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Your Story, Your Identity May 22, 2007

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Science.

 The most e-mailed article today in the New York Times was, to my delight, this one: “This is Your Life (and How You Tell It).”  Narrative psychologists have, after years of making assumptions, finally got it down: (1) We actually do tell our own story, and (2) it actually matters to us. Studies, described in detail in the article, show that similar personalities tend to tell similar stories, and our stories often involve a learning experience, projecting us into the future. The narrative capacity is a fundamental human feature. Why am I delighted? For one thing, I’m glad psychologists have done the legwork here, substantiating claims that otherwise belonged to the realm of speculation, and I’m also glad that readers find it interesting. But what I hope we philosophers will point out to the narrative psychologists is that narrative philosophy has been doing the speculative work for years, coming to the same conclusions by way of analysis and observation. Alasdair MacIntyre, Wayne Booth, Paul Ricoeur and Martha Nussbaum, among others, have, each with their own perspective, weighed in on the importance of story-telling. In particular Paul Ricoeur, in his book Oneself as Another, has focused on the morally fortifying and even liberating capacity of humans to mold their lives by treating their life events as elements of a story they are co-authoring. Two directions in narrative philosophy come together in Ricoeur’s work: The ontological and the ethical: We understand ourselves existentially through stories, but it also becomes a moral imperative to do so, in order to give our life direction, to rectify what we may have done wrong, and to gain a perspective on our lives. In addition, we change the story as we change, and we even tell different stories, depending on the context. When, on a first date, the moment comes when you are asked to “tell something about yourself,” you’d better have a story to tell, or the date is a wash-out right there…but it isn’t the same story that you would tell in a job interview, is it? This is why Ricoeur talks about narrative unity, striving not only to be able to tell our own story, but also to make sure the story fragments we tell are somehow all reflecting our true self, even the ones where we embellish somewhat. (It is a separate but interesting question how much lying to oneself, about oneself, matters to one’s sense of identity…the movie Memento comes to mind…) Philosophers and psychologists don’t necessarily converse a lot these days, but I find it encouraging that these studies converge: From narrative psychology we now have the stats—from narrative ethics we already have the normative perspective. So let’s all practice telling our own story from time to time, even in the third person. Do it too much, and you’re a narcissist…do it once in a while, and you’ll learn things about yourself that you never knew…



1. Dwight Furrow - May 24, 2007


This is quite an interesting development in psychology. And you are quite right that philosophers have been on to this for some time.

I think there is something that philosophy can contribute here. One thing I thought was missing from the reporting on this research (hopefully in contrast to the actual research) is any notion that the narrative must in some sense be true in order for it to constitute a genuine identity. (There are similar worries with memory theories as well.)

People tell themselves inaccurate stories about themselves rather routinely. Although I imagine self-deception can sometimes be therapeutic, I doubt that it is effective in most cases. In fact, doesn’t schizophrenia, in part, involve a self-narrative that is grossly at odds with the other narratives in which the patient is a character? Thus, from a philosophical and psychological point of view, narratives must satisfy truth conditions. So what are the truth conditions for a narrative that confers identity?

I also found the contrast between first person and third person points of view in narrative interesting. It might help solve a philosophical problem. I have often thought that moral deliberation takes place in narrative form. When thinking about what one should do, we construct various courses of action as imaginative narratives, and our choices are often governed by features of the narrative structure.

Perhaps one way of thinking about impartiality is to characterize it as adopting a third person point of view on one’s own imagined conduct. Of course, it is not genuine impartiality–it is my imagination from my perspective that generates the narrative. We cannot escape that. But there is a sense of distance and reflection that gets closer to the perspective of actual, responsible deliberators.

A phenomenology of what considerations are bracketed when adopting the third person narrative position might be useful.

2. Thea - May 25, 2007

Dr. Furrow,

You brought up a really good point. I’d like to explore it a little more.

Now, I happen to know two schizophrenics personally. Their self narratives don’t seem to be any more deceptive than anyone else’s. In fact, based on my observations, self-deception is pretty much the norm in our society. I think that the problem with schizophrenics are that the WAYS in which their perceptions differ (for example, different spatial recognition) happen to collide negatively with society. That, plus they hear voices. (ha, ha)

Now, take an egomaniac. A REAL egomaniac. I happen to know one personally. His distorted self-perception propelled his legal career into warp speed. It got him into one of the finest schools that we know of and he now has an extremely prestigious clerkship for a federal judge. Is he smart? Meh. But, everyone who buys his line of bull thinks he is!

Each has narratives that differ grossly from well, MY third person perspective of themselves, but one functions in society beautifully while two do not.

So, how could philosophers have a meta-discussion (is that the right term?) on truth conditions? I’ve come up with a few ideas off the top of my head. One: Functionalism. However, that would have ugly consequences. It would essentially mean functional as defined by Men’s Health magazine, FOX news or where ever it is that your average person gets his or her idea of normal or right. Two: Truth could be defined by a group of select philosophers that lack an agenda (snicker). I think this is where you’re headed with impartiality. Three: relativism. Oy.

3. Thea - May 25, 2007


I thought everyone might enjoy this:


Essentially, the importance of storytelling to children has become part of the conventional parenting advice lately. I’m seeing articles like this everywhere, but this is the first link that popped up. Now, they’re not just advising reading books, but actual story telling. The premise is that story telling helps a child understand his or her place in the world as well as make sense of difficult events.

