Babette Babich is an American philosopher known for her studies of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Adorno, and Hölderlin as well as for her work in aesthetics, including music, philosophy of music, the history of ancient Greek sculpture, and continental philosophy, especially continental philosophy of science and technology. Here she discusses the books that shaped who she is as a scholar, and recalls time spent as an impoverished student in the depths of libraries.

Books tell us the time of our lives in curiously intriguing ways, and represent a kind of ‘archaeology of the everyday’ of days past and promised days to come (those would be the books we collect in order ‘to read,’ as the Germans like to say, ‘by the fireplace, on long winter evenings’). And if I think this timing of a life in books holds true for everyone in Western culture, whether or not one tells oneself that one likes books, it is especially true for academics.

As a child, I read Plato’s Republic because I found it on a bookshelf at home. I was also mightily impressed by the dictionary, by different encyclopaedias  by almanacs and catalogues of jokes and such. I also read Silent Spring and Diet for a Small Planet and practical guides to nature and (for some reason) martial arts practices — these were (in truth) written for boys, but I figured no one would mind or, if they were for some reason concerned, no one could tell if I read them too. I also read everything I could find about natural history: about animals, about trees. As a young child, I read circus books (Sawdust in His Shoes was one) and, both at the same time, science fiction and science fantasy.

Did these and other books make me think of a life as an academic? Not directly but with them I moved into books as a virtual, conceptual space of possibilities that I have never left.The most influential book I read, the book that made me who I am as a scholar, was Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I found this book in the library and read it at Stony Brook in the basement of the Chemistry building, overnight and well into the next day, all without sleeping, fueled by instant coffee, which, having no access to a kettle or a cup (I was more impoverished than most impoverished students), I ate by the spoonful.

In addition to the Pre-Socratics (especially Heraclitus and Empedocles but also Anaximander), to Havelock and Ong, as well the laundry list of philosophy: critical and ancient, Horkheimer and Adorno, Marcuse and Marx, Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Hume, Wittgenstein and Whitehead, I also read Heidegger’s Being and Time. I am still reading it — or as I now teach it, perhaps I can and should say that it reads me. Contra Tom Sheehan’s insistence, meaning is not Being — Being is not meaning. Much rather as Heidegger repeats in his later writing on the turn and again afterwards, we ‘take’ ourselves to know what Being is, knowing that it is already a known item (meaning), well-known to boot, too general, too obvious.

I liked Heidegger’s Being and Time so much that I fell into the historico-hermeneutico approach to scholarship which is really what the continental tradition in philosophy means: engaging with others, with antecedents, with context: an approach to philosophy that is in and of the world. Absorbed by Being and Time, I looked for more and came to read a huge amount of what others wrote about Heidegger, much fascinating stuff, much limping or defective stuff, all of it encounters with Heidegger’s invitation to learn — as Hannah Arendt expressed her own encounter with him —to think. And thinking for me is about questioning.

As a student I hated Nietzsche and formulated, as young people do, what I like to call the “cracked cup” theory. A thinker with fatal flaws, so I reasoned with all the stulpus of the young, need not be taken seriously. As a cup with cracks holds no water, a philosopher with faults cannot be taken seriously, especially one with such patently incorrect views (about women and the English and Darwin and Shakespeare, etc.).

What interested me as a student was science and truth, in that order. Keen on the philosophy of science, I read, in addition to the classics, Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Nancy Cartwright’s How the Laws of Physics Lie, Lynn White and Koyré. I was inspired by Ludwik Fleck’s The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact along with Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method as well as Ian Hacking’s Representing and Intervening and I have gotten more out of the plural form of the title of Rom Harré’s introductory The Philosophies of Science than may have been licit. I also admired Bruno Latour, Trevor Pinch, Harry Collins and so on — and I have spent my life wishing that the Strong Programme had been just a tad stronger. I went on to admire Alistair Crombie, H. Floris Cohen, James MacAllister, Betty Jo T. Dobbs and Philip Mirowski as well as P.M.S. Hacker and M. R. Bennett, The Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience.

Recently in my enthusiasm for what I call “the non-P sciences” (namely not-physics), I have admired new work in the philosophy of chemistry  (Eric Scerri has several important books which take one back to the still too little read Fritz Paneth — unread in spite of the efforts of Herbert Dingle), and I have been influenced by Lawrence Principe’s excellent book on Newton (and philosophical company), The Aspiring Adept. I also admire the work of other historians of science like Jan Sapp, which is also why I am disappointed by his 1990 book on Franz Moewus which drops the ball. Perhaps, as one reviewer, Michael Fortun puts it, it may be that Sapp was simply doing some footnote cleansing, and leaving Bruno Latour (and certainly Trevor Pinch) out of his purview.  Although Moewus was professionally damned when it came to what Sapp calls “the origins of molecular biology,” Moewus’ experimental results — ‘too good to be true’ by comparison with the caliber of the work of other scientists — were proven to be correct. The upshot was that others took the credit for his theoretical discoveries. In my years in academia I have learned that such cutting plays for prestige are more the rule than not.

