You are here

Self, Narrative Perspective of

Date: 
2014
DOI: 
10.17421/2037-2329-2014-MM-1

I. Introduction - II. Narrative Structure of Human Lives: Philosophical Reflections - III. Narratives in Contemporary Psychology: Autobiographical self and Narrative Psychology - IV. A Brief Presentation of the Autobiographical Self in Contemporary Neuroscience - V. Conclusions

 

I. Introduction

Narratives are important from cultural and historical perspectives. Oral transmission of values in African traditions through storytelling is a well-known example of the use of narratives to express historical events and other important ideas like moral values, beliefs in divinities, the origin of human existence the meaning of life, and the importance of virtues to living a fulfilled human life. Thus, in many traditional African settings, narratives are not just works of art but are a means of grooming personality, building a personal identity and play an important role in the transmission of values across generations. Greek mythology also shows the use of narratives to express ideas which are central to understanding the human being, human actions, many events in human life and the human being’s relationship with the divine beings. Narratives have stayed with humans along the centuries. Today, they are useful for understanding the structure of human lives in varied fields that study the nature of the human being from different perspectives. Contemporarily, different fields of study, such as philosophy, theology, psychology and the neurosciences affirm that narratives are rooted in human nature and that human life has a narrative structure. This implies that, for many theorists within these fields (each field having targets and autonomy in its own methods of study) human lives have been described as narratives and the human being is described as being within the process of creating a personal narrative which is intertwined with those of others and with the narrative of the community.

In everyday experience, we tell stories to explain things to others. We explain our actions and projects to others, starting from a beginning to an end. When people we meet tell us the stories of their lives, we are not surprised that they have one. In fact, we would be surprised if, in trying to get to know someone, all he or she had to tell us were the events of a short duration (in order to avoid cumbersome repetitions from now on the masculine or feminine pronouns he, she, his and her, will be used to refer to the human being in general, without reference to being male or female.) In interpersonal relationships, we try to get to know people’s background history, their youth and general interests in order to understand them better. Even more, we seek to know not just what they have done and what has happened to them but also what has motivated them in their actions. Thus, while asking open-ended questions about people’s lives we, knowingly or unknowingly, request for narratives of such people’s lives and of the events. Stories or narratives are thus important to having a wide vision of the self and to understanding others.

Also, we frequently notice that meaningful actions are not random but form part of a structured whole. We observe that human beings naturally tend to aim towards happiness; that human actions are carried out in a bid to be happy. In seeking to understand such actions therefore, even though we know the agent generally aims towards happiness, we seek to situate each particular action within the frame of the totality of his life aspirations. This global vision of the person can be viewed as his autobiography or his personal narrative which he constructs with all his action. A narrative understanding of the self is important to understanding a person.

In addition to what is discovered from common experience, many sciences including philosophy, psychology and theology aim to deepen the understanding of the human being and human fulfilment in a more systematic way. That humans seek to be happy is a prominent theme in classical philosophy, especially moral philosophy, and in particular Aristotelian. The concepts which contemporary psychology seeks to clarify coincide with some philosophical topics (both anthropological and ethical) and the demonstration of their philosophical roots or background anthropology hidden in them could facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration in the quest of deepening knowledge about human nature and its flourishing.

Narratives within human life, is also being studied in theology. The hermeneutical study of biblical texts and Christian history is a rapidly growing field of investigation which often make reference to narrative analysis of texts and a search for contexts and full personal narratives in an attempt to understand a biblical character. There is however a need for narrative theology to focus more on individual lives and personal Christian narratives instead of historical analysis of religion (Jacobs, 2003). Some theorists evaluate philosophical concepts of narratives and point out its links to theology and its openness to religion (See for example Mulhall, 2011). It has also been said that “the decisive dimension for every Christian experience as well as for religious experience in general is (…) the dimension of the narrative identity and the autobiographical self” (Mühling, 2014, p. 120). One can thus see that narratives and narrative self-understanding are meaningful to contemporary theological debates.

A proper philosophical grounding for the narrative perspective of the self, supported by evidence from psychological findings, is however important for an appropriate application of narratives to theology. Therefore the philosophical and psychological perspectives of the narrative self, rather than the theological studies, will be more extensively explained here.

