Three conceptions of biography

A biography is a narrative of a person’s life. The biographer wants to tell the story of how the subject made it from childhood to adulthood; how he or she came to undertake certain actions in life; how various personal aspirations and commitments were played out in terms of extended projects with varying levels of success; how the adult’s character was formed through specific experiences and influences. The biographer wants to make sense of the subject’s life itinerary and character.

A biography necessarily pays attention to both external and internal factors. Externally, the biographer will investigate the nature of the family, the accidents of social class and education to which the subject was exposed, the role models and teachers by whom the subject was influenced, the habits of daily life that had unexpected consequences for the longterm development of the subject’s life. Internally, the biographer will be interested in reconstructing the character, personality, and mental life of the subject; the inclinations and motives that drove the subject’s choices; the values and commitments that shaped the ways in which the subject interacted with other people and social institutions.

There are several basic frames that the narrative of a biography might take. The biographer may tell a story that suggests that the subject possessed a well-developed conception of what he or she wanted out of life, and set out to take specific steps and strategies to bring about these outcomes. This can be called the “architect’s view”. The subject’s life is understood as the fulfillment of a detailed plan, as direct as the migration pathway of a whooping crane.

At the other extreme, the biographer may find that the subject’s life looks to be highly contingent and random. The subject moves from one experience to another, one opportunity and another discouragement, and the route is aimless. Call this the “random walk view.” The subject’s life may have had singular and valued accomplishments; but there is no overall direction to the life, only a series of stochastic and opportunistic interactions.

image: mathematical simulation of Levy walk foraging behavior (link)

There is a third possibility that incorporates both agency and contingency. The biographer may treat the subject as possessing values and ideas about the future that are guiding signposts as the subject moves through the small stages of life. The subject may have a moral sense that leads him or her to question choices through the lens of questions like “what is the right thing to do?” or “how can I contribute to a more just society?” or “what kind of person do I want to be?”. Specific steps and initiatives are the result. The subject may be reflective and reflexive: he or she may consider current states of affairs and opportunities in terms of the ways in which these states of affairs contribute to half-fulfilled values and aspirations; and the subject may undertake to act in ways that give further shape to his or her mental environment — more committed to a set of moral or spiritual values, more attentive to the satisfactions of family or creative achievement, more attuned to a sense of beauty or aesthetic balance. Call this the “bildungs view”.

image: Lewis and Clark journey of discovery

The architect’s view of life seems highly implausible for almost any given individual. Surely most people’s lives have unfolded with a high degree of contingency, improvisation, and indeterminacy. An individual is exposed to this great teacher or that unfortunate necessity; and future actions and plans take shape partly as a result of those prior chance developments. Further, life contingency seems not to be restricted to moments of high drama, but rather seem to be distributed across the full range of daily life.

The random-walk view has some empirical plausibility as an understanding of the lives of a wide range of people. It is plausible enough to imagine that some people are highly unreflective about the future; they make decisions as necessities and opportunities come along, and they make out a life as a sum of these unrelated choices. Even the complexity introduced by the notion of the “Levy walk” is relevant to the unfolding of a life. As the diagram above indicates, the behavior of the subject is not restricted to a local domain of random choices; instead, the course is interspersed with long hops, taking the subject to a new terrain to explore randomly (link).

But it is the bildungs-view that has the most appeal for anyone who favors reflectiveness and the idea of creating a somewhat coherent whole over a long span of time. Here we are to picture a person always only partially formed, but seeking new personal and situational developments that lead towards a set of goals and values that are themselves only partially articulated. This is a boot-straps understanding of a purposive life: the individual at any given stage of life has reflected on values, goals, purposes, and satisfactions, has pursued plans and opportunities that fit with those values, and has reformulated and refined his or her values and goals as life proceeds. This is what can fairly be called a reflective life, embodying both contingency and direction.

The illustration of the 1804 Lewis and Clark expedition from St. Louis to Fort Clatsop gives a metaphorical idea of the bildungs view of a life. Lewis and Clark had some partially defined goals and plans when they set out on their journey of discovery. But much of the route depended upon contingencies encountered along the way and opportunities that were exploited in an improvisational manner. Their itinerary and changes of direction were often the result of new information, changing weather, unexpected terrain, and the like. The exact course they eventually traversed was not defined in advance; and yet there was a clear directionality to the expedition.

And what about Inspector Clouseau, depicted above in the person of Peter Sellers? The hapless inspector illustrates the random-walk model as he moves through the Pink Panther movies, with a generous amount of bumbling randomness and amazing turns of favorable luck leading to unlikely success in the end. Regrettably, no one can count on cinematic luck in ordinary life, so a bit more caution and planning seem well advised.

In framing this series of posts on rational life plans I have focused on the idea of rationality over time. There is another approach in philosophy that I haven’t considered, however, that considers a similar problem from the point of view of the notion of a “meaningful life”. What features or conditions make a life “meaningful” to the individual and to others? Susan Wolf’s 2007 Tanner lectures provide a useful beginning at trying to analyze the good life in its fullness over time from the point of view of meaning and value (link). Also useful is Thaddeus Metz’s article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on “the meaning of life” (link). Finally, the series of posts presented earlier on the topic of “character” is relevant to this topic as well (link). Character is relevant to life plans because it is shaped by the decisions the individual makes, and it provides the cross-temporal fiber needed to persist in a life plan under adversity.

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