Galen Strawson on the Unstoried Life

Galen Strawson

Galen Strawson

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

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

…hinder human self-understanding, close down important avenues of thought, impoverish our grasp of ethical possibilities, needlessly and wrongly distress those who don’t fit their model, and can be highly destructive in psychotherapeutic contexts.”

Narrative Self

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

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

“We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative — whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs and lives, a ‘narrative,’ and that this narrative is us, our identities.

If we wish to know about a man, we ask ‘what is his story — his real, inmost story?’— for each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative, which is constructed, continually, unconsciously, by, through, and in us — through our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, our actions; and, not least, our discourse, our spoken narrations.”

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

“I’m bewildered. I’m completely uninterested in the answer to the question…‘What have I made of my life?’ I’m living it…what I care about, insofar 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 the present shaping consequences of the past that matter, not the past as such.”

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

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

“'I have the persistent sensation, in my life...that I am just beginning.' This seems exactly right. The experience of 'I' as in some sense new each time is (I suggest) fundamental and universally available, although it's occluded for many by familiar and contrary habits of thought..."

Presence vs. Narrative

So what? The question that grips me from Strawson’s book, and one that I believe gets at the core of his argument, is whether or not Charles Taylor is correct when he claims that our lives exist “in a space of questions, which only a coherent narrative can answer.”

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

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

Narrative Illusion

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

“Your…extensive surface of polished steel…rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination and lo! The scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable…The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person.”

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

Practice of Philosophy

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

“As I think further about my mental life, I’m met by the sense that there is no ‘I’ that goes on through the waking day…If I consider myself as a mental subject of experience, my sense is that I am continually new.”

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

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

“Insofar as I have gotten closer [to a desirable mentality], it’s just living a life, and the long and devoted practice of philosophy. I think philosophy really does change one over time. It makes one’s mind large, in some peculiar manner. It seems to me that the professional practice of philosophy is itself a kind of spiritual discipline, in some totally secular sense of ‘spiritual’…It would be very surprising if intense training of the mind couldn’t change the shape of the mind as much as intense training of the body changes the shape of the body.” 

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

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

Things That Bother Me

Things That Bother Me

Further Reading

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