Opinion | The traps of the narrative self

As a graduate doctoral student, I find myself facing many transitions ahead. At times like these, we often use a metaphor from the book: The Stanford chapter is coming to an end and a new chapter is about to begin. This book with different chapters, of course, is my life. We find this way of speaking intuitive, and we embrace this narrative understanding of ourselves and our lives. Philosopher Daniel Dennett writes: “We are all virtuoso novelists. . . . We try to make all of our material cohesive into one good story. And this story is our autobiography.

The storytelling is powerful. Stanford’s own storytelling project “explores how we live in and through stories and, more importantly, how to deepen our lives through our own storytelling. The ever-popular TED talks are built around stories, professors urge the educational value of storytelling, and studies show that engaging in stories activates not only language-related parts of the brain, but related parts as well. to sensory experience. Receiving information in narrative form has therefore been shown to contribute to information retention.

Considering all the advantages of storytelling, some philosophers claim that we should understand each other by telling stories. Personal identity is a perpetual source of discussion in philosophy, and a narrative understanding of oneself offers a clear answer to the always thorny question of what it is it makes us: us, and by extension our lives, become understandable through the autobiographical stories we tell ourselves. A narrative self is a constructed identity, much like a fictional character created by the creative activity of an author. Some ethicists claim that living a good life – not only a subjectively pleasant life, but significant life – requires developing an understanding of our life as a whole. And that requires binding the different “chapters” of ourselves into a unifying narrative.

Zora Ilunga-Reed writes that our scope is limited when it comes to understanding self, although a slow, thoughtful process can help overcome the challenge. Kamil Aftyka defends the great ego, writing that if “ego” simply means anything that metaphysically distinguishes us from others, then the ego need not be problematic. But the problem with a narrative understanding of self is that it places that ego at the center of how we understand ourselves and our lives. The narrative self has bothered me for a long time, and the teaching of the Buddhist doctrine of non-self recently has helped me revisit and sharpen the nature of disagreement.

First, there is the question of whether people really see themselves and their lives in narrative terms, and whether living a good life requires taking a narrative perspective. Philosopher Galen Strawson is dubious, arguing that there are both “diachronic” – people who see themselves as something that was in the past and will be in the future – and “episodics” – people. who do not see themselves as something that has and will be in the future. Diachronics are more likely to see their lives in narrative terms, but if we want an episodic example, we might think of Meursault from The foreigner, who sees no problem watching a comedy the day after her mother’s funeral. The court condemns him because their narrative understanding of Meursault’s actions suggests he is a soulless monster. But the point is, we can come to understand both perspectives. Indeed, Strawson suggests that those who support the narrative ego “really only speak for themselves.”

Leaving aside this empirical question of how people actually understand each other, I tend to think that the narrative self is not a morally conducive setting for most people, as it by definition comes to the fore. and central to the narrative – and this, too often, also leads to ego centering. When the ego is in check, it can be synonymous with “self-esteem”; but when the ego goes wild, as it often does, it becomes synonymous with self-importance.

The teaching of the Buddhist doctrine of non-self reminded me that much of the spiritual / religious teaching of the world can be boiled down to “starving the ego; feed the soul. “The concern with the narrative self is that it prevents you from doing just that – the state of mind where yourself is the main character in a story risks encouraging myopia in others. Is it possible? to understand myself as a character in a story without relegating everyone to minor characters, or at least to characters useless to the story in question?

Think of the hundreds of downed stormtroopers in Star Wars stories, or all the low-ranking villains a hero wounded before a final showdown with the villain. I find it hard to delve into such stories because I can’t shake the feeling that each of these stormtroopers or minor criminals are the main characters in their own stories. It’s just that the story we’re being told doesn’t have them as the main character. What happens when society is full of people telling their own stories with themselves as the main character?

We don’t even have to go to fiction to see how self-narrative understanding can hurt empathy and the search for truth. I remember seeing Brett Kavanaugh testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2018 and thinking that even important teachings like “work hard and don’t give up when the going is tough” can be corrupted when combined with a narrative approach. which is placed in the center. . Kavanaugh’s opening statement betrayed the selfish framework with which he approached the allegations. “I will not be intimidated to withdraw from the process,” he said, continuing, “You have put in a great effort. You gave it your all. No one can question your efforts … [but] that won’t chase me away. You can beat me in the final vote, but you will never force me to resign. Never.”

In an audition centered on a woman he had harmed, Kavanaugh turned the opportunity into an exercise in perseverance, proof that he is not a let go. It smacked of self-interest, contrary to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s statement, which was somewhat more of a public interest-driven despite the extremely personal and vulnerable nature of what she shared.

Kavanaugh’s audience provides a vivid example of narrative self-understanding gone awry. Of course, I’m all for persistence, hard work, resilience, and standing up for what you think is right. But when other people and their injuries are involved, it is wrong to do things about your own goals and incessant activities, like that of a champion. When you are so focused on your own path, how do you make room for others? Using an autobiographical narrative as the lens through which we experience the world cannot encourage empathetic recognition from others.

Maybe I’m just put off by a few bad examples. Sometimes when colleagues or students – especially ambitious types – talk about wanting to Help people and worry that their current path is not the best way to do it, my heart shrinks with suspicion. Of course I support creating this better world for others. But sometimes I can’t help but get a glimpse of this (self-enlarging) ego that just wants to be the kind of person who can and will want, change the world. What a crime it would be to rob the world of such an effective humanitarian! (But in the meantime… could they start by being a better colleague, friend, teacher?) Is it possible to be attracted to good without want to be the kind of person attracted to the good? Apparently, we spend most of our time focusing on Zoom, but really: is it ever possible to fix our gaze away from ourselves, even in altruism?

Ultimately my problem with the narrative self is that it encourages a sort of life that keeps its eyes on itself – and I just don’t know if that’s a good, let alone the best, way to live. .

Nic Bommarito maintains that modesty begins by looking away from yourself. The modest person doesn’t experience the world on their own, and that’s what is so refreshing about them. Strawson writes that “the best lives hardly ever involve this kind of self-disclosure,” and I agree. When life is no longer “about” you in a way that Anna karenina concerns the eponymous character, we could be open to other people, to experiences and to things as they really are. Maybe self-understanding is like happiness; if you have to actively pursue it, you are doing it wrong. All the more reason to stop telling stories about ourselves to make sense of who we are.


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