Welcome to what should be a fun and insightful discussion of Helena de Bres’ “Narrative and Meaning in Life” (generously made free access by Brill Online and the Journal of Moral Philosophy for the month of November). Antti Kauppinen has kindly contributed a critical précis, which appears immediately below. Please join the discussion!
Critical Précis to Helena de Bres’ “Narrative and Meaning in Life”
By Antti Kauppinen
In her excellent paper ‘Narrative and Meaning in Life’, Helena de Bres offers a new account of why and how narrative structure contributes to the meaningfulness of a life. In the course of doing so, she makes some very helpful distinctions, which I’ll urge everyone to adopt, though, in a plot twist, I’ll also raise some worries about her recountist alternative to relationist views like mine.
A narrative, de Bres reminds us, is a particular kind of diachronic representation of a series of events, which characteristically displays connections between them, focusing on their pertinence to exercises of agency, and aims to convey their significance to an audience (3). Narrativists about meaningfulness claim that narratives, or perhaps narrative structure, contributes (in part) to the meaningfulness of a life (and not just to sense of meaningfulness). But how, and why?
According to de Bres’s neat distinction, some narrativists are relationists, who hold that it is the obtaining of certain causal relations among parts of a life that contributes (in part) to its meaningfulness. I, for example, have argued that our lives as agents consist of a succession of (often overlapping) projects, and that other things being equal, it contributes to meaningfulness if later projects build on earlier ones. Here building on the past means, for example, that later projects are more successful or have more valuable aims because of earlier ones, or fulfill aims that were left unrealized earlier. So the claim is that having a progressive structure – rather than a repetitive or disconnected or regressive one – makes a life more meaningful, other things being equal. Lives with such a structure are narratable in a certain kind of story that is apt to arouse admiration or pride, but no one need actually tell the story. (Let me add here parenthetically that it is a real pleasure to read a paper that presents one’s view as accurately and fairly as de Bres does!) De Bres rejects relationism, because she doesn’t believe that the mere existence of a causal relation between parts of a life is the sort of thing that could contribute to value or meaning (8-9). I’ll come back to this below.
The competing view is recountism, according to which it is telling stories that contributes to meaning in life. According to version inspired by Connie Rosati’s (2013) work on narrative value, which de Bres labels agency-recountism, “Telling a story about one’s life that emphasizes one’s status as an autonomous agent contributes to the meaningfulness of that life, by virtue of increasing one’s sense of agency.” (7) De Bres rejects agency-recountism, however, because it allows for false stories to make one’s life more meaningful, and because increasing sense of agency more plausibly contributes to sense of meaningfulness rather than meaning itself.
De Bres’s own view aims to offer a “a genuinely narrativist account of genuine meaningfulness” (12). On her view, narratives in general make their subject matters intelligible by providing models that select, distill, order, and unify their features. When it comes to life stories, there is a rich stock of conventions to draw on to construct them on familiar lines as narratives of, say, emancipation, adventure, decline, or redemption (13-14). In virtue of these features, narratives, insofar as they’re true, help us understand our lives, which has practical, subjective, and epistemic value. What’s more, they help others understand us, and reduce our essential isolation from others, thus enabling the good of community. She summarizes her view in the following thesis:
Fitting Story. Telling a story about one’s life that is (i) true and (ii) adheres to a set of (salient) narrative conventions, contributes to the meaningfulness of one’s life. It does so by making the life more intelligible to oneself and others, thereby enabling the goods of understanding and community.
It’s not trivial to spell out precisely how stories (in contrast to propositions) can be true – avoiding falsehoods doesn’t suffice, but the story must also, as de Bres says, represent the “central elements of the life” (18). Consequently, it concurs with relationism that causal relations between parts of a life contribute to meaning; they’re just not sufficient (19). A narrative convention is “salient”, in turn, when “it is prevalent in a community for which the narrator has an affinity” (19). In the rest of the paper, she wards off five objections to this account. To save space, I won’t go into them here, apart from the last one.
