Some philosophers are scornful of the notion that the life can help us understand the work. Wittgenstein had a notion of understanding as seeing connections rather than building a theory. When you understand a person you see connections, you don't build a theory about them. Biography can be like that.That sounds true to me. And I didn't know this, which also seems quite reasonable:
How did he become a biographer? "It was the result of a series of lucky accidents." In the early 80s, while studying Wittgenstein's philosophy of mathematics at Oxford, he came across two rival interpretations of it. The philosopher Michael Dummett claimed that it involved full-blooded conventionalism, while Crispin Wright argued for its strict finitism. "My thought was that if you had any understanding of the spirit in which Wittgenstein wrote, there was no way you could attribute those positions to him. You could only do that if you read what he wrote about mathematics divorced from the rest of it.And yet... The most obvious evidence that Wittgenstein should not be read as adopting a particular theoretical position (if such a reading is possible, of course) is contained within his philosophical work. The more we have to look outside such work to understand what it contains the less sure we can be that we have understood it correctly. The only direct testimony we have about the work is the work itself (except in the case of living authors). That is where the author tells us what she is up to. Knowing what she ate for breakfast or where she went on vacation is not going to tell us anything much. (It might tell us something, for instance Wittgenstein had very spartan tastes in such matters, and that might affect our interpretation of his writings on, say, ethics. But it doesn't tell us much.) More useful would be reports from people who knew him about things he said to them, but here biography shades into the usual studying of texts, and it matters that such reports are secondhand. So they are not as reliable as primary texts.
But it isn't only a matter of which sources of information are reliable. There is also the distinction between causes and reasons. This has been on my mind lately because of philosophy's imminent move into a rhetoric-based English department at VMI. Apparently rhetoric people focus on the ways that beliefs and values shape texts, which I take to be a kind of (presumably somewhat speculative) causal investigation. Given that the author lived in such-and-such a culture, and had such-and-such a life, and was writing for such-and-such an audience, how do these factors (seem to) show up in the text? Whatever value such an exercise might have, it is not philosophy. Regardless of why they might have been produced, philosophy focuses on the arguments as presented. We want to know the reasons offered in support of a conclusion, not what might plausibly have caused the author to present that conclusion. If Hobbes only pretended to believe in God, say, then a philosophical analysis of his work will not care whether he was pretending or not. All that matters is the work that the concept of God does, or does not do, in Hobbes' argument. And the argument that matters (most, to a philosopher) is the best one compatible with the text, not the one that Hobbes himself actually meant.
But is that quite right? Don't I care, as a scholar, what Wittgenstein actually thought and meant? Isn't it helpful when studying Plato's political philosophy to know about the war between Athens and Sparta, and what the Athenian democracy did to Socrates? The answer to the first question is Yes, I do care what Wittgenstein himself actually thought. But that's because I respect his judgment. What he meant to say is likely to be the best thing his text can plausibly be read as saying. Or at least an interesting thing worth thinking about. And Plato's historical circumstances are important partly because they might help explain why he defended what is generally taken to be an implausible position. It helps us decide that we need not keep looking for a better argument in the text. Otherwise such matters are just color or gossip. I like gossip, but it isn't philosophy.