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Philosophical biography : some problems of conceptualization

Biographie philosophique: quelques problèmes de conceptualisation
Irina Polyakova


Cet article présente et caractérise ce qu’on nomme « biographie philosophique ». La « biographie philosophique » diffère de la « biographie d’un philosophe ». En effet, elle se définit par la « vie »  des formes littéraires et des travaux philosophiques du philosophe.

La biographie philosophique a ses propres particularités, ainsi elle ne se résume pas et échappe à chronologie, à la division en rubriques et aux autres principes linéaires du matériel biographique classique. C’est pourquoi, dans ce contexte, les notions telles que « voie de vie », « trajectoire », « trajectoire de la voie de vie » sont analysées; les principes assurant l’unité du matériel biographique sont alors révélés.

Le principe de l’organisation du matériel formant l’unité de narration dans une biographie philosophique est défini par la position philosophique de l’auteur.

Cela ne signifie pas la transformation de la biographie en une espèce de théorie philosophique, mais plutôt la conceptualisation de la vie en fonction de certains principes et certaines idées. Deux idées principales de conceptualisation de la vie biographée sont proposées.

La première : une vie comme un drame dans laquelle les contradictions des conceptions du monde sont au premier plan. À la « voie de vie » d’un individu considérée comme une succession continue d’évenements répond alors celle d’un philosophe considérée comme un processus dramatique d’auto-formation, de connaissance de soi-même démontrant la nature non linéaire des événements (les pensées, les sentiments), ainsi que la nature non linéaire de la mémoire considérée comme un acte créatif.

La deuxième : l’idée de plasticité de l’homme, dont la trajectoire ne peut pas être schématisée, divisée en rubriques ou rangée en ligne, mais qui peut être reproduite avec des moyens d’une narration philosophique, plastique elle aussi.

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1The tradition of biography (its creation, reading, comprehension etc.) has shown not only the extraordinary variety of forms of the biographical genre, but also numerous treatments of the organization of biographical material. At the same time, a person’s life-course, understood as a continuous sequence of events associated with a particular character, is laid down at the basis of a biography like a true story of human life. The category of a life-course structures a biographical narrative of any type.

2The concepts of “biography” and “life-course” are often considered identical. But the approach that identifies an individual’s biography and life-course with the sequence of events cannot fully reflect the genre specificity or genre variety of biography itself, as the narrative of events also has its place in the chronicles, the hagiographies and the monographs. However, chronicles are not biographies, as everything individual and personal has been dissolved in the chronology of events. The subject of a hagiography, to a greater extent than its character’s life, is the idea that one must clearly demonstrate by his (her) own life.

  • 1 Averintsev Sergey Sergeevich (1937–2004) Russian philologist and biblical scholar.

3The canonical Gospels also cannot be characterized in terms of the biographical genre. Any biographical text, as Sergey Averintsev1 has shown, has a tendency towards generalization, gravitates around a certain characterological pattern and contains value judgments and psychological motivations (AVERINTSEV, 2002). But the character of Jesus Christ according to the faith of the Evangelists and later Christian generations “remains essentially incomparable and cannot be classified or incorporated in any system of generalization” (AVERINTSEV, 2002, 29). Christ’s identity is “as non-biographical as possible”. Such traditional headings of ancient biography as “the origin” and “birth”, are completely inapplicable to the characteristics of his life.

4Biography is characterized by a focus on the individual and personal content, and by an attention to the individual human life-course. It claims to combine in itself the truth of the facts and features of the inner world of the individual. Therefore, in the light of its mission to cover “the total reality of individual existence” (W. Dilthey), biography combines the individual’s life-course and inner world. In such a case, the life-course appears as something external to the biography and the inner world is not confined to the psychic world of the personality, but presupposes a spiritual entity of all the personal qualities of man.

5A person’s life-course is most often built up chronologically. In fact, the chronological principle, at first glance, is the simplest and most natural approach in the organization of the material of a biography. However, we find biographies from as early as Antiquity with a structure based not on chronology but on categories or items (e.g. SUETONIUS, 1991), although the headings are only the framework within which acts the systematic-ethical principle or the author’s purposes as in the case of Plutarch’s moral-psychological sketch (Plutarch, 1994). Thus, each description of Plutarch’s life looks as follows: time of life, origin, social status, motherland, attitude to the native polis, cult to the family. One can notice that, in this case, chronology is not decisive.

