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JMP Discussion of Helena de Bres’ “Narrative and Meaning in Life”

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!

  1. 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!



15 Responses to JMP Discussion of Helena de Bres’ “Narrative and Meaning in Life”

  1. Dong-yong Choi says:

    I appreciate the invitation to this discussion. Thank you again, Teresa.

    Before I mention some thoughts about Helena Bres’s paper “Narrative and Meaning in Life”, let me briefly summarize it. What makes our lives meaningful? Bres says that two facts about an agent’s life make the life meaningful. According to her, the fact that people understand why an agent has performed certain actions through her life contributes to the life’s meaningfulness (the agent’s understanding of her life also makes the life meaningful). Moreover, Bres says that the fact that an agent has companionship, cooperation, solidarity, and love in her life also makes her life meaningful.

    After she makes the claims above, Bres explains why an agent’s storytelling about her life is important to make the life meaningful. Bres says that an agent’s storytelling is important since the story makes the life understandable to the agent or other agents; and the story helps the agent to have companionship, cooperation, solidarity, and love with other agents who have similar life-stories.

    I have two thoughts about Bres’s theory: Fitting Story.

    First, I am not sure whether the mere fact that my life is understood by other agents makes my life meaningful. I think it is important for me to understand why I have performed certain actions through my life since I am the author of my life. In other words, I think the fact that my life is intelligible to me contributes to my life’s meaningfulness because I am the one who lives my life. But I do not think the mere fact that other people have understandings of my life makes my life meaningful. I think whether people understand what I have done is irrelevant to my life’s meaningfulness unless their understandings help them to live meaningful lives or make them have good relationships with me. For instance, I think the mere fact that FACEBOOK users understand my life does make my life meaningful unless my life story causes any change in their life and my relationships with them.

    Second, Fitting Story has the problem that recountism has. Bres says that recountism is problematic since recountism implies that an agent’s storytelling makes her life meaningful even in the case where the story is not true. I think Fitting Story has the same implication. Bres says that the fact that an agent has solidarity with other agents makes her life meaningful. Moreover, she claims that an agent’s storytelling is helpful to make her life meaningful since other agents, who have similar life-stories with the agent, would form solidarity with her. If this is the case, then I think an agent can make her life meaningful by making a fake life-story. An agent can have solidarity with people and hence make her life meaningful by making a fake life-story which lots of people share.


  2. Brad Cokelet says:

    Glad to join the discussion of this paper! I share Antti’s enthusiasm for the distinction you draw between relational and recounting views and I admire the way that your paper brings up new issues. I’m interested to see you dig a bit more into filled out cases and types of narratives. Here is an objection to motivate that.

    Let’s grant that you are right and that in some cases self-understanding and communal intelligibility ground (increased) meaning; let’s assume that in some cases self-understanding and communal intelligibility are not *just* prudentially and epistemically valuable because in some cases they also, or instead, contribute, to “a meaningful life — a life of depth, purpose, and superlative value,” which merits pro-attitudes such as love or pride.

    I doubt that the self-understanding and communal intelligibility generated by narrative recounting will *always* make a life more meaningful in the relevant sense (however we cash that out in a theory of meaningfulness).

    Take cases in which people recount their lives and discover for the first time that these are tragic or ironic. Before they thought things over they did not understand the structure of their lives – perhaps they were unreflective or perhaps pervious cultural norms blocked self-understanding. Later, they do understand their tragic or ironic lives better and this understanding is reflected in communal recognition, for example in the emotional response of friends and family (e.g. pity for the person whose life is tragic).

    I don’t think this makes the life of the person more meaningful (deep, purposive, meriting of love, or what have you). I have even stronger doubts about cases of ironic lives, which you say feature “the triumph of chaos”, but let’s focus on tragedy.

    In case it will help, here is a sample case of a type I take to be relatively common.

    Imagine someone who is emotionally mistreated growing up and who emerges in adulthood with unresolved emotional issues. In early adulthood, he mistreats many other people, and this mistreatment is largely explained by the emotional problems he found himself with as he entered adulthood. At mid-life, he goes into therapy, understands his issues a bit better and aims to improve. In his 40s, he believes he has succeeded. He thinks he has worked though his issues and become a better person. But this is false, wishful thinking.

    Now consider two possible “third acts”:

    (Be Here Now) In the later chapters of his life, our subject falls in love with new age books that recommend less evaluative reflection. He works to focus on enjoying the present as best he can and becomes increasingly unreflective about his life as a whole. He is socially isolated and there is no one else motivated to think about his life either.