 Although the theme of happiness, self-understanding, self-fulfillment and self-determination pervades both the fields of psychology and philosophy, there are few studies showing the links between these fields. Dialogue between fields working for similar goals could lead to mutual enrichment of each one of them. Interdisciplinary work is important for those fields which coincide in seeking to understand human life, the nature of human actions, how to develop excellence in character and even human happiness. One could describe the different perspectives of narrative understanding of the self (also referred to as the autobiographical self) and on the understanding and applications of narratives within contemporary psychology and philosophy.

There are notable complementarities between philosophy and other human sciences which consider narratives as important to understanding human actions and the structure of human life as a whole. Exchange of ideas between psychology, philosophy, theology and neurosciences could permit the elaboration of an integral vision of the human person without reducing him to a purely material object of scientific study while avoiding viewing humans within abstract theories of persons and humanity. Such global vision could facilitate our understanding of human nature.

A description of the philosophical concept in narrative self-understanding is required for identifying such concepts within different branches of contemporary psychology, particularly “Narrative Psychology.” In turn, the concepts of the narrative self, seen in psychology are compatible with neuroscientific data regarding the autobiographical self. Thus one can see the possibility for interdisciplinary studies of philosophy, contemporary behavioral psychology and neurosciences. The establishment of a link between such uncommonly studied literature and classical philosophy is bound to give many insights to better understand human beings and human fulfillment.

II. Narrative Structure of Human Lives: Philosophical Reflections

Contemporary narratology, and narrative philosophy in general, proposes that the self is best understood when seen as a narrative self. Narratology proposes that the objective meaning of each human action and the meaning of human life as a whole is best understood when viewed as a narrative. This implies that the acting subject defines himself and describes his identity to other people with his actions within his personal narrative. Theorists from different fields have affirmed that narrative is embedded in human nature and is constitutive of being human. Philosophers who are well known for writings related to the narrative-self include, Alasdair MacIntyre, Paul Ricoeur, Charles Taylor, and David Carr. Many of these authors, (as well as Dan P. McAdams - a contemporary psychologist carrying out ongoing research on the narrative study of human lives) base their analysis of narratives on the Aristotelian concept of narratives and arts especially noticeable in the book Poetics. (Aristotle and Stephen Halliwell 1995, 1450 b.20 – 1451 a.15). Thomas Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo are also known to have elements of narrative self-understanding in their thoughts discoverable in their written works.

Anne Righter, a writer and a well known analyst of Shakespeare’s works, ascribed a belief to Shakespeare: that he portrayed human life in dramatic narratives because he took it that human life already had a form of dramatic narrative and indeed the form of one specific type of dramatic narrative (MacIntyre, 1985; Gahl, 2001). The description of human life as a dramatic narrative is built around the premise that the human being comes to know through sense experience acquired in time and through discursive reflection upon that experience. Humans acquire knowledge by considering events that are causally connected but often temporally dispersed. The human being however unites or integrates the temporally dispersed information into a unitary narrative. The link between description of human lives in classic literature and a philosophy can be linked to Aristotle’s description of art, especially tragedies and the role of imitation of nature in artistic representations.

Alasdair MacIntyre presents narratives as constitutive of the human being and embedded in his very nature. In its basic sense, a narrative is a meaningful account of actions and their circumstances which are ordered according to a particular intention or set of intentions. For MacIntyre, narrativity is a central element in any attempt to understand the meaning of any individual actions. The way in which human actions are given meaning within the particular contexts is by their being fitted into stories and narratives which necessarily extend beyond specific action settings to include the whole of the individual’s life, the stories of one-on-one relationships within families, society and traditions of thought and enquiry (MacIntyre, 1985). One can say that, for MacIntyre, narratives -more than being just forms of art and linguistic expressions- are essential to the understanding of human nature. The self can be best understood with narratives.

According to MacIntyre, human actions viewed in their totality, with the structure of a narrative, define his identity; “a man in heroic society is what he does” (MacIntyre, 1985, p. 122).  In his book After Virtue, MacIntyre cites what Hermann Fränkel wrote of Homeric man: a man and his actions become identical, and he makes himself completely and adequately comprehended in them (MacIntyre, 1985). But MacIntyre speaks of the agent as not only an actor but an author. With his free actions, the human being creates his personal narrative or autobiography. He actively, more or less consciously, builds his narrative identity which defines who he is. The human being is not just a passive interpreter of narratives of events which occurred in his life but can direct his personal narrative towards a desired end. What is commonly called the self, MacIntyre refers to as the “narrative self” to remind us that that which he might think of as a supra-historical point of integration of our experience is in fact a unity only in virtue of the intelligibility of the stories of our lives (MacIntyre, 1985).

