Daniel Dennett believes that our sense of self comes from our brains’ concocting stories, narratives that create the protagonists we call “I.”
Other psychologists and philosophers offer explanations of individual identity that agree, more or less. Antonio Damasio, for example, calls the rational, third stage of consciousness “the autobiographical self.”
Last week, Big Think published “Why Are People Drawn to Stories?” The article, written by David Berreby, features ideas from Johnathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal, a book that claims that “we live our entire lives in a web of story.”
Awake, asleep, daydreaming, playing — stories we tell and stories in which we participate dominate our minds. Berreby writes that “Instinctively, we … seem to prefer stories. And so … psychologists and philosophers have claimed lately that narrative structure is a deep, essential part of human nature.”
Gottschall believes that we need stories to understand the world. People who didn’t see the world as a series of stories lost the evolutionary struggle to people who did, who could learn from the past and project into the future through narrative.
Not everyone agrees. British philosopher Galen Strawson is one of them. Berreby recommends Strawson’s 2004 essay “Against Narrativity” as a good example of an opposite view of the construction of self.
In his essay, Strawson strenuously disagrees that our sense of self is incomplete, perhaps even inadequate, unless we see our lives as a narrative with a persistent “I.” His core objection is that many people, including Strawson himself, simply don’t see their lives in this way.
Those who do see themselves as the unchanging protagonist of their lives’ narratives Strawson calls “Diachronic.” Others, who see their lives more as a series of separable events, and themselves as different people at the time of each event, Strawson calls “Episodic.”
His contention is simple: There are Diachronic people, and there are Episodic people. Diachronic people see their lives as single narratives. Episodic people see the events of their lives happening to the self that existed at that moment. Neither viewpoint is intrinsic, nor is either superior to the other. They’re just different.
Diachronic people see their entire lives as a story starring a consistent character. They see the events of their lives as connected by the central participation of a single, continuing character. As Strawson puts it, the Diachronic sees himself as “something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future.”
Episodic people, on the other hand, remember the sequence of events similarly to the way that Diachronic people do, but they don’t see themselves as a single, unchanging protagonist. For the Episodic self, the “I” that I was when I won the high school track meet at sixteen is not the same person who now has four grandchildren. Of course there is a single life history for the episodic self, but the “I” then is not the same “I” as the “I” now, or the “I” that will be ten years from now.
According to Strawson, many Diachronics misunderstand, even pity, their Episodic friends. How, they wonder, can someone feel “connected” to their histories, to the families and friends with whom they have shared these events, if they don’t think of themselves as the same people now that they were in the past, or that they will be in the future? It all seems so unnatural to them. As someone said to me in a very recent conversation about this topic, “It’s like you’re that guy in the movie Memento,” the central character with no short-term memory. To live today in the context of yesterday, he had to write notes from yesterday’s self to today’s self.
Yes, “you’re that guy” because I am generally an Episodic. No, the guy in Memento had no group of memories that informed or motivated the present moment in which he always lives. He’s as much at the extreme of the Episodic end of the scale as someone in a permanent dream state would be at the extreme Diachronic end.
Episodics, however, don’t see themselves as in any way unusual or disabled. Strawson admits that there seem to be more Diachronics than Episodics, but for him that’s just personal preference, not a deviation from the evolutionary norm. And some Episodics criticize Diachronics, whom they see as being overly concerned with their own importance, egoists at the centre of every event in their lives.
Episodics remember as much about their lives as Diachronics do. Episodics know that the person X1 who lived in year Y1 shares a public identity and life history with the person X2, who lives in year Y2, or with the person X12 who will live in year Y12. All of the X’s are instances of the self of the person who has been, is, or will become all of the X’s. It’s just that Episodics see “themselves” as a series of people, not as a single person.
And, of course, sometimes habitual Diachronics see events episodically; while sometimes habitual Episodics see themselves diachronically. Diachronics see one person living a series of episodes, and Episodics see many people living them. Yet both types have a sense of self.
Strawson explains the Episodic experience of self this way:
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.
So Strawson rejects the universality of the single narrative of the self, and as a result, the idea that Narrativity is central to a sense of self. He suspects that thinkers who stress the central importance of Narrativity to self are speaking about themselves, not about everyone:
I also suspect that those who are drawn to write on the subject of ‘narrativity’ tend to have strongly Diachronic and Narrative outlooks or personalities, and generalize from their own case with that special, fabulously misplaced confidence that people feel when, considering elements of their own experience that are existentially fundamental for them, they take it that they must also be fundamental for everyone else.
Strawson’s essay explores the implications of Narrativity theory in much more depth, and if the subject interests you, you’ll do best to read the whole piece.