I really like this paper, but I’m not a recountist, so let me finish with a couple of reasons why I’m not convinced. First, let’s note that recountism and relationism are actually compatible with each other – since both views hold that a certain kind of narration or narratability is just one factor among many that contributes to meaningfulness, there’s nothing incoherent about holding that both contribute. Theoretically, we could all be friends!
Nevertheless, I’m not persuaded that storytelling of any kind can make a life more meaningful (except in the same sense as the successful performance of any valuable activity, like building a boat for the family). Maybe the simplest way to show this is by looking at cases that reveal how meaningfulness and fitting stories vary independently.
It is time now for me to make a surprise revelation (which may not be so surprising at the end of the day): I was one of the referees for the journal, and, among other things, raised the objection de Bres formulates with her example of the twins Clover and Daisy, whose lives only differ in that Clover is a personal narrator and Daisy is not. I suggested that Daisy’s life is no less meaningful in spite of her being the strong and silent type. De Bres says that this is a “misleading” comparison, since the twins’ lives don’t contain the same achievements and experiences: Clover’s life contains at least a little more understanding and community than Daisy’s (25). I say: let’s change that, then. Unless storytelling is necessary for self-understanding and community, there’s nothing stopping us from stipulating that their lives are just the same, except that while Clover gains self-understanding and community from telling her story to a twins support group on Sunday nights, Daisy gets her self-understanding from Buddhist meditation (it’ll be a different kind of self-understanding, to be sure) and community from volunteering on Sunday nights. I still find hard to see a difference in the meaningfulness of their lives.
Also, to vary the example, take someone whose life you think is meaningful to degree m and who does not recount an autobiographical narrative that’s true and fits the relevant conventions. Next, imagine that on her deathbed, she does go through her life in her mind. She recalls how she did a and b, and how they led to success c, and how d made sense in light of what she had done before. These facts, a, b, c, and d, and the relations among them, are the sort of things that give meaning to her life, if you ask me. Had she died before she got to think of how they all fit together, she would have missed out on a potentially fulfilling experience. But I don’t see how her life could have been any less meaningful. (Indeed, it looks to me like double-counting if it’s not just the relations but also thinking about them that contributes to meaning.)
Maybe one way to get at the issue is this. ‘Intelligible’ is a funny word. Something can be visible without being seen, and desirable without being desired. So should we really grant that telling a story about a life makes it more intelligible? We might say, instead, that it’s the fact that the things I do hang together in some way that makes my life intelligible, even though actually grasping what my life is about requires telling a (true) story. In other words, maybe intelligibility is narratability – my life as a whole can be more or less understandable, regardless of whether I actually understand it. A story of the right kind achieves an epistemic good. But meaning was there already, or wasn’t. The underlying intelligibility made it possible to tell a true story, not the other way around.
It’s worth noting that de Bres allows that some things, like enjoying a close friendship or mastering a language, can contribute to meaning independently of the subject’s attitudes (8). But why? Well, I think it’s roughly because they constitute successful exercises of agency in realizing objectively valuable aims. And I think the same goes for making progress, except that here it is our nature as temporally extended agents that is highlighted. So I believe there’s just as much reason (indeed, the same reason) to think that relations among activities spread out over time contribute to meaning without being recounted as to think that engaging in activities at particular time contributes to meaning without being recounted. Here de Bres’s talk of “causal relations among parts of a life” is apt to mislead intuitions, though technically correct. What the agency-relationist says is that, for example, causal relations among earlier efforts and later successes or failures make a difference. I agree that most causal relations between parts of a life are indeed irrelevant to meaning (that’s indeed why I don’t defend relationism in the abstract).
There’s lots more to say, but I should stop here. I’ll just flag an elephant in the room: the concept of meaningfulness. I often emphasize that our starting point in thinking about it should be the familiar kind of existential problem, for which a theory of meaningfulness must give an answer (even if it’s a pessimistic one). I think the concern about whether my life is meaningful has very little to do with whether it’s understandable or intelligible to others. But that’s for further discussion!
- Lastly, let me add a devastating and unanswerable critical point: my first name is actually spelled with two ‘t’s rather than two ‘n’s!