Strawson & narrativity

Here is a thesis to consider: “One sees or lives or experiences one’s life as a narrative or story of some sort, or at least as a collection of stories.” Call it Narrativity. Many philosophers think the claim is true, and should be true (C. Taylor and A. MacIntyre, prominently). Some have thought it is false, but should be true (Plutarch). Some think is is true, but should be false (Sartre). But Strawson, from whom I’m gaining all this, thinks it is false as a general thesis and not obviously a good thing at all.

Strawson identifies himself as “episodic” which means “one does not figure oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there is the past and will be there in the future.” Indeed, I think GS holds that a new self is generated every 2-3 seconds (how does he come to that number, I wonder?). One has a sense (with John Updike) as “always just beginning.” One gets the sense of this sort of self in writers like Musil, Sterne, Stendahl, Woolf, Borges, Proust, Dickenson, and Pessoa (Portuguese writer and poet; I’ve meant to blog about him for some time; I think Rob would like him).

The problem with Narrativism, GS charges, is that it may lead you to stretch details of your life in the effort to make it a good story — it can lead to “falsification, confabulation, revisionism” (though need not necessarily do so). An episodic focuses on pretty much the here and now, without the concern to integrate actions and thoughts with some overarching theme or plot.

Some worry that an episodic won’t feel the obligation to keep promises, or will lack prudential concerns for the future. But GS answers this in two ways. First, feelings of obligation (as well as remorse, hope, dread, etc.) are feelings we experience here and now, of course; so the episodic has the same feelings as any narrativist. [Objection: really? Doesn’t the narrativist have these feelings because he believes he is identical with the person back in the past, and with the person in the future? If we remove those beliefs, might not the feelings begin to fade?] Second, GS admits that he has a very special connection with that self in the past, and with that one in the future: he’s inherited items from the past self, and will bestow some on the future self.

I think Strawson would admit, though, that an episodic wouldn’t have exactly the same concerns over past and future selves that a narrativist has. But this may not be a bad thing at all. Narrativism might lead us to be too bound up with remorse/guilt, or pride, or fastidious concern for the future. Perhaps being episodic can free us, in some degree, from attitudes toward past/future selves that do nothing but corrupt the present.

A fine quote from GS, regarding guilt:

Experiencing guilt is “a chimpanzee thing, and wholly so, an ancient adaptive emotional reflex in social animals, encrusted, now, with all the fabulous complications and dreadful superstitions of human consciousness, but otherwise unchanged, an internal prod that evolved among our remote but already highly social ancestors (215)

Prose worthy of Nietzsche.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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12 Responses to Strawson & narrativity

  1. This exchange in Solyaris locates a logistical problem for narrativity (and perhaps also a virtue in episodicism):

    SNAUT: When man is happy, the meaning of life and other eternal themes rarely interest him. These questions should be asked at the end of one’s life.

    KRIS: But we don’t know when life will end…. Not knowing that day makes us practically immortal.


  2. Kleiner says:

    At the risk of inviting all sorts of Catholic guilt jokes:
    Are you suggesting that this is an attractive view because it would allow us to feel less guilt? Isn’t the problem precisely the opposite – that we live in a forgetfulness of our guilt? (this need not be considered in a religious context, see Heidegger and Levinas). People ought to feel more, not less, guilty. There is something profoundly true in what
    the Elder Zosima says in the Brothers K:

    “Mother, heart of my heart, truly each of us is guilty before everyone and for everyone, only people do not know it, and if they knew it, the world at once become paradise.” “Lord,” I wept and thought, “can that possibly not be true? Indeed, I am perhaps the most guilty of all, and the worst of all men in the world as well!”

    Feelings of guilt might “corrupt the present” if you want no attachments and obligations, if you have a notion of freedom (as does Nz) that is utterly irresponsible and has no consideration for “the Other”.


  3. Kleiner says:

    For a very nice account of a narrative view – and one that is written with Nz and Foucault explicitly in mind – see my mentor Calvin Schrag’s book “The Self After Postmodernity”.


  4. Huenemann says:

    “each of us is guilty before everyone and for everyone” — could this possibly be true? Or is it a symptom of something having gone wrong?


  5. Kleiner says:

    I think it is true, understood in a certain way. But for our purposes here we might just call it a basic “tendency” in man to “fall away” and hence his basic “guilt”. Heidegger secularizes these terms, Levinas couches them in explicitly ethical terms, or you can choose to speak of it in terms of good ole fashioned original sin vocabulary. Bottom line – something has gone wrong, terribly wrong. We are displaced, the world is not and we are not what we know we are meant to be. This truth is, I take it, indubitable – evidenced in things as various as Auschwitz to the broken cookie jar. And I have a part in it, a part in the whole sordid story. Something like vicarious guilt that is the sister of vicarious atonement.


  6. Rob says:

    Though I’m deeply intrigued by GS’s happy dismissal of guilt, I lean a bit towards Kleiner on this issue. In fact, I don’t really think GS’s view is reflective of Nietzsche’s mature position on guilt (as opposed to his more youthful view, expressed in the passages I cite here); that is, pre- or non-moral guilt/debt (as adumbrated in GM 2), which I take Nietzsche to believe to be an ineradicable component of human nature.

