[Paleopsych] Galen Strawson: Against Narrativity
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Galen Strawson: Against Narrativity
Ratio (new series) XVII 4 December 2004 0034-0006
[Thanks to Alice Andrews for this. I'm joyously chucking a whole steamer trunk
of hypotheses! 1 have been arguing for monogamy (sexual fidelity, actually) on
the grounds that one's Partner is one's Mirror and that to preserve one's unity
of self one must have a single Mirror. But now Strawson made me see that I'm
speaking of the unity of a narrative self. Now it happens that both I and my
Mirror have strongly narrative personalities, but my argument for monogamy
won't go over for those with episodic personalities. (This does not rule out
other arguments, but mine is one I haven't seen anyone else espouse.) So out
goes my hypothesis!
[On the other hand, my hypothesis about pluralism continues and is, in
fact, reinforced by Strawson. His article starts out by embracing
pluralism but ends up beating a drum for the episodic self as the one true
way. Too bad about that.
[I almost automatically evaluate women, not by their beauty or their status or
even their intelligence, these things not so much, but rather how fit they
would be to become my lifelong Mirror. But that's just me.]
Department of Philosophy
University of Reading
Reading RG6 6AA
email gstrawson at mac.com
I argue against two popular claims. The first is a descriptive, empirical
thesis about the nature of ordinary human experience: 'each of us constructs
and lives a "narrative" ...this narrative is us, our identities' (Oliver
Sacks); 'self is a perpetually rewritten story . . . in the end, we become the
autobiographical narratives by which we "tell about" our lives' (Jerry Bruner);
'we are all virtuoso novelists. ...We try to make all of our material cohere
into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief
fictional character ... of that autobiography is one's self' (Dan Dennett). The
second is a normative, ethical claim: we ought to live our lives narratively,
or as a story; a 'basic condition of making sense of ourselves is that we grasp
our lives in a narrative' and have an understanding of our lives 'as an
unfolding story' (Charles Taylor). A person 'creates his identity [only] by
forming an autobiographical narrative--a story of his life', and must be in
possession of a full and 'explicit narrative [of his life] to develop fully as
a person' (Marya Schechtman).
Sec. 1. Talk of narrative is intensely fashionable in a wide variety of
disciplines including philosophy, psychology, theology, anthropology,
sociology, political theory, literary studies, religious studies, psychotherapy
and even medicine. There is widespread agreement that human beings typically
see or live or experience their lives as a narrative or story of some sort, or
at least as a collection of stories. I'll call this the psychological
Narrativity thesis, using the word 'Narrative' with a capital letter to denote
a specifically psychological property or outlook. The psychological Narrativity
thesis is a straightforwardly empirical, descriptive thesis about the way
ordinary human beings actually experience their lives. This is how we are, it
says, this is our nature.
The psychological Narrativity thesis is often coupled with a normative thesis,
which I'll call the ethical Narrativity thesis. This states that experiencing
or conceiving one's life as a narrative is a good thing; a richly Narrative
outlook is essential to a well-lived life, to true or full personhood.
The descriptive thesis and the normative thesis have four main combinations.
One may, to begin, think the descriptive thesis true and the normative one
false. One may think that we are indeed deeply Narrative in our thinking and
that it's not a good thing. The protagonist of Sartre's novel La nausée holds
something like this view.1 So do the Stoics, as far as I can see.
n. 1 Sartre 1938.
Second, and contrariwise, one may think the descriptive thesis false and the
normative one true. One may grant that we are not all naturally Narrative in
our thinking but insist that we should be, and need to be, in order to live a
good life. There are versions of this view in Plutarch2 and a host of
n. 2 See e.g. 100AD, pp. 214-7 (473B-474B).
Third, one may think both theses are true: one may think that all normal
non-pathological human beings are naturally Narrative and also that Narrativity
is crucial to a good life. This is the dominant view in the academy today,
followed by the second view. It does not entail that everything is as it should
be; it leaves plenty of room for the idea that many of us would profit from
being more Narrative than we are, and the idea that we can get our self-
narratives wrong in one way or another.
Finally, one may think that both theses are false. This is my view. I think the
current widespread acceptance of the third view is regrettable. It's just not
true that there is only one good way for human beings to experience their being
in time. There are deeply non-Narrative people and there are good ways to live
that are deeply non-Narrative. I think the second and third views hinder human
self-understanding, close down important avenues of thought, impoverish our
grasp of ethical possibilities, needlessly and wrongly distress those who do
not fit their model, and are potentially destructive in psychotherapeutic
Sec. 2 The first thing I want to put in place is a distinction between one's
experience of oneself when one is considering oneself principally as a human
being taken as a whole, and one's experience of oneself when one is considering
oneself principally as an inner mental entity or 'self' of some sort--I'll call
this one's self- experience. When Henry James says, of one of his early books,
'I think of ... the masterpiece in question ... as the work of quite another
person than myself ...a rich ...relation, say, who . . . suffers me still to
claim a shy fourth cousinship',3 he has no doubt that he is the same human
being as the author of that book, but he does not feel he is the same self or
person as the author of that book. It is this phenomenon of experiencing
oneself as a self that concerns me here. One of the most important ways in
which people tend to think of themselves (quite independently of religious
belief) is as things whose persistence conditions are not obviously or
automatically the same as the persistence conditions of a human being
considered as a whole. Petrarch, Proust, Parfit and thousands of others have
given this idea vivid expression. I'm going to take its viability for granted
and set up another distinction--between 'Episodic' and 'Diachronic'
self-experience--in terms of it.
n. 3 1915: 562-3.
Sec. 3 The basic form of Diachronic self-experience is that
[D] one naturally figures oneself, considered as a self, as something that was
there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future
- something that has relatively long-term diachronic continuity, something that
persists over a long stretch of time, perhaps for life. I take it that many
people are naturally Diachronic, and that many who are Diachronic are also
Narrative in their outlook on life.
