Authorship and Self-Identity

Ordinarily, we interchange the expressions “writer” and “author”. For example, we advertize events at which an “author” will appear to sign copies of a new book. We introduce the writer behind the table covered with books as the “author”. I am bucking conventional wisdom by claiming that it is impossible to meet the author of a book, because the author is not a person but exists solely in the book as the writer has written it.

This is counter intuitive, so let us examine the differences. Writers are persons who have lives. They are born, grow up, write books, and then they die. Writers can change their minds. Authors cannot. Writers write. Authors come into being only to the extent that they are given an identity in the written work. The author comes to a complete self-identity with the last words. Any changes to the text must come from a writer.

Take the early and the late Wittgenstein as an example from philosophy. We have a choice of authors here. The author of the early “Tractatus” and the late “Philosophical Investigations” are very different, though Wittgenstein, the writer, wrote them at different times of his life. Like bugs caught in aspic, the authors of the early and late works look at us unblinking. Every time we open the “Tractatus”, we see an author who confidently comes to the end of philosophy, while the author of the “Investigations” is more circumspect.

Authors often show a confidence that writers do not feel. Just a glance at original drafts of canonical works reveals the rewriting and crossing out that went into the production of the final text. However, when the book goes off to the printer, the author in the text has been fixed by the writer in the stance of addressing its target audience. For the distinction between the author and the writer also exists between the “audience- to-which- the- writing- addresses- itself” and the actual reader who happens to pick up the book and look through it.

A writer can never be as self-identical as the author in a text. This is because the author is not free to reconsider the views that it puts forth in the book. This is one of Plato’s main complaints about writing; namely, that the author cannot be cross-questioned. Books and their authors keep saying the same words over and over, like the sequence of notes in a symphony. The author’s identity is fixed in a way that the writer’s identity is fixed only in death.

This realization changes how one looks at the writings of philosophers, particularly professional philosophers. In an academic world of “publish or perish,” there is, understandably, considerable motivation to get into print, to get a ‘name’ for oneself in one or another sub-specialty of philosophy. It is understandable that graduate students and non-tenured faculty, as living writers, have considerable anxiety and hope riding on their writings. Compare these writers with the ‘authors’ in the texts they manage to publish.

Writers who can break into the published world of philosophy have played the game impressively. However, usually, none of the anxiety and self-doubt of the writer is in evidence. The author confidently takes on all comers, has read all the relevant papers, has a consistent argument that fits into the already established debate. This is not an easy thing to do, and to carry it off with aplomb is precisely not to reveal what is at stake for the writer. One must make it look easy. Of course, nothing is at stake for the ‘author,’ for the author exists only in the text.

The self-identity of an author is complete. The same can be said for the ‘readers-in-the-text’ to whom the text is eternally addressed. All the time it takes to read a book comes from the life of an incompletely self-identical and mortal human being. Philosophical writing, for the most part, seeks to persuade a persuadable audience to follow an argument and agree with its conclusions. The function of the author is, first, to convince a selected audience of the truth of the arguments presented; and, second, to show the incoherence or unlikelihood of countervailing arguments from other authors.

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