6The chronological organization of the material in the biography and the strict sequence of logical headings share however something in common – both can be presented and described linearly. In this article I would like to draw attention to the genre of philosophical biography/autobiography (here we will consider them in the context of biographical discourse as such, disregarding the differences), which often finds itself unable to use both chronology and trajectory as a generalizing (though conditional) scheme.

Linear perspectives of biography

  • 2 Bradford Gamaliel (1863–1932) American biographer, poet, critic and dramatist.

7At the beginning of the 20th century Gamaliel Bradford2 drew special attention to the limitations of the chronological approach to the literary biography of his time (BRADFORD, 1917). He noted that biography represents a complicated sequence of dates, events and circumstances, of which some are vital to the analysis or the individual subject, but many are merely required to make the narrative complete. Psychography – a new form of presentation of the person’s life – can, according to Bradford, overcome such a point, as:

From this vast and necessary material of biography, psychography selects only that which is indispensable for its particular purpose, and as the accumulation of books becomes yearly greater and greater, it seems as if this principle of condensation must become more and more pressing in its appeal (BRADFORD, 1917, 5).

8The authors of the one of the recent monographs on biographical studies (OATES, 1986), defending the understanding of biography as an art, are unanimous in saying that in order to give meaning to the deployment of life, the author of a “pure biography” is obliged to unfold his story sequentially, never topically. Deformation of chronology is unacceptable, as well as interpretations and explanations. But serious disagreements arose on how to build a narrative about the inner world of the character. There are also certain questions as follows: Is it possible to combine the chronological sequence of events and the dramatic aspect of the narrative? Is the biographical narrative interrupted by the theoretical reasoning of the author?

9The concept of “trajectory” is very common in biography as a “compositional matrix” (a term by Sergey Averintsev). It is true that in most cases of fiction and historical literature, it is used as a metaphor, an illustrating moment of the single-mindedness of the character’s life course: “trajectory of life”, “trajectory of life course”, etc. Biology, psychology, sociology and narrative theory suggest specific definitions that clarify the meaning of the term. In psychology, the trajectory of person’s movement in the life world is considered as a life-course. Or, vice versa, the life-course appears as a trajectory of the selective actualization of certain semantic links and deactualization of diverted alternatives of meaning, the combination of which is determined by the individual’s activity as the subject of life (ASMOLOV, 1996). In sociology, the range of life trajectory and life path is wide enough. The concept of trajectory, as an expression of the strategy of conscious personal choice is used to organize the material of a biographical interview (Wagner et all, 2003) and to characterise the individual, professional or career preferences.

10The notion of “trajectory” takes a significant place in the life models of the British sociologist Anthony Giddens. A separate chapter in one of his books (1991) has been named “The Trajectory of the Self”. Giddens writes: “Trajectory of the self: the information of a specific lifespan in conditions of modernity, by means of which self-development, as reflexively organized, tends to become internally referential” (GIDDENS, 1991, 244).

11From the point view of “non-Darwinian” biology, Stanley Salthe defines trajectory as an “unchanging higher-level entity; that is the continuity and coherence of lower-level momentary events and entities” (SALTHE, 1993, 324). According to Salthe, there are two new theoretical entities, which are to be defined for the clearing of the grounds of postmodern biology, which proceeds from the perspective of development rather than of evolution, and in which the general systems theory is applied to biological and social phenomena. He demarcates two types of trajectories: ontogenetic or developmental (a life history as a whole) and morphological (a similar material entity, historically reflected in the lineage of organic evolution discourse). The first is “the spatiotemporal connections of cohesion between one stage of development and the next, so that these individual moments – cumulated, say, from fertilization to senescence – make up a single, higher-scale individual. It is taken here to be the seat of self-organization” (SALTHE, 1993, 312). The second is “the entity that allows self-organization discourse to incorporate evolutionary morphology” (SALTHE, 1993, 189).

12In semiotics, the notion of “ontogenetic trajectory” has been adapted by Paul Thibault to the ecosocial environment in which “meaning-making activity is a trajectory-in-time” (THIBAULT 2004, 3). Thibault defines trajectory as “a persistence-in-time that arises through the organization of processes”. He proposes personal “historical-biographical trajectory” of individual consciousness (historical-biographical lifespan) as a scale of semiotic environments (THIBAULT, 2004, 50, 184).