    (Understanding) In the later chapters of his life, our hero finds a way to look back accurately and honestly; he realizes that he never changed. He failed to worked through or leave behind the issues he had in early adulthood and he continued to mistreat others as a result. This fitting narrative recounting leaves him depressed because he now sees that his life centrally involves a failed attempt to become a good person. At his wake, his friends express pity for a man who never overcame his flaws and who never realized his dream to redeem, or make up for, the harm he caused others in early adulthood.

    Am I right in thinking that you hold that the life in Understanding is more full of “depth, purpose, and superlative value” (or in some other sense more meaningful) than the life in Be Here Now? Generally, am I right that you think tragic and ironic lives become more meaningful when they are recounted?

    If so, I wonder what more you can say about depth, purpose, superlative value, and understanding to support your view.

    For what it is worth, here is a response that pops to mind as promising: Admit that Understanding is not more full of “depth, purpose, and superlative value”, but argue that it *is* less pitiful or depressing (from our point of view) than the the life in Be Here Now. The difference in pitifulness is evidence that Understanding is a more lovable life. Finally, you could hold that Understanding is more meaningful than Be Here Now by holding that degree of meaning tracks something like degree of merit for love but not always “depth, purpose, and superlative value”.

    Another option is to say that only some kinds of narratives generate meaning in lives when they are recounted.

  3. Aaron Smuts says:

    There’s lots to think about here. I enjoyed reading the paper and the response. I have a few questions. Here’s one:

    I have a concern similar to Brad’s worry about tragic or ironic lives. I’m mainly concerned with lives that we would pre-theoretically think of as meaningless.

    Someone living a meaningless life could come to understand that their life is indeed meaningless via recounting their life’s story. Say that I discover that some past defeat caused me to withdraw. The remainder of my life was spend in either a flat or downward trajectory. I eventually became a misanthropic alcoholic who makes everyone around me miserable . . . I recount my life and come to understand what happened and why. Totally depressed at this point, I decide to commit suicide. . . .

    Would the recounting have really added any value? Would my life be more meaningful for having recounted my awful story, coming to a realization that lead me to take my own life? There’s something odd about that implication (even if you omit the suicide).

    I’m kind of sympathetic to the idea that self-understand can improve a life in some ways. (I’ve defended that view in relation to sad songs. . . .) But I’m not so confident in the idea that it makes them more meaningful. It seems good that I learn this. Instrumentally, bad, perhaps, but intrinsically good. More meaningful? I dunno. . . .

    Either way, if this scenario is possible, then it seems that it’s what one discovers here, not the discovery that determines the meaning. This is just a more general worry about the nature of the project. I hunger for a more general theory of meaning that would explain why understanding contributes. . . .

  4. I like very much the paper and I appreciate its efforts to offer a very well-balanced view of narrativity and its possible contribution to happiness, well-being or at least to the worth of a life.

    One preliminary problem for me concerns the assertion on p. 547 that « meaningfulness is distinct from a narrow (hedonistic or desire-based) conception of happiness ». Though de Bres declares that there is at least a « core of agreement » on that point, I for one am unconvinced. It seems to me that the very fact that we complain that our lives are meaningless in situation of depression which are certainly hedonically negative and in situations of important failure indicates a possible link either with pleasure or with desire-satisfaction. Even people who pretend to be happy and who « have everything » but who suddenly discover that all this is meaningless are generally saying thereby, or so it seems to me, that there are other much more important things to experience or to desire than those they have or have pursued.

    Also, the paper takes it that understanding and community contributes to a meaningfulness. But I am unconvinced. As it has been commented by Brad Cokelet, it seems that meaningfulness and undestanding + community could be completely disconnected. Suppose I experience my life as meaningless. I have been making lots of efforts in vain. My life is in fact this true story that I can tell as a story and I share it with friends. In what sense, my life is becoming more meaningful because I see it as meaningless ? Someone might told me that at least, I know it. But then I would answer « what do I gain ? Are you making fun of me ? »
    I suppose an objectivist about meaningfulness could argue that my life is nevertheless meaningful, and that I am mistaken. But that sounds a strange move. It seems to me that in the case at hand, the life should be seen by objectivists as objectively a failure. And my understanding of this failure is unable to redeem it even in part. Maybe it has even less meaning.
    Plausibly, understanding how my life has been such a failure could be a good step, maybe a necessary step, for change. But it seems inappropriate to say that it brings some good, except in the trivial possible instrumental sense or also in the trivial sense that all knowledge could be seen as an epistemic good.
    At the end of the paper, it seems that de Bres is finally defending something close. In that is the case, I would agree. But wouldn’t that be too weak a thesis?

