‘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‚Äôs 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 ‚Äònarrativity‚Äô 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).