If one is Episodic, by contrast,
[E] one does not figure oneself, considered as a self, as something that was
there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future.
One has little or no sense that the self that one is was there in the (further)
past and will be there in the future, although one is perfectly well aware that
one ha s long-term continuity considered as a whole human being. Episodics are
likely to have no particular tendency to see their life in Narrative terms.4
n.4 The Episodic/Diachronic distinction is not the same thing as the
Narrative/non- Narrative distinction, as will emerge; but there are marked
correlations between them.
The Episodic and Diachronic styles of temporal being are radically opposed, but
they are not absolute or exceptionless. Predominantly Episodic individuals may
sometimes connect to charged events in their pasts in such a way that they feel
that those events happened to them--embarrassing memories are a good
example--and anticipate events in their futures in such a way that they think
that those events are going to happen to them-- thoughts of future death can be
a good example. So too predominantly Diachronic individuals may sometimes
experience an Episodic lack of linkage with well remembered parts of their
past. It may be that the basic Episodic disposition is less common in human
beings than the basic Diachronic disposition, but many factors may induce
variations in individuals. I take it that the fundamentals of temporal
temperament are genetically determined, and that we have here to do with a deep
'individual difference variable', to put it in the language of experimental
psychology. Individual variation in time-style, Episodic or Diachronic,
Narrative or non-Narrative, will be found across all cultures, so that the same
general spread will be found in a so-called 'revenge culture', with its
essentially Diachronic emphasis, as in a more happy- go-lucky culture.5
Compatibly with that, one's exact position in
Episodic/Diachronic/Narrative/non-Narrative state-space may vary significantly
over time according to what one is doing or thinking about, one's state of
health, and so on; and it may change markedly with increasing age.
n. 5 Although a culture could in theory exert significant selective pressure on
a psychological trait. For descriptions of revenge culture see Blumenfeld 2003.
Diachronics and Episodics are likely to misunderstand one another badly.
Diachronics may feel that there is something chilling, empty and deficient
about the Episodic life. They may fear it, although it is no less full or
emotionally articulated than the Diachronic life, no less thoughtful or
sensitive, no less open to friendship, love and loyalty. And certainly the two
forms of life differ significantly in their ethical and emotional form. But it
would be a great mistake to think that the Episodic life is bound to be less
vital or in some way less engaged, or less humane, or less humanly fulfilled.
If Heideggerians think that Episodics are necessarily 'inauthentic' in their
experience of being in time, so much the worse for their notion of
authenticity.6 And if Episodics are moved to respond by casting aspersions on
the Diachronic life--finding it somehow macerated or clogged, say, or
excessively self-concerned, inauthentically second-order--they too will be
mistaken if they think it an essentially inferior form of human life.
n. 6 Cf. e.g. Heidegger 1927.
There is one sense in which Episodics are by definition more located in the
present than Diachronics, so far as their self-experience is concerned, but it
does not follow, and is not true, that Diachronics are less present in the
present moment than Episodics, any more than it follows, or is true, that in
the Episodic life the present is somehow less informed by or responsible to the
past than it is in the Diachronic life. What is true is that the informing and
the responsiveness have different characteristics and different experiential
consequences in the two cases. Faced with sceptical Diachronics, who insist
that Episodics are (essentially) dysfunctional in the way they relate to their
own past, Episodics will reply that the past can be present or alive in the
present without being present or alive as the past. The past can be alive -
arguably more genuinely alive--in the present simply in so far as it has helped
to shape the way one is in the present, just as musicians' playing can
incorporate and body forth their past practice without being mediated by any
explicit memory of it. What goes for musical development goes equally for
ethical development, and Rilke's remarks on poetry and memory, which have a
natural application to the ethical case, suggest one way in which the Episodic
attitude to the past may have an advantage over the Diachronic: 'For the sake
of a single poem', he writes, 'you must have ... many ...memories. ... And yet
it is not enough to have memories. ... For the memories themselves are not
important.' They give rise to a good poem 'only when they have changed into our
very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be
distinguished from ourselves.'7
n. 7 Among those whose writings show them to be markedly Episodic I propose
Michel de Montaigne, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Stendhal, Hazlitt, Ford Madox
Ford, Virginia Woolf, Borges, Fernando Pessoa, Iris Murdoch (a strongly
Episodic person who is a natural story teller), Freddie Ayer, Goronwy Rees, Bob
Dylan. Proust is another candidate, in spite of his memoriousness (which may be
inspired by his Episodicity); also Emily Dickinson. On the other side--to begin
with--Plato, St. Augustine, Heidegger, Tom Nagel, probably Nietzsche, all the
champions of of narrative and Narrativity in the current ethicopsychological
debate, and some of my closest friends.
Sec. 4 How do Episodicity and Diachronicity relate to Narrativity? Suppose that
being Diachronic is at least necessary for being Narrative. Since it's true by
definition that if you're Diachronic you're not Episodic and conversely, it
follows that if you're Episodic you're not Narrative. But I think that the
strongly Episodic life is one normal, non-pathological form of life for human
beings, and indeed one good form of life for human beings, one way to flourish.
So I reject both the psychological Narrativity thesis and the normative,
ethical Narrativity thesis.
I need to say more about the Episodic life, and since I find myself to be
relatively Episodic, I'll use myself as an example. I have a past, like any
human being, and I know perfectly well that I have a past. I have a respectable
amount of factual knowledge about it, and I also remember some of my past
experiences 'from the inside', as philosophers say. And yet I have absolutely
no sense of my life as a narrative with form, or indeed as a narrative without
form. Absolutely none. Nor do I have any great or special interest in my past.
