How to Read Philosophy #5: Reading While Drunk

Is drunkenness the enemy of philosophical sobriety? Or are there circumstances where drunkenness can make our philosophical insight keener?

Will Buckingham
9 min readJun 10, 2022

Au Moulin de la Galette by Ramon Casas. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Philosophers Behaving Badly?

The philosopher Simone de Beauvoir was a big fan of philosophising while drunk. Along with her sidekick Jean Paul Sartre, De Beauvoir partied hard, with the full commitment you might expect given her existentialist tendencies. In this, she was part of a long tradition of philosophers who drink. This tradition is so well established that the bar-room philosopher has become a stock figure in popular mythology: the drunken rambler who lists across the room and corners you for a conversation about how you can be certain that the tables and chairs in the bar really exist.

But for all those philosophers who are partial to a tipple, others are more uneasy with drunkenness. Immanuel Kant — who in his younger days was known to drink so much he couldn’t find his way home — argued that drinking to excess makes human beings little better than animals, although he permitted mild inebriation for the sake of warmer social connections (what constitutes “mild”, of course, is a matter of fine judgement). And Socrates managed to somehow get the best of both worlds. He was the most sober of drunks, who could drink everybody under the table, without ever showing signs of loss of control.

So when you are next inclined towards philosophy, should you crack open a can of beer, an amphora of wine, or a cask of whiskey? Or should you abstain? Fortunately, Plato is here to guide you through the issues involved.

Drinking to Get Drunk With the Greek Philosophers

In Ancient Greece, one of the main places where philosophy took place was at symposia. These were drinking parties where (almost exclusively male, although see this excellent attempt at gatecrashing from the philosopher Hipparchia) philosophers hung out and talked a combination of sense and nonsense into the early hours. As Plato put it, passing time in conversation and drinking (as long as we conduct ourselves well) is a considerable contribution to education. How so? Because, as…

Will Buckingham

Writer & philosopher. PhD. Stories & ideas to make the world a better place. HELLO, STRANGER (Granta 2021): BBC R4 Book of the Week. Twitter @willbuckingham