces the evolution of English-language philosophy from its invention in the late sixteenth century onwards and, unlike its fellows, eschews well-trodden scholarly paths, veering off into wild moors and tangled forests. Partly by exploring its history at fifty-year intervals, Rée scoops up thinkers largely forgotten to philosophy, such as William Hazlitt and Marian Evans. He explores their lives and ideas, and also offers new takes on better-known figures, such as Francis Bacon and Ludwig Wittgenstein. I ask more about Witcraft - about this subversive, philosophically crammed, triumphant doorstop.


How did Witcraft come about?

For ages I’ve thought there was something really rotten in the state of philosophy, and I started thinking that the trouble could be traced to oneparticular institution: books called *The* History of Philosophy. It just dawned on me that it was a tradition that we can now say with some confidence began in the seventeenth century, in various languages, and that it was obviously built on previous histories of philosophy - Diogenes Laërtius [Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers] in particular. I became interested in the extraordinary similarity that all these books all bore to each other: they all say philosophy begins with Thales and really gets underway with Socrates and Plato and Aristotle… and that’s presented as a discovery.

Since the seventeenth century the architecture of these histories has always basically been the same, they exemplify the three-part plot: beginning in ancient Greece, there’s a middle period where things are a bit wonky, and then there's the Enlightenment. This just goes on from one History to another, and it's not really very different in all the twentieth century histories of philosophy. The story is perpetuated, and in a way that I think does an enormous amount of damage, because they are very very widely read (or at least they're widely distributed - I don't know how many people get to the end of them.) They repeat the same story over and over again, in a way that is actually incredibly demoralising. They give you the impression that philosophy is this rather tiresome thing that old people, especially old men, do when they're too old to do anything more useful, and they knock around the same old ideas, and they haven’t made any progress with them. So the only thing you can think is, well, that’s one thing I'm not going to waste another hour of my life on.

And philosophy got colonised by these histories of philosophy because the great professors of philosophy in the great universities say “I can’t be bothered what the history is, I’m just interested in the truth”. In doing so, they’re giving a free pass to these incredibly repetitive and boring historians of philosophy who actually get into the heads of young people and students, and into the heads of incredibly clever professors at the incredibly prestigious universities.

So for a very long time, I had the idea that there was something deeply wrong with the history of philosophy. I’d spent a lot of time complaining in an abstract kind of way about how misleading histories of philosophy are, and how maybe if we could revolutionise histories of philosophy that would be a way to improve philosophy in general. It occurred to me that instead of just complaining about it, I must see if I could actually write history of philosophy in a better way, on a large scale.


How did Witcraft gets its focus?

One of the things which I thought was terribly misleading about most accounts of the history of philosophy is that they don't recognise one of the most fundamental facts about philosophical writing - that it's multilingual. If you look at the bookshelves of any philosopher, they will contain works in many languages - or at least works translated from many languages - in a way that's untrue of other disciplines. I wanted to bring out the fact that philosophical practice is very, very closely related to the practice of translation. It’s literally about how you translate words like natura, and what traps you get into if you just assume that because two words are the same in different languages that they mean the same. One way of doing that would be to become fluent in Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, and German on top of my native English. And I realised that I wouldn't have got to the starting line before the age of 115 if I did that.


So instead, you focused on philosophy in English?

Yes. One reviewer said that he thought I was trying to conduct a philosophical equivalent of Brexit by standing up for philosophy in English. But it's exactly the opposite. The idea is that whatever language you're practising philosophy in, you will be actually inviting lots of other languages to the dinner party. There have been times, particularly in the beginning of the nineteenth century, when people wanted there to be a national English philosophy. I think all that is complete bullshit: philosophy isn’t a matter of trying to celebrate how much at home you feel in your own language. It's a matter of experiencing unease about your relationship, not just your own language, but to the ideas that come naturally to it.


You once described Diogenes Laërtius’ Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers as presenting “a colourful old image of philosophies passed as a set of all too human rivalries”. I thought that could be a good description of Witcraft - would you agree?