13We are talking of trajectories, which are “nonlinear”, “wandering”, “chaotic”, etc. in cases where the trajectory is considered not in a statical but in a dynamic sense. Unstable trajectories, as it is known, often have a nonlinear system, which leads to a probabilistic description of deterministic systems (the phenomenon of dynamical chaos). In light of the discovery of the interdisciplinary concept of synergy, the description of trajectory terms has given way to a probabilistic description. However, such a description, which was introduced for chaotic systems, is not applicable to a particular trajectory. With respect to chaotic systems, a description is acceptable not in terms of individual trajectories, but only in terms of “ensembles of trajectories” (PRIGOGINE & STENGERS, 1984).

14The last definitions seem to be more applicable for the variety of biographical forms, but in a methodological sense, they also disclose a lot of mismatches in the cases that are aimed at individuality as the main trait of biographical image.

Philosophical biography: reconstruction of a spiritual image

15For further consideration, it is necessary to make a few preliminary notes. The genre scopes of philosophical biography have remained an object of debates to this day. To be philosophical, the biography of philosopher has to be considered as a genre of philosophy (MONK, 2007, 527). The main feature of philosophical biography is the conceptualized understanding of one’s life (philosophical understanding). So the trait of humanities is fixed: the natural phenomena are to be described and explained, but human beings are to be interpreted. The subject of philosophical biography isn’t necessarily philosopher ex professo. As R. Monk (2001, 3) noticed: “To regard someone as philosopher in this sense […] it is enough to see them as someone whose thought – whether expressed in poetry, music, painting, fiction or works on philosophy – it is important and interesting to understand”.

  • 3 J. Conant applies the notion “ trajectory ” in relation to the genre of philosophical biography, bu (...)

16In the course of such a biographical reconstruction, not only is the individuality of the biography’s character manifested, but also is the individuality and philosophical worldview of the author (the biographer). As a result we can see a radically new image of the well-known philosopher, poet or scientist. This image usually remains unaccomplished, and its openness induces philosophizing from the reader of the biography. But this approach is fraught with the peril to submit the real life of the biography’s subject to the philosophical view of the biography’s author. One of the conditions for a philosophical understanding of one’s life is the biographer’s affinity with the subject of biography (in a spiritual or mental sense). But philosophical biography has another set of features, which determine the impossibility to enclose it within the framework of chronology or describe the life course presented in it through the concept of trajectory3.

  • 4 Solovyev Vladimir Sergeevich (1853–1900) Russian religious philosopher and poet; the founder of Rus (...)
  • 5 Berdyaev Nikolay Aleksandrovich (1874–1948) Russian religious and political philosopher-émigré.

17Although philosophical biography, gravitates to some extent, like any biographical text, to a certain characterological scheme, as a rule, it does not fit neatly into that scheme. This observation applies even to a greater extent to philosophical autobiography. Dilthey’s definition of autobiography as one’s understanding of his or her life-course, which receives a literary form of expression, is well known. In the case of philosophical autobiography, the above should be supplemented by the fact that the understanding of human life receives not only a literary but also a philosophical form of expression. There are numerous examples demonstrating the limited applications of chronology and trajectory to the genre of philosophical biography/autobiography. As an illustration of the position stated in this article, we will rely on the following works: Ecce Homo. How One Becomes What One Is by Friedrich Nietzsche (1888, first published 1908), The Life Drama of Plato by Vladimir Solovyev4 (1898), Self-Knowledge: An Essay in Philosophical Autobiography by Nikolay Berdyaev5 (1940, first published 1949) and In Search of Goethe from within by Josè Ortega y Gasset (1932). All of these biographical essays unite an attempt to translate existential experience into a narrative form: in the case of philosophical biography – its character’s; in the case of philosophical autobiography – the author’s own.

Nietzsche's autobiography as a work at life’s conceptualization

  • 6 Bely Andrey – pseudonym of Boris Nikolarvich Bugaev (1880–1934), Russian symbolist poet, essayist a (...)

18One of the first attempts in the creation of philosophical biography and its non-linear organisations belongs to Nietzsche. However, answering the question of whether Ecce Homo is Nietzsche's autobiography, researchers have essentially disagreed. The genre of this essay is defined as “intellectual” (HELLER, 1988 ; MARKOV, 2005), “ironic” (SILVERMAN, 1985), or “aesthetic” (GASCHE, 1981) autobiography. Statements have been made that Ecce Homo signals both “death of the autos” and “death of the bios” (KOFMAN, 1992); it has been claimed that from a “traditional” perspective, this is not an autobiography but “a fantastic piece of self-celebration that comments sporadically on Christianity, idealism, and Nietzsche’s previous writings” (WHITE, 1997, 161). According to Charles Altieri (1985), Ecce homo points to problems generated by the exploitation of autobiography. The Russian symbolist poet Andrey Bely6 even wrote that the “untold”, the “secret” in Nietzsche’s writings is not personal, but serves as an expression of the crisis of European culture (BELY 1994, first published 1908). In Nietzsche, including his philosophical autobiography, Bely saw not the comprehension of a life-course, where life and philosophy are closely intertwined, but the system of symbols together with their methodological justification in one or another system of knowledge. Among researchers, the point of view according to which Nietzsche's autobiography is a response to the crisis of European culture is the one that predominates.

