Once upon a time I was having dinner at the home of a colleague, a professional philosopher. The conversation took an intriguing turn when my colleague revealed that he had virtually no visual memory. Of course I had known that people remember things and events with varying degrees of vivacity and in different ways. Some folks remember conversations by hearing the voices of the participants. Others focus on the ideas, moods, or visual images. Nevertheless, I was surprised to hear that my colleague could not recollect common objects, except in an almost abstract form. So, for example, if he tried to recall a Coca Cola bottle, the best he could do is see an outline of the shape, a sort of stick figure version of a bottle. My colleague had no trouble remembering ideas, events, dates, places, etc. He just couldn’t visualize (very well).
If I were inclined to argue against the notion that visualization is a capacity universal to human beings, I might draw on my colleague’s experience. I would offer his case as a counterexample to prove that visualization isn’t universal. But this would be misleading. A reasonable alternative hypothesis, given that we know that people have different capacities for recollection, would be to see my colleague’s limitations on one end of a continuum. On the other end we would find those with a photographic memory for visual images, with most of us falling between the extremes. So it would be correct to say that the ability to visualize isn’t universal, if we mean by “universal” what everyone does in the same fashion and to the same degree. However, if instead we mean by “universal” a typical capacity or experience of human beings, with some individuals falling so far at the end of the bell curve that they can barely visualize, then using the term “universal” might be more acceptable. Of course the best solution would be not to use the term “universal” in this context, for there are few proven universals, if any, when discussing human experience. Better to say, human beings typically experience x or y in this fashion, and qualify the claim further by saying: at this place and time.*
Instead of treating the propensity for storytelling about oneself as existing on a spectrum, and contextualizing it historically, Galen Strawson, in his “I Am Not a Story” (Aeon), divides people into two groups: story tellers and non-storytellers. His goal is to undermine the notion that storytelling about oneself is universal. He does so by offering counterexamples, a few instances of people who don’t experience themselves in terms of stories. This anecdotal evidence comes mainly from his experiences and those of several literary figures. But proceeding in this fashion is a risky business. From the evidence that he supplies we could easily conclude that he is dealing with outliers, that is, those whose narrative threads are much thinner than the typical person’s (in Western societies), so much so that it seems as if they don’t have a capacity for self-referential narratives. But like visualization, mutatis mutandis, we expect that most people have a facility for self narrative. No doubt outliers exist, but they are most interesting not as a proof against narrative’s general usefulness or pervasiveness, but as windows into how selfhood may get constituted in different ways.
In the name of respecting difference, Strawson wants us to recognize that there are people who don’t experience their lives as narratives. Fair enough. But dig down a bit deeper in the article and you realize that this is by no means the only agenda. Strawson moves from asking us to respect the experiences of those who don’t engage in self narration to suggesting that non-narrativists may be more moral and authentic than storytellers. In other words, the article draws readers in by asking us to be more generous about how we treat non-narrativists, specifically, by arguing that narration is not universal, but then introduces claims that have nothing to do with the universality of narration.** For example, early on Strawson makes this claim:
I think it’s false – false that everyone stories themselves, and false that it’s always a good thing.
Okay, this seems reasonable. Sure. Sometimes storytelling may be problematic, not a good thing. However, later on we are offered ahistorical claims about human life that shade into the normative or quasi-normative, and support the notion that storytelling is intrinsically problematic—that is, not merely problematic in the sense that too many people are committed to a false universalism or a false belief that narrative is always a good, but that individuals who engage in creating narratives about their lives are suspect.
But many of us aren’t Narrative in this sense. We’re naturally – deeply – non-Narrative. We’re anti-Narrative by fundamental constitution. It’s not just that the deliverances of memory are, for us, hopelessly piecemeal and disordered, even when we’re trying to remember a temporally extended sequence of events. The point is more general. It concerns all parts of life, life’s ‘great shambles’, in the American novelist Henry James’s expression. This seems a much better characterisation of the large-scale structure of human existence as we find it. Life simply never assumes a story-like shape for us. And neither, from a moral point of view, should it.
Montaigne writes the unstoried life – the only life that matters, I’m inclined to think.
But when the English dramatist Sir Henry Taylor observed in 1836 that ‘an imaginative man is apt to see, in his life, the story of his life; and is thereby led to conduct himself in such a manner as to make a good story of it rather than a good life’, he’s identifying a fault, a moral danger. This is a recipe for inauthenticity.
