Skip to main content

On the Relationship between Philosophy and Biography

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.

Philosophers, perhaps much more than others, would deny any such relationship, similarity or even disparity, between their thoughts or body of work with their very own lives. They warn us, sometimes vehemently, that reading their biography into their philosophy, or interpreting their work as either a reflection or response to the different experiences they have accumulated in their lives, would not only lead us into dead-ends, but also be rather too narrow-minded of us--as if every thing in fiction must correspond to something in fact, as if every story out there must mirror exactly the fabric of an author's life.

We understand that also, naturally. We are no longer children. Not only should we give thinkers and authors above all enough credit by not thinking too naively that, aware or not, they do not find out for themselves that their works are merely projections or repressions of their wishes or troubles, as if we see more than what they do, as what has been held by most; artists, perhaps more than others, are more conscious than we think at the point of creation. Nothing escapes their gaze, and nothing discoverable can hide from the power of their anticipation, much more their own selves and its relation to the work of art. In fact, the opposite can be said that they deliberately, at times to the point of madness, try to hide themselves in their work, endlessly masking themselves or backgrounding themselves (as Caravaggio does in some of his earlier canvases, where he only partially shows his face as among a crowd); or much more, they rid the work of any possible trace that may implicate them, sanitizing their work as one does before fleeing the scene of one's crime, of any possible resemblance or inversion of it with the writer's life that may come across the sharp lenses of a persistent reader. It is in such a case, however, that the thinker errs.

Caravaggio. The Martyrdom of St. Matthew. 1599-1600.
Caravaggio is farthest from  the scene, at the back.

Ironically, it is because of that very consciousness, of having to always rid the work of any possible evidence that may lead back to him, even if he is truly innocent at the first, that turns him into the guilty one. In erasing a trace, you leave another one, or usually more, and in the end you make a mess of it, your pristine hands now stained by blood. Or again: beware of philosophers who repeatedly tell us that their philosophy and biography have nothing to do with each other--they are the guilty ones. The truly innocent keep their silence about their work and lives, as does the scientist or the waiter or the mailman.

When I speak, initially and for the most part, what I speak about concerns me essentially, or at the very least tangentially. When I talk about the weather or "current events," that is, when I say something only for the sake of saying something (and not because something calls me to say something about it), for "small talk"--speaking with having nothing to say isn't really saying anything at all, obviously. This idle talk, though always nervous, is easy enough: we only say what everyone else is saying, what is obvious to one and all, what is, in a word, unessential; we do this all the time. But it is when essential matters are at stake when we begin to choose our words, perhaps even give some thought into what we say; in matters of import, not necessarily grave, we do begin to reveal our mind, and that means revealing a life. There is something selfish about our words not only in that they come from our mouths, but because they refer to us, to our position, to--shall I say it?--our own very hearts. What does not touch me in my being, what is only a childish play of words, marked either by sophistry or hubris; or speeches or lectures about big words such as "justice" or "God" or "mankind," which, while benevolent and perhaps even inspiring, are not rooted in a life, in one's very flesh--words and through them, thoughts, that bear no weight for me precisely and literally do not matter to me. I can speak them, or as one said, I can "speechify," I can do this and you will understand me, but you shall always miss me--who I am--thus you will not know me. It is the same with all essential matters.

And when we enter that horizon which we still (have to) think is most provocative to thought, when we speak of the work of the word and the riches of ideas, we still have to say the same: that what is said here in silence or in thunder must be borne from the very lives of men, from their deepest, truest selves. To write, naturally, is never easy for those who do not experience anything within themselves. Easy to speak or to "tweet" about this and that new, cool thing I saw, something I merely noticed or overheard, something just uploaded or posted on a blog, something I suddenly feel. But these words have no amplification even if they still serve the duty of signification, linking one link to another link which leads you to only another link. Such words do not reverberate because they do not rise out from the depths. It is in the depths where a man's life can be found.


What would a thinker be without tumult in his soul? Without the burden of a cross or the weight of sheer existence? Or without those mad passions that possess him to no end, in running away from which one cannot but speak, or yes, shout. I will have no grave reason to think or write if every day were sunny and I have no troubles. There is something sickening in writing about happiness: it will always be the same story, the same ending, the same emotion. Oh but tragedy! One can die a million different ways. One can be punished in many more. Hence the infinite number of tears, while all laughters sound the same. One tear for every thought, every page; these tears compose the most profound stories we tell.

Around me I see that those who have chosen to live the life of the mind--they are in pain. Yes, they do not show it; but that does not matter. I see it, I hear it, those senseless cries or hollers or silent screams, may they have been unleashed in the past, or are still in schedule for a very near future. Every thinker is due for at least a breakdown or two in the course of his or her life.

