Constructing the Self (review)
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Reviewed by
Valerie Gray Hardcastle. Constructing the Self. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2008. 186 pp. ISBN 978-9-027-25209-8, $149.00.

Constructing the Self is an absorbing and thoughtful reflection on the narrative self. The idea that the self is narrative in structure has been extremely popular. As Hardcastle remarks, narrative approaches to the self can be found “within disciplines as diverse as anthropology, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, communication studies, history, law, linguistics, literary theory, philosophy, political science, psychology, psychiatry, religion, and sociology” (18). Despite the ubiquity of this view, there is remarkably little consensus on just what kind of narrative constitutes a self, and how it does so. Not only is there a failure of consensus, there is also a failure of communication. As Hardcastle points out, “for the last century or so, the sciences and humanities have operated somewhat removed from one another, with little overlap among either individual research projects or larger conceptual frameworks” (18). This disconnect is remedied in Hardcastle’s study, and to excellent effect. Bringing together a host of insights and methods from different disciplines, this brief but very substantial work demonstrates clearly how much the sciences and humanities have to learn from one another when it comes to understanding the self.

Hardscastle begins by delimiting three different questions about persons: the question of what makes someone a person; the question of what makes someone the same person over time; and the question of which values, goals, and characteristics define a person as the unique individual she is. Hardcastle’s concern is with the third question, and it is this question that she argues can profitably be addressed in narrative terms. After providing a brief defense of the narrative approach (Chapter 2) and a short discussion of the structure of self-constituting narratives (Chapter 3), she turns to a more detailed discussion of some of the particular issues that arise in connection with a narrative view of self. She argues for the centrality of emotion in our self-narratives, an element that is, as she points out, much too often neglected (Chapter 4). This argument is supplemented by a fascinating discussion of the complexity and impact of human emotion. Focusing on the debate between constructivist and reductionist theories, Hardcastle sketches a convincing alternative that promises to capture the truth in both approaches (Chapter 5). The remaining chapters in one way or another take on the question of whether and in what way our narratives are under our control, and what the implications are if and when they are not. There is a discussion of unconscious mentality that gracefully negotiates deep divisions in the understanding of the nature of the unconscious and offers insightful comments on the way in which unconscious psychical elements find their way into our narratives (Chapter 6). This is followed by a [End Page 847] description of some of the ways in which narrativity can fail, and a consideration of what this reveals about narrative structure (Chapter 7); a reflection on the lessons learned from compulsive and addictive behavior (Chapter 8); and a discussion of autonomy that concludes that we are not as autonomous as either philosophers or brain scientists often assume (Chapter 9).

Each chapter is packed with interesting material and full of provocative suggestions. Again and again Hardcastle does a remarkable job of presenting complex debates in philosophy, psychology, or neuroscience, communicating an immense amount of content in just a few words and then taking an intriguing and clear-cut position with respect to ongoing disputes. Given the amount of ground covered, the original theories presented are of necessity sketchy and speculative, as are some of the arguments against existing positions. They are, however, always clear, interesting, and extremely plausible. Each points to a fruitful research program, and together they add up to a compelling argument for the value of developing a narrative understanding of the self and a perspicuous view of how empirical and philosophical investigations can support one another in that development.

The writing throughout is lively and engaging, and the book is delightfully easy to read. This is no small accomplishment given the depth and intricacy of the material. Hardcastle has...