Are essays a good way to do philosophy? What if they’re full of digressions and contradictions? Could that possibly make them more philosophical, not less? This week we’re thinking about Michel de Montaigne and the art of the essay.
What Is It
French thinker Michel de Montaigne invented a whole new genre in which to do philosophy: the essay. But in his use of that form, Montaigne repeatedly digresses and contradicts himself. So why did he think the essay was a good medium for philosophy? What impact did Montaigne’s invention have on his own philosophical work, and on the centuries of thought that followed? Are there particular forms of writing that help us live a more philosophical life? The philosophers live their best life with Cécile Alduy from Stanford University, author of The Politics of Love: Poetics and Genesis of the "Amours" in Renaissance France (1549-1560).
Are essays a good way to do philosophy? What if they’re full of digressions and contradictions? Josh thinks that Michel de Montaigne’s essays don’t do true philosophical work because they’re filled with contradictions, but Lanier argues that they’re full of themes like knowledge, morality, and death. Plus, essays were a form of trying out certain claims and questioning one’s own knowledge. Josh agrees after realizing that contradiction is beneficial to skepticism because it reminds us to be more humble about what we know.
The hosts welcome Cécile Alduy, Professor of French Literature and Culture at Stanford University, to the show. Lanier questions what defines the essay in Montaigne’s sense, and Cécile explains that his literary form was notable for trying out contradictory ideas, having many digressions, and being honest about his argument’s shortcomings. Josh appreciates how the use of the essay brings out the value of the written word, and Cécile describes how Montaigne not only wrote about himself, but also put himself in conversation with other authors and philosophers.
In the last segment of the show, Josh, Lanier, and Cécile discuss how philosophers today could benefit from returning to the essay form and modern day equivalents of Montaigne. Cécile suggests Adam Gopnik and Susan Sontag as two similar essayists, while Josh thinks of David Foster Wallace for his characteristic digressions and retractions. Lanier asks if Montaigne could be considered a proto-feminist, and Cécile points out that he called for the increased education of girls and women. In fact, she thinks that the essay would be a good literary form for the feminists of today.
Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 4:51) → Holly J. McDede provides a brief biography of Michel de Montaigne’s life.
- Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 45:34) → Ian Shoales considers how Montaigne and his essays would fare in today’s society.
Are essays a good way to do philosophy?
What if they're full of digressions or contradictions?
Does that make them even more philosophical?