Freedom, Personhood, and Narrative: Part II
Strawson's "Against Narrativity"
This is Part II of a four part post on some of the things I’m thinking about around my dissertation. Part I can be found here; Part III can be found here (forthcoming); and Part IV here (forthcoming).
The goal of this post is to cover Galen Strawson’s “Against Narrativity” paper, describe the argument he offers there against the claim that the use of narratives is not terribly interesting or important, and address whether it poses a problem for the view I’ve been developing.
Strawson is interested in addressing two claims. The first is that our ordinary human experience involves the construction of narratives and stories, and the second is that it’s good for one to live one’s life in this way. The first claim is a descriptive one about what our nature is, the second claim is a normative one about how we ought to live. Taken together, the two claims imply that if some person’s psychology weren’t captured by the descriptive claim, there would be something wrong with them—they would be less than fully developed persons, somehow morally deficient, or incapable of achieving a good life. Strawson thinks both claims are wrong: “There are deeply non-Narrative people and there are good ways to live that are deeply non-Narrative.”
One way of looking at Strawson’s project, then, is as an attempt to show that there’s nothing odd, deviant, or immoral about a certain kind of psychology. This is certainly part of Strawson’s aim, but it’s worth noting that at least part of his goal is to show that what he takes to be the standard focus on narrative in psychology “hinder[s] human self-understanding, close[s] down important avenues of thought, impoverish[es] our grasp of ethical possibilities, needlessly and wrongly distress[es] those who do not fit their model, and [is] potentially destructive in psychotherapeutic contexts.” In other words, not only is there nothing wrong with living a non-Narrative life, but there’s something wrong with insisting that narrative lives are normatively significant. As such, the bulk of Strawson’s argument must concern itself with tackling the normative claim.
This makes sense—after all, simply showing that there is some amount of people who do not think in narrative terms doesn’t do much. On the one hand, the existence of such people only rules out the very strong version of the descriptive claim that we may have already suspected to be false—namely, that all people have a narrative psychology. On the other hand, even if it were granted that there’s a significant number of people who don’t experience life through the appeal to narrative, this wouldn’t mean that it wouldn’t be better if everyone did experience their life that way. Consequently, Strawson must address the normative claim if he is to say anything interesting at all.1
[It’s also worth making note of the fact that in describing why he disagrees with the dominant narrative view, Strawson says “It’s just not true that there is only one good way for human beings to experience their being in time.” This sentence is of special importance because of the italicized portion (not in the original) since it tells us that Strawson thinks of the use of narrative as a way of classifying experience of being in time. In turn, this suggests that someone who accepts the normative claim regarding narratives would find something wrong with a non-Narrative psychology because it’s not a good way to experience their being in time. But is this the grounds on which advocates of the narrative theory raise their objections? I, for one, find myself hard-pressed to make sense of the notion that one is experiencing their being in time rightly or wrongly. The concern—if indeed it has anything to do with experience of being in time at all—seems to be more closely related to certain questions about how a person structures their life in relation to the things that matter to them and which may stretch across some time-span with a non-Narrative psychology. Consequently, the ‘wrongness’ of non-Narrativity is not to be found in something inherent to the psychology itself, but in the role it plays with relation to all these other things that matter. But we need not get too caught up here, especially given the fact that I haven’t presented Strawson’s argument yet. For now just keep this fact in the back of your mind.]
So, how does Strawson argue for his conclusion?
A Crucial Preliminary Distinction
We begin with the distinction between “one’s experience of oneself when one is considering oneself principally as a human being taken as a whole, and one’s experience of oneself considering oneself principally as an inner mental entity or ‘self’ of some sort—I’ll call this one’s self-experience.” Strawson wants to focus explicitly on one’s self-experience. This distinction is introduced very quickly and Strawson moves past it just a fast, but I think it’s an incredibly important one. In fact, I think there’s a slight of hand here that makes all the difference.
