Until you’re dead and buried, there’s always a chance for something to go wrong.
Simon Critchley (born February 27, 1960 in Hertfordshire) is an English philosopher currently teaching at The New School. He works in continental philosophy, the history of philosophy, literature, ethics and politics.
Critchley argues that philosophy commences in disappointment, either religious or political. These two axes may be said largely to inform his published work: religious disappointment raises the question of meaning and has to, as he sees it, deal with the problem of nihilism; political disappointment provokes the question of justice and raises the need for a coherent ethics.
Critchley studied philosophy at the University of Essex (BA 1985, PhD 1988,) and at the University of Nice (M.Phil. 1987). Among his teachers were Robert Bernasconi, Jay Bernstein, Frank Cioffi, Dominique Janicaud and Onora O'Neill. His M.Phil. thesis dealt with the problem of the overcoming of metaphysics in Heidegger and Carnap; his Ph.D. dissertation was on the ethics of deconstruction in Emmanuel Levinas and Derrida.
Following a period as a fellow at Cardiff University, Critchley was appointed a lecturer in philosophy at Essex in 1989, becoming reader in philosophy in 1995, and professor in 1999. He was director of the university's Centre for Theoretical Studies and collaborated closely with Ernesto Laclau.
Critchley was president of the British Society for Phenomenology from 1994-99. In 1997 and 2001 he held a Humboldt Research Fellowship in philosophy at Frankfurt. Between 1998-2004, he was a programme director of the Collège international de philosophie, Paris. In 2006-7 he was a scholar at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.
Since 2004 Critchley has been professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research. He was appointed chair of philosophy in 2008. He has held visiting professorships at the universities of Nijmegen (1997), Sydney (2000), Notre Dame (2002), New York's Cardozo Law School (2005) and at the University of Oslo (2006). In 2009 he was appointed a part-time professor of philosophy at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. 
Critchley is also "chief philosopher" of the International Necronautical Society, a semi-fictitious avant-garde network that surfaces through proclamations, "denunciations" and live events. He has collaborated closely with the novelist Tom McCarthy on projects including the society's Declaration on Inauthenticity  and their joint publication on Joyce.  At an event at the Tate Britain art gallery two lecturers purporting to be Critchley and McCarthy were, in mischievous keeping with the inauthentic theme, played by actors. The Declaration of Inauthenticity was presented at the opening of the Athens Biennale by Greek actors in June 2009.
Critchley’s first book was The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas (Blackwell, 1992), which became an acclaimed source on deconstruction and was the first book to argue for an ethical dimension to deconstruction. A second expanded edition was published in 1999 by Edinburgh University Press. Rather than being concerned with deconstruction in terms of the contradictions inherent in any text — an approach typical of the early Derrida and those in literary criticism aiming to extract a critical method for an application to literature — Critchley concerns himself with the philosophical context necessary for an understanding of the ethics of deconstructive reading.
Far from being some sort of value-free nihilism or textual free-play, Critchley showed the ethical impetus that was driving Derrida’s work. His claim was that Derrida’s understanding of ethics has to be understood in relation to his engagement with the work of Levinas and the book attempts to lay out the details of their philosophical confrontation.
Critchley’s second book, Very Little... Almost Nothing (Routledge, 1997) develops in a very different direction and shows his concern with the relation between philosophy and literature and the problem of nihilism. A second edition with additional material and a new preface was published in 2004. At the centre of Very Little... Almost Nothing is the problem of the meaning of life and what sense can be made of this problem in the absence of any religious belief. By way of a series of ‘lectures’ on Maurice Blanchot, Samuel Beckett, Stanley Cavell and romanticism, Critchley argues for a conception of meaninglessness understood as the achievement of the everyday, a view which, he thinks, redeems us from the need for religious redemption.
Ethics-Politics-Subjectivity (Verso, 1999) is a collection of essays that includes his debate with Richard Rorty, as well as series of essays on Derrida, Levinas, Jacques Lacan, Jean-Luc Nancy. These essays also show a pronounced political and psychoanalytic turn to Critchley’s thinking. A new edition of the book appeared in Verso’s Radical Thinkers series in 2009.
Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2001), is both an introduction to that tradition of thinking and an essay in meta-philosophy, which lays out the way in which Critchley sees the role of theory and reflection. It has been translated into nine languages. In the book, Critchley addresses the perennial question of the two major Western philosophical traditions, that of analytical and continental philosophy. Critchley tries to avoid sectarianism, and argues that the professional opposition between analytic and Continental philosophy is something that needs to be transcended. Critchley accepts that there is risk within continental philosophy of obscurantism, just as there is a risk of scientism in much analytic philosophy. But the primary purpose of philosophy is to understand ourselves, our world and, as Hegel puts it, to comprehend one’s time in thought. Critchley offers the example of the ‘will of God’ as the prime example of obscurantism, but within continental philosophy also the ‘drives’ in Sigmund Freud, ‘archetypes’ in Carl Jung, the ‘real’ in Jaques Lacan, ‘power’ in Michel Foucault, ‘différance’ in Jaques Derrida, the ‘trace of God’ in Emmanuel Levinas, and the ‘epochal withdrawal of being in and as history’ in Martin Heidegger.
Since 2000, Critchley has turned his attention to what he calls ‘impossible objects’: humour, poetry and music. His On Humour (Routledge, 2002) continues the meditation on nihilism begun in Very Little…Almost Nothing; but he continues it in a very different key, analysing the meaning and importance of humour. Critchley argues that humour is an oblique phenomenology of ordinary bringing about a change of situation that exerts a powerful critical function. On Humour has been translated into 8 languages and has exerted considerable influence over debates around the role of humour in contemporary art practice.
In Things Merely Are (Routledge, 2005), Critchley examines the relation between philosophy and poetry through an extended meditation on the poetry of Wallace Stevens. Critchley’s particular focus in Stevens’ very late poems, which attempt to describe what poetry can and cannot say about a subject-independent reality. The book also contains Critchley’s influential essay on Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.
Infinitely Demanding (Verso, 2007) is the most systematic overview of Critchley's philosophical position. It combines a meta-ethics based on the concepts of approval and demand with a phenomenology of ethical experience and ethical subjectivity. At the centre of the book is a theory of ethical subjectivity based on the relation to an infinite demand. Critchley extends his analysis into discussions of aesthetics and sublimation and into political theory and practice. Critchley argues for an ethically committed political anarchism. German and Italian translations appeared in 2009 and it is being translated into 3 other languages. The book has led to some heated polemics, notably with Slavoj Žižek (See below, the Critchley-Žižek Debate). “Infinitely Demanding” is the topic of a special issue of the journal Critical Horizons (August 2009).
An extended defense of the idea that to philosophize is to learn how to die, The Book of Dead Philosophers was published by Granta in the UK (2008), Vintage in the US (2009) and Melbourne University Press in Australia (2008). Spanish (Santillana), Italian (Garzanti) and Greek (Patakis) translations appeared in 2009 and it is being translated into 7 other languages. “The Book of Dead Philosophers” was widely reviewed and discussed (see below). It was on the The New York Times Best-Seller List in March 2009 and was a top ten bestseller in Greece in Summer 2009. The aim of “The Book of Dead Philosophers” is to examine, defend and refine the ideal of the philosophical death in the context of a culture like ours that is defined by a denial of death. However, the deeper intention of the book is to challenge and revise the way we think about the history of philosophy. More specifically, the book tries to conceive of the history of philosophy as a history of philosophers and thereby rethink the way in which approach the relation the activity of philosophy and an individual life, between conceptuality and biography.
This volume (Routledge, 2008) combines Reiner Schürmann's lectures at the New School for Social Research on Heidegger’s Being and Time with Critchley’s New School lectures on the relation between Heidegger and Husserl and his own interpretation of Being and Time. Where Critchley argues that we must see Being and Time as a radicalization of Husserlian phenomenology, Reiner Schürmann's proposal is to read Heidegger ‘backward’, arguing that Heidegger’s later work is the key to unraveling Being and Time. Critchley concludes the volume with an extended critique of Heidegger’s concept of authenticity.
This small volume (Diaphanes, Berlin, 20088) on the problem of politics and religion in Rousseau was first published in German.
Critchley is currently working on a book called The Faith of the Faithless, to be published by Harvard University Press.
Critchley has edited the following book series:
I am writing from Athens, doing what might loosely be described as “work,” with some rather bad news. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse — you’ve lost your job, your retirement portfolio has been exfoliated, Bernie Madoff has made off with your money, your pet cat Jeoffrey has left you for a neighbor and economic recession has become psychological depression — you discover the awful truth: you’re going to die.
Somehow, it was always expected, always certain, along with taxes.
