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Philosophy as autobiography: A personal note from a spring term senior

I’ve noticed, lately, that people tend to treat them as simple and simply synonymous — but like most things, it’s more complicated than that. The claim “all philosophy is autobiography” (PA) seems to imply a sort of ground-level mirroring, that to write philosophy is in a clear and immediately comprehensible way constitutive of expressing, and understanding, one’s personal identity. To write on trans philosophy is to explore one’s transness. To write on causation indicates a deep fascination with epistemology and the philosophy of science. To do any kind of research, writing or thinking is to reflect and engage with some (at least latent) part of oneself.

Certainly this linearity is accurate to an extent. But I don’t think the connection should be taken as dogma, and I don’t think it’s simple enough to stand unquestioned. So, then, what does it mean to say “philosophy is autobiography”?

Though obviously, this is still just one of those questions. Chicken or the egg? Do we have free will? Art or artist? In this piece, then, I hope to briefly inquire into PA, and emphasize at least briefly its potential as a concept. I’ll first outline what PA does for us; second, what about it seems difficult; third, what it has meant to me, in my lived experience; and fourth, what PA can do for us, especially for marginalized folks in philosophy. This obviously isn’t at all a new idea; I believe Derrida wrote about it, but Google searches are only confusing me further right now (I’m concussed). So bear with me.

On a basic level, believing (in) PA might offer the thinker a therapeutic effect. This could be the case without critically examining the notion at all (not necessarily a bad thing). This, I believe, is the more pragmatic view. PA, for example, likely narrows the gap felt between the philosopher and the subject of their work. (I don’t believe PA only works with marginalized topics, though certainly it still applies to them. Rather, I believe PA is a somewhat universal notion that applies to any engagement one has with one’s thought-work.) To be able to relate to one’s thought, to the performance of doing that thinking and to the body of scholarship one engages with in the first place — this is all entailed in believing PA. It plays the role of illumination and encouragement. 

(I acknowledge the difference between the terms “believing” and “enacting.” For length reasons, I am going to take these to be one and the same thing. But deep down, I recognize it’s more complicated than that.)

Given this pragmatic view, then, PA doesn’t need further unpacking per se. But it is something that has taken on many different forms, for better or worse, throughout my life, and I feel it’s worth analyzing a bit in order to figure out exactly what’s going on there. It has been more for me than what has been described above; I know that is the case for others I know, too.

My qualm with the commonsense understanding of PA — acknowledging that it is a useful concept and one integral to the diversification of, and inclusion within, philosophical disciplines — is that it’s a momentous claim. Again, and I hope clearly, that’s not to say it shouldn’t be made. But a concept of this much use and power should have its boundaries properly traced. I will now examine a more nuanced view of PA.

Perhaps to view PA as a mirroring or correlation is reductive, lacking the imagination such a notion could have. Is this truly something that should just be taken for granted? Is it needlessly static? In its current conception, I wonder whether the position could really do anything beyond offering comfort. Again, not a bad function at all, but I think refining the notion could have important implications for the domain and practice of philosophy at large. It could highlight what philosophy can do, as well as the personal and intersubjective power it holds.

In my experience, PA has taken many different forms. It has shifted greatly over time, both in itself and as I have changed as a person and adjusted my relationship with/to it. 

Even before I was able to consciously think, or think of, PA, in the language I am using here, this idea was what drew me to the field of philosophy — the discipline offered what seemed to me the most direct, productive and authentic way to deal with both my transness and to engage with the strife of other trans folks around me. Having worked as a news and music journalist for various LGBTQ+ publications before coming to Carleton, theory — even as something just rudimentary — has always been integral to the way I navigate the world and interact with the trans and disabled communities in which I am immersed. In other words, theory and praxis have never felt to me on a deep level to be merely in the black-and-white, dichotomous relationship many might see them to be. 

To write, to think and to talk, all as ways to raise consciousness and more abstractly and productively theorize structural inequality, have always been in my view on a similar, but not equal, level as traditional praxis. Much of this thinking comes from accessibility, and what import such considerations might have on the often inaccessibly physical nature of a lot of leftist organizing. So to understand theorizing to necessarily possess a level of real-life import was exciting and deeply empowering to me. It’s what allows for new and inclusive kinds of theorizing that come, first and foremost, from the issues one runs into when doing such thinking. The personal, here, meshes with the philosophical to create new ways of philosophy, and PA takes on a role more complex than encouragement. It becomes a necessary seed from which the flower of reform and innovation blooms. So, then, if PA isn’t in actuality quite as described at the beginning here, then: What could PA be? What could it do for us?

I will wrap up here and briefly point to key ways in which PA could be re-imagined. I don’t have definitive answers, just brief “maybe…”s.

I believe PA should, as I’ve emphasized, be a starting point rather than a taken-for-granted, peripheral fact. If all philosophy is, indeed, to some extent personal, then why shouldn’t its personal nature be somewhat central to one’s engagement with it? In my view, PA is a form of illumination that isn’t some kind of message handed down from the heavens. It is, in an important sense, begun by oneself and explored by oneself. 

Further investigating PA can reveal, at least in outline, novel potential for what philosophy is, how we do it and how we relate to it. Maybe it’s radically contextual. Perhaps a different understanding of PA could renew, or further complicate, how we conceptualize positionality? Maybe PA (and an expanded view of it) isn’t merely just a positive force, but rather a form of accountability that must be considered in its necessarily (at first) individual nature. Maybe the specificity of PA creates a moral imperative to listen charitably to other’s perspectives, arguments, and to take a conciliatory approach to discussion and disagreement. Could there be “shared” autobiographies, “shared” philosophies? Does this then position the self as a sort of text, so to speak, collated with the “texts” of others — friends, colleagues, or what have you — which all combine to, maybe, confirm some kind of inclusive, solidly intersubjective way of doing philosophy?

These are all lines of inquiry I’m not equipped to explore right now. But I hope to have at least opened up a little bit how this could be understood.

To paraphrase Laurie Anderson: This is the time, and this is the me of the time. I hope philosophy-as-autobiography can be expanded in the future. I look forward to that day. And I will continue to think of this as complementary to, and embodied within, my lived experience as a trans woman. Carleton has enabled me to do this. I am grateful for my past four years here.

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