Monday, April 18, 2011

The Narratives That Guide Our Lives

Most people of my philosophic persuasion believe that the power that moves individuals and cultures is, at root, philosophy. Specifically, that power lies in the "basic premises" which we accept about the world and ourselves: our beliefs about the nature of existence; about how we know things; about what constitutes good and bad; about how we should live together.

This view of the power of philosophic premises is true. However, those of my philosophic persuasion also make an additional assumption: that to change one's own life, or to "change the world," the most important and effective thing is to adopt and advocate the "right" systematic, abstract philosophy. In practice, this means: addressing thinkers and intellectuals, teaching students formal philosophy, planting "our" kind of professors in university chairs, and otherwise engaging in specifically abstract, philosophical pursuits. The tacit assumption here is that the basic philosophic premises that govern our lives are decisively communicated and absorbed in individuals and cultures by means of formal philosophical education.

That premise is mistaken.

We do not suddenly acquaint ourselves with our core worldviews in college courses, after we are already in our teens or twenties. By that time, our basic premises are usually already well-established and, in many cases, set in psychological cement.

So when, and in what form, do we really encounter and accept our foundational beliefs about ourselves and the world around us?

We do so early in life, and in the form of stories -- or what I call Narratives.

The myths that we learn in childhood, at Mother's knee, in church, in schools, in films and novels, represent primitive, fundamental interpretive stories about our world: how it works, what it means, what is right or wrong, who are the Good Guys and the Bad Guys.

These Narratives are pre-philosophical; in fact, they are acquired in their germinal forms while we are still far too young to subject them to critical analysis. They thus actually tend to determine which abstract philosophies, ideologies, economic theories, and political policies we later find appealing. These latter "feel right" to us largely because they mesh with the myths, fairy tales, parables, and stories we already absorbed during childhood.

Moreover, the more deep-rooted the myth--either personally and/or culturally--the more desperately we cling to it. We cling to it even when it may sometimes be utterly false, and lead us over a cliff. We cling to it because to challenge or criticize it means to unravel a lifetime of investments in values, choices, relationships, careers, emotions, and money. And who wants to do that?

So, like sleepwalkers, most people continue to be directed by Narratives they have never consciously identified, let alone soberly considered. Here are just a few familiar ones:

"Untouched nature is paradise; human choices and actions only upset the natural balance." That's what the Garden of Eden myth declares. Its eventual philosophical fruit? Environmentalism.

"We should take from the rich and give to the poor." That's what the tale of Robin Hood (at least, contemporary versions of it) tells us. Its eventual political fruit? Communism, socialism, and their many "progressive" variants.

"David is morally superior to Goliath." That's what the Old Testament dramatized. Its eventual global fruit? Decades of disastrous U.S. foreign policy, blindly aimed at toppling powerful regimes in favor of the "little guy" in the streets of foreign nations--even if that little guy is a jihadist wearing a suicide vest, and is eager to slaughter us.

So how, exactly, do each of us arrive at our basic Narratives?

When we're infants, we perceive the world around us strictly perceptually, and we react to "good" and "bad" in terms of raw emotions. We either like the way something makes us feel, or we don't; we're comforted, or we're uncomfortable and fearful. As our ability to integrate our perceptions of things improves, we initially do so in the form of primitive concepts.

The next stage of interpretation, though, is at the level of story-telling and myth. We do not graduate from perceptions into concepts, then go directly into philosophy. Long before we ever arrive at the ability to tie all those concepts together into anything like a systematic, abstract philosophy (for those of us who even get to that stage of thinking), we interpret the world through the stories we are told. Those may be bible stories, Aesop's fables, messages in cartoons and picture books, tales told by our parents, good-guys-vs.-bad-guys TV shows.

These provide us with our foundational interpretive template for understanding the world around us. What binds every culture or subculture together are the value-laden messages conveyed by these tales. That's because Narratives work for a culture just as they do for an individual. Looking at the glory that was Greece, for example, it is instructive to note that Homer, that society's seminal poet and storyteller, preceded by hundreds of years Aristotle, who represented the apex of formal Greek philosophical thought. The former was the true father of Greek culture, while the latter lived during its waning days. If abstract, systematic philosophy were the true fountainhead of a culture--or its salvation--then the sequence of their appearances should have been reversed.

And this should tell us where the true "power of ideas" lies: not in concepts and philosophies per se, but in concepts and philosophies as embodied, enshrined, dramatized, and propagated by compelling Narratives. In other words, the narrative medium is just as necessary and potent as the philosophic message.