Oh good! Lives is a very curious book. In some ways, incredibly boring, but then Diogenes just gets off on how one philosopher died because it was so hot he wrapped himself in cow dung, and got eaten by dogs. Or the famous stuff about Thales who fell into a ditch because he was looking at the stars. All these stories that were designed to make philosophers look all too human. Some of the really interesting thinkers of the nineteenth century - some of my favourite thinkers in the world, Kierkegaard, Marx, and Nietzsche - were enthusiasts for Diogenes Laërtius, I think partly because they liked the way it was a comedy, where everybody else was writing a tragedy. It was farce. And the point of being farce is that it's about individuals and their foibles. It's true that one of the things I really wanted to do in Witcraft was to bring out that while you can think of the history of philosophy as a history of doctrines - of the gradual rise of rationalism over centuries or something - there's another way of doing it. And this other way seems much more interesting, and also to give much more of a model to people who might be thinking of engaging with philosophy themselves, which is that philosophy is what happens when an individual thinks “This doesn't really make sense. You know, there's these phrases that I've been using all my life to explain what life or politics is about, or why I believe this about religion or this about love”. And then you start thinking, “Am I sure that's right – do I even know what it means?”.

Philosophy happens when your own belief system starts to collapse, or when you start giving it a shake and realising that it's much more unstable than you'd like to think, and that’s a very individual process. The real philosophising happens probably when you're on your own. When you're looking at a blank piece of paper, or you're struggling with a sentence in a book and you're thinking, “This looks stupid but maybe it's me that stupid”. You have to go for a walk or a swim, and then you lose sleep over it, and then it may all seem like a soap bubble that's gone into nothing. I like the idea of philosophy as experience. I don't want to take away from the fact that philosophy is indeed a matter of argument and and thinking things through rigorously but, it seems to me, it’s when the thinking things through becomes a significant experience to the thinker that it becomes important philosophically.


In Witcraft, you write that Francis Bacon’s Essays constitute the first philosophical work in English - and that he produced them almost absent-mindedly. Could you say a bit about that?

People were very self conscious in the sixteenth century about whether it would ever be possible to practice philosophy in the English language, given that its home was in Latin, or rather in Latinized Greek. Some people thought you should try it, and some people thought it would never work, and I think the point about Bacon would be that he just did it. He didn't deliberately set out to do so, it just sort of happened along the way.


Witcraft describes how some seventeenth century philosophers became obsessed with where, geographically, philosophy originated - say Greece or Egypt. Why did they care so much?

We should not forget the agonies that Christians went through trying to justify theirpractice of using pagan texts, particularly Aristotle, as part of the education of Christian children. There has always been an embarrassment amongst Christiansaround philosophy. Christianity inherited the educational institutions of Rome; they taught mostly in Latin, but were very much modelled on Greece. Jesus Christ did not speak Latin and was by no means a philosopher. I think the answer to your question has a lot to do with wanting to say, “Well actually, the Greeks all got it from the Egyptians, the Egyptians got it from the Jews, Moses got it from Abraham who got it from Adam and Eve, and it comes from God!”. I suppose you could say there were two big corpuses of text: those that make up the Bible and the New Testament; and those that make up Greek - especially Aristotelian - philosophy. The question was how to put them together, and a lot of Christian historians found a way of making them all join up, and indeed of saying that Christ was a philosopher, and that he invented the perennial philosophy or something. It never quite worked really because all the evidence is that he was a very interesting and original young man, Jesus Christ, but he knew nothing about philosophy - he'd never heard of philosophy. And the way he was teaching people wasn't really argumentative, and his big USP was parables rather than syllogisms. And in some ways I think he had a goodpoint about how actually human thinking progresses more by means of parables and stories and than by syllogisms. So it was, let’s say, quite an effort to bring these two bodies of literature together and treat them as one.