  5. Kirsten Egerstrom says:

    Great paper. Great theoretical distinctions (e.g., recountists vs. relationists).

    Helena de Bres characterizes relationism as follows: “the holding of certain causal relations among parts of a life contributes to the meaningfulness of that life” (549). And, she takes Antti Kauppinen as defending a version of this view in a series of papers.

    De Bres states that “although Kauppinen’s proposal is phrased in terms of ‘narrative’, actual stories do no substantive work in his account . . . A life is meaningful by virtue of exhibiting certain structural features, even if no story, drawing explicit connections between the parts of that life, is ever woven about it” (550).

    Kauppinen makes it clear in his “Critical Précis” that a life can be intelligible – i.e. “the things I do hang together in some way that makes my life intelligible” – whether a person actively tells a life story to make it intelligible to herself or not. In contrast, de Bres argues that we add meaning to our lives in the (true) telling/constructing of our life stories.

    I am sympathetic to de Bres’s criticisms of Kauppinen’s relational view. I recently re-watched the 2000 film, Memento. In it, the character Leonard is on a quest to avenge his wife’s murder (not giving away any spoilers). However, during this quest, Leonard is suffering from severe short-term memory loss. He has memories from before his and his wife’s assault but loses his short-term memories about every 10 minutes.

    For those who have seen the film, it seems to me that though Leonard’s life could be analyzed objectively in terms of a “series of extended episodes or chapters, each of which involves the creative and demanding exercise of a person’s capacities in the service of a variety of worthwhile aims” (i.e. Kaupinnen’s view), the fact that Leonard’s condition regularly precludes his telling of an intelligible narrative of his own life arguably diminishes the meaningfulness of his life.

    On a different note, de Bres suggests that “intelligibility is a backward-looking, not a forward-looking concern” (568). On this point I would disagree. In her article, “Personal Identity and the Unity of Agency,” Christine Korsgaard’s agency theory of personal identity may have implications for meaningful living. According to Korsgaard, “to the extent that you regulate your choices by identifying yourself as the one who is implementing something like a particular plan of life, you need to identify with your future in order to be what you are even now.” Could it be that finding meaning in the present is contingent on one’s ability to project one’s self into the future, rather than make intelligible one’s past?

  6. Guy Bar Sadeh says:

    Hi everyone, and thanks for the invite, Teresa and Travis 🙂

    I really enjoyed this thought provoking paper. Like some of the other commentators, I don’t see how making my life more intelligible necessarily makes my life more meaningful in the evaluative sense.

    But, perhaps making my life more intelligible could sometimes make my life more meaningful in the evaluative sense?

    For example, I can be open minded about the possibility, that if I live a life very high on evaluative meaningfulness, then telling a true and proper story about my life could actually enhance my life’s meaningfulness.
    Truth be told – I’m not sure if this is correct. But at least, it doesn’t strike me as a non-starter. And perhaps, there’s some component x in a life that “permits” some extra meaningfulness via the telling of an adequate story? or perhaps, intelligibility serves as an amplifier – it provides you with some extra meaning when you have lots of it, and it detract some meaning when your short of it.
    Anyway, great paper – thank you for the discussion!

  7. Hello everyone! I’m grateful to Teresa and Travis for organizing this discussion, and to those who have taken the time to comment. I’m especially happy to have Antti as a discussant. Though I disagree with Antti’s position, as discussed in my paper, I find his work on this question (and others) consistently illuminating, as well as a pleasure to read. It was coming across Antti’s work on narrative and meaning that helped me to see this topic as a viable and rich subject of philosophical discussion: I might not have written the paper, were it not for him. So thank you very much, Antti! As a token of my appreciation, I’m going to try to spell your name correctly in the future.

    Response to Antti

    Thanks also for the substance of your response, Antti, which I found both generous and clarifying. I appreciate you pointing out that in principle relationists and recountists could be friends, and wish I’d emphasized that in the paper. I’m not surprised, though, that you continue to not want to be friends (on this particular matter!) and neither (convivially!) do I.

