In an article published last year, I argued that biography offered, or should offer if done properly, a paradigm example of Wittgenstein’s notion of ‘the understanding that consists in seeing connections’ (Philosophical Investigations, Part I, paragraph 122), a type of understanding that Wittgenstein identified as his goal in philosophy and which, crucially, is non-theoretical. Biography, I maintained, is a perfect exemplar of this kind of understanding and, as such, it is fundamentally mistaken, either to search for a theory of biography or to read or write biography as if it were in any way a theoretical enterprise. I developed this view through a four-pronged assault: 1. a survey of the scholarly, but non-academic literature on biography from Dr Johnson to the early twentieth century, seeking to identify the forces that pulled it in the direction of theory; 2. an examination of the work of those biographers who have approached their task in a consciously theoretical manner; 3. a critical engagement with the recent theoretical literature about biography; and 4. an application to biography of Wittgenstein’s non-theoretical notion of philosophical understanding.
I want in this present essay to respond to a difficulty in my argument that centres on the notion of ‘theory’ as that notion is variously understood by (a) Wittgenstein, (b) some theorists and (c) the general public . . .