Autobiography, Philosophers, and Ethics


Last night I was talking to my sister-in-law’s mother who studies continental philosophy, especially Husserl, Marion, and Levinas. First off, let me just say it is one of the most exciting things in the world when I meet someone in the real world who has actually read Lacan, Foucault, Deleuze, and Derrida. It just got my blood rushing to know I’m not alone in the struggling through these great thinkers. Anyway, I told her of my interest in Lacan, and that I’m currently working through some of Deleuze’s works. Her primary work is in phenomenology. We started talking ethics, and she made the comments that Deleuze’s ethical system just doesn’t work. According to her, “anyone who throws himself out of a window renders his contribution to ethics moot”. Of course, this led us to your typical conversation about Heidegger’s involvement with National Socialism and how his complicity in Nazism problematizes any direct appropriation of his thought. Then she moved on to discuss Levinasian ethics, and how beautiful of a system it is. This brought to mind other autobiographical details from the lives of philosophers. For instance, Freud was incredibly Puritanical. He told his children that masturbation was inextricably related to the development of neurosis, and after he and his wife stopped trying to reproduce he refused to have sex with her. I’ve never been a fan of Jung, and apparently he broke the cardinal rule of psychotherapy by having an affair with a patient. Let me offer a positive Derridean autobiographical narrative. In his latest work Field Notes from Elsewhere, Mark C. Taylor recalls a touching interaction between Derrida and his daughter before dinner at Taylor’s house. While Taylor was in the kitchen preparing dinner, Taylor’s six-year-old daughter went into her room where she showed Derrida her toys as he listened to her stories. Taylor confesses that this singular gesture was more impressive to him than anything Derrida penned throughout his illustrious career.

The question that comes to my mind is what is the relationship between autobiography and a thinker’s conceptual system? That is, to what extent do these misjudgments arise out of the conceptual system they created? For example, what is it within Heidegger’s phenomenological system that clouded his judgment enough to support National Socialism? Based on the conversation I had I got the impression that a person’s autobiography has the ultimate say in the importance of someone’s ethical system. Basically the ultimate test of an ethical system is contingent on how the ethicist lived out his own life. While I understand the reason for this position, it seems to me rather naïve. People have a strong ability to dissociate cognitively. Generally, most people find it very easy to unconsciously split off action from thought. Also, many post-structuralists are known for their emphasis on “difference” and “pluralism”. Apparently, before the 1950’s every other philosopher was intolerant, hegemonic, and obsessed with silencing differences in opinions. I just really have a hard time believing that people are so strongly driven by conscious, ontological beliefs. I don’t think Hegel’s Absolute Spirit or Nietzsche’s Overman were responsible for the Stalinism or Nazism. This sort of causal relationship between belief → action ultimately undermines the important influence the unconscious has on our ethical decisions.


One Response to “Autobiography, Philosophers, and Ethics”

  1. John Taratuta Says:

    Nietzsche too was banned in Germany after the war.

    You may be familiar with the January 8, 1998 in Jerusalem
    by Dr. Michal Ben-Naftalwith with Jacques Derrida on Heidegger.

    Derrida says: “To answer the last question, I wouldn’t say that Heidegger’s attitude is neither forgivable nor unforgivable. I don’t see how I, for one, can formulate the question in these terms. Who would have to forgive Heidegger? Let’s begin with the hypothesis that Heidegger’s attitude was infinitely guilty. Given this hypothesis, who would have the right to say: “I forgive,” or: “I do not forgive”? I don’t know. In any case, not I. My relation to this has never been that of a judge, of someone who is in a rush to conclude a book or a speech with: “Heidegger is guilty and I do not forgive him.” It is too difficult for me to do that.”

    Best regards.

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