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  • Self-Knowledge and the Limitations of Narrative
  • Jeanette Bicknell

In this passage from his Confessions, St. Augustine recounts some youthful shenanigans: "In a garden nearby to our vineyard there was a pear tree. . . . Late one night—to which hour, according to our pestilential custom, we had kept up our street games, a group of very bad youngsters set out to shake down and rob this tree. We took great loads of fruit from it, not for our own eating, but rather to throw it to the pigs . . . . Foul was the evil, and I loved it . . . I loved my fault itself. Base in soul was I . . . ."1

Here a mature Augustine looks back on his boyhood self with recrimination and reproach. Stealing pears is not seen as an immature prank but as evidence of a base soul. Yet for all the force and gravity of his words, it is not difficult to imagine a younger Augustine, before his conversion to Christianity, light-heartedly reminiscing with friends about these very same incidents. Of these two stories—the one he tells in the Confessions and the one he might have told—which provides a more accurate portrayal of Augustine's boyhood soul? Which is closer to the truth?

Narrative and personal identity would seem to be inextricably bound.2 Telling stories or imposing a narrative coherence on events is one of the main ways in which we make sense of our experience. We also get to know others by listening to their stories, thus learning the narrative coherence they have placed on events in their own lives. Over the course of a lifetime stories may change. Characters first dismissed as "bit players" may gain importance. Gestures or words earlier thought to [End Page 406] be unimportant may, in retrospect, take on greater significance. With time and reflection one's past may be re-interpreted as displaying error, alienation or ignorance. A cataclysmic religious conversion is only one of many factors which might prompt such reflection and reinterpretation. Illness, divorce, and the death of loved ones are other possible causes.

Here is my worry: presumably we would like to believe that our "new" stories are improvements on the old, and that they reflect greater self-knowledge, possibly even greater moral awareness. Yet given that any number of possible narratives can make sense of a set of events, how can we determine that any one story or way of understanding the past is better than any other? How are we to distinguish those stories which reflect greater understanding from those which are simply re-descriptions or re-interpretations without greater insight on the part of the individual? We may disagree about particular cases; those with a religious world view are likely to believe that, post-conversion, Augustine is telling the "right" story about the pear theft. However most would concede that some ways of understanding the world are simply less adequate than others—"less adequate" both in the sense of "less reflective of the truth" and "less conducive to good relations with others." Few would defend the worldview of the inveterate racist, for example. The problem of determining whether a story reflects greater understanding and self-understanding is all the more challenging if we take seriously the view that narrative structure is the organizing principle, not only of experiences and actions, but of the very self that experiences and acts.3 How radically must one's personal narratives change before her very identity has also changed?

Concerns about the epistemological status of personal narratives bring us up against the limitations of narrative as a tool for understanding persons. Given the under-determination of narrative by events, listening to a person's stories will not be enough to understand her. In this paper I do two things. First, I illustrate some of my worries about the epistemological status of narratives through an examination of Tolstoy's short novel The Kreutzer Sonata. I argue that, despite protestations to the contrary, the protagonist has not acquired greater self-knowledge. He has changed the stories he tells about himself without having understood his past or those around him any better. Then I sketch what a genuine increase in self...


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pp. 406-416
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