Biography is a branch of social studies which examines the personality in history.
The task of biography is to place the individual personality in a concrete historical setting and to explain the outcome of that individual’s practice based on this setting. Even with a wealth of information and sources the individual can never be considered as a subject which is independent from history as a process.
In contemporary practice biography is prone to dissolving, instead, into the abstraction of the human personality from its surroundings. Biographers take it upon themselves to marshal their various prejudices and those of the society they live in, and with these in hand, identify the intangible something in a human personality which made (and makes) behaviors, accomplishments and decisions inevitable. This involves the most spurious daydreaming and reckless searching to the point of creating evidence for the contemporary archetypes of “human nature.” This is a tendency of biography which reflects precisely the same approach to be found in contemporary sociology and history.
Positivism and Biography
Biography as a positivist exercise tends to focus on broad preconceived categories and stereotypes which are forced on the isolated memories of certain interactions, practices and words derived from records of the individual with whom the positivist biographers have concerned themselves. These labels, which reduce the historical record to expressions of “human nature” against different backdrops, convert explanations of historical individuals into a rehashing of current assumptions about human psychology or ethics.
The time period within which the individual lives is often explained by positivist biographers, as by historians in general, to be in a historically “relative” relationship with our own. The positivist concept of “relativity” in no way prevents the imposition of the abstract universals assumed of the human personality in contemporary society from defining the individuals inhabiting any historical period – however “relative” the assessment of the setting in which the individual is found.
The “historical context” of positivism is the special and secondary rules of a closed formulaic approach to which a particular historical phenomenon is subordinated. All that is needed to make such assessments “relative” is to define how certain aspects of a historical period should be entered, ignored, or entered in the negative as “factors” in the same effort to make a historical figure conform with the needs and outlook of contemporary ideology. If a relative “evil” of our own time is made into a “good” of another, or ignored entirely, this in no way contradicts the positivist historical and biographical approach. Such an approach can only reproduce ideas historically specific to the framework of contemporary society.
Form, Content and Caprice
Positivism endeavors to isolate events, ideas and personalities in history and present abstract statistical impressions of them as the only truth. The purification of history into meaningless forms (behaviors as such, separate from society and history) generates only a wanting for content, rather than any understanding of these forms without content. The contextual reading of history is replaced by the immediate translation of all of history into examples and permutations of verbal relationships between abstract concepts and characterizations. The associations established can only be those which are native to the social language of contemporary society. The protest of all expressions of empiricism against the “metaphysics” of searching for meaning outside of naked correlation in science only creates an inescapable necessity for an irrational metaphysics to have the final word in interpretation. The premise that the human mind is incapable of experiencing reality authentically gives a false independence to human ideas. Every characterization of experience based on limiting and rendering subjective the elements of reality lends itself to an unlimited and falsely objective idealization of human existence from the perspective of the individual ego. Empiricists of every variation are “skeptical” only of bringing their assumptions to account. They pass over the complexity of the life of humanity with a fearful and practiced aversion to its implications for their sacred ideas, imaginings and egos. Positivism is not a “dispassionate” observer of social and natural processes from a fictitious position outside of these processes but a product of society and nature itself which is fatally enmeshed with the passions of its age.
Foundations, Scientific and Metaphysical
The foundation of biography can only be an exposition on social relationships and conflicts which define a specific place in history in their own relationship to history as a whole. The individuals produced by these moments must be subordinated to them as they have no further existence. The more a single episode can be understood as determined and not merely “influenced” by larger and more difficult processes the more concrete the definition of that episode truly is. The pretense of “science” which positivist biography claims for itself is only based on the complete detachment of individuals from their time and place and the process of labeling them according to current conventions of thought.
The goal is not to disentangle individuals from history but to reproduce the necessity of their entanglements with it.
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[…] intended to be longer. A fuller perspective on the subject was given in the contemporaneous “Biography and Positivism” and “Ethics.” – TJM […]