MacIntyre explains that the narrative concept of the self requires a twofold approach to understanding its elements. The first aspect is that “I am what I may be justifiably taken by others to be in the course of living out a story that runs from my birth to my death; I am the subject of a history that is my own and no one else’s and that has its own peculiar meaning.” (MacIntyre, 1985, p. 217). The second aspect of narrative selfhood is correlative: I am part of the stories of others and they are part of mine. I am therefore accountable to others for my actions and I can demand accounts of their actions from them. Such accountability gives continuity to narratives of different events which although they are temporally spaced out, have unity (cf. MacIntyre, 1985, p. 218).

An important element of narrative self-awareness is that the narrative unity of a life is built around an ultimate goal. Human life can be seen to have the structure of a narrative with a beginning, middle and an end, united by a central ‘purpose-giving’ goal.  Such a goal, which is the desired end in life, gives meaning to a person’s individual actions and links his many temporally separated actions and events. Human actions are thus seen as being carried out for the sake of and tend towards the ultimate end or intended purpose. The human being’s tendency towards an internal ultimate end is in accord with the Aristotelian concept of natural teleology, where a person’s life, even though multifaceted, is viewed as a unified structure moving towards its proper ultimate end or telos. Telos is a word of Greek origin referring to the end proper to a certain reality. Telos refers to the ultimate end, the good for whose sake all other goods are sought. It is connatural to reality to have an end towards which it should be directed. As such, a human being, being a free living being, directs the self towards this end, towards happiness. Happiness is for all persons, even though each one may consider its content differently. The ultimate end has to be within a complete vision of life. It is the good that determines the content of happiness and not happiness that determines the good. Noble acts are pleasurable for the virtuous person and fulfilling such acts gives him pleasure (not necessarily sentient pleasure) and some happiness.

Other important elements within the concept of a narrative self-understanding are its importance for moral agency and for acquisition of virtues. Also essential to the concept of the narrative self are the significance of other people in one’s narrative and the notions of learning and accountability within one’s community.

Given the view of narrative self-understanding presented above, an “application of narratology to moral philosophy contends that human fulfilment or happiness may only be achieved by living an intelligible, coherent, unified, meaningful and successful story. According to such a moral philosophy, we are all artists constantly engaged in the most important task possible: crafting our own selves by building the narratives of our lives around everyday actions” (Gahl 2001). Thus the interconnection between all human actions within a narrative is essential for an understanding of self-perfection. Narratology has far reaching implications for directing the self towards perfection and a proper understanding of the role of virtues in the task of “self-creation.” To say that a person creates himself, refers to the fact that he defines his character and description one can give of him by his actions. For example, if one steals, she makes herself a thief. Her singular or multiple thefts give the world a description of her person. This idea of self- creation with one’s actions is extensively developed by Karol Wojtyła (Wojtyła, 1979).

Another Philosopher who has worked on narrative theory is Paul Ricoeur. His writings on hermeneutics and philosophical anthropology stressed the importance of the themes of narrativity, identity and time. He held that personal identity always involves a narrative identity. (Dauenhauer and Pellauer, 2012). Ricoeur further explains that narratives draw together disparate and somehow discordant elements into the concordant unity of a plot that has a temporal span. He also affirmed that narratives are made up not only of actions but also of characters or personages. The plots relate the mutual development of the story and a character or a set of characters. In addition, Ricoeur states that a narrative about human persons tells of both the connections that unify multiple actions over a span of time performed in most cases by a multiplicity of persons and the connections that link multiple view points on and assessments of these actions.

In Paul Ricoeur’s analysis of narrativity, we make sense of our own personal identities in as much the same way we do of the identity of characters in stories. He states that “the narrative constructs the identity of the character, what can be called his or her narrative identity, in constructing that of the story told. It is the identity of the story that makes the identity of the character” (Ricoeur, 1992, pp. 147-148). According to him, in the case of stories, we come to understand the characters by way of the plot that ties together what happens to them, the aims and the projects they adopt, and what they actually do. Similarly one can make sense of her identity by telling herself a story about her own life. The narrative theory of Paul Ricoeur also manifests dynamicity in the life story in that (as he says), until the story is finished, the identity of each character is open to revision. Such revision should however be guided by certain standards towards which the individual directs himself. It should be directed towards achieving an end: the ultimate good.

