Rousseau chose only to wink at the fact that his purportedly unprecedented work, published in 1782, shared a title with another philosopher’s canonical effort to portray himself in full: St. Augustine’s Confessions, written over a millennium earlier. And yet there are reasons beyond bravado that Rousseau is often credited with inaugurating the modern autobiography, even if his work had precedent. St. Augustine’s self-revelations sought, in large part, a revelation of the Christian God through the confession of the sinner. Rousseau, by contrast, was not so much preoccupied with faith as with faithfully portraying nature — especially his own.
Whatever the merits of Rousseau’s claim of novelty, there is no merit to his claim that his work would have no imitators. It takes a peculiar sort of self-confidence to suggest that one’s groundbreaking new art form will have no imitators — not merely that it will have no good imitators, but that it will have no imitators at all. The Scottish philosopher David Hume, who befriended Rousseau and briefly hosted him during a period when Rousseau was in exile, expressed some bemusement with his contemporary’s radical attempt at self-knowledge. “I believe,” Hume wrote of Rousseau, “that nobody knows himself less.”
Hume would pen a much shorter autobiography than Rousseau’s, consisting of only a few pages. Among Rousseau and Hume’s successors in the philosophical canon, autobiography soon became more common. If later philosophers did not always imitate Rousseau’s recitation of his most shameful moments, they tended to imitate his attempt to offer a comprehensive telling of the shape and meaning of a life. To Rousseau’s credit, rarely do these efforts approach his engaging style, which lends a deep vitality to what in lesser hands too often becomes a tedious accounting of adversity and accomplishment, a longform résumé of sorts.
Part of the intrigue of Rousseau’s Confessions lies in our uncertainty, as readers, about how truthful Rousseau’s narrative really is, and about whether Rousseau himself recognizes its gaps between fact and fiction. There is a similarly destabilizing allure to Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical autobiography, Ecce Homo, from about a century later. The first several sections of Nietzsche’s work are entitled “Why I Am So Wise,” “Why I Am So Clever,” and “Why I Write Such Good Books.” There is irony here, no doubt, but what to make of it? Both Nietzsche and Rousseau leave us to wonder about what autobiography and philosophy really are, and how the two genres fit together, if at all. When does a work of autobiography amount, as well, to a work of philosophy? And what does it mean to write philosophy at all, in any form?
In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche famously wrote that it had become clear to him “what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir.” This claim — that at bottom philosophy is really a sort of autobiography — strikes at an area of deep discomfort for philosophy. One way to see this lies in what Stanley Cavell — a towering figure in American philosophy during the latter part of the 20th century — called philosophy’s “ambivalence toward the autobiographical.” Philosophy often asserts the right to speak for us, Cavell suggested, by way of autobiography: the speaker “take[s] what they do and say to be representative or exemplary of the human condition.” Yet the obvious subjectivity of this assertion is in tension with philosophy’s claims “to speak […] with necessity and universality,” independent of the speaker.
Navigating this tension between the particular and the universal can tie those who aspire to philosophy — whether through autobiography or otherwise — in knots. Part of the difficulty, Cavell argued, resides in philosophy’s relation to its audience: unlike science, he wrote, philosophy “is essentially uncertain [about] whom in a given moment it seeks to interest,” and so the philosophical voice veers among extremes and different types of imagined audiences. Philosophy “cannot want exclusiveness,” lest it fail to convey its messages about the universal, but it also “cannot tolerate common opinion,” lest it lose its heightened status as philosophy. The result, in Cavell’s view, is a cycle in which philosophy “oscillates between seeming urgent and seeming frivolous, obscure and obvious, seductive and repellent.”
In this regard it is telling — as Cavell observed — that Nietzsche appended to the work he considered his most important — Thus Spoke Zarathustra — the subtitle “A Book for Everyone and No One.” Perhaps philosophy always must be both of these at once — universal in its ambition, and yet at the same time completely particular, defined by the life of the author. But even if this is so, surely there are better and worse routes into those ambitions — better efforts to make a book available to everyone, even as it remains, in a sense, for no one. This, of course, was Rousseau’s enterprise in the Confessions: to universalize the individual, to bring together everyone and no one. It could not have surprised Cavell that Rousseau’s effort was itself a tour de force of oscillation, a cycle between extreme self-confidence and extreme self-doubt.
John Kaag, in two philosophical memoirs published over the last three years, does not claim to have embarked on a project without precedent, and neither does he claim his project will have no imitators. Kaag’s memoirs — American Philosophy: A Love Story (2016) and Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are (2018) — are deeply steeped in history; Kaag is surely aware that, like every modern memoirist, he is in some sense an imitator of Rousseau. And it would be contrary to Kaag’s careful, understated style for him to make bold claims about novelty or inimitability. Still, there seems to be something interestingly new in Kaag’s memoirs, a twist on the form of philosophical autobiography that may well warrant imitation.
