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by Shlomit C. Schuster
Praeger, 2003
Review by Paola Teresa Grassi on Apr 22nd 2003

The Philosopher's Autobiography

The book is an introduction to the 'relatively new' genre of 'philosophical autobiography'. The first two chapters outline some characteristics of philosophical autobiography; they offer a large list of the main examples belonging to this category and some detailed analyses of the main representative narratives in 'self-reflection' and 'life-writing' like Plato's, Marcus Aurelius', Abelard's, Al-Ghazali's but also Dante's and Kahlil Gibran's among many others. The third chapter hosts the main argument of the book, - which is an extension of Shlomit Schuster's doctoral thesis presented at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1997. The author proposes some ideas for an alternative form of psychoanalysis that she calls 'philosophical psychoanalysis'.

The purpose of the new approach she advocates is not therapeutic, but rather a 'suggestion for how to understand persons as subjects'. The premise of the investigation is radically anti-freudian and practically rooted. Schuster asserts: "Among the people I spoke within my private philosophy practice are those who have received psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapy and have felt that the Freudian method did not address their specific problems or what they considered the background of their problems. People often feel the need to relate their present problems to their past, but not necessarily through a Freudian or other clinical developmental theory. If one looks for nonclinical development understandings of the self one can find numerous philosophers who aimed at analyzing and describing the development of the self, the soul, the emotions, or memory". Paradigmatic in this sense are the three autobiographies that Schuster outlines in detail in the following three chapters: Augustine's, Rousseau's and Sartre's.

In some alternative psychotherapeutic treatments, 'rebiographing' is already used to help people to write their pasts and interpret matters in a novel way. Instead of searching for continuity and unity of the self through a 'due influence' of the past over the present, influence which is given as acquainted by those therapies, Schuster proposes that continuity and consistency are obtained through philosophical reflection. "The narrative-self I propose is not characterized by an ideal narrative structure in which the person can only be a little different in the present, or in the future, from what he or she was in the past. From my perspective the search for the good life may direct persons to make drastic changes in themselves, as is made explicit through accentuating philosophical continuity and consistency in the lives of Augustine, Rousseau, and Sartre." The ideal of a 'radical change of mind' is the main issue, both theoretical and practical, of Schuster's purpose. Focusing on the dialectical distinction between the 'slavish mental activity' and the 'free mental activity', appropriated from Dewey, the author argues that philosophers such as the three mentioned above "described their awareness of slavish aspect of mental activity, but also described an autonomous philosophizing and how free philosophical activity changed their very being and life". Schuster's proposition of 'philosophical psychoanalysis' aims also to present itself as a 'qualitative approach' like the qualititative research originated in phenomenology.

In the epilogue of the book Schuster notes that "The relationship between self-narration, narration, self-renewal, and change coincides with ancient suggestions of self-transformation through personal confessions, or the creative, transforming speech of priests, prophets, and magicians".


© 2002 Paola Teresa Grassi


Paola Teresa Grassi, Italy

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