Storytelling and invidualism

I’ve long described myself as a classical liberal on this blog, and I’ve tried on occasion to define what that means — for example, with this doodle (above). Its point was to locate the unit of analysis of liberals in the individual, not in any groups that individuals might belong to. That’s always made intuitive sense to me, and it still does.

So consider that Premise 1.

I’ve also expressed my appreciation of storytelling here over the years, with what has (to my surprise) turned out to be the longest-running thread on this blog. My intuition tells me that humans make sense of the world and of themselves through stories, that we form identity from narratives.

So consider that Premise 2.

I was therefore delighted to be disturbed by a suggestion that Premise 1 and Premise 2 might actually contradict each other. (Perhaps that’s the definition of ‘intellectual’: somebody who delights in seeing his contradictions uncovered, espying an opportunity to learn.)

The suggestion struck me, roughly, between minutes 5 and 10 of the lecture below, by Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor of philosophy. (I recommend the entire course, which covers some of my favourites, from Rawls to Aristotle and beyond, in a very entertaining way.)

In this segment, Sandel introduces the British philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre.

  • MacIntyre also starts from the premise that identity (‘the self’) is a product of narrative (ie, my Premise 2).
  • But he then concludes that individualism (ie, my Premise 1) is impossible, because narrative necessarily leads to a communitarian identity.

Specifically, Randel quotes MacIntyre saying:

Man is … essentially a story-telling animal. That means I can only answer the question ‘what am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’

I am never able to seek for the good or exercise the virtues only qua individual. … We all approach our own circumstances as bearers of a particular social identity. I am someone’s son or daughter, a citizen of this or that city. I belong to this clan, that tribe, this nation.

Hence what is good for me has to be the good for someone who inhabits these roles. I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation a variety of debts, inheritances, expectations and obligations. These constitute the given of my life, my moral starting point. This is, in part, what gives my life its moral particularity.

So: anti-individualist (and thus implicityly anti-liberal) and pro-communitarian. Right? Liberalism says: I am free and thus I am responsible for myself, but I don’t answer for parent, country, tribe, or history. MacIntyre says that is self-deception:

The contrast with the narrative view of the self is clear. For the story of my life is always embedded in the story of those communities from which I derive my identity. I am born with a past and to try to cut myself off from that past is to deform my present relationships.

It’s made me think a lot. Watch the entire lecture. (But first, read this update regarding this post’s title.)

27 thoughts on “Storytelling and invidualism

  1. The lectures and discussions are delightful and stimulating, Andreas. I was particularly struck by Samantha’s short contribution at about 50 minutes.

    The major lesson I learned, and as you have implied, is that the question is a compound of living contradictions. Thus it is futile to over-rationalise upon them.

    History has provided a framework which gives us some sort of order that we call freedom under the law, but it is far removed from justice or mercy. It is natural that communities find different solutions in the course of their growth, but the pervading principle is tolerance.

    For myself, for instance, I find the idea of a “written”constitution constricting and sterile and prefer to live under a system which, in theory at least, is constantly responsive to the expectations and aspirations of as many individuals as possible and does not owe its precepts to a small group of individuals from the past. Yet I readily acknowledge that in practice a clear statement of rights and duties is more desirable. This is, indeed, another instance of the contradiction which permeates the issues.

  2. If I was born with a past, then given my place of birth, as per MacIntyre I share some moral responsibility for the Holocaust, even though it happened before my time. But then I chose to relocate to the United States. Does this mean I now share some moral responsibility for slavery as well? Or do I not, because U.S. history is more of a chosen past for me, not one I was “born with,” strictly speaking?

    But then again, it seems to me that we ought to share more responsibility for what we chose than for what we didn’t choose. Given that I prefer to live in the U.S. and would if I could (although right now, alas, I can’t; at least not in terms of physically residing there), don’t I have more of an obligation to rectify the lingering effects of slavery than toward my Jewish contemporaries?

    I was born with one past, but then I chose a different one. So which one is my true past, the one that has precedence over the other as far as my retroactive moral obligations to others? Or is it all a matter of self-identification?

    • Cyberquill, that’s a fascinating perspective on it, and obviously a very personal one to you.

      I think the key point here is that narrative is a personal thing. You don’t, I think, have a personal responsibility to Holocaust survivors, or the descendents of those dispossessed by slavery, though we, as Western nations, have public moral responsibilities towards them.

