October/November 2011

HUMAN BEINGS ARE INEXTRICABLY ENTANGLED IN STORIES

Written by Norbert Meuter

Plato refers to stories and myths that serve as a point of departure and exemplification for his abstract teachings, a tradition that continues in philosophy even today. Underlying this practice is the idea that the function of narrative is to provide concrete examples in support of conceptual arguments. Hegel formulates the insight that philosophical concepts can themselves only be understood as the end result of their own story (Plotnitsky, Arkady (2005a). “Philosophy and Narrative.” D. Herman et al. (eds). The Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory. London: Routledge, 427–28.2005a).

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Husserl’s disciple Schapp (Schapp, Wilhelm ([1953] 1985) was the first to develop a distinctive “philosophy of stories.” According to his main thesis, the human being is not the autonomous subject of his own constructions of meaning, but throughout his life is inextricably “entangled in stories” which are the prerequisite for the formation of his identity and subjectivity. Since, according to Schapp, stories are the fundamental medium without which we would not be able to perceive meaning, one is justified―with reference to Heidegger―in speaking of a “narrative being‐in‐the‐world.”

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This philosophical point of departure raises questions concerning the constructive character of narrative. Explicitly told stories are symbolic constructions. The question is whether, and in what way, these constructions are connected with the experience and behavior of the individuals concerned. From a philosophical perspective, an assumed dualism of artificial form and real events (cf. 2.2 above) appears equally contestable. Human experience and behaviour do not show well‐organized narrative patterns comparable to the careful compositions of fiction and history writing. Rather, the identifying and shaping of a narrative structure of a certain complexity, with a clear point of view, an individual line of suspense, a characteristic peripeties, etc., is always the result of an active endeavour. On the other hand, experience and behaviour cannot exist without some kind of structure. If, for example, one presupposes that to act means (at least partly) to follow a project, this already constitutes a complex achievement, even on the level of action. There is constant interference in and interruption of the project in hand by other experiences, actions and projects. In addition, it is often not clear from the beginning whether one is actually engaged in a project at all. Without at least a rudimentary narrative structure, it would not be possible to find one’s way even on the level of action (Danto Danto, Arthur C. (1965). Analytical Philosophy of History. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.1965; Carr Carr, David (1986). Time, Narrative, and History. Bloomington: Indiana UP.1986). The idea of a single act seen in isolation is therefore a false abstraction, and for this reason, the concept of story is as fundamental a philosophical term as the concept of action (MacIntyre MacIntyre, Alasdair ([1981] 2007). After Virtue. A Study in Moral Theory. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P.1981;

With Ricœur, who has put forth what is perhaps the most comprehensive philosophical theory of narrativity (Ricœur, Paul ([1983/85] 1984/88). Time and Narration. 3 vols. Chicago: U of Chicago P: vol. 1 ([1983] 1984); vol. 2 ([1984] 1985); vol. 3 ([1985] 1988).1983/85), it is possible to argue a case for a kind of compromise. Ricœur draws on the classic philosophers that are relevant here (Aristotle, Augustine, Dilthey, Husserl, Heidegger, Schapp) as well as on literary and historical theory, integrating them into a comprehensive narratological hermeneutics. Its key theoretical concept is the three‐part mimesis, the aspects of which are not seen in a hierarchical relationship, but in an integrative one. Accordingly, the composition of an explicit story (Mimesis II) is always a creative act that provides a new and unique view of reality, but at the same time, this always follows on from something that has gone before this process. Every story points to a “before.” The referent in this relation (Mimesis I) is the “lived world,” which is itself already organized as narrative, at least in part. Because of their symbolic and temporal aspects, real‐life actions have an inherently pre‐narrative structure. Every explicit story, on the other hand, meets its intended target only when it is perceived by a recipient (Mimesis III). Reception is made possible because of the inherent openness of the explicit stories in general terms. These stories―regardless of how precisely and concretely they might be told―contain no truly individual events, but simply schematized conceptions that have to be concretized by the recipient. The three types of mimesis form a temporal unit as a circular cultural process that is constantly evolving: through reception, the explicit narrative configuration once again becomes part of the real‐life experience of the experiencing and acting recipient who can expand, confirm or vary the pre‐existing pre‐ narrative structures. Such a newly and differently (re‐)configured real‐life situation in turn forms the basis for the next explicit configuration. Narrative therefore involves mediation between common cultural standards and exceptional deviations from these standards, hence a complex interplay of tradition and innovation (→ Mediacy and Narrative Mediation).

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In this model, the narrative “seeing‐things‐ together” (prendre‐ensemble) can be understood as the construction and establishment of a meaningful and more or less coherent or probable order created out of dissonant, scattered or random elements. The important point is the ontological distinction between event and incident (Ricœur Ricœur, Paul ([1965] 2007). History and Truth. Evanston: Northwestern UP.1965). An incident is defined by its complete contingency, as something that occurs in a certain manner but could equally occur in a different manner, or not at all. A story transforms a series of heterogeneous incidents into meaningful events within a diachronic structure. The composition of a story is a process that organizes various components into a whole in order to produce a single meaningful effect. The narrative seeing‐things‐ together transforms the irrational contingency of non‐contextualized incidents into an intelligible contingency of events. In the tradition of Kant, this seeing‐things‐ together can be described as a “synthesis of the heterogeneous.”

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Inquiry into the personal identity of the individual is a further philosophical area of research in the field of narrativity. Narrative approaches to this issue (Ricœur Ricœur, Paul ([1983/85] 1984/88). Time and Narration. 3 vols. Chicago: U of Chicago P: vol. 1 ([1983] 1984); vol. 2 ([1984] 1985); vol. 3 ([1985] 1988).1985, Ricœur, Paul ([1990] 1992). Oneself as Another. Chicago: U of Chicago P.1990; Kerby Kerby, Anthony Paul (1991). Narrative and the Self. Bloomington: Indiana UP.1991; Meuter Meuter, Norbert (1995). Narrative Identität. Das Problem der personalen Identität im Anschluß an Ernst Tugendhat, Niklas Luhmann und Paul Ricœur. Stuttgart: Metzler/Poeschel.1995; Brockmeier & Carbough eds. Brockmeier, Jens & Donald Carbough, eds. (2001). Narrative and Identity. Studies in Autobiography, Self, and Culture. Amsterdam: Benjamins.2001; for further discussion, see Strawson Strawson, Galen (2004). “Against Narrativity.” Ratio n.s. 17, 428–52.2004) assume that personal identity is formed and stabilized only through the telling of stories (→ Identity and Narration). The identity of the individual person differs fundamentally from the numerical identity of individual objects. Personal identity rests upon a self‐image that is physical, emotional, mental as well as practical, and this self‐image is internally reflected and externally communicated in the narrative process. Corresponding to these two forms of usage, it is possible to distinguish two types of identity (Ricœur Ricœur, Paul ([1983/85] 1984/88). Time and Narration. 3 vols. Chicago: U of Chicago P: vol. 1 ([1983] 1984); vol. 2 ([1984] 1985); vol. 3 [1985] 1988).1985, Ricœur, Paul ([1990] 1992). Oneself as Another. Chicago: U of Chicago P.1990): on the one hand, identity as “sameness” (German: Selbigkeit; Latin: idem; French: mêmeté); on the other hand, identity as “selfhood” (German: Selbstheit; Latin: ipse; French: ipséité). Narrative identities are invariably ipse‐identities which are constantly reconfigured through the telling of stories.

The full essay can be found at ‘The living handbook of narratology.’
http://hup.sub.uni‐ hamburg.de/lhn/index.php/Narration_in_Various_Disciplines