Monday, 4 January 2016

On Galen Strawson’s Criticism of Narrativity

“The greatest hazard of all, losing one's self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all.  No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss - an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. - is sure to be noticed.”  Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death

     Picture by José Roosevelt

1. Introduction

This paper challenges Galen Strawson’s proposed distinction between two ways of experiencing the self: the Synchronic and the Diachronic. While the Diachronic experiences his self as existing in the past, present and future, for the Synchronic the self is fully in the present. According to Strawson, a Diachronic view of the self is an essential ingredient of adopting a Narrative attitude towards one’s self. By contrast, a Synchronic or Episodic personality has no need for defining one’s self through narrative. I will argue that this distinction is in tension with our ordinary concepts of self and identity. These concepts have essential connections with the commitments and self-constituting decisions we make. We usually define ourselves in terms of what we care about or what we take to be important and Narrativity is just our way of keeping track of these crucial commitments (MacIntyre, 1981; Taylor 1989; Frankfurt 1998; McAdams 2001). These conceptual connections become prominent when we consider widespread phenomena like losing one’s self or going through an identity crisis. I will argue that the Narrativity view of the self, the view criticized by Strawson, has the conceptual resources to accurately describe and explain these phenomena. By contrast, Strawson’s proposed distinction is in direct conflict with these significant psychological facts and cannot account for our intuitions regarding them. In the next section I will present Strawson’s characterization of the distinction between the Synchronic and the Diachronic and his arguments against the Narrativity view of the self. In the third section I will reject the distinction and argue in support of the Narrativity view. Then, in section four, I will explore some connections between adopting a Narrative view of the self and having a good, happy life.

2. Strawson’s criticism

In his paper “Against Narrativity” (2008) Galen Strawson argues against the idea that we do or should experience our selves as a narrative. First, he criticizes the psychological thesis that we do experience our selves as a narrative and, secondly, he rejects the ethical or normative thesis that thinking of our lives as narrative “is essential to living well, to true or full personhood.” (Strawson 2008, p. 189) Strawson draws the distinction between two psychological types: the Diachronic and the Synchronic. The Diachronic experiences his self in a different way from the Synchronic. He thinks of himself as something that was there in the further past and will be there in the further future. In contrast, the Synchronic does not think of himself as something that was there in the remote past and will be there in the future (Strawson, 2008, p. 190) Although an Episodic is able to remember his past experiences and plan for his future, he has limited interest in these temporal dimensions because he experiences himself as present. An Episodic is aware that his childhood memories are of himself in the sense that he is the same human being as he was in the past. However, this does not imply that he is the same person, or that the way he experiences his self now involves anything about the past. The Diachronic type, given its concern for past and future, is more inclined to adopting a Narrative outlook towards his life. Narrativity involves telling a story or giving an account of one’s life. In contrast, Strawson takes himself to be an Episodic: “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” (Strawson 2008, p. 194)
Strawson stresses that the Episodic form of experiencing one’s self does not imply that one is not informed by one’s past and not responsible for it. To make this point vivid he uses an analogy between psychological or ethical development, on the one hand, and musical development, on the other. “The past can be 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.” (Strawson, 2008, p. 193)
The supporters of the ethical Narrativity thesis argue that taking a narrative stance towards our lives is crucial for having good lives. In reply, Strawson claims that “those who think this way are motivated by a sense of their own importance or significance that is absent in other human beings.” (Strawson, 2008, p. 196) He argues that other types of ethical personality are not interested in questions of the unity of their lives, but rather they are only concerned with the present “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.”(Strawson, 2008, p. 198) On this point Strawson strongly agrees with Earl of Shaftesbury who writes: “The metaphysicians … affirm that if memory be taken away, the self is lost. [But] what matter for memory? What have I to do with the past? 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 selves, ‘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” (Shaftesbury 1698 – 1712, p. 136-137).
To sum up, Strawson argues that both the psychological Narrativity thesis and the ethical Narrativity thesis are false. They are based on hasty generalization from one psychological type of ethical personality to all types of personalities. Strawson argues that there are normal people living fulfilling, ethical lives who do not experience their selves in narrative terms and who should not do it either. For these types of people adopting a narrative outlook would be dangerous and unhealthy, and such an outlook should not by any means be forced on them.   

