I thought this was a serious book about philosophy which this book is not. Nevertheless, I felt that it was an amusing light-hearted read. "The Book of Dead Philosophers" by Simon Critchley is really like an chronological index of a bunch of world philosophers, a brief summary of their philosophical contribution, then an anecdote about how they died.
The purpose of the book as Critchley states in the introduction is to "humanize" these individuals whom we have placed up on the pedestal. I definitely appreciated his breadth in covering Eastern philosophers as well and not limiting himself to Western philosophers.
Not much depth, but I still recommend this book for anyone looking for a casual read about philosophy. Don't expect any complex analysis or academic jargon, just a simple book about a bunch of people who had ideas about life and how they died.
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47 of 53 people found the following review helpful
Even the wisest of the wise dieFeb. 10 2009
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This provides brief accounts of the way the great philosophers of the Western tradition died. It in the course of this provides very incidental and also brief accounts of aspects of their respective philosophies. It does not claim to be a comprehensive scholarly work. In fact Critchley makes the point that the purely academic philosophers especially of the positivist tradition tend to lead less interesting lives than those for whom Philosophy is not a mere academic study but rather a crucial element in living. So Critchley's concluding pages contain a large number of Continental primarily French philosophers. They also include a section on Chinese philosophers with a commentary on the Zen way of thinking about Death. Critchley too is guided by his own 'philosophy of life and death'. This is one in which there is a strong objection to ideas of an afterlife or world- to - come. He prefers a kind of straightforward courageous looking of Death straight in the eyes, and accepting it. The 'learning how to die wisely' that he commends involves a preparation in acceptance and understanding. The idea seems to to be, to be here when we are here, without worrying where we will one day not be. What surprised me in one sense is that while most of the accounts are interesting few are moving. It is perhaps possible to be moved by Sartre's final words to his Beaver, de Beauvoir assuring her of his Love ( provided that is that they are not her invention). It is possible to be amused by Thoreau's reply to the question, "Have you made your peace with God?" in which he says , "I did not know we had quarrelled " It is possible to be struck by the philosopher of the Absurd Camus' dying in an absurd car- accident. There are dozens of accounts which have some kind of fascinating twist or detail. And often what is best in them is what they reveal about the character of the philosopher involved. Often as for instance with the no- nonsense courageous Hume and the endlessly fussing and deceptive narcissistic Rousseau their deaths are the continuation of their characters in life. The book fascinates but in focusing on the deaths of the philosophers and not on their overall conception and experience of Death it misses much. Thus for me the most profound and insightful words of the book come quite close to the beginning . They paradoxically have little to do what the book is about. Critchley writes about "the aspect of death is hardest to endure: not our own death, but the deaths of those we love.It is the deaths of those we are bound to in love that undo us, that unstitch our carefully tailored suit of the self, that unmake whatever meaning we have made.In my view...it is only in grief that we become most truly ourselves.That is , what it means to be a self does not consist in some delusory self- knowledge, but in the acknowledgment of that part of ourselves that we have irretievably lost". I would suggest another book could be written about what the deaths of those close have meant to the great Philosophers. And in fact in the pioneering work of Ben- Ami Scharfstein on how the lives of philosophers have effected them we learn that many of the greatest philosophers lost a parent at an early age. Still another book of great interest could be written on what the Deaths of the Philosophers themselves have meant to those closest to them. This is by the way not a book for students of Philosophy only- but rather one for all those who somehow wish to know and think more about the inevitable- and prepare themselves for it. And this though I doubt it will deprive each and every one of us of his own experience his own most likely very unpleasant surprise. I will only add one personal note. The traditional Jewish way, for philosophers and not philosophers, of leaving this world- if that is one has a chance to do it peacefully - is through uttering the great affirmation of the Jewish faith - 'Shema Yisrael'. Surrounded by loved ones after having bid farewell to each and all in the most considerate way possible- I can imagine myself saying the 'Shema' as word of prayer and faith not only for myself but for all those I love and care about who continue here. A word of prayer and blessing as a way of ending this life may be the best a person can do.
