A Narrative Response to an Enlightenment Interpretation of Morality
Introduction: Why Narrative Now?
“Story” is not a word one generally associates
with academic philosophy. In fact, academic circles have generally
regarded story as “an aid to the intellectually unsophisticated,
who, had they sufficient powers of discursive reasoning, could simply
dispense with these figurative ways of presenting abstract ideas”
(Goldberg 39). “Story” has been equated with myth
and fable, a mode of explaining the world based on superstition, which
rational consideration and science have rendered unnecessary.
Whatever truth may be within a story can be extracted from it in the
form a principle or “moral”. Armed with a set of principles,
one can easily discard the story itself as superfluous. Much of
Western philosophy traditionally has regarded “story” in
this way. However, in the past three decades, “narrative”
has emerged as a new way of going about the task of philosophy.
The narrative approach views problems in light of their historical and
social context, considering words, actions, individual lives, and even
philosophical theories not as independent or isolated but as parts of
larger wholes, as characters or episodes in some story. Narrative
has infiltrated many branches of philosophy, most notably ethics, theology,
epistemology, and the philosophy of history.
Many philosophers over the past thirty years have advanced a version
of the narrative theory, and each philosopher who
writes on the subject emphasizes a different aspect of narrative.
To reconcile and integrate the views of all of these thinkers is impossible
in a work such as this, so I have limited myself to an examination of
Alasdair MacIntyre’s theory, as he presents it in After Virtue,
and Stanley Hauerwas’ use of a narrative theory to explain and
defend the Christian narrative.
My goal in this paper is twofold. First, I will identify three
levels of narrative: the narrative of a tradition, the narrative of
an individual life, and literary narrative. I believe that these
levels are implicitly assumed in the works of Hauerwas and MacIntyre,
although neither philosopher makes these distinctions explicitly.
I will also explicate and defend what I take to be the three primary
theses that MacIntyre and Hauerwas wish to advance about narrative and
its necessity for leading a coherent and meaningful moral life.
1. Life has a narrative structure. That is, all the events
of my life are bound up in a unity as part of a single narrative.
This narrative, as a whole, is coherent, despite apparent disunity and
incoherence in individual episodes. This is significant to moral
development in that events of my past inform my actions in the present.
2. Principles, actions, and even lives are only comprehensible
within the context of some narrative. This is significant to moral
development in two ways: first, rational principles that stand outside
of all context and are independent of any tradition cannot exist, and
second, the context into which we are born gives us a “moral starting
point” (MacIntyre 205).
3. Our lives become meaningful and coherent only when we align
our personal narrative with a larger narrative of tradition. This
is the social and historical dimension of narrative theory put into
Part I: Definition Refined
i. Levels of Narrative
Until recently, “narrative” and “story”
have not been technical philosophical terms, and as I mentioned above,
each philosopher who writes of narrative defines it differently.
Even in common parlance, “narrative” and “story”
refer to a broad range of concepts. A “narrative”
may refer to a newspaper article, an anecdote, or the plot of a novel
or play. “Story” has similar implications, though
“story” commonly refers to a fictional rather than factual
When introducing a word or phrase as a technical philosophical term,
especially when its use in common speech is so varied, it is important
for the author to provide a clear and explicit account of his usage
of the term.
Unfortunately, neither MacIntyre nor Hauerwas are explicit about their
intended meaning of “narrative” and “story”.
In fact, Hauerwas goes so far as to say,
I am purposefully leaving vague the meaning of story
and metaphor. Any attempt to provide a conceptually responsible
definition of either in the bounds of this paper would be insufficient
to account for the variety of the different kinds and uses of stories.
In saying this, Hauerwas is recognizing the multitude
of uses to which we put “stories”. At this point in
his writings, at least, he prefers to allow the term “story”
to bring into the reader’s mind the many meanings “story”
may have, and so he does not limit his use of the term to a single definition
of “story”. MacIntyre similarly avoids giving an exact
definition of “narrative”, instead providing examples of
In the interest of clarity, I propose that “narrative”,
broadly speaking, can be defined as a temporal sequence of events in
a personal or communal life, which are connected as the intentional
actions of some agent or agents and project toward some ultimate goal,
or telos. I believe that there is also a subtle distinction
between “story” and “narrative”, although both
Hauerwas and MacIntyre often use the terms interchangeably. “Narrative”
generally refers to the actual unfolding of events, while a “story”
is a narrative as it is told by some person or persons. This definition
and distinction may appear vague at this point, but the importance of
both becomes clearer when one considers MacIntyre and Hauerwas’
use of varying levels of narrative.
One source of confusion regarding Hauerwas and MacIntyre’s definition
of narrative is their use of a single term to describe three distinct
phenomena. I would venture to call these the “Three Levels
The Narrative of a Tradition is the broadest in scope.
This is the history of a community or system of belief over time.
To be considered a tradition, a narrative must be embodied and believed
by a community over a span of time, be able to adapt to changes, and
have the capacity to respond to criticisms and challenges from those
who participate in the community narrative and from other external narratives.
The narrative of a community determines the way in which the community
defines the place of the individual in community, concepts of love and
justice, freedom and equality, and personal and social responsibilities
(CC 9-10). In this category, I include the narrative of a family,
a nationality, a social group or institution (such as a church, a university),
and even a school of thought (such as existentialism, Enlightenment
rationalism, Christianity). An individual will necessarily belong
to several such traditions, and one might wish to separate levels of
narrative within this category—MacIntyre, in fact, would separate
social from historical narrative (see quote below). For simplicity’s
sake, however, I am grouping all narratives in which a number of individuals
participate in a single category. I will refer to this kind of
narrative as “the narrative of a tradition” or as simply
The Narrative of an Individual Life is the life-story of the
individual. The narrative of an individual’s life must take
into account the influences of other narratives on his life—the
tradition or traditions that form the context in which he lives and
the narratives of other individuals with whom his life intersects. These other narratives
determine, at least partly, the boundaries and shape of an individual’s
narrative. An individual’s narrative must also be able to
account for all of his actions—even those which do not seem to
fit within his tradition or community narrative—his intentions
in acting as he does, and his perceived telos. I will refer to
this kind of narrative as “the narrative of the individual”
or “the narrative of a life”.
