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  • Philosophical Allegories in Rousseau
  • Steinar Bøyum

We usually think of philosophy as the production of theories and arguments. Yet there are other sides to philosophy, the recognition of which is necessary to understand its wider personal and cultural significance. Some of these sides are seldom acknowledged as philosophical at all, perhaps because literature has appropriated what professional philosophy unfortunately has lost.

One philosophical activity often overlooked is the construction of philosophical allegories: to describe one's life in explicit philosophical terms or philosophically suggestive ways. Reading life allegorically is to recognize philosophy in what seems merely details of the whole picture and to develop a sense for how philosophical constellations are mirrored in one's life, no matter how ordinary that life may seem.

As a theoretical position skepticism is sometimes stated by saying that we are in a prison from which we cannot escape. What if one had actually been in some kind of prison, say, a home or a university, and then described that episode so that the skeptical picture is revealed in the description? That would be what I call an autobiographical philosophical allegory: a part of one's life is sublimated into a picture of the human condition. To attain as much, the episode need not be imbued with philosophical significance at the time—it may have felt utterly ordinary or utterly private. Yet the telling of it can make it extraordinary and promote it into a philosophical piece.

In the following, I shall elucidate the concept of philosophical allegory through a reading of some episodes in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's autobiographical works.1 Of course, Rousseau is an exceptional figure, and therefore it may be difficult to connect what he is doing to what any of us might do. On the other hand, his exceptionality can serve [End Page 67] to make the concept of philosophical allegory conspicuous and thus make it clearer to us what we might become able to do. So Rousseau is exemplary in that he demonstrates methods by which we can discover our own exemplarity.


Some of the anecdotes cropping up in Rousseau's autobiographical works express philosophical thoughts, or constellations of such thoughts, in an allegorical form. These allegories are typically both quite ordinary and quite extraordinary. Their extraordinariness is due to the strikingly odd or even bizarre quality of some of their elements, to their subtle ways of evoking philosophical connotations, to their allusions to famous philosophical texts, and to how they are sometimes introduced by an announcement of their enormous importance, which seems way out of proportion to the story that follows. Yet even though there were certainly extraordinary features of Rousseau's life, these anecdotes are also quite ordinary on the face of it. A walk, a view, losing one's luggage, a failed love affair, a youthful transgression—these are just the episodes that an ordinary life is composed of, not at all what we are accustomed to think of as the stuff of serious philosophy. In that sense, there is nothing unique about his life: it is neither more nor less philosophical than our lives.

Yet exactly this combination of the ordinary and the extraordinary is what makes Rousseau's tales so instructive. Their extraordinariness induces us to look for something more in them than mere anecdotes; their ordinariness makes us realize that our lives, too, can be seen as something more than a series of anecdotes. So constructing philosophical allegories is not a god-given talent of philosophical genius, though geniuses make better allegories. It is a craft to be cultivated.

The philosophical content of Rousseau's allegories is usually implicit. Did he not see his anecdotes as allegories? Was life and philosophy so completely a unity to him that he did not notice any difference? Be that as it may, the important thing is that an allegory must be read, decoded, interpreted. The meaning of an allegory may be implicit, but it can always be made explicit, at least in part, through an interpretation that it seems to invite but also to resist. The allegory is thus constituted by an odd blend of the literal and the cryptic, the explicit and...


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pp. 67-78
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