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Narrativity and Diachronic vs. Episodic Self-Experience: Observing the Self

collateral tales

collateral tales

Is that a Cartesian Theater which I see before me? What Strawson’s self-observation lacks in methodology, it makes up for with a well-developed sense of psychological entitlement.

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

This is the final part of my ongoing review of Galen Strawson’s critique of the “psychological Narrativity thesis,” the first part of which (“Setting the Scene”) you’ll find here, the second (“Checking the Evidence”) here, the third (“Reading Literature”) here and Strawson’s original essay (“Against Narrativity”) here.

It’s like flogging a dead horse alright but let’s try and collect Strawson’s self-observations and see if we can find something useful there. He doesn’t make it sound like that at all but, all things considered, this is where his baseline argument resides. All his purported pieces of “evidence,” in contrast, are so fluffy and far-fetched that they seem to have the label rationalization stamped all over them. But let’s follow his self-observations, one bit at a time:

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. I have a past, like any human being, and I know perfectly well that I have a past. I have a respectable amount of factual knowledge about it, and I also remember some of my past experiences ‘from the inside’, as philosophers say. And yet I have absolutely no sense of my life as a narrative with form, or indeed as a narrative without form. Absolutely none. Nor do I have any great or special interest in my past. Nor do I have a great deal of concern for my future.

To put it bluntly: this sounds suspiciously like an outlier rather than something frequent enough to put a serious dent into the psychological Narrativity thesis.

What the psychological Narrativity thesis doesn’t say is that diachronic self-experience is what every person on earth experiences; no psychological thesis in its right mind would say such a thing. (We’re not in the realm of mathematical proofs here where one counter-example would falsify the theorem.) What it claims is that it might indeed be true for most of the people most of the time, and there’s room aplenty to acknowledge that people exist whose self-experience turns out to be different. Maybe even a substantial number of people, but not as a systematic difference—which is what Strawson is trying to prove but with an example that, without strong corroborating evidence, looks very much like a special case.

But let’s proceed:

That’s one way to put it – to speak in terms of limited interest. Another way is to say that it seems clear to me, when I am experiencing or apprehending myself as a self, that the remoter past or future in question is not my past or future, although it is certainly the past or future of GS the human being. This is more dramatic, but I think it is equally correct, when I am figuring myself as a self. I have no significant sense that I – the I now considering this question – was there in the further past. And it seems clear to me that this is not a failure of feeling. It is, rather, a registration of a fact about what I am – about what the thing that is currently considering this problem is.

This might not make much sense on first sight, but here comes the magic trick:

I will use ‘I*’ to represent: that which I now experience myself to be when I’m apprehending myself specifically as an inner mental presence or self. ‘I*’ comes with a large family of cognate forms – ‘me*’, ‘my*’, ‘you*’ ‘oneself *’, ‘themselves*’, and so on. The metaphysical presumption built into these terms is that they succeed in making genuine reference to an inner mental something that is reasonably called a ‘self’. But it doesn’t matter whether or not the presumption is correct.

So: it’s clear to me that events in my remoter past didn’t happen to me*. But what does this amount to? It certainly doesn’t mean that I don’t have any autobiographical memories of these past experiences. I do. Nor does it mean that my autobiographical memories don’t have what philosophers call a ‘from-the-inside’ character. Some of them do. And they are certainly the experiences of the human being that I am. It does not, however, follow from this that I experience them as having happened to me*, or indeed that they did happen to me*. They certainly do not present as things that happened to me*, and I think I’m strictly, literally correct in thinking that they did not happen to me*.

If you think this through, it’s not clear whether you can make this stop in time—in order to prevent slipping into an infinite regress. I think Strawson comes dangerously close to what has come to be called the Cartesian Theater, which would inevitably lead to little Strawsons in his head who observe the observers observing the observers etc. I might be mistaken in this case, but the Cartesian Theater has a way of slipping in unnoticed with theories like these, and some tell-tale signs are attached indeed.

And yes, there are other “special cases” out there, certainly interesting ones which, naturally, are often more interesting than the “regular cases” the psychological Narrativity thesis describes. A friend of mine, for example, remembers strongly the emotional substance of events and experiences, e.g., that a past vacation with a former boyfriend had been “terrific,” or a certain phase in her life had been “terrible,” but is utterly unable to substantiate these memories with actual details on why she had experienced these events as being terrific, or terrible, or boring, or whatever. She said it took her many years to find out that other people remember the past in a substantially different way than she did, and still does.

Would her experience count as diachronic self-experience? Or episodic self-experience? I think this question makes sense only if asked from a meta-perspective, and I also think that the psychological Narrativity thesis indeed is such a meta-perspective which connects both diachronic and episodic self-experience—much like in modernist and postmodern literature, as already mentioned, where episodic narrative serves as a technique to make the overall diachronic experience more in-depth, plausible, and vivid.

From the last quotation onward, Strawson lapses into a heavy-handed buddy-ish Q&A with himself, a technique you will see enthusiastically employed everywhere on the Interwebs when someone can’t bring themselves to coherently develop and water-proof their line of argument, but resort to dealing with possible objections rather lazily in piecemeal fashion.

Some final bits:

I’m well aware that my past is mine in so far as I am a human being, and I fully accept that there’s a sense in which it has special relevance to me* now, including special emotional and moral relevance. At the same time I have no sense that I* was there in the past, and think it obvious that I* was not there, as a matter of metaphysical fact. […] The way I am now is profoundly shaped by my past, but it is only the present shaping consequences of the past that matter, not the past as such.

“Metaphysical fact”?? I wonder.

What I left out, among other things, are the numerous strawmen Strawson attacks, often in tandem with other stark, and equally unsubstantiated, assertions of his. Like, that the psychological Narrativity thesis would claim that “people are fabulists all the way down” and that this were not true because there are people whose “autobiographical memory is fundamentally non-distorting, whatever automatic processes of remoulding and recasting it may invariably involve.”

What I did not leave out is the methodology of his self-observation. If there were any, I’d put them here. But there aren’t. As a matter of course, every self-observation must answer a number of questions about its methodology, but not so Strawson’s, it seems.

Actually, Strawson’s essay is a very good showcase for one of the reasons why literary critics have gotten such a bad rap, not only among scientists. (There are much worse examples, though, like Fish, or lately Eagleton). So I will leave Strawson at this point, but I will get back to the topic of narrativity in self-experience soon.


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