Philosophy as Biography?

It’s fairly well-known (I think??) that when asked about the life of Aristotle, Heidegger retorted that all we need to know is that Aristotle was born, he thought, he died.  That is to say, who cares about the life of Aristotle, it’s irrelevant to understanding what he wrote down on paper.  Derrida suggested (somewhere) that the “official” biography of anyone is problematic because it serves to freeze that person’s image, and in turn, produces a truth that give rise to a predominant perception of that particular person for, well, who knows how long.  Derrida counters such a view of biography (however successful) with a more fragmentary and “novel/radical/interesting” (whatever that means) reading of a philosopher’s writings that may actually contain and “reveal” a more more accurate biography than the “official-minded” biographies.  Yet, there may be a better way.  Osip Mandelstam wrote something to the effect that, “It is enough for us to tell of the books one has read, and his biography is done.” Emmanuel Levinas provides us with some sparse details–an “inventory” as he calls it– of his biography in “Signature,” and pauses to note that his biography was “dominated by the presentiment and the memory of the Nazi horror.” This business about philosophy and biography isn’t really new, Diogenes wrote a biography of a bunch of philosophers, and that was a while ago after all.  I recall some biography of Nietzsche suggesting he was a closeted homosexual and that’s why he was so filled with vitriol against Christianity and the conventional morality that goes along with it.  I don’t know, how much should we pay attention to philosophers lives as a way to illuminate their writing?  Here’s a rather odd answer in the form of a biographical reflection by Alain Badiou,”Philosophy as Biography,” which appears in the latest issue of The Symptom:

Nietzsche wrote that a philosophy is always the biography of the philosopher. Maybe a biography of the philosopher by the philosopher himself is a piece of philosophy. So I shall tell you nine stories taken of my private life, with their philosophical morality…

After relating all nine stories, Badiou closes his biographical reflections:

It’s the end, now. And when I am at my wits’ end, my trick is to pass the stick on to the poet. I have chosen the poet of my adolescence. Saint John Perse. With him, I can speak of another dimension of life, the companions, the companions of existence.  The companions of the poet are different from the companions of the philosopher. The companions of the philosopher are the different societies within which the question of a truth is at least posed. The companions of the poet are often the companions of his solitude, which is why Saint John Perse enumerates them as companions in exile, at the moment when he himself must go into exile. And aftet the enumeration of his companions, he returns to his solitude, and he says that:

Stranger, on all the beaches of this world, with neither audience nor witness, press to the ear of the West a seashell without memory:
Precarious host on the outskirts of our cities, you will not cross the sill of Lloyds, where your word is not honored and your gold has no title…
‘I shall inhabit my name’ was his response to the questionnaires of the port;
And on the tables of exchange, you have nothing but trouble to produce,
Just as these great moneys in iron exhumed by lightning.

“I shall inhabit my name”: this is precisely what philosophy tries to render possible for each and every one. Or rather, philosophy searches for the formal conditions, the possibility for each and every one to inhabit his name, to be simply there, and recognized by all as the one who inhabits his name, who, by right of this, as inhabiting his name, is the equal of anyone else.

That is why we mobilize so many resources. That is also what our monotonous biography can be used for: to constantly begin again the search for the conditions by which the proper name of each one can be inhabited. (emphasis mine)

This stuff about inhabiting one’s name and biography as the search for the conditions by which the proper name can be inhabited all sounds interesting enough and although I know for Badiou such things are tied to the procedure of truth I couldn’t help but think of a roll call, of responding to one’s name when it’s called, which is a sort of taking up and habitation.  Ultimately, this led me back to a passage from Blanchot’s The Step not Beyond :

I think of the calling of the names in the camps.  Naming carries the mortal play of the word.  The arbitrariness of the name, the anonymous that precedes or accompanies it, the impersonality of nomination bursts forth in the manner of someting terrible in this situation in which language plays its murderous role.  The proper name–a number–is disappropriated by the very power that designates it and by the power of indeterminable language.  What does proper name signify here?  Not the right to be there in person; on the contrary, the terrifying obligation by which what would like to preserve itself in the name of a private unhappiness is drawn out into the public square, into the cold and impovershment of the outsidewith nohting that can assure any refuge.  The prohibition against having anything of one’s own and against keeping anything having to do with oneself is pronounced by the proclaiming of the name or of that which holds its place.  The call in the camps makes appear…the meaning of any civil-state formality…Language does not communicate, it makes naked…

I know, I know, perhaps (most likely) the comparison isn’t fair and I hadn’t really intended to “get serious” with all of this, but the two passages are interesting side by side I think.  Nevertheless, enough about Badiou’s mother I say and more writing about I don’t know, events or whatever floats your Badiouan boat…

17 thoughts on “Philosophy as Biography?