3. The Psychological Thesis

In this section I will challenge Strawson’s distinction between Synchronic and Diachronic and I will argue in support of the psychological Narrativity Thesis. My challenge is based on folk-psychological descriptions of the related phenomena of having lost one’s self and having found one’s self. I suggest that a criterion of adequacy of accounts of the self or personal identity is whether they have the resources to account for widespread phenomena like losing one’s self or going through an identity crisis. The concepts of self and identity are closely related with the ideas of losing one’s identity or not knowing who one is. In other words, a self is something which can be lost and then regained; one’s identity is something which may be in crisis. Thus, a view of the self should have the conceptual resources to illuminate these central uses of the concept and to explain the phenomena they are meant to describe. I will argue that Strawson’s description of the Synchronic or Episodic psychological type is based on a misconstrual of the ordinary concept of the self and cannot make room for the conceptual possibility of describing such common realities like having an identity crisis. On the other hand, the Narrative view of the self has the conceptual resources to describe and illuminate these significant experiences. 
At different points in our lives we have the sense that we don’t know who we are anymore, that we have lost our identity, and this feeling is accompanied by a sense of anxiety and alienation. To take a concrete example, let’s suppose John decides to study psychology and dreams of discovering the hidden mechanisms of our minds and make contributions comparable to those of Sigmund Freud or Carl Gustav Jung. After finishing his undergraduate and graduate studies John already has a few papers published and starts working for a private clinic. John discovers that he enjoys having money and buys a new car and a new apartment. Then, he meets the girl of his dreams, gets married and has children. He has many patients and gradually becomes swamped with work. He applies standard therapeutic techniques and he tells himself he will soon invent new, better ones. However, working with patients and meeting the commitments of family life becomes so overwhelming that he barely has time for research and publishing. One day, when in his mid-thirties, John reads a biography of Jung and learns that the great psychologist had made his major contributions while in his late thirties. John feels a pang of anxiety. His modest contributions are no match for those of the famous theoretician. Something in his life did not go well; at some point he must have made a wrong turn. He suddenly feels alienated from his job and thinks that he lost his way. Something essential has been forgotten. John cannot recognize himself in the life he currently lives. It suddenly appears empty, devoid of meaning and purpose. After a few weeks of intense deliberation John decides to resign his job, get a divorce and buy a cabin up in the mountains where he can intensely psychoanalyze himself and make momentous psychological discoveries. This new-found meaning and purpose fills him with intense happiness.   
This familiar type of case points to some important features of our ordinary concepts of self and identity. These features are emphasized, in one form or another, by defenders of the Narrativty view of the self, both philosophers and psychologists (MacIntyre, 1981; Taylor, 1989; McAdams 2001; Schectmann 1997). Having a self or identity involves the possibility of going through an identity crisis. An identity crisis means that the person does not know who he is and what to do; the agent is essentially disoriented. Solving an identity crisis involves making a decision, undertaking a commitment or taking a stand on a crucial issue (Taylor 1989, p. 27-28; MacIntyre 1981, p. 203-204). The idea of losing one’s self essentially implies that the agent knew who he was at some point in the past and now has lost that knowledge. Put differently, the agent was himself in the past and now no longer is. So, in a sense, one would place one’s self in the past rather than the present, which no longer reflects one’ self. In addition, the ideas of decision and commitment imply not only that one’s present self cares about one’s future self, but also that one’s present self is one’s future self. For the commitment to be effective one ought to presuppose that one is oneself in the future. One does not make a commitment in front of someone else but in front of one’s self. One does not know what to do in the future and one decides regarding one’s future, not someone else’s. This conceptual remarks show that one’s present and future are essential in constituting one’s identity. When one is disoriented and alienated we say that one has lost one’s way. This spatial metaphor implies that one has to retrace one’s steps and find one’s way again. In other words, one needs to search into one’s past in order to know what to do in the future, how to get to one’s destination.
I think the psychological phenomenon of losing one’s self described above and the conceptual connections involved in its description pose a difficulty for Strawson’s proposed distinction between Episodics and Diachronics. The problem is: how can Episodics experience the anxiety produced by an identity crisis? First, there is a conceptual aspect to this difficulty. Second, the phenomenon also calls into question one of he key differences between the Synchronic and Diachronic; the idea that the Synchonic has limited interest in his past and limited concern for the future. With regards to the conceptual issue, it seems that the very idea of an Episodic psychological type is in tension with our ordinary concepts of self or identity. Losing one’s self implies that one does not experience one’s self as present or given. Conceptually, it involves the notion that one existed at a moment in the past and one has lost himself or has lost his way. Thus, one is no longer in the present. But being Synchronic means that one experiences one’s self as present. In consequence, if we accept the existence of a Synchronic psychological type we became unable to coherently describe widespread phenomena like going through an identity crisis. Arguing that the Synchonic type does not actually go through identity crises would be missing the point. The criticism is that once one has a self or identity it should be at least logically or conceptually possible that one goes through a crisis. This is perfectly compatible with the existence of people who do not in fact have such an experience. However, a view of the self should make room for the logical possibility of losing one’s self and one’s knowledge of one’s self.
