Freedom, Personhood, and Narrative: Part I
Narratives and Characterization
Introduction and Plan:
Hey everyone! Long time no see—apologies for the long delay between posts, but I’m on the job market this year while trying to finish my dissertation. And although that doesn’t take up every waking moment of my life, it takes up enough of it to where the thought of writing something extra seems like a substantial challenge. In any case, I wanted to put some thoughts down on paper about something related to my dissertation for which I would like to have a more worked-up answer. Specifically, I want to talk about the importance of narrative in a person’s life.
Because I don’t know when I’ll get the time to write on this again in the next couple of weeks, I’ve decided to split this whole thing into four separate posts. The first part (this part) will be mostly about the role that narrative plays in my dissertation project. I won’t talk about the specifics of the project itself—that is, I won’t talk about the specifics of the account of intimacy that rests on my views on narrative—but it should give you some understanding of why I’m focusing on this thing in particular.
In Part II, I’ll talk about a paper by Galen Strawson called “Against Narrativity” which, at least on the face of it, seems to present a challenge to the importance I place on narrativity. In short, Strawson claims that he doesn’t live with anything like a narrative, that there are probably many people similar to him in that respect, and, most importantly, that thinking of one’s life in a narrative is not necessary for a good life (and that, in fact, non-narrative living might be better). I want to argue that although he might be right about the first two points, he’s not right about the third. In any case, Part II will mostly be concerned with giving as clear an exposition of Strawson’s argument as possible in preparation for what I want to say.1
Part III (forthcoming) will switch gears and look at a classic piece on free will by Harry Frankfurt called “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person.” There, Frankfurt argues for two claims: first, he argues that the concept of a person is intimately connected to the structure of our will. What makes me a person and my dog, Ted, not a person is the fact that although both Ted and I desire certain things, only I have (second-order) desires about which (first-order) desire of mine should be effective and Ted does not. Both he and I may desire to eat the unattended pizza slice on the counter, and, in fact, both of us may be moved to eat it because of our desire to do so, but only I am capable of desiring not to desire to eat it. Thus, the concept of personhood corresponds to the presence of such a two-tiered psychology. The second claim Frankfurt makes is that we have free will just in case such psychology is actually structured in a particular way: namely, one’s will is free just in case their second-order volitions are in line with an effective first-order desire. Or, to put in other words, my will is free just in case I want to want to eat the unattended pizza and my desire to eat it is effective in getting me to do so. Like Part II, this part will be mostly exposition and engaging with that essay.
Finally, in Part IV I’ll bring together the previous three parts together to shed some light on the relation between freedom, personhood, and narratives. As I’m envisioning it now, the argument goes something like this: regardless of whether Frankfurt is right about his psychological account of freedom of the will, there’s something correct about what he says. In particular, there is something important about the second order volitions and the very notion of identifying with a desire that is paramount to how we think of personhood and freedom. Nevertheless, as Frankfurt presents things, second-order volitions seem mysterious and the appeal to them seems to be ad hoc (indeed, this is why Gary Watson’s reply to Frankfurt is so effective). However, this need not be the case, and I think the role of narrative as I construe it can fit in quite nicely to explain why we have certain second-order volitions and why they play such an important role. In short, I’ll suggest that second-order volitions simply come along with having narratives of the kind I describe, and, in turn, that the source of those narratives is a deeply interpersonal matter. In turn, this should give us some ammunition against Strawson: to lack a narrative is to lack (non-arbitrary) second-order volitions, and, depending on one’s views about how successful Frankfurt is, to lack free will and personhood.
If successful, this last argument won’t be a knock-down one since as I mentioned, it is by no means a philosophical dogma that Frankfurt is either right about his idea of personhood or free will. I’m okay with that since it still lets me connect some ideas together and, at the end of the day I’m more interested in that than in anything else.
In any case, that’s the plan! Those who are already familiar with the Strawson and Frankfurt pieces should feel free to jump straight ahead to Part IV (whenever that comes out) after reading this one. Others who are not familiar or who need a reminder should read all the parts if they’re so inclined, though, at least as I’m envisioning it, whether one reads Parts II and III in order won’t make a difference.
On with the show!
Part I: Narratives and Characterization
My dissertation aims at providing a philosophical account of intimacy according to which a particular interaction is intimate just in case it involves one or both parties sharing the same kind of authority with the other over the narrative(s) that they use to structure and make sense of their lives.2 In turn, I think of the narrative(s) that people use as the explicit or implicit answers people offer when they ask themselves the question “who am I?”