Let’s take a closer look at what that distinction is supposed to be. Here’s my best take:
When considering the question of who one is, one can make reference to a set of historical and biographical facts that one knows about oneself through memories of first-hand experiences (and presumably, the testimony of others). This is the way of thinking of oneself “principally as a human being taken as a whole.” In considering myself in this way, for example, I say that I’m the kid who ran around the streets of Botevgrad, who remembers stealing money out of my mother’s purse to play arcade games, who worried about having to wear glasses, who wanted a Nintendo 64 more than anything in the world, and so on and so on. All of these facts, memories, and experiences “belong” to Pavel, as it were, because all of them really happened to him/me. According to Strawson, there’s a certain experience associated with thinking of oneself in this way. It’s hard to describe just what this experience is supposed to be, but it appears to be compatible with feeling some kind of disconnect between the person to whom those experiences are attributed and the person one takes themselves to be at the present moment. For example, I know for a fact that I really wanted an N64 because I remember wanting one. But the memory of that desire does not strike me as my desire, if only because I no longer have it. As such, although I know that the desire was my desire because I am Pavel, it feels like it’s not my desire because I do not experience it as mine at this moment. Instead, one might say that my experience at the present moment of that desire is as of it occurring to someone else—someone to whom I might have a very strong connection to, but someone else nonetheless.
By contrast, one can also think of the question of who one is by appealing to themselves as a currently conscious, experiencing being. That has a particular experience, too. It’s tied to certain qualitative feelings (e.g. the light hitting the screen of my laptop, the feeling of having a belly full of cheese sandwich), certain mental states (e.g. a focus on Strawson’s paper, a mixture of subtle pleasure and frustration that accompanies writing) and so on. This is the experience of what it is to be me not because it there’s some unifying thing called “Pavel” to which these experiences can be rightly attributed to—indeed, there may not be such a thing—but because these experiences are happening to me—whatever I might be.
This experience is different from the one mentioned before it. Indeed, one is tempted to say that the former experience of the self is the experience of remembering certain things about oneself in a certain way, while the latter is the experience of being oneself in the present, and these do not feel the same way. The experience of remembering that one desired a trinket is not the same as the experience of desiring that same trinket even if both desires were had by the same person. One appears as somewhat rather obscure, distant, and historical; the other appears as immanent, immediate, and unmediated. Crucially, Strawson says that he’s not interested in the former, but only the latter.
Now, it’s Strawson’s prerogative to focus on whatever it is that he wants to focus on, but it’s worth pointing out that the specific phenomenon that’s picked out here is the immediate phenomenological experience of the self. Given that, one can already anticipate the core of the argument that Strawson is going to make: namely, that experience is not the experience of following or constructing a narrative!
This much is true, but one is led to wonder whether anyone thought otherwise. Consider the people that Strawson quotes as advocating the narrative view in the paper’s abstract. First about the descriptive claim:
“each of us constructs and lives a ‘narrative’…this narrative is us, our identities” (Oliver Sacks); “self is a perpetually rewritten story…in the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we ‘tell about’ our lives” (Jerry Bruner); “we are all virtuoso novelists…We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character…of that story is one’s self.” (Dan Dennett).
And about the normative claim:
“a ‘basic condition of making sense of ourselves is that we grasp our lives in a narrative’ and have an understanding of our lives ‘as an unfolding story’” (Charles Taylor); “A person ‘creates his identity [only] by forming an autobiographical narrative - a story of his live’, and must be in possession of a full and ‘explicit narrative [of his life] to develop fully as a person.” (Marya Schechtman).2
What all of these people seem to be talking about is, in the first place, a process—they speak about living, becoming, rewriting, grasping, making sense, creating, and so on. These are all things that unfold over time. As such, it’s not at all a surprise that the phenomenology that would characterize processes wouldn’t fit in with the phenomenology of something immanent and immediate. In other words, there’s a twofold worry here: first, that Strawson and his interlocutors are speaking past one another, and second, that what’s being set up is simply a straw-man. Let’s keep going though.
Episodics and Diachronics
Following the initial distinction between experience of the self as a whole subject and self-experience, Strawson makes a second distinction between diachronic and episodic self-experience. Diachronic self-experience is that:
[D] one naturally figures oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future
and the Episodic self-experience is that
[E] one does not figure oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future
As Strawson sees it, many people may be naturally Diachronic, but at least some people (including Strawson himself) are naturally Episodic. And those who are naturally Episodic, he claims, “are likely to have no particular tendency to see their life in Narrative terms.”