Turning to the second point, it was indicated that on Strawson’s view the Synchronic has limited interest in his past and limited concern for his future. However, the possibility of losing one’s self uncovers a different reality. When one goes through an identity crisis one feels alienated from one’s present life and experiences a lack of purpose. One’s past becomes central for one’s identity because this is where one is; since one has lost one’s self.  Thus, in this case, if one cares about one’s self, one cares about one’s past. In addition, one does not care about one’s past as it is in the present, as Strawson suggests. By definition, losing one’s self means that one has lost something important along the way, that one is no longer in the present. In other words, one is interested in one’s past as past, not in one’s past as it is experienced in the present. As Charles Taylor emphasizes, one needs to do work of retrieval and retracing one’s steps and crucial decisions. (Taylor 1989, p. 27-28) But this work of retrieval and self-searching is essential because the individual no longer has a sense of purpose or direction. And this sense of purpose is crucial because the agent cares about his future; he cares about his life having meaning and direction. In the example above, John cares about doing groundbreaking research in psychology. This is what gives him direction and purpose. This is why he feels anxiety when he compares his modest achievements with those of famous psychologists. In consequence, John engages in soul-searching and, implicitly, becomes concerned with his past and future selves. His past and future matter to him. In other words, one can try to find one’s self only if one thinks that one existed in the past and that one will exist in the future. Once we appreciate these phenomena and the conceptual connections they uncover, we can see that someone with a Synchronic outlook cannot experience an identity crisis because they have limited interest in their past and future. But this is not an additional difference between the Synchronic and the Diachronic, but rather it shows that the Synchronic type is a philosopher’s fiction. Having a self implies the possibility of going through an identity crisis which, in turn, logically demands that the person cares deeply about her past and future.
As indicated in the previous section, Strawson relies on the analogy between psychological development and musical development to characterize the Synchronic’s relation with his past: the past is implicitly absorbed in the present in the way a musicians’ hours of practice are implicit in the quality of his performance. Similarly, as the quote from Earl of Shaftesbury reveals, one’s moral personality is fully in the present as long as ‘I am as I should be’. That is, as long as “I lose not my opinion (i.e. my overall outlook, my character, my moral identity).” (Shaftesbury 1698 – 1712, p. 136-137) However, this characterization hinges on the fact that the person’s moral commitments are not lost or forgotten, that they are fully present. But what if the agent loses track of her moral identity? What if the person faces a terrible moral conflict and they do not feel that they are as they should be? Isn’t that the time when the past and one’s memories become important as a guide to the future? The time when the agent ought to engage in lucid deliberation and focus on one’s past and one’s development? It becomes clear that Strawson does not consider the possibility of going through identity crisis, and, as suggested above, it is this possibility that reveals the temporal, Diachronic dimension of our experience of the self.
In reply, Strawson might argue that what really distinguishes the Synchronic from the Diachronic is that the Synchronic does not experience his self as being in the remote future or the remote past, while the Diachronic does. However, this criterion must be put in conjunction with the limited concern criterion because it does not carry too much weight on its own. For instance, someone might have a lot of concern for his near future but not for his remote future. He might have well-defined goals regarding his career but no precise retirement plans. With regards to his career he may have a strong Narrative outlook; he may explicitly concerned about the shape of the story of his professional life and about projecting a certain image, being a leader, and role model. Clearly, Strawson will not accept that this person qualifies as a Synchronic on his account. Moreover, we can imagine that the agent has no definite idea of what retirement will be like and whether he himself will be there or whether he will be like a different person. After all, if the agent defines himself in terms of his career then, once his career is over, he will find other things to care about and identify himself with. In other words, he will be like a new, different person. Similarly, a Diachronic does not necessarily have to experience his self as having been there in the further past, in his childhood, let’s say. The fact is that we normally start spinning life-stories and making projects when we are teenagers. At least in our Western culture, that is the time when we have to take a stand and answer some questions regarding who we are and what we care about. But then that is where we start our quest and caring about our selves just means caring about the quest, a quest which may have nothing to do with one’s childhood. However, this does not take away from the fact that one who does not identify himself with his childhood self may be a strong Diachronic. To sum up, I think that Strawson must rely on the limited interest criterion when drawing the distinction between the Synchronic and the Diachronic type. The Episodic, as opposed to the Diachronic, has no special concern for his past or future and experiences his self as given in the present. But my argument above, based on the concepts of losing one’s self and going through an identity crises, shows that caring about our self implies caring about our projects and commitments which necessarily go beyond the present and extend into our past and future.
So far, I have shown that phenomena like going through an identity crisis reveal that we are Diachronic in our experience of our selves; that, to the degree that we care about ourselves, we also care about our past and future. However, this conclusion is not enough to support the Narrativity view of the self. As Strawson points out, Diachronicity does not, in and of itself, imply Narrativity. Being Diachronic means experiencing one’s self as existing in the past and future. In addition, Narrativity involves telling a story or giving an account of one’s life (Strawson 2008, p. 201). This account captures key events of the past and also offers a way of approaching the future. In response, I maintain that once we grasp the intrinsic link between having a self and the possibility of losing one’s self, it becomes clear that Diachronicity must involve undertaking a Narrative outlook. Losing one’s self necessarily involves an interest in our past and future. We perceive it as a gap between our commitments and values and our present lives. I suggest that any attempt to fill that gap must take the form of an account or a narrative of key events of one’s life. As Taylor suggestively puts it: “Our lives are in the space of questions which only a coherent narrative can