Philosophy and Literature 31 (1):67-78 (2007)
We usually think of philosophy as the production of theories and arguments. Yet there are other sides to philosophy, the recognition of which is necessary to understand its wider personal and cultural significance. Some of these sides are seldom acknowledged as philosophical at all, perhaps because literature has appropriated what professional philosophy unfortunately has lost. One philosophical activity often overlooked is the construction of philosophical allegories: to describe one's life in explicit philosophical terms or philosophically suggestive ways. Reading life allegorically is to recognize philosophy in what seems merely details of the whole picture and to develop a sense for how philosophical constellations are mirrored in one's life, no matter how ordinary that life may seem. As a theoretical position skepticism is sometimes stated by saying that we are in a prison from which we cannot escape. What if one had actually been in some kind of prison, say, a home or a university, and then described that episode so that the skeptical picture is revealed in the description? That would be what I call an autobiographical philosophical allegory: a part of one's life is sublimated into a picture of the human condition. To attain as much, the episode need not be imbued with philosophical significance at the time—it may have felt utterly ordinary or utterly private. Yet the telling of it can make it extraordinary and promote it into a philosophical piece. In the following, I shall elucidate the concept of philosophical allegory through a reading of some episodes in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's autobiographical works.
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