Philosophy as Autobiography:
Alternatives to Subjectivism

By Ralph Dumain

"Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir. . ." — Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

“No hero is a hero to his valet, not, however, because the hero is not a hero, but because the valet is—a valet . . .” — G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit

“That he who will not defend Truth, may be compelled to Defend a Lie, that he may be snared & caught & taken” — William Blake (Milton, 8: 47-8)


This assertion by Nietzsche and comparable assertions by William James and other philosophers are intellectually fraudulent to the core.  This position is a staple of irrationalist philosophy.  There are comparable statements from irrationalists in other fields, such as psychology.  The Nazi collaborator Carl Jung, for example, issued a disclaimer as a way of evading rational justification of his own "scientific" position, claiming that every theory is basically the personal confession of its author.  This is consonant with Jung's chronic evasion of the question of truth.  This is a vile and despicable position to take.

Unfortunately, the philosophy popularization industry is not providing much insight, though from time to time there is a recognition of the pitfalls.  The latest issue (#48) of Philosophy Now has a very bad article on the subject: “The Psychology & Psychopathology of Philosophers” by Ralph Blumenau.  In preference to Ben-Ami Scharfstein's The Philosophers: Their Lives and the Nature of Their Thought (Oxford, 1980), Blumenau recommends Alexander Herzberg's 1926 The Psychology of Philosophers.  Blumenau amends Herzberg's ridiculous ideas with his own.

Blumenau divides the concerns of philosophers into three groups: (1) normal intellectual concerns, (2) normal religious concerns, (3) abnormal concerns possibly symptomatic of pathology.  Rather than itemizing them here as he does, I will list what he considers to be abnormal concerns:

(1) The reluctance to accept uncertainty.  Here Blumenau accuses not only the traditional theologians and metaphysicians, but philosophers who take mathematics and science as paradigmatic.

(2) The search for a totally comprehensive system, esp. monism, but also dualism and triadism.

(3) Excessively authoritarian, revolutionary, optimistic or pessimistic systems that suppress contrary information.

(4) Mystical philosophies.

(3) and (4) are indicted on basically the same grounds as (1) and (2).  The argument is awful, just awful.

A glance at Peter Suber’s web page, Philosophy as Autobiography is distressing.  The quotes adduced on this web page are reminiscent of a disease afflicting the subjectivist school of the sociology of science since the 1970s: the notion that scientific positions are an expression of personal interest.  It is difficult to judge the bibliography from the bare references, but from what I see, the references listed are simply inadequate to address the issues involved here, except to reiterate the simplistic, irrationalist position (which also includes the psychoanalytical approach) I have already criticized, which apparently fit the bill as described on this web page.  It is not clear from the one reference to the Frankfurt School that there is any sophisticated reference to ideology critique here at all.

It is noteworthy that pure psychology is the explanatory principle, apparently without reference to inherited intellectual traditions or bodies of knowledge, social structures or institutions, or even sociological explanations that might serve to explain how ideological positions are contoured.  In short, this approach is intellectually dubious through and through, conceptually naive from beginning to end, unjustifiable from either a philosophical or social science perspective.

The irrationalist tendency is a product of the effort to deny any objective basis for truth claims.  If philosophy is only the product of individual psychology and temperament, then there is no basis for rational judgment.  Subjectivism is then a pretext for lack of accountability.  Traditional assaults on truth-claimants include the ad hominem argument and the genetic fallacy.  Broadening it to a social perspective, we get sociologism, social constructivism, standpoint epistemology, and situatedness.  However, the meaning of the relationship between an idea and its origins is neither automatic nor transparent, hence it is not adequate to cite the origin as a simple explanation of the idea.

I have rejected the notion that ideas can be understood simply as a  reflection of personal motive and philosophical commitment as simply an outcome of personality or temperament.  If we adduce the notion of ideology, then we are beyond pure psychology, for ideology is the interface between individuals and ideas as public phenomena.  Individual experience is unique, but most of most people’s ideas are not "theirs" anyway.  It is not even true that there are just random individual thoughts or even experiences.  Even that illusion is an ideological artifact of the real-life ordering of society whose order also includes and generates what we subjectively experience as chaos.  Occasionally you will find individual perspectives and shadings, but all ideologies—including the ideology of random chaotic subjectivity—are public, social, and socially determined.  The illusion that our perspectives are just ours is also an artifact of an ideology constantly pounded into us by the very people out to rob us of everything including our individuality.  This is not to say that an individual perspective cannot emerge, but it emerges in interaction with structures of other socially existent ideas.

