Stories and Narrativity

In psychotherapy, as well as in philosophical ethics, people are often keen on talking about narratives and stories.

One thing I’ve noticed a lot, but I’m not sure if I’m being unfair, is a conflation of two different ideas about stories. I feel like most of the stuff I’ve encountered on narrative and story does this to some extent.

The first is the idea of a life as a story, like an autobiography. The idea is often that our lives have the structure of a story, or that things are in some way better if they do.

The second is the idea that stories give us a set of motifs, images, and symbols that help us to form ideas of ourselves and the people around us, and help us make some sense out of what would otherwise be a meaningless whirl of experience.

Philosophers often seem to mix up talk with a chronological life-arc with talk about a language of meanings and symbols. I’ve also attended therapy workshops where they’re talking about motifs and imagery that inform us, and then switch with no further elucidation to an exercise in which we imagine our own lives with a three act structure.

I think some people benefit from the first idea, but plenty also don’t. For a long time I resisted Galen Strawson’s arguments in ‘Against Narrativity’, but I think that was down to my own desire to generalise my own experience. I think some people simply have a conception of themselves which isn’t especially loaded with their personal history. In therapeutic settings, telling and reframing your story is amazingly helpful for some people, where others benefit from different approaches.

I strongly suspect that a much larger proportion of people can find something in the second idea. For me, the Eve/Pandora/Goldilocks/Bluebeard motif of the woman who is implacably curious and faces danger or loss as a consequence has always loomed large, but it isn’t the “story of my life” in some narrowly chronological sense (in fact, when people say “story of my life”, they are often colloquially referring to repeating patterns, rather than one grand life story that stretches from birth to death).

I say “I strongly suspect”, and it is just a suspicion at the moment. Maybe that’s something I can learn about through therapeutic work in the future. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear any thoughts.

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