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Moral Selves, Basic Persons, and Selfhood as a Narrative – Marya Schechtman on the Meaning of Stories in Human Life

Moral Selves, Basic Persons, and Selfhood as a Narrative – Marya Schechtman on the Meaning of Stories in Human Life

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What makes a person the same from one moment to another? How does one’s life become a whole? How do we become moral agents? These questions have intrigued philosopher Marya Schechtman (b. 1960) throughout her career. In this interview, she explains her latest thoughts on the relationship between selfhood and storytelling, discusses the notion of narrative, and replies to critique.


In your latest book (Staying Alive, 2014) you suggest that the continuity of personal identity could be depicted with an analogy to music: like a musical piece, identity is a diachronic, unfolding structureMarya Schechtman, Staying Alive. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2014.. Having a personal identity would then not require narrative competencies, as suggested by many narrative accounts of the self (e.g. the Narrative Self-Constitution ViewMarya Schechtman, The Constitution of Selves. Cornell University Press, Ithaca 1996.), but rather it would require the diachronic unity of a person’s life in general. How do you now see the role of stories and narrative capabilities?

There are really two aspects to this question. One raises the question of whether personhood requires narrative competencies and the other the question of whether the notion of narrative is particularly or uniquely illuminating in understanding the life of a person, or whether anything characterized by diachronic holism (like a piece of music) would be just as useful. Let me say something about separately about each of these.

With respect to the first question, my new work makes a distinction that I did not make in earlier work between what we might call the “moral self” and what we might call the “basic person.” The narrative view developed in The Constitution of Selves (the Narrative Self-Constitution View) is offered as a move within a broadly Lockean tradition. Locke famously tells us that there is a distinction between being a person and being a human animal, and that “person” is a “forensic term” which denotes a being with reason and reflective self-consciousnessJohn Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Bassett, London 1689–1690.. So a person on Locke’s view is a being who can understand herself as continuing over time and can appropriately be held responsible for what she does or criticized for being irrational. A Lockean person is someone with the sophisticated cognitive and ethical capacities that beings like us possess and (at least most) other animals seem not to. The question of “personal identity” Locke considers is thus the question of what constitutes the continuation over time of a being characterized by these capacities; what does it take for one of these moral/rational agents to continue to exist. He concludes that it is sameness of consciousness, and this serves as the starting point for a host of psychologically-based views of personal identity, including the one I develop in The Constitution of Selves.

In my latest work I have moved away from this starting point a bit, and to explain why it will be necessary to provide a bit of background. Recently there has been a challenge to this whole tradition which argues that the Lockean question is not really an identity question at allEric Olson, The Human Animal. Personal Identity without Psychology. Oxford University Press, New York 1997; David DeGrazia, Human Identity and Bioethics. Cambridge University Press, New York 2005.. According to this challenge, put forward for example by Eric Olson, a Lockean person is not a kind of entity. Instead, the designation ”person” signifies that an entity has a particular set of capacities. ”A person” is something that an already existing entity (in our case a human organism) can be or fail to be (as it can be or fail to be a parent, or student, or homeowner at various parts of its life), but is not a thing in its own right (just as a “homeowner” is not a basic kind of thing but rather “homeowner” is a characteristic of a basic thing). This means that strictly speaking there are no questions of personal identity any more than there is a metaphysical question of homeowner identity (as opposed to a question about the identity of a thing that is a homeowner).

Here is one way that those who raise this objection argue for it: In the ordinary course of events a human infant starts off as something that is not a Lockean person. Over time the capacities that constitute Lockean personhood develop so there is a Lockean person present, and eventually these capacities may become lost or compromised resulting, perhaps, in someone with dementia who is not a Lockean person. Opponents of the view that a Lockean person is a true kind of entity point out that it does not seem as if a new object comes into existence when a child develops the ability to reason and reflect, nor does it seem as if an object ceases to exist when these capacities are lost. Instead it seems evident that there is a single, continuing human organism which first gains and then loses capacities while remaining the same entity throughout. The sensible position, these objectors argue, is that strictly speaking we are human organisms and the conditions of our literal (numerical) identity over time are biological.Ibid. See also Dominic Murphy’s interview in this issue.

I think that the Lockean conception of personhood, which defines what I will call the “moral self”, is a very important conception and captures something truly important to us. I am also convinced by the arguments given above that we are not most fundamentally Lockean persons, and that our persistence or identity conditions are not the same as those of moral selves. But I do not draw the same conclusions from these arguments that the original objectors do, because I also do not think that we are most fundamentally human organisms with strictly biological conditions of continuation. This conclusion does not follow necessarily from the arguments given. Those who give these arguments do show that an account of our literal continuation cannot be based on a Lockean conception of personhood, but there is no reason to assume that the only alternative to this is to say that we are strictly biological entities.