    Maybe a little personal background on the motivation for this paper will be helpful. I started doing creative writing a few years back, first some (embarrassingly) autobiographical fiction, then some personal essays. Both involved narrating parts of my life to myself and then sharing the result with others—first only friends, then strangers in creative writing workshops or in print. Because meaningfulness is generally thought to be a good and admirable thing, one risks sounding arrogant if one claims that one feels one’s life has recently become significantly more meaningful. But, well, whatever, I do feel that way, and my move into (more intense and sustained) personal narrative has been the main cause. I’ve found this to be a common experience among the other writers of creative nonfiction that I’ve met over the past few years. I wrote this paper because I wanted to think about what might explain my sense that personal narrative and meaningful lives were connected: to work out whether my increased sense of meaningfulness was tracking anything genuine.

    Of course, as your comments suggest, another explanation for why my life felt and/or became more meaningful as a result of self-life writing is that I was (semi-)successfully performing a valuable activity. Just as boat-building can make a life more meaningful, so can crafting a good story or essay. I’m sure this was part of it, but I nonetheless felt that there was something about the act of life narration in particular that added something beyond that (and something that didn’t in fact require the literary act of putting words to paper.) I think that the account I arrived at in writing my paper identifies what that extra thing is. Life narration, for many of us, writers or not, when done well, is a very effective means of attaining understanding of oneself, as well as of attaining a form of community with others that is based on that same understanding. But, as I try to emphasize toward the end of my paper, life narration is certainly not the only thing that leads to understanding or community (let alone the only thing that confers meaning on a life.)

    For this reason, I’m fine with saying that Daisy (in your modified example) has as meaningful a life as her twin Clover, though she gets her self-understanding and community from meditation and volunteering rather than life narration. On my view, the relationship of narrative to meaning is purely instrumental: if other things get Daisy to the goal, good for her. I acknowledge (page 570) the potential concern that this is an overly deflationary account of why narrative matters for someone who describes herself as a narrativist. But I think it in fact vindicates my sense of why narrative is indeed so important, for at least many of us—a sense that I couldn’t vindicate via the existing views in the literature, including your own, which still—in a spirit of friendliness!—doesn’t convince me.

    I take it that you agree with one of the central claims I make—that self-life narration can produce understanding and community—but disagree that it can produce meaning. “A story of the right kind achieves an epistemic good. But meaning was there already, or wasn’t.” My claim is that the achievement of that epistemic good is a meaning-conferring feature (again, one among others). So I have a differing intuition about your deathbed case: I do think that a genuine deathbed understanding of what one’s life has been about, for instance of the kind that Ivan Ilyich attains, increases the meaningfulness of that life. Maybe, it might be said, it doesn’t amount to a huge increase, since it doesn’t last very long, and is too late to constitute a settled feature of the person’s life—but it’s something. In fact, I have the strong sense that it’s in fact not just something, but something quite important, meaning-wise. Personally, I think I’d sacrifice a good few years of other meaning-conferring activities to get it.

    Thanks so much again for the comments. I’ll move on to the others shortly!

  8. Really enjoyed this delightful paper and it’s lucid distinctions. Thank you, Teresa and Travis and Pea Soup, for inviting me to this lively discussion.

    I’m with Antti that the Clover and Daisy case is unpersuasive, for the same reasons – we can acknowledge that self-narrative is a good source of the goods of intelligibility and community, and so all we need to do in the example to make other things equal is to “top up” Daisy’s life with some additional community and intelligibility goods, so they truly are equal. I don’t have the intuition that one is better in this respect at all. What this reinforces is that narrative is merely instrumental for meaning or for some dimensions of it. Now I see from the above comment by the author that this is indeed de Bres’s view. Indeed, quite deflationary – but not in a bad way: I would have thought that the deflationary point is much more interesting than the attempting to package it as a new view. Since many people are drawn to the idea that narrative matters pro tanto for meaning, it’s really quite interesting to hold the view that it doesn’t, and is merely instrumental. I’m now a bit unclear as to precisely what the view is regarding the relation between narrative and meaning – are all stories instrumentally valuable for meaning, necessarily? Or only sometimes? If it’s merely instrumental, shouldn’t we be focusing on the true constinuents of meaning in our philosophizing?

    I was also struck by similar thoughts as Brad Cokelet and Aaron Smuts, above, about tragic or meaningless narratives now embuing meaning. I would love to hear a response from the author and other proponents of narrative views how to accommodate this. Now that I see that de Bres’s view is best understood as narrative or intelligibility as merely instrumental for meaning, perhaps the best response for this type of view is to hold that only some narratives enable meaning. Or perhaps meaning can be found in bad things. But this is in tension with the characterizations of meaning given in the paper (as purpose and enduring value, etc.).