This question can be posed in one of two ways: in the first way, it is a question about the persistence of personal identity across time and is concerned with, for example, whether one is the same person that one was yesterday, and whether one will be the same person tomorrow that they are today. When I say that having a narrative involves asking the question “who am I?” I don’t mean it in this sense.
The second way of posing the question is not concerned with establishing conditions of persistence over time, but rather with one’s character.3 To answer the question “who am I?” in this sense is to refer to a particular set of social relations and roles that one identifies with. By identifying with these relations or roles, one also specifies the standards by which they are held to, or which they aspire to meet. Thus, in answering the question by saying “I am an aspiring philosopher” I say that I think of myself as properly held to the standard of what a philosopher does, and that I can consequently be evaluated according to how well I meet these standards. At different times I can find myself satisfying these standards (e.g. “He does all his coursework and makes relevant points in class—yes, he really is an aspiring philosopher.”) or failing to meet them (e.g. “Well, he claims he’s an aspiring philosopher, but his work ethic and lack of publications suggests otherwise.”). It is in this way of answering the question that I refer to in the context of narrative.
Of course, not every answer to the question “who am I?” is an answer to the question in the sense that I’m concerned with. I may say “I am an aspiring philosopher” to the same question merely to specify how I earn my living without at the same time implying anything about whether I identify with it. Such an answer may be given to others when they ask who I am in a particular context. We sometimes also give such answers to ourselves in more “local” contexts. Thus, in clocking in at work, a grocery store cashier may implicitly say to themselves “I’m at work. I’m a cashier.” capturing with it the sense that in this context or while I’m at work I take on this role and can be judged accordingly based on how well I meet the standards set by it. At the same time, and in a broader, less qualified sense, however, the very same cashier may deny that they identify with their role at all. One can imagine them saying “I work as a cashier, but I’m really a musician.” (the use of ‘really’ here serves to cancel out the implication that they identify with the role they do, in fact, take on—it’s as if they’re saying “I know I have this role, but if you really wanna know about me you should focus on this other thing.”)
All this is to say that not every answer to the question “who am I?” is relevant. Nevertheless, there is a way of answering that question that does pick out those roles that one identifies with. What matters here is not the particular social role referenced, but rather one’s relation to that role—if the cashier really does identify with being a cashier, then he may very well mean that he is a cashier in the same way that I mean that I’m an aspiring philosopher. It is perhaps for this reason why it seems easier to get a handle on the sense of answering the question I have in mind when one imagines raising it to oneself.4
In any case, what’s important for my purposes is that to answer the question in the relevant sense and to identify with a particular role, is to accept certain normative constraints on one’s behavior. Thus, in answering the question in the relevant sense, one is not merely describing oneself, but is acknowledging that because one takes oneself to be such-and-such, one also recognizes an imperative to do certain things, have certain attitudes, etc. and to refrain from doing other things or holding other attitudes. Of course, such an imperative is not a categorical one, but it is an imperative nonetheless.5
In turn, this normative structure and the imperative(s) it generates also serves to make sense of many of our actions. It is only under some particular ways of identifying oneself that it makes sense to, for example, spend hours poring over obscure philosophical texts, or to spend weeks and weeks writing draft after draft of a piece that (if published!) will only reach three or four other people. In the absence of such an identification, such actions could still be done, but would, at best, appear as bizarre, non-sensical, or pathological. Thus, in offering certain answers to the question “who am I?” we also establish how and by what means we make sense of our lives—as I see it, to be unable to provide such an answer is to live a life that makes very little sense (but more on that later…).
With all this in mind, we can return to the question of narrative. Recall that I think of the narrative(s) that people use as the explicit or implicit answer(s) people offer when they ask themselves the question “who am I?” And we now know that the relevant answer to “who am I?” will be an answer that picks out the social role or roles that they identify with and which serve to structure and make sense of their lives. Thus, to refer to a particular person’s narrative is to refer to those roles in a person’s life as they relate to this sense-making function.
We’re also in a position to make some clarifications. First, in talking about someone’s narrative it’s not necessary to assume that there is some overarching grand story that one sees oneself as living through and which subsumes and unifies everything in one’s life. Of course, some people may, in fact, have such narratives—one is inclined to think of certain figures in history as living such narratives (Lenin may be one of them, Napoleon another, Christ a third)—but they are a rarity.6
Indeed, I believe the majority of us live with a multiplicity of different partial and overlapping narratives that vary from person to person and during different stages of our lives. When we’re young, for example, the narratives we have are ones that we’re given—usually by our parents and peers—and which serve as the initial ways in which we orient ourselves to the world. Thus, we find ourselves as “so-and-so’s son or daughter,” as a “Christian” or a “Muslim,” as an “American” or a “Bulgarian,” and so on. We initially identify with these narratives because, as it were, they’re the only game in town. Later, as we mature, we tend to pick up other narratives: that of the boyfriend or girlfriend, the husband or wife, the mother or father, the Fascist or the Communist, and so on. At the same time we find ourselves in a position to reject or challenge some of the narratives that we’ve been presented as given. We may find ourselves consciously refusing to think of ourselves through the national narrative that we used as children; we may find ourselves not identifying in any way with the sex or gender that we were encouraged to make sense of our lives through; we may renounce any identification we had with religion, and so on.
