philosophybanner6.jpg

                Beyond Reason:
 A Narrative Response to an Enlightenment Interpretation of Morality

                 I.             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 theory1, 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 action.

                    II.            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 account.2  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.  (HR 166f)

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 “narratives”.

                  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 of Narrative”. 

                  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 “tradition”3.

                  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 intersects4.  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 category5. 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.6  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)7.

                                                                                                     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.8

                  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” into “man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-essential-nature” (MacIntyre 50).

                  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)9.  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 Project” (60). 

                                                                iii.  Narrative as a Response to the “Enlightenment Project”

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)10

                  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 life. 

“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” (CC 149).

                                                                                  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 Commandments11 make 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 itself12.  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, and Character”:

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.  (HR 170)

                  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.

                       III.          Part II: In Defense of Narrative

                                                                                                                                                              i.  Context

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 true13 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 actions.

                  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 (195-196). 

                  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)14

                  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 tradition15 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” (204). 

                  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)16.  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. 

                                                                                                                                                           ii.  Coherence

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)17.  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.18

                  In a literary story, the episodes that comprise the plot are not only connected, they also progress meaningfully toward an end19.  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).20 

                  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 choose21.  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 destroyed22.  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 205). 

                  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 13)

                  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)23.  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 themselves.

                  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.24 

                        IV.          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 overexplained” (57). 

                  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).25

                  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 incommensurability26.  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?27  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. 

                     V.           Concluding Remarks

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.  (Fackre 2-3)

                  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.

                        VI.          Bibliography

Clark, David K.  “Relativism, Fideism & the Promise of Postliberalism.”  in The Nature of Confession: Evangelicals and Postliberals in Conversation, ed. Timothy Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm, 107-120.  Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Fackre, Gabriel.  “Models of Revelation: A Narrative Interpretation.”  The Doctrine of Revelation: A Narrative Interpretation.  Edinburgh Studies in Constructive Theology.  Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997.  1-25.

Goldberg, Michael.  Theology and Narrative: A Critical Introduction.  Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1982.  1-61

Hartle, Ann.  Self-Knowledge in the Age of Theory.  New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1997.  51-83

Hauerwas, Stanley.  “Character, Narrative, and Growth in Christian Life.”  A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic.  Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981.  129-152

________.  “A Story-Formed Community.”  A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic.  Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981.  9-35

________.  “Vision, Stories, and Character.”  The Hauerwas Reader.  ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.  165-170

MacIntyre, Alasdair.  After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory.  Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981.  190-226

Poteat, William.  “Myths, Stories, History, Eschatology, and Action.” in Intellect and Hope, ed. Thomas A. Langford and William H. Poteat, 198-232.  The Lilly Endowment Research Program in Christianity and Politics.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1968. 



1 Paul Ricoeur, Hans Frei, George Lindbeck, and Gabriel Fackre, to name just a few (Clark 108).

2 I have drawn some elements of these definitions of “narrative” and “story” from William Poteat, pp. 220-226.

3 MacIntyre also uses the term “tradition” to denote this level of narrative.

4 MacIntyre gives the example in Chapter 15 of After Virtue thus: 

Now I must emphasize that what the agent is able to do and say intelligibly as an actor is deeply affected by the fact that we are never more…than the co-authors of our own narratives…Each of us being a main character in his own drama plays subordinate parts in the dramas of others, and each drama constrains the others.  In my drama, perhaps, I am Hamlet or Iago or at least the swineherd who may yet become a prince, but to you I am only A Gentleman or at best Second Murderer, while you are my Polonius or my Gravedigger, but your own hero.  (199)

5 Ann Hartle would further break this category down into “myth” and “literature”.  The former is “what lies behind other stories” and is rarely articulated explicitly; this is the ethos which forms the basis for the beliefs and morality of a culture.  The latter is comprised of that which is explicitly articulated, including “second-level” stories, “which presume the defining story [the myth]”.  (54)

6 MacIntyre acknowledges the first two of my three categories in After Virtue:

Consider what the argument so far implies about the interrelationships of the intentional, the social, and the historical.  We identify a particular action only by invoking two kinds of context, implicitly if not explicitly.  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)

7  You may see further examples of the interplay between levels of narrative in Part II, A Word About Rabbits.

8  MacIntyre provides a more detailed discussion of the progression of moral systems in Western culture in his Whose Justice? Which Rationality?  His task in this work is both to trace the context from which our notions of morality emerged and to prove that some narrative existed and structured the morality of each society (with the exception of modern liberalism, which claims to have no story).  The interpretation I am giving here, however, is not based on Whose Justice?  Rather, it is based on my knowledge of the history of philosophy, acquired in my undergraduate studies, along with MacIntyre’s interpretation of the Enlightenment given in After Virtue.

