Against Narrativity: A Reply

The purpose of this paper is to argue against the widely held position among narrative theorists that not only do people view their lives as a kind of narrative (the descriptive thesis), but that it is desirable that we do so (the ethical thesis). Strawson believes that philosophers are wrong to believe that both of theses theses are correct, so he attempts to outline an alternative account.

Key Terminology

Psychological narrativity thesis: people actually experience their lives as a narrative as a part of human nature.

Ethical narrativity thesis: people ought to experience their lives as a narrative.

Diachronic thesis [D]: a person is diachronic if they see their self as existing in the past and as existing (or having the potential to exist) in the future. Not all people who are diachronic will conceive of themselves using a narrative, however.

Episodic thesis [-D]: a person is episodic if they do not identify their present self with their self in the distant past or distant future. They recognize that they are the same body, but they reject that they are the same self. As with the diachronic self, there is no direct correlation between the episodic self and the absence of a narrative (even if they are less likely to conceive of their life as a narrative).

Form-finding thesis [F]: this is roughly what Strawson refers to when he says that a person conceives of her life as having a narrative. This is the tendency to seek coherence-creating unity to the events in our lives.

Story-telling thesis [S]: Strawson calls the story telling tendency a ‘species of form-finding’. From-finding is entailed by story-telling, and Strawson describes it as being equivalent to the way a journalist or an historian write about events.

Revision thesis [R]: the revision thesis states that people have a tendency to modify or reorganize the way in which we think about our lives according to the requirements of coherence. Much of the revision that takes place is not out of a conscious effort to make sense of the world, but comes about through honest misremembering.

Strawson’s Position

Strawson describes his position as [-D -F -S -R] meaning that he rejects four of the theses above, only accepting the episodic thesis (which is the polar opposite of the diachronic thesis). In contrast, he believes that Dennett takes the exact opposite view [+D +F +S +R]. From what I can tell, Strawson believes that philosophers have adopted positions like Dennett’s because the people most likely to be drawn to narrative theory tend to be strongly diachronic and to conceive their lives as following a narrative (whether [+F +S] or merely [+F -S]). But, to put it simply, people like Strawson do not see their lives as following a coherent narrative structure of any kind, and yet they seem to get along just fine. He rejects both the psychological and ethic thesis by claiming that neither does he live his life as a narrative, nor is this way of life bad for him.

Criticism

While I do not claim to fully understand what Strawson actually means by what it means to live a life as an episodic life, and I want to leave open the possibility that such a way of life is actually possible, I want to highlight two points. The first relates to Strawson’s position that someone living an episodic life is not necessarily unable to live a narrative life. He concedes that it is possible for an episodic person to construct a coherent narrative about a disjointed person, whether or not they in fact do so.

The second point is that what Strawson means by ‘narrative’ seems to be a kind of red-herring. Let us look back at the exact wording used by Strawson to describe a narrative view of the self (focusing here on the psychological thesis), “[t]he psychological Narrativity thesis is a straightforwardly empirical, descriptive thesis about the way ordinary human beings actually experience their lives.” (428, emphasis added). The key point here is that he presents the thesis as the way in which we experience our lives as opposed to some other way of describing narrativity. At one point he says, by way of criticizing Taylor’s position, that some think that we need a coherent narrative to make a pot of coffee. To the extent that philosophers generally hold positions like Taylor’s, and I’m sure that some do, we need to examine whether proving implausibility of such a view is sufficient to get Strawson his (somewhat) stronger point that it is possible to live a life without a narrative whatsoever.

Without having read Taylor’s argument, I would have to agree with Strawson that his position looks implausible. And if we thought that to have a narrative we must also view our lives as a narrative, Strawson would have his argument. People do not tend to view making a pot of coffee as part of a narrative (except, perhaps, for graduate students). But just because we do not view our actions as part of a narrative, does not mean that they do not form a part of a narrative. We take our cues from our society and from our culture, these cues limit our options based on our personal background and history, and they impose a structure on use even when we do not recognize that structure.

A modified version of the narrativity thesis would go as follows: “[t]he psychological Narrativity thesis is a straightforwardly empirical, descriptive thesis about the way ordinary human beings live their lives.” The difference here is that living a life as a narrative, instead of experiencing a life as a narrative, is a life which is constrained by cultural narratives, and is therefore possible to express in terms of a narrative, even though most people never or seldom go through the process of making their narrative explicit. People who live their life as a narrative can do so even though they don’t experience their life in this way. Returning to my first point, to the extent that episodics are influenced by the society around them, as Strawson seems to imply, they will always live their life as a narrative even when they do not see their life as a narrative.