Sunday, September 25, 2011

Telling Stories

Whenever we tell a story, we are being intentionally selective in the details we include.  I am right now sitting in the common room of the Divinity School at Yale.  There are people in the corner opposite me having a conversation.  There are several people at tables working on various things (I can’t tell what from my vantage point).  Occasionally someone walks thru.  Even though I am narrating events in this room, I am not telling a story.  There is no point to the narration, no movement, no plot.  I could sit here all day and list everything that happened in this room and we would have an extensive amount of observations about life in the common room at a divinity school, but not a story.
Likewise, if we wanted to describe a “science” or “philosophy” of something, we have to be selective. If we wanted to make some sociological conclusions about divinity school students based on my rambling observations of a day in the common room, we would need to choose particular observations and organize them in a particular way to come up with anything that made any bit of sense or held any significance.  We would need to look for patterns of behavior or something else that we could use as an organizing paradigm.
The same would be true of history.  A list or cataloguing of events is not really a history.  History attempts to explain why events happen, and to do that you need to be selective, look for patterns and connections, causal relationships, etc.
What I think this all gets at is that the universe in its raw form is simply too much to take in.  Which seems at first a very trivial statement, but I think it is one of extraordinary importance.  We can’t simply observe and soak in everything that happens around us, we need to organize it all in some useful way.  We make stories, scientific theories, philosophies, histories, etc., all for the sake of organizing and simplifying a literal universe of data that we could not otherwise make sense of.
Now, in light of what I said the other day about a subtle circularity in logic, I want to observe that the same kind of subtle circularity exists in almost every other “organizing scheme” we might develop.  When we narrate events, why do we choose the details we choose?  Because those details form the structure of the story we want to tell.  In other words, the story in its totality is already in some sense assumed by the details that make up its parts.  I think we could say the same of all our methods of organizing our experience of the world- they are all intentionally selective, and in the process of being selective are to some extent assuming themselves.
What does this say about how we organize data?  Does this mean all our reasoning is fallacious and that we can’t know anything?  If we just stopped here it might be taken that way, but I certainly hope that this is not were we stop.  I have written plenty of times on this blog about the idea of coherence, and I think it is the key to understanding how reasoning can function.  In a way, I am working with the ideas of German philosopher Immanuel Kant, though there are plenty of ways in which he and I would strongly disagree with one another.  But he at least provides a starting point for us, which is the idea that we, functionally, must organize data.  The world is too much for us to take in as a brute reality, we have to organize our experience of it into some sort of system of understanding, some sort of paradigm.  That understanding or system can take a variety of forms, be it a story or narrative, a rigorously logical philosophical system, a strenuously tested scientific model, a quasi-mystical/otherworldly perspective, or perhaps some other way of thinking.  What matters, at least so far as this post is concerned, is not so much the form that it takes as that it “works”: that it makes sense of our experience and puts it all together into some sort of worldview that we can operate out of.  When it fails to do this, whether because of an internal “inconsistency” or because we encounter new experiences that we cannot make sense of in our old way of thinking, we are forced to abandon our understanding and seek out another one, a remarkably unnerving or “shaking” experience for many if not most of us.
That these understandings or paradigms in some sense assume themselves is, I think, a natural product of their selectivity which I think serves to underline our subjectivity.  Here is where Kant, who has given us a starting point, and I would diverge (or at least I diverge with some of his interpreters, I’m not as clear that Kant actually says what I’m about to attribute to him).  The “Kantian” view would be that we all have a common set of mechanisms for forming our understanding of the world and thus can come to some sort of “objective” understanding.  My own view is that our understanding of the world is much more individualized, that the selectivity required to tell a story or form a theory is rooted in our own individual, subjective selves and the viewpoint associated with that self, not an inborn or innate system of categorization.  So we all in some sense “assume” the story we tell because we are the ones telling and crafting it.  Is this fallacious?  Is this “subtle circularity” damaging to the credibility of our systems?  Perhaps, but I don’t think it needs to be.
This “subtle circularity” has the potential to be damaging if we make a leap to the claim that our assumptions objectively reflect reality.  If I make the claim that the story I tell is the only story that can be told about the day in the common room then I committed an error, the “subtle circularity” which guided my telling of the story has become a fallacy.  If I acknowledge that the story I am telling is one among several then the assumptions which shaped it are no longer damaging, they are merely acting to set off this particular story as its own story.
It is important to note here, as I wrap this post up, that what I am arguing for is very strictly an epistemological limitation.  I am not attempting to make any metaphysical claims about the nature of reality or truth via this argument.  There is much more to say about that, but it will have to wait for another post.

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