Galen Strawson on the Unstoried Life

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UT Dpt. of Philosophy

Who am I? Am I the ongoing story of my life? Or a nerve ending through which the Universe experiences itself? Does biography disclose identity, or do we, as VS Pritchett writes, “”?

In Galen Strawson mounts an assault on narrative identity. He neither believes that human beings are fundamentally described by their life-stories, nor that the predominance of narrative identity is a good thing. Quite the opposite, he writes that measuring a life by the stories we tell of it will:

Narrative Self

The questions in play are provocative. Am ‘I’ the totality of my brief movement across the interminable canvas of space-time, or am ‘I’ the knife’s edge, spearhead of the present, carving my arc through time’s fabric?

Thinking of identity as a congealed narrative across time may displace the locus of selfhood from the present to the past, from an embodied experience to a mental abstraction. It may also be inescapable, though Strawson thinks otherwise. The claim Strawson seeks to unsettle is given by the late Oliver Sacks:

This narrative view of identity makes our lives a story we can tell, making our very selves those stories. Naturally, this leads us to desire juicy stories. We want our narratives to be good ones. We want to ‘make something of our lives’, a phrase to which Strawson responds:

Strawson doesn’t claim that narrative doesn’t exist, nor that our pasts aren’t part of our lives; he claims that our pasts, any narrative chunk, matter only as . What seems to constitute identity, for Strawson, is how narrative events culminate into a present embodiment.

Illustrating his take on presence, he comments on John Updike’s remark:

Presence vs. Narrative

So what? The question that grips me from Strawson’s book, and one that I believe gets at the core of his argument, is whether or not Charles Taylor is correct when he claims that our lives exist

Strawson presents many similar claims, that a narrative conception of self, and enriching that narrative, is imperative to living well. That narrative can answer the deepest, vaguest questions we harbor as humans. I’m not so sure. We know Strawson disagrees, as quoted in the beginning. The qualitative deficiency it produces in our lives, Strawson argues, is

In a time when aspiring towards ‘presence’ — an elusive trait that Henry Thoreau so fascinatingly embodied — is as populous in corporate seminars as contemplative literature, Strawson’s condemnation is grave. We have to wonder if telling stories about our lives, if turning ourselves into stories, runs counter to being present. Do stories exist in the present?

Narrative Illusion

But not only might narrative self-hood detract from psychological presence, it may be a totally incorrect way of understanding the world. If the space of questions in which our lives exist concerns itself with the nature of things, with what Alan Watts calls the ‘lowdown on life’, narrative may merely be an optical illusion. George Eliot (pen name for Mary Ann Evans) demonstrates this with a candle and metal surface in

“Egoism” can just as easily be replaced with “narrative”.

Practice of Philosophy

If Strawson succeeds in uprooting our narrative tendencies, where would this leave us? What’s the alternative? Wouldn’t society crumble if we all engulfed ourselves in the present, oblivious to past and future? This is what MIT philosopher Kieran Setiya calls the ‘problem with presence’. But Strawson doesn’t want us to obliterate all traces of past and future considerations. As I gather it, he’d simply prefer, for our own sakes, if we saw ourselves as nerve endings, as receivers of an always-fresh bundle of current sensations that necessitate no temporal continuity:

Whether or not Strawson is convincing, it’s unlikely we can cease conceiving of ourselves in narrative terms simply by willing it so. The mind is stubborn. His book is more interested in making the case than offering a method of transition from narrative to what he calls . Though his language sounds suspiciously spiritual, not to mention the Krishnamurti quotes and Buddhist references, he doesn’t practice formal meditation (save a fling during the Summer of Love 60’s).

Rather, he describes the lifelong practice of philosophy as a kind of spiritual method, one that’s cultivated his mentality of presence in itself:

His writing is a testament to his practice. It’s also a pleasure to read a fresh approach to that broad idea, the negation of (narrative) self, in a context outside meditation or neuroscience. His book treats further topics like death, free will, and conscious experience with delightful frankness; a record of the large, cosmic themes that bother him.

On the whole, his book performs that essential duty of any philosopher: spreading what he calls , or the itch towards introspection.

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Further Reading

Check out his book on Amazon above, or read an intro to his thought in an essay for Aeon Mag

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Interested in many things, like consciousness, meditation & economics. Sure of nothing, like how to exist well, or play the sax (yet). More:

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