- Samuel Beckett, Wilhelm Windelband, and the Interwar "Philosophy Notes"
Between the years 1930 and 1938 Samuel Beckett went through an extensive process of self-education, taking notes on psychology, art history, the history of German and English literatures, and Irish and European history, in addition to notes on specific writers as divergent as Dante and d'Annunzio, Mauthner and Mistral, Augustine and Ariosto.1 Despite protestations later in his life that he neither read nor understood philosophy, far and away the largest portion of these extant "Interwar Notes," are the 266 folios, mostly handwritten recto and verso notebook pages, comprising Beckett's so-called "Philosophy Notes."2 These roughly five hundred sides of typed and handwritten reading notes derive from 1932 and 1933—likely around the time Beckett was converting his abortive novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, into the short stories More Pricks Than Kicks (published 1934). In turn, Beckett's "Philosophy Notes" were taken from four main sources: J. Archibald Alexander's 1907 A Short History of Philosophy; John Burnet's 1914 Greek Philosophy, Part I: Thales to Plato; Friedrich Ueberweg's A History of Philosophy, from Thales to the Present Time; and Wilhelm Windelband's A History of Philosophy.3
Amongst these authors, Beckett's engagement with, and subsequent employment of, Wilhelm Windelband was far and away the most profound. In fact, many of those frequently recognized as "Beckettian" philosophers— Arnold Geulincx, George Berkeley, and Gottfried Leibniz, amongst others—were actually first encountered by Beckett in the revised, second edition of A History of Philosophy from 1901. It is from here, for example, that much of the key imagery in Beckett's first novel [End Page 755] from 1935-36 (published 1938), Murphy, is drawn, even extending to the oft-cited epigraph on Murphy's mind, heading chapter six.4 Furthermore, while Beckett used all four sources for notes on ancient Greek philosophy, covering his first 109 folios, A History of Philosophy is most frequently in evidence among the summary sources Beckett consulted on ancient philosophy. More significant still, though, is that final 157 folios are derived solely from Windelband; that is, the remaining 1,600 years of Western philosophy in the "Philosophy Notes" are mediated solely by A History of Philosophy. Put another way, this volume accounts for more than three-quarters of the entire "Philosophy Notes," which itself may be considered a tale of two halves: one, a mosaic of Ancient Greek thinking, deriving from several secondary texts; and two, Beckett's summary of Wilhelm Windelband's account of the tenets and systems ostensibly governing Western philosophy thereafter.
That said, this quantitative survey of the "Philosophy Notes" should not be taken as indicative of Beckett's wholesale and wholehearted acceptance of Windelband's views on the history of Western philosophy. Far from it: in his encounter with A History of Philosophy, in which Windelband's philosophical views are writ large, Beckett's note-taking is shrewdly selective. Since nothing has been written on Windelband in Beckett studies to date (this is no less true of Burnet, Alexander, and Ueberweg), however, the nature of Beckett's composition of the notes has never been made apparent. This article therefore examines Beckett's approach to these "Philosophy Notes": it especially focuses on Wilhelm Windelband (a new candidate for "canonical" status amongst Beckettian philosophers), and carefully probes not just what Beckett wrote down, but also what he omitted—a telling detail that speaks volumes.
While it is not known for certain just what drew Beckett to Windelband, his work was certainly well-known in the English-speaking world after James H. Tufts' translation of July, 1893; when prefacing the second edition of 1900, Windelband claimed: "A large edition of my History of Philosophy [was] exhausted more than two years ago" (HP, xi). Its sold-out status had partly resulted from a hyperbolic review in 1893 by Egbert Smyth, who coincidentally described A History of Philosophy's ideal reader: "The book deserves the attention of all who would learn how thought has come to be what it is, and who would themselves 'learn to think.'"5 But when Beckett encountered Windelband's...