Regular readers will have noticed by now what frequent use I make of the word 'I'. Philosophers of language in turn might point out that this is not really a word at all, but a pronoun, which functions rather more as a placeholder than as a proper noun: it doesn't name anything, but only serves as a generic stand-in --which works just as well when you are talking about your self as when I am talking about mine--, a sort of promissory note that can be cashed out by means of a proper name whenever the question as to who is being talked about comes up.
But still, the fact remains that I have been talking about myself a lot here, and moreso of late: I used to carry on about politics; and then my world narrowed (or deepened, I don't know), and I dwelt principally upon the things I really care about, in particular language and animals. Then it started to narrow (or deepen) even more, and I began to write principally in a confessional mode. This is certainly something that I have not thought of as part of my philosophical output. I have gone to great lengths to emphasize that it is a recreation, something quite apart from that output, in which I have, I think, largely mastered the art of impersonal writing, of writing about things that are not me, as if from nowhere.
Certainly, the idea that confessional writing could be philosophical writing at the same time is light-years away from the prevailing conception of the activity of philosophy today. We are all generally aware that there are a few confessional works that were written long ago and that now belong to the canon of philosophy (Augustine, Rousseau), but an implication of this awareness is that one must be an Augustine or a Rousseau in order to be in a position to choose this mode. In 20th-century philosophy, autobiography was generally seen as extracurricular (a few exceptions, perhaps: Feyerabend, Althusser), and was often written by people who seemed to have no inner life worth reporting on (e.g., Quine: a genius, yes; an introspective genius, no). There is certainly nothing in the tenure guidelines of any university, no matter how excellent, mediocre, or quirky, for incorporating memoir into one's dossier. If one is going to go ahead and do it anyway, it is understood that this is a cordless space-walk, so to speak, institutionally unsupported, and even counter to one's productivity goals: the dreary pyatiletki one always has to pretend to be in the course of realizing. Not that I'm not always in the course of realizing something; it's just that what this turns out to be is never something that can be spelled out in advance. If it could be, it would already have been done.
Again, as concerns memoir, if one is going to do it, one had better be confident that one is already the sort of person of whom it might be wished that it be done. One should, ideally, be very old: when Richard Wollheim wrote towards the very end of his life that whenever he hears moral philosophers speaking of 'responsibility' he can't help but recall his introduction in early childhood to the art of using toilet paper, it is understood that he is telling us this, now, because he will die soon, and has nothing more to lose. On the contrary, he understands that the world has something to gain from his sharing of what, in the trash culture of talk shows and sitcoms, might be denounced as 'too much information'.
What does the world have to gain? From a sufficiently lucid and introspective thinker like Wollheim, one might at best hope for a key to understanding the motivations behind the life's oeuvre; when that oeuvre has been focused on art and psychoanalysis, it is not implausible either that in understanding the motivations, one can also gain fuller mastery of the content of the work itself.
But even if this is not what we get, it seems to me that the value of confessional writing lies precisely in the placeholder character of the first-person personal pronoun: the fact that it stands in generically for, potentially, anyone, is what makes it possible that in describing myself well, I am saying something that can be true and valuable for you as well. This is certainly not a new point; it is a variation on Terence's homo sum; humani nihil a me alienum puto, which would later serve as an important motto for Montaigne, and implicitly as the vindication for his carrying on as he does, page after page, about his favorite and least favorite condiments. The challenge of memoir is to find a way to express the things that are true of oneself, and only of oneself, that at the same time remains true to the Terentian spirit and does not lapse into the Jerry Springerian.
Still, I am not so old, and there is a sort of unspoken statute of limitations on most of the experiences and encounters I would like to address. In some cases, the statute will only run out with the deaths of the parties involved, and in other cases not even then. Because the statute is unspoken, however, it is flexible, and I have recently found that print media are a much more suitable forum for saying what I would really like to say than is the Internet. There, one can tell oneself, it will take a little more than a Google search for the potentially offended or overexposed to discover they have become part of the memoirist's project. Here (and in print, for the most part, to be honest), I remain perhaps excessively discrete, and this discretion itself contributes to the intense reliance upon the 'I'; there's no one else I'm allowed to write about!
This is too bad, for there are many interesting and universal matters I would like to write about, but can't, since in order to do so would require illustrations drawn from experience. In particular --to remain on, and return to, the onomastic theme that often comes up here-- I would like to be able to write about how pet names work, that is, the replacement names that one comes up with in intimate relationships, and that eventually shut out the other person's real name altogether, even coming to seem much more real than what is printed on ID's and baptism rolls. These names can be multiplied through their variations, through the addition of extra diminutive suffixes, through further replacements, based variously on semantics or on rhyme, that can only make secret sense, like some Cockney slang known only to two people in the world.
It's long seemed to me that this proliferation of secret names is the purest expression of love that is possible, and that love endures as long as the so-called Christian name of the other continues to strike one as a false name, as forced, as something to be avoided. It's confounding and amazing, the way this works. Perhaps someday I'll say something more about it.