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23 January 2004

Writing the self

In his Guardian review of Jerome Bruner's Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life Galen Strawson challenges the claim that "we create or invent the self specifically by 'writing' and 'storying' it":

Is any of this true? Do we create ourselves? Is the narrativity view a profound and universal insight into the human condition? It's a partial truth at best, true enough for some, completely false for others. There is a deep divide in our species. On one side, the narrators: those who are indeed intensely narrative, self-storying, Homeric, in their sense of life and self, whether they look to the past or the future. On the other side, the non-narrators: those who live life in a fundamentally non-storytelling fashion, who may have little sense of, or interest in, their own history, nor any wish to give their life a certain narrative shape. In between lies the great continuum of mixed cases.

How did the narrativist orthodoxy arise? I suspect that it is because those who write about it and treat it as a universal truth about the human condition tend, like Bruner, to be profoundly narrative types themselves. The narrators control the current discussion, in fact, and assume that the way things are for them is the way they are for everyone else...

I'm mostly in agreement with Galen Strawson's argument as it's confirmed by much of the research I've participated in around the question of 'what makes you you'. So many of the people interviewed (particularly mothers of young children) simply didn't know where to start. It wasn't something they had time to think about in the main. And when they did speak about it, it was largely in terms of their mothering role and the identities of others (especially their children).

Interestingly, most of them enjoyed the exercise once they were prompted, and as they were being paid to participate, perhaps it felt less self-indulgent than it would have otherwise. As it turned out, they had many strong, idiosyncratic interests but they weren't tied up in conscious storytelling about the self.

Posted at 11:32 AM in Identity | Permalink


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we are constructed by our actions and the effect our actions have on our relationships with those around us. Self-belief is often generated by the stories we tell ourselves about our selves and these stories are reinforced by people around us. So, in the sense that we exist in an ecology of information, the stories that we tell about each other play a role. But i don't believe that the world is constructed from stories, rather they play an important part in the feedback mechanism between thought and action.

Posted by: dan phillips at 23 Jan 2004 16:39:43