The big, myth-making histories of philosophy usually position their most recent philosophers as heroes: they imply that today’s philosophers have progressed since the Greeks and the Middle Ages. But I don’t think there’s any implicit progress in Witcraft. Is that because you doubt philosophy makes progress?

There has certainly been some progress in philosophy -- but perhaps not in the most interesting parts. I think that individuals make progress: if you spend a lifetime taking an interest in philosophy you may end up understanding things better than you did before. But the progress you make, may be of a negative kind. That's to say, you become less and less confident in your judgement about anything. Is that progress? You could also construct particular lines where you could say, this was progress. Hegel enables you to think about things in a way that you couldn't before. Maybe that's progress?

But I think the question is too general. Does art make progress? Well, yes, Rodin expanded the language of sculpture in a way that opened up new possibilities for people coming after him. It opened up possibilities that didn't exist before. Is that progress?

The idea of progress is many-layered. It's not just the notion that things are better now than they were before. It’s also about what some 19th century thinkers called progressiveness, which implied that you should not allow yourself to be constrained what your parent’s generation thought and did – that you should invent rather than conform. It's not as though you're imprisoned in a vehicle hurtling towards a future. It’s quite the opposite. It's the idea that it's actually up to everybody what direction the future is going to take.

In some ways, philosophy is like love and the experience of love, and the joys and pains of it. Kierkegaard is absolutely wonderful on love, he says, “Do you think that each generation is better placed with regard to how to deal with love than its predecessors, because you can learn from your predecessors’ mistakes?”. And he says, “Everybody begins at the beginning, every new generation begins at the beginning”. I think that it's the same with philosophy. There are undoubtedly ways in which it can be done differently now, maybe there's a greater choice of ways, but that doesn't alter the fact that everyone comes to it from the beginning. If they're going to engage with philosophy authentically at all they're going to have to start fresh. You can't just say, “Oh well, that's good, the previous generation has sorted out this philosophical question and now I can get on with another one”. This is a very clear contrast with the natural sciences, where you can say, “Well we do now understand how to make vaccines of this kind, and now maybe we can start making vaccines of another kind”. When it comes to love or philosophy, it's pure fantasy to imagine that there can be progress of that kind. And indeed, I think you could go further and say, that to imagine that there is progress is actually to prevent yourself from gaining the insights which might otherwise be available to you.


Philosophers can be notoriously bad writers. Do you have a least favourite philosophical writer?

William James found Bertrand Russell absolutely insufferable, and I can understand why. Russell was obviously an incredibly talented and brilliant person in a way, but he wasn't good at enabling other people to think for themselves. It’s quite true that he was very brilliant at explaining things, making things simple. And he wrote a vast number of popular books which were massively appreciated, for example by my grandmother - she thought he was wonderful: was absolutely fantastic and watched him on television. How amazing to live at the same time as the most brilliant man in the world, who makes everything so clear! But there's something about the way of popularising things which Russell was brilliant at, which I think can be very stultifying, and it’s true of mainstream histories of philosophy too. The historian basically says to the reader, “Well, of course, Hume’s doctrine is extremely complicated but I'll give you a simple version of it”. And that kind of simplification disables and disempowers: it prevents the person who's supposed to be learning, from learning anything for themselves.


Finally, do you have a favourite philosopher?

Søren Kierkegaard. Because he reacted very strongly against the idea of philosophy as a single discipline, which you could learn about and progress with and take up where the previous generation had left off. He wrote things that were always, in some way, jokes. I mean, deliberately leading people up the garden path and then letting them down and pretending to be serious about things, and then you realise that he's not. And writing very beautifully and very wittily with the lightest possible touch. And he never, ever tried to lay down the law.


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Emily Thomas is Associate Professor in Philosophy at Durham University. Prior to this she obtained a PhD from the University of Cambridge, and held a NWO grant at the University of Groningen. She has published widely on the history of philosophy, especially on space and time. Her most recent book is The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad (Oxford University Press, 2020). Her web site is here.

Jonathan Rée's history of philosophy, Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English, is published by Allen Lane (2019).