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Ontology and Narrative

Essence is thin. Existence is thick.

Leslie Paul Thiele

“Odysseus and Nausicaa,” by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1819). Via Wikimedia Commons.

A specialist on the media once wrote: “The best way to control and manipulate an individual is not to tell them what to do; that always generates resistance, hostility and defiance. Instead, tell a person who and what they are. They will end up eating out of your hand.”11xWilson Bryan Key, Subliminal Seduction: Ad Media’s Manipulation of a Not So Innocent America (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1973) 70. It sounds nefarious. But if one substitutes “persuade and encourage” for “control and manipulate,” the pronouncement describes democratic politics at its best. A similar substitution might be made to depict the dynamics of moral life.

The question at hand, then, is how does one help people discover who and what they are? Ontology, which pursues metaphysical access to the nature of our being, may be a contender. However, not many people read ontology. In contrast, the stories that populate history, literature, television, film, news media, and personal conversations have an impact on people’s lives that is unrivalled by any conceptual argument. Alasdair MacIntyre observes that “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”22xAlasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981) 201. Whether the concern is blazing one’s own ethico-political trail, persuading others to follow, or encouraging them to lead, there is no better means than a good story.

Computers find it easy to learn and retrieve 30-digit numbers. Yet they fail miserably at relaying the import of the simplest fairytale. For humans, the situation is reversed. As psychologists observe, narrative has a “privileged status in the cognitive system.”33xArthur Graesser and Victor Ottati, “Why Stories? Some Evidence, Questions, and Challenges,” Knowledge and Memory: The Real Story—Advances in Social Cognition, vol. VIII, ed. Robert Wyer, Jr. (Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1995) 124. Stories allow us to whittle down massive amounts of information so as to generate coherent, meaningful experience. Human beings cut up and digest reality in stories—thick descriptions44xGilbert Ryle, Collected Papers (New York: Hutchinson, 1971) 2. See also Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic, 1973) 6 and passim. linked temporally by way of a plot, an attributed causality that might be called thick sequencing. Indeed, it is less the capacity for language or reason than the capacity for complex storytelling (facilitated by language and reason) that makes humans unique.

Our neural capacity for storytelling allows us to develop and maintain an abiding, reflexive identity. Cognitive scientists demonstrate that we are hard-wired to think in and through narratives and that self-consciousness develops to ensure narrative coherence.55xJoseph LeDoux, The Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are (New York: Penguin, 2002); Jeffrey Gray, Consciousness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); Antonio R. Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1999); Michael S. Gazzaniga, The Mind’s Past (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); and Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate (New York: Viking, 2002) 42–43. Likewise, philosophers maintain that an individual becomes a self by abstracting a persona from his or her narrative passage through space-time.66xMacIntyre writes: “Just as a history is not a sequence of actions, but the concept of an action is that of a moment in an actual or possible history abstracted for some purpose from that history, so the characters in a history are not a collection of persons, but the concept of a person is that of a character abstracted from a history” (MacIntyre 201–202). Seyla Benhabib puts the point succinctly: “The self is not a thing, a substrate, but the protagonist of a life’s tale.”77xSeyla Benhabib, Situating the Self (New York: Routledge, 1992) 162. Daniel Dennett explains the relationship between the protagonist and his or her tale:

Our fundamental tactic of self-protection, self-control, and self-definition is not spinning webs or building dams, but telling stories, and more particularly concocting and controlling the story we tell others—and ourselves—about who we are…. Our tales are spun, but for the most part we don’t spin them; they spin us. Our human consciousness, and our narrative selfhood, is their product, not their source. These strings or streams of narrative issue forth as if from a single source…. Their effect on any audience is to encourage it to (try to) posit a unified agent whose words they are, about whom they are: in short, to posit a center of narrative gravity.88xDaniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained (Boston: Little, Brown, 1991) 417–18.

Dennett suggests that narratives are not simply powerful tools employed by homo faber to facilitate his or her worldly navigations. Rather, the human self is the product of a narrative way of being. Narratives construct us before we ever get a chance to construct them. Narrative is cause; selfhood is effect.

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