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C H A P T E R F O U R T E E N The Social Epistemological Normalization of Contestable Narratives Stories of Just Deserts O W E N F L A N A G A N Narrative Intelligibility Consider what it is to share a culture. It is to share schemata which are at one and the same time constitutive of and normative for intelligible action by myself and are also means for my interpretation of the actions of others. My ability to understand what you are doing and my ability to act intelligibly (both to myself and to others) are one and the same ability. —Alasdair MacIntyre Alasdair MacIntyre’s writings on narrative self-understanding—on “schemata”—and his writings on normativity in the human sciences interpenetrate . Individuals and cultures tell stories that simultaneously express, reveal, and conceal in the “what is normal and expectable,” in the “what is not said,” and in the “what is not expressible” who and what they are, what 358 they aspire to be, and how they hold themselves and each other interesting and accountable. The human sciences explain how self- and othercomprehension works through narratives and how narratives that render action intelligible are structured, formally and contentfully, in different social ecologies. But the human sciences, especially in their purely descriptive pose, can contribute to concealment, or, what is different, to legitimation of questionable self- and other-understanding, and thus to the practices that such understanding engenders, encourages, and endorses. One way this happens is when allegedly neutral but in fact deeply contestable philosophical or social scientific assumptions are rendered part of common sense and are incorporated into narratives that are normatively expected to apply to lives that are intelligible as good, or decent, or worthy of respect—self-respect and other-respect. Here I provide a reading of a common contemporary Western, possibly only American, narrative about accomplishment and desert that might seem to be descriptively and normatively spare but in fact is freighted and contestable. Simply stated, the master narrative trope is that hard work and effort pay, that they should pay, and that the direct and indirect payoffs for choosing to be educated and then working conscientiously in a good profession are just desert for rationality, moral seriousness, and conscientious deliberation and choice. The target narrative expresses an understanding, perhaps even a theory , of luck, work, effort, and desert. The core or master narrative trope is normatively endorsed by (and for) both the victims and the beneficiaries of the narrative and is thought to be based on facts or, if not facts, then minimalist, commonsense assumptions about agency, accomplishment, and desert that in fact are neither factual nor philosophically innocuous. The narrative both reflects and encourages certain practices that pertain to merit, desert, and ownership. How exactly contestable narrative frameworks come to be favored and then become uncontested, taken for granted, seen as truistic, is a complicated question about how social epistemology works to confer its imprimatur on certain ways of conceiving of persons , their projects, and their worth. But this can and does happen, and it can produce moral and political harm. The target narrative of accomplishment and desert is, I claim, such a morally harmful master narrative. Let me explain. The Social Epistemological Normalization of Contestable Narratives 359 Narratives: Metaphysical and Political When I speak about myself (or you), especially if I tell part of my story (or yours), I stand on the shoulders of ancestral storytellers who have supplied what are now—but once were contested—commonsense categories and familiar plot lines in service of the interpretation of persons and their lives. These ancestral storytellers were themselves dependent on communities of predecessors who invented and/or stabilized the language we speak, parsed the universe, and introduced word linkages, word spans, that attempt to capture what we now think of as our kind of beings-in-time doing what our kind of beings-in-time do in time. Many disciplines have a name for the method of taming unruly phenomena by the imposition of a master-narrative or mother-theoretical structure. They speak of scripts, frames, the background, heuristics, ideal types, tropes, themes, ways of world making, Weltanschauung, and even metanarrative, the mother of all narratives, the narrative that ends all narratives by speaking the ultimate truth about us—if there could be such a thing. Each of these grand terms names or gestures at a (possibly, somewhat different) way in...


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