19It would be wrong to say that Nietzsche’s achievements in the field of biographical (autobiographical) works were totally overlooked. For example, Sander Gilman calls Nietzsche one of the masters of contemporary autobiographical introspection, considering Ecce Homo and The Case of Wagner significant milestones in this tradition.

20But what does Nietzsche tell us about himself and his life through his work? What should guide us in the attempt to achieve the autobiographical in Ecce Homo? In Nietzsche’s case, like in many others, it would be inappropriate to identify the philosopher’s life with his work; just as it would be incorrect to consider them in isolation from each other. Nietzsche himself wrote in Ecce Homo : “I am one thing, my creations are another” (1911, 55). On the other hand, he repeatedly called for the unity of life and cognition, assuming that the only genuine philosophy is derived from its creator’s life: writings as evidence of the fact that “what I then thought of myself” (in that moment when he wrote, or “had his task in his hands”). It is noteworthy that Nietzsche relates his works not only with specific dates, but also with his own internal states.

21In Nietzsche’s philosophical autobiography, we cannot ignore the bizarre combination of features, which he attributes to himself: “decadent”, and at the same time its opposite, a Polish nobleman, and the last “anti-political” (not “imperial”) German; a jester and prophet, a destroyer and creator of values, thus constantly contradicting himself. Although the explication of certain provisions of Nietzsche’s philosophical concept is well recognizable, the personal and existential context is also obvious.

  • 7 “ Something that has failed should be honoured all the more jealously, precisely because it has fai (...)

22Perhaps the defining markers of Nietzsche’s life-course are numerous repetitions of the fundamental ideas, which he remained faithful to all his life. But in quite a few places in the text of his autobiography, he shows interest in insignificant events, and even more interest in what has not taken place7. Attention to “indifferent things”, details – food, location, climate, recreation, looks like a protest against the false abstractions, such as the concepts of “God”, “soul”, “virtue”, “sin”, “underworld”, “truth”, “eternal life”, which sought the greatness of human nature. However, there is yet another side to these domestic details. Arguments about digestion and metabolism are only the background against which unfolds the truly dramatic events of Nietzsche’s spiritual life. In the choice of food, location, climate, recreation, is manifested, according to Nietszche, the instinct of self-preservation and self-defense.

23So, when we try to bring the autobiographical content of Ecce Homo to unity, we will inevitably encounter not only the inconsistency of the material itself, but also the originality of the author's style, which does not fit into rigid definitions and schemes. Andrey Bely, determining Nietzsche’s presentation method as “theleological symbolism”, wrote:

24Nietzsche draped himself in everything that came his way. Anyhow, he enveloped his symbols in the fabric of knowledge. But if we wove a cloak of all Nietzsche’s colorful robes, we would get a patchwork, where every patch would be a dogma that requires critical examination. If you wish to find the unity of these doctrines you would come to pitiful scholasticism – nothing more: but Nietzsche himself would have laughed in the face of anyone who applied himself to a similar job (1994, 82).

25Even greater obstacles are awaiting us when trying to provide Nietzsche’s life-course with an ensemble of trajectories, even in their synergetic interpretation. The priority of formation in relation to existence in a personal sense is interpreted as a problem: to understand how one becomes what one is (subtitle of Ecce Homo); show the process of how one becomes what one is, in which vital mistakes and detours have their own meaning and value, to show the pairing of the external and internal, external circumstances and the spiritual quest. All these components of the process of how to become what one is cannot be considered in a single linear perspective.

26Nietzsche’s self-contradiction, rooted in his very life and genealogy, is manifested in his judgments about himself, as well as in the assessment of the surrounding world, and despite this, his philosophical biography has repeatedly been compared to a musical work, to a symphony. “The art of great rhythm”, characterizing Nietzsche’s style (in his own definition), has far from been achieved by all researchers interpreting Ecce Homo from various philosophical positions.

