Publishing the Archive: Samuel Beckett’s Philosophy Notes. An Interview with Steven Matthews and Matthew Feldman.

29 April 2021

Jonathan McAllister, University of Cambridge

Steven Matthews and Matthew Feldman ed., Samuel Beckett’s ‘Philosophy Notes’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020)


Old Greek: I can’t find my notes on the pre-Socratics. The arguments of the Heap and the Bald Head (which hair falling produces baldness) were used by the Sophists and I think have been variously attributed to one or the other. They disprove the reality of mass in the same way and by means of the same fallacy as the arguments of the Arrow and Achilles and the Tortoise, invented a century earlier by Zeno the Eleatic, disprove the reality of movement. The leading Sophist, against whom Plato wrote his dialogue, was Protagoras and he is probably the “old Greek” whose name Hamm can’t remember.


– Letter from Samuel Beckett to Alan Schneider, 21 November 1957.[1]

When asked in 1961 whether he was influenced by philosophical writing, Samuel Beckett said that he neither read nor understood philosophers. In the early 2000s, however, a corpus of reading notes, taken by Beckett between 1932 and 1938, came to the attention of scholars working on Beckett’s oeuvre. These notes cover the history of western philosophy, from the sixth century BCE to the late nineteenth century CE, and consist of roughly five hundred sides of handwritten and typed loose notebook pages. In the last two decades, these notes have been the source of much discussion and debate within Beckett studies, contributing to the questions concerning Beckett’s relationship with philosophy that have animated critics since the 1960s. Many scholars have sought to elaborate these notes’ significance to and place within the Beckett canon, sensitive to the ambiguities and paradoxes involved in philosophical readings of his texts. Peter Fifield, for example, has written that Beckett’s ‘texts are never a neutral ground to which we may bring an objective method; rather, philosophy is already present and at work in them’.[2] How then might we use these notes to enrich our understanding of the philosophy at work in the texture of Beckett’s prose and theatre? In late 2020, Oxford University Press published their much anticipated edition of Beckett’s ‘Philosophy Notes’ edited by Steven Matthews and Matthew Feldman, opening the debate to a wider audience of researchers and students than previously possible. This edition contains a thorough introduction and extensive footnotes written by two scholars who have spent much of their career reading and thinking about Beckett’s oeuvre, making it an invaluable addition to the shelves of any library. I asked Steven and Matthew to share their experiences of working with these notes over the last two decades and their insights into the significance of these notes to Beckett’s work for this interview with The Modernist Review.

The Modernist Review: Thanks to you both for agreeing to this interview. The publication of your edition of Beckett’s ‘Philosophy Notes’ is an exciting moment in Beckett Studies, with this material previously available only in the Trinity College Dublin and University of Reading archives. When did you both learn about the existence of these notes and how did they come to be in the archive?  

Steven Matthews: When Beckett died there was a trunk full of materials that he had kept close to him across his life downstairs in his Paris apartment. Edward Beckett and Jim Knowlson went down to open the trunk and made the decision at that moment as to where those materials would go. I might be wrong about this, but I think they also, at an early stage, discussed a reciprocal agreement whereby those materials that didn’t end up in one place would be copied so that a copy could be lodged in the other place. The original manuscript of the ‘Philosophy Notes’ went to Trinity College but the Reading archive has a pretty good copy of these notes; this process happened the other way around for certain other manuscripts. That’s my understanding of how they came to be deposited in the archive. One of the things we hoped to do with our edition of the notes was to get a sense of their proximity to Beckett, that it wasn’t the case that Beckett produced the ‘Philosophy Notes’ in the 1930s for himself and then abandoned them. It seems pretty clear that Beckett kept these notes nearby throughout his life: they were portable in many senses for him, and we’re not quite sure how frequently he went back and updated them – that’s kind of untraceable in a way – but it’s part of the general narrative. Beckett, as it were, carried his portable history of philosophy with him, and he referred to it even when he was writing quite a lot of his postwar works, such as All Strange Away – he specifically refers to the notes at this time. I think the scholarship has hitherto been, ‘Oh, well Beckett produced the notes at the time he was working on Murphy’. The received idea is that Beckett and philosophy recedes as a topic as the career continues, but we were hoping to prove that he kept these notes across the whole damn shoot of his writing career: he picked them up and flipped through them and reengaged with that material again and again and again.

