Confessions: The Philosophy of Transparency

By | January 17, 2013

By Thomas Docherty

This great post appeared on our Bloomsbury Philosophy blog last week and we thought you may all be interested as well. In it, we look at how Docherty traces the history of confessional writing in order to develop his philosophy of transparency and argue that transparency as the norm is not conducive to democracy. Enjoy!


In a world where we demand
transparency of institutions, from courts of law to tabloid newspapers, where
we consume celebrity gossip full of ‘confessions’ and push for  resignation of
public figures as confession of personal misdemeanours, Docherty’s Confessions: The Philosophy of Transparency contributes
a much-needed  philosophical and literary analysis of our increasingly ‘confessional culture’. Has our  fixation by the almost everyday nature of
confessional discourse banalized confession  such that it loses its former legal
and religious significance? Is a culture of transparency good for democracy?

Tracing the history of
confessional writing, Docherty explores confession as opposed to merely
statement, through the content and context of the confession and in the
confessing subject’s relation to others. Via this literary critique, we see in
all the writing “a certain philosophical foundation or substratum – the
conditions under which it is possible to assert a confessional mode.”
(Introduction) From these roots and contributions to contemporary confessional
discourse, Docherty develops a philosophy of confession that is pertinent for
contemporary political culture: a culture based on transparency.

“If the book has a purpose beyond the matters of literary critique, it is as a
contribution to our possibilities for living together in democratic
organisation.” (Preface)

Contrary to the tendency to regard transparency as a general social and ethical
good, Docherty argues that transparency as the norm is not conducive to
democracy. This is because the culture of confession with which it
goes hand-in-hand has significant consequences for the relation of
citizens to the public sphere and to intimate human relatedness. What does this

Docherty argues that democracy depends on modes of communication and modes of
human relatedness – intimacies and public actions – that demarcate public and
private spheres; a demarcation upon which social order is based. Contemporary
confessional culture, grounded in demand for transparency, alters these modes
and thus disturbs the dimensions of and relations between the public and the
private. This in turn endangers the social order. At the heart of this concern
is that transparency has engendered a society in which autonomy (the very
authority of the subject that says “I confess”) is grounded in guilt and

Docherty ultimately intends to
expose flaws within the formation of modern cultural life. A bold intention; a
highly relevant and widely informed, inter-disciplinary result.

Professor of English at Warwick University. He has published on most areas of
English and comparative literature from the renaissance to the present day. He
specializes in the philosophy of literary criticism, in critical theory, and in
cultural history in relation primarily to European philosophy and literatures.

The Philosophy of Transparency
combines literary criticism of modern literature with political
philosophy and cultural studies. It is part of Warwick Interdisciplinary
Studies in the Humanities, or The WISH

May 2012 • 9781849666596 • 224
pages • £50.00 or £45.00 online at

Praise for Confessions:

“[A] learned, sophisticated and powerful counterblast to a culture whose demand
for immediate transparency is inseparable from a range of disabling fetishes,
from management and security to space and speed, `truth and reconciliation'
and, above all, identity and identity-politics. Everyone should read it.” – Andrew Gibson, Research Professor of Modern
Literature and Theory, Royal Holloway, University of London, UK

“I have to confess to liking this
book a lot. It is a literary, theoretical and autobiographical tour de force.
Docherty's acute critical sense ranges across the philosophical and cultural
landscape to read Paul de Man, Giorgio Agamben, Hannah Arendt and the Lisbon
Lions. A few more books like this and the humanities might be worth fighting
for after all.” – Martin
McQuillan, Kingston University, UK

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