It is whether one is a [D] or [E] that makes a difference as to whether one is likely to accept the dual claims of Narrativity. [D]’s accept it and see it as natural and [E]’s do not. But why? What’s the relation between being one type or the other and accepting or rejecting Narrativity?
In response to this question, Strawson takes a rather odd detour to explain the Episodic life. I quote his description at length:
I have a past, like any human being, and I know perfectly well that I have a past. I have a respectable amount of factual knowledge about it, and I also remember some of my past experience ‘from the inside’, as philosophers say. And yet, I have absolutely no sense of my life as a narrative with form, or indeed as a narrative without form. Absolutely none. Nor do I have any great or special interest in my past. Nor do I have a great deal of concern for my future.
That’s one way to put it — to speak in terms of limited interest. Another way is to say that it seems clear to me, when I am experiencing or apprehending myself as a self, that the remoter past or future in question is not my past or future, although it is certainly the past or future of GS the human being. This is more dramatic, but I think it is equally correct, when I am figuring myself as a self. I have no significant sense that I — the I now considering this question — was there in the further past. And it seems clear to me that this is not a failure of feeling. It is, rather, a registration of a fact about what I am — about what the thing that is currently considering this problem is.
At the core of both descriptions is a question of what Strawson experiences—or rather, what he doesn’t experience—when introspecting. Quite clearly, he knows certain facts about himself and his past, but these facts do not translate into any kind of interest towards the person that’s the object of those memories. When thinking about who he is at this moment, he’s not interested in what happened to Galen Strawson, or what will happen to Galen Strawson, although he know that he was GS and he will continue to be GS. Likewise, on the more “dramatic” description, he has no experience at this point of having been someone other than he is now or that he will be someone other than he is.
This much, it seems to me, is true! Nothing about my current phenomenological perspective, limited to its pure phenomenology say anything about my past or future, and if asked what it is that I feel in relation to facts about my past or future self, I agree with Strawson that I feel very little.
However, this is not in the least surprising. Focus, for a moment, on Strawson’s claim about having no interests about his past or future self and then consider your own phenomenological self-experience: what interests do you have? I find that I have very few if any! At best, I have some biologically related ones that I can identify: I have an interest in having another beer, an interest in shifting my weight to be more comfortable in my chair, and so on. If this is what’s supposed to describe the Episodic experience, then I’ll grant that I share that experience, too. But it’s important to note just how tightly constricted this view is and how limited the psychology under consideration is. If I narrow down my psychology to its pure phenomenology, then virtually all my interests disappear—I don’t worry about my weight , about the health of my family, about getting a job, about the fate of the country, or about the future of the American working class movement.; I don’t desire to be a better partner to my lover, a better brother to my sister, and a better son to my parents; I don’t dream of a world without COVID, or Trump, or neo-liberalism; I’m not embarrassed at the things I’ve done in the past, the regrets I have, and I’m not bothered by what I could have done better. This much is true. But it’s just as true that my psychology is much more robust than this artificial picture presents! And, as a preliminary response to Strawson, it seems to me that someone whose psychology was exhausted in this way would be living a terribly deficient life.
Okay, so much for the Episodic. What about the Diachronic? What is their life supposed to be like? Well, here, again, we get a repetition of the quotes we saw in the abstract (with some extras added). Charles Taylor is brought in to say that “ a ‘basic condition of making sense of ourselves…is that we grasp our lives in narrative’ and have an understanding of our lives ‘as an unfolding story.’” Alasdair MacIntyre, whom Strawson refers to as “the founding figure in the modern Narrativity camp” is also quoted as saying that the unity of a human life
is the unity of a narrative quest…[and] the only criteria for success or failure in a human life as a whole are the criteria for success or failure in a narrated or to-be-narrated quest…A quest for what?…a quest for the good…the good life for a man is the life spent in seeking for the good life for man.
None if this seems true to Strawson. Instead, these descriptions appear to him as reflections of the idiosyncrasies of their authors that say nothing about human beings in general, the good life, or anything of the sort.
This may be the best project that people like themselves can hope to engage in. But even if it is true for them it is not true for other types of ethical personality, and many are likely to be thrown right off their own truth by being led to believe that Narrativity is necessary for a good life…I have a perfectly good grasp of myself as having a certain personality, but I’m completely uninterested in the answer to the question ‘What has GS made of his life?’, or ‘What have I made of my life?’. I’m living it, and this sort of thinking about it is no part of it. This does not mean that I am in any way irresponsible. It is just that what I care about, in so far as I care about myself and my life, is how I am now. The way I am now is profoundly shaped by my past, but it is only the present shaping consequences of the past that matter, not the past as much.