Finally, Narratives in a Literary Sense are the stories a community
tells of its origins, beliefs, morality, and ends. This is, perhaps,
the meaning of “narrative most similar to common usage.
Narratives of this sort are instructive and often used for propagating
a moral system. The Gospels, fairy tales, fables, myths, novels,
and even histories and autobiographies fall into this category.I will refer to this kind of narrative as “literary
narrative” or “story”.
These distinctions, although important to make, are to a degree misleading,
and I imagine that is at least part of the reason that MacIntyre and
Hauerwas are hesitant to make these distinctions explicitly.
The categories overlap frequently: the levels of narrative form a whole
that is more like a web than a ladder. Each narrative ties in
to many others, and to separate one thread out to stand on its own would
lead to the collapse of a substantial portion of the whole. For
example, the narrative of a tradition could not exist without the lives
and narratives of individuals, both eminent and common. MacIntyre
gives the following example:
It is through hearing stories about wicked stepmothers,
lost children, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boys,
youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way
in the world and eldest sons who waste their inheritance on riotous
living and go into exile to live with the swine, that children learn
or mislearn both what a child and what a parent is, what the cast of
characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what
the ways of the world are. Deprive children of stories and you
leave them unscripted stutterers in their actions as in their words.
Hence there is no way to give us an understanding of any society, including
our own, except through the stock of stories which constitute its initial
dramatic resources. Mythology, in its original sense, is at the
heart of things. (201)
Literary narratives are informed by the narrative of
a tradition, but the literary narratives in turn allow for the perpetuation
of a tradition, since it is through literary narratives that the tradition
is passed from generation.
Hauerwas provides some excellent examples of the interplay between levels
of narrative in “A Story-Formed Community: Reflections on Watership
Down”. Like MacIntyre, Hauerwas argues that it is through
literary narratives that a man (or a rabbit) learns his place in nature
and society. For man, as for rabbits, myths are more than pseudo-scientific
explanations: “It is tempting to reduce this story to its obvious
etiological elements—why rabbits have white tails and strong legs.
But this would distort the importance of the story as a source of skills
for rabbits to negotiate their world” (CC 16). Hauerwas
often returns to stories, or literary narratives, as a means by which
the individual can learn the skills he needs to survive and live a fulfilled
life. Further, we become part of the narrative in which we live—not
only the narrative of the community or tradition, but also the stories
of that community. At the end of Watership Down, Hazel
(the leader of an intrepid group of rabbits and founder of a truly “story-formed
community”) hears a doe of his warren telling her kittens a story
of his adventures, using the name of El-ahrairah (the mythical prince
of rabbits). He does not recognize the story as his own, though
it seems familiar to him; he perceives it as an element in the ongoing,
living narrative of El-ahrairah. His deeds are a part of
the story because he himself lived within the story. The story
guided his actions, and his actions are now incorporated in the telling
of the story (CC 34).
ii. Placing Narrative Theory in Context
To understand this turn toward narrative and story—this
almost literary approach to philosophy—it is necessary to look
at the context out of which it emerged and to which it responds.
In the Greek world, the most influential and notable forms of philosophical
discourse were dialogue, as exemplified by Socrates and Plato, and inquiry
and observation, as practiced by the Pre-Socratics and Aristotle.
Philosophy provided a means of mediating between multiple points of
view to determine the best possible way to live life and understand
the world. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle also noted the importance
of a man’s context: Socrates was concerned with the fate of Athens
and addressed the Athenians specifically, Plato wrote in The Republic of the necessity of a certain kind of education, and
Aristotle stressed the importance of a man’s upbringing in the
formation of good character in the Nichomachean Ethics.
These Greek philosophers still believed that a man’s life was
a unified whole, that his moral behavior was determined by his character,
that his character was shaped in large part by his the time and place
in which he was born, and that there was an ideal state which he was
striving to become. These philosophers, especially Plato, also
believed that there was an ultimate Truth that man could approach through
his use of reason.
Philosophers of the Middle Ages adapted aspects of Greek philosophy
to the convictions of the Christian faith. The great debate of
the Middle Ages was, as Tertullian put it, “What has Athens to
do with Jerusalem?” or “What is the relation of reason to
faith?” Those who ascribed to the system of Plato and the
Neoplatonists, such as St. Augustine, took the idea of the Forms and
placed God at the center as the Form of the Good. Others, like
St. Thomas Aquinas, defined and structured Christian theology in terms
of Aristotelian logic and teleology. In both cases, medieval philosophers
were concerned with transforming “man-as-he-happens-to-be”
As Europe emerged from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance, philosophy,
art, and natural science returned to the Greeks and Romans for their
inspiration. The importance of theology and the mystical diminished,
and the intelligentsia strove to replace superstitions with empirical
and rational fact. As scientific methods uncovered more and more
answers to the mysteries of the physical world, philosophers began to
use similar methods to explore the mysteries of the metaphysical world.
The “Enlightenment Project”, as MacIntyre calls it, was
born. Just as the scientific method produced laws of physics,
principles according to which the natural world functioned, philosophers
attempted to produce laws or principles that could explain human behavior.
In epistemology, Descartes, Locke, Reid, and Hume (among others) strove
to explain how man comes to have knowledge of the world through his
perceptions, how he can be sure of that knowledge and its truth, and
how one could prove the intuitive belief that man has a persisting identity.