  1. This topic of philosophy as a kind of biography surfaces in pragmatist circles as well. From Toulmin’s “Cosmopolis”, p. 10

    “…Richard Rorty, surveying the debate from the late 1970s, concluded that philosophers have little left to do except to join in a personal conversation about the world as they see it, from all of their individual points of view. Reading Rorty’s essays, we carry off the image of a party of ex-soldiers disabled in the intellectual wars, sharing over a glass of wine, memories of ‘old, forgotten far-off things, and battles long ago.’

    Given so problematic an agenda, what are philosophers to do? Must they not regard all philosophy as a kind of autobiography…?”

  2. Useful distinction of engaging with text or subtext by a fellow Leiter-basher over at An Unenviable Situation. He asks “Is there more to learn from this author as thinker or as symptom” (I like that they’re not mutually exclusive) and suggests that our sense of the memorability of an author is tied to the first. We historians don’t fret about this: of course ideas are embedded in their histories.

    I can’t help but think how terribly un-buddhist this all is. While we’re busy trying to inhabit our names we’re missing chances to move along toward nirvana….

    Rorty’s easier to sweep under the carpet as a bad pragmatist than to engage with as a thoughtful man. He makes it impossible to do philosophical business as usual, but as Shahar wisely noted, if that’s true then one must simply do something else.

  3. Nick, thanks for the reference from Cosmopolis, but if I recall, before presenting his other account of modernity vis a vis chronicler of farting and Romantic, the one and only Montaigne, Toulmin sketches in his view the three extant possibilities for philosophy (in the context, if I recall, of when we follow the accepted narrative of philosophy/society/modernity up until now after all that bad destruction): (1) the search for a variant of new, but less theoretical methods of theorizing, e.g. postmodern, (2) stick with the theory-centric quest for certainty a la Descartes, posing problems, solving them and trading in universals, e.g. modern, or one could go native with those (3) pre-moderns that Cartesianism sort of pushed to the side. I read Toumlin a while ago, but his attempt to counter the “standard account” of modernity borders on quacky. His claim that 20th-century modernism is a nothing less than a backsliding into conservatism is um….misguided and rather counterintuitive, at best. To suggest that surrealism should be thought of as scaffolding for Descartes’ ongoing search for stability and order is just plain silly. Toulmin’s argument amounts to nothing less than this: 16th century? Awesome! Diverse! Tolerant! 17th century? Naughty! No cohesion! Brutal!

    Carl, thanks for the link (and the comments), more on both later when I have the time for a more worthy response, thinking about that Toumlin book just aggravated me…

  4. Nick, I’m sorry, I know. I got distracted with the mere mention of Toulmin’s name (such a weird argument!). As for Richard Rorty’s more “pragmatic” take on philosophy and biography as “trading war stories” seems somewhat disingenuous to me (as disingenuous as the opposing claim to transcendence/objectivity). At the same time, it makes my point that perhaps philosophy is just like any mundane kind of activity like gardening, just imagine: Rorty: “these plants need more water, how do you water your plants?” Emelianov: “In 1986 I watered a plant and got stung by a bee then I had some interesting thought about it.” This would tend to beg the question about authors as symptoms or thinkers Carl mentions above….

  5. It’s funny, I quite liked Toulmin and used him as a cornerstone text in a modern history course I taught some years ago. Most of the students didn’t get him, so I gave him up; but one did a great side project for the class, in which she elaborately fabricated a papier-mache’ hot air balloon in the shape of Descartes’ head. (I added a gargoyle-shaped air freshener I happened to have to the basket as the demon of doubt). Hangs in my office still. If I remember correctly, this was in response to Toulmin’s point about Descartes’ attempt to escape the pollutions of context.