Matthew Feldman: I learnt about this material while working on my PhD in the early 2000s, which I started under Steven Matthews’s supervision. In Beckett Studies, I’ve been – probably pretty fairly – associated with an empirical approach, but I actually started a quite theoretical PhD on Beckett and Heidegger. That first year was reading through the Beckett canon and trying to read Heidegger and some other things. Steven was really adamant about getting down to the archive and getting stuck in. So, I sort of rocked up at the start of my second year and didn’t exactly know what I was looking for: it was just ‘Beckett and philosophy’. I took the thirty-minute train ride up to the Reading archive from Oxford Brookes, with just a vague idea about the work. There I sat down with Jim Knowlson, Julian Garforth, and John Pilling, who asked me some really difficult questions, pointed me to photocopies of this material (which was then just in this pretty unceremonious box), and said, ‘we’ve just had this come in’. The notes had only recently been catalogued and were only now able to be talked about and consulted. I was very fortunate to be one of the very early people to look at them back in 2001. At that point I began some transcriptions, working with Steven already some nineteen years ago on the notes. I tried not just to transcribe them and to make sense of them, but (and I hope this comes across in our annotations and the introduction) suggest where they were important to Beckett’s creative process both in the 1930s and for the rest of his life thereafter.

TMR: You’ve mentioned that Beckett started these notes in the early 1930s and possibly added to them at other times during his life. Could you sketch out an idea of when the different sections of these notes were composed and the reasons as to why Beckett started this process of extensive notetaking?


SM: Beckett was very aware of the lacunae in his own knowledge after finishing at TCD, particularly around the time in which he was troubling over whether he should become an academic or take the bold gambit – especially after his father died – of becoming a full-time writer (whatever that might mean!). The dates are pretty contentious – some early scholars such as Everett Frost have a different reading of things to the one that we come up with in our edition – but at some point, he began to read philosophy using various different readers and readings in philosophy. Even at that early stage he began to put together quite an elaborate system of notes using three principal sources during the early and middle 1930s and using different inks throughout to cover each of those sources. It was probably a fairly slow evolution. Beckett seemed to take the opportunity whenever he was near the British Museum Reading Room or another library to take his notes and annotations further, so it was probably quite sporadic across that period and it is difficult to tell when he stopped. One of the things that strikes me now, having seen our edition, is to think more about the physical nature of his notes and manuscripts. Matthew and I received permission from Edward Beckett to see the original manuscript of the ‘Philosophy Notes’ in Trinity College, and it was very noticeable as we looked through those pages that, as he does with some of the fiction (The Unnamable, for instance), Beckett was very aware of the physical space of the page in the notebooks. It is quite often the case that the end of his notes on a particular philosopher coincide pretty neatly with the physical end of the page of the manuscript notebook. I think there is some work to be done on that: Beckett as a writer who is working to fill the space in a particular kind of way. Anyway, principally the notes were assembled in the 1930s. They were clearly there for him to carry around during the war years, but we probably can’t be much more definite than that.

MF: The notes themselves don’t carry dates, so it’s not like the later prose drafts in which Beckett writes date entries: we don’t have any indication on the manuscript itself for when sections were composed. In most other instances of Beckett’s life, his letters will shed light on what he is reading or writing at the time, but we don’t have that anywhere for the composition of the notes in the 1930s; there’s really nothing. There’s one reference which we think is the start of the note taking process in July 1932: Beckett is in London and he’s talking about working on Ancient Greek Philosophy, among other things. I think it’s pretty clear that we have a starting date of around summer 1932, not least because the earliest reference in his work to the philosophy comes in the early poem ‘Serena I’ with its reference to Thales – ‘all things full of Gods’. But then the dates just disappear, and to date the ‘Philosophy Notes’ you really need to look at the references in Beckett’s published works from the time, which can give you some insight but is far from definitive. As a very back of the envelope calculus, I think we can approach the ‘Philosophy Notes’ as a game of two halves. The first is taking lots of notes from various sources in the period roughly between finishing Dream of Fair to Middling Women and starting Murphy, so between summer 1932 and summer 1935. It looks like (and this is just a theory) he gets up to about somewhere after Augustine but before Kant, and it may be that he finished the notes in early 1935, during his lengthy stay in London, before he started Murphy. Our suspicion is that he probably came back to and finished the notes after Murphy, taking notes from really only one source, Wilhelm Windelband. Insofar as that can be proven, for instance, we see virtually no Kant or post-Geulincx philosophy in Murphy (Schopenhauer, of course, lurks in the background). By contrast, there’s much more of the whole range of philosophy in his works post-Murphy, including Nominalism and a number of other elements, like Romanticism. I guess I would suggest that Beckett finished it off a little perfunctorily after Murphy and that gives us a lot more Kantian material, a lot more of, at that time in Beckett’s life, the last few hundred years of post-Enlightenment philosophy largely missing in Murphy.