answer. In order to have a sense of who we are, we have to have a notion of how we have became, and where we are going” (Taylor, 1989, p. 47) In the example used above, John perceives a gap between his commitment to becoming a famous psychologist and his present life. This sense of alienation leads him to question whether achieving his dream is still important to him, or whether, in the meantime, having a family-life became more important. In effect, he will either renew his initial commitment or dedicate himself to family-life and forget about his previous ambitions. Following Taylor, I suggest that answering these crucial questions must take the form of giving an account or telling a story. Thus, John may say to himself: “I thought that being a famous researcher was important for me but then I met Sally and discovered the power of love”, or, “At the very beginning I wanted to be a famous researcher but then I got sidetracked by family-life and lost my focus. However, now I found my way again”. This shows that in order to move on John must give an account or explanation of what happened to him; he must structure his experience in the form of a meaningful story. Either way the main events which occurred in his life will be assigned a new meaning and significance relative to his decision. This new account will also dictate the meaning of John’s projected future; it will give him a sense of direction and purpose. The events of the future will become interpretable by reference to this projected goal. To sum up, I suggest that highlighting the intrinsic connection between having an identity crisis and trying to find answers to crucial questions in the form of an account of one’s experience shows that Diachronicity must involve Narrativity; that is, caring about one’s past and future demands offering an account of one’s life.
These remarks also reveal that, in direct contrast to Strawson’s account, the Narrativity view of the self has the conceptual resources to describe and illuminate phenomena like losing one’s self and going through an identity crisis. Having an identity, on Taylor’s view, is having settled answers to questions regarding what is important to one. For instance, by describing myself as a Christian or a communist I situate myself with respect to certain values or commitments. These values offer a sense of direction and purpose. An identity crisis occurs when one either loses track of those commitments or finds one’s own life to be in tension with them. This experience is accompanied by feelings of disorientation and confusion. The agent needs to find his way again. This involves reexamining the initial questions, reopening those issues, and engaging in lucid deliberation and introspection with respect to them. The agent has to determine whether his crisis was triggered by his losing sight of his own values or by the fact that those values no longer capture what he really cares about. Either way, the process of introspection will result into an account of what happened to the agent, of why and how he has lost his way. For instance, the Christian may blame Satan for implanting the seeds of doubt into his mind and the communist may try to explain his social apathy by reference to the power of the capitalist system to tranquilize its members by creating false consciousness. This account will include answers to what the agent takes to be central questions regarding his own life (e.g. whether to worship God, whether to be a social activist) and thus offer new meaning and purpose.   
Towards the end of his paper, Strawson concedes that “If I were charged to make my self-understanding explicit, I might well illustrate my view by reference to things I (Galen Strawson) have done, but it certainly would not follow that I had a Diachronic outlook, still less a Narrative one” (Strawson, p. 206) That is, although Strawson would explain who he is by reference to what Galen Strawson as a human being did in the past, it does not follow that the present Galen Strawson experiences one’s self as being in the past. But I think this claim is in direct contrast to our pre-theoretical intuitions. When someone gives an account of who they are we assume that the person in their account is who they are. If someone in their thirties says “After graduating university I decided to become an academic”, the hearer assumes that the ‘I’ refers to the speaker’s self. If the speaker adds the qualification “…but that’s only Galen Strawson the human being, not really myself”, the hearer is inclined to understand this as a departure of the speaker’s present self from their past self. That is, as an expression of change of commitments and values. Neither one of theses natural interpretations is consistent with Strawson’s suggestion. If one is charged with making one’s self-understanding explicit, it is presupposed that there is continuity between the person indicated in the story and the person telling the story. The account, after all, is supposed to explain who the person is, their sense of self, what makes them who they are. I think this intuition is clearly captured by the idea of commitment. When someone tells us who they are, they speak of their crucial commitments and values. When they refer to what they did in the past, the actions denoted are supposed to express what they cared about, what defined them. If they explicitly distinguish between their past self and their present self then those commitments are no longer in force and no longer express their self-understanding. Thus, in contrast to what Strawson suggests, the fact that we explain our selves to others by offering an account of our lives shows that we experience ourselves as being there in the past and that we still subscribe to the commitments captured in our story; it indicates that we are essentially Diachronic and Narrative.
In conclusion, I claim that Strawson’s notion of a Synchronic or Episodic psychological type – as someone who experiences their self as fully present and has limited concern for their past and future – is a philosopher’s fiction. This theoretical construction is in conflict with our ordinary concepts of self and identity as things which can be lost during an identity crisis, and can be subsequently rediscovered or reinvented; as things which give our lives meaning and purpose. By contrast, I argued that the Narrativity view of the self has the conceptual resources to capture and illuminate the relations between our notions of self and identity and the connected concepts of undertaking self-constituting commitments, self-searching and self-finding, and the ideal of having a meaningful, purposeful life. I think this shows that instead of positing different personality types, we can distinguish different degrees of Diachronicity and Narrativity. People may care more or less about their past and future. Their commitments may be more or less explicit and they may be more or less aware of them. However, as long as they are functioning agents they must be oriented towards what they think is important and worthwhile, in a space of crucial questions with settled answers.  