In moral philosophy, the “Enlightenment Project” was “centrally
concerned with providing universal standards by which to justify particular
courses of action in every sphere of life” (Wokler 108). The “inheritors” of
the Enlightenment Project (whom MacIntyre cites as Kant, Kierkegaard,
Hume, and Diderot) basically agreed on the character of morality and
agreed that morality must be justifiable in terms of certain rational
standards. Specifically, the premises of morality must “characterize
some feature or features of human nature,” and moral rules should
be universal, that is, applicable to all human beings (MacIntyre 49-50).
“Thus all these writers share in a project of constructing valid
arguments which will move from premises concerning human nature…to
conclusions about the authority of moral rules and precepts” (50).
Kant, arguably the most influential moral philosopher of the Enlightenment
Project, believed that the best moral principles were those derived
from “pure reason”. However, MacIntyre argues that
Kant used reason in a “calculative” way, a way that can
determine means but never ends. Kant’s moral philosophy
was concerned primarily with how rational beings ought to treat one
another, but his view of reason precluded any notion of an end state
to which a rational being should aspire: it was a morality with a path
but without a goal.
The morality proscribed by Kant was comprehensible to his contemporaries
because they shared a common background and assumed the truth or value
of Christian moral priorities (such as truth-telling and marriage).
Since that time, however, the West has undergone the deconstruction
of values at the hands of Postmodernism, which has eliminated any overarching,
“prevalent framework of values” in Western culture and left
us incapable of making moral judgments. “The legacy of the
Enlightenment has therefore been to render our morality confused…
Without already settled moral beliefs, we have come to identify our
principles only in terms of abstract notions of the self and individual
choice” (Wokler, 108). The Enlightenment Project was unsustainable,
as the current disintegration of morality proves. Modern man’s
putative freedom from hierarchy and teleology (leaving him without a
past or a future) and his belief that he, as an individual, is his own
“sovereign moral authority”: these, MacIntyre believes,
“emerge clearly as the product of the failure of the Enlightenment
iii. Narrative as a Response to the “Enlightenment
If the Enlightenment Project is, as MacIntyre claims,
unsustainable, if objective rational principles alone cannot lead to
a coherent and functional moral system, if it is impossible even to
achieve the objectivity and universality on which philosophers such
as Kant depend, then how should we go about finding a new perspective
on moral philosophy? “It is not inappropriate to begin by
scrutinizing some of our most taken-for-granted, but clearly correct
conceptual insights about human actions and selfhood in order to show
how natural it is to think of the self in a narrative mode” (191-192).
MacIntyre and Hauerwas begin their ethical enquiry by considering the
way in which human beings actually behave and the explanations and interpretations
they give of their own actions. The conclusion they read in this
enquiry is that “man is in his actions and practice, as well as
in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. He is not
essentially, but becomes through history, a teller of stories that aspire
to truth” (MacIntyre 201).
The narrative theory of Hauerwas and MacIntyre, unlike deontological
or utilitarian ethics, is more concerned with the concrete than the
abstract, with action more than with theory. By “[expressing]
the human being in his concreteness, in his wholeness, in his temporal
being,” narrative avoids the alleged Enlightenment tendency to
oversimplify the complexity of human experience and moral action (Hartle
52). Descartes and Kant tend to limit man’s intellectual
and moral being with his capacity to reason, thereby neglecting or denying
what common experience tells us: that social and emotional factors affect
our moral behavior. One of the great mistakes of the Enlightenment
Project was “the tendency to think atomistically about human action
and to analyse complex actions and transactions in terms of simple components”
(MacIntyre 190). Separating action from action in this way “falsifies
the reality of our lives as moral agents by breaking up that ongoing,
historical existence into discrete, unrelated parcels of dramatic moments
called ‘The Great Quandary That Must Be Solved!’”
(Goldberg 30-31). For MacIntyre (and for Hauerwas as well), it
is exactly that context that Descartes and Kant deny that contributes
most to the significance of a moral action: a moral agent must interpret
his actions and their meaning in terms of the social and historical
context in which he finds himself as well as the narrative of his own
“To understand what it is I ought to do, I must,
according to MacIntyre, recognize that the story of my life possesses
a certain narrative structure in which what I am now is continuous with
what I was in the past. Thus the search for what I am, and for
what I ought to do, is indeed a search and not simply a set of
decisions.” (Horton 9)
What I ought to do is intimately connected with who
I am and what I am striving to become. A fulfilled life is that
life in which “man-as-he-happens-to-be” becomes (or at least
strives to become) “man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-essential-nature”.
Reason, and the principles derived from a reflective interpretation
of our narrative, “instructs us both as to what our true end is
and as to how to reach it” (MacIntyre 50).
Narrative recognizes what the Enlightenment Project did not: actions,
especially moral actions, are irreducibly complex. Rather than
an account of ethics that separates action from the continuity of life,
we need an account of ethics that can explain the complexity and context
that makes moral actions intelligible and significant: “What we
require is not no story, but a true story... The unity of the self is
not gained by attaining a universal point of view, but by living faithful
to a narrative that does not betray the diversity of our existence”
iv. The Proper Relation of Principles to Narrative
As we examine the narrativist critique of principle-based
moral philosophies such as Kant’s, we must be careful not to do
as some proponents of narrative, who “overstate their distaste
for propositions, as if the word had a foul odor to it” (Clark
110). While the move away from abstract principles devoid of context
is justified, it is an overreaction to dismiss propositions or principles
entirely. It is easy to misread MacIntyre and Hauerwas as advocating
a wholesale rejection of principles, in favor of stories, however this
is not the implication of their narrative theory. What
they reject is the notion that moral principles can be comprehensible
or justified apart from some narrative. Like all statements, principles
are dependent on their context—in this case, the narrative of
a tradition—for their meaning and significance.
