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The Philosophy of Autobiography$
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Christopher Cowley

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780226267890

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: May 2016

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226268088.001.0001

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A Person’s Words

A Person’s Words

Literary Characters and Autobiographical Understanding

(p.39) 2 A Person’s Words
The Philosophy of Autobiography

Garry L . Hagberg

University of Chicago Press

According to a traditional Cartesian conception of selfhood, the human self, as a repository of inwardly knowable content, exists prior to and separable from any context, situation, or relation into which it contingently enters. Corresponding to this view is the conception of linguistic meaning as being wholly determined by the inward mental content of the speaker also independent of any external relations. In striking contrast to this, the relational conception of selfhood developed by the classical American pragmatists and others since sees the self as created within, and constituted by, the webs of relations into which it enters and within which it actually acquires its identity and its content. I suggest here that there is a parallel way of looking at words, and that to truly understand a person is in part to genuinely understand the webs of relations, references, allusions, connotations, cross-circumstance resonances, and so forth that give a person’s words their meaning. This, I suggest, is close to what Wittgenstein referred to as “the field of a word”, which he insisted is decisive in determining a word’s meaning. Thus the understanding of a person biographically requires an understanding, with this relation-embedded complexity, of their words.

Keywords:   autobiographical understanding, relational selfhood, words in context, Milan Kundera, Iris Murdoch, self-knowledge

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