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Dennett and Ricoeur on the Narrative SelfReview - Dennett and Ricoeur on the Narrative Self
by Joan Mccarthy
Humanity Books, 2007
Review by Mary Jean Walker
Jun 24th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 26)

Dennett and Ricoeur on the Narrative Self gives us a careful study of the narrative account of selfhood of each philosopher. Narrative approaches to the self are presented as an alternative to traditional discussions about the self, which have tended to see it as either a substantial entity, existing separately to any particular experience that it has, or as an illusion, a mere linguistic convention. McCarthy chooses to focus on these two philosophers because they both present a narrative view of the self, yet have vastly different influences and backgrounds. McCarthy's own view, that the self can be thought of as a "culturally mediated narrative unity of action" (9), is closer to Ricoeur's.

McCarthy's introduction will be valuable reading to those already familiar with narrative ideas, but is also very clear for those new to the area. McCarthy explains the idea of narrative as a way of making things intelligible that is distinct from causal or scientific explanation. It allows a teleological kind of explanation that can get at the meaning or significance of events. She also discusses here the need for an alternative to dualist or reductionist views of the self, which she believes the narrative approach can give.

In the first three chapters McCarthy discusses Dennett's view, before spending four chapters on Ricoeur. Chapter one looks at the background to Dennett's account: his commitment to naturalism, his 'heterophenomenological method', and his views of consciousness.

In chapter two McCarthy explains Dennett's view of the self as a centre of narrative gravity. This is explained through two analogies: centers of gravity, and fictional characters. Like centers of gravity, selves are "theorist's fictions" or abstract objects. They are not 'real' in the sense that material objects are real, but they have a useful role in explanation and prediction. Like fictional characters, selves are defined by the stories told about them.

Chapter three critiques Dennett's account on three grounds. First, Dennett's focus on language leads to an overly intellectualist view. Second, Dennett's view does not explain why people need to stick to the facts in their narratives, making our knowledge of selves 'epistemologically fragile'. Lastly, it is not clear what Dennett's middle stance between the self being real and illusory really amounts to: it is 'ontologically fragile'. She argues convincingly that the heterophenomenological method, on which this depends, is not consistent.

Chapter four turns to Ricoeur's philosophical background. Unlike Dennett's naturalist stance which privileges scientific explanation, Ricoeur works from phenomenological privileging of lived experience, and hermeneutic standards of interpretation. McCarthy gives a concise explanation of these traditions. Like Dennett though, he rejects Cartesian views of consciousness. McCarthy also explains here Ricoeur's distinction between idem-identity (sameness) and ipse-identity (selfhood), which underpins his work on the self.

Chapter five moves further into Ricoeur's view, focusing on what McCarthy calls the "capable self": an agent that can act, recount and impute. She explains his views on how one's identity arises from the process of making sense of action in narrative terms.

Doing justice to hermeneutic insights about interpretation, though, makes it difficult for narrative accounts to say that some narratives--such as self-deceived narratives--are in error. Chapter six looks at how Ricoeur's account can deal with this problem, by drawing on Ricoeur's work on history and psychoanalysis.

These moves leave us however with a narrative self that is a result of arduous self-examination. This issue is discussed further in chapter seven, as the main problem for Ricoeur's account. It leads to an "essentialist drama" (223), where the notion of identity becomes infused with notions of autonomy. This self seems more a normative ideal than a boundary condition for persistence.

McCarthy concludes that though both narrative accounts face some problems, Ricoeur's view is broader. The work until this point has looked at these two narrative accounts primarily in epistemological and ontological terms; here McCarthy argues that narrative accounts of selfhood are the best ones we have in terms of methods for ethics, and suggests that this may be the most important aspect of any account of the self.

The book is aimed at an academic audience. McCarthy explains background material with admirable clarity, especially given the breadth of influences of these two philosophers, but some material--especially that on Ricoeur--may be obscure to some readers.

The contrasts between the approaches and positions of Dennett and Ricoeur are very well traced throughout the book. Some more discussion of the implications of each view, particularly implications for the traditional discussions about the self, would have been welcome, especially given that McCarthy motivates the book in terms of those discussions. What the insights of Ricoeur's approach in particular could mean to these traditional discussions could be taken much further. Indeed, at times the choice of focus in the discussion of Ricoeur is puzzling in terms of the book's motivation. For instance, the choice to focus on reflexivity and the notion of attestation does allow McCarthy to give an incisive analysis of epistemological issues surrounding his view, but more discussion of temporality or intersubjectivity, as well as the idem - ipse distinction, may have made for stronger critiques of traditional discussions of identity. That said, McCarthy's interpretation of Ricoeur's rich and complex view is compelling and valuable scholarship.

McCarthy's concluding thoughts on the narrative self and ethics also bring up many questions, and make one wish for a longer discussion of her own views. Here (as well as in her critiques of Dennett) intriguing claims are made about the practical implications of seeing the self as a narrative unity, but not much is said about the relations between our person-directed practices (ethical and otherwise), our narrative self-conception, and ontological issues. These comments are not so much critiques of the work, however, so much as a wish that it was longer. The book will be an interesting and useful read for those working on personal identity, narrative, or subjectivity.

© 2008 Mary Jean Walker

Mary Jean Walker is a PhD student at Macquarie University, Australia. She is working on personal, practical, and narrative identity.


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