At times the multiple narratives that we employ may form something close to a coherent whole, in which everything fits together nicely and neatly. These are good times. However, as with the grand-narrative folks, the number of people who have such fully integrated lives seem to be exceptional. The rest of us seem to live with narratives that conflict in certain ways or which are frequently in tension with one another. Such conflict and tension is not always a problem—in some cases, the conflict can be ignored: whatever tensions there may be between my narrative as an aspiring philosopher and my narrative as my parents’ son is, at least for the time being negligible (though the potential conflict that involves the imperative to provide for my parents in their old age and the material reality of someone whose employment is uh…precarious…is now clearly visible on the horizon). In other cases, actual or latent conflict is avoided simply through ignorance of what is entailed by their narratives—born-again Evangelicals who believe in the prosperity gospel, for example, strike me as a prime example of this phenomenon (though, of course, they are far from the only group that is victim to this). Where the conflict is apparent, ideology can go a long way to smoothing things over.
There are, of course, also cases in which the conflicts are impossible to ignore or reconcile—these are the conflicts of literature, drama, and film. Here, too, it is possible for such conflicts to be eventually resolved: our hero’s narrative concerning her career comes into conflict with her narrative concerning her beloved, so, after some serious consideration, she willingly abandons the narrative around her career to be with her partner (normally, we call these ‘comedies’ in the theatrical sense). Other times, the conflict is resolved, but there’s a remainder—our hero drops the career narrative only reluctantly, and continues to think of herself in terms of the standard by which she had been accustomed to. Indeed, she may even feel like she failed with respect to the standard that she had accepted while succeeding with respect to a different standard. And other times still it’s possible that the conflict is so fundamental and complete that there is simply no way of reconciling it
Much more can be said about narratives, but I’ve already gone on for quite a bit here. I bring all these points up to stress that the introduction of this bit of philosophical machinery is far from the simple claim that everyone thinks of themselves as the main character in a story. Furthermore, it seems that through adopting it we do get something that seems fairly accurate to our lived experience. In any case, it seems accurate to my experience and I don’t take myself to have an especially unique way of going on about the world.
That being said, I also recognize that for all sorts of reasons I’m far from a representative sample of all human psychology (I suspect no philosopher, actual or aspiring, is such a sample, but that’s another matter), so I could very well be wrong about other people’s experience. This is where Galen Strawson’s claim that he, and perhaps countless other people, do not operate with any narratives becomes important. I’ll consider his challenge in Part II (forthcoming)
PS: In case you were curious:
Because Strawson acknowledges that there are people who live narratively, his arguments are not fatal to my project. At the end of the day I can still say that what I’m talking about is how we can understand intimacy for “narrative” people, of which I’m one, and which may very well constitute the vast majority of folks. As such, there’s still value to the project even if I grant Strawson everything. It is, however, limiting insofar as it forces me to say that I have no idea what intimacy is for someone like him. On the one hand, this is a cost that I can live with; on the other hand, it’s one that I don’t think I have to live with, and is one that by addressing will help me flesh out my own position.
I won’t really discuss the view here, how it handles hard cases, and why we should accept it. Nevertheless, I’d be happy to talk more about it with anyone who’s interested.
Marya Schechtman says that the first kind of question is a question of reidentification and the second is one of characterization. Although I don’t use the same terms, we’re both talking about the same distinction.
That is, under the assumption that I have at least some direct access to my mental states and can tell in what sense I’m answering the question, it’s easier to judge whether one is answering the question genuinely or not. This assumption may be false—I certainly don’t think that our mental states are transparent to ourselves, and we frequently ‘lie’ to ourselves and that may pose a serious problem down the line for my view—but it’s good enough for now.
Despite the fact that the imperatives that arise from our roles are merely hypothetical, I think, phenomenologically speaking, they frequently appear to us as categorical ones. Indeed, it takes a lot of concentrated effort to remind oneself of the radical freedom we have to refuse the demands of our roles and accept other ones, but that will take us too far afield.
Yes, the order here is a light-hearted joke.