Messages from Writers on Writing and Education
Excerpt: From a paper presented at the annual meeting of the Long Island Philosophical Society, 2012: “Philosophical Perspectives on Autobiography: Hermeneutics and Deconstruction”
In a series of unfinished drafts gathered under the title The Construction of the Historical World in the Human Studies, nineteenth century philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey described autobiography as “the highest and most instructive form of the understanding of life.”, adding that the “reflection of a person about himself remains the standard and basis for understanding history.” Contained in this view is the idea that our grasp of the human world, as opposed to that which is discussed in the physical sciences, finds its basis in a special relationship of inner to outer. That is, Dilthey suggests that the human studies have as their model the basic acquaintance that given historical individuals has with their own lived experiences – experiences that they strive to give form to, or make objective, in some way.
Hans Gadamer’s own version of philosophical hermeneutics also addresses itself to the question of what it means for the voice of another to communicate within written tradition, while at the same time presenting an account that claims to overcome certain distortions inherent in the outlook described above. When understood in terms of his concepts of play, the authority of the text, and language as the medium of hermeneutic experience, that which we find expressed in the autobiographical memoir greatly changes its significance in terms of what it means to understand these works. It is with regard to autobiographical form of writing that the writings of Jacques Derrida show much in common with Gadamer, while at the same time raising to awareness greater levels of complexity, perhaps even greater levels of resistance, regarding the “miracle of understanding” that Gadamer believes takes place in our engagement with the text as “other”. This paper will relate Derrida to Gadamer by bringing out some important differences and points of contact regarding their reception, within the traditions of hermeneutics and deconstruction, of what may be a pervasive attitude toward autobiographical writing, one which has its basis in certain ideas of the Romantic tradition concerning life, experience, and the self. I would suggest that ways in which both Gadamer and Derrida deal with the distinctive intimacy of autobiography, deemed so important to thinkers such as Dilthey, Rousseau, and others, bring out in a clear way some of the tensions in their respective views. My purpose, however, is not simply to set hermeneutics and deconstructions at odds; rather, I hope to show that a discussion of this form of writing from the perspectives of both deconstruction and hermeneutics will present a new, rich, and nuanced view of what it is for a text to mean what it says and, of the strange nature of the written word in relation to human understanding.
Historical research often emphasizes the lived experience of individuals as central to its scholarly purpose. As such, philosophers of history such as Dilthey thought that there was a way to capture aspects of the historical lives of others in a manner based not simply on non-rational intuitions but as having a methodological foundation of its own. Dilthey believed that this understanding is possible because the sense we have of our lives represents a peculiar grasp of something that no conception or thought can get beneath. This sense is a fundamental ground of its own, with elements that cannot be brought before natural science’s more distanced, cause and-effect based concepts. That is, our own lived experiences, and our experiences of other people and of cultural products, are not based in mere causal inferences, but have their basis in something with which we are primordially familiar. This intimate acquaintance we have with our own inner lives represents a key toward grasping those expressions of the cultural world with which the human sciences deal…
When I am writing philosophy, I am aware that I am entering an arena of conflicting views. In fact, I am joining a discussion that has been taking place for centuries, a conversation concerning such questions as the nature of reality, the self, and the good life. As such, an important component for writing philosophy is the need to be a careful reader. With this, I not only gain the ability to discuss philosophical views in a fair and informed way, but I also tap into a source of creativity. Reading and rereading, I encounter points that resonate with my own experiences and background knowledge. This in turn can serve as a launching point for my own work.
This initial writing step, this process of reading and reflecting upon works, is not as easy as it may seem. It requires time and careful study. The selection I include here presents the beginning of a lecture I gave at Molloy College when I was just getting my start in my field. The paper I presented—“Philosophical Perspectives on Autobiography”—was part of a conference held annually by the Long Island Philosophical Society. As with other things I’ve written, writing the conference paper was a journey of learning and discovery. This was especially true in this case, because when I first began working on the paper, I was not sure what I wanted to say about my topic. I was writing about things beyond my usual area of concentration. Moreover, I was trying to discuss ideas that I initially found very difficult to understand.
