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The Book of Dead Philosophers Paperback – February 10, 2009


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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best of the Month, February 2009: For professor Simon Critchely, how we die is possibly more important than how we lived. In The Book of Dead Philosophers, Critchley presents a lineup of nearly 200 famous (and not so famous) philosophers and explores how, through their deaths, one might be inspired to lead a richer life. From a few words to a few pages, each great thinker's death is examined in an enlightening and entertaining manner as the author waxes on the often brutal (and odd) ways they left this mortal coil. And along with natural causes, murders, and suicides, you'll discover what dark departures from suffocating in cow dung, indigestion, and lethal insect stings have to do with how we live today. At times the "sobering power of the philosophical death" might seem more like a morbidly ironic punchline to the life each philosopher led, but Critchley writes, "My hope is that, if read from beginning to end, a cumulative series of themes will emerge that will add up to a specific argument about how philosophy might teach one how to die, and by implication, how to live." --Brad Thomas Parsons

From Publishers Weekly

According to Cicero, to philosophize is to learn how to die. Critchley (Infinitely Demanding) illustrates this claim in his portraits of the deaths of more than 190 philosophers from the ancients to the analytics of the mid–20th century. A primer on just about every notable philosophical figure in history, this book challenges readers to learn from the philosophers' conduct in life and the circumstances of their deaths. Confucius believed that mourning underscored the value of life; accordingly, his followers grieved his death for at least three years. Thoreau, Emerson and John Stuart Mill died of ordinary ailments while relishing the natural world. Aquinas found serenity contemplating the bough of a tree, fitting consolation for the philosopher who preached the interconnectedness of nature and the soul. Dionysius spent the second half of his life rejecting Stoicism and embracing hedonism yet committed a protracted suicide by voluntary starvation. David Hume proved that atheists could die happy. The book offers an interpretation of death's potential as a final artistic and intellectual endeavor; it is a witty and generous gift that will leave readers perhaps a little less afraid of death and more appreciative of life. (Feb.)
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Original edition (February 10, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307390438
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307390431
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #50,047 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Simon Critchley is Chair of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York and part-time Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands. He lives in Brooklyn.

Customer Reviews

3.6 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

49 of 55 people found the following review helpful By Shalom Freedman HALL OF FAME on February 10, 2009
Format: Paperback
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.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful By S. McGee TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 16, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By M. Hori on January 10, 2010
Format: Paperback
"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.
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