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.