You’d even smiled weakly at that old dictum. Now and then you had heard
time’s winged chariot drawing near, but had put it down to street noise
and returned to your daily round of labor, leisure and slumber. Now,
stripped of the usual diversions and evasions of life, the realization
begins to dawn: no matter how healthily you eat, how much you deny your
sedentary desires in the name of fitness, no matter how many sacrifices
you make to the great God of longevity, you are going to die. Sooner or
later, you are going to become worm food — unless, of course, you
Until you’re dead and buried, there’s always a chance for something to go wrong.
What, then, might be the relation between happiness and death? This topic has come up a couple of times in Happy Days, most palpably in Tim Kreider’s“Reprieve.” As is so often the case, the ancient Greeks, had a powerful thought, which to us seems counterintuitive: “Call no man happy until he is dead.” What is the meaning of this remark, often attributed to Solon, but different versions of which can be found in Aeschylus and Herodotus?
The idea here is that one can only be sure that one’s life is happy when it has come to an end. No matter how nobly one might have lived, however much courage one had shown in battle, however diligently one had served as a public citizen or privately as a paterfamilias in the rather patriarchal structure of ancient Greek family life, there was still the risk that life could end badly. One could die ignominiously or even worse in a cowardly or ludicrous manner: Heraclitus suffocated in cow dung; Xenocrates died after tripping over a bronze utensil in the night; Chrysippus died laughing after seeing an old woman feed figs to an ass. For the ancient Greeks, a life lived well was a life rounded off, consummated even, in a noble or appropriate death.
This means that happiness does not consist in whatever you might be feeling — after death, of course, you might not be feeling much at all — but in what others feel about you. It consists more precisely in the stories that can be told about you after your death. This is what the Greeks called “glory,” and it expresses a very different understanding of immortality than is common amongst us. One lives on only through the stories, accounts and anecdotes that are told about one. It is in this that happiness consists.
Happiness does not consist in what you are feeling, but in what others feel about you.
This has a very peculiar consequence for societies like the United States, so singlemindedly devoted to the pursuit of happiness. We assume that the question of happiness is a question of my happiness or, more properly, of my relation to my happiness. But why? Why doesn’t it make much better sense to live in such a way — to act kindly, fairly, courageously, decently — in such a way that happiness is something that others might ascribe to you after you are gone?
Having recently written a book on how philosophers die, and being a philosophy teacher myself (and yes, I too will die at some point. I am quite sure of it), I am often asked the question, ”Do you believe in the afterlife?” After mumbling something stupid on a few occasions, I have now learned to reply, “Yes, of course I believe in the afterlife. I believe in the life of those that come after, those we love, who are few in number, and those we don’t even know, who are obviously many more, a great many in fact.” People rarely seem impressed by this answer.
But why should we assume that the question of the afterlife must always be answered with reference to me? Isn’t that just a teensy bit selfish? What is so important about my afterlife? Why can’t I believe in the afterlife of others without believing in my own?
A skeptic might object that I am simply dodging the question. Of course, they might say, the question of the afterlife is about your afterlife. So, does it go on or not, this series of disconnected events that we call existence?
The only really philosophical reply I can give is, “I don’t know.”
After he had been condemned to death on the trumped up charges of corrupting the youth of Athens and failing to revere the local gods, Socrates began to ruminate on the afterlife before an audience of his judges.
He said that death is one of two possibilities. Either it is a long
dreamless sleep and really rather pleasant, or it is a passage to
another place, namely Hades, and there we’ll be able to hang out with
Homer, Hesiod and rest of the Greek heroes, which sounds great.
Socrates’ point is that we do not know whether death is the end or some
sort of continuation. He concludes by saying only God knows the answer
to this question. Of course, this makes it a little tricky if you
don’t, like me, have the good fortune to believe in God.
Simon Critchley is professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York. His latest book is “The Book of Dead Philosophers.”
When I was a boy in England in the 1970s, you had two options: if you were working class, you were a soul boy; if you were middle class, you were a hippy. I fell pretty squarely into the former category, but ended up at an academic high school, surrounded by bell-bottomed, badly-coiffured multitudes listening endlessly to junk like Pink Floyd, Yes and Genesis. I learned very early on to conceal my love of Motown, Stax and every conceivable musical emanation that emerged from the body of George Clinton and the bass of Bootsy Collins.
And then, one summer night in 1976, I heard the Ramones’ first album. All of a sudden, it was year zero. Peace and love had been replaced by hate and war. Hippies still chased me down the street for wearing bondage trousers (difficult to run in, let me tell you), but it was all right — history was on our side, as Barack would say. The social fabric of England was disintegrating with economic collapse and a terminal slide into abject national mediocrity. It felt great. There was no future in England’s dreaming and there still isn’t. This is one of the reasons I really like recessions.