    Again, just a hazy memory but I seem to recall that he sets up a contrast not between two moments in philosophical history but two parallel strands, one dominant and one subaltern, with the dominant ‘modern’ tradition trying to purify a contextless truth and the subaltern one thinking of contexts as at least part of the constitution of truths.

    Yeah, his is a revisionist history; from the perspective of postmodernity and the ascendance of science studies it looks like the repressed contexters have finally gained the upper hand, and the purifiers were a long mistake. Latour makes a similar point in We Have Never Been Modern.

  6. Carl, I’m jealous about the paper-mache’ Descartes, I’ll look for it in the Macy’s parade.

    Toulmin isn’t so fresh in my mind either, but I really recall it aggravating me a great deal (did someone say “straw man,” oops, I mean “standard account”) and I think at bottom I’m just more sympathetic to someone like Lyotard.

    The parallel strands, as you put it, cash out as the “standard account,” that of nailing down Descartes/Galileo as the starting point of modernity, e.g. search for contextless truth and then there’s Toulmin’s argument that modernity starts with the Renaissance, so in tune with context. Now, maybe I’m naive, but I had always thought the two were somewhat synonymous. And Toulmin’s insistence that the Renaissance was so tolerant and even predates the “relativism” of the 1960s is to ignore a good deal of the 16th century I think. The equation between 17th century rationalism and 16th century humanism as having strong ties to modernism and postmodernism, respectively, is misleading. Rather than this non-existent modernity stuck in the Cartesian garden for all these years, it might be better to take up a less wacky view that a slow breaking down of the (medieval) cosmopolis has been underway since the Renaissance and its final disintegration in the 20th century has resulted in the wild world we find ourselves in today, whether we want to lament it (rise of fundamentalism or post-secular culture) or celebrate it is another thing.

    Maybe I’ll have to give Cosmopolis another chance, but my marginal notes are so filled with rage I may have to get a clean library copy.

  7. You may find you were a different you then. I have fun like that with marginalia all the time.

    Mika, are you quite sure you’ve recovered? 😉

  8. Yes, you’re naive.
    The birth of the subject is in the anxiety on the face of Michelangelo’s David and the language of Hamlet. Outside of philosophy courses this is or used to be, the standard model.

    “History is like foreign travel. It broadens the mind, but it does not deepen it.”

    The rule of reason is not the rule of law. The rule of law in modern terms is “Burkean.” There is no doctrine of Stare Decisis in the sciences, the Church lost that one, as it should have. But it remains central to our system of government, as it should be.

    Postmodernism as an argument for something, rather than simple as a fact, is an argument for a return to the rule of language and debate, rather than the search for truth: “the great unending search for facts.” “More facts! Just over that hill!”

    God is and always has been a MacGuffin. The question for secularists is what replaces god in that role. Rorty is like a priest who’s lost his faith but still goes through the motions, half-assed, like a slacker. He’s a lightweight. I’d rather watch an actor who believes in his roles. Wouldn’t you?

    Speaking of context, do any of you pay attention to your mannerisms and your tropes? Why leave that to an outsider?
    Why leave yourselves so open to mockery?

    And just for the hell of it I’ll add: The Islamists in Turkey are more modern and more reformist than the secularists, and the bourgeois revolution in Iran will have been made possible only by the overthrow of the authoritarian pseudo-modernity of the Shah.
    Secularism will win out in the end, but maybe removed this time from “science.”

  9. Seth, thanks for confirming my naivete.

    By the way, I’d prefer it if you would simply refer to all those “tropes and mannerisms” that leave us “open to mockery” as affectations.

  10. I think the idea is that if we could see ourselves clearly we’d obviously want to be different and exert our whole will to make it so; kind of like the idea that if Turks really knew how absurd it is to be Turkish and how cool it is to be German they’d make a much better show of assimilating. I mean, what’s with those silly little hats.

    Seth, are you saying that we should have no mannerisms? Or only ones you approve of? Are you saying that you have none? Are the ones you have immune to mockery, or is this belligerence a preemptive strike? Can we call a truce?

    To me, Rorty is exactly the right weight for his real position and importance in the division of labor. At last a brainworker without delusions of grandeur. No illusions, no need for disillusion. Not at all a lapsed priest since he was never a true believer in the first place. An unfathomable divide, perhaps.