Notice how strange these comments are given what has been said before! I admit, I’m almost at a loss to see how this relates to the preceding discussion. That discussion was a very narrowly circumscribed one about the phenomenology of one’s self-experience and what interests are and aren’t to be found there. In the first place, and as mentioned already, the pieces that Strawson quotes are clearly not interested in describing that phenomenon. The MacIntyre quote is especially telling since he is explicitly talking about “the criteria for success or failure in a human life as a whole!” This suggests, quite clearly, that MacIntyre is interested in that first question of the self described as “one’s experience of oneself when one is considering oneself principally as a human being taken as a whole.” But that question was bracketed and set aside in the very beginning of the paper since Strawson wanted to focus only on self-experience.
And once again, as long as we stay in the realm of self-experience, it seems to me that there’s nothing controversial about Strawson’s remarks, nor anything that any of his interlocutors would disagree with. Their disagreement, to the extent that it exists, is to be found in whether it is better to live when narratively when thinking of oneself as a whole or not.
I have to admit that at this point I don’t know how to interpret Strawson’s claim that when he’s living his life he doesn’t care about his past or the future, what he’s made of his life, or what he might make of it. This is because it’s unclear to me in what sense he’s referring to when he talks about ‘living’ his life. If he merely means to say that in the brute phenomenological experience, he’s not interested in such questions, then, yeah, fine. But if he means that he simply never finds anything of interest about what his life has been about and what his life might be about, then, I’m quite puzzled. And it really does seem to me that he has in mind the latter!
Does Strawson really have no interest in whether, say, tomorrow he’ll stop loving his family (and what that might mean about the kind of person he is as a whole)? Does he really have no interest in whether, again, considered as a whole person, he is someone who consistently shifts in his values, betrays his commitments on a whim, discards his political views as the wind change, and so on? I doubt that he doesn’t! But even if he does—even if we grant that he really just has a different kind of psychology—do we really have no ground on which we can say that this way of living one’s life isn’t a very good one? It seems to me that we do! In fact, the kind of psychology that takes no interest in any considerations about what has happened to oneself in the past and which doesn’t care about its relation to what’s happening now and what might happen in the future strikes me precisely as the kind of psychology that Plato accurately describes as belonging to the Tyrant. In turn, it is subject to all the criticisms that Plato raises against it and the same explanation for why it’s not a very good way to live can be given there.
Narrativity Defined and the Dangers of Storytelling
Strawson now takes the time to explain precisely what the Narrativity thesis is and what it’s relation is to (lower-case) narrativity. The paradigm of the latter is simply a kind of story that exhibits a certain temporal unity or cohesion to its subject. In a trivial sense, every life has such a narrative since every life is the life of something or other that persists and coheres across time. My dog Ted has a narrative that starts with his mother giving birth to him in South Carolina, getting picked up and sent to a shelter in North Carolina, our adopting him, getting his shots, and so on and so on. If the Narrativity thesis is to be non-trivial, it has to appeal to something more than just the ability for a life to be described in such a way.
Strawson’s suggestion is that “lower-case or ‘objective’ narrativity requires upper-case or ‘subjective’ Narrativity.” That, in turn, involves a certain construal of one’s life: “One must have some sort of relatively large-scale coherence-seeking, unity seeking, patter-seeking, or most generally [F] form-finding tendency when it comes to one’s apprehension of one’s life, or relatively large-scale parts of one’s life.”