Moral philosophy has always relied on principles, taking “principle”
to mean a compact statement that informs a person of what he should
or should not do. The Old Testament presents us with the Ten Commandments.
The New Testament incites us to “Love our neighbors as ourselves.”
Kant’s categorical imperative demands that we “Act in such
a way that you could affirm you action as a universal law.”
Utilitarianism admonishes us to “promote the greatest good (or
pleasure) for the greatest number.”
There is a marked difference, from a narrative point of view, between
the Biblical presentation of moral principles and the post-Enlightenment
presentation. The principles of the Old and New Testaments are
presented as part of a story: the Ten Commandments are predicated on
God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from Egypt, and the Great
sense only within the context of the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
“The meaning is found only within the story itself although it is not exhausted by
that story” (Goldberg 46). The idioms in which a tradition
expresses itself are important to the meaning of the principles they
express (CC 130). While it may be possible to extract a principle
or moral from the story, the import of the story cannot be completely
separated from the story itself.
And yet, a story without a principle is a story without deep moral significance.
Perhaps the clearest expression of the interdependence of principle
and narrative comes from Hauerwas’ essay, “Vision, Stories,
Even though moral principles are not sufficient in
themselves for our moral existence, neither are stories sufficient if
they do not generate principles that are morally significant.
Principles without stories are subject to perverse interpretation (i.e.,
they can be used in immoral stories), but stories without principles
will have no way of concretely specifying the actions and practices
consistent with the general orientation expressed by the story.
Kant’s categorical imperative fails to be sufficient insofar as
it is unconnected to a narrative. Although Kant would deny that
“pure reason” allows self-interest to serve as an appropriate
universal law, his categorical imperative is not embedded in a narrative
that defines the shape or boundaries of “universal law”.
Utilitarianism, with its mandate of “the greatest good or pleasure
for the greatest number”, is open to an even greater degree of
perversion, allowing for any number of interpretations of “good”
or “pleasure”. The Ten Commandments and the teachings
of Christ, on the other hand, are woven into a story. In the story
of Exodus, “covenant” is defined not only by the words but
also by the actions of God to the people of Israel. Similarly,
one understands the meaning of “love”, or “agape”,
if one understands the actions of Jesus.
Part II: In Defense of Narrative
Philosophy, like grammar, has usually assumed that
the basic unit of meaning is the statement (Poteat 215), and that statements
do not necessarily require further explication or context to be comprehensible
and meaningful. Given that a statement is true and logically coherent, most philosophers
would assume that it is comprehensible in itself, that a reasonably
intelligent person can know what the statement means. MacIntyre writes,
“In each case, the act of utterance becomes intelligible by finding
its place in a narrative” (195). The radical claim of those who
espouse a narrative theory is that the basic unit of meaning is not
the statement but the story.
A statement requires the context of a story or narrative in two ways.
First, the terms within a given statement may have different meanings
in various traditions. For example, the term “duty”
is important in the moral philosophies of both Kant and Socrates.
However, the meaning of “duty” is quite different for each
philosopher. Socrates believed that his duty was to do “that
which benefits one’s community”, and so he became “the
gadfly of Athens” because he believed that by challenging his
fellow citizens he was enabling them to be morally better persons.
Kant took duty to mean “that which reason proscribes”, and
thus he was able to do his moral duty living as a recluse, so long as
he considered what would be the most rational course of action before
he engaged in any activity. It becomes clear that the meaning
of a crucial term such as “duty” is ethically significant
when we see how these different definitions lead to such radically different
Second, the context in which a statement is written or spoken contributes
to its meaning. A statement that is appropriate or sensible in
one situation may be completely inappropriate in another, or the meaning
of a statement may be colored by other statements or actions that precede
or follow it. A statement that has no apparent relation to the
narrative of the individuals who speak or hear it is incomprehensible.
MacIntyre gives the following example. You are standing at a bus
stop on afternoon when a man you have never met walks up to you and
states, “The scientific name for the common wild duck is Histrionicus
histrionicus.” It is quite possible that the statement
is true, and it is grammatically correct and logically coherent.
But do you know what it means? MacIntyre contends that you must
know not only what is being said but also why it is being
said. Without the context of the speaker’s intentions and
the setting in which the statement is spoken, the statement is incomprehensible
Actions also require a narrative context to be meaningful. Poteat
makes the bold claim that “Action is inconceivable apart from
stories” (217); MacIntyre similarly claims, “There is no
such thing as ‘behavior’, to be identified prior to and
independently of intentions, beliefs, and settings [i.e., a narrative
context]” (194). Just as each action or episode in a literary
story is not arbitrary but determined by the plot, each action in an
individual’s life is informed by the beliefs, intentions, and
past experiences that constitute his lived narrative. To be considered
an action, an occurrence must flow intelligibly from intentions, which
in turn are determined by the settings and traditions in which a person
acts (192, 195).
Further, “action” is inseparable from history, from narrative:
“An action is a moment in a possible or actual history or in a
number of such histories. The notion of a history is as fundamental
as the notion of an action. Each requires the other” (MacIntyre
199). The history or context required to make an action comprehensible
may be either the larger narrative of a tradition or the
briefer narrative of an individual’s life (or even an episode
in an individual’s life): “We place the agent’s intentions…in
causal and temporal order with reference to their role in his or her
history; and we also place them with reference to their role in the
history of the setting or settings to which they belong” (194).
