Against Narrativity

In a fascinating essay, ‘Art and the Moral Realm’, Noël Carroll argues that art is a valuable component of our moral reflection, and he argues that in particular narrative works of art shape our moral reflection in a unique and profound sense. This is so primarily because we have to see or configure our lives as narrative in order for them to have any significance:

‘…to answer the question of whether our life is worthy, we need a holistic sense of it, and that holistic sense is best captured by narrative – an incomparable device for organizing or colligating or collecting the diversity of our experiences into a unity. To see our lives as significant requires at least an ability to configure them as meaningful stories. But whence do we learn the skill of rendering or configuring our lives as meaningful narrative?’ (‘Art and the Moral Realm’, in ‘The Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics’, p. 133)

The answer to this question Carroll finds in the exposure to other narratives, bildungroman, where we learn how to best how to configure our lives into a meaningful unity:

‘…mindful exposure to sophisticated life narratives communicates to us the knack of how to begin to tell our own life stories, if only to ourselves, and, in that way, they augment our capacity to find holistic significance in what otherwise  may feel like the rush of one god-damned, desultory thing after another.’ (p. 134)

The main point here is that Carroll sees that meaning can be had only if we see our lives as a narrative unity. Thus, as far as the moral realm is concerned, narrative unity has a logical priority over ethics, because without narrative unity, there can be no ethical unity or formation. Carroll’s logic looks something like this:

Narrative —-> meaning —-> ethics

The obvious implied negative here is that if one doesn’t configure their life into a narrative unity, one is living at the very least an ethically defective life.

Galen Strawson disputes all this. In two essays, one popular and one technical, Strawson argues that:

‘…it’s false – false that everyone stories themselves, and false that it’s always a good thing. These are not universal human truths – even when we confine our attention to human beings who count as psychologically normal, as I will here. They’re not universal human truths even if they’re true of some people, or even many, or most. The narrativists are, at best, generalising from their own case, in an all-too-human way. At best: I doubt that what they say is an accurate description even of themselves.’ (from his popular essay. The following references will all come from the technical essay)

Strawson identifies two claims involving narrative, one descriptive and one ethical. The former he identifies as a description of the nature and structure of human experience, and the second is a ethical and normative claim, that we ought to live our lives narrative-ly.  So the former is, then an empirical, psychological thesis and the latter a normative ethical thesis. If we apply this to Carroll’s logic above, we can see that if the psychological thesis is false, then the ethical thesis folds.

Strawson argues more against the reductive nature of narrativity – that is, the idea that only as a narrative can life be lived meaningfully. He draws a distinction between two kinds of experience or structures of experience: diachronic and episodic:

‘The basic form of Diachronic self-experience is that [D] one naturally figures oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in
the (further) future
– something that has relatively long-term diachronic continuity, something that persists over a long stretch of time, perhaps for life. I take it that many people are naturally Diachronic, and that many who are Diachronic are also Narrative in their outlook on

If one is Episodic, by contrast,

[E] one does not figure oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future.

One has little or no sense that the self that one is was there in the(further) past and will be there in the future, although one is perfectly well aware that one has long-term continuity considered as a whole human being. Episodics are likely to have no particular
tendency to see their life in Narrative terms.’

A second key move is made by Strawson in his unpacking of the term ‘self’ or ‘myself’ or ‘I’ in terms of the Episodic life:

‘I will use ‘I*’ to represent: that which I now experience myself to be when I’m apprehending myself specifically as an inner mental presence or self. ‘I*’ comes with a large family of cognate forms – ‘me*’, ‘my*’, ‘you*’ ‘oneself *’, ‘themselves*’, and so on. The metaphysical presumption built into these terms is that they succeed in making genuine reference to an inner mental something that is reasonably called a ‘self’. But it doesn’t matter whether or not the presumption is correct.’

Strawson concludes events in his remote past didn’t happen to Strawson’s self* but to Strawson as a human being as a whole, as a biological and physical entity with a history (I find this specific part of his thesis puzzling).

Strawson then moves to the Narrative life, drawing on Charles Taylor, Daniel Dennett and Alasdair MacIntyre (among others). MacIntyre Strawson sees as arguing that in order to live the good life as a narrative quest, which mirrors closely Carroll’s thesis above. This cashes out roughly to the seeking of the good life requiring a narrative outlook on life – in other words, no good life without a narrative life.  Strawson, of course, does not accept this:

‘Is any of this true? I don’t think so. It seems to me that MacIntyre, Taylor and all other supporters of the ethical Narrativity thesis are really just talking about themselves. It may be that what they are saying is true for them, both psychologically and ethically. This may be the best ethical project that people like themselves can hope to engage in. But even if it is true for them it is not true for other types of ethical personality, and many are likely
to be thrown right off their own truth by being led to believe that Narrativity is necessary for a good life. My own conviction is that the best lives almost never involve this kind of self-telling, and that we have here yet another deep divider of the human race.’

