Jonathan Rée

Jonathan Rée’s Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English is out in paperback.

Ernst Cassirer​ got a warm welcome when he moved to the United States in 1941. He was a near perfect embodiment of the idea of the great European thinker: not only a multilingual intellectual historian, doubtless familiar with every significant document of Western civilisation, but also a synoptic philosopher who had explored the deep questions that animate cultures and give meaning to...

Wittgenstein’s scepticism about logical ‘objects’ was an affront to all that Bertrand Russell held dear, and he resisted it fiercely. But then he was mollified by a gift of ‘lovely roses’: Wittgenstein was ‘<em>the</em> young man one hopes for’, he now wrote to Ottoline Morrell, and ‘I like him very much.’ After undergoing further bouts of ruthless criticism, he confessed to being ‘strangely excited’ by Wittgenstein: ‘I love him,’ he said, and he hoped to appoint him as his successor and watch him ‘solve the problems I am too old to solve’. Wittgenstein wasn’t particularly impressed by Russell’s adoration. If his philosophical capacities were as exceptional as Russell seemed to think, then this was a curious fact – like having beautiful ears or excellent eyesight – but not an occasion for pride, still less for boasting.

At the turn​ of the 20th century, Gaston Gallimard was one of many suave young men about Paris with exquisite taste in literature, music and art. Then he became friends not only with Proust, but also with Gide, who in 1908 started the monthly Nouvelle Revue Française in the hope of helping a ‘rising generation’ to escape the suffocating plushness of...

Blame it on Darwin

Jonathan Rée, 5 October 2017

When​ the 22-year-old Charles Darwin joined HMS Beagle in 1831 he took a copy of Paradise Lost with him, and over the next five years he read it many times, in Brazil, Patagonia, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia and Mauritius. As the ship’s naturalist he sent commentaries and specimens back to colleagues in London, who soon came to see him not as a dilettante but an extremely acute...

Horrible Heresies: Spinoza’s Big Idea

Jonathan Rée, 16 March 2017

Baruch Spinoza​ was fascinated by human follies, and in the Ethica he set out to examine them dispassionately. ‘These turmoils move me neither to laughter nor even to tears,’ he said, ‘but to philosophising.’ With philosophy’s help he cast a cold eye on servitus humana, or ‘human bondage’, arguing that our ‘vices and absurdities’ were not...

In such a Labyrinth: Hume

Jonathan Rée, 17 December 2015

Back​ in 1954, the American critic Ernest Campbell Mossner brought out a Life of David Hume that was not only a pioneering work of scholarship but also a labour of love. Mossner wanted to rescue his hero from the romantic reactionaries who typecast him as a narrow-minded representative of the Age of Reason. In particular, he hoped to challenge the condescension of Thomas Carlyle, who...

A Few Home Truths: R.G. Collingwood

Jonathan Rée, 19 June 2014

‘An Autobiography​’ by R.G. Collingwood must be one of the most popular philosophical books in the English language, but when it was published in 1939, it was not expected to do well. Collingwood warned Oxford University Press that it was ‘destitute of all that makes autobiography saleable’. It was going to be a ‘dead loss’, he said, and in a preface he...

Something of His Own: Gotthold Lessing

Jonathan Rée, 6 February 2014

One of the curiosities of German literature is a spirited little pamphlet called Pope ein Metaphysiker!, which appeared anonymously in Berlin bookshops in 1755. The argument is tendentious, convoluted and slightly mad, but the overall purpose is clear: to make fun of the learned members of the Royal Prussian Academy and accuse them of dishonouring the memory of their founding president,...

I tooke a bodkine: Esoteric Newton

Jonathan Rée, 10 October 2013

The life of Isaac Newton falls into two halves, and the main problem for Newton studies is how to fit them together. In the first half he was a sulky Cambridge mathematician who, at the age of 44, astonished the world with a work of natural science that was soon recognised as one of the greatest books ever written. In the second he was a sleek London gentleman wallowing in power, wealth and...