  9. Helena de Bres says:

    Thanks again to everyone for all these very thoughtful comments! I’m really grateful for the care you’ve taken in reading and responding to my paper.

    I’ll start by addressing a recurring theme of several of the comments so far. Brad raises the case of a guy who belatedly understands, as a result of recounting his life story, that he’s been mistreating people for years due to his own childhood trauma and has, moreover, been systematically deceiving himself about that fact. Aaron raises a similar case, in which someone understands through narrative self-reflection that his life has been in permanent decline for years. Both Brad’s guy and Aaron’s guy become profoundly depressed as a result; Aaron’s commits suicide.  

    Both cases are designed to do two things: get me to clarify my view, and put some pressure on my presumed answer to it. Do I believe that these very unfortunate guys’ lives have increased in meaningfulness by virtue of their gains in understanding—that both lives have more “depth, purpose and superlative value” than they did before the realization? (Do I judge the resulting lives as more meaningful than the alternative possible lives in which the guys are unreflective about their lives and relatively cheery as a result?) And if I do believe that—surely I shouldn’t?

    My answer is that, yes, according to my view, each life is pro tanto more meaningful as a result of the understanding achieved. And—maybe I’m in the minority here!—I don’t find that implication implausible. Though there are dangers in drawing too much from literary cases of self-life narration, which may have distinctive features as compared to everyday, non-written cases, I find what memoirists say about this sort of thing compelling. The act of writing an honest memoir is often profoundly depressing. This isn’t only because the writer generally has to relive some painful experiences in his or her past. If the memoir is any good, the writer also has to recognize his or her role in generating or perpetuating those experiences, and his or her lengthy history of self-deception about them, including during the writing of the book. Many contemporary memoirs are all about the author coming to progressively realize some nasty facts about themselves that they’d tried to suppress for years. Sometimes this results in a happy narrative arc where the writer uses this new-found revelation to make amends, start anew, achieve redemption, etc etc.  But in other cases, the more interesting ones, it doesn’t. The narrative reveals the life as tragic, in just the ways Brad and Aaron’s examples suggest, and the writer goes on being depressed about it, possibly more depressed than they were before they wrote the book. Still, memoirists and personal essayists, even of this stripe, don’t generally regret writing their books, and they keep writing more of them. Why?

    At least part of the story has to be the sense of clarity one gets from a deep understanding of oneself and one’s situation. That’s what memoirists report, anyway, and what their readers often see right there on the page as the book wraps up. It’s like what they say about the early years of raising children, I guess—most parents report a happiness hit, but a meaningfulness gain. Maybe, if one’s life is tragic, it’s better on balance to not reflect on it, since doing so might make one feel worse. But I can’t help thinking that a different kind of tragedy—a tragedy of meaning–occurs when one goes to one’s grave in a kind of dream, not ever realizing how tragic one’s life really was. (What a downer of a subject for a Saturday evening.)

    A general question these cases raise (and one that Antti raised toward the end of his comments, too) is what exactly meaningfulness amounts to— where that’s a question not about the constituents of meaning, but about the concept of meaning. What makes a life not just good (or better) in certain respects, but meaningful in particular? I freely admit that that question wasn’t answered in my paper: I tried to bracket it, partly out of a desire not to take too much on, partly (to be fully honest!) because I don’t have a settled view about it. As I say on p. 560, I do think that two of the more plausible accounts of the concept of meaningfulness in the literature (Kauppinen’s and Metz’s) seem to me to justify including self-understanding of the kind I’m talking about as a constituent. But yes, I understand the response that what I focus on in this paper is, if anything, merely a good-making feature, not a meaning-making feature, and I want to think more about how to defend my intuition that that isn’t so.

    I do want to resist Brad’s suggestion (and possibly Guy’s) that I might restrict my view so that only narratives that describe non-tragic lives generate meaning when recounted. On my view there are indeed some constraints on which stories (or storytelling acts) confer meaning: the stories have to be true, and they have to make the life (or part of it) genuinely intelligible to the teller. (I guess it’s possible to tell yourself a true story about your own life but not really understand it). But beyond that, I don’t think the content of the story determines whether or not it confers meaning. It’s the resulting understanding that’s doing the meaningfulness job, and we can understand terrible as well as wonderful things.

    I hope that helps clarify a few things. I’m aware I haven’t responded to everyone yet, but will check back in tomorrow morning!