In other words, the suggestion is that the very apprehension (consideration? experience?) of one’s life, must involve a certain kind of not-yet-specified structuring element that, at the same time, must be different from the kind of structuring that is already present in the Diachronic’s experience. Recall, the Diachronic is supposed to have the [D] experience of his being in time such that their phenomenological self-experience presents the self as something that is already extended through time and which has some potential future ahead of it. Furthermore, the form-finding tendency of [F] must be different from [D] because Strawson insists that being Diachronic is not sufficient for having a narrative structure. The most obvious reason why this is not sufficient, and is that the two can run independently of one another. As such, one can have a self-experience that is Diachronic and still not structure one’s life through a narrative (and, vice versa, one can have an Episodic self-experience and structure one’s life through a narrative—indeed, that’s how I think I live my life). If that’s the reason, then it’s more clear than ever that the initial distinction is once again violated and that Strawson is jumping back and forth between self-experience and experience-of-self-as-a-whole.3
One specific form of [F] that could be exhibited is [S] a story-telling tendency. Stories have a particular kind of form and structure that we might say achieves temporal unity and cohesion through the vehicle of the “main-character” and their journey (not Strawson’s terms, but my attempt to explain his idea). To engage in this kind of [F] is to view oneself and one’s life as the “story” of the main character (me) who might go through certain trials and tribulations, complete certain arcs, learn lessons, grow, and so on. The appeal to “stories” here doesn’t have to involve any form of fabrication or mendacity about one’s life. As such, the stories an individual tells themselves need not be false or fictional.
However, there’s always the possibility that they can. The construction of a narrative could involve [R] revision—the tendency to make things up, to lie about oneself, to excise the nastier elements of one’s history, or paint oneself in more flattering tones. The possibility of this tendency, it seems, is precisely the way in which being narrative can make things worse that Strawson referred to at the beginning of the essay. In other words, if there’s a tight link between being Diachronic and being Narrative, and there’s an equally tight link between being Narrative and being Revisionary, then one exposes oneself to the possibility that one is (unconsciously) deluding themselves about who or what they are.
This point is well-taken, but Strawson himself has pointed out that the link between [D] and [F] is not that tight, and insists that the link between [S] and [R] is not either (“Is it a tendency to revise a necessary part of being Narrative? No.”). This is a charitable and fair move on Strawson’s part, and in equal charity, I believe it’s fair that we should take seriously the option that those who are Narrative could succumb to certain revisions and distortions that would be bad to be subject to. I don’t mean to deny that, but it seems to me that there’s a rather obvious answer in the offing: namely, that one’s narrative is not something that is always constructed by oneself. Very often, it is an interpersonal matter, and because it is such, there are limits to the scope of the revision that’s in place. I can’t (consciously or subconsciously) for example, revise the narrative of my life to make myself the hometown hero (or villain) because other people won’t let me. This is in part true because other people have access to at least some of the facts that have to do with my life and the story that comes about as a result of putting those things together are, to a certain degree, a public matter. If enough people make it clear that I wasn’t the good (or bad) guy that I take myself to be, then the story that I am able to tell myself becomes unsustainable and must be given up.4 Consequently, the threat of radical revisions and massive delusions is blunted.
What is not a public matter and where there may be more room for self-deception is what the valence that events that factor into my story take within that story. I may not reject that such-and-such happened to me at such-and-such time involving such-and-such people, but I might place a different importance on that event. I might, for example, think that our break up was a pivotal moment in my young adulthood, that it showed me that I’m a terrible person who doesn’t deserve to be loved, etc. while you might barely remember it and think that the role I’ve given it in my narrative far outstrips its significance (or vice versa). In the first place, it’s not clear to me that even these matters are immune from external influence. After all, it seems to be the purpose of (at least some kinds of) psychotherapy to bring the disproportionate effect that some events have in a person’s life back in line with what is most likely to be the truth of the matter. One learns through talking with one’s therapist (or one’s former partner, or a friend, or a third party observer) how to give elements in their narrative a proper place and a proper valance. Indeed, if taking the perspective of the self as a whole subject, one can do this by simply reflecting on these events. One asks oneself, am I the kind of person who wants to hang on bitterly to this event? Or, more generally, do I want to be the kind of person I have been so far?
