Bachelor philosophers

I am reading an excellent book titled The Infidel and the Professor that I will review in more detail once I have finished it and had time to fully digest it. The book is an intellectual biography of two Scotsmen David Hume and Adam Smith who were so influential in shaping modern western thought and were also good friends, with each of their ideas building on the other’s, though since Hume was twelve years older and a far more prolific writer, his ideas went into print before Smith’s.

But along the way, the author Dennis C. Rasmussen makes some interesting asides and one that struck me was his listing of all the canonical philosophers who were also bachelors like Hume and Smith: Plato, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes, Rene Descartes, John Locke, Benedict Spinoza, Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, Edward Gibbon, Arthur Schopenhauer, Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. In fact, Nietzsche remarked that true philosophers never marry and that Socrates did so only ironically.

The list is quite impressive and makes one wonder whether there is something about a deep commitment to studying philosophy that makes people leery of permanent romantic entanglements. Of course, in making such lists, there is the danger of cherry picking names to fit a tentative hypothesis. There is always the problematic question of what should be the total population that one should start with (what would be the total pool of canonical philosophers) and how the rate of bachelorhood among philosophers might compare with (say) that of prominent physicists or musicians. Perhaps under such a more careful analysis, the effect becomes less dramatic.

But if I take as a baseline Monty Python’s Philosopher’s Drinking Song (below) and look at the names of the famous philosophers they mention where they picked names without consideration of marital status but presumably because they could fit them into the rhymes, only four of the people in their list (consisting of Kant, Martin Heidigger, Hume, Schopenhauer, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Wittgenstein, Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel, Nietzsche, Socrates, John Stuart Mill, Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, and Descartes) were married, giving a bachelor rate of 71%.


  1. cartomancer says

    For the majority of Western history bachelorhood was actually a requirement for membership of a university – academics were considered clerics in the church, and bound by rules of clerical celibacy. Even in Protestant countries after the reformation universities continued with this custom – even into the twentieth century for some archaic hold-outs like Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh (which accounts for many of the names on the list). Without a university as a base of operations the philosophical life was basically only open to independently wealthy aristocrats. So both the culture of academia and the economics of the academic life have made bachelorhood the norm in the West.

    Indeed, the word itself – bachelor (from the Latin “baccalaureus” – “admitted to the convent with a tap of the staff”) – originally applied to a member of a university and only later came to be associated with unmarried men.

    Non-Western philosophers tend to be married far more often. Confucius was married. Lao-Tze was married (in some versions of his life – biographical details are very hard to pin down). Most of the great medieval Islamic scholars were married (apart from those who were religious ascetics).

  2. brucegee1962 says

    It has always bothered me that, in the Harry Potter books, 100% of the faculty are unmarried. If I could ask J.K. Rowling one question, it would be about that — is this a rule, a tradition, or just a coincidence? Or is it that, as a person who was a student but not a teacher, she still has difficulty imagining professors having private lives?

  3. jrkrideau says

    @ 1
    It may just be my bad memory but I thought that there were rumours that when Oxford U changed the regs a lot of dons “found” wives very quickly in North Oxford?

  4. Mano Singham says

    brucegee1962 @#2,

    I had noticed this phenomenon too about British public (i.e., private) boarding schools (I read a lot of that schoolboy literature when I was young), that teachers seemed to live on the premises in rooms that were provided by the school. Such an arrangement seemed to indicate that the teachers were unmarried. But what happened to a teacher who got married and had families? Did they get a larger apartment? Or were they expected to move out and find housing off-campus?

  5. says

    There’s another fun book of Hume-related stuff, Rousseau’s Dog: an account of the time when a paranoid and very weird Jean-Jacques Rousseau hid out at Hume’s place and annoyed him mightily.

    [M]akes one wonder whether there is something about a deep commitment to studying philosophy that makes people leery of permanent romantic entanglements.

    Perhaps it makes them unbearable? I’ve, uh, had occasion to wonder.

  6. KG says

    OTOH, Bertrand Russell married four times – trying to raise the average number of marriages per philosopher to a respectable level, perhaps?

  7. Robert Bauer says

    “Bachelor” is probably a euphemism in Plato’s case – at least, The Republic talks about attractive boys way more than you would expect from a book of ethics and epistemology. Spinoza was Jewish, but exiled from his religious community because his philosophy was seen as heretical, so he may not have had any opportunities for marriage. And I can’t imagine anyone wanting to marry Nietzsche.

  8. smrnda says

    This made me think about the author JG Ballard. He’s been exposed to the idea that ‘great writers’ or artists or whatever would disdain forming families and marriage, but disagreed and was himself a single father after his wife died. He seemed to think the whole idealization of bachelorhood was wrongheaded. In the past it was probably impossible to both be a philosopher and have a family. In the present, the demands of academia tend to discourage children more than encourage them, and even potentially discourage marriage, but for a field as open ended as philosophy, I wonder what the overrepresentation of the ‘single man’ perspective might be doing.

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