Personally, I’ve put this advice to the test with astonishing results. It seems that the younger the child is, the more marked the need for these narratives. So, this is an example of how I’ve seen it work. A young child spills milk. Their eyes well up with tears and they’ll struggle to tell you what happened. “The milk…” “It dropped.” This will go on until either they or you form a complete narrative such as “You moved your hand to the right and your hand hit the milk glass and then, the milk fell on the floor.” They look at you with relief and say, “Yes.” and then, they go on with their lives.

So, this is a really interesting topic. But, there’s another problem here for me. Africans and African Americans have been knowing this for years. In fact, storytelling to chlidren is totally incorporated into their culture. The African American mother leans down to the tearful child and say, “I know what happened Sugar. Your hand hit the glass and the milk fell on the floor and now you have to pick it up.” The child is relieved that someone understands and the tears stop.

Yet, western child psychologists are passing this skill off as if they invented it. Makes me wonder.

4. Dwight Furrow - May 27, 2007


You pose a number of interesting issues here.

So in this post we are supposing that a person is self-identical over time just in case she is able to tell a coherent story about her past and present that enables her to intelligibly anticipate a future. Thus, the self is a kind of narrative. It follows then that relationships between two or more people are constituted by overlapping narratives. With regard to friends and immediate family members we have significant points of overlap and tightly woven narrative threads, although of course the overlap cannot be complete and still remain separate persons. Other relationships would be constituted by narratives with some though significantly less overlap.

Part of what makes my own narrative intelligible to me is that it coheres well with the narratives that others tell about me and about our shared experiences. So there are intelligibility constraints on these narratives. To the extent the story I tell myself about myself is not severely at odds with the story others tell about me, I have a sense of my own identity that is largely congruent with how others see me. However this is compatible with there being some discrepancy between narratives. You are right that self-deception is common, but there are limits to how pervasive it can be given the intelligibility constraints on narratives.

I am no expert on mental illness, but it seems to me schizophrenia is a disease that admits of degrees. To the extent that a schizophrenic is aware of her condition, can recognize symptoms, and can recognize when her story is beginning to seriously diverge from the stories others would tell about her she may be able to acknowledge these intelligibility constraints and maintain healthy relationships, etc.

However, there are some people who suffer from serious delusions—for example, people who think they are Joan of Arc. In this case, a person’s self-narrative significantly diverges from the narrative others would tell of her. Yet, her self-narrative may be perfectly intelligible to her. Must we grant that she is really Joan of Arc? I don’t think so. Thus, there have to be truth conditions that constrain narratives. In this case, truth seems to mean “coheres well with the story others tell.”

However, suppose that this person who thinks she is Joan of Arc is very persuasive and lots of people begin to agree that she is Joan of Arc. Must we grant that she really is Joan of Arc since her story no longer diverges from the one others tell? Again, I don’t think so. This, I take it, is your worry about Fox News reality or the use of some account of normality to justify a particular story as true. What is normal may be a product of delusion. Thus, we need a more robust account of the truth conditions here. And I am not sure if the narrative account of identity can supply them.

The case of the egoist than that of the schizophrenic I think. The egoist is deluded in a variety of ways. But it seems to me an egoist must be quite good at figuring out what others think of her and presenting a narrative that coheres well with what others think of her, in order to advance her interests. Thus, she is adept at telling a narrative about herself from a second or third person point of view—i.e. as others see her—though she doesn’t believe it. She simply deploys it strategically. She has to sustain two sets of narratives, the delusional one that confirms her self-importance and the one that is constrained by the narratives of others that she presents as her public self. I think it is not easy to be a full-blown egoist.

5. Thea - May 30, 2007

Dr. Furrow,

I like what you’re saying about more robust truth conditions, but I still think that the narratives have tremendous value. What I’m finding fascinating in this discussion is the need for empirical accuracy. For me, personally, I’m not especially interested in whether my narratives converge with others’. From reading your posts, I’m beginning to wonder whether that’s somehow bad. Basically, though, I’m comfortable with and fully expect that others’ narratives will be different. I actually enjoy that diversity and enjoy exchanging narratives (of the same events) with others. I think that’s one of the ways we learn.

But, say were going to pursue empirical accuracy. If what you’re saying is that you feel confident in the truth of your own narrative because it converges well with others, it seems like what you’re saying is sort of based on Berkeley’s view of reality. Can we criss-cross fields like that? All that is true is what we think is true; our ideas. So, Person A can evaluate the accuracy of Person B’s narrative based on Person A’s idea of truth?

Now, if your close friends and family have a strong overlap with your narrative and strangers have less of an overlap, what about cultural and religious overlaps? Or, intellectual, political and value-system overlaps? In my opinion, this is where a physicalist could come in. Measuring the gaps between perceiver intimacy and closeness with the original narrative.

There are also gender differences. A man once confessed to me that at his child’s school, he doesn’t speak to the other parents. He says that there is a complex power play at work that he is unable to understand. What he does know if he converses with the wrong woman, his wife will later accuse him of being a traitor. This man’s exact words were, “When women interact, men have no idea what’s going on.” The same could be said of a woman’s ignorance of the power play among men. There’s apparently some language involving spatial relations and feet that can totally elude a female. The media capitalizes on these differences with stories titled, “He said, she said.”

How about this one my religious mother used to give me, “You tripped on that rock because God is punishing you for rotten deeds or thoughts.” My narrative defined the fall as merely the result of a miscalculation by my brain or poor eye-foot coordination. So yes, we both agreed on the trip and the rock, but her narrative had an extra player on the scene: God. That is no slight difference! Yet, I don’t think that either of us was untruthful or nuts.

I guess it’s no mistake that in the U.S., our transgressions are judged by “a jury of our peers.”

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