Strawson’s overall position thus far is this: the ethical narrativity thesis is false, and the psychological thesis is false in any non-trivial sense. He then links the narrative ‘attitude’ to the idea of construction – that is, the narrative attitude consists in more then just conceptualizing one’s life as a sequence of events structured in a narrative patter. The narrative attitude consists in a construal of one’s life as a narrative, grounded in what Strawson calls ‘form-finding’ (F), which is the tendency to seek and construct patterns in one’s life (Strawson holds that F doesn’t entail narrativity – one can engage in F without being psychologically narrative). Under the heading of F Strawson includes ‘storytelling’, which is where He finds, to my mind, the most serious criticism of the narrative thesis (he doesn’t think its as serious as I do, I should note), the revision thesis:

‘According to the revision thesis Narrativity always carries with it some sort of tendency to revision, where revision essentially involves more merely than changing one’s view of the facts of one’s life.’

Now, I think that, coupled with some other considerations, the revision thesis is damning for the ethical narrative thesis. However, the overall question here remains this: is narrative the only way in which people can live non-ethically deficient lives? The answer appears to be ‘no’. Empirically, it is quite easy to imagine people (and Strawson draws from Shaftesbury and Montainge here) who have no concept of their life as a narrative – which is enough to make us doubt if not reject the empirical, psychological narrative thesis. Strawson is worth quoting at length here:

‘The aspiration to explicit Narrative self-articulation is natural for some – for some, perhaps, it may even be helpful – but in others it is highly unnatural and ruinous. My guess is that it almost always does more harm than good – that the Narrative tendency to look for story or narrative coherence in one’s life is, in general, a gross hindrance to self-understanding: to a just, general, practically real sense, implicit or explicit, of one’s nature. It’s well known that telling and retelling one’s past leads to changes, smoothings, enhancements, shifts away from the facts, and recent research has shown that this is not just a human psychological foible. It turns out to be an inevitable consequence of the mechanics of the neurophysiological process of laying down memories that every studied conscious recall of past events brings an alteration.46 The implication is plain: the more you recall, retell, narrate yourself, the further you risk moving away from accurate self-understanding, from the truth of your being. Some are constantly telling their daily experiences to others in a storying way and with great gusto. They are drifting ever further off the truth. Others never do this, and when they are obliged to convey facts about their lives they do it clumsily and uncomfortably and in a way that is somehow essentially narrative-resistant.

Certainly Narrativity is not a necessary part of the ‘examined life’ (nor is Diachronicity), and it is in any case most unclear that the examined life, thought by Socrates to be essential to human existence, is always a good thing. People can develop and deepen in valuable ways without any sort of explicit, specifically Narrative reflection, just as musicians can improve by practice sessions without recalling those sessions. The business of living well is, for many, a completely non-Narrative project. Granted that certain sorts of self-understanding are necessary for a good human life, they need involve nothing more than form-finding, which can exist in the absence of Narrativity; and they may be osmotic, systemic, not staged in consciousness.’

We have every reason, then, to doubt (contra Caroll above) that to live a good and meaningful and ethical life requires one to live their life as a narrative. In fact, those non-narrativists may just be in a place to live a more ethical life, given the considerations above. I’ll quote Strawson in conclusion (and at this point, with all my quoting, you hardly even need to go read his essays, but you should, of course):

‘There is one sense in which Episodics are by definition more located in the present than Diachronics, so far as their self-experience is concerned, but it does not follow, and is not true, that Diachronics are less present in the present moment than Episodics, any more than it follows, or is true, that in the Episodic life the present is somehow less informed by or responsible to the past than it is in the Diachronic life. What is true is that the informing and the responsiveness have different characteristics and different experiential consequences in the two cases. Faced with sceptical Diachronics, who insist that Episodics are (essentially) dysfunctional in the way they relate to their own past, Episodics will reply that the past can be present or alive in the present without being present or alive as the past. The past can be alive – arguably more genuinely alive – in the present simply in so far as it has helped to shape the way one is in the present, just as musicians’ playing can incorporate and body forth their past practice without being mediated by any explicit memory of it.’

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