    In fact, I think the difference between GS and Nietzsche is captured in GS’s 1994 LRB review of William Ian Miller’s fine book “Humiliation” — which, like his more recent “Eye for an Eye”, tallies with the speculative anthropological and historical material in GM 2 on the basis of which I believe Nietzsche advanced from his youthful views on guilt.

    Another connection here is Gabriele Taylor’s great little book (so hard to find at one point that I photocopied it in its entirety) “Guilt, Shame Pride” (Oxford, 1985) on which Williams’ generously drew on his moral psychological material in “Shame and Necessity,” which Miller cites in “Humiliation”, and which Reginster invokes in his keynote address devoted to GM 2 at the Mind and Nature conference… whoah, library’s about to close; must needs split.


  7. Rob says:

    Nice to see that someone else also thinks Rosati gives short shrift to Strawson’s critique:


  8. Kleiner says:

    A related point came up on ‘Newshour’ on PBS yesterday which I thought was interesting. David Brooks was discussing the recent security failure with the ‘fruit of the boom’ bomber. I am putting a lot of words into Brooks’ mouth here, but I think I am being fair to his main point:

    The inherent problem with bureaucracies is that they distill each moment into an episode that remains unconnected from a larger narrative. But persons are narratives, and the only way for our intelligence to work is if we put these episodes together into a narrative story about those people in question. The trouble is that narratives are hard to put into a memo and they are hard to share across bureaucracies. Much easier to share unrelated episodes, which can be easily distilled into some bullet points in a memo.

    What we need is to reduce the bureaucracy, and rely more on expert instinct. It is individual experts in the field who can piece together these narratives and best identify who the threats are. What is remarkable about the underwear bomber is that the narrative, in hindsight, was so obvious. But when broken up into episodes, nothing added up. This is not surprising, imagine taking a novel and breaking it up into a series of memo sized episodes. But all those in a bin and share them, but they don’t mean anything. They only mean something when they are put together in the right way.


  9. Mike says:

    “What we need is to reduce the bureaucracy, and rely more on expert instinct. It is individual experts in the field who can piece together these narratives and best identify who the threats are.”

    I’m happy to find a reasonable consensus on the “Security Theater” problem.

    I also think the whole episodic vs narrative thing is tied up with memory (forgetfulness). We don’t usually remember clearly and accurately and so forcing the narrative may lead to “revisionism” as Strawson worries. Why not just allow ‘episodism’ to join the other stories we tell ourselves about our selves? (i.e. “can’t we all just get along?”)


  10. vince says:

    Just a thought.

    I tend to distill a bit too much then map ideas inappropriately. I am about to do that again:

    GS’s episodic view strikes me as a materialistic occasionalism.

    In the extreme, it does seem to release one from ethical behavior. Does GS lose Nz’s ‘eternal return’ to a 2-second experience of brain chemistry results?


  11. Rob says:

    I need to thank you, Charlie, for recalling Pessoa to my attention. Several years ago, while meandering about in a bookstore, The Book of Disquiet magnetized my attention, but being in a rush never managed to return to it. Shards of doleful self-recognition coolly exploding from each page.

    At around the 26 minute mark of this excellent CBC podcast on narrativity, consciousness and the novel, Strawson discusses issues related to “Against Narrativity” and “Episodic Ethics”:

    I really hope he gets around to that book “Life in Time”…


  12. Emerson Isaac says:

    A narrative coalesces all of the uncertainty, wins and losses of life, into something that is beautiful. Regardless of it ending happily or not, it usually somehow redeems the main characters, whether it is through justice being met, everything returning to normal, or the sublime sorrow of tragedy. It crystallizes all of the flux of life into archetypes that satisfy this desire for things to be resolved in some way (the story might have a meta-resolution of “everything is ambiguous and uncertain, so figure it out yourself; that is life”), no matter how suspenseful or hopeless they might have been in the moment. It helps people’s struggles to seem less pointless if they can sense the echoes of a redeemed struggle in what they are doing.

    However, an important thing to keep in mind is that most narratives are a fantasy and do not provide good expectations for how life will unfold. Any real person who seems to have a neat and picturesque narrative for their life probably has flatteringly represented it. In hindsight, it becomes easier to cherry-pick the important plot points, and if you’re in the thick of things, it’s all the more hopeless if other people’s lives seem to have such clean narratives. In a more fluid sense of narratives being used in real life, they are (symbolically) like genii or immortal spirits that visit us and leave. Rigidly holding one’s life up to a set of narratives will likely either result in some self-aggrandizing fabrication or in disappointment. If, in my day-to-day life, I act out a drama in which I am the protagonist, I am not likely to get the other characters to cooperate, and I might have expectations of others’ behavior that they do not know about and have no self-interested reason to participate in. If I believe I am a misunderstood genius who needs a manic pixie dream girl to complete my narrative, whoever gets type-casted in that role will probably not appreciate it. As with many sources of redemption and emotional meaning in human life, they bring a lot of enjoyment until they reach situations that don’t fit the structure expected, resulting in discomfort, disenchantment, and cognitive dissonance. I think that narrativity is a great source of hope and redemption to people, but it should be an eternal good that is summoned ephemerally and at the mercy of real life, rather than the other way around. Most sequences of events in life can’t be forced to be tragic, heroic, beautiful, or poignantly absurd, but it might be enough for them to feel that way for a moment. (With a final sentence like that, I think should write for School of Life.)


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