How To Use Philosophy: The Achievement of Alexander Nehamas

Image courtesy of Princeton University.

Most academics are specialists. So, for example, they provide interpretations of Baudelaire’s poems, offer accounts of the history of Venice, or reconstruct Kant’s philosophy. Their work is valuable because they show how to understand our art, our history and our philosophy. But now and then, this is much rarer, academics develop claims of broad interest. These public intellectuals change how we understand our culture. John Dewey did this when he theorized art and politics in ways that spoke to a large international audience. So did Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir when they wrote about colonialism and feminism. And a generation later, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault challenged readers, who found their arguments relevant to very diverse social and political concerns. These public intellectuals made claims that mattered to people outside of the academic world.

The closer we get to the present, the more difficult it is to reliably identify public intellectuals. I am old enough to remember when Marshall McLuhan, Norman O. Brown and Charles A. Reich were important. But now I fear that they are only read by historians studying that period. And younger people can recall that a few decades ago Francis Fukuyama’s political prophecies were taken very seriously. Who are our present day public intellectuals? Perhaps there are none anymore. As Alexander Nehamas has written: “We no longer believe that the life of philosophers constitutes a model that others should follow.” He aims to challenge that claim.

Rene Descartes (1596-1650), Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Arthur Danto (1924-2013) were very different philosophers. They lived in very diverse intellectual cultures, had distinct literary styles, and so developed quite different arguments. Descartes’ Meditations considers how our claims to have knowledge can be defended against skepticism. Kant in his three critiques describes and defends knowledge, morality and aesthetic experience. And Danto, building upon an account of these precursors, published books about the theory of action, knowledge and also historiography, as well as the aesthetics that made him famous in the art world. What the three men all share, however, is belief in the strength of impersonal arguments. Whatever your gender, race or politics, you should find Descartes’ cogito argument, the basis for his rejection of skepticism, convincing. Whatever your artistic culture, you should find Kant’s account of aesthetic judgment convincing. And whether you be straight or gay, you must accept Danto’s accounts of action, art and history if indeed they are correct. Like the sciences, philosophy is an essentially impersonal activity. Correct philosophical claims are universally valid.

In The Art of Living Nehamas argues that we should complexity this view of philosophy by looking at some different figures: Socrates, Montaigne, Nietzsche and Foucault. Nehamas presents an alternative philosophical tradition, one concerned with the art of living. He uses Socrates as his stalking horse, for Plato, Montaigne, Nietzsche and Foucault all sought in diverse ways to understand him. As does Nehamas, who backs into this discussion by working through their accounts. Since Socrates didn’t himself write, this is a complex process. This alternate tradition “requires style and idiosyncrasy because its readers must never forget that the views that confront them are the views of a particular type of person and no one else.” The origin of philosophy, according to Foucault, so Nehamas says, was “not so much as an effort to present some general doctrines about the world or our knowledge of it: its purpose was, rather, to change people’s lives on an individual level.”

For a very long time, until a couple of generations ago, study of the ancient Greeks was the basis of Western education. “Plato remains,” Nehamas writes, “the perfect model of a genuine philosopher, the authentic standard by which philosophy, including especially the philosophy of today, must measure itself.” This may sound like a cranky conservative claim: Back to the ancient classics, as Allan Bloom urged. In fact, however, its political implications are elusive As Nehamas notes just in passing, Foucault wanted to be a voice for the oppressed, especially gay people. Nowadays the study of the Greek classics is just another activity of specialists, not generally the core of a liberal education. But Nehamas proposes to change that situation.

My perspective on Nehamas’ claims is, to be honest, in one way very much that of an outsider. I have no knowledge of the classical philosophical tradition in which he was so well trained: For better or worse, my interests as a philosopher are very different. The immediate inspiration for writing this essay was seeing Nehamas’ favorite painting, Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) alongside him when recently it was on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As he explains in Only a Promise of Happiness for some years, he has been almost hopelessly fascinated by this picture. I read his account with great interest. I too admire Olympia, but in honesty to me it’s merely a very good, justly famous painting. If I had to pick one Manet that inspires me, it would be A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882). But where Nehamas hesitates to explain why exactly he is obsessed with Olympia, I have explained in print why I care about A Bar. I don’t think of it as exceptionally beautiful. But it is what, all things being equal, fascinates me, a puzzle picture. That’s why I was inspired also to publish two books about Nicolas Poussin. I was (and am) enchanted also by one of his puzzle pictures, Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun (1658).

Understanding our shared interest in Olympia may help me make Nehamas’ ideas more accessible. In the literature which he cites on Manet’s picture, there are two different sorts of writing, art criticism and art history writing. And in one important way, they have a different status. (He doesn’t I believe, take up this point.) Like other academic specialists, art historians seek objective truth. Whatever your gender or race, your account of Manet aims to be true. How you respond to an artwork depends upon your personality. That’s most obvious, perhaps, when we consider art with erotic or religious content. That said, however, the goal of the scholar is to describe the work in generally recognizable terms. Even if you find Olympia boring or off putting, your goal qua art historian is to explain why it was found confrontational in 1863. And that’s compatible with arguing, as a feminist might, that Manet’s politics are disagreeable. The art critic thinks in essentially different terms. When doing criticism, like every critic I seek to be suasive, knowing that I may fail. In a number of publications, I have defended this claim. Criticism, I argue, is irreducibly personal. In that way it’s a model of the self as described by Nehamas. You could learn a great deal about the practice of art criticism, I believe, by looking at Nehamas’ account of Nietzsche, who, so he says, “likes to think of the world as a text.” But here I merely briefly cite a full book-long analysis which deserves close attention.

I have been a close friends with two very different important philosophers, Danto (who was my teacher) and Nehamas, who is a contemporary. I have a reasonably clear idea of how to explicate Danto’s philosophy, which I have written about repeatedly. Any competent philosopher is capable of unpacking and, also, critiquing his arguments. Thus studying his books is the kind of IQ test at which we professional philosophers excel. But although I have known Nehamas for almost my whole academic lifetime, I am not at all confident that I fully comprehend his analysis. Reading his books is, for me, like reading a novel, like the great Japanese classic The Tale of the Genji, for example, which comes from an exotic world. But I can hardly hide my long term debts to his books, which often have inspired my thinking. A marvelous writer, bold and scrupulous, he has done what a great philosopher is supposed to do: engage with central concerns: how to live; the nature of beauty; the importance of friendship. Read him and see for yourself. His books may change your life.


Alexander Nehamas’ books include Nietzsche: Life as Literature (1985); The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault (1998); Virtues of Authenticity: Essays on Plato and Socrates (1999); Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art (2007); and On Friendship (2016).

On Manet see my “Art History in the Mirror Stage. Interpreting Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère,” History and Theory, XXIX, 3 (l990): 297-320 and “Manet/Degas,” The Brooklyn Rail, November 2023, on-line.

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.