Here is a very interesting short piece by Pierre Bourdieu on the topic of biography, “L’Illusion biographique,” that is very relevant to the prior post. (Thanks, Denis!) Here Bourdieu takes issue with common sense on the subjects of the self and the nature of biography. Here is the commonsense understanding that he rejects: the idea of a life as a coherent and sequential story, with a beginning and end and a logical set of steps intervening. This idea underlies the group of metaphors commonly used by biographers representing life as a journey. Bourdieu argues that this reflects an uncritical and traditional understanding of history. This treatment rests upon important presuppositions — most fundamentally, that a life constitutes a coherent whole that can be understood as the expression of a unified intentional agent. This assumption accounts for the words connoting logical process that are so common in biographies: “thus”, “hence”, “so”, “therefore”, and “always” (consistency). The assumption is that a life is intelligible. Here is a nice passage summarizing this thought:
On est sans doute en droit de supposer que le récit autobiographique s’inspire toujours, au moins pour une part, du souci de donner sens, de rendre raison, de dégager une logique à la fois rétrospective et prospective, une consistance et une constance, en établissant des relations intelligibles, comme celle de l’effet à la cause efficiente ou finale, entre les états successifs, ainsi constitués en étapes d’un développement nécessaire.
[One is undoubtedly justified in thinking that the recital of an autobiography is inspired, at least in part, out of a concern to give meaning, to uncover a logic at the moment, both retrospective and prospective, a consistency and constancy, establishing intelligible relations such as cause and effect, between successive states, this establishing an account of a necessary sequence of development.]
Bourdieu thinks this understanding is untenable. He proposes a deconstruction of the self that draws upon a parallel with the form of the modern novel — Faulkner or Robbe-Grillet — in which logical sequence is deliberately challenged. Rather than coherence and logical development, we have discontinuity, irrationality, and chaotic sets of experiences.
Produire une histoire de vie, traiter la vie comme une histoire, c’est-à-dire comme le récit cohérent d’une séquence signifiante et orientée d’événements, c’est peut-être sacrifier à une illusion rhétorique, à une représentation commune de l’existence, que toute une tradition littéraire n’a cessé et ne cesse de renforcer.
[To produce a history of a life, to treat a life like a history, that is to say, like a coherent recital of a meaningful sequence of events, is perhaps to submit to a rhetorical illusion, a common representation of existence, that our literary tradition has not ceased to reinforce.]
Bourdieu wants to understand these issues in analogy with twentieth-century doubts about the unity of the self. According to this post-modern critique, the self itself is a fiction of coherence, a rhetorical overlay on top of chaotic experience and actions. Kant’s unity of apperception is an illusion imposed by the narrator of the self.
Instead Bourdieu wants to understand the unity of the self sociologically in terms of the functioning of a proper name within specific fields of social interaction. (He refers here to Kripke and Ziff’s ideas of rigid designators.) The proper name serves as tag linking the biological individual across social spaces.
En tant qu’institution, le nom propre est arraché au temps et à l’espace, et aux variations selon les lieux et les moments : par là, il assure aux individus désignés, par delà tous les changements et toutes les fluctuations biologiques et sociales, la constance nominale, l’identité au sens d’identité à soi-même, de constantia sibi, que demande l’ordre social.
[As an institution, a proper name is situated in time and space, and changes according to place and time: accordingly it assures the designated individuals, beyond all biological and social changes and fluctuations, the nominal constancy, identity in the sense of identity to oneself, faithful to itself, that demand social ordering.]
What is the upshot for Bourdieu here? It seems to be that we should discard biography as a fundamentally flawed intellectual undertaking, and we should instead look at “non-biography” as a non-chronological map of social positions occupied by the biological individual designated by the proper name. On this account there is the biological individual and there is the social individual, but there is no personal intentional actor mediating between these. The proper name, a cypher with no content, replaces the self.
Ainsi s’explique que le nom propre ne puisse pas décrire des propriétés et qu’il ne véhicule aucune information sur ce qu’il nomme : du fait que ce qu’il désigne n’est jamais qu’une rhapsodie composite et disparate de propriétés biologiques et sociales en changement constant, toutes les descriptions seraient valables seulement dans les limites d’un stade ou d’un espace. Autrement dit, il ne peut attester l’identité de la personnalité, comme individualité socialement constituée, qu’au prix d’une formidable abstraction.
[Thus it is that a proper names cannot describe properties and conveys no information about the individual named: in fact, the designated item is nothing more than a composite and disparate rhapsody of biological and social properties in constant change, all descriptions are valid only in the limits of a field of space. In other words, it is not possible to attest to the identity of the personality, as a socially constituted individual, except at the process of formidable abstraction.]
The individual is simply the sum of a network graph of positions in social spaces, with nothing interior. And therefore biography needs replacing by a linked set of spatial locations within the social fields within which her or she competes.
Is this sufficient? Not at all. It conveys an anti-mentalistic stance about people that is as flawed as was radical behaviorism. No matter how valid the critique of native unitarianism concerning the self, it remains true that people are actors, they make choices, they operate on the basis of mental frames, and they construct itineraries. They act intentionally and self consciously. We cannot dispense with a conception of the self. And therefore biography remained a valid exercise.
What is needed instead is a conception of the self and of a biography that avoids both the primordialism of the traditional view and the actor-less collage associated with the post-modern literary view. We need a conception of the self that emphasizes contingency and continuous development and change, that denies essentialism in either the self or a complete life, and that highlights as well the role that extraneous events play in the development of a person and a life; while still allowing for the reality of the human person who undergoes and guides his or her own path.
It is interesting to recall the structure of Neil Gross’s “sociological” biography of Richard Rorty in Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher (link). Gross’s account conforms to a part of Bourdieu’s picture here, in that he takes great care to trace Rorty’s movements through his various fields — philosophy, Yale, Princeton, marriage. But he also gives attention to the interior man — the person named Richard who makes these various choices. Biography and personhood do not disappear after all.