  11. Back to the thread: there’s a threat of infinite regress hidden in biography, even just intellectual biography. I’m not saying I like Heidegger’s answer, but I don’t like Mandelstam’s either. I keep being reminded of Lenin’s remark that you can’t understand Capital without first understanding Hegel’s Logic. And of course the latter needs Kant’s first critique, and so on infinity. Meanwhile, what’s a working man to do? Apparently, take Lenin’s word for it, because life is short and there’s stuff to do.

    The kind of conversation where legitimate expertise is defined by one’s having read the obscurest scrap of whatevah makes me tired. It’s just name-dropping, and it’s oddly lazy. Clearly any piece of work issues from its time and place – its frame, its materials, its techniques are at least common enough to not be wittgensteinian ‘private language’.

    Clearly pieces of an oeuvre fit together in a variety of ways, and pieces of a tradition likewise. But if I can’t understand a book by reading the book, it’s just a fucking bad book as an elementary rule of rhetorical effectiveness, and an abuse of the reader. An exercise in narcissism, or sado-masochism. We’re responsible as authors for meeting our audiences half-way.

    Now, the audience thing is important. If I can be confident that my audience knows its Hegel I don’t need to belabor that, and if I’m not trying to talk to audiences that don’t know their Hegel, so be it. For those audiences to complain that I’m being obscure is itself narcissistic.

  12. “Seth, are you saying that we should have no mannerisms?”
    “Soy Latte-Guzzling Elitists Who Love The Common Folk”

    I’m saying that it takes more than the deployment of glib one-liners to impress others with your self-awareness.
    The tag-line for this site is less an acknowledgment of ambiguity than an expression of confidence in the authors’ ability to know what’s what. It’s little more than snarky and wholly unearned optimism. The best intentions…

    “Philosophy as Biography?”
    No: literature and performance as philosophy, as the philosophy of a democracy: the description of objects and events before ideas, and specifics before generalizations.

    What Europeans never understood -what professors of philosophy still don’t, while actors and writers do- is that democracy is not the disenchantment of the world it’s the acceptance of the multiplicity of enchantments. Democracy is secular for that reason alone: it’s theater and law, but philosophers are all theologians at heart and they miss the point. Philosophers of unbelief will defend literature and democracy as ideas, but not as fact.

    Whatever your claims, your primary commitment is to your own authority. That’s true for most people, and very much so for directors of Hollywood movies. So why is it that these days they have a better understanding of what’s at stake than you do?

  13. The tag-line for this site is less an acknowledgment of ambiguity than an expression of confidence in the authors’ ability to know what’s what.

    I’m afraid, Seth, that you lack the very basic sense of humor that the tag-line presumes – it’s very sad indeed. However, it an expression of confidence, my confidence that I do know what’s what! What precisely is so wrong with that? And what is with these unsolicited pedagogical outbursts? I can’t quite tell what exactly is your objection to our rather inclusive and generally gregarious blogging space?

  14. We’re responsible as authors for meeting our audiences half-way.

    Not really objecting here, but in the spirit of this contentious thread (what are we contending again?) – I think we’re responsible for meeting our audiences not just “half-way” but “may I interest you in some philosophy [foot in the door] it will only take a few moments of your time” way – I think the major fact of, at least, philosophical publishing is that no one really reads these books except of a small number of specialists and most copies are bought by the libraries anyway.

    Got Forster’s new short book Kant and Skepticism yesterday, the main part is only about 96 pages which in most cases is just an afternoon at a coffee shop kind of reading. Couldn’t really make it past 20-30 pages as it was so boring, even if informative, and so self-congratulatory in its supposedly novelty – “every one thought of Kant this way, but I am proposing to think about it this way” – that I couldn’t help but gaze into space and think: “And this is the industry standard of a decent book? Do people who review it even pay attention to the style and the delivery?” On the other hand, while re-reading Henrich’s paperback edition of Between Kant and Hegel yesterday night, I realized that I couldn’t put it down because, despite knowing the main characters and the plot, I found his style to be superb – it’s old topic, isn’t it? Just wanted to throw in some examples.

    PS. Speaking of style and delivery, I can’t understand half of what Seth is saying or trying to say – is it just me?

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