Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Confessional Philosophy

Usually, philosophy is advocacy. Sometimes it's disruption without a positive position in mind. More rarely, it's confession.

The aim of the confessional philosopher is not the same as that of someone who confesses to a spouse or priest, nor quite the same (though perhaps closer) as that of the confessional poet. It is rather this: To display oneself as a model of a certain sort of thinking, while not necessarily endorsing that style of thinking or the conclusions that flow from it. Confessional philosophy tends to center on skepticism and sin.

Consider, in Augustine's Confessions, the famous discussion of stealing pears, wherein Augustine displays the sinful pattern of his youthful mind. Augustine's aim is not so much, it seems to me, to advocate a certain position (such as that sinful thoughts tend to take such-and-such a form) as to offer the episode for contemplation by others, with no prepackaged conclusion, and perhaps also to induce humility in both the reader and himself. He offers an analysis of his motives -- that he was he was trying to simulate freedom by getting away with something forbidden (which would fit with his general theory of sin, that it involves trying to possess something that can only be given by God) -- but then he undercuts that analysis when he notes that he would definitely not have stolen the pears alone. Was it, then, that he valued the camraderie of his sinful friends? He rejects that explanation also -- "that gang-mentality too was a nothing" -- and after waffling over various possibilities he concludes "It was a seduction of the mind hard to understand.... Who can unravel this most snarled, knotty tangle?" (4th c. CE/1997, p. 72-73).

Descartes's Meditations, especially the first two, are presented as confessional -- perhaps partly to display an actual pattern in his (past) thinking, but perhaps also partly as a pose. Here we see, or seem to see, the struggles and confusions of a man bent of finding a secure foundation for his thought. Hume's skeptical conclusion to Book 1 of the Treatise seems to me more genuinely confessional, when he asks how he can dare to "venture upon such bold enterprizes, when beside those numberless infirmities peculiar to myself, I find so many which are common to human nature?" (1739/1978, p. 265). "The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning.... I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hour's amusement, I wou'd return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain'd, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther" (p. 268-269). We see how the skeptic writhes. Hume displays his pattern of skeptical thought, but offers no way out, nor chooses between embracing his skeptical arguments and rejecting them. Nonetheless, in Books II and III, he's back in the business of philosophical argumentation.

Generally, it's better to offer a tight, polished exposition or argument than to display one's thoughts, errors, and uncertainties. That partly explains the rarity of confessional philosophy. But sometimes, no model of error or uncertainty will serve better than oneself.


Vanitas said...

Dead on. I think you can add Rousseau, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard to that list.

An interesting question is whether it is possible to do non-confessional philosophy. Nietzsche, Fichte, William James and Paul Feyerabend all thought that this was not possible.

I think this idea would not receive assent amongst most philosophers today. Most of us think self-transcendence is possible, at least in thought. I'm not exactly sure how to go about defending this intuition, though.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Nick. I agree about Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard, though Nietzsche is a bit of a weird case since his "confessions" seem mostly to be self-congratulatory.

I also accept what you say in your second paragraph, if you'll give me (as I think those authors would want) that philosophers are not being *intentionally* confessional. Since "confessional" as I defined it here really has to do with the author's intent to display himself as a possibly flawed model, little philosophy is confessional in my narrow sense; and the philosophy that is confessional in my narrow sense does, I think, stand out in a certain way.

If you haven't already, you might be interested to see some of my other posts on the psychology of philosophy, which develop these ideas a bit more.

Unknown said...

Augustine's Confession is not a confession and neither is Descartes Meditations. People like to think of the Augustine's Confession as a piece of autobiography but in so doing one considers only one part of the book---there's the end with the biblical commentary which wouldn't make sense if it were an autobiography as modernly conceived. Similarly, Descartes' Meditations is not a confession but belongs rather to the theological genre of a meditation that pre-existed Descartes book and informs it even while that genre is subverted for Descartes' philosophical and theological ends. So I am not sure I get the initial analogy.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'm curious what you mean by "confession", PhilGeek. It seems clear to me that by the characterization of "confession" I offer, those two works have confessional aspects. Or do you disagree with that?

Michael Metzler said...

"I dislike persons who change there basic ideas, and I dislike them when they change them for good reasons quite as much as when they change them for bad ones. A convert to a good idea is simply a man who confesses that he was formerly an ass - and is probably one still." - H.L. Menken, Baltimore Evening Sun, 1927

I can't help but place Augustine's 'confessions' within the context of his 'conversion'. Augustine was still an ass, although better than most, philosophically speaking. And I speak as one who was formerly a bigger ass than Augustine, though now without a grand vision provoked by rhetorical wowsers and mind manipulators . . . I hope. Descartes was at least just posing for the sake of math and science.

I am reading through George Lakoff's The Political Mind today. I like it much, but I cannot help but think Lakoff is trying to convert me to wowsing about unconscious mechanisms that we have not even located yet (see Bechtel, in press a, b, c, d. . . .)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

In certain moods, I'm with you and Menken, Michael (though Menken was himself a classic ass). No doubt Hume found the conclusion of Book I as loathesome as the rest of it, after a rousing game of backgammon. And need I mention Wittgenstein?

Michael Metzler said...


"colods" That is what "they" made me type to make this post - by the way.

Amod Lele said...

Thanks for this, Eric. As I've been writing my own philosophical blog, I've noticed just how many autobiographical entries show up on it. I sometimes worry that this is a little narcissistic, but I do it anyway, and this is one of the major reasons. I want to illustrate general truths about humans with particular examples, and the particular example I know best is myself. More importantly, as your post shows, I have got a lot of things wrong, and I want to illustrate that. I know other people who I think have thought and felt wrongly, but I would feel even more arrogant posting about their stories as object lessons.