Narrative can save your life: Scheherazade held the Sultan at a plot point each night and so gained for herself a reprieve to the next day.

In Metaphysical Ecology I introduced a more comprehensive treatment of time into Urie Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological systems theory. I further extended and refined this metaphysical temporality in Ecological Temporality, and I applied this ecological temporality to the mind in The Temporal Ecology of Mind.

In several posts I have have occasion to comment on the prominent role that the idea of narrative has in contemporary thought. I especially developed this theme in The Totemic Paradigm, in which I contrasted what Walter Fisher in his influential book Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action called the narrative paradigm. While I don’t wish to impugn or belittle Fisher’s conception of the centrality of the narrative paradigm in human affairs, I simply wished to demonstrate that the narrative paradigm alone is not sufficient to understand the forms of human consciousness that have emerged in history.

Now that I have had the occasion to give an exposition to what I call metaphysical ecology and ecological temporality, I can offer a more detailed account of the place of narrative in human civilization.

What my formulations of ecological temporality have made clear to me is that the world functions on several temporal levels, and in so far as the mind that is part of the world reflects the world, the mind too functions on several temporal levels.

An entire metaphysic could be constructed on the interesting consequences for the philosophy of mind from the interactions of the ecological levels of the world with the ecological levels of the world as reflected in the mind, but at present I only want to point out something much simpler. And it is this: the world as we know it consists of many narratives running in parallel at different levels of ecological temporality.

The ecological levels of narrative follow the schema of ecological temporality:

Micro-temporality: stories of the temporal setting of individual consciousness. The perfect exemplar of this is the “stream of consciousness” technique in literature.

Meso-temporality: stories of relations between micro-temporalities or connections between temporal contexts. More obviously, these are stories of social time, and this is the most common format of storytelling. Almost all traditional story telling, including mythology and fables fall into this category. Aesop’s fables are stories set in social time, though the agents are animals rather than human beings. The distinctive thing about mythology is that stories of metaphysical history are given concrete meaning and even individual personality by embodying ideas in particular persons (or heroes or gods) and setting this stories in social time.

Exo-temporality: Stories of links between a temporal setting in which the individual does not have an active role and the individual’s immediate temporal context. These are stories in which the individual strikes out beyond the familiar. Many heroic narratives take this form.

Macro-temporality: Stories of the historical era in which individuals live, which can reach from eras of human history through the life of entire civilizations and beyond to the greatest expanses of time investigated by natural science.

Metaphysical temporality: Stories of the whole of metaphysical history in which the individual and other lesser temporalities (Meso-temporality, Exo-temporality, and Macro-temporality) are embedded. Mythological stories are indirectly (by way of meso-temporal stories) narratives set in metaphysical temporality. Cosmogonies, religious cosmologies, and philosophical narratives of the world entire take place in metaphysical time.

These many stories overlap and intersect like Wittgensteinian family resemblances. While in some cases these stories can be isolated and are independent of all other stories, and of stories on another levels of narrative temporality, more often the stories touch on each other, if only tangentially. The traditional intertextuality of some literary genres — Aurthurian romances, for example, which have borrowed heavily from each other, sometimes taking characters, sometimes scenes, and sometimes entire stories or cycles of stories and re-telling them — can exploit this tangential relationship among stories in order to enrich the world of the storyteller, so that like walking through an Gothic cathedral the rich ornamentation might catch your interest at any point and lead you in a new direction if you allow yourself to be so distracted.

It is entirely possible that an individual might entertain, at one and the same time, a narrative of their own consciousness, a different narrative of the immediate social situation in which they find themselves, another narrative that tells the story of how distinct societies interrelate (over both time and space), a narrative unique to the great sweeps of historical time, and lastly another narrative, an eschatological narrative perhaps, that encompasses the whole of all the preceding even while going beyond it, i.e., a narrative of eternity. These stories do not contradict each other because each takes place at a different level of ecological temporality, and this gives us a structure in which to organize the different narratives employed to encompass the world.

It would be an interesting exercise to offer an exposition of these differing narratives of ecological temporality based on the work of Hayden White (especially his book Metahistory). Those who are familiar with White’s work on narrative will immediate see how complex this task would be, as White makes a number of subtle distinctions among the literary tropes employed to tell a story (especially the stories of history). I will leave this to any other interested party who cares to take up the challenge.

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The Totemic Paradigm

24 September 2010


Lately I’ve run across several blog posts that discuss the place of narrative in human life and human experience. For example, T. Greer of Scholar’s Stage both in Pick Your Metaphor With Care and Azar Gat on Narrative Building discussed the place of narrative in human cognition. Other blogs of intellectual substance have also recently visited this topic, though I can’t pull exact references out of my memory. The theme of narrative is also prominent in contemporary analytical philosophy of mind as well as in psychotherapy, in which latter discipline narrative therapy is becoming a hot topic.