Actions are irreducibly complex; they require both a sequence and a
context to make sense. To illustrate this claim, MacIntyre gives
the tongue-in-cheek example of baking a cake:
[If we are to believe the analytical philosophers
who have constructed accounts of human action which make central the
notion of ‘a’ human action], a course of human events is
then seen as a complex sequence of individual actions, and the natural
question is: How do we individuate human actions? … In the recipes
of a cookery book for instance actions are individuated in just the
way that some analytical philosophers have supposed to be possible of
all actions. ‘Take six eggs. Then break them into
a bowl. Add flour, salt, sugar, etc.’ But the point
about such sequences is that each element in them is intelligible as
an action only as a-possible-element-in-a-sequence. Moreover even
such a sequence requires a context to be intelligible. If in the
middle of my lecture on Kant’s ethics I suddenly broke six eggs
into a bowl and then added flour and sugar, proceeding all the while
with my Kantian exegesis, I have not, simply in virtue of the
fact that I was following a sequence prescribed by Fanny Farmer, performed
an intelligible action. (194-5)
The life of an individual, like actions and statements, also requires
a context to be meaningful and comprehensible. The objectivity
that many Enlightenment rationalists considered so important—the
ability to consider moral issues from a vantage point outside of all
traditions—is impossible because of a notion that MacIntyre calls
“embeddedness”. “The history of each of
our own lives is generally and characteristically embedded in and made
intelligible in terms of the larger and longer histories of a number
of traditions” (207). Every person, past and present, is
born into a community and initiated into a tradition before he is able
to make a conscious or rational choice to accept or reject that tradition.
The definition of moral terms such as “duty”, “benevolence”,
“good deeds”, and “the good life” are dependent
on the historical context into which a person is born. “What
the good life is for a fifth-century Athenian general will not be the
same as what it was for a medieval nun or a seventeenth-century farmer”
In addition, it is through literary narratives that we gain our first
moral sensibilities and learn the basic “vocabulary” of
moral behavior. “We enter human society…with one or more
imputed characters—roles into which we have been drafted—and
we have to learn what they are in order to be able to understand how
others respond to us and how our responses to them are apt to be construed”:
the fairy tales, parables, and fables that we hear from our earliest
childhood give us the resources to interpret the world in which we find
ourselves (MacIntyre 201). The historical context into which
a person is born lays out the moral framework in which he must function,
but he also acquires specific moral duties and gifts from his social
context. My moral character is as it is because I am my father’s
daughter, my uncle’s niece, I belong to a certain profession or
community, et cetera. As MacIntyre puts it, “I inherit from
the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts,
inheritances, rightful expectations and obligations. These constitute
my moral starting point” (205), and “What I am, therefore,
is in key part what I inherit, a specific past that is present to some
degree in my present. I find myself part of a history and…one
of the bearers of a tradition” (206).
No individual is capable of choosing his moral starting point.
Reason and the capacity for choice come into our lives only after
the moral groundwork has been laid. While an individual may indeed
make choices later in life that allow him to transcend the tradition
and social situation into which he was born, he can never “escape”
from that tradition: “The notion of escaping from [your context]
into a realm of entirely universal maxims which belong to man as such,
whether in its eighteenth-century Kantian form or in the presentation
of some modern analytical philosophies, is an illusion and an illusion
with painful consequences” (MacIntyre 205-6). For to deny
his tradition would be to destroy a part of himself, since the narrative
of his context is an integral and formative part of his narrative.
Imagine that there is a ship sailing around the world.
Over the several years that it takes to make the voyage, various planks
rot or break or wear out and are replaced, though never more than a
few at a time. By the end of the voyage, however, every board,
plank, and sail has been replaced—not a scrap remains of the material
that originally composed the ship. When it finally docks after
its long journey, is it the same boat that set out? The shipwright
who built it may feel that it is not the same boat—nothing of
his craftsmanship remains; his boat has been replaced in the
course of the journey. The crew, however, surely believe that
they have not switched boats at some point in their long voyage.
What is it that enables the crew to say that, despite its transformation,
this is the same boat that has carried them for their entire journey?
Similarly, what is it that enables me to say that I am the same person
I was yesterday and last week and twenty years ago, the same person
that I am today and will be tomorrow? The answer MacIntyre gives
is that the boat, from the time it set sail to the time it docked, has
a history, and it is in virtue of that single, coherent, and unified
history that the boat has a continuing identity. My life has a
continuing identity, no matter what physical, mental, or spiritual transformations
I undergo, because I am a self “whose unity resides in the unity
of a narrative which links birth to life to death as narrative beginning
to middle to end” (191).
One possible way to interpret this claim is to assume that MacIntyre
is speaking of our ex post facto interpretation of the events
of our lives. The narrative form is simply a way in which we can
organize and make sense of our experiences. However, this is not
the claim that MacIntyre (and others) would make. While it may
be true that man interprets his life narratively, it is also the case that man
lives his life narratively. “Experience is
not made coherent; it is coherent, and its coherence is through time.
Narrative is the form that is capable of expressing coherence through
time” (Hartle 51).
We do not perceive our lives as “mere bundles of atomistic experiences”
(Goldberg 32); rather, we believe that our actions are connected both
to our intentions and to other actions that are related temporally or
intentionally. Moreover, it is our experience, in our moral lives,
that values learned and actions performed in the past inform the decisions
that we make in the present.
In a literary story, the episodes that comprise the plot are not only
connected, they also progress meaningfully toward an end.
Extending the analogy between literary narrative and lived narrative
to encompass this element may appear to court fatalism or predetermination,
however MacIntyre does not shy away from it. The term MacIntyre
uses for the end or goal of a life is “telos”:
We live out our lives, both individually and in our
relationships with each other, in light of certain conceptions of a
possible shared future, a future in which certain possibilities beckon
us forward and others repel us, some seem already foreclosed and others
perhaps inevitable. There is no present which is not informed
by some image of the future and an image of the future which always
presents itself in the form of a telos…towards which we
are either moving or failing to move in the present. (200-201)
The telos of a life has a slightly different character than the end
or climax of a narrative: MacIntyre borrows the term and, broadly, the
characterization of telos from Aristotle, claiming that an individual’s
telos is the ideal toward which he strives and seeks to conform himself.
