Reactions of scholars to psychobiographical accounts of theoretical ideas cover a wide spectrum. At one extreme was Nietzsche’s (1886/1966) exuberant embrace: “It has gradually become clear to me what every great philosophy has heretofore been: a confession on the part of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir.”  At the other extreme was Heidegger’s (1924/2009) cold shunning: “Regarding the personality of a philosopher, our only interest is that he was born at a certain time, that he worked and that he died.”  Shunning is by far the most common reaction, a manifestation of a widespread allergy among academics to psychobiographical thinking. Why is this so?

A common source of such shunning, which we noted nearly a half-century ago in our 1979 book Faces in a Cloud: Subjectivity in Personality Theory, is the misinterpretation of a psychobiographical account of an idea as an annihilating ad hominem attack on the validity of that idea. Accordingly, the idea is reduced to its psychobiographical origins, as if it had no other sources of validity. What is missed in this reductive misperception is how the intelligibility of the idea is actually sharpened and expanded, not reduced, by locating it in the context of life in which it took form. A psychobiographical account of an idea’s context of genesis is thus enriching and expansive, not reductive!

A vivid illustration of the misconstrual of a psychobiographical account as a reductive invalidation is provided by an exchange appearing on the listserv of the Heidegger Forum. One of us (Stolorow) had posted an article from Clio’s Psyche, in their Spring 2022 issue, “Psychobiographical Reflections on the Inseparability of Life and Thought in Heidegger’s ‘Turn,’” pointing out a thematic isomorphism between the “broken down thinking” displayed in Heidegger’s breakdown after the war and the metaphysical realism of his later philosophy. A prominent Heideggerian philosopher well-known for his passionate advocacy of the metaphysical realism to which the later Heidegger turned, mischaracterized Stolorow’s efforts as having “reduced Heidegger’s rich philosophical thinking to psychobiography.”  The philosopher continued disparagingly, “You’ve dispensed with all the great questions of philosophy with a wave of your psychologist’s wand.”

Stolorow’s efforts to spell out the difference between contextualizing and reducing seemed to fall on stubbornly deaf ears.

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The Heideggerian turned his critical attention instead to our conception of metaphysical illusion, which he confidently declared was “certainly a reduction, and not simply a ‘contextualization.’”  Specifically, we have elaborated a claim, first introduced by Wilhelm Dilthey, that metaphysics represents an illusory flight from the traumas and tragedies of human finitude. Metaphysics transforms the unbearable fragility and transience of all things human into an enduring, permanent, changeless reality, an illusory world of eternal truths. We have contended that the best safeguard against the pitfalls of metaphysical illusion lies in reflection on the constitutive contexts of our theoretical and philosophical ideas. It is precisely this reflection on the constitutive contexts of ideas that critics find so reductive and toxic. To them, every psychobiographical account is thus an unwelcome reminder of the tragedy of human finitude and hence must be refuted.

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References:

  • Heidegger, Martin (2009). Basic concepts of Aristotelian philosophy (R. Metcalf & M. Tanzer, Trans.). Indiana University Press. (Original work published 1924).
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich (1966). Beyond good and evil. Random House. (Original work published 1886).

Authors:

George E. Atwood

George E. Atwood, PhD, is a Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Rutgers University. He can be contacted at .

Robert D. Stolorow

Robert D. Stolorow, PhD, is a Founding Faculty Member at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis, Los Angeles, and at the Institute for the Psychoanalytic Study of Subjectivity, New York. Absorbed for more than five decades in the project of rethinking psychoanalysis as a form of phenomenological inquiry, he is the author of World, Affectivity, Trauma: Heidegger and Post-Cartesian Psychoanalysis (2011) and Trauma and Human Existence: Autobiographical, Psychoanalytic, and Philosophical Reflections (2007) and coauthor of nine other books, including, most recently, The Power of Phenomenology (2018). He received his PhD in Clinical Psychology from Harvard in 1970 and his PhD in Philosophy from the University of California at Riverside in 2007. He can be contacted at .

How to Cite This:

Stolorow, R. D., & Atwood, G. E. (2023). The felt toxicity of psychobiography. Clio’s Psyche, 29(2), 241-243.

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