I argue that there is a conception of personhood more basic than that Locke offers, and that we are persons in this more basic sense and have the persistence conditions of “basic persons.” According to this view we are bio/psycho/social entities. It is part of our fundamental nature to be part of a cultural system or space of interpersonal interactions, and the social and psychological aspects of our lives are as basic to what we are as metabolism and immune response, and play a comparable role in our continuation as entities. Since social interactions and psychological development begin at or before birth, we are persons in this sense long before we become persons in Locke’s sense and can remain persons in this sense even if we cease to be Lockean persons. So, the answer to the first part of your question is that, according to my current view, we need to have narrative competencies to be moral selves – which is something we care about a great deal – but we do not need them in order to be persons in the most basic sense.

Even if we do not need narrative competencies to be basic persons, however, there is a separate question about whether the notion of narrative is useful in understanding and explaining the overall shape of the life of a person and so the kind of unity that a person (in this more basic sense) has throughout her life. Here it is not the narrative competencies of the person herself but the form of her life that is at issue. I have said in Staying Alive that narrative is still a useful concept to apply to understanding personal identity in this regard, but also raise the question of whether it is narrative per se which is illuminating here or whether any other form of diachronic holism or shape (such as that found in a sonata for instance) would do. To be honest, I go back and forth on this issue. Sometimes I think that I really do want to insist that there is something special about narrative. Other times I think that the notion of narrative is just too distracting and the only really important part is the diachronic holism. Lately I am more inclined toward the first view, but making it plausible depends crucially on being clear about what I do, and do not, mean by “narrative”, so this is a good time to go on to the next question.


Narrative and Perspective-Taking


How would you define a narrative?

As my answer to the previous question made clear, this is an important question for me to answer. Unfortunately, I have no nice, tidy definition of “narrative.” Rather than try to produce and defend one it seems to make more sense just to point out which elements of narrative are important to my view and play a special role in understanding persons. This will at least clarify the sense in which I want to say that the identity of the moral self should be understood in narrative terms and that narrative is a useful concept for understanding the shape of our lives more generally.

To begin it will be helpful to say a few words about the context in which the Narrative Self-Constitution View is developed. I offer this view in response to psychological continuity theories of personal identity, and in particular to an influential argument put forward by Derek ParfitDerek Parfit, Reasons and Persons. Clarendon Press, Oxford 1984.. Psychological continuity theories define personal identity roughly in terms of overlapping chains of connections between psychological states – so in terms of a kind of sameness of psychological make-up which is allowed to change only gradually over time if identity is to be maintained. The general picture of the continuity of the person is roughly like that described in the famous puzzle about the Ship of Theseus whose planks are replaced gradually over time, keeping a functioning ship throughout but ending with one that has no matter in common with the original.

A standard objection to psychological continuity theories is that they cannot explain the kinds of practical significance we associate with personal identity – e.g. the fact that a person is held directly responsible only for her own actions or is rational to have a particular kind of interest in the quality of her future experience that is different in kind from her concern for the well-being of others. The worry is that the kind of similarity defined in the psychological continuity theory is too weak, or of the wrong kind, to justify these practices. Parfit acknowledges that the psychological continuity theory may well not be able to make sense of the practices associated with persons, but argues that since there is no account of personal identity that could do a better job in this regard we should just accept that our person-related practices have no real basis. They presume a faulty metaphysics and so we should consider revising them.

I argue that there is a view that can do a better job of illuminating our person-related practices, and this is the narrative view I offer. The relevant aspects of narrative in this context are thus those which, when applied to a person’s life, can provide a kind of deep unity that the psychological continuity theory cannot. The differences between the relation of narrative unity and psychological continuity are what is important here, and so my notion of “narrative” can be clarified through contrast with the relation of psychological continuity.

One of the features of narrative that is crucial in this regard is the fact that it is holistic. Psychological continuity theories are reductionist and so committed to the claim that the parts of a person are ontologically prior to the diachronic whole. Narratives, on the other hand, are diachronically holistic. What I mean by this is that there is an important sense in which the narrative whole is prior to its parts. We can individuate events in a narrative, but each of these events has its particular character and significance only because of its place in the narrative structure, and can only be understood entirely in the context of the narrative as a whole. I argue that lives, like narratives, have a diachronic shape. Opponents of the narrative view deny this, insisting, for instance, that lives do not have structural beginnings, middles, and ends in the sense that narratives do but only in the more trivial sense that they start and end at some point and there is some moment that is numerically half way between these.

I disagree. Human persons have a particular developmental trajectory biologically, psychologically, and socially. We start as children, typically develop into adults, age and ultimately die. Different capacities, activities, events and interactions are associated with different life phases. It is dangerous to think of this in too rigid or detailed a way, of course, or to assert that there is some very specific plan that all lives follow, but this is also true of literary narrative.