“To ask ‘What is the good for me?’ is to ask how best
I might live out [the unity of my individual narrative] and bring
it to completion” (203). Without some notion of telos, of
what we are seeking to become, there can be no moral progress, or at
least no progress in a way that makes sense (204).
Hauerwas brings another aspect of coherence to light. An individual’s
lived narrative must have internal coherence, certainly, but how does
an individual order his life in order to give it coherence? Stephen
Crites wrote that “A man’s sense of his own identity seems
largely determined by the kind of story which he understands himself
to have been enacting through the events of his career, the story of
his life” (qtd. in Goldberg 12). Hauerwas claims that an
individual’s life gains coherence inasmuch as it conforms to some
narrative: “Moral growth involves a constant conversation between
our stories that allows us to live appropriate to the character of our
existence” (CC 133). The story I tell of myself is not
arbitrary. There is the temptation, when someone speaks of “my story” or “the meaning of my
life”, to believe that I can tell my story any way I choose. That would be the
common mistake of the existentialist or the pluralist. There are
standards of truthfulness in the telling of my own story, and one of
those standards is the ability to conform to some larger narrative.
In “A Story-Formed Community”, Hauerwas gives examples of
the need for a living tradition in forming one’s identity and
learning the skills appropriate to one’s nature and place in society.
He also shows the consequences of depriving individuals and communities
of their tradition.
iii. A Word About Rabbits: What it Means to Align Oneself
with a Narrative
It is difficult to explain the compelling nature and
broad scope of narrative in a dialectical form. Hauerwas himself
says that “the best way to learn the significance of stories is
by having our attention drawn to stories through a story” (CC
13), and in his essay “A Story-Formed Community”, he gives
an account of the role of stories in moral life by recounting the adventures
of the rabbits in Richard Adams’ Watership Down.
Therefore, at this point, I will take a cue from Hauerwas and say a
word about rabbits.
Rabbits, “at least the rabbits of Watership Down, ...are
lovers of stories”, and in that respect, rabbits have something
in common with human beings. The stories they tell of El-ahrairah,
the prince of rabbits, are more than mere myths. “Their
stories serve to define who they are and to give them skills to survive
the dangers of their world in a manner appropriate to being a rabbit”
(15). Like the narrative of any community, the rabbits’
stories define the place of the individual within the community and
within the natural order. When a community forgets the stories
that define their origin, it creates a new image of identity that results
in “the corruption of rabbit community and nature” (22).
“Adams’ depiction of the various communities in Watership
Down suggests that they are to be judged primarily by their ability
to sustain the narratives that define the very nature of man, or in
this case rabbits” (12). By showing what becomes of a community
when it forgets its narratives (and hence its origins), Watership
Down provides both a strong argument for the necessity of narrative
and examples of how narrative might actually function within the context
of a life.
The rabbits of Watership Down are born into Sandleford, a warren
that still tells the stories of El-ahrairah but considers them “primarily
as a means of entertainment” (17); that is, they are born into
a corrupt tradition. The social order of Sandleford is not especially
oppressive, and it is likely that Hazel and Fiver (two of the band of
rabbits whose adventures comprise the novel) would have lived relatively
unfulfilled lives in Sandleford had it not been for Fiver’s intuition
that the warren was going to be destroyed. Hazel and Fiver
attempt to warn the chief rabbit of the danger, but, having no proof
but Fiver’s intuition, the chief rabbit rejects their advice,
trusting in his own capacity to preserve the safety of the warren.
The chief rabbit has kept threats at bay in Sandleford for quite some
time, and the rabbits of the warren have come to accept safety as a
given. They have forgotten that it is the nature of rabbits to
be always on guard against danger; they have succumbed to the self-deception
that life is not dangerous. This complacency, brought on by safety,
is the one threat that the chief rabbit could not guard against.
In this context, “the stories of El-ahrairah had been domesticated
in the interest of security and Sandleford thus became victimized by
its own history. In fact its history had become its fate; it was
no longer able to use tradition to remain open to the gifts and dangers
of rabbit existence” (18).
Hazel and the small contingent of rabbits that left Sandleford were
doing what MacIntyre proposed was possible: they were moving beyond
the boundaries (both physically and morally) of their native community
narrative without abandoning the stories of their tradition (MacIntyre
It is important to note that the rabbits of Watership Down do
not leave their old warren as a people (or a rabbithood). They
leave only as a group of individuals joined together by their separate
reasons for leaving the warren. All they share in common is the
stories of the prince of rabbits, El-ahrairah. They become a people
only as they acquire a history through the adventures they share as
interpreted through the traditions of El-ahrairah. (CC
When they left Sandleford warren, the rabbits dissolved the bonds of
community they would have had within their former context. At
the beginning of their journey, Hazel and the others were a group of
individuals; the only common link between them was their belief in the
stories of El-ahrairah, a belief which became increasingly important
as they faced dangers which required all of the skills and resources
that a rabbit could muster.
The flight of Hazel and his companions from Sandleford shows the way
in which individuals (or a group of individuals) within a community
can revitalize a tradition that has fallen into disrepair. The
tradition, the stories of El-ahrairah, still exist within Sandleford,
but their significance has been forgotten. By breaking away from
their community sufficiently to escape the dangerous complacency to
which it had fallen prey, Hazel and his band were able to reexamine
the meaning of their tradition. It is possible, by returning to
the roots of a tradition, to the essence and meaning of the stories
that define identity within that tradition, to revitalize a narrative
that has been corrupted.
