Against narrativity

Photo by Flickr user happysweetmama. Click for source‘We understand ourselves through stories’ is a common, even fashionable, sentiment. Not everybody agrees. Philosopher Galen Strawson‘s 2004 article “Against Narrativity” is a both-barrels attack on this idea. Strawson identifies two theories which he wishes to emphatically reject. The psychological Narrativity thesis is the idea that it is unavoidable human nature to experience their lives as a story. The ethical Narrativity thesis is the idea that conceiving of one’s life as narrative is a good thing, essential to a moral life and true personhood.

It’s just not true that there is only one good way for human beings to experience their being in time. There are deeply non-Narrative people and there are good ways to live that are deeply non-Narrative. I think the [Narrativity theses] hinder human self-understanding, close down important avenues of thought, impoverish our grasp of ethical possibilities, needlessly and wrongly distress those who do not fit their model, and are potentially destructive in psychotherapeutic contexts.

Strawson goes on to identify two personality types, which he calls the diachronic type, the kind of person disposed to conceive of themselves connected to both their past and future selves, and the episodic type, which is the kind of person who does not tend to conceive of their momentary self as part of a chain of selves stretching into the past and future. Obviously the diachronic type, in Strawson’s scheme, will be disposed to narrativity, while the episodic won’t. Strawson suspects that

those who are drawn to write on the subject of ‘narrativity’ tend to have strongly Diachronic and Narrative outlooks or personalities, and generalize from their own case with that special, fabulously misplaced confidence that people feel when, considering elements of their own experience that are existentially fundamental for them, they take it that they must also be fundamental for everyone else.

Although Strawson makes reference to a wide range of western philosophy and literature, it is notable that he doesn’t allude to eastern philosophies such as Zen Buddhism in support of his argument. There is a strong anti-representational sentiment in Zen philosophy, which ties in with the claim that Enlightenment is the experience of reality without the mediation of abstract concepts (and thus also, presumably, unmediated by narratives also).

Link to Strawson’s article, “Against Narrativity
Previously on Mindhacks.com The story of our lives

6 Comments

  1. Posted June 24, 2010 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    That’s fascinating. I’m of the “life is
    a story” ilk. I’ve read and assumed
    that was human nature. But of course it
    makes sense that there are many diff’t
    natures. I think one of my children is
    most likely more an episodic type.

  2. Ignacio Prado
    Posted June 25, 2010 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    I think the last line is supposed to read “__without__ the mediation of abstract concepts.”

  3. Posted June 25, 2010 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Correct! Corrected! Thanks!

  4. Sebastian Franck
    Posted July 9, 2010 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    My own experience denies your last equivalence between the narrative mode and abstract concepts. My personal mode is that I tend to order my life and my self in abstract terms as opposed to concrete stories. It is not that I “live in the now”. It is more that I structure things in hierarchical categories rather than more or less linear stories. I can’t seem to remember events from my life in detail like other people, but I can categorize and tell you what I’ve learned and how I apply the lessons to new events.

  5. cary bertoncini
    Posted July 28, 2010 at 4:29 am | Permalink

    I think Strawson’s argument against narrativity presumes–incorrectly in my opinion–a narrow and specific definition of narrative as linear. I think there is plenty of narrative possibility for nonlinear or episodic representation. Hypertext literature is one excellent example, but even literature going back to the 1960s provides numerous examples, i.e. Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five,” Richard Brautigan’s “Trout Fishing in America,” or William Burrough’s “Naked Lunch.”

  6. Geoffrey Bevan
    Posted January 11, 2011 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    Only the moving part of the mind (manas in Hindu philosophy) can construct a narrative. Neither the past nor the future is here now. The still part of the mind – Buddhi – has no idea what a narrative is. Our essential nature is surely only available to our awareness in the present. ‘Narrative’, by definition, is a defence against the present (the belief that somehow the past or the future contains the truth about our identity). The question as I see it, is, what is it that we fear from the present? – where, surely, and only, awareness of our true nature resides.


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