Proximally, it was a book that determined my choice of grad school and, despite a range of other options, I chose Boston College because I was reading Gadamer’s Truth and Method and he happened to be teaching there. But if books can bring one to one’s teachers, books can serve as teachers and four books, as they then appeared in English translation, Heidegger’s lecture courses on Nietzsche, gave me as much access to Nietzsche as reading Deleuze and Derrida and the invaluable Jean Granier in David Allison’s (still!) indispensable book collection, The New Nietzsche. It was with Heidegger that I learned how wrong Kaufmann had been, how wrong the Anglophone anxieties packaging Nietzsche for a vanilla readership had been —although analytic philosophy is still doing this by concentrating on his moral and sometimes his political philosophy at the expense of his unthinkably radical epistemology. And with Nietzsche, the world of words, of books opened for me, especially German books (but that is another story), as I chose to take Nietzsche as what he was as an academic, that is as a classical philologist (exactly this is not done either in classics or in philosophy) in the same way that I take him to be a philosopher with important things to say about what we take ourselves to know.

And then there is the erotic, if I may add Michael Hamburger’s bilingual edition of Friedrich Hölderlin, once given to me by a lover, as he wrote on the fly leaf, crossing out his name, so that I would “remember” him.

If I may add other contemporary books: I have been inspired by my good friend across the analytic-continental divide (and precisely not as if there is not such), Alexander Nehamas’ lovely (he designed the cover) Only a Promise of Happiness. I recommend it to my students as a friend’s book: the ideal, kind and urbane companion you wish for, visiting pictures at an exhibition, wandering through the philosophy of art and beauty. And as an academic if my books are my friends, my friend’s books are also my books and many of my friends write excellent books: Howard Caygill stands out as does Robert Bernasconi and Michael Newman, Alphonso Lingis, Stuart Elden and others. And then there is my teacher, David Allison, again, whose Reading the New Nietzsche actually does replace whole shelves of other books, as Arthur Danto, also crossing the analytic-continental divide, is pleased to write on the back of Allison’s book.

Other books that have formed and moved the academic me include Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue but also his Short History of Ethics which I read as a student to keep my English as it should be (those who complain that it did not work may prefer to blame MacIntyre), Gillian Rose, Love’s Work, Anne Carson’s Eros, The Bittersweet.

But it’s tough to draw lines when it comes to academic books. Thus when the consummate academic, Patrick Heelan, who is also a Jesuit priest (St.L.) as well as a philosopher (Ph.D.) and a physicist (Ph.D.), was called upon to celebrate me at a wedding feast (mine and Tracy B. Strong’s — Tracy is the author, most recently, of Politics without Vision, and whom I first ‘met’ by reading his book on Nietzsche as an undergraduate), Heelan began by saying that he had been absorbed in reading Harry Potter and proceeded to tell the assembled company that I was Harry Potter. If the best thing Father Heelan could think of for a wedding toast was a literary allusion to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (I don’t think he got further in the series that that)  and if I was discomfited by the comparison at the time (allying me as it did to an immature warlock living under the stairs, a loathed guest in the home of unappealing relations), the encomium also brought me to the secret of the book’s success. We are — or think we are — each one of us, so very many Harry Potters.

Surrounded by books as I am in physical and spiritual space, I find I am uninterested in paring my list of influential books, any more than the real books around me: and if I had still more space, the list itself could only become its own book of books. For any reader who likes to think truly needs all of his or her books: as companions, as cubby holes or place holders, as wormholes of the mind, which construction of a personal memory palace is a physio-motor point Ivan Illich makes in his book about books (on Hugh of St. Victor’s Didascalicon), In the Vineyard of the Text rather as, and as Machiavelli also said, as Nietzsche echoed this in his turn and with reference to Schopenhauer as Educator, the practical technique, the method of methods for using one’s affinities and preferences as an aid to finding a mentor, an educator. Such a search marks a path to oneself, the “who” we can only discover about ourselves, beyond and above ourselves, as the true self that is to be found “not within you,” as Nietzsche points out — and this is the eliciting, the drawing out, the seductive power of education — “but immeasurably high above you.”

Choose book favorites if you must but — and this I take from Hegel (who is otherwise not my cup of tea) — choose like a child: non-exclusively, inclusively.


Babette Babich is the author of Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Science (1994), Words in Blood, Like Flowers: Philosophy and Poetry, Music and Eros (2006), La fin de la pensée. Philosophie analytique contre philosophie continentale (2012) and has just completed The Hallelujah Effect: Philosophical Reflections on Music, Performance Practice and Technology (2013). She writes on the politics of continental and analytic philosophy, continental philosophy of techno-science, ancient Greek bronzes (life-size), Lucian’s parodies and Empedocles’ politics, Heidegger and Nietzsche and Adorno as well as the lamentably overlooked philosopher of technology and music: Günther Anders among others from Arendt to Žižek. Selected articles can be found here. She is also on Twitter.

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