TMR: In the introduction to your edition you write that the ‘Philosophy Notes’ are comprised of 110,000 words over 266 folios, which makes this one of the longest texts that Beckett composed in his lifetime. Could you talk some more about the scope of this text and how Beckett organised the materials with which he was working?


SM: Well, they literally run from Presocratic Philosophy – Beckett’s source for these notes was an academic and scholar of Plato called John Burnett – right through to a paragraph on Nietzsche where he abandons things. They do contain some surprises, and the elaboration of the pre-Socratics is fascinating and very telling. There is a large and very direct narrative section on the life of Socrates, which is quite bizarre; there is quite a bit also on Roman stoicism. But I think that for people who have known Beckett’s works and philosophical predilections for a long time, there is something quite striking much later on. We are brought up in Beckett Studies to believe that Beckett is firmly a kind of anti-Enlightenment writer, an anti-Enlightenment person, but some of the most incredible sections of the notes are actually those on Kantian and the post-Kantian philosophies. It appears Beckett really knew his enemy: he wrote out page after page after page about the thing-in-itself, etc., etc., using the most abstruse authority figures amongst the philosophers. It is not the case, therefore, that Beckett was simply instinctually against the idea of homo mensura – ‘man is the measure of everything’ – that man is incapable of some kind of illumination, enlightenment. In fact, he had gone through many, presumably quite tedious, hours of working on this stuff to make sure that he had every single detail. There are many new fascinating questions that come out of these notes: for example, how we might consider Beckett not just as a writer but as a thinker, as somebody who is not just engaged with the contemporary philosophy, the post-existentialist philosophy, of the postwar period, but also that broader history of philosophical thought and how those two – the contemporary and the canonical – come together.

MF: The meticulousness of these notes is really striking. These are not stereotypical undergraduate-type notes that are all over the place, but are a very carefully constructed, dare I say, ‘narrative’. Though I don’t think it would be accurate to describe it as creative writing – Beckett is clearly taking notes here – the way in which they come up in his work later is unmistakably creative. The notes are obviously transformed into his art, and what we get are little pieces. For example, the start of Endgame – ‘it’s finished, nearly finished’ – alludes to a long and actually quite detailed discussion of Zeno’s paradox. There are a lot of things like that in the ‘Philosophy Notes’, which maybe tease out or deepen our understanding of Beckett. But if anybody is looking to overthrow all the knowledge in Beckett Studies and start again, the ‘Philosophy Notes’ don’t do that. That’s not what we were trying to do with our edition, so much as show the depth and durability of Beckett’s engagement with Western philosophy. What I found very interesting in these notes were the sections on nominalism and realism, which was clearly an area Beckett took an interest in. He took more notes from the pages on these topics than almost any other area. Although he doesn’t say anywhere explicitly that he is a nominalist or a realist, he’s playing with these ideas as an artist. However, nominalism and realism haven’t yet become really familiar terms and theories in Beckett studies about his work or philosophical interests. I think, therefore, that the notes help deepen some of our interpretations by giving them an empirical documentary foundation.

TMR: To follow up on the idea of authorship that you raise there, you write in the introduction to your edition that Beckett  appears as an absence in the ‘Philosophy Notes’. What do Beckett’s omissions and silent reworkings of the source materials tell us about his philosophical disposition? And does his style of notetaking point toward his creative writing in any way?


MF: How theoretical do you want to be? I mean, we could even ask: What is notetaking? Yes, in one sense it’s recreating, but it’s also not starting with a blank page in your imagination. I suppose it’s a question of degree, to some extent, that’s for readers to tease out. There’s a whole separate project, potentially, of looking at the bits where Beckett, like for example in Windelband’s passages on Kant, makes the text his own through an absence. He is taking really detailed notes that are not a verbatim transcription but really, really close reading. We get much less of that engagement with, let’s say, Schelling. The absence is almost like Beckett is not saying I’m going to do the bare minimum, taking the ‘straws, flotsam, etc. names, dates, births and deaths’, but instead taking lots of notes on some philosophers’ lives and thought, such as Kant, while passing over pages where he is less interested in the interpretation offered. This is, in a way, what we are characterising as making the notes his own.