27Nietzsche's philosophical autobiography demonstrates a mismatch of the axiological saturation of the vital and existential moments (points) of life. Thus, he wrote that during the difficult time of extreme exacerbation of his disease, accompanied by bouts of unbearable pain, he “turned into a shadow”, dropped to the lowest limit of his vitality, to its minimum. However, it was in the state of extreme physiological weakness that he felt clarity and “transparency” of spirit. In the long period of his illness, he re-discovered life and turned the will for health and life into his philosophy. It was during his “lowest vitality” that Nietzsche, in his own words, overcame his pessimism (“ the instinct for self-restoration forbade me a philosophy of poverty and despair ”).

28Admittedly, after reading Ecce Homo, more questions than answers remain, but these questions contain the groundbreaking methodological potential for further elaboration of biographical genre. And this concerns not only the philosophical ideas of the personality, but also human individuality as a whole.

Vladimir Solovyev: Foundations of an Understanding of Plato

29One of the first attempts in Russian philosophy to create a version of philosophical biography is largely connected with the nonlinear nature of life interpreted as a drama. Having started the translation of Plato’s dialogues, Solovyev faced a question: in what sequence is it necessary to translate and publish them? He recognized that in Plato’s works there is the internal connection defined by Plato’s spiritual history. And the last, in its turn, was determined by Plato’s main life-task, which was philosophy. His life, in contrast, for example, with Kant’s life, was a deep and difficult drama. The development of this drama was reflected and immortalized in dialogues. So, the real principle of unity of Plato’s works is Plato as the hero of his life-drama (SOLOVYEV, 1988, 585).

30Two types of Plato’s worldview – “pessimistic” idealism and “optimistic” idealism, according to Solovyev, were caused by the passage of Plato’s life-drama. According to the first, the world is full of evil; the body is the grave and prison of the soul; life for the true philosopher is a constant death for the world. According to the second, “all the world lies in Good”, it is a product of absolute clemency; the philosopher should accept participation in it: to act and to create laws.

31Solovyev connects both types of worldview with the real events of Plato’s life. The first one was evoked by Socrates’ death, which became a tragic blow for Plato. The full tragic power of such a situation could only be felt by a “high and rich” individuality like Plato. Plato’s pessimistic and negative attitude to the world after Socrates’ death was caused not by personal disaster, but by the comprehension of the fact that in this world there is no place for truth and the righteous person. So the Good, which Socrates sought as a moral standard for practical social life, became to Plato, for some time, the object of a purely theoretical interest as the supreme idea (SOLOVYEV, 1988, 606).

32Plato’s subsequent transition to essentially another outlook is impossible to explain by any external factors. The internal life factor, which caused this change, as Solovyev supposes, can be neither material, nor ideal, but contains both, and concerns all unity of human nature. It is the pathos of love acting as a key to life unity of Plato’s writings. In that worldview which developed for Plato as a natural reaction to Socrates’ tragic destiny, there was no place for Eros. Eros appeared later, in Phaedros and Symposium – the dialogues, which Solovyev considers the top of Plato’s creativity. He comes to the assumption that Plato’s doctrine of love was a consequence of personal life experience about which we have no biographic data but would be testified enough by these works themselves.

33If during the period of “pessimistic idealism” Plato admitted the carnal love to be vulgar, obscene and rejected it: the Eros we are talking about later assumed a full corporal life. As an argument, Solovyev adduces the fact that Plato used the word “eros”, not “philia”, “agape” or “storge”. Solovyev talks about a corporality, which is worthy of love, beautiful and immortal, which is acquired by the effort of a spiritually-physical and a divinely-human kind (SOLOVYEV, 1988, 619). According to that he treats the well-known Plato’s opposite of two Eroses as the opposite of the moral and immoral attitude to this life; the opposite of the purposes and results of action in it. The real task of love, as Solovyev defines it, is actually to immortalize the loved object, to save it from death and decay, and to give it a new birth in beauty. Plato approached this problem in his thought. The three ideas that define the highest way of love (though only indistinctly expressed) – those of androgyny, spiritual corporality and divine humanity – Solovyev finds them in Plato. But Plato, did not connect these three principles together and did not make them the real beginning of the higher way of love. Therefore the end of this way – the resurrection of dead nature to immortal life – remained hidden before him, although it was the logical conclusion of his own thoughts. Solovyev writes :

« Plato’s Eros, whose nature and general destination were so beautifully described by the philosopher poet, did not accomplish this destination, did not unite heaven, earth and hell, did not construct any real bridge between them. Indifferent and empty-handed, he flew away to the world of ideal theories. But the philosopher, also empty-handed, remained on earth – on the bare earth where truth has no dwelling place » (SOLOVYEV, 1988, 619–620).