4. The Ethical Thesis

In this section I turn to the second thesis rejected by Strawson, the ethical or normative thesis. This thesis states that thinking of our lives as narrative “is essential to living well, to true or full personhood.” (Strawson 2008, p. 189) I think the defenders of the psychological Narrativity view should be careful when specifying its normative import because a descriptive requirement has no normative implications. If we actually do have a Narrative outlook then the norm that we ought to have one is pointless. It is a norm which cannot be broken because it is conceptually impossible for us, as agents, not to have a Narrative attitude[1]. I think the intuition that there is a connection between Narrativity and leading a full, meaningful life can be unpacked by considering the phenomena of losing one’s self and experiencing an identity crisis. When going through an identity crisis one loses one’s narrative and becomes disorientated. This crisis leads to feelings of alienation and anxiety. It involves either forgetting one’s commitments or perceiving a growing gap between those commitments and one’s actual life. This perceived meaninglessness and emptiness leads to unhappiness. By contrast, the regained narrative, the reestablished self, results in a new sense of purpose and happiness (Brännmark 2003) Now, if there is anything normative about this it hinges on our desire to be happy and avoid alienation, disorientation, and confusion. Losing one’s self is caused either by forgetting who one is or by systematically failing to live up to one’s commitments. The forgetting can be fought by a conscious effort to keep track of one’s commitments, of what one thinks is important. This involves making those commitments explicit and constantly keeping track of where one is in relation to them. Moreover, making one’s narrative explicit makes it easier to remember. If one loses sight of it and becomes disoriented it is easier for one to find one’s way again. In addition, one should be open to reevaluating those commitments and not follow them rigidly[2]. To sum up, there are two central interrelated hypothetical norms associated with the narrativity view of the self. First, one should keep track of one’s narrative, of one’s position relative to what one cares about. Second, one should be ready to reevaluate one’s commitments[3].
Following the first norm can have important benefits. Not having one’s commitments explicit in a narrative form gives one a sense of fragility and helplessness. To use an analogy, a hiker has a better chance of getting lost if he does not use a marked trail. If our crucial decisions and the commitments they imply are not used as sign-posts guiding us then our will is not focused and we tend to lose our selves easily. This lack of direction and sense of identity leads to unhappiness. Furthermore, one’s ability to solve inner-conflicts and difficulties is diminished. To illustrate, a gay jewish person, Amiram, who believes in God is tormented by his religious establishment’s obduracy with respect to homosexuality. Such a conflict may have devastating consequences for his life, leading to a profound sense of alienation and inadequacy. However, because Amiram has his commitments explicit, he is able to draw a difference between his belief in God “as a voice of absolute compassion and truth” and the voice of the religious establishment “which may change its laws in response to social and economic developments” (see Halbertal and Koren, 2006). The ability to draw such distinction and preserve one’s commitments intact leads to a profound sense of liberation and happiness.
With respect to the second norm, if an agent becomes aware that there is no correspondence between his crucial commitments and his life he should be willing to reevaluate those commitments. After all, maybe he does not care as much about what he thinks he cares about. The gap between his values and reality may signal that other things have become important for him. Maybe John’s dream of being a famous psychologist should be replaced with the ideal of being a good family man. This acceptance of one’s potential for change may also give rise to a sense of liberation. One is not stuck in the jail of one’s previous choices. This ‘readiness for anxiety’ is also a way of avoiding profound alienation. An agent may assess his life as meaningless or unfulfilled if it does not reflect his strongest commitments. If the agent is not sensitive to the idea that his commitments may be revised he may become trapped in a permanent state of dissatisfaction and self-pity.
Strawson’s proposed Synchronic or Episodic personality is in conflict with our intuitions regarding what makes a good life. An Episodic, by definition, does not care about his past and future. But then, when faced with an identity crisis (assuming this makes sense), he won’t appeal to his past and show no concern for his future, and, thus, he will become trapped in the present moment. However, by definition, in the case of losing one’s self, the present is found lacking and the individual feels profoundly alienated from his life. In this circumstance, our intuition is that the person must find a way out; they must either retrieve a lost meaning from their past or construct a new meaning. This intuition is based on our conviction that people care about themselves, their own happiness and the meaning of their lives. But Strawson’s view cannot do justice to these intuitions because it cannot capture the connection between our sense of happiness and our sense of purpose or meaning. The individual, on Strawson’s picture, may become paralyzed in a ruined present by his lack of concern for his past and his future. Such a possibility is doubtful for both psychological and conceptual reasons.
Once we grasp this connection between the Narrativity thesis and the good life, we can see that Strawson’s critical remarks miss their target. Strawson emphasizes that some types of ethical personality are anchored in the present and their past is important only in relation to their present selves. But this is consistent with the narrativity view, as long as one has one’s identity shaping commitments in front of one’s eyes or as long as there is no obvious tension between them and reality. However, the narrative structure of our identity becomes explicit once we face an important issue which forces us to retrieve and reconsider our commitments. Thus, as long as Strawson accepts Taylor’s point that our commitments and values are central to our identities then he is forced to accept the Narrativity view because Narrativity is just our more or less conscious way of keeping track of these commitments. When we answer crucial questions about our lives we start spinning a story which gives us a sense of direction. As Harry Frankfurt puts it: “A person who cares about something is, at it were, invested in it. He identifies himself with what he cares about in the sense that he makes himself vulnerable to losses and susceptible to benefits depending upon whether what he cares about is diminished or enhanced” (Frankfurt, 1989, p. 83). Thus, in order to criticize the Narrativity view Strawson would have to reject either the thesis that we identify ourselves with what we care about or the claim that what we care about takes the form of a narrative. But Strawson does not explicitly consider the first thesis and the second one is directly connected to the first. If one cares about something and defines himself in certain terms then he will, implicitly or explicitly, give an account of the important events of his life in terms of his crucial commitments.