Nor do I have a great deal of concern for my future.
That's one way to put it--to speak in terms of limited interest. Another way is
to say that it seems clear to me, when I am experiencing or apprehending myself
as a self, that the remoter past or future in question is not my past or
future, although it is certainly the past or future of GS the human being. This
is more dramatic, but I think it is equally correct, when I am figuring myself
as a self. I have no significant sense that I--the I now considering this
question--was there in the further past. And it seems clear to me that this is
not a failure of feeling. It is, rather, a registration of a fact about what I
am--about what the thing that is currently considering this problem is.
I will use 'I*' to represent: that which I now experience myself to be when I'm
apprehending myself specifically as an inner mental presence or self. 'I*'
comes with a large family of cognate forms--'me*', 'my*', 'you*' 'oneself *',
'themselves*', and so on. The metaphysical presumption built into these terms
is that they succeed in making genuine reference to an inner mental something
that is reasonably called a 'self'. But it doesn't matter whether or not the
presumption is correct.8
n. 8 The term 'I*' and its cognates can function in phenomenological contexts
to convey the content of a form of experience that incorporates the presumption
whether or not the presumption is actually correct. I'll omit the '*' when it's
So: it's clear to me that events in my remoter past didn't happen to me*. But
what does this amount to? It certainly doesn't mean that I don't have any
autobiographical memories of these past experiences. I do. Nor does it mean
that my autobiographical memories don't have what philosophers call a
'from-the-inside' character. Some of them do. And they are certainly the
experiences of the human being that I am. It does not, however, follow from
this that I experience them as having happened to me*, or indeed that they did
happen to me*. They certainly do not present as things that happened to me*,
and I think I'm strictly, literally correct in thinking that they did not
happen to me*.
- <I>That can't be right. If one of my remembered experiences has a
from-theinside character it must--by definition--be experienced as something
that happened to me*.</I>
This may seem plausible at first, but it's a mistake: the from-theinside
character of a memory can detach completely from any sense that one is the
subject of the remembered experience. My memory of falling out of a boat has an
essentially from-the-inside character, visually (the water rushing up to meet
me), kinaesthetically, proprioceptively, and so on.9 It certainly does not
follow that it carries any feeling or belief that what is remembered happened
to me*, to that which I now apprehend myself to be when I am apprehending
myself specifically as a self.
n. 9 It does not have any sort of 'from-the-outside' character (that would be a
bit like my seeing a film of myself falling taken by a third party).
This doesn't follow even when emotion figures in the from-theinside character
of the autobiographical memory. The inference from  The memory has a
from-the-inside character in emotional respects to  The memory is
experienced as something that happened to me* is simply not valid, although for
many people  and  are often or usually true together.
For me this is a plain fact of experience. 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. As for my practical concern for my future, which I believe to be within
the normal human range (low end), it is biologically-- viscerally--grounded and
autonomous in such a way that I can experience it as something immediately felt
even though I have no significant sense that I* will be there in the future.
Sec. 5 So much, briefly, for the Episodic life. What about the Narrative life?
And what might it mean to say that human life is 'narrative' in nature? And
must you be Diachronic to be Narrative? There are many questions.
One clear statement of the psychological Narrativity thesis is given by
Roquentin in Sartre's novel La nausée:
"a man is always a teller of stories, he lives surrounded by his own stories
and those of other people, he sees everything that happens to him in terms of
these stories and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it."10
n. 10 1938, p. 64. Sartre is as much concerned with relatively short-term
passages of life as with life as a whole.
Sartre sees the narrative, story-telling impulse as a defect, regrettable. He
accepts the psychological Narrativity thesis while rejecting the ethical
Narrativity thesis. He thinks human Narrativity is essentially a matter of bad
faith, of radical (and typically irremediable) inauthenticity, rather than as
something essential for authenticity.
The pro-Narrative majority may concede to Sartre that Narrativity can go wrong
while insisting that it's not all bad and that it is necessary for a good life.
I'm with Sartre on the ethical issue, but I want now to consider some
statements of the psychological Narrativity thesis. Oliver Sacks puts it by
saying that 'each of us constructs and lives a "narrative" ...this narrative is
us, our identities'. The distinguished psychologist Jerry Bruner writes of 'the
stories we tell about our lives', claiming that 'self is a perpetually
rewritten story', and that 'in the end, we become the autobiographical
narratives by which we "tell about" our lives'.11 Dan Dennett claims that
n. 11 Sacks 1985, p. 110; Bruner 1987, pp. 11, 15, 12; 1994, p. 53.
"we are all virtuoso novelists, who find ourselves engaged in all sorts of
behaviour, and we always try to put the best 'faces' on it we can. We try to
make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our
autobiography. The chief fictional character at the centre of that
autobiography is one's self."12
n. 12 Dennett 1988, p. 1029.
Marya Schechtman goes further, twisting the ethical and the psychological
Narrativity theses tightly together in a valuably forthright manner. A person,
she says, 'creates his identity [only] by forming an autobiographical
narrative--a story of his life'. One must be in possession of a full and
'explicit narrative [of one's life] to develop fully as a person'.13
n. 13 Schechtman 1997, pp. 93, 119.
Charles Taylor presents it this way: a 'basic condition of making sense of
ourselves', he says, 'is that we grasp our lives in a narrative' and have an
understanding of our lives 'as an unfolding story'. This is not, he thinks, 'an
optional extra'; our lives exist 'in a space of questions, which only a
coherent narrative can answer'.14 He is backed up by Claire in Doug Copeland's
novel Generation X: 'Claire ...breaks the silence by saying that it's not
healthy to live life as a succession of isolated little cool moments. "Either
our lives become stories, or there's no way to get through them"'; but Taylor
builds a lot more ethical weight into what's involved in getting through life.
n. 14 1989, pp. 47, 52.
