Wednesday, March 13, 2024

From Emotions, to Narratives, to Ideologies

In intellectual circles, it is common to believe that ideology is a decisive social force on its own -- that abstract philosophical systems underlie societies and cultures; and that to change a society, you need only promulgate a different philosophy/ideology.

Of course, intellectuals want to believe in the decisive "power of ideas," because as promulgators of ideas, this belief confirms their lofty view of their own social importance and power. And certainly the connection of ideologies to societies, movements, and governments is obvious and undeniable -- which is why, for decades, I accepted this conventional view, too.

But a lifetime of promoting philosophical ideas has caused me to reconsider my views about the role of philosophy/ideology in human life and society. Introspection, observation of people close to me, and sobering realizations about how marginal and fleeting the impacts of philosophical persuasion (by myself and by many other skilled communicators) have been -- all of that has led me to conclude that personal and cultural change is much more complicated than simply spreading the "right" philosophy.

Summarized simply, I now believe...

...that the vast majority of people, including intellectuals, are actually driven not by ideas, but by emotions, often fairly crude ones, rooted in values, often only implicit;

...that over time, these emotions and values, if shared widely in a society, become concretized and popularized in the form of Narratives -- of myths, legends, and stories that are causally instructive, personally motivational, and socially unifying;

...that only later do the more intellectual believers in these emotionally appealing, values-laden stories, myths, and Narratives try to buttress them with more sophisticated, abstract, theoretical rationalizations -- that is, with explanatory philosophies, ideologies, or theologies. They do this to flesh out and support the core themes and underlying motives of their Narratives, granting them the social weight and gravitas of an "intellectual" image and justification.

You see this pattern manifested historically with every creed that has attracted a significant following and become a mass movement. They start with a set of core emotions, rooted in values broadly shared across a large social group; then follows the development of a popular mythology that dramatizes and evokes the group's shared emotions and values; and finally comes a complex theoretical rationalization for the mythological Narrative (and its values-driven emotions), which is crafted by the social group's intellectuals. In this last stage, the abstract system can take on a life of its own: it is taught and promoted in "movement" schools and texts, and believers cling to it tightly, because it offers reassuring intellectual support and explanations for the core Narratives that give their lives meaning, identity, and purpose.

But the foundational appeal of philosophical, ideological, or theological systems does not lie in their theoretical abstractions themselves; pure abstractions carry no emotional appeal or motivational power. Instead, the believers' commitments are fundamentally to their core Narrative -- to their inspirational mythology, or story -- and to the emotions and values it embodies and evokes. All that the theoretical abstractions offer are rationalizations and reassurances that their story is valid.

Why is this so? It is important to come to grips with the fact that we humans are "the storytelling animal" -- that our earliest childhood grasp of causal relationships in the world, like that of primitive peoples, is enmeshed in storytelling. It's only later in life (or in human civilization) that we begin to abstract a systematic, scientific, causal understanding of the world apart from our storytelling roots. But our brains remain wired by storytelling patterns established from infancy, and even in adulthood we are still drawn like moths back toward the light (enlightenment?) that stories provide.

The indelible power of Narratives explains why so often you can argue with someone using reason, logic, and overwhelming facts, until you are blue in the face, yet get nowhere. Or why a person's "intellectual" commitments can seem so shallow and fleeting. Or why politicians and dictators rely so heavily on storytelling about their target constituencies' collective "identity," in the form of a high-stakes drama about villains (their political adversaries), victims (their constituents), and heroic rescuers (themselves). Or why a person's "conversion" requires not just a new ideological argument, but instead begins with an emotional upheaval rooted in profound personal dissatisfaction with their status quo -- which then leads them to an encounter with some appealing new Narrative that promises the dissatisfied individual a fresh identity: a meaningful new life role and purpose. The philosophical argument then comes along as a reassuring explanation for the wisdom of their conversion; but it alone is not the motivator of the conversion.

Abstract theory alone has little persuasive power to motivate major, enduring changes in individuals or societies. Karl Marx's global influence on millions came with The Communist Manifesto, his rabble-rousing Narrative about capitalist oppressors and the working-class oppressed -- and not with his Das Kapital, a theoretical tome read by only a tiny fraction of those whom the former pamphlet brought under his spell. Ditto the Gospels of the Christian Bible, whose stories touched more people, by many orders of magnitude, than did Aquinas's Summa Theologica, which used Aristotelian logic to provide supporting arguments for the Christian worldview. Ditto Ayn Rand's fiction: her novels have inspired and influenced many times the number of "Rand reader" fans than her nonfiction philosophical writings have produced "Objectivists," who are more intellectually inclined. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of self-described Objectivists got interested in Rand's philosophy only after becoming captivated by her Promethean fictional narratives.

