Philosophical Autobiography and the Examined Life
To be awake is to be alive.
I have my doubts about memoir as a genre of philosophizing. Also, and for a similar reason, about that of fantasy. The more I reflect upon the past six years during which I have awoken to philosophical life, the more I realize that concentration on particular experiences alone cannot but amount to an overlong course in self-misunderstanding, confusion, and strife, not to say self-absorption. Particular experiences cannot be locked up within themselves and kept to themselves but must lead beyond their narrow residence, allowing themselves to be opened and pierced by the whole. Experience is a bivouac; also, a world seen in a grain of sand.
It is sometimes said that ours is an Age of Anxiety. It is also said that everyone who is famous, tolerably old, or publicly esteemed is now inclined to sit down in order to complete his memoir. Yet never is it said that such an age and such a genre may be closely related or, more damningly so, that memoir may indeed be the genre that is most uniquely suited for the unfit time in which we live. For in both cases, it seems incumbent on the writer to approach his personal experiences with an eye to shaping them solely on the level of historical accident, foible, and peculiarity. It does not occur to the definite I who includes in his memoir the colorful details of his past five or fifty years, nor indeed would it, to rise above a state of finite individuality in order to conceive the contours of his existence in the light of all existence.
Worse yet, it could turn out that the continuous acts of remembering, fantasizing, and forecasting--the stream of near-endless particulars illumined by the continuous lines of thoughts upon them--are nothing save deleterious exercises in their own right: deleterious not just because they teach one to concentrate on the wrong kinds of objects but also because they seduce one into believing that particulars in the guise and varnish of particulars matter greatly or even solely in an ultimate account of a well-considered life.
If, however, I have learned anything during the time I have spent as a philosophical guide for those whose lives have been brought into the question, it is that each conversation partner must learn to move back and forth between the I who experiences to the one who philosophizes. Inquiring of oneself, of one’s time, and of the world at large, rather than venting or confiding, simply listening or passively ignoring, makes this transformation possible. In one interview in The Present Alone is Our Happiness, the French philosopher Pierre Hadot offers up the thought that philosophy may begin in personal experience but this awakening to philosophy is an adoption of an existential attitude toward the basic questions of living. These basic questions of living occur to me but transcend my finite existence; they emerge in my time but go beyond my years; they shape my moral character but the nature of my character is shaped in part from a general cast of mind. They enliven me--this is true--yet only by dint of coursing through my being; and while their beginning is contingent, their reason for being is necessary.
Understanding this bundle of provocative claims requires some patience, discernment, and finesse. For on the one hand, there can be no sense made of the overly simplistic ascetic view that the final aim of human life in this all too human world is to ascend, ultimately, beyond the specificity of human experience. On the other hand, there can be nothing but confusion and despair (or ignorance and boredom) so long as one believes that the I who experiences ranks most highly in the table of all existence. Asceticism, without body, is death; solipsism, without soul, is ennui. This is to say that asceticism troublingly eradicates the the first-personal while lyricism fetishizes it, singing its false praises. Where skepticism denies the possibility of transcendence, solipsism refuses even to consider it, to pay it heed or give it a hearing.
We are speaking of all varia of entanglements. Yet only philosophy as a way of life takes seriously the indefinite impersonal: the one who philosophizes in the key of philosophical autobiography is the one who honors selfhood and worldhood by taking a disinterested interest--where applicable, experiencing a sense of confusion and bewilderment, of reverential awe and joy, of calmness and gentleness--in whatever falls to earth. Philosophy of this kind--by which I mean the search for goodness when seen under the aspect of beauty--cannot be my keepsake or my sole possession, yet I can allow it to touch and transform me, to hold me in lucidity.
These, no doubt, are some rather peculiar claims to make about philosophizing, especially in the context of the personal essay, that “loose sally of the mind; an irregular undigested piece,” which in Dr. Samuel Johnson's witty phrasing would seem to disqualify the genre as a mode in which one could possibly philosophize. Short in length, ornately styled, a first trial of newborn (sometimes, let it be conceded: stillborn) ideas, the personal essay certainly invites the charges of intellectual shoddiness, of amateurism, of being woefully unphilosophic.
Since its inception, the form has doubtless been tempted and, in too many instances, too readily seduced by solipsism, and yet it has also resisted this temptation, transmogrifying itself into a concrete universal, an I who experiences ascending to the one who philosophizes--and returning all the richer. When Montaigne, the inventor of the personal essay as a genre of prose writing, first retired to his tower in 1580 and started scrawling quotes on the ceiling, his only aim was to surround himself with his friends, who were none other than wise and just men of antiquity. But soon he got the idea of writing down the quotes he loved (a form of chanting perhaps?), then of commenting on them (a kind of tutelage?), then of musing about them and mulling them over, and finally, as if by accident, his scribblings grew into his sprawling, fecund, thickish book containing three volumes of thin, lively essays. Somehow or other, in the felicitous words of the late Robert Nozick, Montaigne was trying, during the fecund leisure afforded by old age and good fortune, to “grow up more.”
Sometimes it can seem--and I am thinking especially of the moments in which Montaigne is writing about his regular balm movements or about the diminutive size of his penis--that he is engaging our prurient interests in topics close enough to gossip, in scenes that can readily be likened to spectacle. In some cases, the verdict can only be rendered as guilt. And yet, a charitable reading of Montaigne's essays would invite us to draw a distinction between Montaigne's stated, explicit subject (excrement or youthful sex or his peculiar habits of eating) and the implied significance: the lightness and weightiness of being human, the more general lessons to be read off of his personal anecdotes, the disinterested interest to be taken in the meaning of being an embodied, sentient, intellective, humorous creature. Here, we do well to follow Ludwig Wittgenstein, noting the difference between what is said and what is unsaid but revealed.