"because we cannot but orient ourselves to the good, and hence determine our
place relative to it and hence determine the direction of our lives, [that] we
must inescapably understand our lives in narrative form, as a 'quest' [and]
must see our lives in story."15
n. 15 1989, pp. 51-2. I reject the 'because' and the second 'hence'.
This, he says, is an 'inescapable structural requirement of human agency',16
and Paul Ricoeur appears to concur:
n. 16 1989, p. 52.
"How, indeed, could a subject of action give an ethical character to his or her
own life taken as a whole if this life were not gathered together in some way,
and how could this occur if not, precisely, in the form of a narrative?"17
n. 17 1990, p. 158.
Here my main puzzlement is about what it might be to 'give an ethical character
to [one's] own life taken as a whole' in some explicit way, and about why on
earth, in the midst of the beauty of being, it should be thought to be
important to do this. I think that those who think in this way are motivated by
a sense of their own importance or significance that is absent in other human
beings. Many of them, connectedly, have religious commitments. They are wrapped
up in forms of religious belief that are--like almost all religious
belief--really all about self.18
n. 18 Religious belief is one of the fundamental vehicles of human narcissism
(clearly a sense of one's own importance is much more likely to be the cause of
religious belief in someone who has come to religion than in someone who has
been born into it).
Alasdair MacIntyre is perhaps the founding figure in the modern Narrativity
camp, and his view is similar to Taylor's. 'The unity of an individual life',
he says, 'is the unity of a narrative embodied in a single life. To ask "What
is the good for me?" is to ask how best I might live out that unity and bring
it to completion....' The unity of a human life, he continues,
"is the unity of a narrative quest ... [and] the only criteria for success or
failure in a human life as a whole are the criteria for success or failure in a
narrated or to-be-narrated quest. ...A quest for what? ...a quest for the good
... the good life for man is the life spent in seeking for the good life for
n. 19 1981, pp. 203-4.
MacIntyre's claim seems at first non-psychological: a good life is one that has
narrative unity. But a good life is one spent seeking the good life, and there
is a strong suggestion that seeking the good life requires taking up a
Narrative perspective; in which case narrative unity requires Narrativity.
Is any of this true? I don't think so. It seems to me that Mac- Intyre, Taylor
and all other supporters of the ethical Narrativity thesis are really just
talking about themselves. It may be that what they are saying is true for them,
both psychologically and ethically. This may be the best ethical project that
people like themselves can hope to engage in.20 But even if it is true for them
it is not true for other types of ethical personality, and many are likely to
be thrown right off their own truth by being led to believe that Narrativity is
necessary for a good life. My own conviction is that the best lives almost
never involve this kind of self-telling, and that we have here yet another deep
divider of the human race.
n. 20 One problem with it, and it is a deep problem, is that one is almost
certain to get one's 'story' wrong, in some more or less sentimental
way--unless, perhaps, one has the help of a truly gifted therapist.
When a Narrative like John Campbell claims that 'identity [through time] is
central to what we care about in our lives: one thing I care about is what I
have made of my life'21, I'm as bewildered as Goronwy Rees when he writes
n. 21 1994, p. 190.
"For as long as I can remember it has always surprised and slightly bewildered
me that other people should take it so much for granted that they each possess
what is usually called 'a character'; that is to say, a personality [or
personality-possessing self] with its own continuous history....I have never
been able to find anything of that sort in myself. ... How much I admire those
writers who are actually able to record the growth of what they call their
personality, describe the conditions which determined its birth, lovingly trace
the curve of its development. ... For myself it would be quite impossible to
tell such a story, because at no time in my life have I had that enviable
sensation of constituting a continuous personality....As a child this did not
worry me, and if indeed I had known at that time of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften
[The Man without Qualities, a novel by Robert Musil], the man without
qualities, I would have greeted him as my blood brother and rejoiced because I
was not alone in the world; as it was, I was content with a private fantasy of
my own in which I figured as Mr. Nobody."22
n. 22 1960, pp. 9-10.
Unlike Rees, I have a perfectly good grasp of myself as having a certain
personality, but I'm completely uninterested in the answer to the question
'What has GS made of his life?', or 'What have I made of my life?'. I'm living
it, and this sort of thinking about it is no part of it. This does not mean
that I am in any way irresponsible. It is just that what I care about, in so
far as I care about myself and my life, is how I am now. The way I am now is
profoundly shaped by my past, but it is only the present shaping consequences
of the past that matter, not the past as such. I agree with the Earl of
The metaphysicians ...affirm that if memory be taken away, the self is lost.
[But] what matter for memory? What have I to do with that part? If, whilst I
am, I am as I should be, what do I care more? And thus let me lose self every
hour, and be twenty successive selfs, or new selfs, 'tis all one to me: so
[long as] I lose not my opinion [i.e. my overall outlook, my character, my
moral identity]. If I carry that with me 'tis I; all is well. ...- The now; the
now. Mind this: in this is all.23
n. 23 Shaftesbury 1698-1712, pp. 136-137. Epictetus is an important influence.
I think, then, that the ethical Narrativity thesis is false, and that the
psychological Narrativity thesis is also false in any non-trivial version. What
do I mean by non-trivial? Well, if someone says, as some do, that making coffee
is a narrative that involves Narrativity, because you have to think ahead, do
things in the right order, and so on, and that everyday life involves many such
narratives, then I take it the claim is trivial.24
n. 24 Taylor is explicit that it is when I am not 'dealing with such trivial
questions as where I shall go in the next five minutes but with the issue of my
place relative to the good', that 'making sense of my present action ...
requires a narrative understanding of my life' (1989, p. 48).
