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Narrativity and Diachronic vs. Episodic Self-Experience: Checking the Evidence

collateral tales

collateral tales

You’d think when Strawson takes on the psychological Narrativity thesis and lets loose with both barrels, he’d load his gun with something substantial.

This is the second of four related blogposts:
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

On with my take on Galen Strawson’s critique of the “psychological Narrativity thesis,” the first part of which (“Setting the Scene”) you’ll find here, and Strawson’s original essay (“Against Narrativity”) here.

Okay, to keep it brief, here’s Strawson’s collected evidence for his claim that the psychological Narrativity thesis isn’t valid:


Plus, shattering one of the thesis’s most important premises:

Brewer (1988) argues that the evidence that supports “the reconstructive view of personal memory […] does not seem very compelling.”

No really, I’m not kidding. That’s his argument in a nutshell. Drilling my way through his essay, the “evidence” I was confronted with adds up to nil.

And the whole edifice of his alternative “episodic self-experience” is actually built on this:

  1. Petrarch, Proust, Parfit and thousands of others have given this idea vivid expression.

Uh, how so? (And no, you won’t find any detailed analysis in his essay.)

  1. I need to say more about the Episodic life, and since I find myself to be relatively Episodic, I’ll use myself as an example.

That’s it. Move on, please. Nothing to see here.

Everything else is the mother of all armchair observations without a shred of evidence. But that doesn’t keep him from developing some truly grand theories:

I take it that the fundamentals of temporal temperament are genetically determined, and that we have here to do with a deep “individual difference variable,” to put it in the language of experimental psychology. Individual variation in time-style, Episodic or Diachronic, Narrative or non-Narrative, will be found across all cultures […]

I take it” is the modifier here, in case you missed it.

Basically, everything rests on his own, personal case: that he himself, Galen Strawson, experiences what he describes as episodic self-experience. And of course he’s aware that his defenses won’t hold against the counterclaim that that’s indeed a story he tells himself about himself, with an intrinsic dose of diachronic self-experience. Which amounts to what he calls, rather euphemistically, a “stand-off.”

I would call it something else. If he had, besides some wild & vague allusions to Proust or Plato, taken the time and effort and put his analytical scalpels to work in an honest effort to really lay bare and examine this “personal experience” of his—now that might have been a different story. What we get, in contrast, is a shovelful of ambient rhetoric against diachronic self-experience (and with the usual suspects too: “popular claims,” “intensely fashionable,” etc.). What we get are lots of mashed potatoes, but no meat whatsoever. And what we certainly don’t get is a William James.

There’s three more aspects I’m going to wring out of Strawson’s vapid mess in follow-up posts: how Proust figures in this, how Strawson’s ”episodic self-experience” holds up, and how this “diachronic vs. episodic” dichotomy relates to storytelling techniques in modernist and postmodern literature.


If you have something valuable to add or some interesting point to discuss, I’ll be looking forward to meeting you at Mastodon!

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3 Responses


  1. Narrativity and Diachronic vs. Episodic Self-Experience: Reading Literature | between drafts
  2. Narrativity and Diachronic vs. Episodic Self-Experience: Observing the Self | between drafts
  3. between drafts | Narrativity and Diachronic vs. Episodic Self-Experience: Setting the Scene