34While approaching the higher task of life Plato stopped short before it, did not grasp and accept it completely and then actually refused it. Satisfied with the mental concept of Eros, Plato left him to generate in theory only. Solovyev regrets that even Plato, who in theory towered over the majority of mortals, proved to be an ordinary man in real life. “The clash between great demands and actual weakness is more dramatic in Plato, precisely because he recognized these demands more clearly, and with his genius could have overcome his weakness with less difficulty than other men” (SOLOVYEV, 1988, 616). Solovyev considers that Plato reached the limits of ancient worldview and, despite his genius, was not able to overcome these limits. Nevertheless, the force of love, which has being experienced and realized by Plato didn’t remain for him absolutely fruitless. Thanks to it he couldn’t return to abstract idealism which is indifferent to life and to the world: the unconditional opposite between two worlds has been overcome. And a new period begins for Plato – the period of “practical idealism”, in which Solovyev sees the substitution of the main and higher vital task by more superficial and accessible task of transformation of public relations. In his opinion, the erotic crisis, which was gone through by Plato on one of the stages of his life drama, consisted in it. Plato’s interest in society and his desire to counteract evil in it were not crowned with success. In Laws, we see not only the oblivion of Socrates, but also a direct renunciation from him. This fact gives a tragic shade to Plato's life drama. “I do not know a more considerable and deep tragedy in human history”, Solovyev writes (1988, 624).

  • 8 Vladimir Solovyev and his disciple Vladimir Ern considered Plato as their spiritual teacher.

35So, Solovyev treats Plato’s life as drama, intertwined with the struggle of heaven and earth, and suggests that its tragic power could only be felt by such a sublime and spiritual character like Plato. Solovyev lines up the intense row of the categories reflecting Plato’s life-course: drama, tragedy, the real tragedy, catastrophe, tragic catastrophe, the profound tragic catastrophe. This “row” can be called so very conditionally, as by being organized linearly, these categories can’t present Plato’s spiritual history and the real events of his life such as thoughts and feelings (“internal life factors”, “key to life unity of Plato’s writings”). Among all parts of Plato’s philosophy, Solovyev devotes special attention to the concept of love and among all events of Plato’s life he emphasizes the events related with the philosopher’s erotic experience. As distinct from Nietzsche, Solovyev tries to hold on to chronology in his essay, but this chronology is nothing more than external outline. Solovyev’s critics often pointed out that such an approach strongly demonstrates its dependence on the biographer’s subjectivity. As Grigory Vinokur observes, such a principle of biographical interpretation gives an “incorrect historical picture” and “reconceived interpretation of the facts”, which is justified through metaphysics (VINOKUR, 1997, 67). Actually, as we could see, Solovyev has taken principles of ontological integrity and spiritual unity as his basic for the approach to Plato’s life and his works. Moreover, he pulls out the demand of congeniality to Plato as the condition for understanding him, and a spiritual affinity with him as the main condition for a true interpretation of his creativity and his life.8 However, Solovyev’s interpretation shows an example when the philosopher demonstrates his own understanding of another philosopher’s life. He searches a number of external instructions in the text, correlates the data of Plato’s life, and establishes a spiritually-biographic context in which it is necessary to interpret the pieces of Plato’s works. His experience in the creation of a philosophical biography as a special genre of philosophy, which is one of the first attempts in this field, has demonstrated both the attractiveness of this genre (a new image of a well-known philosopher) and many of its methodological difficulties which remain actual until now.

Nikolay Berdyaev: Life as Self-Knowledge

36Another Russian thinker has considered the nonlinear nature of self-knowledge and memory (remembrance) as a ground for his biographical reconstructions. Berdyaev has used the notion of “philosophical autobiography” for the denotation of the genre of his work Self-Knowledge: An Essay in Philosophical Autobiography (written in 1940; first published in 1949). He differenciates this type of biographical work from the autobiography treated in the generally accepted sense as a story narrated from the first person and presented the external and internal life events in chronological order. Philosophical autobiography is, according to Berdyaev, the history of spirit and self-awareness. Its main content is the process of philosophical knowing, which isn’t the remembrance of the Past, but the creative act of the Present. The value of this creative act is determined by how it overcomes time and joins with eternity. Philosophical autobiography aims to understand an individual Self (I) and to comprehend the person’s destiny.