5. Conclusion

I have argued that Strawson’s criticism of the Narrativity view of the self misses its target. Stawson constructs a straw man in the sense that he does not clearly articulate the main intuition which animates the Narrative view. Champions of the Narrative account like Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre and Harry Frankfurt base it on the idea that we define ourselves in terms of what we care about, in terms of our projects and ideals. Given this investment we see our lives in narrative form, a narrative which tracks our success or failure in achieving our goals. This narrative may be more or less explicit, but losing it results in a sense of disorientation and alienation. At that point one needs to take a stand and retrieve and reconsider one’s valuative framework. In this context, one’s past and future became of essential importance for one, given that the decision to take a stand is based on one’s profound desire to be in control of one’s life and give it meaning and purpose. The concept of a Synchronic or Episodic personality does not make justice to the idea that when we care about ourselves we care about the values and commitments we identify with and, in consequence, about whether our lives reflect those commitments. Having this care presupposes that one experiences one’s self in the present, past and future.


Brännmark, J. (2003) “Leading Lives: On Happiness and Narrative Meaning,” Philosophical Papers 32: 321-343.

Frankfurt, H. (1998) The Importance of What We Care About, Cambridge University Press.

Glüer, K. and Wikforss, Å. (2009) “Against Content Normativity”, Mind, Vol. 118, 469, p. 31-70.

Harbeltal, T. H. and Koren, I. (2006) “Between “Being” and “Doing”: Conflict and Coherence in the Identity Formation of Gay and Lesbian Orthodox Jews”, in Identity and Story, eds. Dan P. MacAdams, Ruthellen Josselson and Amia Lieblich, American Psychological Association, Washington, DC.

Heidegger, M. (1927) Being and Time, translated by J. MacQuarrie & E. Robinson (Oxford: Blackwell).

MacIntyre, A. (1981) After Virtue, London: Duckworth.

McAdams, D. P. (2001) “Narrating Life’s Turning Points: Redemption and Contamination”, in Turns in the Road, eds. Dan P. MacAdams, Ruthellen Josselson and Amia Lieblich, American Psychological Association, Washington, DC.

Schechman, M. (1997) The Constitution of Selves, Ithaca, Cornell University Press.

Shaftesbury, Earl of (1698-1712/1900) “Philosophical Regimen”, in The Life, Unpublished Letters, and Philosophical Regimen of Anthony, Earl of Shaftesbury, edited by B. Rand (New York: Macmillan)

Steglich-Petersen, A. (2006) “No Norm Needed: the Aim of Belief”, The Philosophical Quarterly, October, 56, 225, 500-516.

Strawson, G. (2008) “Against Narrativity” in Real Materialism and Other Essays, Oxford: Clarendon Press. P. 189 – 208.

Taylor, C. (1989) Sources of the Self, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[1] A similar tension between a constitutive and a normative requirement is identified by philosophers discussing the nature of meaning and belief (Glüer and Wikforss 2009; Steglich-Petersen 2006).
[2] Heidegger captures this insight by saying that one should be ‘ready for anxiety’ (Heidegger, 1927)
[3] These norms cannot be followed mechanically and, when considering them, one should display a certain degree of discernment and sensitivity to one’s particular circumstances. In this respect I agree with Strawson that adopting a Narrative outlook does not always have good consequences and is not intrinsically connected to being authentic. The Narrative attitude can sometimes lead to various degrees of self-deception. However, I don’t think these remarks show the falsity of the psychological Narrativity thesis, but, rather, they indicate an important difficulty when it comes to articulating its ethical or normative import.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Death Pop Quiz (Intro to Funeral Portraits)

Art by Agustin S. Lobos
Provide your answers six feet below!

Can you measure the distance to your death? To the place where you're gonna get hit by a car? The room where your first lover cheated on you? The closest free hospital bed?

Does death take time? Lying awake in the middle of the night, clock ticking the empty seconds, your eyes freed of their focus on daily projects but still wide open, staring, waiting. The murky years when you grew up and forgot yourself; that time you started drinking vodka and popping pills at noon, hoping for a white coma, only to bounce back into putrid, stubborn awakeness; the moment when your parents showed signs of dementia and you realized your own birth would soon become aborted fiction.

Is death solid, liquid or a dark insidious gas? Is it loud like the screech of car tires or does it have the velvety texture of long silence? Does it taste like the placenta of a stillborn?

Does it stay the same or does it grow and breathe and multiply like living things? Was the Black Plague the daycare of death's offspring and the Great War their playground?

Does death spring between two people and binds them together like love or rope or venereal disease?

The trap under the sink has popped,
I opened the doors and, to the left of the garbage can, saw the rat twitching slightly,
its neck broken by the merciless spring-loaded bar, blood oozing from its mouth.
Then it went still, rigid, breathless, an object surrounded by objects, 
its long tail curled into a question mark.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Alina (Funeral Portraits 1)

Pic from Amadeus Love

My French high-school teacher, Mrs. Marceau, bullied me into learning French
and cutting my hair short.
She demanded I come to her one-on-one tutoring sessions at her house,
but not as a sex-toy, no!, but a pet project.

She really wanted to enlighten me about Baudelaire and Mallarmé and Pascal.
Also had an obsession with Proust's madeleine,
always had a few on a plate on her desk, for us to enjoy.  

Although I was partial to poetry,
I didn't care much about French
and sometimes I'd show up late
or not even on the proper day.