It is however important to note that Paul Ricoeur’s concept of narrative is different from MacIntyre’s Aristotelian approach. Paul Ricoeur’s narrative is more a question of semantics and literary analysis and subject’s interpretation of events than the structure of a narrative property present in reality. For Ricoeur, narrative involves crafting a synthesis which has semantic originality: “Within narrative, the semantic innovation lies in the inventing of another work of synthesis- a plot. By means of a plot, goals causes and chance are brought together within the temporal unity of a whole and complete action. It is this synthesis of the heterogeneous that brings narrative close to metaphor” (Ricoeur, 1984, p. ix). Thus, Paul Ricoeur proposes a narrative self which is principally an interpreter of events in the personal life. He is not focussed on the ontological presence of narratives in human life or its presence as characteristic of human nature, nor is he focused on their role in driving specific real, human actions. Instead, he places emphasis on a narrative approach to interpretation of human actions, events and their meanings in the eye of the person and the public. Ricoeur’s main concern is grasping and explaining how one narratively interprets things hence he does not necessarily accept that the narrative structure is present in the things themselves. He pays more attention to the mind of the observer who uses narratives as a tool for understanding the meaning of events, actions etc. For Ricoeur, emplotment is putting together (intuitively grasping) heterogeneous details to form a narrative explanation for events which occur separately in orders of reality (see Dowling 2011). He emphasizes positing an internal logic of events. But this ‘positing’ is from the mind of the subject and not because things in themselves have any logical or narrative connections.

By contrast with Ricoeur’s approach, narratology based on classical, Aristotelian- Thomistic concepts of the person focusses more on the reality of a person’s actions and life as a whole and not so much of the interpretative value which the individual person or people attributes to such a life. MacIntyre thus tends to reach, further than Ricoeur, towards the ontological reality of narratives in human life and actions, and goes beyond the human mind’s perception of the presence of narratives in lives. Ricoeur however gives a clear description of the structure of narrative selves which, when understood as real narratives within human lives being enacted or lived out each day, broadens our knowledge of the human being.

With the above descriptions of the narrative self, one sees the need for living out a coherent narrative which moves towards the ultimate good. However, in order to consciously make the right decisions that lead to happiness, one needs to know what the appropriate standards according to which one should live are. People need to have clear reference points proper to a human being’s constitutive identity which could serve as a guide in moulding the self and constructing his identity. Thus the question of what a human being ought to be arises. In relation to this question, MacIntyre speaks about the difference between “man-as-he-happens-to-be” and “man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realised-his-essential-nature”. The reference which MacIntyre makes to the human being’s essential nature as a guide for constructing one’s personal narrative, could be understood as a call to listen to nature and the objective truth of who a human being essentially is. Thus, human nature and the laws inscribed in it form the coordinates and guides to what a successful personal narrative should be.

MacIntyre adds that the transition from the former state (“man-as-he-happens-to-be”) to the later (“man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realised-his-essential-nature”) pre-supposes some metaphysical concepts: potentiality and act, and some account of the essence of a human being as a rational animal and above all some account of the human telos (cf. MacIntyre, 1985, p. 52). Thus, MacIntyre’s  approach to ethics is characteristically teleological, in that it interprets individual actions in terms of their ultimate end (telos); for him, that which is the good thing to do is that which is virtuous, and that which is virtuous is nothing else than that which will effectively lead to human fulfilment, specifically eudaimonia. MacIntyre’s interest in eudaimonia is Aristotelian. Aristotle regards human life as consisting of aims and ends and describes the end at which all men ought to aim. He describes this end as eudaimonia and this word is usually translated as ‘happiness’. Interpreters of Aristotle generally find this translation unsatisfactory as happiness in common language describes a feeling whereas Aristotle’s eudaimonia means a certain kind of activity which is in accord with virtue (Aristotle and David Ross, 1989).

Teleology and happiness are two important elements in MacIntyre’s analysis of human actions within narratives. These two elements are often found implicit within psychology’s account of the self and of human fulfilment. Although the elements are found in narrative psychology as will be shown in the next section, psychologists are often silent with regard to the role of human nature, with the ultimate good of the human according to his constitutive identity, in the construction of personal myths and in narrative self-understanding. Such silence is justifiable as the research into what constitutes human nature, true happiness and the ultimate causes and content are proper to the fields of philosophy (which could in its turn be complemented by theology). But there is a risk of psychology and philosophy attempting to give answers to such questions which lay outside the scope of each field. One can therefore see that dialogue between narrative philosophy (as presented above) and narrative psychology could lead to mutual enrichment by both fields. It is therefore of interest to have an idea of the narrative self from the perspective of psychology. 

