Narrative Selves?

Narrative Selves? October 26, 2004

Galen Strawson, philosophy editor of TLS , challenges the current widespread idea that human lives either are or should be narrative. He distinguishes between the “Psychological Narrative” thesis, which claims that “ordinary human beings experience their lives” in a narrative fashion, and the “Ethical Narrativity Thesis,” which claims that we ought to see our lives narratively if we are going to have rich and unified lives. These two theses can combine in four ways: some affirm both (majority of contemporary narrative theorists – MacIntyre, Ricoeur, Taylor); some affirm the Psychological but deny the Ethical thesis (Sartre); some affirm the Ethical but deny the Psychological (he mentions Plutarch); and some, like Strawson, deny both. He argues that “there are deeply non-Narrative people and there are good ways to live that are deeply non-Narrative.” The Ethical Narrativity thesis is, he thinks, particularly damaging: Such views “hinder human self-understanding, close down important avenues of thought, needlessly and wrongly distree those who do not fit their model, and can be highly destructive in psychotherapeutic contexts.”

By way of contrast, Strawson suggests that human self-experience can be Diachronic or Episodic as well as Narrative. Diachronic persons figure themselves “considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future ?Esomething that has relatively long-term Diachronic continuity, something that persists over a long stretch of time, perhaps for life.” Diachronic and Narrative may overlap, but they are not identical. Episodic persons, however, do not figure themselves “considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future, although one is perfectly well arae that one has long-term continuity considered as a whole human being.”

Strawson describes himself as a “relatively Episodic” personality, and explains his relation to his past as follows: “I*” stands for “that which I now experience myself to be when I’m apprehending myself specifically as an inner mental presence or self.” In this sense, “It’s clear to me that events in my remoter past didn’t happen to me*. But what does this amount to? It certainly doesn’t mean that I don’t have any “autobiographical” memories of these past experiences. I do. And they are certainly the experiences of the human being that I am. It does not, however, follow from this that I experience them as having happened to me*, or indeed that they did happen to me*. They certainly do not present as things that happened to me*, and I think I’m strictly, literally correct in thinking that they did not happen to me*.” Even memories that are memories “from the inside” do not imply that the experience remembered happened to “me*”: “it certainly does not follow [from a from-the-inside experience] that it carries any feeling or belief that what is remembered happened to me*, to that which I now apprehend myself to be when apprehending myself specifically as a self.”

Of course, he says, “I’m aware that my past is mine so far as I’m a human being, and I fully accept that there’s a sense in which it has a special relevants to me* no, including special emotional and moral relevance. At the saime time I have no sense that I* was there in the past, and think it obvious that I* was not there, as a matter of metaphysical fact.”

Narrative constructions of the self are not only not universal; they can be positively harmful. Retelling the story of the self smooths over or enhances the past, so “the more you recall, retell, narrate yourself, the further you risk moving away from accurate self-understanding, from the truth of your being.” Narrative is not necessarily a friend to the “examined life,” but may be an enemy.

One of the most interesting comments in the essay is Strawson’s claim that Narrativist theorists of the self are talking about themselves more than anything: “those who think in this way are motivated by a sense of their own importance or significance that is absent in other human beings. Many of them, connectedly, have religious commitments. They are wrapped up in forms of religious belief that are ?Elike almost all religious belief ?Ereally all about the self.”

An intriguing challenge to narrative conceptions of the self. I’m not convinced by Strawson’s arguments, but he does raise the important question of whether we (whoever we might be) do indeed experience ourselves narratively. And perhaps the answer to that question does ultimately lie in the religious dimensions that Strawson notes in narrative theorists of the self.

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