Monday, March 11, 2013

Philosophy between armchair and bullets (and on the saddle)

The expression “armchair philosophy” is proverbial. As I explained in my last blog it refers to a kind of philosophy that wears an air of not needing a factual basis or, more extremely, to an attitude that confronting ideas or opinions with the facts is an unnecessary effort. In short, it refers to simple homespun philosophy. Nevertheless, much philosophy literally takes place in an armchair and seen that way it is armchair philosophy. An example of it in due form was the well-known television programme “The Philosophical Quartet” broadcast by the German TV channel ZDF: two philosophers (Peter Sloterdijk and Rüdiger Safranski) discussing philosophical problems with two guests while sitting on two coaches without any other assistance than the ideas and opinions in their brains. (I admit: actually I should have to call it “coach philosophy”; see for instance Also Montaigne was an armchair philosopher in this sense. In my last blog I showed a picture of his armchair and desk in the library in the tower of his castle where he wrote his Essays. The difference is that Montaigne often consulted his books or used his personal experiences.
Is this the usual philosophical practice: sitting in an armchair, maybe in your tower, and letting your thoughts wander through a world of abstract and less abstract ideas? Or, if you philosophize with a group, the same process done in several armchairs plus verbal interaction between the thinkers? The wandering of the thoughts through the world of ideas is inherent to philosophy but I discovered that some of the masterpieces of philosophy and brilliant works of the mind were thought up in quite different and sometimes very extreme circumstances.
Maybe the situation where Descartes came to his idea of Cogito ergo sum – I think so I am – is yet close to the kind of armchair philosophy just discussed. Descartes had taken service in the army of Maximilian I of Bavaria. Once he travelled back from the coronation of the emperor to the army and the winter weather forced him to stop somewhere. While he sat there alone in a “stove” (heated room) because he felt cold and he had nothing else to do than thinking, he got the ideas that would determine western philosophy for four centuries. The story doesn’t tell whether Descartes sat in an armchair in his stove, but at least he was not in his familiar surroundings.
Also Erasmus wrote some of his works during his travels, not only during his stays in the inns along the roads but also on the back of his horse. And that is how Erasmus wrote his famous “In Praise of Folly” on his way back from Italy back to England, as he tells in his introductory letter to Thomas More.
Nietzsche, too, laid the foundation of at least some of his works not in his armchair. Because of his health Nietzsche had moved to the Swiss mountains. There he spent a big part of his days by making long walks during which he enjoyed not only the overwhelming nature around him but which he also used for thinking. Nietzsche had always a notebook with him for writing down the thoughts he found valuable. Back home he worked up his notes resulting in what he called his “wander books”.
So, much outstanding philosophy has not been written in an armchair and therefore isn’t literally armchair philosophy. Also Wittgenstein loved philosophizing elsewhere, for instance pacing up and down the lecture-room in front of his students, saying out loud the thoughts that popped up in his mind (which were noted down and later published by his students). But what beats all, I think, is the way he wrote his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: he made the notes for this book between the bullets of the First World War and completed it when he was a prisoner of war in Italy. What would have happened with the Tractatus if Wittgenstein had been killed in action?
Be that as it may, I must admit that I am only a simple armchair philosopher: I wrote all my books and articles in the armchair on the photo above the blog three weeks ago. Nevertheless, not all my philosophical thoughts developed and still develop there, for sometimes I get my ideas while taking a shower or sitting on the saddle of my bike.

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