  10. I don’t know what are the implicit rules in the discussion, but I take advantage of my ignorance of them to pursue a bit the question raised by Brad and Aaron. I also take advantage from being in Europe to write my thoughts during americans’s sleep.

    Helena responds to Eric and Aaron by defending that telling oneself one’s tragic story could provide meaning in some evaluative sense. I have suggested that it is in a trivial sense an epistemic good and that it may have numerous instrumental goods. Can it be argued that it has intrinsic good beyond that ?
    Helena makes her case relying on memoirists and writters to suggest that at least telling one’s tragic story provide some intrinsic good. But I would like to make a series of alternative suggestions some of which are linked to the community element. One good in telling one’s story under the form of a book, even if not an edited book, or even simply in writting it down, is that it is a kind of achievement of which one can gain some pride. We may think that our life of failure is at least partly redeemed through this final work, or maybe from our bold ability to face the truth. There are also several instrumental goods gained from communicating one’s life story or even from the though that this story could be communicated. One is gaining empathy, attention or love. Another, even if one has been a bad person, is to offer justification, excuses or to confess one’s fault and maybe to make some first step towards amendments, something that can lead to— or at least the hope of — reconciliation.
    All these very plausible consequences seem to me to make it very hard to claim that there is some intrinsic good in the fitting story itself insofar as it cannot be separated from all the instrumental goods that I have listed above. And since all these instrumental goods cannot be excluded (especially because one may gain some good from merely the hope to enjoy them), the idea that there is here an intrinsic good can hardly be seen as the default view.
    So an alternative proposal to Helena de Bres could be that telling one’s story will always but for instrumental reasons makes a life more meaningful, where the meaning of life itself will not be in the one’s recounted story but in its contribution to the real constituents of a meaningful life which are one’s projects, achievements, friends, etc. Although slightly different from Helena’s view, it will take on board most of what seems to me illuminating in the paper.

  11. Guy Bar Sadeh says:

    Hi Helena, I’m interested in your feedback regarding the following –

    Do you think it’s possible for someone to tell two conflicting stories about his life, which are both true and properly narrated? And if that’s possible – Do you think it’s also possible for one of those stories to exemplify a life full of meaning, and for the other story to exemplify the exact opposite – a life very very low on meaning (or a life with negative meaning, if that’s coherent)?

    If you think this is possible, and if I understood your theory correctly, then I think you would want to say that, insofar as both of the stories are equally true and proper, and insofar they equally support understanding and community, then they promote meaningfulness in exactly the same way. (although their impact on well-being might be different)
    Have I got this right?
    I’m not saying that I think this is obviously false… 🙂 Both stories might increase understanding and community in exactly the same way, but I do have a feeling that a true and proper story that exemplify a life full of meaning further boosts or increase meaning, in comparison with a story that exemplify a life very very low on meaning.
    But I’m not sure if this is correct or not. I have very little intuitions about this matter.

  12. Helena de Bres says:

    Hi again,

    There’s a lot to reply to here! I’d like to think more about many of the interesting questions and suggestions raised, but here’s my first go at some replies.

    Reply to Dong-Yong

    Dong-Yong doubts whether the mere fact that one’s life is understood by other agents could make one’s life meaningful. He suggests that it’s only when such understanding results in an improved relationship with the person who is understood that that person’s life increases in meaning. 

    Whether or not this amounts to a real disagreement between us depends on what sort of relationship Dong-Yong has in mind. My view is that self-understanding matters intrinsically for meaning, but that the understanding of others matters only insofar as it results in what I call “community”: a reduction in the isolation built into the human condition, or, more positively, a sharing of values or perspectives with other humans. As I suggest in the paper, I think we can attain this sort of community via relatively arms-length or abstract relationships: between, say, authors and readers, or even between storytellers and hypothetical audiences. (I’m not sure that Facebook “friends” are going to count, though, as in the purported counter-example Dong-Yong offers: Facebook doesn’t provide much of a forum for genuinely understanding-conducive life storytelling.) I suspect that Dong-Yong thinks that the understanding of others is only meaning-conferring in more intimate interpersonal relationships than these. If so, that’s a real disagreement, but I stand my ground!

    Dong-Yong also suggests that my Fitting Story account faces the same objection that I raised against Agency-recountism. If all that matters for meaning is solidarity/community with others, doesn’t my account imply (counter-intuitively) that a person could make her life more meaningful by telling a fake life-story, provided that that story appealed to her audience?  Here I’ll just reiterate what I said on p.565-567 of the paper. What matters for meaning on my view isn’t just a sense of solidarity/community, but real solidarity/community. “According to Fitting Story, life narration confers meaning only when it results in genuine understanding in oneself and others, which requires the telling of a true, rather than false, life story.” 