Is there some burden on me to explain the popularity of the two theses, given
that I think that they're false? Hardly. Theorizing human beings tend to favour
false views in matters of this kind. I do, though, think that intellectual
fashion is part of the explanation. 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.25
n. 25 I think this may be the greatest single source of unhappiness in human
Sec. 6. --<I>All very interesting, but what exactly is (upper-case)
Narrativity? You still haven't addressed the question directly, and you're
running out of time.</I>
Perhaps the first thing to say is that being Diachronic doesn't already entail
being Narrative. There must be something more to experiencing one's life as a
narrative than simply being Diachronic. For one can be Diachronic, naturally
experiencing oneself(*) as something existing in the past and future without
any particular sense of one's life as constituting a narrative.
--<I>Fine, but you haven't told me what a (lower-case) narrative is either.</I>
Well, the paradigm of a narrative is a conventional story told in words. I take
the term to attribute--at the very least--a certain sort of developmental and
hence temporal unity or coherence to the things to which it is standardly
applied--lives, parts of lives, pieces of writing. So it doesn't apply to
random or radically unconnected sequences of events even when they are
sequentially and indeed contiguously temporally ordered, or to purely
picaresque or randomly 'cut-up' pieces of writing.26
n. 26 There are, however, many interesting complications. See Life in Time.
--<I>This doesn't take us very far, because we still need to know what makes
developmental unity or coherence in a life specifically narrative in nature.
After all, there's a clear sense in which every human life is a developmental
unity--a historical-characteral developmental unity as well as a biological
one--just in being the life of a single human being. Putting aside cases of
extreme insanity, any human life, even a highly disordered one, can be the
subject of an outstanding biography that possesses all the
narrative-unity-related virtues of that literary form. But if this sort of
developmental unity is sufficient for narrative structure in the sense of the
narrativity thesis, then the thesis is trivially true of all human beings.
Actually, even dogs and horses can be the subject of excellent biographies.</I>
True. And this, I think, is why the distinctive claim of the defenders of the
psychological Narrativity thesis is that for a life to be a narrative in the
required sense it must be lived Narratively. The person whose life it is must
see or feel it as a narrative, construe it as a narrative, live it as a
narrative. One could put this roughly by saying that lower-case or 'objective'
narrativity requires uppercase or 'subjective' Narrativity.27
n. 27 MacIntyre does not in the passages I have quoted explicitly say that the
narrativity of a life requires Narrativity. In After Virtue he is particularly
concerned with the idea that 'to think of a human life as a narrative unity is
to think in a way alien to the dominant individualist and bureaucratic modes of
modern culture' (1981, p. 211), and this remark was principally a criticism--an
excellent one--of the social sciences of the time.
--<I>Now you're using the notion of upper-case psychological Narrativity to
characterize the notion of lower-case 'objective' narrativity, and I still
don't have a clear sense of what upper-case Narrativity is.</I>
Well, it's not easy, but perhaps one can start from the idea of a construction
in the sense of a construal. The Narrative outlook clearly involves putting
some sort of construction--a unifying or form-finding construction--on the
events of one's life, or parts of one's life. I don't think this construction
need involve any clearly intentional activity, nor any departure from or
addition to the facts. But the Narrative attitude must (as we have already
agreed) amount to something more than a disposition to grasp one's life as a
unity simply in so far as it is the life of a biologically single human being.
Nor can it consist just in the ability to give a sequential record of the
actual course of one's life -, the actual history of one's life--even if one's
life does in fact exemplify a classical pattern of narrative development
independently of any construction or interpretation. One must in addition
engage--to repeat--in some sort of construal of one's life. One must have some
sort of relatively large-scale coherence-seeking, unity- seeking,
pattern-seeking, or most generally
[F] form-finding tendency when it comes to one's apprehension of one's life, or
relatively large-scale parts of one's life.28
n. 28 From now on I will omit the qualification about 'parts of one's life' and
take it as read
--<I>But this doesn't even distinguish Narrativity from Diachronicity, for to
be Diachronic is already to put a certain construction on one's life--on the
life of the human being that one is: it is to apprehend that life through the
life-unifying sense that one(*) was there in the past and will be there in the
future. And yet you say being Diachronic is not enough for being Narrative.</I>
I'm prepared to allow that to be Diachronic is already to put a certain
construction on one's life in the sense you specify. Nevertheless one can be
Diachronic without actively conceiving of one's life, consciously or
unconsciously, as some sort of ethical- historical-characterological
developmental unity, or in terms of a story, a Bildung or 'quest'. One can be
Diachronic without one's sense of who or what one is having any significant
sort of narrative structure. And one can be Diachronic without one's
apprehension of oneself as something that persists in time having any great
importance for one.29
n. 29 'Discern', 'apprehend', 'find', 'detect' all have non-factive readings.
--<I>You've already said that, and the question remains unanswered: what sort
of construal is required for Narrativity? When does one cross the line from
mere Diachronicity to Narrativity? This is still luminously unclear.</I>
I agree that the proposal that form-finding is a necessary condition of
Narrativity is very unspecific, but its lack of specificity may be part of its
value, and it seems clear to me that Diachronicity (D) and form-finding (F) are
independent of each other. In practice, no doubt, they often come together, but
one can imagine [-D +F] an Episodic person in whom a form-finding tendency is
stimulated precisely by lack of a Diachronic outlook, and, conversely, [+D -F]
a Diachronic person who lives, by force of circumstance, an intensely
picaresque and disjointed life, while having absolutely no tendency to seek
unity or narrative- developmental pattern in it. Other Diachronics in similar
circumstances may move from [+D -F] to [+D +F], acquiring a form-finding
tendency precisely because they become distressed by the 'one damned thing
after another'30 character of their lives. The great and radically
non-Narrative Stendhal might be judged to be an example of this, in the light
of all his chaotic autobiographical projects, although I would be more inclined
to classify him as [-D +F].31 Either way, the fact remains that one can be
Diachronic while being very unreflective about oneself. One can be inclined to
think, of any event in one's past of which one is reminded, that it happened to
oneself *, without positively grasping one's life as a unity in any
further--e.g. specifically narrative - sense.
n. 30 Hubbard 1909, p. 32.
n. 31 I judge Stendhal to be strongly Episodic but subject to Diachronic
flashes. Jack Kerouac is I think a clear case of an Episodic looking for larger
form. There are also clear elements of this in Malcolm Lowry.