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
Amusing & thought-provoking, but not philosophy: 3.5 starsMarch 16 2009
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After an interesting (although hardly revolutionary) introduction to the book and its central concept -- that philosophers have something to teach us about death, the single largest defining fact of our lives, through the way they themselves died -- Simon Critchley tackles the deaths (and sometimes the lives) of some 190 philosophers spanning seven millennia at a very rapid clip.
After the well-written and thought-provoking introduction revolving around the role of death -- and thoughts of death -- in philosophy and life, the remainder of the book can feel jarring. In some cases, the philosopher's life and work -- and even their death -- is disposed of in only one or two witty sentence. In others, there is a lot about their deaths, but Critchley doesn't always deliver on his promise to explain how the way in which his subjects met those deaths ties into either their personal philosophies or into a philosophy of death. Sometimes, that just isn't relevant, it seems. The best moments in the book -- such as the discussion of the atheist, David Hume, meeting his end contentedly -- stand out simply because they are relatively rare. In a few cases, Critchley has to admit he doesn't even know how his subject died -- in which case, why is that philosopher included? In a handful of cases, he exaggerates the story behind the philosopher's death, only for the reader to discover that they have been misled. For instance, Simone Weil, he claims in the introduction, starved herself to death in sympathy with her beleagured countrymen in France. In fact, the exiled philosopher limited her caloric intake during the early years of World War II in exile from her homeland to what was available to French citizens under the Nazi regime. She didn't deliberately starve herself to death; she weakened her health so that she was unable to fight off the illness that killed her.
So why, then, do I give this 3.5 stars? Simply because it's a witty romp through a topic that is relatively rarely discussed except in hushed tones and with trite references to Kubler-Ross (who, yes, makes a very brief appearance here, as well). It's also the kind of book that may provoke interest in the philosophers being discussed by readers who would otherwise never pick up a more weighty tome on, say, Hume or Spinoza. The premise is also solid and the author's grasp of his subject is more solid than his delivery sometimes implies. It's also refreshing to see a philosopher write something so accessible.
That said, this is not a book likely to appeal to anyone who heads straight for the philosophy section whenever they enter a bookstore. There's little or no new thinking on the topic of mortality, and serious-minded philosophy students, already be familiar with much of the contents, are less likely to find Critchley's whimsical approach to his subject either amusing or intriguing. For readers with a passing interest in philosophy, it's worth a look, but you probably will want to pick up a paperback copy or find it in a library.
Anyone looking for a very personal and extraordinarily eloquent series of random musings on the subject of death itself couldn't do better than check out Julian Barnes's new book on the subject, Nothing to Be Frightened Of. It's not as comforting as Critchley's book ends up being (whether or not Critchley intends it to be!); it's the personal ruminations of one of Britain's best writers (Flaubert's Parrot, et. al.) on aging and the need to come to terms with death not only in the abstract but as something that he will encounter sooner rather than later.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Light but Good reading (from Ahadada Books)Jan. 10 2010
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"Death and philosophers" goes together like love and marriage, soup and sandwich, flotsam and jetsam (great, but largely forgotten Brit. singers as well as the gooey junk thrown up on the beach!), hearses and morgues, hay foot and straw foot, etc. and so on. We all know that Sir Francis Bacon died from stuffing a chicken full of snow, but how many of us knew that this anecdote originated with Thomas Hobbes, who himself was fond of singing from books of bawdy songs late at night, thinking that such an endeavor would help him attain a long life. (Apparently it worked--he lived past 90.) This is that kind of book, folks. Good to have when laying a bar-room bet, or honing your one-upmanship for when the humanities bully of the university watering hole wants to steal your girl and kick sand in your face. A head-scratcher it's not; a page-turner it is. Simon Crtichley could write for the Letterman show--yes, he's THAT GOOD (ta-tum-tum!)! On the other hand, he can be genuinely moving, as when he describes something of the life, character, and death of his own teacher Dominique Janicaud. The absolute best bit of information that I walked away with was the great anecdote about the problematic meeting of A. J. ("Freddie" to his friends) Ayer and Mike Tyson at a party thrown by a fashionable underwear designer in Manhattan. Ayer was talking to some models and heard that Tyson.... Well, I'm not going to give away the spectaular punch-line here (pun!), but will tell you that it's worth every penny I paid for this book, and set me searching out the works, and biography, of Professor Ayer. Highly recommended for this and about a dozen other anecdotes retold with wit and vast charm by the author. P.S. Should be found on every thinker's bathroom book shelf.