37Berdyaev acknowledges that the biographical data (in the form of remembrances) is expounded schematically. Its assignment is to show the atmosphere of Berdyaev’s spiritual history: Self-Knowledge means my personal existence, not a human existence itself. Berdyaev writes: “The real self-knowledge is to understand what has happened to the world as has happened with me” (BERDYAEV, 1991, 8). Not the chronology of events, but the problems of Berdyaev’s philosophy have defined the structure of his philosophical autobiography: “I and World”, “Solitude. Melancholy. Freedom. Rebellion”, “Doubts and spirit struggles”, “Finding of the life’s meaning”, “The World of philosophical knowledge”, “Religious drama”, etc. The remembrances alternate with philosophical thoughts, though to the latter is devoted much more space.

38The idea of a drama also penetrates Berdyaev’s philosophical autobiography. He thus speaks of himself: “I am a man more dramatic than lyrical, and this is to be imprinted in my autobiography. While thinking of my life, I come to conclusion, that my life hasn’t been the life of a metaphysician in the usual sense of the word. It has been too full of the passions and dramatic events, both personal and social” (1991, 10).

39Berdyaev’s philosophical autobiography also has its own specific nature of memories. He points to the selectivity (conscious and unconscious) of the mnemonic act and to the active-transformative nature of memory determining that the memory of the past can never be passive, cannot be exactly reproduced. A biographical memory is an alternation of memory and oblivion. Therefore, Berdyaev defines the orientation of autobiographical memories as follows: “My memory of my life and my way will be consciously active, then there will be a creative effort of my thoughts, my knowledge of today. Between the facts of my life and the book about them there comes the act of cognition, which I am most interested in” (1991, 8).

40So in Berdyaev’s autobiography, world events, which can well be regarded in the traditional time perspective, are transformed into personal experience and take their own and very special place in his life drama.

Ortega y Gasset: Goethe’s Drama “from within”

41Ortega y Gasset classified his philosophical essay on Goethe as biographical for a good reason: the text demonstrates its author’s fine tuning not only of the German poet’s heritage but also of a number of documentary and historical sources, as well as those with available biographical versions. All previous biographers of Goethe were guided by the principles of “monumental optics”, thus creating a “monumental” and “large scale” figure, allowing to walk around Goethe but not to understand the essence of his nature. This approach suggests a solemn vision from the outside. Ortega y Gasset applies himself to the task of depicting Goethe “from within”, telling us about his life and what has not been addressed by his biographers and researchers of his work. He calls his biographical approach “reverse optics”. The philosophical idea of life, conditioned by the particular structure of biography, is laid down at its foundations. Life in this case is treated like drama in the truest sense of the word because it is a fierce struggle with possessions (also including our character), a struggle to really be what is contained in our life project. It is the dramatic unity between the Self and the world. The relationship between the Self and the world forms a space where exist “the individual, the world and ... the biographer”. This space has a true “from within”, from where it is necessary to see Goethe (not from within Goethe himself but from within his life, or drama).

42Such an understanding of life generates Ortega y Gasset’s definition of a biography: it is a system combining the contradictions of one or another existence that can offer the reader not a “frozen symbol” but the image of a real-life person, disregarding the common acknowledgement of his grandeur, genius, etc. The life structure determined by Ortega y Gasset involves the solution of the most important problem (new to biographers) while structuring a biography: to “find the biographed person’s calling in life” and his “life project”, which is also his destiny. And it should seem, that the reconstruction of the character’s life course will show a complex interweaving of all of its trajectories towards the realization of this project. But in his biographical essay, Ortega y Gasset tells us the opposite: how Goethe did not realize his life purpose and changed his own unique destiny. I.e for the biographer, according to Ortega y Gasset, it is important, firstly, to depict his character not as who he was but as who he was supposed to be in accordance with his life project and his own destiny, because a man’s real life is always a significant deformation of his possible life. Secondly, we must determine the extent to which a person has remained faithful to destiny, to his possible life.

43In Ortega y Gasset’s interpretation, Goethe’s “radical faith” (in the most general sense) was to be the “first swallow”, as he came to this Earth with a mission to become a German writer who was obliged to bring about a revolution in the literature of his country and thus throughout world literature. But the German poet appears in Ortega y Gasset as a man, unfaithful to his fate, constantly seeking or fleeing, the absolute opposite of the notion of “striving will be fully realized”.

44Following the principles of “reverse optics” Ortega y Gasset offers an unusual image of Goethe, one on which he does not make any definitive verdict, but rather asks questions. As life is, by definition, a drama and struggle, to the forefront of Goethe’s narrative are the contradictions of the poet’s worldview and his relationship with the world. Life appears as a dynamic process of the collision between the Self and his circumstances, “a dynamic dialogue between the individual and the world”.