All of these strike me as perfectly ordinary questions that one asks in the course of becoming a fully-formed person and they clearly make sense if one looks at one’s life as involving a story. I assume that the same questions could be raised by someone who is non-narrative, so I don’t assume that they only make sense if one’s a Narrative. But I find myself struggling with what kind of impact they would have. I can imagine that someone who doesn’t have any interest in their future and how it relates to their past may still recognize that they have a certain outlook or a certain character in the present moment, and, like Strawson says, that they can clearly understand that the reason they have this character is due to certain events that have occurred prior to the present. But it seems to me that they would be indifferent to whether they should make any changes as a result. At best, the motivation would be prudential one insofar as making such changes would make the person whose interests are being expressed more easily satisfied or something like that. But regardless of what happens—whether the change occurs or not—it will always appear to the person in question as a matter of indifference; it will always be the case that whatever changes did or didn’t occur were the result of events that are only abstractly related to the present, which, in turn, is equally abstractly related to some future time and person. And if this is so, then we can see the outlines of the grounds on which we might criticize someone who embraces this kind of psychology.5
The Main Disagreement
Okay, so we’ve been introduced to four different categories that describe four different psychologies (or is it four different paradigms of psychology?): [D], [F], [S], [R]. As far as Strawson is concerned, these four have no necessary connection to one another besides the fact that [S] is a type of [F]. Consequently, there can be people who are [D] but not [F], [S], or [R] (or as Strawson puts it [+D -F -S -R]), people who are only [F] and so on (although what would it mean to be [-D -F -S +R]?). On this model, Dennett and Bruner are [+D +F +S +R], Sartre is [+F +S +R], Schechtman is [+D +F +S +/-R], and Strawson himself is [-D -F -S -R] (although he grants that he might revise).
Strawson finds Schechtman’s view and others like it particular troubling. I quote him at length here because his remarks bring to the front another place where I think he and his interlocutors (or, at the very least, he and I) are either misunderstanding each other, or speaking past one another.
This [family of views] seems to me to express an ideal of control and self-awareness in human life that is mistaken and potentially pernicious…My guess is that it almost always does more harm than good—that the Narrative tendency to look for story or narrative coherence in one’s life is, in general, a gross hinderance to self-understanding: to a just, general, practically real sense, implicit or explicit, of one’s nature. It is well known that telling and retelling one’s past leads to changes, smoothings, enchancments, shifts away from the facts, and recent research has shown that this is not just a human psychological foible. It turns out to be an inevitable consequences of the mechanics of the neurophysiological process of laying down memories that every studied conscious recall of past events brings an alteration. The implication is plain: the more you recall, retell, narrate yourself, the further you risk moving away from accurate self-understanding, from the truth of your being. Some are constantly telling their daily experiences to others in a storying way and with great gusto. They are drifting ever further off the truth. Others never do this, and when they are obliged to convey facts about their lives they do it clumsily and uncomfortably and in a way that is somehow essentially narrative-resistant.
I’ll finish this quote in a bit, but I want to pause here because some of these claims are quite interesting. I want to draw attention to two things: the first is the difference between the tendency to “look for story or narrative coherence in one’s life” and the tendency some have of “constantly telling their daily experience to others.” These are two very different things. One can have a tendency to look for a narrative coherence in their life and refrain from constantly telling and retelling the same story. That this is possible isn’t immediately obvious, but it strikes me as patently true.
To see why this is the case, consider the analogy of finding a narrative in one’s life with (literally) writing a story, or a paper, or a tv show, or whatever. Once a certain chunk of the paper has been written, it does not need to be rewritten every time a new addition has been added to it. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be reread! Of course, sometimes people do this, and, to extend the analogy, I assume that sometimes people also, as it were, go back and ‘rewrite’ their entire narrative, but this, I believe, is the exception and is usually the result of some massively important (and potentially traumatic) experience.6 Yet, it seems to me that Strawson thinks that Narratives are constantly doing this—as though in going to the fridge to make a sandwich I have to retell my whole life and find out how this sandwich fits into it!7 That doesn’t seem to be the case—at least not with me. Rather, the tendency to search for a narrative is something that occurs in the background. That tendency is one that seeks to find and incorporate a certain meaning of some events in relation to others and in relation to how one sees and understands oneself. Thus, for example, one seeks to understand one’s wedding day (or the death of a friend, or a crisis in a relationship, or the search for a new job) in relation to what has happened in the relationship with one’s spouse. That, again, might require some rewriting of the past narrative—in light of one’s wedding day and how one views it, then, certain fights in the past might be forgotten, or put in a different context—but it doesn’t have to. In any case, such a tendency does not entail a constant telling and retelling of one’s story to oneself and to others.