A thinker is also never a healthy man. (They are most probably not wealthy as well). When you use you mind non-stop, you worry a lot. Come to think it, thinking may be nothing but worrying--worrying if I understood it right, if I am correct, if I covered everything as much as possible. And worrying is never a pleasurable activity.

. . . 


On Kierkegaard: Well, it's fairly obvious. His writings, it has often been said--though too easily--, can be read as one long apologia to Regine, as to why he did not marry her whom he loved and who loved him so much.

" . . . when a thinker's work, or pieces and traces of his work, are available, the 'life' of a philosopher is unimportant for the public. We never get to know what is essential in a philosophical life through biographical descriptions anyhow." -- Martin Heidegger

"I would like to tell you how much I feel stripped away by the very idea of a biography. For one who thinks that the true self for us all is a non-worldly self, foreign to every empirical or objective determination, the attempt to approach him through these kinds of reference points seems to be problematic. The history of a man, the circumstances which surround him, are they anything other than a sort of mask, more or less flattering, that he and others agree to put on his face--he who, at bottom, has no face?" -- Michel Henry

"For a profitable study of the history of philosophy there is also need for a certain "sympathy," almost the psychological approach. It is desirable that the historian know something of the philosopher as a man (this is not possible in the case of all philosophers, of course), since this will help him to feel his way into the system in question, to view it, as it were, from inside, and to grasp its peculiar flavour and characteristics. We have to endeavor to place ourselves into the place of the philosopher, to try to see his thoughts from within."  --Copleston, S.J.,

. . .      


  1. “It is a misfortune for an author to be understood, as Valery was in his lifetime, as he has been subsequently. Was he so simple, then, so penetrable? Certainly not. But he was imprudent enough to furnish too many details about himself and his work; he revealed himself, gave himself away, supplied any number of keys, and dissolved a good many of those misunderstandings indispensable to a writer’s secret prestige. Instead of leaving the labor of decipherment to others, he took it upon himself; he made a kind of vice out of the craving for self-disclosure…

    Not only was Valery his own commentator, but indeed all his works were merely a more or less camouflaged autobiography, an adept introspection, a diary of his mind, a promotion of his experiences – to the rank of intellectual event, an assault upon anything unconsidered that might be within him, a rebellion against his depths.”

    - E.M. Cioran, “Valery Facing His Idols” in Anathemas and Admirations, 90-91.

  2. I like it!

    You know, I too (not that I am important) have recently been faced with the question of identity or, perhaps what is more accurate, anonymity. To put it frankly: shall I start giving myself away, hand over the keys to whoever may receive them, or sign or mark my words--here, where I have been without a name right from the start and, until recently, without a face? Again, not that I am important, as if everyone who passes here really has to know what is beyond what I say, who I am. As if I possessed any such writer's "secret prestige."

    But these things, perhaps, matter not. Words are words, and the task of deciphering them is not made lighter by being let in on the secrets of the writer. To be sure, there will--there should--be traces and prints, guides and maps, that lead back the meaning of words to their lived, more titillating sources. And we will think ourselves smarter than the writer, congratulate ourselves for our ingenuity and sleuth, pin him down, make him more plain, all too ordinary.

    Though it must be remembered that these are all games. Baits. Trapdoors. Mirrors. Not all writers, or men, are vain. Vain are those who let anyone enter their lives, and then go on revealing everything, expecting that what they show would be pleasant, oh! cannot but be pleasant. On the other side there is also the secretive man who discloses nothing; he too reeks of vanity because he presupposes that what he hides is worth something, a treasure to be kept away from prying eyes. Yet people really don't care. After their passing curiosity, the obscure man ends up looking like a crazy man.

    If there is any secret prestige that a writer ought to guard and protect, it is, and it always has to be, what in the origin of origins spurred him to write. In the origins: that one moment, that one terrible lightning, when the darkened skies exploded with light, revealing a world yet to be defined by words, that moment which showed everything, but just as quickly hid it. Everything else, each word, each insight, each memory--all that is said or written remain only flashes of that devilish instant when the soul was summoned from the depths to see a world that has to be said.

    All the rest, all the clues, the stories, the marks and monograms and imprints, the details of a writer's life, his pains and joys--all these come after the original moment not only in order but more so in primacy. It is that moment--forever painful, never to be known by any other soul because only you witnessed it--which the writer has to guard to the death. The rest he gives away--like crumbs to pigeons on a boring day.

    A delight, as always, my dear friend.