Still, in a life as in a narrative we can tell when things happen in an anomalous order, and there are unfinished lives (as when someone tragically dies young and in the middle of all kinds of projects) in much the same way there are unfinished stories. It is central to our experience of persons, I suggest, that we are constantly aware of this very broad trajectory and of someone’s rough place along it – children play a different role in our lives than do adults, and the world is different for someone who is in the twilight of life than it is for someone in early adulthood. All of our experience occurs against the background knowledge that our lives are finite and that, at any moment, a certain portion of them has already passed. Of course there are all kinds of exceptions here; but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. Psychological continuity, on the other hand, has no diachronic shape and could in principle continue forever; it is a very homogeneous relation.

A related feature that lives share with narratives is that the events within a life are, as are the events in a narrative, of differential significance. Some are deeply important, some are turning points, and some are relatively trivial and routine. Sometimes we recognize especially significant events when they occur (e.g. a wedding, the birth of a child, a graduation), and sometimes their significance becomes clear only later (as when a decision to stop in a coffee shop on the way to work results in meeting the person who becomes one’s life partner). The point is that different events play different kinds of roles in our lives, but this is not true of psychological continuity, where all psychological connections basically contribute in the same way.

The features I have described so far are features not only of lives and of narratives, but also of other artifacts with diachronic shapes, like sonatas, which is why I am sometimes tempted to give up talk of narrative. But there is another feature, more specific to the narrative form, which I think is important to our lives, and this is why I am inclined to retain talk specifically of narrative. It is characteristic of a literary narrative that engaging with it requires us to occupy multiple points of view simultaneously. In a narrative we must appreciate the perspectives of the various characters, of the narrator, and of ourselves as readers, all of which must be available to us if we are to understand fully what is going on. Something like this is also true in our lives, where we need to occupy our present perspective but also that of our past and future selves, as well as taking the long view of our lives as a whole to engage in the full range of activities and interactions that characterize personhood. In fact, this is the feature of a narrative self-conception which is most important to explaining how a narrative view of the moral self can answer Parfit’s argument, because it is this feature that connects us phenomenologically to the past and future.

So while I do not have a complete definition of “narrative,” in this context a narrative is a series of events characterized by diachronic holism and varying significance, in which multiple points of view which must be occupied simultaneously to fully understand the whole.  The claim is that we need to engage with our lives as narratives to be moral selves. But I also think that it is part of the social structure of humans to form narratives of the lives of others (more or less detailed depending on how we engage with them), and so narrative is also useful for understanding the basic person. When I look at a baby who is not yet a moral self I respond to her as someone at the beginning of a life story which will typically involve maturing into such a self (and so I talk to her and sing to her and otherwise act in ways that contribute to this development). So narrative is useful for thinking about basic persons as well.

What is the role of narratives in human life, action and intersubjective relations?

I actually think that narratives in general have many different and important roles in our lives. I have focused on one connected with a particular kind of narrative which plays a particular kind of role. The position I defend is that we (here I am talking of Lockean persons) think of our lives in narrative terms, not in the sense that we self-consciously articulate our life stories to ourselves or to anyone else, but in the sense that we implicitly keep track of the ongoing story of our lives, and this cognitive work acts as a lens through which we act upon and experience the world.

My experiences and actions thus include or refer to other parts of my life in much the same way an event in a narrative refers to its narrative context. When I sit down to write answers to your question, for instance, I do not just find myself at the computer, I bring with me the background understanding of myself as a philosopher at a certain stage of my career, undertaking a particular kind of activity which has a particular significance for me and various potential consequences. All of this is part of my experience of writing and plays a role in what I do and say.

My argument is that it is this psychological organization that allows us to experience ourselves as continuing over time, which in turn gives us the broadly ethical capacities associated with personhood and characteristically interpersonal interactions – those that define the moral self or the Lockean person. Many of the ways in which we interact with one another depend upon the implicit understanding that we have a history which has certain implications for the present and that our present circumstances and actions have certain implications for the future. This is just what it means to have a self-narrative. On my view, then, we constitute ourselves as moral selves through operating with an autobiographical narrative. While this narrative is mostly implicit, we regularly articulate parts of it in our interactions with others in order to make ourselves intelligible to them.

It is important to note that since our narrative self-conceptions play a fundamental role in the kinds of interactions and relations that characterize the moral self they are constrained in what they can contain. A self-narrative as I conceive it involves appropriation of what are, in some everyday sense, the facts of one’s history – where one was born, where one lives, what one does for a living, who one’s friends are, whether one has children, etc. These are turned into an ongoing life story which is understood as one’s own story. It is a crucial part of my view that a person cannot simply make up any story about herself that she wishes and constitute herself as the person she has imagined. She has to have a life narrative that comports with basic facts. This does not mean that a person can never misremember any events of her life, or that she must interpret the significance of all of the facts in her life the same way others do. The view does allow room for disagreement about the assessment of the facts.

