Article: Naoko Saito: Ourselves in translation, Stanley Cavell and Philosophy as Autobiography

Ourselves in translation: Stanley Cavell and Philosophy as Autobiography

by Naoko Saito

“Narrative” has become fashionable in educational research and practice. The vogue is obviously related to an “inward turn” – a reflective mode of thinking and talking about one’s own self (Smeyers, Smith and Standish 2007). As a concomitant phenomenon,
the writing of autobiography in various forms has become part of educational practice, often with the expectation that this will have therapeutic effects. In this general trend, there is a prevailing assumption that there must be an identifiable self, a “real me,” a self that is to be revealed in the process of writing an autobiography. Such a mode of narrating one’s self, on the one hand, tends to be assimilated, ironically, to a unification of desire constructed within a global market, and ironically to end up with a loss of one’s self. On the other hand, the performativity of disclosing one’s self in the name of narrative often creates a form of violence to the ear of the other: language is trapped in the narrow and fixed framework of the narrator and is imposed on the listener. There is, however, an undeniable need, a therapeutic desire for finding one’s self. Is there not an alternative way of responding to this need, a way that avoids these negative aspects of the current preoccupation with narrative? This is a question to which this paper tries to respond.
As a promising potential answer, I shall discuss an alternative approach to narrating and writing about one’s self – Stanley Cavell’s idea of philosophy as autobiography. This is an idea in which the acknowledgement of the partiality of the self is an essential condition for achieving the universal. In the apparently paradoxical combination of the “philosophical” (which is traditionally connected with a search or the objective and the universal) and the “autobiographical” (which is conventionally associated with the subjective and the personal), Cavell shows us a way of focusing on the self and yet always transcending the self. The task requires, however, the reconstruction of the notions of philosophy and autobiography, while at the same time destabilizing our conceptions of self and language. Cavell seeks to achieve this through the idea of finding one’s voice in an autobiographical exercise. This necessitates both inheritance from the past and innovation for the future, and both initiation into the language community and deviation from it. What this amounts to is a process of the self and language in translation, which, I shall argue, can exercise a most therapeutic effect on the self, destabilizing the myth of selfidentity.