The Thread of Life
by Richard Wollheim
Harvard University Press, 288 pp., $20.00
Richard Wollheim has written a highly original book, which addresses the most basic questions about ethics and the ends of life. He deals with fundamental issues about what it means to be a person. But he takes up these issues from an unusual angle: what does it mean to “lead the life” of a person? The “simplest way” of expressing the scope of his inquiry, Wollheim says, is that “there are persons, they exist; persons lead lives, they live; and as a result, in consequence—in consequence, that is, of the way they do it—there are lives, of which those who lead them may, for instance, be proud, or feel ashamed. So there is a thing, and there is a process, and there is a product.” And he adds: “The central claim of these lectures is the fundamental status of the process. In order to understand the thing that is the person, or in order to understand the product that is the person’s life, we need to understand the process that is the person’s leading his life.”
In asking this question, Wollheim has made a shift that brings philosophical reflection into new territory, and has produced one of those rare works that extend the limits of philosophical analysis. We all lead our lives, and, of course, we put some considerable thought into doing so, even if only intermittently and inconsistently. But by virtue of its self-imposed limitations, philosophical analysis, at least in the Anglo-American world, has had the greatest difficulty dealing with the thinking we do in leading our lives, thinking in which all of us nevertheless as human beings irresistibly engage. Anglo-American philosophers have analyzed the metaphysical nature of persons—the abstract question of what it means to be a person—but a kind of cordon sanitaire has held philosophical reflection away from our condition as beings living in relation to past and future.
Certain Continental philosophers—notably Heidegger and Sartre—had made this their concern, but before Wollheim’s book adherents of the specifically “analytic” tradition to which he belongs have remained for the most part curiously debarred from doing so. So in asking his first question—what is it to lead our lives?—Wollheim is in a sense breaking through a barrier. The extension of philosophical territory that he proposes may not be an unalloyed good. There are enemies of philosophy who might see it as an unmitigated disaster, and even its friends are forced to admit that this kind of project may go badly wrong.
What has caused this resistance? Something, I think, deep in the tradition of empiricism and rationalism, which still has a powerful grip on Anglo-American thought, in spite of the frequently announced revolutions and liberations from it. This is the ideal of the person as a timeless, disengaged observer, who can inspect his own actions and life from the standpoint of eternity. This ideal, which Wollheim attacks, has been so powerful that it has ended up coloring not only …