So, my life with music has always been shot through by this muddle of musical contingencies. I could try to give a nerdy lesson in the 10 defining musical moments of my life and show how carefully I used to read liner notes and the music press. But I’ll forgo that and honestly list the songs that I’ve been listening to most over the past 12 months. This is going to be a little embarrassing.
1) Blind, Hercules and Love Affair. Tranny disco transcendence! My wife and I have been dancing around at home to this song since about last June. I have five mixes of it, and it sounds even better after a couple of gin and tonics. The song’s genius is the way the melancholy of the lyric — with its emphasis on darkness, blindness and pain — combines with the grinding retro beauty of the disco music track. The best dance music is always intensely sad.
2) With Every Heartbeat, Kleerup featuring Robyn. I had some drinks with Andreas Kleerup in Stockholm recently, and he is a prodigious talent, in my view. His knowledge of the history of popular music is awe-inspiring. This song is minimal Swedish electro with a simple pop melody and a very clever string arrangement. The song also has the most perfect bass drum sound. Irresistible.
3) Twenty-Four Hours, Joy Division. Yes, I know. Living in the past. I saw “Control,” the biopic about Ian Curtis, last year. I thought it was weak in comparison to the glorious “24 Hour Party People,” but it took me back to the Manchester miserablists. What draws me in with this song is its effortless power. It’s like watching Zinedine Zidane pick up the ball in midfield and move through a crowd of opposing defenders.
4) A Milli, Lil Wayne. In imitation of Tom Cruise’s jaw-dropping dance sequence in “Tropic Thunder,” I like to groove at home to Lil Wayne. It looks much better with the lights out. But I have this great bass speaker that sounds like it’s going to explode when the bass kicks in on this track. What I like about Lil Wayne is the way he takes his time during his tunes, holding back the words, slurring, sliding and moving against the beat.
5) From the Ritz to the Rubble, Arctic Monkeys. This is the choice of my 16-year-old son, Edward, who has exquisite taste. We play it in the car when are driving back to see my mum in England. Edward can even do the Sheffield accent perfectly. By the way, the Arctic Monkeys have the best drummer in the world.
6) Until We Bleed, Kleerup featuring Lykke Li. Andreas Kleerup again. Did I mention that I have a thing for Swedish women singing in English? No doubt it’s some long Abba hangover. Karin Dreijer Andersson of The Knife might also have made it onto my list. But The Knife sadly seems to have ground to a halt, and Lykke Li points towards the future. I saw her in a small club in Tribeca in early 2008 and she’s a star.
7) Crimewave, or Courtship Dating, Crystal Castles. I am one of those sad music bores who can trap you in a bar and talk about Kraftwerk for an hour. Anyhow, I listen to a lot of electro, and Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider are never far from my thoughts. I couldn’t decide between these two tracks by the Crystal Castles, as they are both perfect. The group also writes wonderfully dark lyrics: “stove burns on my hands … when skulls hit the ground / visions of the hosiery.” What are they thinking about?
8) Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It), Beyoncé. I told you this was going to be embarrassing. I could blame my wife for downloading the video. But the truth is that I play it over and over again a lot when she is out at work. Maybe I will write a male hysteric’s guide to pop music one day.
9) Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, Nick Cave & The Bad
Seeds. The Birthday Party was the best live band I’ve ever seen. I was
at some mid-scale venue in London in 1980 to watch the Nightingales,
one of the many splinter bands that broke off from the mighty Fall. The
Birthday Party was the unknown support band — I think it was their
second or third gig in London. They played the whole of “Prayers on
Fire” before its release. It was a glorious noisy, discordant, sexy
experience. The most recent Nick Cave album is hardly that,
but the man not only has Blixa
Bargeld’s guitar discord to accompany him, but everything he does
is utterly defined by intelligence and humor.
10) Quantum Theory, Jarvis Cocker. This last track on Jarvis’s first solo album is sublime, but if you let the track run until 29:40, a hidden track suddenly appears, with an unprintable chorus and a completely true sentiment.
I vowed to keep myself to 10 choices, but if there were world enough and time I would have to mention: “What’s a Girl to Do?” (Bat for Lashes – with a wonderful video), the entire back catalogue of Black Box Recorder (am I the only person who thinks this band is wonderful?), The Dead Texan (lush ambience), Underworld’s album “Dubnobasswithmyheadman” (which I listen to every couple of weeks) and I haven’t even mentioned the Ohio Players …