In their travels, the rabbits encounter another instance of a community
with a corrupted narrative, or rather, a community that has (or believes
it has) no narrative. This problem is particularly relevant to
the society in which we live. “For our primary story is
that we have no story, or that the stories that we have must be overcome
if we are to be free” (CC 149).
A community such as this, which denies the presence of any narrative
and which views its members as individuals with no connection to or
concern for one another. The rabbits of Watership Down
stumble into a warren that has forgotten not only the meaning of the
stories of El-ahrairah, as Sandleford, but has forgotten the stories
This warren has no name, and there is no chief rabbit. Each individual
rabbit within the warren had the freedom to do as he pleased, and “the
story that formed them was that they were no longer dependent on tradition”
(CC 18). At some point in their past, a farmer had realized that
he could “raise” rabbits by looking after a warren, providing
them with food, keeping away predators, and snaring a few rabbits from
time to time, never enough to frighten the warren away. With no
enemies and no difficulty finding food, the virtues of rabbits—cleverness,
courage, and dependence on one another—had no place in their society.
The resulting society was unrabbitlike in the extreme. When Hazel
and his band realized the truth that gave the warren its strange characteristics,
they left to search for another home.
In this instance, the tradition cannot revitalize itself from within:
the essence of the tradition—the story of a rabbit’s origin
and place in nature—has been altered. What is required is
a narrative external to the community. When another tradition
comes into contact with it and provides a coherent narrative alternative
to traditionlessness, there is the possibility of conversion.
Part III: Objections and Criticisms
i. “Stories are not lived but told”
MacIntyre presents two possible objections to a narrative
interpretation of lived experience in chapter 15 of After Virtue,
though he does not take either objection as seriously as it merits.
Both of these objections are concerned with MacIntyre’s bold and
largely unsupported claim that the events of one’s life unfold
narratively. Both pose the alternate thesis that a narrative structure
is not inherent in the events of a life, and that the individual gives
events a narrative significance (perhaps unjustifiably) when he looks
back on them and tries to make sense of them. The first version
of this thesis is given by Louis O. Mink:
Stories are not lived but told. Life has no
beginnings, middles, or ends; there are meetings, but the start of an
affair belongs to the story we tell ourselves later, and there are partings,
but final partings only in the story. There are hopes, plans,
battles, and ideas, but only in retrospective stories are hopes unfulfilled,
plans miscarried, battles decisive, and ideas seminal. Only in
the story is it America which Columbus discovers and only in the story
is the kingdom lost for want of a nail. (MacIntyre 197)
The passage that MacIntyre has quoted is a negative statement, distinguishing
what life is not, and it is difficult
from this to reconstruct what Mink’s positive stance would be,
what he believes that life is. As I interpret it,
Mink seems to believe, like Hamlet, that “Nothing is good or bad,
but thinking makes it so.” Events occur in our lives, and
we muddle our way through them, but it is only when we sit back and
reflect that we perceive events as significant or see the relation of
one event to an event that preceded it. What is true in our personal
lives is true on a historical scale as well. Every schoolchild
knows that Columbus discovered America. However, properly speaking,
this is false: the land that Columbus discovered was not, at that time,
“America”, and Columbus himself thought that he had landed
in India. Only retrospectively, only when we consider the events
that have transpired between Columbus’ voyage and the present
day, can we make the claim that “Columbus discovered America.”
The second formulation of the thesis is based on the existentialism
of Jean-Paul Sartre, though it appears in After Virtue
in MacIntyre’s words:
To present human life in the form of a narrative is
always to falsify it. There are not and cannot be any true stories.
Human life is composed of discrete actions which lead nowhere, which
have no order; the story-teller imposes on human events retrospectively
an order which they did not have while they were lived. (199)
Like Mink, Sartre believes that narrative is a human creation, imposed
on events after the fact. Sartre makes the further claim that
this imposition is blatantly false to human experience. His theory
that human life is composed of discrete and unconnected actions is similar
(if not identical) to the “Enlightenment Project” position
that MacIntyre adamantly rejects. Peter Johnson, in his article
“Reclaiming the Aristotelian Ruler”, interprets the Sartrean
objection and considers the implications it would have on MacIntyre’s
narrative theory. The reason that Sartre believes that narrative
falsifies human experience, according to Johnson, is that it “falsifies…the
force of contingency in life, the unavoidable presence of accident and
the unforeseeable…which retrospection renders overdetermined and
While Johnson’s interpretation is not without value and does indeed
bring MacIntyre’s conception of narrative into question, I would
propose a “stronger” interpretation of the Sartrean criticism.
It seems to me that Sartre is claiming, as Kierkegaard once did, that
life is lived forward but understood backward. If life is indeed
“lived forward”, then there is less of an awareness of past
events in the present than MacIntyre would have us believe.
ii. Narrative Response to Mink and Sartre
As mentioned above, MacIntyre does not take Mink and
Sartre (particularly Sartre) very seriously and dismisses their objections
a bit too quickly. In response to Mink’s critique that there
are no final partings in lived experience, MacIntyre snidely comments,
“one is tempted to reply, ‘But have you never heard of death?’”
(197). He further argues that, simply because we do not recognize
the significance of an event when we experience it, does not mean that
the event does not have that significance when it occurs. In his
response to Sartre, he first mocks him: “In order to show that
there are no true narratives, he himself writes a narrative, albeit
a fictional one.” More to the point, he asks what “human
actions deprived of any falsifying narrative order” would look
like and answers that these actions would only look like “disjointed
parts of some possible narrative” (200).