      However perhaps you do have a personal moral responsibility to understand how those phenomona relate to any specific cultural traditions you embrace. These need not be a full identification with a nationality, “I believe in America!” but if you admire certain things about America (a codified constitution, seperation of powers, freedom of speech, for example) I think it’s fair to say you have a responsibility to understand how those things either enabled or didn’t prevent slavery. The responsibility is to temper the positive aspects of your narrative with the negative. This is really just basic intellectual honesty, which to judge from the clarity of thought in your post you seem to have in spades.

    • Of course. Intellectual honesty and understanding how and why things happened the way they did is always good, mainly for the sake of being in a better position to help prevent history from repeating itself when it comes to its more unflattering episodes.

      But according to the lecturer in the clip, Alexander MacIntyre diagnosed us with “historical amnesia” if we abdicate our moral responsibility for the actions of our ancestors, as if I’d somehow “forgotten” about World War Two and the Holocaust if I don’t see myself as sharing responsibility for those tragedies on account of my not having been born yet (or about slavery, in case my chosen past overrides my given one in the responsibility department).

    • Those deep thoughts by Cyberquill lead us down that long path of reasoning and emoting. What does count as a narrative of self? What are communities, those of choice and those of birth? What is an individual within them.

      It can get very personal, very intimate.

    • I’m no MacIntyre expert but the impression I got from the lecture was a concept of “collective guilt” or responsibility and I had the same reaction as Peter. The example that came to my mind is that of a gay person who lives in a country where homosexuality is punishable by death.

      Makes for an interesting set of interlocking and hierarchical communities.

    • It shows you that nothing is as simple as one thinks in one’s youth (as I did). Neither the “individualism” of liberals, nor the communitarianism of MacIntyre. Each side of everything contains its own negation/contradiction/absurdity.

      As I ponder this, so far, I’ve concluded only that I need to bring more humility to ANY philosophical predisposition.

      Which is another way of saying that I must be getting old. If you want a fresh blogger, find one and let me know… 😉

    • “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in seven years.”

  3. Andreas,

    Thanks for another excellent post. You seem to have the perfect mix for a blogger – someone seems to think the same kind of things I do, but someone who is far more insightful than I am, and takes those ideas much further.

    Still, here are my thoughts on this post. I’ve redrafted this several times, but apologies that it’s still a bit long.

    I wonder if community is a perception, not a reality. Whether it is nothing more solid than a pattern of behaviour that may never repeat itself and therefore, essentially, individualist.

    Let me try to expand on that. Who we regard as part of our community is not, usually, a conscious decision. It is about who we notice sharing characteristics with us – from the person who goes to our church, though we never exchange a word, to the person who gets on the train three stations after us in the morning, always carrying a cup of coffee we drink, and reading the same kind of books we read.

    Community is also essentially individualist. I may regard myself as part of a religious community, but no-one else in the community will exactly share my understanding of what that community means. Some may not regard me as part of that community; others may regard themselves as part of it, though I do not. In this sense this decision making is instinctive and intuitive, not a result of, for example, explicit doctrinal disagreements.

    For example I may, for work reasons, attend religious services at a particular church only every other week, while someone else for unrelated reasons of his own does the same, If our attendance never (or rarely) coincides we will each consider ourselves part of that church community, but if we pass each other walking down the street neither will recognise the other as part of the community.

    I may regard the person on the train who buys the same coffee as me and reads the same books as part of my community, but if by the time she gets on the train I’ve finished my coffee, and if I read a paper rather than a book in the morning, she won’t feel the same about me. If, for example, she sees me read The Times every morning, while she prefers the Guardian (though I never see her read it), she may even come to see me as affirmatively outside her community.

    Communities, therefore, are our source of narrative and therefore key to our identity. But they’re also fundamentally individual perceptions (one could say individual delusions). It’s not some objective thing that binds a certain group of people together, it’s just something about the way I look at you.

    *Personal* decisions can (and inevitably will) be made on narrative grounds, inspired by what we perceive as our community, but as long as each of those perceptions is essentially individual it is right that on a *public* scale we make decisions that have regard only for individuals, not for what they believe is their community.

    Thanks again,


    • Great thinking, Tom.

