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  • The Self in Moral Space: Life Narrative and the Good
  • Justine McGill (bio)
David Parker. The Self in Moral Space: Life Narrative and the Good. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2007. 208 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8014-4561-3, $35.00.

The Self in Moral Space is a response to recent work in the ethics of life writing. However,, it is not simply a contribution to this emergent field. Rather, it attempts a much more ambitious task: that of providing a theoretical justification and basis for studying life writing through the lens of the ethical.

In pursuing this project, Parker draws heavily on the work of philosopher Charles Taylor, who claims that a human life is not well understood if it is analyzed from a purely external perspective—in terms of sociological explanation, for instance. For Taylor, the first-person perspective, which reveals what is of moral or spiritual significance in shaping a life, is essential for understanding what it is to be a “self.” This implies that philosophers who wish to understand the self would do well to draw upon life writing and the wealth of detail it offers in providing concrete examples of how ethical values shape self-development and self-understanding. Conversely, it also suggests that scholars of life writing have a vital role to play in contributing to the historical, cultural, and philosophical understanding of the Western self. However, they will fulfill this role only if they read their textual sources with an eye for what Bernard Williams calls the “thick ethical concepts” that make up “languages of the good”: the languages by which individuals orient themselves in “moral space.”

The value Parker sees in this role for the life writing critic leads him into polemical combat with those who favor “thin” theoretical languages, which encourage the analysis of life writing in terms of discursive systems or power relations. Such readings are driven by what he dubs “post-Saussurian” or “neo-Nietzschean” theories in which the self is regarded as a fiction, or something to be overcome (19). Very few actual examples of such allegedly misguided readings are given in Parker’s book, however. Rather than engaging in any sustained or substantial attack on his rhetorical opponent, he chooses instead to fortify his own position with a series of engaging examples of the mode of philosophical literary criticism he advocates, including a few provocative forays into what might be considered enemy territory. [End Page 348]

What then are the positive principles that define ethical criticism of life writing? For Parker, as for Iris Murdoch, ethics is essentially a matter of paying a certain kind of attention. He plausibly argues that life writing is peculiarly apt to focus our ethical attention, not so much on what it is right to do, as on what it is good to be. While works of moral philosophy and jurisprudence may reveal the principles underlying what is considered right (or wrong) at any particular period in history, Parker’s work suggests that it is to life writing that we should turn if we wish to trace historical shifts in attitudes toward the more nuanced, ambiguous question of what it is good to be.

Such discoveries are of personal as well as historical import. When we read an autobiography, or a biography, or an auto/biography—the last category referring to a contemporary trend in life writing which involves telling the author’s story by focusing on that of a significant other, usually a parent—our interest is sustained not simply by the writer’s story, but by a sense that our own “interlocutive self” (a notion Parker borrows from Taylor) is ethically engaged. In writing or reading such texts, Parker suggests, we are inevitably involved in discerning and assessing the goods, or values, that orient a self (or selves) in moral space, a process that can bring about a transformative effect on our own ethical perspective. This is true whether the biographical story is explicitly organized by reference to a revered set of moral values, as in the case of the seventeenth-century Confucian Wang Shih-min’s “Self Account,” or whether it is self-consciously anti-moral or anti-humanist...


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pp. 348-350
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