How do you explain something incredibly complex, such as the history of philosophy, in a way that is accessible and understandable — even entertaining — for the general reader? That is the challenge I set myself in writing Lovers of Philosophy: How the Intimate Lives of Seven Philosophers Shaped Modern Thought.
The first thing I had to think about, in writing this book, was my use of language. Philosophy is full of big scary words such as epistemology, metaphysics, existentialism and post-structuralism. The words themselves are enough to put off many potential readers. So, unlike most books on philosophy, I didn’t start with big words. I started with a story.
And the story was about me. How, as a young medical student living in a share house many years ago, I picked up a tattered copy of Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiographical novel, She Came to Stay, and found myself immediately drawn into its bohemian world of Paris between the wars.
In this novel, Beauvoir describes how she and Jean-Paul Sartre had entered into a pact of free love in keeping with the principles of their newly created existentialist philosophy. According to this pact, each would be free to love whomever they wanted, so long as they documented the details and shared them with each other. The novel opens at the moment that Sartre brings Olga Kosakiewicz, a teenage Russian student, into their open relationship. Beauvoir describes, in heartrending detail, her struggles — despite her philosophical convictions — with overwhelming feelings of jealousy and insecurity.
Intrigued? So was I. Therefore, I thought, it would be a great place to begin my book. I continued, in the introduction, to explain that it was Beauvoir’s description of Sartre, not just as philosopher, but as a lover, that inspired the question at the heart of my book: What if we could hear about the love lives of other philosophers, from their lovers?
In deciding where to pitch the language of my book, I drew on a concept described by Stephen King in his book On Writing. King suggests, when writing, that we have an Ideal Reader, someone we are addressing the book to in the forefront of our minds. My Ideal Reader was my partner, Zoe. Zoe knows (and cares) very little about philosophy and only reads two or three books a year, so she likes to make certain those books are worth her while. In writing Lovers of Philosophy, I tried to welcome, to entice — even to seduce — my Ideal Reader into a world that she might not otherwise venture by opening with a world that I knew she would be interested in, a world of love, longing, intrigue and desire in a Europe undergoing tumultuous change.
In other words, I used the techniques of fiction to bring my nonfiction to life. I had to think about character, dramatic conflict, point of view and a satisfying narrative arc.
Stories are much easier for us to grasp than facts, theories or ideas. With this in mind, I didn’t open my book’s first chapter, Kant and the Countess, with a dry and detailed exposition of Kant’s philosophy, but with a scene in which the young, penniless, recently orphaned philosophy graduate arrives in a carriage at the Countess’s palace for the first time, hoping to gain employment as a family tutor. The Countess offers Kant employment, but only on the condition that ‘the handsome young tutor’ agrees to provide her with some private one-on-one philosophy lessons…
If you feel compelled to read on, I’m probably on the right track. Eventually you’ll encounter some paragraphs explaining Kant’s philosophy, but only after you’ve gained the benefit of some context about his life, the time and place in which he lived, and, yes, his love life.
I found it helpful, when researching my book, to take particular note of any quirky, memorable details about my ‘characters’. For example, I read in an obscure academic biography that Kant, although recognised as one of Europe’s most brilliant thinkers, was also highly neurotic. In particular, he was obsessed about the regularity of his bowel movements, and much to the consternation of his friends and colleagues, would always mention this over dinner when in their company. That, of course, had to go in the book!
In this short article, we’ve touched on the importance of using language and story to create accessible and compelling nonfiction. We’ve also looked at how you might begin such a work, and how to construct a narrative that will keep the reader turning pages. But we haven’t discussed how we might end our nonfiction work. In my experience, the most memorable nonfiction works provide me, after reading them, with a satisfying sense of closure but also an inspiration to learn more about the subject in question, and to read a whole lot of other books. Nonfiction works that have served me well in this regard, as a reader, include The Outsider by Colin Wilson, The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes, Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter, A Terrible Beauty by Peter Watson and, more recently, Sapiens by Yuval Harari.
One of the best things about writing nonfiction, for me, is the reading I get to do in the research phase. Conversely, I try to write nonfiction that inspires my readers to explore lots of other books. In my experience, the best nonfiction not only entertains, but expands our understanding and sense of wonder about the beautiful, complex world — both natural and cultural —in which we live.
(c) Warren Ward
About Lovers of Philosophy: How the Intimate Lives of Seven Philosophers Shaped Modern Thought
They were Europe’s greatest thinkers, but what were they like at love?
Lovers of Philosophy explores the love lives of seven philosophers, and how their most intimate experiences came to shape their ideas. In these pages, the reader learns about the significance of Kant’s infatuation, Hegel’s premarital liaisons, Nietzsche’s heartbreak, Heidegger’s hypocrisy, Sartre’s promiscuous polyamory, Foucault’s sexual liberation, and Derrida’s dalliances in extramarital desire.
The stories of these philosophers’ love lives are told against a backdrop of Europe undergoing tumultuous change. Beginning in the eighteenth-century Prussian Enlightenment, the book traverses the French Revolution, Napoleonic wars, Industrial Revolution, two World Wars, and events of May 1968 before arriving at the culture wars of the late twentieth century.
For anyone who has struggled to understand continental philosophy’s vast array of movements, from German idealism through to phenomenology, existentialism, post-structuralism, and deconstructionism, Lovers of Philosophy also provides the reader with an easy-to-follow overview of the progression of ideas from Kant to Derrida.
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