    Reply to Stephane

    Stephane doubts my claim that « meaningfulness is distinct from a narrow (hedonistic or desire-based) conception of happiness » and offers as evidence against it that those who complain of meaningless lives are generally low in pleasure and/or have failed in their important aims. I accept there’s often a correlation, but I’m not persuaded that it shows that meaning simply reduces to pleasure or desire-satisfaction. Though phenomenological reports aren’t decisive on the philosophical question, a suggestive psychological study came out in 2013 that shows that people’s self-assessments of happiness and meaningfulness tend to vary independently. (Roy F. Baumeister et al., ‘Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life,’ Journal of Positive Psychology 8 (2013)).

    It might also help here to note that to say that « meaningfulness is distinct from a narrow (hedonistic or desire-based) conception of happiness » isn’t to say that meaning has no subjective component at all. I’m inclined toward Susan Wolf’s view, according to which “engagement”(a.k.a. love, caring, intense interest, excitement, commitment) is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition of a meaningful life.  This doesn’t reduce to a hedonistic or desire-satisfaction approach, because, as Wolf and Harry Frankfurt (in “The Reasons of Love”) have both argued, loving or caring about something is importantly distinct from taking pleasure in it or desiring it.

    I appreciate Stephane’s suggestions, in his second comment, about the various ways, other than the one I pressed in my reply yesterday, in which writing one’s life story might increase the meaningfulness of one’s life. He’s surely right: there’s a lot of value floating around in these cases (which is presumably why many people, professional writers or not, find writing personal narratives so fulfilling). This fact poses an argumentative difficulty for me: it’s always open to someone, like Stephane, to claim that the aura of value in these cases can be satisfactorily explained by things other than the one I’m keen to highlight. What can I say to support my conviction that, in addition to the meaning-related goods of achievement, empathy, attention, love, reconciliation, etc. that self-life writing can produce, the author also gets a meaning boost directly from the fact of attaining self-understanding? 

    One thing that seems relevant here is that serious personal narrators don’t seem to (only) want achievement, empathy, attention, love and reconciliation. They also want to get their story right, and they take great pains to do that. In some cases, this desire to tell the truth works against these other goals.  In his insightful and moving essay, “Return to Sender”, Mark Doty describes how writing his memoir Firebird (about growing up as a gay kid in a troubled family in the mid-century South) permanently alienated him from his father.  


    Doty says in the essay that he’d had some hope while writing his memoir that it would result in the empathy and love he’d long sought from his father, but he wasn’t willing to compromise on the truth in order to achieve that aim. If all he’d wanted was a happy reunion, he would have written a very different book. I said just now that this sort of example suggests that personal narrators want understanding in addition to empathy, attention, love and reconciliation. But you might also say that it suggests that they want genuine empathy, attention, love and reconciliation: the versions of those things that are based on actual rather than fake understanding. I think they’re right to want this. My view is that it’s this kind of genuine understanding that explains the connection between narrative and meaning, even if personal narration might be beneficial in other ways, for other reasons. 

    Reply to Guy

    Guy raises the interesting question of whether it’s possible for someone to tell two conflicting stories about their life, both of which are true, and one of which recounts a life very low in meaning, the other a life very high in meaning. This reminds me of the case Connie Rosati discusses in her great paper, “The Story of A Life” (which I draw on in my paper, when articulating the “agency-recountist”position). Rosati begins her paper by citing a passage at the end of John Williams’ novel, Stoner, where the main character, William Stoner, is looking back on his life, a few moments away from death. She writes:

    “Stoner’s reflections offer two takes on his life, and a reflective reader cannot help but feel that, in some sense, both of them are true, that Stoner’s life both was and was not a failure, that he both was and was not to be pitied. One thing I think Stoner’s reflections ought to make evident is that there is more than one story of a life, and by that I mean more than one true recounting of a life.”

    Like Guy, I’m not sure what to think about this. I’m sympathetic to the idea that there can be more than one true story about a life, just as, say, there can be more than one true interpretation of a novel. I feel warier of the idea that two stories could both be true when they differ as radically as the two Guy mentions in his question.  But I don’t think I want to rule it out in principle.  And if it were the case, I don’t currently have the intuition that the story that recounts a high-meaning life would be more-meaning-conferring that the story that recounts a low-meaning life. I’d be interested to know what others felt about this, though.