III. Narratives in Contemporary Psychology: Autobiographical self and Narrative Psychology

Contemporary psychology is a fast growing and vast field of the humanities. Many books are being published and widely read on topics related to the human being, his behaviour, the formation of character and virtues, and how an understanding of the self can help achieve one’s aspirations, especially happiness. Currently, many psychologists place great emphasis on the psychology of normal individuals with more analysis of theories of normal psychology. The concept of narrative or of the development of personal identity through constructing life stories is one of such recently explored topics which are of notable importance in contemporary psychology. An increasing number of psychologists argue that people give meaning to their lives by constructing and internalizing self-defining stories (McAdams, Josselson and Lieblich, 2006). Studies related to narratives, autobiographical memory and autobiographical reasoning, have been carried out in psychology and these are in line with philosophical narrative theory.

As a is a view point within psychology, Narrative Psychology is concerned with the storied nature of human conduct – how human beings deal with experience by constructing stories and listening to the stories of others. Its very notion is that human activity and experience are filled with ‘meaning’ and that stories, rather than logical arguments or lawful formulations, are vehicles by which that meaning is communicated. Some of the theorists who are key figures in narrative psychology include Jerome S. Bruner, Kenneth Gergen, Rom Harré, George S. Howard, Dan P. McAdams, Elliott Mishler, Donald K. Polkinghorne and Theodore Sarbin. These psychologists see the study of narratives as a part of psychology.

Dan P. McAdams is a leader in the recent emergence within the social sciences of narrative approaches to studying human lives; approaches that place stories and storytelling at the centre of human personality. His writings, both books and published articles, are based on years of research and the author’s experiences in interactions with people in his years of psychological practice. They are widely read and provide scientific evidence as they are based on experience and results from research work. The following discussions on narrative psychology, narrative self-understanding and aspects related to the formation of a personal identity within a narrative, are an exposition of the role of narratives in contemporary psychology based mostly on his writings and studies. There are other related studies and observations made by other contemporary psychologists working on the same topic (e.g. works by Pasupathi, Jonathan M. Adler and Joshua Wagner) whose findings coincide with that of Dan P. McAdams. A presentation of some of the key ideas in McAdams’ narrative psychology will now be made. They explain some aspects of his findings which are congruent with the narrative self-understanding based on Aristotelian moral epistemology.

It  is however important to note that, although there are many points which narrative psychology and philosophy have in common, narrative psychology does not provide objective and universal answers to questions as to the ultimate end of humans with regards to human fulfilment and true enduring happiness. Seeking explanations of human fulfilment in terms of a description of the human being’s ultimate end are a philosophical task. Psychology gives proximate observations about the human mind and psyche that help one to understand human beings better. One sees the autonomy of both fields which should be maintained. It is however probable that an inclusion of considerations about the role of the ultimate end, human fulfilment and happiness in theories about narratives of life could lead to more fruitful application of such theories as the narrative theory in psychology of the human being in general. Dialogue between philosophy and psychology could yield a rich harvest in the quest for a better understanding of the human and a mutual enrichment by both fields.

McAdams presents a new psychological theory of human identity: the narrative identity. He explains “how each one of us constructs, consciously or unconsciously, a personal myth” unique to each one. McAdams argues that every individual constructs a personal life story in order to find a sense of purpose and looks at how beliefs, values and self-images are used to create each story. He considers the life story to be an internalized and evolving cognitive structure or script that provides an individual’s life with some degree of meaning and purpose while often mirroring the dominant and / or subversive cultural narratives within which the individual’s life is complexly situated (McAdams, 2006). The central themes of McAdams’ research work on narratives and personal identity, while considering the human person as actor (behaving), agent (striving) and author (narrating), (McAdams, 2010), coincide with the Aristotelian theme of a narrative self-understanding described in the previous section.