SM: For me, it has reoriented my sense of Beckett as being more of a creature of his time or as drawing upon the period immediately prior to his own setting out as a writer, especially with the link through the pre-Socratics. It also takes us back to figures from the previous generation such as W. B. Yeats and D. H. Lawrence, figures who were suddenly happening upon these new philosophy textbooks by people like Burnett and others. They were discovering a whole world of thought and of understanding which they latched onto. Beckett is very much a man of that kind of moment. This is the great time of modernist impersonality, after all; to a certain extent, the elusiveness of modernist texts is replicated in what Beckett is doing in these notes. At points he is directly snatching Windelband’s sentences and at other points he’s paraphrasing, rewriting, or re-emphasizing certain aspects of his sources. I think stylistically these notes are interesting. Future scholars might think about the idea of taking down very brief sentences, something that we habitually consider in terms of poetry of the 1930s – and there’s something similar about the writing here. These notes are sort of telegraphese, or something like that. Stylistically they might actually have something to tell us, not about the earlier fiction or the trilogy, but something about mid-period Beckett, which again is in a kind of very precise and abrupt prose style. There are all sorts of things that start swirling around as Matthew says and as you’re picking up about this notion of where and how Beckett is in all of this and the kinds of techniques that he is learning about writing through all of this. I mean, as you point out, this is perhaps the longest Beckett text there is, actually. And he’s not simply reprising the content. He’s finding ways of making this information striking and telling to him and potentially adaptable in his own fiction later in his career.

TMR: I also understand that there are a few snarky interjections in the text. Could you tell us about them?

MF: Towards the end I certainly think he starts getting fed up with some of the Enlightenment progressivism. There’s definitely some of that in the sections on German Romanticism.

TMR: This brings us to a question I have on transcribing the manuscript itself. Beckett’s handwriting is notoriously difficult to read. How did you find transcribing the handwritten sections of this text? Do you have any special techniques for deciphering particularly difficult handwriting?

MF: I mean, Mark Nixon, Dirk Van Hulle, and others can read what looks to be angels dancing on the head of a pin. When Steve and I were doing the transcription, we would have those volumes Beckett was working with open beside us. Sometimes you need an extra pair of eyes on certain words and obviously it gets easier as you get more familiar with the handwriting. It did take a long time to get comfortable and, in some places, we went back to words or looked at phrases quite painstakingly.

SM: You probably need to think about the fact that the two of us for better or worse have spent many years with these notes. Sometimes you can make it out simply by staring for a long time! Certainly, the opportunity to go to Trinity and to sit with these multi-coloured pages was fantastic. I think there are probably now only about three or four words out of the 109,000 words that we would admit we don’t actually have.


TMR: I would love to see the original manuscript of this text. Unfortunately, I have only worked from the microfilm copy and scans in Reading. How many different coloured inks does Beckett use throughout the notes?


MF: Well, again, I suppose that depends on how theoretical you want to be! There seem to be different shades of colour, but we could probably say that black and red and typescript are the main three. Or blue-black, maybe? Steve?

SM: Yeah, I think so. It’s very hard to tell when he was refilling his pen, which tended to make the blue-black more black than blue – we had quite a lot of debate about that! I think that one of the sad things about the edition is that we couldn’t represent in any way some of those pages. Some of them are really beautiful – they are very carefully created works. There are not many, if any, doodles in them, as there are in the Murphy manuscripts. In terms of those different coloured inks, he is clearly thinking about the visual look of this work, even if it was meant only for his own eyes.

TMR: Were you able to determine whether the different colours correspond to the content of the notes?


MF: Usually they correspond to the different authors. Although that brings us back to a slightly earlier question regarding authorship. Beckett isn’t disagreeing with the authors. Windelband is the most present author that we have here, but Beckett isn’t saying I disagree with Windelband. It is very clear that, whereas Beckett is somebody who is after the standalone facts of life, death, and publications, Windelband is the complete opposite – he wants the history of philosophy to be one continuous narrative. These are the bits that Beckett leaves out or minimizes, which only come through when you read the sources alongside the notes. We see that Beckett isn’t really interested in the ways in which the philosophical narrative is constructed and presented, so much as in who is this philosopher, how might I use this as a reference point, and (most importantly) how might I use this creatively.

TMR: Could we explore briefly how he used this material in his creative writing? In an interview with Knowlson, Beckett said, ‘I realised my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than adding’. What philosophical ideas from these notes did Beckett draw upon to actualise this aesthetic of impoverishment?

MF: I think there are three ways one could approach this question. One is the approach we went for, which is, where do these philosophy notes appear in Beckett’s published work? That might be specific references or allusion or engagement that is documentary in a familiar scholarly way. That points toward, but does not necessarily resolve, the second question of whether Beckett takes the position of a sophist, or an anti-neo-Kantian, or a Geulincxian because those are interpretive questions that people will debate when they read Beckett’s work. There is also a third question, which is slightly separate from those first two, that approaches Beckett himself as philosopher. This is the idea that Beckett’s art of impoverishment is a stoic view of the world, which may build on lots of different philosophies, but is actually Beckett’s own and is part of his artistic genius. So, I think there are three questions there.