Here's another example to ponder. Decades ago, in a lecture that touched on this topic, I observed that it was the seminal storyteller Homer, writing in the 8th century BC, whose mesmerizing epic poems inspired the birth of Ancient Greek culture and of Western civilization. By contrast, Aristotle -- Greece's greatest philosopher, the father of logic and systematic rational thinking, and of countless scientific fields -- came along hundreds of years later, during the decline of Greek civilization. If abstract philosophy were truly the source of cultural transformation, then in the chronology of Western civilization, Aristotle should have appeared long before Homer, and perhaps paved the way for him. But the chronology is precisely the reverse: it was the storytelling giant who preceded the philosophical giant; and the greatest philosopher's boundless contributions to human knowledge still were not sufficient to prevent the fall of Greek civilization.

Let me emphasize that an abstract philosophy can serve legitimate and important purposes; it does not have to offer merely sophistic rationalizations for a bogus Narrative. If the Narrative is grounded in reality, then philosophy can provide a valid rationale for it. A rationale differs from a rationalization, because the former is true (rooted in reality), while the latter is false. And a valid rationale can flesh out and clarify our understanding, teasing out many important and helpful implications of a good Narrative.

To sum up, I now believe that the objective of promoting personal and/or cultural change requires us to effectively present a compelling alternative Narrative to those people who may be open to its emotional appeal. But not everyone is -- not by a long shot. People who are emotionally committed to a Narrative that defines their identity and life purpose -- but which is hostile to one's own values -- aren't going to change, no matter how skillful and logical your presentation of facts and arguments. Abstract arguments will never penetrate the emotional/values barriers surrounding and insulating a contrary Narrative. Even a compelling counter-Narrative may not prove persuasive -- not unless the target of your communication is already deeply dissatisfied with his own Narrative, and thus searching for (or at least open to) a fresh worldview.

One important, corollary point. I believe people with good values, and correspondingly good emotions, will be attracted to good Narratives -- and perhaps later, to good philosophies. But the fact that they, too, may be only "Narrative-driven" rather than intellectually persuaded is not necessarily a bad thing: that doesn't mean they are irrationally driven. If a kid is raised without any explicit philosophy, or even with a bad one, yet becomes enamored of heroes in TV shows, movies, and graphic novels -- and then, inspired, goes on to do great things -- is that irrational?

Specifically, to my many Objectivist friends, I would point out that I've just described the childhood-to-adulthood trajectory of your heroine, Ayn Rand. If you know her biography, you'll realize that she didn't start out in life with a conceptual, philosophical understanding of the world; she started out, in the hellish environment of post-revolutionary Soviet Russia, simply as a brilliant child who became captivated by heroic literature and movies. That emotional orientation, driven by some core values she didn't understand at the time, were sufficient to propel her on a remarkable journey to becoming, as an adult, a great storyteller and seminal philosopher whose worldview was the opposite of everything around her.

And her values-driven emotions first took form as a romantic Narrative of heroic individualism. That Narrative became a core part of her character by the time she reached her early teens. Rand didn't even encounter Aristotle, Aquinas, Spinoza, and other thinkers who influenced her philosophical thinking until college -- by which time her character and sense of life was already established. Her systematic philosophy did not fully take form until she was middle-aged, during the writing of Atlas Shrugged; and I would argue that she had managed to become a heroic individualist long before figuring it all out.

So Ayn Rand's life and character were shaped, initially and indelibly, by a Narrative -- not by abstract philosophy or ideology. If that is true of her, then how can it not be true of others? And what is wrong with that? Do we need formal, systematic philosophy in order to be rational, honest, independent, just, and productive? Were there no such people on Planet Earth before Rand incorporated those virtues formally into her Objectivist system? And let's be honest: what percentage of those who have spent years diligently studying, even teaching, that philosophical system have become living exemplars of its virtues?

To those Objectivists who remain unpersuaded, I suggest that you read, or reread, her book The Romantic Manifesto, especially its opening chapters, where -- in words different from mine here, but very similar in meaning -- Rand explains the enormous power of stories, and of core Narratives, in shaping the human soul and our world. While she declared that art was not a substitute for philosophical thought, she also said that "without the assistance of art, ethics remains in the position of theoretical engineering: art is the model-builder." Specifically, the narrative arts -- stories -- can most fully present good models for our actions. Philosophical thought may provide an abstract rationale for positive actions; but a rationale is not enough. Just as a road map is no substitute for fuel in the gas tank, abstract philosophical guidance is no substitute for the inspiring vision and motivational energy that can be provided by a compelling Narrative. --March 13, 2024

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I not only follow her philosophy but I’m also one of your biggest fans. Since your stories are heroic and beautiful love stories, but the best in all of us. Thank you. Joani Barr