I think that the notion of form-finding captures something that is essential to
being Narrative and that goes essentially beyond being Diachronic, and one view
might be that form-finding is not only necessary for Narrativity, but also
minimally sufficient. Against that, it may be said that if one is genuinely
Narrative one must also (and of course) have some sort of distinctive
[S] story-telling tendency
when it comes to one's apprehension of one's life--where storytelling is
understood in such a way that it does not imply any tendency to fabrication,
conscious or otherwise, although it does not exclude it either. On this view,
one must be disposed to apprehend or think of oneself and one's life as fitting
the form of some recognized narrative genre.
Story-telling is a species of form-finding, and the basic model for it,
perhaps, is the way in which gifted and impartial journalists or historians
report a sequence of events. Obviously they select among the facts, but they do
not, we suppose, distort or falsify them, and they do more than merely list
them in the correct temporal order, for they also place them in a connected
account. In its non-falsifying mode story-telling involves the ability to
detect-- not invent--developmental coherencies in the manifold of one's life.
It is one way in which one may be able to apprehend the deep personal
constancies that do in fact exist in the life of every human being--although I
believe this can also be done by form- finding without story-telling.
So story-telling entails form-finding, and story-telling in addition to
form-finding is surely--trivially--sufficient for Narrativity.
Sec. 8 A third and more troubling suggestion is that if one is Narrative one
will also have a tendency to engage unconsciously in invention, fiction of some
sort--falsification, confabulation, revisionism--when it comes to one's
apprehension of one's own life. I will call this
According to the revision thesis Narrativity always carries with it some sort
of tendency to revision, where revision essentially involves more merely than
changing one's view of the facts of one's life. (One can change one's view of
the facts of one's life without any falsification, simply by coming to see
things more clearly.)
Revision in the present sense is by definition non-conscious. It may sometimes
begin consciously, with deliberate lies told to others, for example, and it may
have semi-conscious instars, but it is not genuine revision in the present
sense unless or until its products are felt to be true in a way that excludes
awareness of falsification.32 The conscious/non-conscious border is both murky
and porous, but I think the notion of revision is robust for all that. The
paradigm cases are clear, and extremely common.
n. 32 It's well known that fully conscious lies can forget their origins and
come to be fully believed by their perpetrators.
If the revision thesis were true, it would be bad news for the ethical
Narrativity thesis, whose supporters cannot want ethical success to depend
essentially on some sort of falsification. I have no doubt that almost all
human Narrativity is compromised by revision, but I don't think it must be. It
is in any case a vast and complex phenomenon, and I will make just a very few
It is often said that autobiographical memory is an essentially constructive
and reconstructive phenomenon (in the terms of experimental psychology) rather
than a merely reproductive one, and there is a clear sense in which this is
true.33 Memory deletes, abridges, edits, reorders, italicizes. But even if
construction and reconstruction are universal in autobiographical memory, they
needn't involve revision as currently defined, for they may be fabrication-free
story-telling or form-finding. Many have proposed that we are all without
exception incorrigible self-fabulists, 'unreliable narrators' of our own
lives,34 and some who hold this view claim greater honesty of outlook for
themselves, and see pride, self-blindness, and so on in those who deny it. But
other research makes it pretty clear that this is not true. It's not true of
everyone. We have here another deep dimension of human psychological
difference. Some people are fabulists all the way down. In others,
autobiographical memory is fundamentally non-distorting, whatever automatic
processes of remoulding and recasting it may invariably involve.35
n. 33 For good discussions, see e.g. Brewer 1988, McCauley 1988.
n. 34 Cf. e.g. Bruner 1987, 1990, 1994. The notion of an 'unreliable narrator'
derives from literary criticism. In The Minds' Past (1998a) Gazzaniga seems to
support a strongly reconstructive view of human memory, but he later says only
that personal memory tends to be 'a bit fictional' (1998b, p. 713).
n. 35 Brewer (1988) argues that the evidence that supports 'the reconstructive
view of personal memory . . . does not seem very compelling'. See also Wagenaar
1994, Baddeley 1994, p. 239, Swann 1990. Ross (1989) argues that revision that
seems to serve self-esteem may be motivated by nothing more than a concern for
Some think that revision is always charged, as I will say--always motivated by
an interconnected core group of moral emotions including pride, self-love,
conceit, shame, regret, remorse, and guilt. Some go further, claiming with
Nietzsche that we always revise in our own favour: '"I have done that", says my
memory. "I cannot have done that", says my pride, and remains inexorable.
n. 36 1886, §69.
