In the early 1980s, a new idea began to find its way from philosophy of history and into the raging debate over personal identity: what if selves are stories?
Up until then, philosophers trying to understand what selves are and how they can persist across time had mostly been looking for connections between psychological states at different points in time – say, an experience on Monday and a memory of that experience on Tuesday. If the experience and the memory are connected in the right sort of way, the thinking goes, this allows us to re-identify the same person at different points in time.
But this approach doesn’t necessarily connect very well with what we care about in personal identity. What philosophers as diverse as Alasdair MacIntre, Paul Ricoeur, Marya Schechtman, and even Daniel Dennett came to argue was that we don’t just re-identify ourselves, but interpret ourselves, making sense of what we do in light of a larger story, a story about who we are and what we are doing.
Imagine someone on their wedding day. The action of getting married connects two people, but it’s only intelligible if each person is connected to themselves across time: the groom has turned up to carry out a promise he made the day he proposed, which in turn was the culmination of a set of events leading up to that proposal. And in getting married, he also projects a set of commitments and intentions into the future, leaving them there for his later selves to carry out, so to speak.
In other words, we can only understand what it is to get married as part of living out a story; a love story, we might hope, but perhaps a different kind of story instead. Different cultures, after all, provide different narrative templates.
What narrativists claim is that it’s not just big-ticket events like weddings that are like this, but all moments of your life. The self is essentially both protagonist and narrator of its own story; what you are is, in Dennett’s phrase, a “centre of narrative gravity”, the point where all the stories about you intersect.
The narrative approach brings with it several problems, however. For one thing, while there may be stories about you, how can you be a narrative? Doesn’t that make you a story telling a story about a story?
Moreover, the forms of narrative we’re familiar with are just a bit too neat and economical. Russian physician and playwright Anton Chekhov famously said that if there’s a gun on stage at the start of the play, it must be fired before the final act. Watch a TV cop show and notice how the phone only ever rings to signal the arrival of an important new development in the case. Nothing in fiction is superfluous.
Human lives, the objection goes, just aren’t like that. They’re messy. They contain masses of irrelevant detail. And any story you can tell about your life will have to leave those details out; the more fine-grained the narration, the less of a narrative it becomes. Biographers can describe a human life in narrative terms quite successfully, but they can only do so successfully from a certain distance, leaving out lots of trivial everyday detail. Zoom in close enough, and the ‘story’ of a human life starts to look like a pretty ineptly-scripted one, full of abandoned subplots and details that signify nothing and go nowhere.
Our lives don’t always resolve across a neat five-act structure either. 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal noted that the final act is always bloody, but very often that final act comes out of nowhere, a jarring interruption to the narrative coherence of our lives rather than a neat conclusion. And even if our lives are stories, we won’t be around to find out how they end.
That’s a problem for narrativists, because how stories end is central to their meaning. An alternative version of Romeo and Juliet where the protagonists survive isn’t the same story with a different ending – it’s a completely different story. The narrative meaning of everything leading up to the end turns out to be very different.
Stories have narrative shape, and only things with boundaries can have a shape. How a story begins and ends is an integral part of its narrative meaning and trajectory. But we have no idea how our lives will end, and quite possibly won’t know about it when they do. If that happens, we won’t ever have access to the final narrative meaning of our lives, we will never have known whether it was a tragic story of star-crossed loves or a tale of triumph. It’s like we’re watching a movie where we actually have some direct control of the plot, but realise we might never find out how it ends.
Still, even if narrative isn’t the whole story about the self, it does seem to be a crucial part of how we understand ourselves and make sense of our lives. Perhaps we aren’t just stories, but stories might well be a crucial part of the story.