      Community is a slippery term, isn’t it? I’ve long thought that, and even dedicated one post to that.

      But I’m guessing that it is less voluntary/choice-based/free-will-ish than the example of your coffee-loving train rider suggests. Perhaps it has to do with a shared fate of some sort, and a non-voluntary membership than can be oppressive as well as liberating.

      Let’s say you’re in the “Zoroastrian community”. Is that a support network? An obligation? An identity? A burden?

      Or, somewhat more voluntarily but not wholly so, you might be in the “XXX School community”. As it happens, being primarily a parent these days, the community of kids and parents that forms at the beginning of each school year seems to be the most important in daily life. But the more distant/abstract communities (heritage etc) seem to have the stronger grasp on my identity.

      All very confusing.

  4. Cyberquill – apologies, I haven’t seen the clip yet, so I should probably refrain from commenting.

    That certainly seems like an intense definition of cultural responsibility, and not one I can easily agree with, but I’ll think more about it after I’ve watched the video.

  5. As a devoted non-dualist I don’t see any contradiction between the two poles but rather the possibility of mutual support that allows each of these points of view to continue to evolve and grow in relation to each other. If my community becomes pathological/dysfunctional, as an individual, I can critique it from within, or chose to expand to another more compassionate/encompassing view. Or, in my choices of individual self expression, I begin to notice a negative effect on the community, I can alter my choices to better integrate my actions with the larger needs of the community. In a healthy system, there is an ebb and flow back and forth between individualism and collectivism. In an unhealthy system, we get stuck (dukha) in one or the other and refuse to allow the complimentary energy to emerge. Clare Graves’ ‘Spiral Dynamics” model of the forces that drive evolution in individual/social systems, now expanded upon by Don Beck, offers a fascinating perspective on the possibilities or social transformation. In this model, evolution emerges as the oscillation between the needs of the individual to break free of the collective and the needs of the collective to establish stability and cooperative support.

    • Andreas, you may also appreciate Patanjali’s YS II-48, (with the deepening of somatic insight) one is no longer confused by the polarities of existence (but sees them as the source of harmony in the world of form)

  6. Just how far does this corporate conscience extend? The Indian Mutiny? Herod the Great? The Slave Trade? Vlad the Impaler?

    No – The historical accident of when or where atrocities originate is of no significance. In fact there is danger in imposing a sense of guilt where none should exist.

    There are lessons to be learned, of course, and a sense of shame, too, but these relate to ourselves as members of the human race as a whole.

    • Just to punctuate that with a historical anecdote:

      Both Philip and Alexander (later “the Great”) intended to invade Persia as heads of a pan-Hellenic force in order, ostensibly, to AVENGE the preceding invasion of Greece by Persia.

      That precedent to be avenged had taken place, wait for it, …. 156 years earlier.

      Got that?

      So, just to recap, two Macedonians see it in their interest to be certified as Greeks, ie to assume the identity they prefer, and to pursue their goals (to be heroes like Alexander’s ancestor Achilles), so they don the collective memory of the “community” they are trying to join and enlist, as though that memory were their own.

    • Got it! Thanks 🙂

      As compelling as your example(s) is/are the tile(s) is/are still part of the mosaic.

      What we speak of here is the extent to which a sense of individual right and wrong is in conflict or accord with its social environment and how much that sense, in truth, is attributable to conditioning.

      Do our protagonists act in accordance with their own individual consciences or ambitions? Or does father influence son or is it the result of tutoring? Or is there a perception of popular appeal or pioneering leadership? Is the setting a Macedonian one or a global one?

      One cannot become fixated on the notion of a collective unconscious as an explanation for all things.

      With respect, I was careful to avoid any reference to the passage of time or any chronology in my comment.

  7. Uh oh. That’s worrying. I would say “speak up, people, if you’re not getting these posts” but then of course how would you know that you’re not getting these posts if you’re expecting them to show up in your inbox?

    How post-modern. Must find glass of wine…

  8. Amazing. Jenny — she with sprezzatura — has just alerted me that I have some egregious typos in this post’s title. In the title!!

    And neither I nor anybody else has noticed this for 10 days.

    What does that say about me, and about blogging? Man, I’ve gotta start proof-reading my own drivel.

    But, nowadays, to edit a title would be to break the tweets and shares, which would be mean, so let my typo title stand forever in infamy.

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