On 29 June, Professor Emeritus Árpád Szakolczai (Sociology, UCC) addressed the SLLC Life Writing
Cluster on the subject of “Biography as a way of understanding (the social life of an age).”
The Life Writing Research Cluster, which looks at all and any connections between the lived life / life
experience / bios and acts of inscription or recording. In this case, the lecture explored biography as
a method that, against Kant and German Idealism, considers thinking and the experience of being
not as separate from one another, but as being intimately intertwined, with consequences for how
we read philosophy.
To provide an adequate short intellectual portrait of Arpad is an impossibility, as he has a mind that
ranges over vast swathes of history, sociology, anthropology, philosophy and culture. To be able to
write such volumes as The Genesis of Modernity (Routledge, 2003) or Genealogy of the Modern
Public Arena (2013) an omnivorous appetite for reading, researching and thinking is necessary. How
else could he attempt to answer the enormous question of “how the world in which we now live has
come into being” as he succinctly puts it? He has examined everything from the “sociology of
walking” to the figure of “the trickster,” charisma, masks, dreams, utopias, identity formation,
friendship and its consequences for thought.
What is perhaps most interesting is not the breadth of his learning, but his ability and willingness to
synthesize from it radical ideas about how we live and think, and to subvert what we accept as
absolute and unchallengeable, including, for instance, the scientific method itself. He has, for
instance, proposed that science itself is “a frame of mind that is alien from the concerns of everyday
human existence.” Here he picks up the gauntlet of Nietzsche, and carefully picks apart some of the
idols of our age, including the idol of scientific objectivity. In a post-COVID age that is so acutely
aware of the political dangers of challenges to scientific methods, his challenge is brave, and must be
read carefully and in full. It is not a denial of what a laboratory scientist might scrutinize through a
microscope, but rather the wholesale application of ideas of scientific analysis to all kinds of human
phenomena. His concern generally is to overcome all dichotomies of thought, by revealing the
dichotomy as something that “break[s] into two halves and then [tries] desperately to
put them together. He proposes a focus on lived experience as the way forward.
To bring us nearer to the topic of this research cluster, Arpad’s focus on experience builds on the
work of German historian, sociologist and philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) who famously
revived the ideas of Friedrich Schleiermacher on hermeneutics (or the art of understanding), and
who wrote a famous biography of Schleiermacher. At the heart of Dilthey’s return to Schleiermacher
is a return to the idea of us as historically-embedded living subjects who think. In other words, the
individual experience cannot be bracketed out of thought or knowledge. This has consequences for
how we approach understanding an author and her or his works. We must understand the texts or
works as the products of a subject’s historically embedded lived experience. This is one of the
central dilemmas of modern thought: experience and its relationship to thought. This can be traced
back to Descartes break with the dry bookishness of Scholasticism, and his introduction of the
biographical I and its experiences into thought and into his philosophical method. His works are
often as much a reflection on his life as disquisitions on thinking and being.
The wide-ranging lecture and subsequent discussion has been recorded and is available here.