lawyer as storyteller


Instructor: James R. Elkins

A Critique of the Narrativity Thesis

Notes from British philosopher Galen Strawson's review of the Jerome Bruner's Making Stories that appeared in The Guardian (January 10, 2004)[on-line text]

Strawson addresses, in the main, the idea of a narrative creation of the self, or what he calls the "narrativity view" of the self:

It's a partial truth at best, true enough for some, completely false for others. There is a deep divide in our species. On one side, the narrators: those who are indeed intensely narrative, self-storying, Homeric, in their sense of life and self, whether they look to the past or the future. On the other side, the non-narrators: those who live life in a fundamentally non-storytelling fashion, who may have little sense of, or interest in, their own history, nor any wish to give their life a certain narrative shape. In between lies the great continuum of mixed cases.

Strawson claims that "We don't have to story ourselves to live goodódeepólives." And, to live a good life does not require "conscious dwelling in memory or self-conscious self-narration . . . ." Strawson goes on to declare that "the new narrative orthodoxy is pernicious. It hinders self-understanding, closes down important avenues of thought, impoverishes our grasp of ethical possibilities, needlessly and wrongly distresses those who do not fit the motel, and is potentially damaging in psychotherapeutic contexts."

It's not at all clear what is driving Strawson's "against narrative" argument. He seems concerned that Bruner takes his claims as obvious, so much so that he doesn't have to make either the psychological or philosophical case for them. He seems more worried about "narrative self-creation" or what he calls "self-fictionalisation."

Strawson does get around to making a point that should concern us: "Applied so widely, the notion of narrative runs close to becoming vacuous." Strawson locates the crux of his concern in what he things are Bruner's failure to raise the question "of whether there is any sense in which one's self-narrative should be accurate or realistic."

One response is that Bruner's failure to raise the issue doesn't mean, as Strawson implies, that Bruner has no regard for the truth (a position Strawson lays to the "extreme fictionalist" and the "post-modernist version of the narrative self-creation view").

Strawson seems to think that fiction should and must be "open to criticism by comparison with reality . . . ."

Strawson fears that our narrative self-creation can go to far. And thus, "the prospects for truth are not good for the narrators among us."

[One commentator summarizes Strawson's "Against Narrative" as follows: "Strawson begins by identifying his target, i.e., those who endorse both the descriptive "psychological narrativity thesis" (each of us "constructs and lives a narrative" that is our identity) and the normative "ethical narrativity thesis" (constructing and living life as a narrative is good, something we ought to do). To Strawson, both theses are false: we do not necessarily structure our lives narratively, and a good life is not contingent upon so structuring one's life." [James L. Battersby, Narrativity, Self, and Self-Representation, an article that appeard in Narrative (2006)]

For the longer version of Strawson argument, see, Galen Strawson, Against Narrativity, 17 (4) Ratio (2004) [reprinted in Galen Strawson (ed.), The Self? (Blackwell Publishing, 2005) [on-line text]