The second thing to note is that Strawson thinks that this kind of telling or retelling is an impediment or a removal from the truth of one’s life. When taken with the non-Narrative perspective we’re supposed to consider here, the notion is supposed to be that one is living more authentically if one doesn’t remember or focus on things that have happened in one’s past. This strikes me as a kind of collector’s view of life experience: memories and past events are just supposed to be things that are kept filed away in some distant warehouse, stored and preserved just in case one is forced to reluctantly and awkwardly bring them up for others if prompted, but never played with observed, enjoyed or reconsidered. Now, I can grant that some people live like this, and I can also grant that in some cases this might make for a much lighter and peaceful life. I can also grant that such a way of living might have a closer connection with the accuracy of such events (although, it should be noted that the fact that constant repetition of memories leads to their corruption and the kinds of smoothings over that Strawson talks about does not entail that a lack of repetition keeps things more accurate!). But it’s hard for me to see why having this kind of psychology is in any way better than the Narrative one. To extend the analogy, toys that aren’t kept in their box and preserved might get damaged, dinged, and, as a consequence, they might represent the initial thing they were modeled after less accurately, but that might be entirely irrelevant to what ought to be done with them. At best, Strawson’s emphasis on the value of the accuracy of the events in one’s life might be seen as an appeal to the “supreme value of truth,” but it’s a separate question whether one’s life is best lived in preservation of the truth rather than a potential bending of it that allows for other values to come forth.
Let’s return to the quote:
Certainly Narrativity is not a necessary part of the ‘examined life’ (nor is Diachronicity), and it is in any case most unclear that the examined life, through by Socrates to be essential to human existence, is always a good thing. People can develop and deepen in valuable ways without any sort of explicit, specifically Narrative reflection, just as musicians can improve by practice sessions without recalling those sessions. The business of living well is, for many, a completely non-Narrative project. Granted that certain sorts of self-understanding are necessary for a good human life, they need involve nothing more than form-finding, which can exist in the absence of Narrativity; and they may be osmotic, systemic, not staged in consciousness.
Here’s where the major disagreement between someone like me and Strawson comes to the front. It is perhaps apparent that I believe that something like a wholistic understanding of one’s life is essential to self-understanding. Indeed, I think that the self that truly matters to us is not the self-experience that has been talked about at length here, but the self as a whole object (as such, I count myself among one of MacIntyre’s followers). At least one way in which one can come to have a self-understanding is a matter of knowing oneself as something that is more than just an object to whom things happen to in a series across time. Here, it is also obvious that Strawson and I place different weight on the matter of understanding oneself. I don’t think that one truly understands oneself just in case one can list the things that have happened to oneself in an accurate manner. Nor do I think it’s sufficient to know one’s motivation for every (or most) of one’s actions. The latter part is, it seems necessary for such an understanding, but not sufficient. For that kind of understanding, this knowledge must be brough into a kind of rational framework that at least attempts to unify these events and their motivation to something that goes beyond their immediacy. Strawson seems to reject this view. For him, it seems to be sufficient that one simply have the immediate understanding of what he’s doing or what he was doing at any given point and the question of whether there’s any connection between these events and motivations, whether they make any kind of coherent whole that can be attributed to some person is irrelevant.
Let me give another example to illustrate how strange the picture that Strawson paints and which also serves to grant Strawson some of the dangers of the view that I advocate for. Consider someone like Leonard, the main character of the movie Memento. This is a person whose short term memory is irreparably damaged so that he cannot keep anything like a narrative of what he’s doing and why he’s doing it for longer than a couple of minutes at a time. In order to get along the day (and exact his revenge), he constantly writes things down, tattoos important facts on his body, takes pictures, etc. Consider now someone who has Lenny’s condition but without an overarching goal to exact revenge for the death of his wife and who’s simply trying to get by. Suppose this person keeps meticulous and extremely accurate notes about what he’s done, what he wants to do, and what his motivation at any given moment is for doing so in many, many, many notebooks. As time goes on, he leaves the old notebooks in different filing cabinets such that they’re always accessible to him. And if he were asked what his life were about, he could, technically, recite the entirety of his notebooks from day one to the present, presenting everything with full accuracy. In essence, he would be exactly like a pure Episodic, who is constantly living in the moment.
