Thursday, May 19, 2011

Narrative and and storytelling in identity constructing

To: Angelique D.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Narrative and storytelling in identity constructing
Date: 25 July 2002 10:11

Dear Angelique,

Thank you for your e-mail of 19 July, with your first piece towards your Fellowship dissertation, 'Narrative and Storytelling in Identity Constructing'.

This has given me a good idea of what you are aiming to do.

A philosopher will notice immediately that you have strayed onto two very significant areas of dispute/ inquiry: the issue of radical interpretation and the dispute between realism and anti-realism.

Radical interpretation is about the question of how we understand another person, either from our own or from another culture, when the meanings that they assign to their words cannot be taken for granted. What is the basis for saying that, of two proposed alternatives, one particular interpretation of a person's speech and actions, one is more correct than another? The writings of Donald Davidson (e.g. 'Essays on Actions and Events' CUP) provide the starting point here. A seminal collection of articles which helps to relate the issue of radical interpretation to your concerns is 'Action and Interpretation: Studies in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences' edited by Christopher Hookway and Philip Pettit (CUP 1978).

The issue of realism vs. anti-realism within the context of a theory of meaning for natural language was first raised by Michael Dummett (see 'Truth and Other Enigmas' Duckworth). The most accessible text from your point of view is 'Realism and Truth' by Michael Devitt (Princeton 1996). Crispin Wright has also written a number of books including 'Truth and Objectivity' (OUP). This has been one of my main interests since the late 70's. The quickest way to see what is at stake here is to consider the past. Are there truths about the past which exist irrespective of present evidence? Our intuitions tell us that if an event happened, it happened and no amount of arguing or believing that it didn't happen 1984-style can make it not have happened. The Holocaust denial controversy is a case in point. But realism is not at all easy to defend, and some of the things you say in your piece seem to dismiss any possibility of defending a realist view.

Then again, the two issues, of radical interpretation and realism/anti-realism overlap when we consider the question of what it means for one interpretation to be 'more correct' than another (although I deliberately avoided the word 'true', it is in fact impossible to avoid some term of evaluation of 'correctness').

Two questions raised early on about your piece that need to be related to one another are the nature of narrative and the nature of conversation. Narrative relates to history, our sense of personal and social identity. In conversation, 'we do things with words' (quoting the title of the 50's Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin's famous book) and it is not the case that all conversation, or even most conversation, is concerned with communicating information. In both cases, the question of truth, or the idea of 'aiming at truth' is compromised. In narrative we can create a 'truth' that did not exist before, or destroy a previous 'truth'. In conversation, we aim at other things besides truth.

This is not, as such, argument in favour of the anti-realist view. The philosopher can say, 'Of course, in the actual world, we do lots of things with words but we *also* sometimes try to state facts, or discover what is the case, and this is what I am concerned with.'

(Incidentally, your statement 'Wittgenstein sees words as being like pieces used in a game of chess' is very inaccurate because in 'Philosophical Investigations' Wittgenstein stresses the sheer variety of language games. I understand that here you are simply generalizing on Frege's 'context' principle, according to which a word has 'meaning' only in the context of an utterance - thus by extension, an utterance only has meaning within the context of a given language game.)

One thing you said that struck me as being clearly wrong was, 'For symbols to convey meaning, agreement has to be reached between sender and receiver as to their significance.' David Lewis, in his book 'Convention' (Blackwell) explores the way in which it could be possible for individuals to *reach* agreement concerning the meanings of their words. In many cases, surely, we say things not knowing how they will be taken, and what goes on is a process that is best described by game theory. You send something out with the intention of gaining a response, from which you can gauge how your utterance has been taken, and also with the hope of conveying to the listener the fact that you are looking for a route towards mutual understanding. By successive approximations, and much misunderstanding, something that passes for agreement is reached. Philosophical dialogue is very much like this!

I liked better your phrase, 'negotiated intelligibility' in the next paragraph.

I also liked the sentence in the last paragraph, 'Language is a took used in the interactive process of sense making by individuals in the form of ongoing conversations without beginning and end.'

My overall impression is that you do need to pursue the realism/ anti-realism debate (I don't mean necessarily *in* the dissertation) in order to see where your interests branch off from, or run at a tangent to this debate. In other words, you need to find a way to bracket the general metaphysical claim about truth, in order to concentrate on the questions that concern you. I think that there could be a fine dissertation here in the making.

All the best,

Geoffrey