This explains the enduring power of religion. Religions communicate largely on the narrative level, utilizing the power of myth, parable, and storytelling. Ask yourself: How many people are attracted to a given religion because of the incisive, intellectually satisfying arguments of its clever theologians? By contrast, how many followers instead find themselves gripped, touched, inspired, and persuaded by the stories and parables that the religion offers?

Therefore, let me offer a word of advice to people who share my own secular philosophic outlook, Objectivism.

It's futile to complain about the intractable hold of "mysticism" on people's lives. Trying to argue people out of their reigning Narrative is almost always impossible, because we all need a reigning Narrative. Instead, you have to replace a person's (or culture's) reigning Narratives(s) with something better--something more persuasive, compelling, and inspiring.

You don't have to believe me; Ayn Rand reached the same conclusion. Why did she write fiction? Read closely her Romantic Manifesto, particularly her essay, "The Psycho-Epistemology of Art." In writing about the power of "art," she is really talking about the vital role and indispensable power of Narratives in our lives.

That is certainly the conclusion I have drawn. Rather than try hopelessly to deprive people of their existing Narratives, mystical or otherwise, I believe the only practical course is to create a rich, compelling, emotionally satisfying counter-Narrative. That is a task Rand began with her own fiction. But it is a task that should be continued by other artists--at least by those artists who wish not only to objectify their own values (which should be their primary focus), but who also would like to help create a better world.

So, a personal note of explanation: If you find less current-events commentary here lately, in part it's because I've found it to be increasingly pointless to argue philosophy, economics, and politics with most people. Why? Because we are talking past each other. You may prove a point with unassailable facts and irrefutable logic. However, the other person replies, "Yes, but . . ." Those words usually signal that you've reached the ultimate barrier to further reasoning and communication: You've challenged his Narrative. And in my experience, that is ground he'll rarely, if ever, concede.

The invisible forces directing the flow and outcomes of such debates, then, are rarely those issues under explicit discussion. Rather, they are the unidentified, unspoken, implicit Narratives that we carry with us, and which are constantly reinforced in the plots of popular novels, films, TV shows, and Sunday sermons. That is the enormous subtext of most arguments, and it poses a virtually insurmountable challenge. After all, it is very, very difficult to joust successfully and intellectually with someone when you are simultaneously fighting Adam, David, and Robin Hood.

That said, I'll return now to the personal pleasure of crafting my own counter-Narratives.


Since writing this piece, I've explored the subject of "Narratives" further. See my discussions here (about the "clash of Narratives" in the 2012 election), here (about Jonathan Gottschall's seminal book on this topic, The Storytelling Animal), and here (explaining the career of Barack Obama as a manipulator of narratives).


Robert Bidinotto said...

It appears that others are picking up on "The Narrative" and its power -- at least, in political contexts. But as I indicate, it's much more fundamental and far-reaching than just politics.

And more here from Ed Driscoll.

RES said...

Harry nilsson said it most succinctly: "You see what you want to see, hear what you want to hear."

Stone Glasgow said...

I think narratives are more properly described as religious devotion. I say "roads and schools would exist without government, would have less traffic and kids that can actually read, and would be cheaper," and the devoted hear "there is no god."

Government is a religion like any other.

Andrew_M_Garland said...

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I posted a link to this post at EO in a sidbar which appears on all pages. Some eager scanner found those pages and all of the links, which now appear below.

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Troy Camplin said...

An excellent piece. I completely agree with you on the central importance of narrative and it being pre-philosophical. We are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves as well, and thus the kinds of narratives we grew up with contribute to the very creation of our selves and thus to our world views.

You may be interested in my blog Austrian Economics and Literature at

Robert Bidinotto said...

Troy, thanks so much for that comment. And thanks for the link to your blog; I'll check it out.

robert said...

[We either like the way something makes us feel]

In addition, at the age that we're told those stories, we tend to adopt the viewpoint of the storyteller as to whether we agree with the concepts conveyed in the story- mother, father, caretaker, teacher, television, internet, etc.

And our storytellers rarely presented conflicting viewpoints for us to choose from- they were pre-screened for us.

So while we see other's philosophical basis as their "narrative," we see our own as ourselves- who we are.

So I don't know if the best approach is to try to replace someone's narratives or create new narratives that tie in with the pre-existing ones and change the trajectory by a few degrees.