Newton reinvents himself

Jonathan Rée, 20 January 2011

Towards the end of 1688 the Dutch Republic tried to bounce Britain into war with France by main military force. The chief plotter was a scion of the royal house of Orange-Nassau and nephew and son-in-law to the British king, but he had none of the poise and magnificence that were supposed to go with a royal pedigree. William, Prince of Orange was a mousy, middle-aged sociophobe, famous for...

Dispersed and Distracted: Leibniz

Jonathan Rée, 25 June 2009

When Queen Anne died in August 1714, the news was received with excitement in the medieval town of Hanover in Lower Saxony. Under the terms of the Act of Settlement of 1701, Anne’s death meant that Georg Ludwig, the stolid local duke, was about to become the next occupant of the English throne. A month later he was on his way to London with his German-speaking retinue, ready for his...

Søren Kierkegaard spent much of the summer of 1855 staring out of the windows of his cramped second-floor apartment in the centre of old Copenhagen, across the road from the Church of Our Lady. He knew the building well, but the prospect did not please him. As a student, hapless and heavily in debt, he used to take communion there with his ancient and immovably melancholy father; but...

Bound to be in the wrong: Camus and Sartre

Jonathan Rée, 20 January 2005

The heroes of Albert Camus’s books can be quite annoying: surly, self-dramatising Hamlets who like to think of themselves as strong, silent loners, wise to human folly. But although they are often arrogant, self-absorbed and predictable, they are also susceptible to the weather, and happy to be upstaged by unseasonable storms, torpid nights, fierce sunlight, or the chance of a swim in...

Exit Cogito: looking for Spinoza

Jonathan Rée, 22 January 2004

Antonio Damasio’s two previous books, Descartes’s Error and The Feeling of What Happens, appealed not only to scientists. The citations, prizes and honours, not to mention the author’s photograph, reveal that Damasio, one of the world’s leading neuroscientists, is also a person of deep sensitivity and broad cosmopolitan culture. Readers in search of a Renaissance man...

Francine-Machine: Automata

Jonathan Rée, 9 May 2002

Descartes’s Meditations tells the story of six days in the life of a rather self-important, busy young man who has granted himself a short sabbatical. Quite a few years have passed, he says, since he decided to take this meditative mini-break, and now at last he has cleared a whole week to spend in an isolated house with only his thoughts and memories for company. He is planning to...

The Brothers Koerbagh: The Enlightenment

Jonathan Rée, 14 January 2002

You might have expected the idea of Enlightenment to have gone out of fashion by now. Indeed you might have expected the entire pack of tacky Victorian labels for cultural periods – the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Romanticism, Modernity and so on – to have fallen into disuse long ago. They seem to belong to a world we have lost, where the whole of history was a brief, memorable tale...

Tummy-Talkers: Ventriloquists

Jonathan Rée, 10 May 2001

In October 1951 one of the biggest celebrities of British radio entertainment went missing in the course of a railway journey from London to Leeds. His disappearance coincided with Labour’s defeat in the general election, and to many people it came as an even greater shock. He had been doing his cheeky-boy routines on the wireless since 1944, and for the past two years had been starring...

Baffled Traveller: Hegel

Jonathan Rée, 30 November 2000

During the 1790s the little town of Jena, in Saxony, blossomed into colourful activity. With active support from Goethe, ducal minister in nearby Weimar, the ancient university cast off its reputation for beery rowdiness and intellectual torpor. Schiller was given a post there in 1789, and Fichte in 1794, and their passionate lectures – delivered in German rather than the customary...

Life after Life: Collingwood

Jonathan Rée, 20 January 2000

The motor vessel Aclinous left Birkenhead on 22 October 1938. It was an ordinary Dutch cargo ship making a routine journey to what was then the Dutch East Indies, and on this occasion it was also carrying a sick and lonely passenger: an experienced amateur sailor who was hoping that a sea voyage and a few months sailing around the Malay Archipelago would help restore his health and peace of mind. For as well as being trapped in ‘complicated private and professional entanglements’, as one acquaintance put it, he had recently suffered two severe strokes. The first, as he explained in a letter to a friend, deprived him of the use of his left arm and left leg, and the second took away his speech as well, though within a few months he felt able to speak again, ‘well enough for the purpose of my profession’.‘