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
"There is but one chain holding us in fetters and that is the love of our life."Feb. 24 2009
Ryan C. Holiday
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A wonderful concept for a book. It spends a page and half or so on the deaths of 170 different philosophers. For some, it nicely juxtaposes their beliefs with their practical applications. For others, it illustrates a hypocrisy. Mostly though, I think it does a good job bringing the lot of them back down to earth. The introductions (there are three) are themselves a decent discussion on death and dying. It's one of those books you wish was a Wikipedia page so you could follow all the strands it begins to tug at.
22 of 34 people found the following review helpful
A bit of a dead lossFeb. 26 2009
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It is astonishing that a Professor of Philosophy should have written a book into which he has allowed so much shallowness, superficiality and sheer irrelevance. It is a real rag-bag of a book. There are, however, some worth-while if rather obvious observations about what philosophers have written about death: that most of them encouraged people to live such a lives and develop such attitudes that death has no undue terrors for them; that some of them believed that death was the transition to an after life while some others, quite comfortably, did not; that, with the exception of Derrida, they all stressed the meaninglessness in the context of death of much that we consider think important (mostly material prosperity and worldly ambitions) in this life (though Sartre at times believed that death made the whole of life absurd); that some thought suicide acceptable while others did not; that it is often easier to come to terms with one's own death than with the death of loved ones. Buddhists, who teach reincarnation, even believe that death is an illusion. (Curiously, Critchley has nothing on the Buddha's death.) It seems that Derrida is the only one of the 190 philosophers mentioned in this book who was disturbed by the prospect of his death, even at the age of 72, because it would cut short a life in which there was still so much to do.
But Critchley also wants to catalogue the ways in which philosophers actually died. That is of some interest where they died in a way which was consonant with their philosophy or alternatively where they were unable to live up to it. When neither of these applies, as when they died suddenly by some kind of accident as several of them did or when we know only that they died of an illness but not how they met it, this knowledge is no more relevant than is a knowledge of how anyone who is not a philosopher dies.
In the case of the earliest philosophers, how they died is often either not known or there are different accounts by unreliable early biographers. Critchely is fond of jocular remarks; and sometimes, where the nature of a philosopher's death is not known, he indulges in wisecracks: about Parmenides, who drew a distinction between being and non-being, he writes: "we have no account of how Parmenides passed from one state to the other"; about the Sceptic Pyrrho: "it is not known how Pyrrho died, although it would be taking his scepticism too far to deny that [he should have written "to question whether"] it occurred." (P.S. see the correction that has been posted in a comment - I withdraw the bit in square brackets.) Many other entries also end with quips of this kind.
In the case of these two, as in very many others, there is the sketchiest of accounts of their philosophy in general, which often does not include their thoughts about death. There is no principle at work in these entries: while some of them - far too few - at least point out the general significance of the philosopher in question, others tell us nothing about their ideas: the entry on Abélard is all about him and Heloïse; and here is the entire entry for Strato: "Strato became so thin that it is said that he felt nothing when he died." Three lines on Kant's philosophy, a page and a half of gossip about his habits. I could cite many more of such examples.
In his epilogue, Critchley trots out the surely outdated cliché that "Death is the last great taboo". This is nonsense - certainly in England and probably in his United States also. There has never been so much discussion as now of, for example, euthanasia - a topic he does not tackle at all. People used to be frightened of hell-fire after death; but I think that nowadays, in England at any rate, the terror that people have of death is not of possible hell-fire or even of nothing of them surviving. What does frighten them is a possibly painful or undignified process at the end of life. I think that most people, certainly in old age, are now "philosophical" enough not to fear death as such. It is when we are in severe pain that we most need the philosophical wisdom to recognize that it, too, will come to an end; but probably that is more a matter of temperament than of having read Critchley's book.
In any case, he would have produced a much more worth-while book if he had cut out the trivia, cut down the number of entries from 190 to a fraction of that number, and had given these the much more extensive treatment of which I am sure the professor is capable. He has culled a lot of knowledge from his wide reading (his bibliography runs to 13 pages); but, as he rightly says of Socrates, knowledge and wisdom (the sophia of philosophy) are not the same thing!