McAdams described human lives as having a “storied nature.” His observations within narrative psychology present human life and all the events which constitute it as a narrative. He affirms that “human consciousness is a matter of consciously taking up the position of narrator. A narrator is a teller. Consciousness involves a continual telling of lived experience, a kind of online stream of narration that flows through the minds of most sentient human beings much of the time” (McAdams 2006). Such narrative is considered as an intricate unit structure built around an internal unifying theme which its author has discovered and set as his guide, in order to make a meaningful and coherent story. Within narrative psychology, lives are seen to have a narrative structure moving progressively towards their end. In order to be meaningful, each human life should have a goal which directs single events and actions. McAdams describes narrative structure as the extent to which the story follows a temporal sequence of goal-oriented action (Adler, Wagner and McAdams, 2007). As earlier noted, McAdams however does not describe the characteristics of the main goal which should give meaning to the whole of human life and thus to the personal narratives. Answers to questions raised in the search of the characteristics of such a purpose giving goal for human life can be found within the fields of philosophy and theology which respond with ultimate truths about human nature. The observations of the narrative structure of human life from psychology research are however valid and can shed more light on our understanding of the philosophical thought with which they are related.

As previously explained, McAdams observed that human actions are not random but are generally goal-oriented. He notes that, even though actions occur in a temporal sequence, when they are oriented towards a goal, it gives the actions narrative unity and reflects their purpose. Such harmony in actions is noticeable when one considers that “life stories weave together a reconstructed past, the perceived present and the anticipated future in an attempt to provide the self with a feeling of purpose and unity” (Adler and McAdams, 2007, p. 97). Human action is best understood when considered in the light of a guiding theme which directs human actions towards an end, forming a coherent stream with a narrative structure. The totality of such actions could be transcribed into a story -into a biography. Even when one has not lived with famous people, one can get to know them through reading their biographies. Through these narratives, one can often deduce some guiding principles for the actions and events and, if it is a good story, one expects the narrative to flow towards an end and not just be an account of unrelated episodes. In that line, he states that the personal myth or story brings together different parts of our lives in a purposeful and convincing whole (McAdams, 1993).

Coherence represents stability and many narrative theories in psychology identify coherence as an especially significant feature of life stories. This idea has been studied and expressed in writings by psychologists such as Dimaggio, Semerari, Habermas, Bluck, Labov, Mandler and McAdams. Such coherence, in the self narrative, is given by the end or purpose in life. A practical application of narrative self-understanding is seen in psychotherapy. Contemporary research on narratives of psychotherapy has shown that a narrative understanding helps the patients to make sense of their psychotherapy, understanding their lives in terms of past experiences, present psychotherapy sessions and future aspirations and this facilitates their commitment to the therapy (Adler, Wagner and McAdams, 2007).  Thus a narrative psychology which is congruent with realist anthropological (and philosophy in general) could have far reaching implications for treatment therapies and counselling of healthy individuals in contemporary psychology both within clinical and non-clinical psychology settings.

McAdams further asserts that we understand ourselves better with stories, whether the stories of others or our own life stories. He explains that a narrative mode of viewing life is essential to understanding the self. For McAdams, if someone want to know a person then she must know his story, for his story defines who he is. Additionally he claims that if I want to know myself, to gain insight into the meaning of my own life, then I too must come to know my own story. It implies that “I must come to see in all its particulars, the narrative of the self -the personal myth- that I have tacitly, even unknowingly composed over the course of my years. It’s a story I continue to revise and to tell myself (and sometimes to others) as I go on living” (McAdams, 1993, p. 27). Thus, viewing life as a narrative could help one understand his life and actions better and to discover his identity. 

IV. A Brief Presentation of the Autobiographical Self in Contemporary Neuroscience

Autobiographical self and narrative self are notions which are not limited to philosophy theology and psychology. Contemporary neuroscience also describes self-understanding with narratives. It is interesting to note that research in neurosciences support the notion of the narrative structure of lives described above. Antonio Damasio, a prominent neuroscientist describes the brain centres related to the formation of the “autobiographical self.” He explains the brain’s way of constructing autobiographies. According to him, “the autobiographical self is defined in terms of biographical knowledge pertaining to the past as well as the anticipated future. The multiple images whose ensemble defines a biography generate pulses of core self whose aggregate constitute an autobiographical self” (Damasio, 2010, p. 23).

