Skepticism About Stories: The "Narrababble" Critique
David Berreby is the author of "Us and Them: The Science of Identity." He has written about human behavior and other science topics for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Smithsonian, The New Republic, Nature, Discover, Vogue and many other publications. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Paris, a Science Writing Fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory, a resident at Yaddo, and in 2006 was awarded the Erving Goffman Award for Outstanding Scholarship for the first edition of "Us and Them." David can be found on Twitter at @davidberreby and reached by email at david [at] davidberreby [dot] com.
As I mentioned in yesterday's post, it is a very popular idea in psychology, philosophy and various social sciences that people experience their lives as a story or collection of stories. For example, the philosopher Dan Dennett explains the mind as a master novelist: "We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography," he has written. Moreover, says the philosopher Galen Strawson, there's a parallel claim in the air that this is A Good Thing: that each person should be able to understand his/her life as a meaningful story, with an arc and a recognizable end. Strawson, though, is having none of it. He thinks these ideas, which he's called "narrababble," are a fad. His critique, a version of which you can read here (pdf), is well worth a look.
"It’s just not true that there is only one good way for human beings to experience their being in time. There are deeply non-Narrative people and there are good ways to live that are deeply non-Narrative," he writes. To my surprise, I find myself agreeing with him. In fact, I discovered, from reading his essay, that I am one of these people.
It's not that I don't see or appreciate stories when I hear them; it's not that I don't tell stories (I've been paid to do so, in fact, many times). But I don't experience my own life as a tale. It doesn't have arcs and acts and development, unless I self-consciously strive to create them for some purpose (and as soon as the purpose is fulfilled, I can see the same events as part of completely different arcs. Or, more normally, no arcs). I see myself in narratives, but I don't think any of those is a master story that is true about my life, and that explains it. I suppose I think, as did the Romanian philosopher Petre Tutea, "I do not have a destiny." And, like Strawson, when I tell a story about myself ten years ago, I don't feel there is any necessary connection between the subject of that story and me. (Of course, I know I am physically that person; but the fact that I can tell a story linking past-me and present-me doesn't convince me that the story is more true than any other that could be told. And the thing that persuades me that the guy ten years back was me is not the story.)
This sounds diametrically opposed to the ideas in Jonathan Gottschall's The Storytelling Animal, which I discussed yesterday. But I'm not sure that first impression is correct. Strawson is shooting at theories that say people need narrative form to understand themselves. Gottschall says they're drawn to stories to understand the world. Strawson allows that people can be taken with narrative, even if they don't temperamentally need to see the world that way. But Gottschall doesn't claim that we all have, or need, a consistent story that we tell ourselves about our own lives. He just says stories have an effect on us, below the level of consciousness.
You can be what Strawson calls an "episodic" person, disinclined to see your life as a coherent tale, and still be affected by a suspenseful narrative. Strawson's complaint about "narrababble" is aimed at people who think that people ought to tell stories about themselves in order to be proper people. Such folk, who seek and find a satisfying autobiographical tale about themselves, must feel their approach gives life meaning and purpose. But to the rest of us, as Strawson notes, they just sound awfully self-important.
Tomorrow: Is our apparently strong preference for information in narrative form messing up our politics?
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