It seems, however, that neither of these claims is true. The first, that all
revision is charged, is significantly improved by the inclusion of things like
modesty or low self-esteem, gratitude or forgiveness, in the core group of
motivating moods and emotions; some people are just as likely to revise to
their own detriment and to others' advantage as the other way round. But the
claim that revision is always charged remains false even so. Revision may occur
simply because one is a natural form-finder but a very forgetful one and
instinctively seeks to make a coherent story out of limited materials.37
Frustrated story-tellers may fall into revision simply because they can't find
satisfying form in their lives and without being in any way motivated by a wish
to preserve or restore self-respect. John Dean's recall of his conversations
with Nixon at the Watergate hearings is another much discussed case of
uncharged revision. When the missing tapes were found, his testimony was
revealed to be impressively 'accurate about the individuals' basic positions'
although it was 'inaccurate with respect to exactly what was said during a
given conversation'. His recall of events involved revision in addition to
routine forgetting and morally neutral reconstruction, in so far as it
contained positive mistakes, but there is no reason to think that it was
significantly charged.38 'Flashbulb' memories (such as the memory of what was
one doing when one heard about the shooting of President Kennedy or about 9/11)
can be surprisingly inaccurate
n. 37 Perhaps 'confabulation' in patients with Korsakov's syndrome is an
extreme and pathological example of revision. See e.g. Sacks 1985, Gazzaniga
n. 38 Brewer 1988, p. 27. Cf. Neisser 1981.
- astonishingly so given our certainty that we remember accurately--but once
again there seems no reason to think that the revision that they involve must
be charged.39 Even when revision is charged, the common view that we always
revise in our own favour must yield to a mass of everyday evidence that some
people are as likely to revise to their own detriment-- or simply forget the
good things they have done.40 When La Rochefoucauld says that self-love is
subtler than the subtlest man in the world, there is truth in what he says. And
revising to one's own detriment may be no more attractive than revising to
one's advantage. But La Rochefoucauld is sometimes too clever, or rather
ignorant, in his cynicism.41
n. 39 Pillemer 1998, ch. 2.
n. 40 For more formal evidence, cf. e.g. Wagenaar 1994, 'Is memory
n. 41 Even if we did all tend to see our lives in a favourable light, it would
not follow that we were all revisers: some will have self-favouring,
self-respect-preserving justifications of their actions already in place at the
time of action, and so have no need for subsequent revision.
Is a tendency to revise a necessary part of being Narrative? No. In our own
frail case, substantial Narrativity may rarely occur without revision, but
story-telling is sufficient for Narrativity, and one can be story-telling
without being revisionary. So the ethical Narrativity thesis survives the
threat posed by the revision thesis. When Bernard Malamud claims that 'all
biography is ultimately fiction', simply on the grounds that 'there is no life
that can be captured wholly, as it was', there is no implication that it must
also be ultimately untrue.42
n. 42 Malamud 1979.
Sec. 9 I've made some distinctions, but none of them cut very sharply, and if
one asks how Diachronics, form-finders, story-tellers, and revisers relate to
each other, the answer, as far as I can see, is that almost anything goes.
Story-telling entails form-finding because it is simply one kind of
form-finding, but I see no other necessary connections between the four. Some
think that all normal human beings have all four of these properties. I think
that some normal human beings have none of them. Some think that Narrativity
necessarily involves all four. I think (as just remarked) that the limiting
case of Narrativity involves nothing more than form- finding story-telling (it
does not even require one to be Diachronic).
How do the authors I've quoted classify under this scheme? Well, Dennett is
someone who endorses a full blown [+D +F +S +R] view of what it is to be
Narrative, and he seems to place considerable emphasis on revision:
"our fundamental tactic of self-protection, self-control, and self- definition
is not spinning webs or building dams, but telling stories, and more
particularly concocting and controlling the story we tell others--and
ourselves--about who we are."43
n. 43 1991, p. 418; my emphasis. Note that Dennett stresses the idea that this
is a story about who we are, rather than about our lives.
Bruner, I think, concurs with this emphasis. I take it that Sartre endorses [+F
+S +R], and is not particularly concerned with [D] in so far as he is mainly
interested in short-term, in-the-present story-telling. Schechtman's account of
Narrativity is [+D +F +S ±R]. It assumes that we are all Diachronic, requires
that we be form-finding and story-telling and explicitly so:
constituting an identity requires that an individual conceive of his life as
having the form and the logic of a story--more specifically, the story of a
person's life--where "story" is understood as a conventional, linear
n. 44 Schechtman 1997, p. 96. This is a strong expression of her view, which
has usefully weaker forms (cf. e.g. pp. 117, 159).
but it is important, on her view, that there be no significant revision, that
one's self-narrative be essentially accurate.
I take myself to be [-D -F -S -R]. The claim that I don't revise much is the
most vulnerable one, because it is in the nature of the case that one has no
sense that one revises when one does. So I may be wrong, but (of course) I
don't think so.
On the strong form of Schechtman's view, I am not really a person. Some
sentient creatures, she says 'weave stories of their lives, and it is their
doing so which makes them persons'; to have an 'identity' as a person is 'to
have a narrative self-conception ... to experience the events in one's life as
interpreted through one's sense of one's own life story'. This is in fact a
common type of claim, and Schechtman goes further, claiming at one point that
'elements of a person's narrative' that figure only in his 'implicit
self-narrative', and that 'he cannot articulate ... are only partially
his--attributable to him to a lesser degree than those aspects of the narrative
he can articulate'.45
n. 45 1997, p. 117.
This seems to me to express an ideal of control and self- awareness in human
life that is mistaken and potentially pernicious. The aspiration to explicit
Narrative self-articulation is natural for some--for some, perhaps, it may even
be helpful-- but in others it is highly unnatural and ruinous. My guess is that
it almost always does more harm than good--that the Narrative tendency to look
for story or narrative coherence in one's life is, in general, a gross
hindrance to self-understanding: to a just, general, practically real sense,
implicit or explicit, of one's nature. It's well known that telling and
retelling one's past leads to changes, smoothings, enhancements, shifts away
from the facts, and recent research has shown that this is not just a human
psychological foible. It turns out to be an inevitable consequence of the
mechanics of the neurophysiological process of laying down memories that every
studied conscious recall of past events brings an alteration.46 The implication
is plain: the more you recall, retell, narrate yourself, the further you risk
moving away from accurate self-understanding, from the truth of your being.