Damasio’s approach is compatible with realist philosophy as he explains that autobiographies are constructed with the help of the memory of human experiences which were stored as maps in the brain. In the ninth chapter of his book Self Comes to Mind, Damasio explains the brain’s way of constructing narratives (Damasio, 2010). As a working hypothesis, Damasio says that constructing Autobiographical self depends on two conjoined mechanisms. The first is subsidiary core-self mechanism and guarantees that each biographical set of memories is treated as an object and made conscious in a core-self impulse. The second accomplishes a brain-wide operation of coordination that includes invoking certain contents are from memory which are then displayed as images. The images are allowed to interact in an orderly manner with another system elsewhere in the brain, namely the protoself. The results of the interaction are held coherently during a certain window of time. Damasio then suggest parts of the brain which are likely to be implicated in the process or which are coordinators i.e. the CD Regions (convergence-divergence regions): the polar and medial temporal cortices, the medial prefrontal cortices, the temporoparietal junctions, and the posteromedial cortices (PMCs) [Damasio, 2010].

Although these hypotheses in neurosciences could be compatible with sound philosophy, and could coincide with the findings in psychological enquiries, there is need for interdisciplinary dialogue in order to adequately discover the points of convergence and allow for mutual enrichment by the different disciplines. One should however be cautious to avoid an excessively materialistic approach to the human being which ignores or even completely denies the spiritual dimension of the human being (the human soul and its spiritual faculties as explained from Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy and also in theology).

V. Conclusions

The exposition made above, of narrative in contemporary behavioral psychology while demonstrating possible links with concepts of moral philosophy in them, has presented innovative prospects in interdisciplinary research on the human being by highlighting common grounds in disparate fields. This presents possibilities for performing interdisciplinary studies which would lead to a fruitful interchange of ideas and collaboration between the fields of philosophy and contemporary psychology. The possibilities for dialogue between sectors of research which study the human person from different perspectives, and which are not often associated together, promises to have far-reaching effects in deepening our understanding of the human being and his fulfillment. Contemporary implications of narrative theories include also their applications in current psychotherapies. Contemporary psychologists have conducted research to develop methods of psychotherapy which make use of narratives (Lieblich, McAdams and Josselson, 2004).

Human life, viewed as a structured meaningful narrative, is built around a central theme or ultimate goal which directs and guides the individual’s actions and gives unity to the narrative. Both philosophers and psychologists affirm that the goals for which a person acts give meaning to his actions. Thus, in order to understand a person’s single actions, a broad vision of his narrative and the ultimate goal which directs his whole life is required. Both philosophical and psychological descriptions of the narrative-self admit that a person needs a unified goal which gives meaning and purpose to his life. It is however important to note that the ultimate goal as described by Aristotle and other contemporary interpreters of Aristotelian thought is not necessarily the same as that described by psychology.

Following MacIntyre’s thought, (which agrees with both Aristotelian and Thomistic thought), true human fulfilment is reached only when the ultimate goal for which a person acts is according to the true ultimate good of humans. Fulfilment is achievable by aiming for the ultimate good which is proper to the human being’s status as a rational being. But psychology cannot be expected to give answers to philosophical questions, and it is therefore not surprising that narrative psychology does not describe the ultimate good of the human being, or the ethical coordinates which should guide his personal narratives.

It is the task of philosophy to give the answers to the question of ultimate good which can fulfil man’s innermost desires. This philosophical task is complemented and made complete by theology. If one chooses a goal which is not appropriate to his being, he loses the chance to make the best of himself and his story might not make all the impact it could have done; his narrative might not reach an ending which is proper of humans. Such a narrative might fall short of the level of achievements possible to humans. One needs to discover that which is the true human good and that is described by philosophy. However, philosophy should take also into consideration the truths about the human being and his quest for happiness offered by particular sciences including psychology. The fact that both fields contain truths about different aspects of the human being further highlights the importance of interdisciplinary work which respects the autonomy of each field.

The autonomy of both fields is reflected in the approach and extent to which they describe human goals and the meaning of human life. Psychology gives proximate descriptions of the human mind as observed in empirical studies of the human mind and actions while reflections on the essence of the human being and ultimate reasons of human action are a philosophical task. Nevertheless, both fields can collaborate to give mutual enrichment and a deeper understanding of the human being and more empirical support can be found in the neurosciences.

