Narratives


I knew a man once that only really thought he understood the meaning of a concept if he knew it through history, fiction or anecdotal narrative. I would not have credited such a way of understanding the world except for knowing him. Some people really ‘get’ algebra and they feel they really know something if they can describe it mathematically. Other people need their explanations to be graphic: an illustration, a map or a diagram. Still others need ideas to be verbal in order to easily grasp them. My friend needed a dramatic plot or a parable to have that feeling of understanding. Words were not enough; there had to be a plot. Most of us can use many or even all those vehicles to understanding, maybe more ways that I have never noticed. We use different ways to understand different things.

Most people I know understand their own lives in narrative form. G. Strawson argues that this is not true of all of us (here). The article starts with this abstract:

I argue against two popular claims. The first is a descriptive, empirical thesis about the nature of ordinary human experience: ‘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 autobiography is one’s self’ (Dan Dennett). The second is a normative, ethical claim: we ought to live our lives narratively, or as a story; 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 life’, and must be in possession of a full and ‘explicit narrative [of his life] to develop fully as a person’ (Marya Schechtman).

Strawson identifies four characteristics of this sort of life story narrative. First, the person has a diachronic rather than episodic viewpoint, or in other words, they live in a time continuum rather than in the present. Second, the person has to have a tendency to search for a unifying or form-finding construction. Third, the person uses story-telling conventions. Fourth, the person continues to revise the story.

Like episodic and verbal type memory, narrating a our life seems to me to require that the elements come from conscious experience. If we look at this from the view point of learning in general and learning about ourselves in particular than the reason for narrative seems clear.

  1. We construct and remember experience in the form of memories of moments of consciousness. The memory has the setting, the on-going action and especially important things such as elements that are surprising or significant. To learn from experience, we must have experience.

  2. We remember moments of consciousness in a time ordered sequence, making a little episode of the episodic memory. We can attach meaning to such episodes by associating them with cause and effect links. Causality allows us to use our experiences to understand and predict the world around us.

  3. As memories get older, they are consolidated into larger and larger units. Many nearly identical episodes became one. All the trips to work in a first job, long ago, become one memory. The trip to the store yesterday is still an individual memory. It seems that memory is reworked in light of our present knowledge and interests over and over again.

  4. If we want to tell someone about something that happened, we put these memories in words and those words than become associated with the memory. Often we talk to ourselves about a memory and by doing so make it a narrative to be remembered, partly in a narrative form.

Thus moments of experience become meaningful episodes which become summaries of life and finally become narratives.

Strawson believes that personal narrative is not a universal human characteristic and he may be right. But one thing we know is that long, long ago humans learned to make tools, to harass fire and use language – then, well fed, they sat around the fire and told stories into the night.

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