Some are constantly telling their daily experiences to others in a storying way
and with great gusto. They are drifting ever further off the truth. Others
never do this, and when they are obliged to convey facts about their lives they
do it clumsily and uncomfortably and in a way that is somehow essentially
n. 46 See McCrone 2003, Debiec, LeDoux, & Nader 2002.
Certainly Narrativity is not a necessary part of the 'examined life' (nor is
Diachronicity), and it is in any case most unclear that the examined life,
thought by Socrates to be essential to human existence, is always a good thing.
People can develop and deepen in valuable ways without any sort of explicit,
specifically Narrative reflection, just as musicians can improve by practice
sessions without recalling those sessions. The business of living well is, for
many, a completely non-Narrative project. Granted that certain sorts of
self-understanding are necessary for a good human life, they need involve
nothing more than form-finding, which can exist in the absence of Narrativity;
and they may be osmotic, systemic, not staged in consciousness.
Psychotherapy need not be a narrative or Narrative project. It regularly
involves identifying connections between features of one's very early life and
one's present perspective on things, but these particular explanatory linkings
need not have any sort of distinctively narrative character to them. Nor need
they be grasped in any distinctively Narrative way. Nor need they interconnect
narratively with each other in any interesting way. I don't need to take up any
sort of Narrative attitude to myself in order to profit from coming to
understand how the way X and Y treated me when I was very young is expressed in
certain anxieties I have now. The key explanatory linkings in psychotherapy are
often piecemeal in nature, as are many of the key impacts of experience.
Ideally, I think, one acquires an assorted basketful of understandings, not a
narrative--an almost inevitably falsifying narrative.
10--<I>I'm sorry, but you really have no idea of the force and reach of the
psychological Narrativity thesis. You're as Narrative as anyone else, and your
narratives about yourself determine how you think of yourself even though they
are not conscious.</I>
Well, here we have a stand off. I think it's just not so, and I take it that
the disagreement is not just terminological. Self- understanding does not have
to take a narrative form, even implicitly. I'm a product of my past, including
my very early past, in many profoundly important respects. But it simply does
not follow that self-understanding, or the best kind of self understanding,
must take a narrative form, or indeed a historical form. If I were charged to
make my self-understanding explicit, I might well illustrate my view of myself
by reference to things I (GS) have done, but it certainly would not follow that
I had a Diachronic outlook, still less a Narrative one.
At this point Heidegger informs us, in a variation on Socrates, that a human
being's existence--'Dasein's' existence--is constituted by the fact that its
being is an issue for it. Fine, but it's not at all clear that being a thing
whose being is an issue for it need involve any sort of Narrative outlook.
Heidegger takes it that one's 'self-understanding is constitutive of [one's]
... being what or who [one] is', and that this self-understanding consists
largely in one's 'determining oneself as someone by pressing ahead into a
possible way to be'.47 And here he seems (I do not understand his notion of
temporality) to be insisting on the importance of being Diachronic and indeed
Narrative. But if this is his claim then--once again--it seems to me false:
false as a universal claim about human life, false as a claim about what it is
for human beings to be what or who they are, false as a normative claim about
what good or authentic human life must be like, false about what any
self-understanding must involve, and false about what self-understanding is at
its best. Perhaps Heideggerian authenticity is compatible with the seemingly
rival ideal of living in the moment--'Take therefore no thought for the morrow:
for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the
day is the evil thereof'48--but this will not win me over.
n. 47 Blattner 1999, pp. 32, 41; I substitute 'one' for 'Dasein'. Cf. Heidegger
(1927, p. 344): 'In the light of the "for-the-sake-of-which" of one's
self-chosen ability-to-be, resolute Dasein frees itself for its world.'
n. 48 Matthew vi. 34. This way of being in the present has nothing to do with
the 'aesthetic' way of being in the present described and condemned by
Sec. 11 There is much more to say. Some may still think that the Episodic life
must be deprived in some way, but truly happy-golucky, see-what-comes-along
lives are among the best there are, vivid, blessed, profound.49 Some think that
an Episodic cannot really know true friendship, or even be loyal. They are
refuted by Michel de Montaigne, a great Episodic, famous for his friendship
with Etienne de la Boétie, who judged that he was 'better at friendship than at
anything else' although
n. 49 Note, though, how Tom Bombadil in The Lord of the Rings can produce a
"there is nobody less suited than I am to start talking about memory. I can
find hardly a trace of it in myself; I doubt if there is any other memory in
the world as grotesquely faulty as mine is!"50
n. 50 1563-92, p. 32.
Montaigne finds that he is often misjudged and misunderstood, for when he
admits he has a very poor memory people assume that he must suffer from
ingratitude: 'they judge my affection by my memory', he comments, and are of
course quite wrong to do so.51 A gift for friendship doesn't require any
ability to recall past shared experiences in detail, nor any tendency to value
them. It is shown in how one is in the present.
n. 51 p. 33. 'A second avantage' of poor memory, he goes on to note, 'is that
...I remember less any insults received'.
But can Episodics be properly moral beings? The question troubles many. Kathy
Wilkes thinks not.52 So also, perhaps, do Plutarch and many others. But
Diachronicity is not a necessary condition of a properly moral existence, nor
of a proper sense of responsibility.53 As for Narrativity, it is in the sphere
of ethics more of an affliction or a bad habit than a prerequisite of a good
life. It risks a strange commodification of life and time--of soul, understood
in a strictly secular sense. It misses the point. 'We live', as the great short
story writer V. S. Pritchett observes, 'beyond any tale that we happen to
n. 52 Wilkes 1999.
n. 53 I discuss Episodic ethics in Life in Time.
n. 54 Pritchett 1979, p. 47. I am grateful to audiences in Oxford (1999),
Rutgers (2000), and Reading (2003) for their comments.
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