Finally, I should point out that, as my last answer indicated, we also use narrative in interacting with other basic persons who are not self-narrators. I already mentioned how we interact with babies. There is also the way that we interact with dementia patients. In interacting with someone who develops dementia, for instance, their history – and our history with them – will play an important role in our understanding of what kinds of decisions we need to make with respect to this person and how those decisions are to be made.

What do you think happens to the self or personhood if our narrative competencies are somehow diminished (e.g. in Alzheimer’s disease)?

This is a context in which the distinction between the basic person and the moral self becomes very important. As I have already explained, on my current view someone with Alzheimer’s is still a basic person and many practical concerns and interactions apply to such an individual. Dementia does not make someone a non-person or less of a (basic) person or anything like that. Diminishment of narrative competence does, however, impact moral selfhood (or Lockean personhood). Since these competences are required for the kinds of activities and interactions that define this kind of selfhood their loss will amount to a loss of moral selfhood.

Two points are important here, however. First, moral selfhood admits of degrees and partiality in a way that numerical identity does not. It is not an all-or-nothing thing and so it is the kind of thing that can be diminished or limited without being completely lost. Second, to say that someone has lost or diminished moral selfhood is not to say that there is no obligation to treat them with respect or that we have diminished moral responsibility with respect to them. It is only to say that there are certain things it is not appropriate to expect from them. This is the kind of thing that the criminal justice system takes into account, for instance, when it tries to determine competencies before charging someone with a crime. It is also the kind of thing that the caregiver of someone with Alzheimer’s takes into account when their charge calls them nasty names or accuses them of stealing their belongings.


Life Is Not a Novel


Is there something that has not been understood in the narrative view of the self? What is the most unfortunate misunderstanding?

Yes, several things have been misunderstood, some of which I have already mentioned. I think one of the most common misconceptions is that in claiming that a human life or self-conception is narrative in form I commit myself to the view that our lives and self-conceptions are exactly like literary narratives or that they must belong to some genre or conform to strict rules of construction which require each and every event to have a purpose and the life as a whole to be thematically unified and strongly teleological. I don’t think this objection even does full justice to literary narrative, which is much more varied and less rigid than it suggests. More important, though, it is not at all obvious why we should take the literary novel as the paradigm to which all narratives must conform. There are many different kinds of narrative, and while they all have features in common, they differ as well. A biographical narrative is not precisely the same as a novel, which is not quite the same as a short story, which is not quite the same as a history of some region or event, which is not quite the same as a television series, yet all may be narratives. So the fact that I offer a narrative view of the moral self does not mean that I am committed to the claim that our lives are just like novels. Obviously they are not.

Another misconception is the association of “narrative” with “fiction” and the related idea, which I have already mentioned, that according to a narrative view of the self a person can tell whatever story she wants to about herself. This is absolutely not what the view says. There is no reason to think that a narrative must be fictional – many narratives are not. It is characteristic of narratives that they involve selectivity of emphasis, but this does not mean that a denial of provable facts about one’s history is permissible. As I said earlier, an identity-constituting narrative is a particular kind of narrative, and there are constraints on it that come from both facts about the world and the pressures of its intersubjective purpose. To say that we constitute ourselves as persons by developing an autobiographical narrative is thus not to say that we make up the story of our lives out of wholecloth; it is rather to say that we need to take the raw materials we are given and actively process them in order to make ourselves intelligible to ourselves and to others. I should also mention that just as I cannot tell any story I wish about myself and thereby make it true, it is equally the case that others cannot tell any story that they want about me and make that story true. There is a small element of constructivism in my view, but it is a very small one.

I don’t know which of these misunderstandings I find more unfortunate. Both are pretty serious, and I can say that if either were accurate to my view I would find it pretty unattractive myself.

What have you been researching after finishing Staying Alive? What are you interested in at the moment?

In Staying Alive I had moved away a bit from the narrative view and questions about the self in order to consider more metaphysical questions about basic personhood and personal identity. Now I am returning to questions about the self in order to further refine what I continue to endorse in the narrative view, filling in some of the remaining gaps and developing some of the new thoughts I have had since The Constitution of Selves. I am currently at the beginning of a new book project which will focus on the phenomenology of the self, and particularly on the way in which we experience ourselves in time, exploring the ethical significance of the fact that we do experience our lives in this way and considering in what sense, if any, it adds moral depth or significance to one’s life to conceive it as a unified whole.


References & Bibliography

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