  3. Well, I have you to thank for my encounter with Emil, my friend ‘Aurelio’. You are right: his essays have such strength, such gravity --- even his misery is cocksure!

    Ah, the depths, the origins of the author’s brilliance. Unlike you, however, I do not think the writer needs to be jealously on guard of that “one terrible lightning”, if only because I doubt if anyone could ever possess the tools to articulate his or her conjured or revealed abysses. Even epiphanies become garbled when they are finally, and in futility, uttered in our mortally-shared world. The author, I believe, is always safe in his purity; all the gossip, all the interpretations and admissions and reductions cannot invade the sanctity of that “devilish instant” that we can never be privy to from the very start.

    It is the reader, I think, who is in danger. For how can he or she be protected from blows spawned from the almost ambivalent starkness of the words birthed by the other?

    Anyway, your essay has got me thinking about translation. While the author’s crumbs may seep inadvertently through his text, they also transform quite thrillingly when they dance from one tongue to another. For the essential thought – assuming that this universe could be captured - can be polluted by the garbage of, or sanctified by the grace of another dialect! The letters, after all, become magnificently disfigured or unjustly beatified when one accents the wrong vowel, or when the proposed descriptive word fails to hold, or the melody of the sentence is sacrificed for precision. What difficulty, such a challenge indeed! And in the course of this effort, we discover that what we grasp in our hands are even stranger, bigger, greatly metamorphosed secrets, light-years removed from their homely origin.. Now, now isn’t all this interesting!

    Echoing our Romanian philosopher – “One does not inhabit a country; one inhabits a language. That is our country, our fatherland --- and no other.” I wonder how magically expanded the consciousness becomes when one can traverse and inhabit ancient and more learned continents of nouns and verbs. But perhaps this rumination (or the justification to learn Greek and German and French, ha!) deserves a new space. But thank you for the spark.

    (By the way, Cioran’s Anathemas and Admirations and Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse were both gorgeously penned from French to English by Richard Howard. What an astonishing man!)

    - - -

    Oh, and just a thought: Maybe you should send an old professor some of your philosophy notes – these lovely keys, these “clues, stories, marks and monograms and imprints” - to help him unlock his own confusions. Haha!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The Fields of Amorsolo

The first National Artist in Philippine history, referred to warmly as the “Grand Old Man of Philippine Art,” Fernando Amorsolo (1892–1972) still stands today as a looming figure in Philippine art responsible for being one of the artists who helped define what we up to now visually imagine as essentially Filipino. The images of rural life, of golden fields below clear blue, blue skies; the smiles of farmers which diminish their weariness as they plant, harvest, and winnow rice;most especially the iconic figure of the Filipina maiden working in the fields—the beloved dalagang bukid--; these, I believe, even after generations of Filipino painters since Amorsolo, have remained in our hearts and memory. Amorsolo did what great masters do for their country: bestow upon it its own icons, represent its native beauty, that is, to give its people and lands an identity and a face. There are, however, as many intentions for art as there are works of art. And these intentions will always remain in…

Without Why (The Rose) II

Lifetime is a child at play; moving pieces in a game.
Kingship belongs to the child.

Heraclitus, Fragment 52

The child at play never asks itself why it plays. The child just plays; and if it could, it will play as long as possible, it will play throughout its life. See its delight and witness its smile.

If it would never go hungry or if the sun would never set it too will never leave its playmates and playthings. Time flies at play because it stops or suspends time. Time -- as we grownups only know too well -- is the culprit for order, schedules and priorities; yet for the child, there is no time, there is only bottomless play. It is we who impose that this or that should be done at this or that time. We stop the absurd and supposedly endless play ("He does nothing but play") because we insist that discipline, order and priorities be instilled in the child at an early age ("He needs to learn other things beside playing"). So that the child will become like us one da…

A Love Sooner than Later

BROWN PENNY William Butler YeatsI whispered, 'I am too young,' And then, 'I am old enough'; Wherefore I threw a penny To find out if I might love. 'Go and love, go and love, young man, If the lady be young and fair.' Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny, I am looped in the loops of her hair. O love is the crooked thing, There is nobody wise enough To find out all that is in it, For he would be thinking of love Till the stars had run away And the shadows eaten the moon. Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny, One cannot begin it too soon.

One cannot begin to love too soon--conversely, one should not love too late or in life's demise. That waiting for the "right time," or the "right person" to love, what are these but the cries or sighs of an unready, even tired, heart? One becomes ready only when one begins to understand love slowly (or again), and one understands love progressively when one, simply, performs the act of love. Love, like mos…