Philosophical autobiography, as a genre, is not straightforwardly defined. One might be tempted to place in this box any autobiography that touches on issues fundamental to the human experience or to the underlying nature of reality. But this definition would capture all autobiographies of any merit. Instead, think of a narrower definition: autobiography that self-consciously engages with questions about the nature of philosophical inquiry, grappling with what it is to do philosophy.
To the extent that there is a canon of this sort of philosophical autobiography, it is populated by giants within the philosophical tradition. Rousseau and Nietzsche are among the most prominent figures, with Cavell a more modern exemplar. There are, as well, autobiographical works by canonical philosophers that primarily summarize the details of a consequential life lived within philosophy, but which at times veer into discussions that touch on what constitutes the philosophical itself. In this murkier category one might point, for instance, to works by John Stuart Mill, Frederick Douglass, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and W. V. Quine.
Kaag, as he would readily acknowledge, does not occupy a prominent place within this hierarchically infused notion of the canon. He is a tenured philosophy professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, but hardly a household name. There are, of course, autobiographical works by philosophers who did not rise to the very highest echelons of philosophical fame (for instance, A Life in the Academy by Robert Paul Wolff and Germs: A Memoir of Childhood by Richard Wollheim). But these works still tend to take on the flavor of the prominent philosopher reflecting back on a prominent professional life or the antecedents of that life. For Kaag, this is not at all the aim. Each of his memoirs were published before his 40th birthday and both say more about professional malaise than professional accomplishment.
Perhaps a better parallel is with Karl Ove Knausgaard’s monumental autobiographical novel, My Struggle, the sixth and final installment of which was published in English last year (Knausgaard writes in Norwegian). Like Knausgaard, Kaag owes his prominence to his autobiographical works, not the other way around: he is a sort of philosophical everyman (to the extent a tenured philosopher can count as such), much like the eponymous narrator of Knausgaard’s novels is a sort of writerly everyman (to the extent a published novelist can count as such).
Part of what is extraordinary about Knausgaard’s novel is how honest it feels. One can see the antecedents in Rousseau, yet what drives Knausgaard’s narrative is not so much uncertainty about the veracity of the story, or questions about the narrator’s self-awareness in his efforts to justify himself to us, but rather the odd and intriguing sensation of being welcomed, unreservedly, into the deepest recess of a mind. Knausgaard achieves this effect in part by focusing less on building a sweeping narrative of his life than on offering his thoughts as they emerge through mundane occurrences of the everyday. Very little of consequence occurs over long stretches of his novel: the narrator cleans a bathroom, goes to buy cigarettes, waits at a train station, walks from his home to his office. Yet in all the details, and in the ruminative voice that surrounds them, a distinct and recognizable world emerges — something immediate and textured, intimately familiar.
Kaag employs a similar approach and is in many ways similarly successful. In the first of his memoirs, he spends most of the book leafing through old philosophy volumes in a library collection he undertakes to preserve. The collection has aspects of a fabled treasure trove: it has been abandoned, in effect, when Kaag stumbles upon it at a rural estate in New Hampshire, and it contains classic and annotated texts from the personal libraries of some of the heavyweights of American philosophy, people like William James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Josiah Royce, and Charles Sanders Peirce. Still, most of the physical action in the book consists in Kaag’s turning the pages of musty tomes in an empty old library, driving those books over to a storage unit, and making the car trip back and forth to Boston. Likewise, the plot of Kaag’s most recent memoir on Nietzsche could be summarized as follows: he travels to the Swiss Alps with his wife and daughter, goes on a few hikes, wanders around a pair of hotels, takes a gondola ride, encounters some sheep, and then goes home.
The real action, of course, is not in these relatively mundane occurrences, but rather in Kaag’s thoughts as he moves through them. This is where Kaag, while perhaps Knausgaardian in style, sets out on his own path. For while Knausgaard seeks to paint an honest portrait of himself, a portrait that includes some philosophical reflections, Kaag endeavors to paint an honest portrait of himself specifically by breaking down the esotericism of philosophy — by inviting us to share in all of philosophy’s difficulty and wonder and contradiction. He can offer an honest portrait of himself only by delving into the philosophy that has shaped him. So he asks us to empathize not just with him, but with philosophy itself.
Some professional philosophers might question whether Kaag’s memoirs are really philosophy — whatever “real philosophy” is exactly — as opposed to something more akin to a marriage of autobiography and a university philosophy course. This, it seems, is the subtext of the Yale philosopher Steven B. Smith’s somewhat underhanded comment, in his review of Hiking with Nietzsche for The New York Times, that he “imagine[s]” that Kaag “is an excellent teacher.” Here again are hints of ambivalence about the philosophical voice: If this is a book for everyone, an accessible book about philosophy, can it have philosophical merit? Isn’t real philosophy for no one?