    Reply to Gwen

    Gwen suggests that my account might be better presented as a rejection of narrativism rather than a new variant of it. My account does fit the definition of “narrativism” that I began the paper with, i.e. the claim that “the meaningfulness of a life is related in some way to the narrative or story that can be told about that life” (547). But I can see how one might want to define narrativism more narrowly, so that it covers only positions that accord narrative a non-instrumental role in meaning. Perhaps there’s an archaeological reason for my decision to present my view as narrativist: I started the paper thinking that I would endorse a “stronger” version of narrativism than I ended up thinking was defensible, and then talked myself down. In any case, I see Gwen’s point (which I found helpful), and am not too hung up on the labeling. But I’m inclined to stick with the broader definition and still call myself a narrativist. I do think narrative is very important (more important than many of my discussants consider it, I take it!), even if only for instrumental reasons. So I still feel the narrativists are my people.

    Finally: I like Kirsten’s suggestion about the forward-looking aspects of meaningful lives and want to think more about that!

  13. Antti Kauppinen says:

    First, thanks for your all too kind words, Helena! And apologies for not participating properly in the discussion – I’m pretty strict about not working on weekends, and today is Fathers’ Day here, to boost.

    But I do want to say a few quick things. Maybe the main thought that emerges from what you say in response to me and others is that there may be even less disagreement between us than I thought. in particular, in my view, making progress in one’s life (or remaining stuck) directly contributes to its meaningfulness, in the same sense as having positive emotions contributes to happiness. But you say that on your view storytelling is instrumental. I guess that’s something I could agree with, especially if you’re also willing to say it’s contingent whether telling a fitting story is instrumental. (It’s also not exactly clear to me how to think about instrumentality here, but that’s probably just me.)

    You’re right to suspect that my initial reaction to your account of writing autobiographical fiction (which immediately suggests that your life is much more interesting than mine!) was to think it could be assimilated to the contribution of other kinds of successful valuable activity. But… I don’t know. I share the feeling that there’s a more intimate connection. I’m sure it contributes to sense of meaning in a very different way, especially the feeling that one’s life as a whole has meaning. And it may result in future activities being linked to where you’re coming from in a more intimate way, and thus to whole-life coherence – this is one kind of instrumental contribution to objective meaning as I understand it. But you probably think there’s more to it than that.

    I actually find it pretty compelling that coming to realize that the arc of one’s life is a tragic one is a plus from the perspective of meaning, even if it’s bad overall. So I guess I find your positive thesis the more plausible the more modestly we read it. It might be that anyone holding a view like mine needs to come up with a principled way of explaining why some valuable activities can contribute to meaning out of proportion to their objective value.

  14. Helena de Bres says:

    Many thanks for the follow-up, Antti. (I have the same no-work-on-weekends policy, unless there’s a live online symposium on my own paper—so no worries, and Happy Fathers Day.)

    Now we’re in a mood of rapprochement, I’ll make the following confession. I wrote a lot of fiction as a kid and teenager, but gave it up when I turned to philosophy in college. I sometimes think that my sense that my recent turn to creative writing has made my life more meaningful is related to the fact that it’s added coherence or unity to my life. It turns out that I didn’t just ditch creative writing permanently when I became a philosopher—and in fact, maybe my becoming a philosopher has helped me to write better (in certain ways) than I would have otherwise. If so, my return to creative writing has given my life something of a progressive shape, with earlier chapters contributing progressively to later chapters….you see where this is going. To be totally clear about it: you could use me as an example of the view of yours that I reject in my paper.

    The claim in this particular case does ring true to me–though I’d still insist that the fact that I’ve been doing autobiographical writing in particular amps up the meaning contribution further, for the reasons stated in my positive account. (I’m sorry to keep making this discussion all about how meaningful my life is, but the personal example is hard to resist in this context!)

    I still worry about Progressive-relationism as a quite general thesis, for the reasons I give in the paper: a life’s having a progressive shape doesn’t seem to me to be necessary for meaning, or even to be a pro tanto meaning-conferring feature across the board. But I do feel the force of it here, so perhaps there’s a more modest formulation of the thesis that I could accept.

    Maybe we can be friends of sorts after all, then—which is a nice conclusion to a weekend’s work.

    Thanks again, everyone, for your contributions. I really appreciate it!


  15. Teresa Bruno says:

    What a great conversation! Thank you all for joining and especial thanks to Helena and Antti for their work and their kind and generous responses.

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