Once I bumped into the teacher's one-on-one with Alina,
an ambitious classmate who loved foreign languages,
and got a kick out of grammar exercises.
Mrs. Marceau scolded me for being so absentminded
and told me to come on a different day,
and make sure I knew "Spleen" by heart.

Alina gave me a cold, razor-sharp smile, disdain mixed with shame.
Brunette, her hair cut short, her face pale and studious,
Alina lacked any female curves, but wasn't a tomboy either. 
She was just a goody two-shoes,
a neurotic teen,
her pencils always sharpened to a point,
her handwriting clean, elegant, calligraphic.

A few years later she cut her jugular with a kitchen knife,
they found her in a puddle of blood
sprawled on the floor at the entrance to her small apartment.
Based on the blood trail,
witnesses said that maybe she'd tried to run for the exit
when the red snakes began jumping madly from her throat
but hadn't had enough strength left to open the door and scream for help.  
"Scream for help?!?" I asked myself, puzzled.
"No, no way!
She was just in a rush to clean up the mess."

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Happily Aborted (short poem)

Pic from Chernobyl Revisited
My dad gave me money for my birthday,
to celebrate with my friends.
We promptly went to the park downtown,
bought some weed and alcohol, 
and got really wasted.

There weren't many people around,
as the day was cold,
and something good was on TV.

Dad happened to walk by the park in the evening and see us.
It was a windy autumn day and the deep purple of twilight found us scattered around the park like leaves.

George was on top of a lamppost,
trying to break its glass with the spear of a crusty leaf.

Jack was kneeling in front of a tree,
by a pile of vomit,
cutting himself with a rusted pocket knife,
and thinking whether he'd slip into a coma because of blood loss
or too much alcohol in his blood;
vaguely considering whether to make a big deal out of it
and call the others.

John, Matt, Laura, and Nikita were still on and around the bench,
a cluster of shadows,
still passing around a joint and a vodka bottle,
trapped in a crucial but already forgotten argument,
yellow, whispering leaves coming out of their mouths into the wind.

I stumbled toward my dad and shrugged at him,
feeling a bit ashamed.
This wasn't much of a party,
There was no cake, no balloons, no confetti, no singing and dancing,
no laughter.

My dad tried to cover the chaos with the cement of his gentle smile,
but I saw a black memory bleed from the corner of his eye,
and I inhaled its stench of rot.

It was about my childhood,
growing up in the countryside,
and playing hide and seek in our back yard,
by the wooden electricity pole,
with the other buried fetuses. 

Friday, 8 May 2015

Interview for The Pulp

This interview was originally published by The Pulp. 
Our generation loves gore. Horror and the horrific. Sordid tales and psychological mindfucks. We address our need for the weird and spooky through video games, movies, and novels. The latter has been around for the longest, but there are writers putting a new spin on the traditional—taking the basics from Stephen King and making them relate more to our generation, how we respond to society, and how our worldview is warped by the way in which we live.

Axl Barnes, a local author and philosopher, addresses all of these issues from the perspective of rebellious teenage youths in his upcoming novel, Odin Rising. Author of the novella Ich Will, Barnes incorporates his impressive background with philosophy into fiction that attempts to deal with the oppression of social systems, youthful narcissism, existentialism, psychological horror, and more. Although difficult to categorize, Barnes’ writing tends to build on his own experiences as a teenager in Romania and the meaning of ethics, life, and death to those too young to fully understand.
We caught up with Barnes to ask him a few questions about his upcoming novel, his influences, and the difficulties of writing outside of one particular genre.
What’s your background? How did you get into writing fiction?
I’m a philosophy and fiction lover. I had my first attempts at writing fiction when in high-school in the late 90s. Afterwards, I only wrote sporadically while studying for my undergraduate and graduate degrees in philosophy. Once I got my Ph.D. in Philosophy in 2011 from the University of Alberta, I started focusing exclusively on writing fiction and finally tackling some projects which have been shelved for too long. In 2012, I published a novella, Ich Will, which is about a poor, misanthropic philosophy student who’s unable to pay for his undergraduate degree and whose hatred for society takes an unexpected, bloody turn. Since then, I’ve been working on my first full-length novel, Odin Rising.
What will Odin Rising be about?
It’s about a group of teenage metal-heads in a small Romanian town in the mid 90s. Alex and Tudor, the group’s leaders, egg each other on to progressively more extreme, anti-social actions, from breaking windows and cutting car tires to desecrating graves and sacrificing animals to Satan. Their gruesome competition leads to killing an innocent older man, who just happened to challenge them at the wrong place at the wrong time. The death prompts a conflict between Alex and Tudor, a conflict between their views of what is extreme and the purpose of violence. While Alex is a Neo-Nazi who idolizes Hitler and the Aryan race, Tudor is a self-proclaimed nihilist who hates all races equally and only loves his knife, death-metal, and horror movies. Despite their differences, both youngsters think that they are possessed by Odin, the Norse god of storm and battle frenzy, and who’s awakening in Europe after centuries of slumber. Which one of two will prove himself a hero and join Odin in Valhalla?
When do you aim to have the book finished? 
By the end of the year. I hope to publish it sometime next year.
What were your influences in writing this book?
The book is rooted in personal experience and focused on two real-life events, both centered on the river that passes through my hometown. During summer in high school, my grandmother had asked me to take away a cat and drop it into someone’s back yard, as far as possible from her house. She handed me the cat in a sack, stating it was lazy and wouldn’t catch mice. I was with a few friends on that day and, youthful victims of boredom, we decided to take the cat to the nearby river and drown it. I’ll spare the sordid details, but suffice it to say that it’s true that cats have nine lives.
The second event occurred on another empty summer day: two friends, Vali and Lucian, and I got drunk and broke the windows of an abandoned service station. Then we went by the side of the river to drink some more and smoke cigarettes (that was the coolest thing, as we didn’t know of weed or other drugs). An older guy chased us down on his bike to lecture us, threatening to tell Vali’s dad about his vandalism. I remember asking Lucian why we couldn’t just drown the stranger into the river just like we had done with the cat? Lucian didn’t go for it, but what if he had? Or what if I had been drunk enough to just do it myself?
An additional impetus toward writing the book came from reading Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise Of The Satanic Metal Underground, a journalistic account of the Norwegian 90s rash of crimes connected with the black-metal scene. Varg Vikernes, a.k.a. Count Grishnackh, a central figure, was involved in many church-burnings as well as the murder of another leader of the movement. In his interviews, Varg argues fervently that his arson wasn’t part of a Satanic ritual, but part of reviving local Nordic pagan religion, and worshiping warrior gods like Odin and Thor, instead of the Jewish Jehovah. In my story, Alex and Tudor are aware and inspired by the events in Norway. Hence also the name of the book, Odin Rising.