9 In his essay “Projecting the Enlightenment”, Robert Wokler accuses MacIntyre of grossly oversimplifying the events, theories, and philosophers of the Enlightenment: “What are we to make of this? … An Enlightenment Project shaped by a mid-seventeenth-century Jansenist (Pascal) and a mid-nineteenth-century Christian existentialist (Kierkegaard), with an encyclopedic romantic (Diderot) and a motley crew of Scots and Germans between them, needs more justification to pass muster than MacIntyre provides” (109).  I am inclined to agree with Wokler’s assessment of MacIntyre’s scholarship, however, I believe that there is an element of truth in MacIntyre’s diagnosis of the Enlightenment and the way in which Enlightenment principles, beliefs, and attitudes have shaped the culture in which we now live.  While I wish to avoid an interpretation of the Enlightenment, which denies the diversity of philosophies and ideas, I do agree with MacIntyre that there are “certain shared characteristics” of the moral philosophies of the time and that it is these characteristics that have most influenced our moral philosophy today.

10 As a further element of support, “The ordinary, natural way to give an account of what we have done is to tell a story about it” (Hartle 56).

11 “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

12 Goldberg also writes:

For instance, part of the reason from a literary point of view that the story of the Exodus and the story of Jesus have historically gotten such a hold on people rests in those stories’ not being fables or allegories.  They are not the kinds of stories to which one can rightly say, “Hurry up.  Just get to the point.”  To say it may be an indication that one missed the point, missed the meaning of these stories, and mistook them for poorly constructed and simpleminded stories whose meaning is incidental and extrinsic to them, stories which one need not hear to the end in order to catch the meaning.  But surely, one misses the meaning of the Story of Christ if one fails to hear it through to the end, and for a Jew, where is the end of the story of the Exodus?  (46-47)

Hauerwas similarly says: “Contrary to the assumptions of many philosophers, moral principles do not serve as the “essence” of stories, as if they might be abstracted from the story and still convey the same meaning” (HR 166).

13 “True” here could mean either “metaphysically or universally True” or “true to human experience”, depending on one’s philosophical leanings.  Hauerwas and MacIntyre’s position—that all statements require context to be meaningful—holds for either interpretation of “true”.

14 The following are the pertinent quotes from After Virtue:

                  “To identify an occurrence as an action is in the paradigmatic instances to identify it under a type of description which enables us to see that occurrence as flowing intelligibly from a human agent’s intentions, motives, passions, and purposes” (195).

                  “We cannot…characterize behavior independently of intentions, and we cannot characterize intentions independently of the settings which make those intentions intelligible both to agents themselves and to others” (192).

15 “The history of a practice in our time is generally and characteristically embedded in and made intelligible in terms of the larger and longer history of the tradition through which the practice in its present form was conveyed to us” (MacIntyre 207).

16 Not only do these stories give us the resources to act morally, they actually shape the way in which we perceive the world and our relationship to it.  Hauerwas writes, “Poetry and literature do not just bolster our moral intentions; they affect how we perceive the world and hence what the moral life is about” (HR 167).

17 This is Hartle’s own phrasing, but she attributes the idea to Stephen Crites.

18 MacIntyre states all of these things as assertions, without providing substantial support.  I will address this weakness below in Part III, based on an objection articulated by Louis Mink, who asserted that “stories are told before they are lived.”

19 “The narrative pattern, as a recital of happenings with a beginning and an ending, becomes a plot in which characters and events move over time and space through conflict towards a resolution” (Fackre 2).

20 MacIntyre has a much more complicated stance on telos, but I am not prepared to deal with all of the implications of his position.  In this paper, I present telos simply to show that the coherence of a lived narrative depends partly on its moving purposefully in some direction relative to a moral ideal of the self.

21 Technically, I could tell my story any way I liked, but that would be a fictional story, not one based on the narrative that I have lived, and not a narrative as MacIntyre and Hauerwas wish to define it.

22 Fiver is a mystic, whose intuitions have often proved true in the past.

23 This passage continues: “Thus we demand a universal standpoint so that the self may reach a point from which it can judge and choose objectively between competing particularistic stories...  Ironically, the story that we have no story is one that prevents moral growth.  For it provides us with a self-deceptive story that fails to account for the moral necessity of having a story and of being a self in the first place.              

24 Hauerwas also discusses a third community which the Watership Down rabbits encounter: a totalitarian state run by General Woundwort, a rabbit who, like the chief rabbit of Sandleford, has created a warren safe from external dangers.  Also like Sandleford, this safety is itself a danger, as rabbits were never meant to be safe.  Hauerwas uses this community to show the necessity of appreciating gifts and welcoming strangers, which is tangential to my thesis.  Thus, I will not address this example here.

25 If there is a compelling and well-supported response to the objections raised by Mink and Sartre (and I do not doubt that there is), MacIntyre does not give it.  The debate between MacIntyre and these objectors consists of one making an assertion and the other asserting the opposite, both claiming that “human experience” provides the necessary evidence in support of their thesis.  One says “yes”, the other says “no”—the philosophical discourse devolves into a civilized form of sticking their tongues out at each other. 

26 I have not done the research to address this issue in its full complexity, so I present it here only in bare outline.

27 MacIntyre attempts a defense of the teleological essence of narrative qua narrative in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? by sketching out the patterns of the prominent traditions of Western culture, showing that each has a telos in its moral philosophy.


Philosophy Home | Other Departments | Sewanee Home

Last Updated: Monday, February 27, 2006 10:16 AM