It is as if the process by which we begin to philosophize were teaching us to think of any event occurring on any given day of our lives as being subject to--indeed, as being in potentia submitted to--broader, wider, further considerations. An event befalls us, and, while falling, falls under the aspect of the world. At the same time, each felicitous essay that is written from this more speculative point of view is, like any good philosophical conversation we may have the good luck to participate in, also a consideration of' itself. An essay about attention must also and at the same time be an embodiment of, a performance in, an exercise in the art of attention. If it is not, then it lacks something: the most significant part. When it is well-wrought, however, a personal essay becomes a spiritual exercise of attending properly to the subject matter given to one to care for.
I am dancing around the edges of philosophical autobiography, a subject that has been on my mind since I first began writing in the genre of the personal essay and one that is, I think, a very special kind of personal essay. For quite a while, I have been wondering how philosophizing relates a lively, significant account of the life of a philosopher. His actions, his words, and his demeanor--not to mention the manner in which he eats his food or the agreeableness of his company--would all be matters worthy of scrutiny, not to say also a completer literary sketch of his character. Philosophical autobiography would be a genre concerned with giving such an account, as encompassing as possible, of how one has lived one’s life.
Specifically, it would, as a genre, be the name we give to the form in which the one who learns to philosophize comes to reflect regularly and deeply upon his life while giving shape to it through such reflections. The jury is still out whether any writing in particular--be it a body of work or a terse literary sketch of oneself--can adequately shows this transformation or full embodiment. While I’m sanguine enough to believe that the philosophical autobiography can at least give intimations of this, I am also tempted to write in all of the margins of any such work the ungainly yet not uninsightful platitude: “Work in progress Still.”
The gift bestowed upon any philosopher who seeks to thoroughgoingly adopt Socratic inquisitiveness is at once to lead, and, through example, to show others how to lead, an examined life before our deaths make us a kindly visitation. To be sure, no reasonable person expects an accountant or an athlete, just in virtue of being a good accountant or an excellent athlete, to be a morally good person, but one should have the expectation not just that philosophers of the Socratic sort are morally good persons but also that the activity we call Socratic philosophy should make one into a better human being. The common objection runs that even the best of modern philosophers did not make for the most pleasant dinner companions: Kant could be a pedant, Schopenhauer was most surely a pessimist, and Heidegger became a Nazi. However, it is usually then conceded that philosophers, though capable of thinking logically, live about as well as the rest of us. The better ones, it is muttered, may owe this much to luck.
As it happens, this objection is based on a mistaken assumption concerning the supposedly autonomous realms of thinking and living, theory and practice, reason and emotion. It is an assumption that we do well to reject. Philosophizing for ancient philosophers at least was not, as Hadot has capably illustrated in his book What is Ancient Philosophy?, a theoretical discourse first and foremost but was rather the rigorous exercises of thinking and living, of reasoning and forming performed all at once. Philosophy, much like any rigorous activity, is a practice, only in this case it is a practice not in one activity or endeavor but in the art of living one’s life. Following Hadot's example, therefore, I have come to regard philosophical autobiography as consisting of a set of spiritual exercises: each individual piece attempting to be a meditation aimed less at informing the other about a state of affairs than at transforming the philosopher’s perception of the world.
I am urging, then, that philosophical autobiography is the form of personal essay charged with spelling out three important conditions. First of all, it is tasked with revealing the process by which one is transformed from the pre-examined or pre-reflective to the examined or reflective, from the definite I to the indefinite one. This process may be likened to an awakening or to a conversion experience: it is a change of heart, a sense of “growing up more,” a coming to oneself. Second, it consists, however obliquely, of the kinds of spiritual exercises that seek to change one's way of being, making it possible for one to become a master in the practice of living. The first and second conditions go hand-in-hand, spiritual exercises being the chief mode by which the transformation is effected without the two being separable. Finally, philosophical autobiography is intended to reveal that the one so transforming is leading an exemplary existence, the sort of existence that percipient observers would also find estimable and attractive. The exemplar, whether he intends as much, is setting himself up as someone worthy of esteem and admiration, as someone fine and good (kalon in the Greek). Spiritual exercises, self-transformation, and exemplarity are, it seems to me, three different vantage points from which to view with greater breadth and closer attention the figure appearing in the guise of the Examined Life. If to examine one’s life is to be awake, then “to be awake is to be alive.”
Works Cited or Referred to
Hadot, Pierre. The Present Alone is Our Happiness: Conversations with Jeannie Carlier and Arnold I. Davidson. Trans. Marc Djaballah. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009.
Hadot, Pierre. What is Ancient Philosophy? Trans. Michael Chase. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.
Johnson, Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Dictionary: An Anthology. London: Penguin, 2007.
Montaigne, Michel de. The Essays of Michel de Montaigne. Trans. and ed. M. A. Screech. Penguin. London, 1993.
Nozick, Robert. The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Civil Disobedience. London: Penguin, 1983.
Andrew Taggart is a Ph.D.-trained practical philosopher and entrepreneur. About
five years ago, he started a successful philosophy practice, which involves
speaking daily over Skype about the nature of a good life with individuals living
around the world. Once a resident of New York City, he now lives with his fiancée
Alexandra in Southern California.