In his paper “Against Narrativity” (in Real Materialism and Other Essays, Oxford: Clarendon Press 2008), Galen Strawson attacks two common views: the descriptive claim that we typically experience our life as some kind of narrative or story (aka the ‘psychological Narrativity thesis’) and the related, but logically independent normative claim that a truly good human life requires such a narrative outlook (aka the ‘ethical Narrativity thesis’). Both claims, Strawson holds, are actually false because there are in fact “deeply non-Narrative people and there are good ways to live that are deeply non-Narrative.”
According to Strawson, there are two types of people, those who experience their self as being extended in time and those who do not. Both are perfectly normal, and both can equally flourish as human beings. The former simply have a diachronic self-experience, and the latter an episodic one. Those with diachronic self-experience (the ‘diachronics’) falsely believe that everybody is like them, while in fact some (perhaps many) are not. As it happens, they are also mistaken about the true nature of the self. ‘Episodics’ have a better grasp of what the self actually, “as a matter of metaphysical fact”, is, namely something momentary, which is always just beginning (and presumably also always about to end). Obviously, episodics do not experience their life as a story (because in order to experience your life as a story, you need to experience your self as being extended over time). Only diachronics (though not necessarily all of them) do. How, then, do episodics experience their life?
Strawson identifies himself as an episodic. He thus can bear witness to what it is like to be one. Of course he is aware of having a past and a future, or more precisely, he is aware that the human being Galen Strawson has a past and a future. But he himself, or the self that he is, does not (despite remembering some of Galen Strawson’s past as if it had happened to himself, that is, from a first-person perspective). “I”, he confides, “have absolutely no sense of my life as a narrative with form, or indeed as a narrative without form. Absolutely none. (…) I have no significant sense that I – the I now considering this question – was there in the further past.” Strictly speaking, he writes, what happened to the human being Galen Strawson in the past (and I am assuming this includes GS’s actions) is not something that happened to him. In other words, my past self is not me. It’s another. (Perhaps that is what Rimbaud meant when he said “Je est un autre”.) If I know this, then I am an episodic. An episodic seems to be someone who is smart enough not to (falsely) identify with his previous and future incarnations.
Now several ethicists wrestling with the question what constitutes a good human life have suggested that in order to live a good, not only subjectively pleasant, but meaningful human life, we need to develop some understanding of our life as a whole by binding the various episodes of our life together into a coherent, unifying narrative. This is often being treated as pretty obvious. Strawson, however, denies that it is in any way necessary. On the contrary, he argues, “the best lives almost never involve this kind of self-telling.” Yet why exactly he thinks that is not entirely clear to me. My guess is that the reason for it is this: Strawson seems to (rather conventionally) assume that a truthful life is better than an untruthful one, and he believes that any attempt to view your life as a coherent whole is an attempt to blind yourself to what he calls the “truth of your being”. The more you build your self-conception on memory, which is notoriously unreliable, and the more you try to give yourself an identity by constructing a narrative of your life, the less likely you are to understand who and what you really are. Narrative self-articulation “almost always does more harm than good” because it is, “in general, a gross hindrance to self-understanding: to a just, general, practically real sense, implicit or explicit, of one’s nature.” So in short, a non-narrative life is more truthful and therefore (in this respect) better.
Strawson is willing to defy Socrates and with him, it seems, our entire philosophical tradition by suggesting that the unexamined life might actually be better than the examined life. That is quite an extraordinary and actually rather refreshing statement. Far from being deprived in some way, he says, “truly happy-go-lucky, see-what-comes-along lives are among the best there are, vivid, blessed, profound.” Better, in other words, to be a grasshopper singing through the summer than an ant worrying about the days to come. It is easy to see the attraction. Perhaps life can indeed be lived better if we are unburdened by the certainties of the past, and the uncertainties of the future. Until winter comes, of course (and winter always comes in the end), but that does not need to concern us because it won’t happen to us. We will long be gone then. Is that what Strawson means? I’m not entirely sure, but it sure sounds like it. Such a view on life does of course also have a place in our philosophical tradition. It ties in with Horace’s advice to “seize the day” (carpe diem) and the Stoic precept not to concern oneself with the things that one cannot control (which includes the past and the future). There is certainly some wisdom in this.
