Ludwig Wittgenstein

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The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein lead a tumultuous life of both creative and temperamental outbursts. He was a student of some of the most famous names in his field, Bertrand Russell included, but always left their company feeling disillusioned. His own linguistic take on philosophical questions was groundbreaking and earned him recognition as one of the 20th century’s most important philosophers. Outside of academia he was decorated for his bravery during the first World War, and briefly taught at a school for young children where he gained a reputation for his corporal punishments and obsession with mathematics. He also studied mechanical engineering.

Despite being described as a gay philosopher, Wittgenstein had several female lovers interspersed with his male ones, including one he proposed to, indicating that he may be more accurately described as bisexual. He avoided sex itself, claiming that it got in the way of love; for that reason he is also (tentatively) tagged here as asexual.

While it should not be taken as biographical fact, Wittgenstein has received the high honor of a dedicated Uncyclopedia page.

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Marcel Proust

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In the comedic film Little Miss Sunshine, a fictional scholar describes French author and philosopher Marcel Proust as both a “total loser” and “probably the greatest writer since Shakespeare”; judging by his biographical material, both assertions are exaggerations, but not unfounded ones. His magnum opus, À la recherche du temps perdu (translated as In search of lost time), totals thousands of pages across seven volumes and is widely considered to be a seminal work of 20th century literature. In addition to his massive novel, Proust was an enthusiast of the English polymath John Ruskin, and translated several of his books to great renown even though his grasp of the language was imperfect.

For all of Proust’s successes as a writer, a scan through his famous quotes suggests that the rest of his life was less fortunate. He suffered from lifelong ill health and died middle-aged; he was also a closeted homosexual (though Temps perdu does include frank discussions of homosexuality and gay characters, a rarity for the time and place).

 

Historiography Saturday: Jane Addams

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Jane Addams, the woman who would go on to earn the nickname Saint Jane and the Nobel Peace Prize, began her work after a period of despondency at the prospect of never contributing anything of worth to society. Originally from a rich family, she attempted to attend medical school but dropped out due to health complications, and seized on the fledgling settling house movement as a way to make a difference. The result of her hard work was Hull House, a national model for settlement houses and the home base for Addams’ studies and social reforms. When she wasn’t helping run the House’s programs (music school, a gymnasium, clubs, etc.), Addams was active in Progressive politics, pacifism, American Pragmatism, anti-sex slavery, and suffrage work.

Recently, Addams has become a controversial addition to the LGBT historical canon. Hull House itself now advertises programming that paints Addams as a vital part of Chicago’s LGBT history, billing it as “The Queerest House in Chicago?” She shared a lifelong romantic friendship with Ellen Gates Starr, who slept in her bed and encouraged her in her work. However, romantic friendships existed in a context where high degrees of affection between women were looked upon as normal, making it difficult to pin down lesbian relationships: physical contact and even displays of undying devotion were commonplace. Researchers can find no definitive evidence one way or another of a sexual relationship between Addams and Starr, but also disagree on whether that would be necessary to establish that Addams was a lesbian given the length and exclusivity of their partnership.

Audre Lorde

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Caribbean-American poet and academic Audre Lorde was among the first theorists to write extensively on the way race and other characteristics impacted the focus of the feminist movement. She viewed the accepted narrative of man vs. woman as overly simplistic, and sought to gain recognition for the subcategories involved in both: race, class, sexual orientation, health, etc. Although she completed a master’s degree in library science, the bulk of her career was spent teaching English at various colleges and universities. Her decades of poetry earned her a space in one of Langston Hughes’ anthologies, and the title of State Poet of New York in the year before her death.

Lorde, in keeping with her theories, viewed her lesbianism as being a part of her identity inseparable from her work. As she put it: “Let me tell you first about what it was like being a Black woman poet in the ’60s, from jump. It meant being invisible. It meant being really invisible. It meant being doubly invisible as a Black feminist woman and it meant being triply indivisible as a Black lesbian and feminist.”

Pauline Oliveros

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Pauline Oliveros, a lesbian whose introduction to music was through the lucrative field of accordion performance, became a foundational player in the burgeoning field of electronic music. Like her 20th century art music peers, her composition is rooted in a classical Western tradition, but filtered through instruments like tape recorders that expanded the boundaries of what music could be. Her Deep Listening Band and Deep Listening Institute explored (and are still exploring) music based in the sounds and locations of everyday life. According to Oliveros’s theory of sonic awareness, which she described as “a synthesis of the psychology of consciousness, the physiology of the martial arts, and the sociology of the feminist movement,” music is formed in collaboration with its surrounding environment, and so musicians should become attuned to the sounds around them.

For her contributions to the study of music, Oliveros has been honored with several awards, and as of the time of this writing holds teaching positions with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Mills College. The text of an extensive interview with her is available here.

Simone de Beauvoir

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For someone who refused to call herself a philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir had quite the influence on philosophy. Her work on existentialism (including The Ethics of Ambiguity, a user-friendly introduction to existentialist ethics) both supported and elevated her partner, Jean-Paul Sartre’s, contributions, as his did for hers in turn. Outside of strict philosophy, de Beauvoir also published The Second Sex, a landmark feminist work, and several novels. In her spare time she joined the movement to get abortion legalized in France and penned a four volume autobiography.

De Beauvoir’s sexuality remains a point of controversy, and not only because she unambiguously had affairs with other women. She and Sartre had an open relationship, with the caveat that they were required to tell each other everything. She would frequently seduce lovers to share with Sartre, a practice that became predatory when she slept with a 17 year-old student and was subsequently banned from teaching in France. Letters between the two of them contemptuously discussing their lovers were published in 1990.

 

Sir Francis Bacon

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Sir Francis Bacon, a 17th century English intellectual, was so prolific and influential that, even if the dubious claims that he was the real Shakespeare are true, penning theatrical masterpieces would have been one of his lesser accomplishments. How he would have found the time between proposing judicial reforms credited with forming the backbone of the Napoleonic Code and modern common law, (possibly) drafting the charters for the Virginia colony, completing enough books and treatises that Wikipedia has assigned them their own page, and establishing methods of induction and parallel philosophical arguments to support them that led to the empiricist movement (and arguably the industrial revolution), while simultaneously running himself into financial ruin by holding civic positions that didn’t pay well enough to cover the bills, is a mystery for the historians.

Bacon’s sexuality is a matter of some debate among scholars, though considerable evidence does exist that points to him being, if not gay, at least fond enough of his young Welsh serving-men to cheat on his wife with them. A fellow member of Parliament quoted the following delightful couplet in his diary, footnote and all:

“‘Within this sty a *hogg doth ly,

That must be hang’d for Sodomy.’

(*alluding both to his sirname of Bacon, & to that swinish abominable sinne.)”

Bacon’s own writing on the subject was markedly less crude: “Although nuptial love maketh mankind, friendly love [between men] perfecteth it.”