Simon Critchley on Finding Clarity in Philosophy and Comedy, interview by Andrew Zuckerman
Simon Critchley has seen his share of accidents. In his younger years, he damaged his hands while working in manufacturing plants, and ruined his hearing by rehearsing with a punk band in spaces with subpar acoustics. At 18, he suffered significant memory loss, and most recollections from his childhood in rural England temporarily disappeared. The experience of forgetting, Critchley realized, was something he could make useful: It gave him a clean slate, and the freedom to fill in the blanks however he wanted.
So when he entered the University of Essex 1982, Critchley threw himself into his studies, and eventually discovered teaching philosophy as a means to light a fire under people, helping them strip away distractions so that they can really think, and develop a voice and structure to express what comes up in the process. It’s an approach that informs how the philosopher currently works with his students at the New School for Social Research in New York, and how he tackles his own output, nearly four decades in the making.
This slow, purposeful manner also allows Critchley, now 60 and living in Brooklyn, to continually explore the possibilities of what he is becoming, resulting in highly personal musings on subjects as varied as life itself. His first book, The Ethics of Deconstruction (1992), took a controversial stance on the forces driving the work of one of his favorite philosophers, Emmanuel Levinas. His writing on humor, devoted to its darkest and lesser-understood aspects, stems from his passion for stand-up comedy. He’s also written about the power of the shape-shifting musician David Bowie, whom he has revered since first glimpsing the artist on the British TV show Top of the Pops at age 12, and continues to dabble in song-making himself: Critchley spent part of the pandemic working on a new single, “Eat Your Funky Dasein”—a riff on a saying by the French philosopher Jacques Lacan—with his long-time collaborator John Simmons, and released it at the end of the summer. Each project is about a commitment to form. “You have to be bold and take risks,” Critchley says. “As you get older and you’ve done more of it, you can begin to let that go where it goes.” For him, finding a clarity of space from which to work is a lifelong endeavor.
On this episode, Critchley’s constant re-centering of himself to look at the world through a philosophical lens shines through. He discusses with Andrew how disappointment can serve as a source of creativity, why humor is an act of philosophical reflection, and writing as a form of improvisation.