SM: I think in a way you could read this negatively, couldn’t you. Beckett is, as it were, giving himself a primer of what everybody else has thought in order to partly lay it to one side. But it’s clearly the case that some of those things nagged at him perpetually, thinking about Empedocles and the sphere for instance. Beckett is clearly fascinated by those passages in Burnett that talk about circling back to the beginning. You get thinking about periods of chaos and order coming through and you can see, to a certain extent, that it’s actually the imagery that is there in some of the notes which becomes important to him in the trilogy. Many of the ideas and images in the ‘Philosophy Notes’ are replicated. We, as Matthew has indicated, decided to go for a kind of empiricist approach to this. We were well aware that many critics of Beckett had speculated, and speculated well or speculated less well, but we didn’t feel it was our place to start speculating ourselves in that regard. I think you will find that the footnotes do point to what we think are absolutely fail-safe places where an image in the notes or a sentence in the notes comes back in the works – for example, ‘man is the measure’ as teased in Molloy. We did not want to go beyond that kind of thing, partly for reasons of space. I think the book is heavy enough as it is!

MF: But also, and I think this is important, it wasn’t just about hammering down things that are interesting gotcha points, right. For example, the one that I think is still the headline is the famous epigram from Chapter 6 of Murphy that comes out of page 417 in Windelband and is in a footnote that is actually referring to Spinoza. That’s all very interesting. I think that’s the kind of service we try to do, but not to turn around to say that Beckett is a Spinozian. We want to present the material to other scholars who are then able to do that interpretive work. That was one of the really key things we were trying to do. Not everyone can get to Reading or to Trinity. I’m not suggesting that this book is a snip at £95.00, but at the very least it is there – hopefully on library shelves – and people can take it away to do their own work.
We see it very much as a foundation stone rather than the last word. It felt like the easiest way to facilitate that work was going through those things that are already well documented and correspond to the work. But in many, many cases, there is a wider interpretive question of, say, whether The Lost Ones is using the ideas of the cylinder that comes from the pre-Socratics. Those are the kinds of things that we might point toward, but whole articles or whole books could be looking at using the material to make those interpretative points.


TMF: Lastly, I would like to follow up on those editorial principles you have touched on there. Your edition comes with an extensive critical introduction and an impressive array of footnotes. With such a lengthy and derivative text as the ‘Philosophy Notes’, how did you decide on the editorial principles that underpin the edition?


SM: There was an interesting contribution from an anonymous reader of one of the drafts of our text. They fully endorsed the approach that we just described whereby we didn’t ourselves enter into speculation, but they also wanted us to put into our footnotes the extant scholarship around Beckett’s treatment of phrases that appear in the ‘Philosophy Notes’. So, one of the things that we did try to do as part of our editorial principles was to edit with a view to the fact that many scholars have made suggestions on the basis of these notes previously and that their scholarship is something that we were standing on the shoulders of – you will therefore find in the footnotes a full acknowledgment of what has happened hitherto in the scholarship. But I think we do say quite clearly in the introduction that, to a certain extent, we want to hand this set of texts, this set of histories, on, that we are the mediators; we are not necessarily, whatever we do in our own careers, going to enter that kind of field in quite that kind of way. Part of the appeal of being invited to edit the edition for me was the feeling that maybe the best criticism is the best editing. That what we need is not necessarily a new pile of Beckett books but a new opportunity for Beckett scholarship.

MF: I couldn’t agree more. I think something else that is quite important is that we are not philosophers. We weren’t going to reinvent ourselves and comment on the debate between Descartes and Kant or Hegel and Nietzsche by providing references to the most recent philosophical sources. That is a different project. It is one we have some equipment for, you know, we’re (also) no scientists, but we came to this as Beckett scholars. With the help of OUP and the readers we made the safer bet, which was that we are familiar with Beckett’s art and the criticism around this work. We could therefore make this a self-contained work that is really helpful for Beckett scholars, and other scholars of this literary period. What this is not pretending to be is an intervention in philosophy. I think that, for me, if we are talking about editorial principles, that was a really important lodestar from the start. What we were not trying to do is resolve philosophical debates which, in good Beckettian fashion, are most irresolvable anyway.

This interview was conducted virtually in September 2020. Samuel Beckett’s Philosophy Notes are available now in hardback.  


[1] The Letters of Samuel Beckett, ed. George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck, IV vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), III: 1957-1965, p. 71.

[2] Peter Fifield, ‘Samuel Beckett with, in, and around Philosophy’, in The New Cambridge Companion to Samuel Beckett, ed. by Dirk Van Hulle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 145-57 (p. 155).

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