Communicating with the public is often seen, in the professionalized world of academic philosophy, as someone else’s work — a less than fully serious task, something unworthy of the true philosopher. Never mind the public’s genuine thirst for philosophy plainly in evidence in the various forms of pop philosophy now in vogue, from quotable wisdom on Instagram to Jordan Peterson to the hit NBC show The Good Place. How, though, to bridge this gap while remaining faithful to philosophy? Readers may be put off by the thought that they are reading something akin to Philosophy for Dummies. Writers may worry that they are failing to do justice to the genuine complexity of philosophy. And meanwhile, a volume that matches the rigor and detail of academic philosophy risks boring a general audience senseless.
It is clear enough that Kaag’s memoirs do not seek to engage academic philosophers about philosophy. Instead, they seek to apply fairly well-established philosophical threads to a life — Kaag’s own — and thereby gesture at how those threads might apply to our lives as well. This, no doubt, is a different sort of philosophical project than those standard in academic circles. It is also a different sort of philosophical project than Rousseau’s project in the Confessions, which aims to understand a life in all its particularities, rather than to engage with currents in the history of philosophy by applying them to a particular life. But a philosophical project it is, and a subtle and difficult one at that. We readers must be made to care about the narrator, as in any sort of autobiographical narrative, and we must also be made to care to understand the nuances of his or her philosophical journey.
These requirements are not straightforwardly satisfied. Kaag is particularly successful meeting them in his more recent memoir, Hiking with Nietzsche. In American Philosophy, Kaag is at times too understated in presenting the personal love story — as distinguished from the philosophical love story that unfolds in tandem — that helps tie his book together. A central thread of Kaag’s narrative concerns the dissolution of his first marriage and the emergence, later, of his love for a fellow philosopher. Kaag labors to avoid the impression that this personal love story is at the book’s core, as opposed to Kaag’s broader love affair with philosophy. Yet perhaps because of this, neither Kaag’s first wife nor his soon-to-be second wife comes clearly into focus. And when, in the last quarter of the book, the personal love story begins to recede as we move past some of the uncertainty and yearning of early love, the philosophical love story, left more or less on its own, begins to stall somewhat as well.
That American Philosophy loses some of its steam near the end is more a testament to the seamless integration of narrative and philosophy for the remainder of the book than a reflection of any considerable fault. It is also a measure of Kaag’s deftness with his new genre in Hiking with Nietzsche, which contains no comparable lull. There, Kaag brings his wife and daughter, as well as his parents, into greater focus, and thereby deepens our sense not just of them but of him. (The result is a boon to American Philosophy, which might be better read after Hiking with Nietzsche.) Kaag’s search for Nietzsche, meanwhile, does not follow the arc of early love; instead it is cyclical and eternal, something that — like Nietzsche himself — comes in many guises and in unexpected, self-disruptive forms. And so, as we delve deeper into Kaag, we delve deeper into Nietzsche — and vice versa.
Cavell, in writing about philosophy’s “ambivalence toward the biographical,” was not particularly ambivalent in his distrust of efforts to popularize philosophy. “I think someone who believes in popular, or in popularizing, philosophy,” he wrote, “believes that the ordinary man stands in relation to serious philosophy as, say, the ordinary believer stands in relation to serious theology — that he cannot understand it in its own terms but that it is nevertheless good for him to know its results, in some form or other.” This patronizing belief, Cavell argued, “is the late version of one of philosophy’s most ancient betrayals,” namely the use of philosophy’s mystique to lend weight to claims with little genuine philosophical weight behind them.
Contrary to Cavell’s fears, Kaag is not interested in popularizing philosophy by merely sharing “its results.” Instead, he is interested in how philosophy might be more broadly understood — how the ordinary person might come to understand philosophy in its own terms by bearing witness to the subtleties and joys of philosophical inquiry. This, perhaps, is the greatest promise and aspiration of Kaag’s memoirs. He leads a general audience into the delicate and often inaccessible ways in which philosophers seek to understand philosophy’s history. In such efforts, the work of philosophers past is not accepted from on high, or dressed up in the garb of authority merely by virtue of its prior importance. Instead, the history of philosophy helps us do philosophy: by grappling with the philosophical viewpoints passed down to us, we can deepen our philosophical understanding and our philosophical inquiries today.
Philosophy is not a field where new genres come along frequently; it is the sort of field where, if one looks long enough, what seems new begins to look like the old. This was the case for Rousseau’s Confessions, and it is the case as well for Kaag’s confessional memoirs. Yet focusing on the continuities between new and old can obscure the real promise contained within what is, in fact, new. Kaag has carved out a genre all his own, a genre with the promise to narrow some of the gaps between the esoteric and the familiar, the academic and the non-academic, the philosopher and the self-help guru. For those with Kaag’s unusual mixture of philosophical sophistication and narrative skill, it is a genre well worth emulating.
John F. Muller writes and studies philosophy in Wisconsin. He was formerly a lecturer at Harvard Law School and an attorney in Los Angeles.