Does this person understand himself? I want to say no! I’m willing to grant that such a person would indeed be a person insofar as he would be owed all the things that are owed to people. However, I find it very hard pressed to consider that there wouldn’t be something deeply undesirable about having that kind of psychology, and I certainly wouldn’t think that this person would have a more accurate picture of being.
Nevertheless—and this supports Strawson’s point—what makes the main character story so tragic in Memento is precisely his desire for a unified narrative in which he must be the hero who avenges his wife’s murder, along with the fact that given his condition such a narrative can be easily altered (by others and by himself). Here, the threat of revision shows just how harmful the pursuit of such a fixed narrative can be and how willing people might be (consciously or unconsciously) to change facts to fit the narrative. Yet, it’s also worth pointing out how abnormal this kind of psychology is. In one respect, Lenny’s narrative is so easily alterable not only because he has moments of lucidity in which he realizes that he wants to alter it without recording those alterations, but also because nobody around him serves as a means of correcting him. Most of us are not in such a position. As I pointed out earlier, even if we are inclined to smooth things over, tell ourselves lies, and so on, there are limits to the extent that we can do this.
In the end, I’m inclined to think that Strawson just isn’t right about his claims. In the first place—and this is more of a structural matter—the vast majority of the first half of the paper is a red-herring: the self-experience is irrelevant to what Strawson’s interlocutors (or, if I’m being more charitable, to what I) want to say is important about Narrativity. The main conflict rests in whether Narrativity is a good way of thinking about oneself as a whole subject, not how one experiences oneself at any given moment. Strawson himself seems to drift this direction since so little of the second half of the paper rests on these phenomenological distinctions made in the first part.
However, even when we’re on the same page about where our disagreement lies, I find Strawson’s arguments unconvincing as they pertain to the normative thesis he argues against. I’m fine with granting him the criticism that the descriptive thesis is perhaps false and that there really are people who live truly episodic lives, and I agree that such persons are people. However, I’m not convinced that those people are better off for having such psychologies or that Narrative people are worse off for having theirs. Perhaps as Strawson himself notes at the end of the paper, we’re at an impasse and there’s not much that we can say to each other at this point. Or perhaps things are much more dire than this and we’re confronted with two positions that simply cannot be made sense of from their opposing sides—Narratives will always appear as strange to non-Narratives and vice versa. If that’s the case, then the only thing to do is learn how to live with each other. Which, I suppose, I’m perfectly fine with. But it should be pointed out that this conclusion is not the result of Strawson’s arguments or some flaw in the Narrative way of thinking. Rather, it’s simply the result of supposedly brute empirical facts about natural, innate, and immutable psychological difference.
The next stage of the dialectic, then, would be a question of whether our psychologies really are so immutable, but, as with all of my blogs, this one has already gone on for much too long.
Okay, that’s a little too strong—one might reasonably say that simply showing that other people have different psychologies is interesting enough. In fact, I’m inclined to agree with that statement in almost all other contexts.
I have to admit that I find the quote by Schechtman quite odd since everywhere I’ve seen her talk about narrative, she’s quite clear that one’s narrative can be either explicit or implicit. If Schechtman really does say something as strong as what Strawson quotes her as saying, then, it really does seem too strong.
This seems to be confirmed by Strawson’s claim that “the fact remains that one can be Diachronic while being very unreflective about oneself.” Diachronic : Self-Experience :: Reflective : Narrative.
Alternatively, it can be preserved at the steep cost of withdrawing from reality, rationalizing, or avoiding any challenges to it. People do indeed do this, but it appears to me to be an extreme position.
Part of the difficulty of raising any criticism against Strawson is due to the fact that he tends to present these psychological types as natural and immutable. One just is an Episodic or a Diachronic and there’s nothing to be done about that. If that really is the case, then he’s right that there’s not much to say at all. But such a claim about how fixed and how malleable our psychology is needs to be backed with a lot more firepower.
I imagine that Dennis Rader’s kids had to do some serious rewriting when they found out their father was the BTK killer.
The 2007 comedy Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story starts with Dewey Cox, a caricature of Johnny Cash (and some other people) waiting in the wings of the stage. A stagehand approaches him before he’s stopped by one of Cox’s band members who tells him not to interrupt Cox saying “Dewey Cox has to think about his whole life before he plays.” I imagine Strawson has something like this in mind.