The topic for my paper had to do with the nature of autobiography and the purpose of writing. However, the ideas it contained were first introduced to me in a graduate seminar that I had taken years before. The seminar focused on two movements that are influential in contemporary philosophy: hermeneutics and deconstruction. Both hermeneutics and deconstruction are concerned with language and meaning, with what it means for human beings understand one another within a verbal or written tradition. When I began graduate school, I noticed that deconstruction seemed to generate a great deal of enthusiasm among my peers. I signed up for the course because I knew very little about the subject and I wanted to see what the fuss was all about.
Before long, I found myself overwhelmed by the course material. I had always thought of myself as a good reader. But with the assigned readings in this course, I often found myself at a loss. Moreover, by the end of the seminar I had to come up with a seminar paper, which I needed to submit to complete the course. To better understand the material, I knew that I could search through what other academics had written. Although these writings can be helpful, I knew that if I was going to produce my own work of scholarship, then I was going to have to wrestle with the texts myself. One of these was a difficult piece that was about hundred pages long. It was by Jacques Derrida, and it was called “Plato’s Pharmacy.” I remember reading through it from start to finish several times. Although at first, I found the essay impenetrable, the moves that were taking place within the writing started to become clearer to me. After all this work, I finally felt like I was beginning to understand. However, the challenge remained of putting into words just what it was that I thought I understood.
My philosophical writing not only involves reading and understanding the ideas of others. I also need to think about my potential audience and the goal that my own writing is trying to achieve. I need to formulate a main idea for my essay—the point that I am trying to get across. For this paper, I was aware that members of the audience at the conference at which I would be presenting would have some education in philosophy but most likely not in the exact topic that I would be addressing. Reflecting on the difficulties I had when learning the material, I decided that my intended audience would be someone like me when I first enrolled in the graduate seminar. And I decided that a goal for my paper would be to try to offer my own interpretation of the ideas I had been learning and of how to reconcile them, one that would clarify them, bring them to life, and thereby make them more understandable to others. I have always found this kind of writing to be the most fulfilling.
Given my goal, I would need to discover some angle or way to make the ideas I am discussing concrete and relatable. One way to do this is to create a dialogue or tell a story. Given that I was writing about two accounts of human understanding and how we relate to language—hermeneutics and deconstruction—I had two traditions to place in dialogue with each other. But I also wanted this discussion to center on a lively topic. For this, I chose the topic of autobiography.
Philosophical questions often make us look afresh at things we had taken for granted. In previous years, I happened to read and enjoy some famous autobiographies—in particular, some famous works of the eighteenth century, such as the Confessions of Rousseau, Poetry and Truth, by Goethe, and the Memoirs of Casanova. I came to believe that one terrific thing about autobiographies is that they give a person a lively sense of the period in which they were written. Unlike a mere series of events as presented in a chronicle or in the retelling of the historian, autobiographies give a first-person account of what the life of a period was like; we get to experience another world. Reading the above works, I felt like I could picture the world of a person of letters in eighteenth-century Europe. But now I began to wonder about what it is I came to know when reading autobiographies and how I came to know it. Of course, when we read someone’s life reflections, we are not directly experiencing what that person experiences, but rather we understand that person’s character and perceptions through the medium of the written word. And here, some questions arise, and it was these that I addressed in my paper: what is it, I wondered, we are really understanding when we claim to understand another’s lived experiences within a written tradition? How does this understanding take place? And are there any problems related to the idea that we do in fact claim to understand? The things that I had been learning about hermeneutics and deconstruction spoke to these very questions.
As a final point, I would mention something else that I have come to learn from my writing experience. It is the idea that writing is a process of discovery. Oftentimes I do not know for sure what I really think until I write down and compose my thoughts into readable form. This is not to say that I write with no goal in mind. It’s important to know where you are heading, even if this endpoint appears at first as just an intuition. Still, as I proceed, I am reminded that any writing not only has to go from the writer’s head to the page, but from the page to another person’s head. Through the writing process, I am made to clarify my thoughts, making them more distinct.
Writing philosophy can be laborious, and there are times when I have had to push myself to get to work. But when I consider that with this work, I plunge deeply into ideas present as part of an ongoing conversation, that as a participant in this conversation I can reach people by making complex thoughts clear, and that this writing is a process of discovery, a process in which something that did not previously exist becomes a part of the world, it becomes one of the more rewarding things I do.