One might take a differently formulated position, i.e. that while truth claims are not the mere effluvia of temperament, that nonetheless different temperaments are attracted to different philosophical positions.  This might on the face of it constitute a fairly innocuous position, though a trivial and vacuous one unless something more substantive could be said about the temperaments involved and their relationship with specific positions.  (Isaiah Berlin's midcult banality is one way to go.)  Even so, I am quite unhappy with such ideas, which strike me as simple-minded.


I look at the matter differently, as the interaction of temperament with positions which are taken on the basis of accepted intellectual constraints which may either be consonant or at variance with the temperament of the person concerned.  I could just mention some random possible examples.  Carnap judged Wittgenstein as a man at war with himself, with a mystical temperament at odds with his rational arguments.  Or, again, extending ourselves out of philosophy into other areas, I used to know several mathematicians, whom I found to have wildly varying temperaments, from the spaced-out to the cold-blooded to the wildly emotional.  Does this correlate with their mathematical work?  Not in ways I knew about.  The point is that an investigation of complex interactions might be more interesting than simplistic correlations.

The problem reminds me of the great man theory of history in many ways: the alternative is to explain in a non-obscurantist fashion the interaction of individual personalities with the objective social frameworks in which they operate.  The notion of philosophy as autobiography is itself a product of irrationalist philosophical tradition.  The interaction of abstract ideas with pre-reflective psychological and cognitive factors and frame of reference presents an interesting field of investigation, but only after an intelligent framework from which to pursue it is conceptualized. 

I think it is fruitful to pose the question as to how individual temperament interacts with a body of knowledge, intellectual traditions, and social conditioning.  Here are my initial steps in thinking through the problem:

(1) Individual personality interacts with a body of knowledge partly on the basis of the demands and nature of the field.  One should be careful about what one assumes.  Let me take an example from real life.  Picture this: the SUNY/Buffalo math department, 1980.  I enter the department for a chat with a couple of professors.  As I enter, a string quartet consisting of mathematicians is playing in the main common area.  You would never see such a group playing in the administrative area of a music department.  I sit down in an office with two male math professors to discuss the bizarre ideological dynamics of the Buffalo Logic Colloquium that all of us recently witnessed.  One is cold-blooded, devoid of social graces, and he dissects the ideological assumptions and philosophical positions of everyone in the room.  The other is extremely emotional, and describes the personalities, body language, and other nuances of the participants' behavior.  As far as I know, neither disagreed on mathematical questions, nor did they obviously disagree on any philosophical questions.  So I ask you: how does individual personality determine choices with respect to mathematics, logic, philosophy, ideology, social dynamics?

(2) What is 'personality' in relation to individual mental functioning and to the public realm of ideas?  Is one's personal personality as a social actor congruent with one's mental personality or cognitive style?  Suppose those two are different somehow?  Suppose they are at odds?  And then what about the sense of responsibility?  Is the impetus to go against one's personal inclinations a reflection of personality as well?

(3) Against the irrationalist position, we should look for instances of growth of consciousness of the distinction between the subjective and objective that serves as a prelude for properly uniting the two.  (One of many ways of formulating this is by using Karl Popper’s  World 2 - World 3 distinction.)  If we really wish to protect individuality, we might come to a conclusion totally opposite from the irrationalist position: the “depersonalization” of abstract ideas is precisely the way to protect the integrity of the individual rather than to deny it!

My caveats about social genesis of ideas and ideologies duly noted, I still wish to pursue the individual, personal dimension.  I believe this can be approached by focusing on the interactions among personal biography, social forces, and intellectual traditions, and then see how temperament and other idiosyncratic individual factors fit into the picture.

Reminiscing about my own past generates an odd feeling, given that for me there has always been an intimate connection between philosophy and everyday life, fostered by the conditions under which I lived and thought most of the time.  In time, learning the hard way, I also learned more about the nature of traditions and individual idiosyncrasies.  One problem with the association of life and philosophy is the unavoidability of being held hostage to a limited set of available ideas which at some point in time are attractive because they resonate so well with one’s needs, often influenced by the zeitgeist.  Only with time, more knowledge, and good fortune, is it possible to see that the shapes of both life and thought at an earlier stage of development were contoured in different ways that one suspected at the time.  Thus one may learn to be more wary and seek out the complexities of the relations between the shape of life and the shape of thought.

Written 20 Oct 2004; 1, 9, 15, 17 Dec 2004; 20 Jan 2005; 10, 12 February 2005
Edited & uploaded 12 February 2005

©2005 Ralph Dumain.  All rights reserved.

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Uploaded 12 February 2005

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