Reading, Narrative, and the Self

Friday, November 26, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

This week’s topic  is Reading, Narrative, and the Self.   I suppose everybody has a pretty good idea of what each of those things, taken individually, means.   Reading is something that most people do.  A good narrative  -- or story, to use a less fancy term -- is something most people enjoy.  And a self is something everybody has.   But I think I need to explain what reading, narrative, and the self have to do with each other.  I’ll take them in reverse order, starting with the self.

 Everybody has a self.  Or maybe it would be better to say that everybody is a self.  But what exactly is a self, anyway?  The answer to that question depends on who you talk to.  Psychologists, for example, tend to  think of the self in terms of the particular set of attributes a person most strongly identifies with – those attributes that define who and what he or she is in the world.   But we philosophers tend to think of the self less in terms of particular attributes, and more as the underlying agent or thinker who possesses the kinds of attributes that define the self in the psychologist’s sense. 

 We’re going to be concerned with both senses of the self at various stages of this week’s episode.  Let’s start with the self in the psychologist’s sense.  The self in that  sense is not just given to us in advance as something fixed and determinate.   The self in that sense has somehow to be “constructed” out of materials that our society and culture make available.

 It may sound absurd  -- or at the very least so very post modern -- to call the self a social construct.  The self, it would seem, could exist even without society and culture.   But whether that’s absurd or not really depends on what notion of self you are talking about.   When I say that the self is a social construct, I really have in mind only the psychologist’s notion of self.  But the self in the philosopher’s sense – the thing that underlies the psychologist's self – that definitely isn’t a social construction.   In fact, I think the self in the philosopher’s sense is the thing that does the constructing, not the thing that gets constructed.

Now here’s where narrative begins to come in. Narrative helps us to make sense of our selves.  One way we understand ourselves is by narrating ourselves, telling ourselves stories in which we figure as prominent characters.  Think of a son who inherits the family business.  In trying to make sense of his life, his choices, his situation, he narrates his life as an episode in a great drama, stretching backwards in time over multiple generations.    But the stories that we tell ourselves aren’t just about relating the present to the past.  They also look to the future. They help shape our choices and decisions.  We try to make our narratives true, by trying to become what we've told ourselves we are.

I don’t mean to make it sound like we're prisoners of the stories we tell ourselves, or the ones we inherit from our family, or our culture.  We have the freedom to reject the narratives that our society or culture or family offer up.  But we can’t make sense of ourselves or even plan for the future without some background narrative in place.   We don’t really have a choice about that.  It’s part of the human predicament.

And now it should be easier to appreciate what the third topic on our list of three – namely, reading -- has to do with the other two.  Great works of literature are rich storehouses of narrative possibilities.  In real life, we only get one time through.  We get one chance to narratively construct a self.  But the great works of literature can expose us to thousands of experiments in narrative self-construction.    So who better to help us with this trio of topics – reading, narrative, and the self -- than someone steeped in the theory of literary narratives.  That's Josh Landy from Stanford University, where he co-directs the Literature and Philosophy Initiative.  

Comments (7)


Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, November 26, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

So good to hear from you KT. Self. Narrative. Read

So good to hear from you KT. Self. Narrative. Reading. All are important facets of being, internally speaking.
They help us, or better, enable us to cope with, adapt to, and, sometimes, understand what it is we experience.
Self develops from human experience. Without that, we are as baby wolves in the woods. There is anecdotal evidence of such.
Narrative, the result of narration/story telling, came as we developed language, and stories were passed down,from one generation to the next. Somewhere or when, we developed written symbols, which later became the stuff of sentences, paragraphs---and, eventually, books. By this time, some of us could read. Later, there would be others.
The world would never be the same--of course not. That is the point that philosophers make---the point that other oracles of civilization claim for their own because they do not accept the validity of philosophy. Sound familiar? I thought you might think so. So, here is a short history of ALMOST everything. Less than a page. How's that?

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, November 27, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

re: rewriting a narrative James Ellroy wrote a bea

re: rewriting a narrative James Ellroy wrote a beautiful prologue to The Balck Dahlia twenty years after it was first published. So honest, heartfelt, personal.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, November 27, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

There has been some fascinating research in social

There has been some fascinating research in social cognition theory that strongly suggests a child's sense of personal history contributes to frontal lobe development and is thus a critical part of cognitive development. I am a psychologist and a mitigation witness in forensic cases where my primary task is to obtain a detailed and accurate social history of the defendant. In most cases, defendants' understanding of the chronology of their lives is similar to taking a box of photo slides, dumping it out on the floor, throwing away a few handfuls, then putting the rest back in the carousel and trying to make sense out of it.
On a different issue, there is no history without interpretation, whether you call it narration or not, and whether it's individual or "historical". Even when simply lining up facts, an answer to even just one simple question- like "Why did your family move?"- opens up an interpretation. The individual may say because his father lost his job, which he may believe is due to the fact that his father was unfairly treated, or to the knowledge that jobs in that field were being off-shored, or that a new owner took over and only wanted his own people on the job, all of which are both factual and interpretive.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, November 30, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

The modern scenario for culpability, blame and ret

The modern scenario for culpability, blame and retribution is rather simple: If you cannot bear to blame yourself for something, blame someone else. Even if you are the guilty party in a compromising situation, you may be able to bluff or bluster your way out of retribution. If you are successful in doing so, the success makes it easier (you think) to bluff or bluster your way out again.
This leads to many problems, but the practices are nurtured and therefore create a circular manifestation of deception which, in and of itself, erodes humanity. Call it what you may. I call it a facet of Historionicity.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, December 4, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

If we try "to become what we've told ourselves we

If we try "to become what we've told ourselves we are," then changing our detrimental choices and decisions should as easy as reinterpreting our narrative, right?

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, December 4, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

On Huber's remarks: No. Once we have made choices;

On Huber's remarks: No. Once we have made choices; once we have made decisions---those are pretty much a done deal. There are no do-overs in this life. Reinterpretation of narratives is meaningless after you have killed your dog for crapping on the floor. Unless of course, it was your husband's/wife's dog and you hated it anyway. But I would not expect the husband or wife to care much whether you were reinterpreting your narrative on not...kill my dog; I mangle your rattlesnake, and cook it in lemon butter and garlic.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, December 8, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

If we try "to become what we've told ourselves we

If we try "to become what we've told ourselves we are," then changing our detrimental choices and decisions should as easy as reinterpreting our narrative, right?

 
 
 

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