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Understanding Our Selves

The Dangerous Art of Biography


Susan Tridgell

Modern Western biography has become one of the most popular and most controversial forms of literature. Critics have attacked its tendency to rely on a strong narrative drive, its focus on a single person’s life and its tendency to delve ever more deeply into that person’s inner, private experience, though these tendencies seem to have only increased biography’s popularity. To date, however, biography has been a rarely studied literary form. Little serious attention has been given to the light biographies can shed on philosophical problems, such as the intertwining of knowledge and power, or the ways in which we can understand lives, or terms like ‘the self’. Should selves be seen as relational or as autonomous? What of the ‘lies and silences’ of biographies, the ways in which embodiment can be ignored? A study of these problems allows engagement with a range of philosophers and literary theorists, including Roland Barthes, Lorraine Code, Michel Foucault, Emmanuel Levinas, Alasdair MacIntyre, Ray Monk, Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul Ricoeur, Richard Rorty and Charles Taylor. Biography can be a dangerous art, claiming to know ‘just how you feel’. This book explores the double-edged nature of biography, looking at what it reveals about both narratives and selves.


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Chapter Four: Moral Accountability and Narrating the Self 85


Chapter Four: Moral Accountability and Narrating the Self Narrative as accountability The conception of the self as a narrative is proposed by the philosophers Paul Ricoeur, Charles Taylor, and Alasdair MacIntyre partly as a way of making sense of moral accountability. MacIntyre says ‘I am forever whatever I have been for others – and I may at any time be called upon to answer for it.’1 MacIntyre’s notion of moral accountability is a familiar one, clearly tied to actions. Taylor’s emphasis is somewhat different. Taylor puts stress on ‘making sense’ of our lives, something which he depicts as a moral challenge, so that we are responsible for our lives growing, having a meaningful direction, having weight.2 Taylor says: To repudiate my childhood as unredeemable in this sense is to accept a kind of mutilation as a person; it is to fail to meet the full challenge involved in making sense of my life. This is the sense in which it is not up for arbitrary determination what the temporal limits of my personhood are.3 Ricoeur talks of confronting ‘narrative identity, oscillating between sameness and selfhood, and ethical identity, which requires a person to be accountable for his or her actions’.4 Later, Ricoeur suggests that instead of striving for sameness, we should look at: the essentially ethical notion of self-constancy. Self-constancy is for each person that manner of conducting himself or herself so that others can count on that per- son. Because someone is counting on me, I am accountable for my...

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