Bibliography: 

J. M. Adler, D. P. McAdams. “Time, Culture and Stories of the Self,” Psychological Inquiry, 18, 2 (2007) pp. 97-128; J. M. Adler, J. Wagner, D. P. McAdams. “Personality and the Coherence of Psychotherapy Narratives,” Journal of Research in Personality, 41 (2007) pp. 1179–1198; Aristotle. Poetics. Repr. with corrections. Aristotle in Twenty-Three Volumes: Vol. 23 (Cambridge [MA]: Harvard University Press, 1999); Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics. Repr. Aristotle in Twenty-Three Volumes: Vol. 19 (Cambridge [MA]: Harvard University Press, 1962); Augustinus. Confessions (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992); H. Cervantes Barragán. Carácter y Promesa en la Forja de la Identidad (Saarbrücken: Lambert Academic Publishing, 2011); A. Damasio. Self Comes to Mind Constructing the Conscious Brain (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010); B. Dauenhauer, D. Pellauer. “Paul Ricoeur,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (Winter 2012); W. C. Dowling. Ricoeur on Time and Narrative: An introduction to Temps ET récit. (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011); V. E. Frankl. Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1992); R. A. Gahl. “Animali razionali dipendenti sessualmente differenziat: n approccio all’io umano relazionale” Cristo nel cammino storico dell’uomo: Atti del Convegno Internazionale di Teologia, Roma, 6-8 Settembre 2000, edited by J. M. Galván Casas. (Città del Vaticano: Libreria editrice vaticana, 2000); R. A. Gahl. “Etica narrativa e conoscenza di Dio,” Dio e il senso dell’esistenza umana, edited by A. Ales Bello and L. Romera (Roma: Armando, 1999); R. A. Gahl. “Human Nature, Poetic Narrative, and Moral Agency.” Jacques Maritain Center: Thomistic Institute 2001: Gahl, July 18, (2001) http://www3.nd.edu/Departments/Maritain/ti01/gahl.htm; R. A. Gahl. “Time in Augustine and Aquinas: What Time Was It When Adam Was Created?” In The Sources of St. Thomas Aquinas, edited by T. Smith. (South Bend: St. Augustine Press., Forthcoming); A. Jacobs. “What Narrative Theology Forgot,” First Things, August 2003, http://www.firstthings.com/article/2003/08/what-narrative-theology-forgot; A. Lieblich, D. P. McAdams, R. Josselson, (editors), Healing Plots: The Narrative Basis of Psychotherapy (Washington DC: American Psychological Association, 2004); A. MacIntyre. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. 2. ed. (London: Duckworth, 1985); A. MacIntyre. Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need Virtues. The Paul Carus Lecture Series 20. (Chicago: Open Court, 1999); A. MacIntyre. First Principles, Final Ends and Contemporary Philosophical Issues. The Aquinas Lecture 54. (Milwaukee (WI): Marquette University Press, 1990); A. MacIntyre. Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition: Being Gifford Lectures in the University of Edinburgh in the 1988 (London: Duckworth, 1990); A. MacIntyre and The Hegeler Institute. “Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative and the Philosophy of Science:” Edited by Sherwood J. B. Sugden, Monist 60, no. 4 (1977): pp. 453–472; D. P McAdams. “Personality Development: Continuity and Change over the Life Course,” Annual Review of Psychology, 61 (2010) pp. 517-42; D. P McAdams. Power, Intimacy, and the Life Story: Personological Inquiries into Identity. (Homewood [IL]: Dorsey Press, 1985); D. P McAdams. The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live by. (Oxford [UK]: Oxford University Press, 2006); D. P McAdams. The Role of Narratives in Personality Psychology Today (USA: John Benjamins publishing Company, 2006); D. P McAdams. The Stories We Live by: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self (New York : Guilford Press, 1997); D. P McAdams, R. Josselson, A. Lieblich. Identity and Story: Creating Self in Narrative (Washington DC: American Psychological Association, 2006); K. C. McLean, Monisha Pasupathi, Jennifer L. Pals. “Selves Creating Stories Creating Selves: A Process Model of Self Development,” in Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11 (2007) pp. 262-278; S. Mulhall. “Theology and Narrative: The Self, the Novel, the Bible,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 69, no. 1 (February 1, 2011): 29-43; M. Mühling, Resonances: Neurobiology, Evolution and Theology: Evolutionary Niche Construction, the Ecological Brain and Relational-Narrative Theology (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014); P. Ricoeur. Time and Narrative. Vol. 1. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984); P. Ricoeur. Oneself as Another, [translated by K. Blamey] (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); Thomas Aquinas. Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotelian Commentary Series. (Notre Dame [IN]: Dumb Ox Books, 1994); Wojtyla, Karol. The Acting Person (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1979).