Of course the obvious response to the last point is that there are far more consequential moral problems than inauthenticity, and that if we really don’t have a unity, narrative or otherwise, of some type to our lives, one wonders who or what can be held responsible for immoral actions committed by an individual. (Oh, that guy. He stole your 55” flatscreen and set fire to your house. That’s not me any more. I can barely recall what you’re talking about.)
One of the peculiarities of Strawson’s article is its striking lack of refinement in dealing with key terms and ideas, for example, person, self, life-story, and identity are not distinguished. (These are obviously important distinctions: a comatose individual remains a person even if his or her self is not present.) It is surprising to see Strawson overlooking these basic distinctions, especially given how much he has written on the self. Further, he never bothers to distinguish in any consistent fashion different kinds of stories or narratives—he says that the narrativists aren’t clear about these matters, but this doesn’t mean we should let him off the hook about defining his terms—so we don’t know what constitutes the basic features of a story, its necessary features, in order to make it a story and not just a chronology. At times he appears to assume that certain ways of dealing with experience are not narration, when in fact they may simply be a thin type of narration.
The problems don’t stop there. Strawson also seems to suggest that people who claim that stories are important to selfhood are unaware of the fact that transparent self-knowledge is impossible. He makes it sound as if they are delusional about the possibility of self-knowledge, because they don’t appreciate the fallibility of memory. Strawson quotes Montaigne for the observation that he “knows his memory is hopelessly untrustworthy, and he concludes that the fundamental lesson of self-knowledge is knowledge of self-ignorance.” *** But the proponents of narrative don’t need to make grandiose claims about self-knowledge. Stories are always more or less true. Authenticity-seekers will try to make their stories as truthful and as consistent as they can, recognizing that total transparency is unrealizable, recognizing that ignorance comes with the territory.
Strawson’s essay is something of a muddle in terms of how much it tries to cover and how much it runs together. In addition, it commits the sin that it rails against.
The narrativists are, at best, generalising from their own case, in an all-too-human way. At best: I doubt that what they say is an accurate description even of themselves.
Strawson, crusader against the hasty generalizations of storytellers, is now, at best, hastily generalizing about the accuracy of what narrativists may be saying about themselves.****
Strawson’s essay, “I Am Not a Story,” appeared in a popular outlet, Aeon. It was excerpted from a book chapter in a forthcoming volume to be published by an academic press. On Life-Writing, edited by Zachary Leader, Oxford University Press, October 2015. (Some might say that the popular venue of Strawson’s Aeon essay releases its author from an obligation to define terms and clarify basic concepts. On the contrary. Professional philosophers, in my view, have a heightened responsibility to take care to clarify the issues at hand when writing for a general audience.)
* My approach here is more modest than Stawson’s. I neither seek nor claim to be addressing cross-cultural universality regarding self narratives, either pro or con. These are questions best left to anthropologists and historians. My comments refer to those living in Western cultures.
** In addition, Strawson seems to want to undermine the notion that narrative can be a path to self-determination. “[T]he experience of self-constituting self-authorship seems real enough. When it comes to the actual existence of self-authorship, however – the reality of some process of self-determination in or through life as life-writing – I’m skeptical.”
*** Strawson appears to believe that limitations of memory undermine the value of narratives, because they lead to fictions, and this subverts the value of self narrative. The following passage is telling in this regard.
Once one is on the lookout for comments on memory, one finds them everywhere. There is a constant discord of opinion. I think the British writer James Meek is accurate when he describes Light Years (1975) by the American novelist James Salter: “Salter strips out the narrative transitions and explanations and contextualisations, the novelistic linkages that don’t exist in our actual memories, to leave us with a set of remembered fragments, some bright, some ugly, some bafflingly trivial, that don’t easily connect and can’t be put together as a whole, except in the sense of chronology, and in the sense that they are all that remains.” Meek takes it that this is true of everyone, and it is perhaps the most common case. Salter in Light Years finds a matching disconnection in life itself: “There is no complete life. There are only fragments. We are born to have nothing, to have it pour through our hands.”
****Strawson doesn’t give us any evidence here. Any arguments. Just assertion. And there is no account of what criteria should be used to determine when and if a story is “accurate.” (By definition a story can’t simply be a repetition of events. It’s not a transcript. Therefore, stories must always introduce some degree of “inaccuracy.”) After taking the narrativists to task on the issues of authenticity and accuracy, Strawson leaves us in the dark regarding the question of how to balance the value of “accuracy” against the meaning that stories provide in the face of life’s trials.