Y2K = AP2583: 17th-century philosophy

Jonathan Rée, 10 June 1999

The earliest systematic history of philosophy, or at least the earliest to survive into the age of print, is Diogenes Laertius’ survey of the Lives, Opinions and Sayings of Famous Philosophers, written in Greek about 250 AD. Diogenes described 82 thinkers, some cursorily, others with copious quotations and stories about their characters and curious habits. He moved equably from Thales through Plato and Aristotle, to Zeno, Pythagoras, Heraclitus and eventually Epicurus, but his impartiality probably had less to do with scruples about objectivity than with uncomprehending indifference to philosophical questions, and a terrific appetite for gossip. If Diogenes Laertius were alive today, he would be a high political journalist rather than a mere historian of philosophy.

Strenuous Unbelief: Richard Rorty

Jonathan Rée, 15 October 1998

Back in the Sixties, before he became the bad boy of American philosophy, Richard Rorty struck his colleagues as a safe and promising young man. His first book, published in 1967, was an anthology of Essays in Philosophical Method designed to document the reorientations in analytic philosophy that followed Rudolf Carnap’s move from Germany to the US in 1935. Carnap had promoted the cause of ‘scientific philosophy’ for a quarter of a century, first in Chicago, then in Los Angeles, persuading dozens of America’s best and brightest to join his campaign of radical conceptual cleansing. The new philosophers were going to flush out the mushy metaphysics of the past and replace it with tough-minded research into the ‘linguistic frameworks’ through which we conceptualise the world. Thanks to Carnap, philosophy was going to be reborn as the systematic study of language.‘

This jellyfish can sting

Jonathan Rée, 13 November 1997

Despite his exotic name, Felipe Fernández-Armesto is an upper-class Englishman of the kind who seem to float on a cloud of contentment, perpetually entertained by the oafish antics of the rest of us down below. His press release describes him as ‘a member of the Modern History Faculty of Oxford University’ and Millennium, his blockbuster on the history of the world, as a ‘highly acclaimed’ bestseller, while translations of his monographs and reference books are ‘pending in twenty languages’. But he is not just a historian. He is also something of a philosopher, and his publishers have now given him the chance to address the world in a format that other authors only dream of: a brief and opinionated essay, with a smart design but a popular price, on the epistemological ills of modern civilisation. I shall not try to conceal my feelings: reader, I envy him.‘


Jonathan Rée, 8 May 1997

‘For God’s sake leave me alone!’ ‘Why the hell should I?’ ‘What’s it to me anyway?’ That sort of unilateral declaration of indifference must be the starting point of nearly all family quarrels, and plenty of political catastrophes as well. ‘Why should I always give way to other people? Am I my brother’s keeper?’ But eventually the question will be turned sarcastically back on you. ‘You think you’re so special? The only pebble on the beach? It’ll be a different story when it’s you that’s run out of luck, just you wait and see.’



14 January 2002

A decent history of British culture in the second half of the 20th century, if it is ever written, will include a chapter or two on the vitality of the polytechnics from their creation in 1972 to their conversion into universities twenty years later. And while it is poignant, at least for me, to read what my old boss (Letters, 7 February) and my old union negotiator (Letters, 21 February) have to say...

On a Chinese Mountain

20 November 1986

SIR: A.M. Ludovici called himself ‘pro-feminine’ and jeered irascibly at ‘the quack-cure of feminism’ with its ‘ideal of complete emancipation from the thraldom of sex’, and at the ‘monorchid and shallow-minded men’ who had ‘gone over’ to it. ‘Ludovici was also a feminist,’ says Frank Kermode. Also? Not so.

Harry Rée wanted his British audience to understand that the French men and women who had taken part in the Resistance were not superhuman. ‘What I shall try to get across,’ he told a...

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Jonathan Rée takes some tomfoolery from Shakespeare for his title and uses it to create his own striking metaphor. The middle part of his book is about sign languages for the deaf: voices...

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Thou shalt wage class war

Gareth Stedman Jones, 1 November 1984

Sometime in the late Sixties, I was invited, along with some senior socialist historians, to meet Bill Craik, a veteran and pioneer, so I was told, of independent working-class education. The...

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