Walter Fisher has been central to the recent emergence of interest in narrative of a theme of cognition.

One of the sources of this growing interest in the role of narrative in thought and experiences is Walter Fisher’s book, Human communication as a narration: Toward a philosophy of reason, value, and action (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1987). I haven’t had a chance to study this work yet, but I know it by reputation; it has been very influential.

In this work, Fisher contrasts what he calls the “Rational World Paradigm” with the “Narrative Paradigm.” These two conceptions of human communication are laid out as follows:

Rational World Paradigm:

People are essentially rational.
People make decisions based on arguments.
The communicative situation determines the course of our argument.
Rationality is determined by how much we know and how well we argue.
The world is a set of logical puzzles that we can solve through rational analysis.

Narrative Paradigm:

People are essentially storytellers.
People make decisions based on good reasons.
History, biography, culture, and character determine what we consider good reasons.
Narrative rationality is determined by the coherence and fidelity of our stories.
The world is a set of stories from which we choose, and constantly re-create, our lives.

There is a lot that could be said regarding these two conceptions of communication. I will limit myself to only a few comments. What Fisher calls the Rational World Paradigm strikes me as a straw man erected for the purpose of being knocked down. Even the most steadfast rationalists that I know, even if they believe that human beings ought to abide by something like a rational world paradigm, know that human beings do not in fact act (or think) according to such a paradigm. The only other comment I will make, and this will lead me to the main item of interest of today’s post, is that, once we begin to think of human communication in terms of paradigms such as these two laid out by Fisher, it is not too difficult to think of other paradigms by which human beings do in fact communicate, or which have been entertained as ideals of communication even if not acted upon in practical matters of fact.

In this spirit then, I would like to introduce what I call the Totemic Paradigm. I am calling it this because I have been reading Claude Lévi-Strauss of late. However, Lévi-Strauss bears no responsibility for the use to which I have put his ideas in the following (that is to say, if you can even recognize these ideas in what follows). Without further ado, then, the Totemic Paradigm:

Totemic Paradigm:

People are essentially mythological bricoleurs.
People make decisions based on their emotional response to symbols.
The existential situation of an individual and a community determines the effective use of a symbol in mythology.
Rationality is irrelevant; it is the potency and efficacy of our symbols that counts.
The world is a set of myths that emerge from the particular life of a particular people in a particular landscape.

Any regular readers of this forum will notice the presence of some themes to which I return repeatedly, such as my continually expressed interest in the way that an intellectual milieu grows organically out of the life of a people, and the life of a people grows organically out of the landscape in which they must make (or have chosen to make) a life for themselves.

I hope that the careful reader will also note that I have made no attempt to incorporate Fisher’s concern with the fluidity of self and our freedom in creating and re-creating ourselves. This is a distinctly modern conception, and it is almost totality absent in traditional societies. What I hope to capture in this Totemic Paradigm is the Weltanschauung of traditional societies, fully in the grip of what Nietzsche called the “morality of mores.” (In German: “die Sittlichkeit der Sitte”, also translated as the “morality of custom.” If you’re nor familiar with this conception, I encourage you to read Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals.)

The careful reader will also discern here the influence of Joseph Campbell, whom I have many times referenced in this forum. I’ve been listening to his lectures again. I never tire of them. It was one of Campbell’s concerns to point out (many times) that despite the positivism and empiricism of our age, that there are modern myths, and often we do do not even know what myth we are living by. Campbell also emphasized that if traditional myths (most of which grew out of axial societies, again, fully in the grip of the morality of mores) no longer speak to us, no longer affect us directly, that new mythologies must and will arise that do speak to us in an immediate and visceral way. If you respond to a myth as a myth, it retains its vitality; if the myth must be “explained” to you, and even then it leaves you cold, it doesn’t really matter how much it is honored in the breach; it has, in fact, become a dead letter, and we can only pretend that it continues to mean something to us.

If, as I have stated in the last item under the Totemic Paradigm, “The world is a set of myths that emerge from the particular life a particular people in a particular landscape,” then we obviously must ask what kind of myths and symbols have emerged and are emerging from the landscape of industrialized society, which is the world in which we live today. I have attempted some initial formulations of this problem in several posts, including Ritual and Myth in Modernity, Class Consciousness and Mythology, and Mythologies of Industrialized Civilization. These efforts, however, are only the merest sketch of a large topic, and much remains to be done. I will return to this again, fate willing.

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