45Undoubtedly, the interpretation of Goethe’s image in Ortega y Gasset may seem controversial, radically different from the biography of a life description. But this is how he presented his existential experience of biographical art and philosophical understanding, and we have one more case of the presenting a life-drama by means of the genre of philosophical biography.


46All of the works discussed above have attracted the attention of researchers on the biographical genre and have led to debates going on to this day. The most frequently asked question is on whether we are dealing with actual biographical/autobiographical creativity or simply with the exploitation of the biographical/autobiographical genre for the presentation of a philosophical concept?

47Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin identified the specifically constructed image of a man passing his life-course as one of the most important characteristics of “biographical form”. But a person’s life-course, understood as a continuous sequence of events, is something completely different from what is presented in the biographical attempts of Nietzsche, Solovyev, Berdyaev and Ortega y Gasset. In the genre of philosophical biography, a philosopher’s life-course has its own specificities. It is a dramatic process of (self-)formation, (self-)knowledge, which is impossible to view in a single linear perspective as there are contradictions on the foreground with the conjugation of internal and external aspects (meaning, purpose of life and external circumstances). We are faced with the nonlinear nature of events (thoughts take the place of events, as they are not just achieved in reflection but are deeply experienced and felt by the personality) and with the nonlinear nature of memory, understood as a creative act.

48Moreover, the very type of philosophical narrative about one’s own or someone else’s life, also has its own particularities. Philosophical biography/autobiography as a philosophical presentation of the individual life-course, as a philosophical genre, is not restricted to “generalizing schemes” or a “composite matrix”. The organizing principle of the material that forms the unity of the narrative depends on the philosophical worldview of the author. This does not mean turning biography into a kind of philosophical theory, but it entails a conceptualization of life in accordance with certain principles or ideas. Therefore, it is the genre of philosophical biography as a kind of philosophical interpretation that highlights the limitations in certain cases of the chronological approach, categorization and linear description. In a philosophical biography, the nonlinearity of the narrative violates the external chronology of events, does not fit into rigid columns or sections, and cannot be described by including and using the concept of trajectory (although the word is used quite often).

49The translation of existential experience into narrative form often (as in the case of Nietzsche’s and Berdyaev’s philosophical autobiographies) requires a conscious refusal to follow a scheme or any universal theoretical construct, since it is not about life in general, but about my life, my personal experience (self-formation, self-knowledge), my individual existence.

50The boundaries of bios, since the moment when the biographical genre ceased to be confined to biography but started demonstrating its potential for a worldview, has been considerably expanded and transformed. The idea of plasticity of man, expressed in the philosophical autobiographies of Nietzsche and Berdyaev, the biographical essays of Solovyev and Ortega y Gasset cannot be schematized, put under a heading or built linearly. When applied to the explanation of human nature, it can somehow be conveyed by means such as the plastic (impressionable) philosophical narrative.

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1 Averintsev Sergey Sergeevich (1937–2004) Russian philologist and biblical scholar.

2 Bradford Gamaliel (1863–1932) American biographer, poet, critic and dramatist.

3 J. Conant applies the notion “ trajectory ” in relation to the genre of philosophical biography, but in a very specific sense. He speaks of Russel’s “ single philosophical trajectory ” and “ broader philosophical trajectory ” as “ the way he shirks the problems that most haunt his central intellectual projects ” (Conant, 2001, 38).

4 Solovyev Vladimir Sergeevich (1853–1900) Russian religious philosopher and poet; the founder of Russian philosophical tradition of Total-Unity. .

5 Berdyaev Nikolay Aleksandrovich (1874–1948) Russian religious and political philosopher-émigré.

6 Bely Andrey – pseudonym of Boris Nikolarvich Bugaev (1880–1934), Russian symbolist poet, essayist and novelist.

7 “ Something that has failed should be honoured all the more jealously, precisely because it has failed – this is much more in keeping with my morality ” (Nietzsche, 1911, 28).

8 Vladimir Solovyev and his disciple Vladimir Ern considered Plato as their spiritual teacher.

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Irina Polyakova, « Philosophical biography : some problems of conceptualization », Conserveries mémorielles [En ligne], # 15 | 2014, mis en ligne le 10 mai 2014, consulté le 20 janvier 2022. URL :

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Irina Polyakova

Kaliningrad Amber Museum

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