Above I called Johnson’s interpretation of the Sartrean objection
a “weak interpretation”. I did so because both MacIntyre
and Hauerwas have incorporated a refutation of this objection into their
theories. Johnson seems to insinuate that narrative necessarily
implies a kind of fatalism, or that a narrative structure makes no allowances
for the unexpected. Quite to the contrary, unpredictability is
a part of the complexity of life that Hauerwas and MacIntyre wish to
take into account. The fact that an “Enlightenment Project”
or deontological ethics tries to escape unpredictability is one of the
reasons that MacIntyre rejects it:
I call Marx’s account less than satisfactory
partly because he wishes to present the narrative of human social life
in a way that will be compatible with a view of life as law-governed
and predictable in a particular way. But it is crucial that at
any given point in an enacted dramatic narrative [of which an individual’s
life is one] we do not know what will happen next… Unpredictability…is
required by the narrative structure of human life. (200)
Not only is unpredictability compatible with narrative, narrative requires
it. Hauerwas considers it of the utmost importance that a narrative
give us the skills to negotiate the uncertainty that is inherent in
life. “They must in a certain sense ‘be out of control,’
often dependent on luck to help them over their difficulties.
‘Luck’ can be a very misleading term; more properly, it
is fate put to good use by imaginative skills acquired through a truthful
tradition” (CC 23).
While Johnson’s “weak Sartrean objection” is defeated
within the texts of MacIntyre and Hauerwas, my “stronger objection”
fares little better. In my characterization, Sartre advocates
an ever forward-looking way of living and acting. Such a view
seems to deny that an individual ever looks back over his life, reflecting
and interpreting it, noticing patterns in his intentions, behaviors,
and the results of these. Most people, especially those who are
conscientiously concerned with living a moral life, practice self-examination
and learn from the mistakes and successes of their past experiences.
While it may be true that we “live forward”, we do still
“understand backward”, and it seems a strange thing to acknowledge
the act of understanding only to deny that such an understanding has
an effect on the way we live.
Perhaps the best argument in defense against Mink and Sartre comes from
Hauerwas. In several of his essays, Hauerwas notes the power that
literary stories have over us. The stories that we judge to be
good are those that seem to reflect our experiences with life.
Would literary stories have such an impact on us if our experience were
not similar in form to narrative?
iii. Incommensurability and Its Attendant Difficulties
Another concern that has been addressed is the problem
posed by MacIntyre’s endorsement of incommensurability. MacIntyre maintains some that
traditions and modes of moral enquiry differ in their basic convictions
to such a degree that they no longer have enough in common to engage
in dialogue. There is great difficulty—perhaps even impossibility—associated
with translating the moral vocabulary of one tradition into another.
Depending on the degree of shared belief necessary for two traditions
to be commensurable, MacIntyre opens himself up to a problem of relativism.
Goldberg writes, “If our differing convictional communities do
indeed reflect different narrative traditions, are we then faced with
the prospect of a vicious relativism which leaves us saying to one another,
‘You have your story, and I have mine, and there is no way you
can understand or judge mine, nor I yours’?” (19).
It seems clear that cultures and traditions, even those vastly different
in their convictions, do in fact converse. How it happens, we
may not know; but that it does happen, we can be sure.
If many of the world’s traditions are incommensurable, how is
MacIntyre able to present what appear to be standards that apply to
all narratives? Specifically, how is MacIntyre justified in claiming
that teleology, which he has inherited from an Aristotelian and Thomistic
tradition, is true for all narratives? Moreover, MacIntyre certainly believes
(as does Hauerwas) that some traditions are “better” or
more true than others. How, if a tradition is incommensurable
with one’s own, is one to judge it better or worse? And
what is a person to do who is born into a tradition that is corrupt
or incoherent, as MacIntyre believes postmodern liberalism to be?
iv. A Partial Response to Incommensurability
I believe that Hauerwas provides an answer, at least
to the last question, in his philosophical retelling of Watership
Down. Strawberry, a rabbit born into the nameless warren,
was brought up in a community that considered itself “traditionless”
in much the same way that liberalism considers itself “traditionless”.
He came from a tradition that had forgotten the stories of El-ahrairah,
the stories that define the nature and essence of a rabbit. By
all counts, his tradition should have been incommensurable with the
story-telling wanderers, Hazel and his band. Nevertheless, Strawberry
was able to undergo a conversion, leaving behind his native tradition
(though he could never escape from the effects it had wrought on him
and the way it had shaped his moral sensibilities) and accepting a tradition
rooted in a coherent and meaningful story.
In this paper I have attempted to provide at least
a partial answer to the question that many philosophers have been asking
in recent years: “Why narrative?” or more specifically,
“Why narrative now?”
Why narrative now? Theories abound. Narrative is more faithful
to the engaged, affect-drenched push and pull of human existence than
the abstractions and manipulations of the failed culture of technocracy.
Narrative reflects the drama of the times, the century of magnified
horror and hope. Narrative is an attempt to find coherence in
apparent incoherences, personal and social, staying close to the temporal
givens rather than choosing flight to the atemporal or irrational.
Like Fackre and MacIntyre, I believe that the turn to narrative has
a great deal to do with the context of our times, and it is a necessary
response to several centuries of attempts to pin down abstract concepts
and absolutes. I also believe, with Hauerwas, that certain traditions,
such as Christianity, are by nature narrative and that they are perjured
when we dismiss the stories and attempt to understand them in terms
of abstract principles.
What I do not believe (and which, if I understand narrative theory correctly,
a narrativist must not believe) is that any given narrative (even
the narrative of narrative as a theory) is the ultimate or “one
true” way to interpret truth. At its best, narrative is
a tool that may allow us to recognize the limits of our perception of
truth: we must interpret truth through the veil of our context and our
experiences, and we must continually translate the stories we believe
to be true into our own idioms, both linguistic and cultural.
I believe that the implications and applications of narrative are far-reaching
and as yet only beginning to be explored, and I hope to see philosophy
pursue this new perspective to its fullest extent.
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