What other fiction would you compare Odin Rising to and why?
Mainly Albert Camus’ The Stranger. Meursault, the main character of the novel, is a misfit who commits an apparently absurd crime. The deed puts him in jail, where he has a chance to reflect on the insurmountable gap between him and the rest of society, and to make explicit the meaning of his rebellion.
The first four chapters of Odin Rising are written in a realist, minimalist style, but in the last two chapters the boundary between reality and mythical dreams becomes blurred. In this respect, I was inspired by classic authors like Edgar Allan Poe and Franz Kafka, as well as contemporaries like Clive Barker.
My fiction is also very much indebted to popular horror writers like Stephen King, Richard Laymon, and Brian Keene.
Are there any controversial themes in the book? If so, how and why did you approach them? 
Teenage rebellion is the main theme of the book. It’s such a widespread phenomenon, ranging from petty vandalism to more serious crimes like school shootings, arson, and suicide. This novel is an attempt to uncover the source of this violence. Why do teenagers think that the adult world is lame and disgusting? Why do they want to mock or destroy it? I tried to see things from their perspective, which also used to be my own perspective, and make explicit their brutal judgment of the adult world.
One thing about the teenage psyche that struck me was the fact that the prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for decision-making, practical deliberation, and planning, isn’t fully formed. So, while their intelligence, memory, creativity, and other brain functions are normal, teens don’t care about the future. For an adolescent, everything is here and now—there’s no tomorrow, no career, no insurance of this and that, no pension plans, no happily ever after. And that’s partly why teens are so emotional and restless, because for them everything is at stake all the time. But this psychological condition allows them a deep insight into the nature of the world around them and the nature of society. I think expressing that insight has both artistic and philosophical value.
If you had to describe Odin Rising in an elevator pitch of 10 words or less, what would you say? 
It’s an artistic and philosophical exploration of teenage rebellion.
What difficulties have you faced in writing and publishing Ich Will and in the upcoming publication of Odin Rising?
Marketing is the main challenge, especially since my fiction doesn’t fit a specific genre. Both Ich Will and Odin Rising are close to psychological horror, in the sense that the horror is triggered by an abnormality of the main characters’ psychology. However, this categorization misses something essential: my characters end up doing horrible things because they’re in the grips of some philosophical ideasAnd those ideas are critically discussed in the context of those stories. So, in a sense, my writing appeals to both readers who enjoy Socratic dialogues, but also to those who like graphic horror and violence. If I were forced to put a label on it, I’d call this genre philosophical horror or existentialist horror. Paradigmatic examples of this are Clive Barker’s chilling short story “Dread,” and its movie adaptation, as well as Scott Bakker’s horrific thriller Neuropath. Still, I hope that a consistent marketing effort through social media and websites like Goodreads will help my fiction reach the right audience.
Odin Rising may still be in progress, but do you have any plans for future work? 
I have developed ideas for two more novels. The first one has the working title This Town Must Burn! and features Canadian analogs of Tudor and Alex from Odin Rising. The action is set in a small Western Canadian town in the early 2000s. The youngsters are now in their early twenties and face the overwhelming pressures of adult life. Will they adapt and become domesticated, or will they continue to rebel and burn everything to the ground?
The second novel has the tentative title Defective, and it’s my take on zombies. Jack, the main character, is a young, obese warehouse worker who starts rotting alive: his mind stays fully functional while his body starts decomposing. The story is an account of Jack’s actions, decisions, and psychology in his transition from life to bodily death. While still philosophical, this book will fit well into the genre of body horror.
Both these projected novels will feature one theme that I’ve approached in Ich Will: alienated labour in capitalism. One of the main weapons capitalist society uses to break down and dehumanize its members is meaningless work, or wage slavery. So, in the spirit of George A. Romero’s zombie movies, this will be horror with a political edge.