Yet there is another reason why I feel attracted to Strawson’s rejection of the ethical Narrativity thesis. That we need to give our life a coherent narrative shape in order to live a good (human) life is a claim that is usually made in the context of discussions about meaning in life (though Strawson does not mention meaningfulness at all in his paper – he just talks about the “good” life). A good human life, the standard argument goes, is more than just a happy (subjectively good, pleasurable) life. A happy life is not a good life if it is meaningless, and it cannot be meaningful without having (at the very least) some kind of narrative coherence. What bothers me about this argument and the whole discourse focusing on meaning in life is that is generally assumed that only human lives can be meaningful. Yet if only a meaningful life is a truly good life, then non-human animals cannot have a truly good life. In fact, if their lives are not meaningful, then they seem to be meaningless, and being meaningless is much the same as being pointless, which is much the same as being not worth living in the first place. But it seems to me that an animal’s life certainly is worth living and that it is not pointless, even though it may not have a point. Yet if an animal’s life is worth living without having a point and without being meaningful in any of the usual senses, then perhaps a human life can also be worth living without that. Strawson seems to suggest that it can, and I like that.
However, what I find problematic is the underlying metaphysical claim about the supposedly true nature of the self. It is difficult to see what truth it is that we fail to grasp when we experience ourselves as being extended in time and when we understand each episode of our lives as being connected to other, earlier and later, episodes in a narrative fashion. Perhaps all that Strawson means here is that, as diachronics, we fail to understand the true nature of selves in general (as opposed to the true nature of our own individual self) because we believe that our selves are temporally extended while in fact they are not. But I don’t think we can really know what the self is. Perhaps it does not even make sense to ask whether the self is in fact episodic or diachronic. Or perhaps the self is both, episodic and diachronic, in the sense that in some respect we are the same self that we were yesterday, and in other respects a new self is born at every new moment in time. It is, in any case, far from obvious, what the self really is, “as a matter of metaphysical fact”.
That episodics are better at understanding the nature of their individual selves is also rather unlikely because such an understanding would require self-reflection, and self-reflection is not possible without some kind of story-telling. After all, if Strawson is right, then the self on which I reflect is never the self that does the reflecting. It is always in the past and a different self, and that different self needs to be narratively constructed before it can be examined. But it is not only self-reflection that relies on story-telling. All perception is already the telling of a story. It is an activity where narrative decisions are being made: about who is playing the lead and who the supporting actors are, what is important and what is not, where things have come from and where they are heading, the (likely) causes and purposes of events and actions. Perceiving the world is already a way of making sense of it, and we make sense of things by constructing plots for them, by weaving them into a coherent storyline. You cannot perceive anything without that. In that sense we are all natural born story-tellers.
Another problem is that if I don’t identify with my future selves (which, according to Strawson, I shouldn’t if I can help it), then I have no good reason to make sure that my life (the life of Michael Hauskeller) will continue to go well. If I truly believe that those future selves of Michael Hauskeller are, despite appearances, not me, then what happens to those selves need not be of any concern to me (or at least not of more concern than what happens to the selves of other people). Yet if I don’t care what happens to my future selves, then the good life that I might be having now is unlikely to last very long.
We may also wonder what a determined episodic makes of moral feelings such as responsibility, guilt, shame, remorse, or gratitude, all of which only seem to make sense if I see myself as the same self that has done certain things in the past, and to whom certain things have happened. Do episodic selves not have those feelings, or do they regard them as misleading? Again, it is not completely absurd to think that we might actually be better off if we did not have those feelings. A guilt- and remorse-free existence has a certain appeal, but unless we are willing to accept that one needs to be a psychopath in order to live a truly good human life, we should probably reject the suggestion.