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  • On Narrative: Psychopathology Informing Philosophy
  • James Phillips (bio)

In “Whole Life Narratives and the Self” David Lumsden (2013) has provided us with a clear review of the debate over narrative and personal identity and has staked out his own position in that debate. Arguing against neo-Lockean views of an atomistic self, he defends a narrative component in personal identity. Specifically, he argues that personal identity or self involves “a bundle of narrative threads” (p. 1), but does not require the grand unity of a master narrative—a whole life narrative. It follows for him that the understanding—and treatment—of fragmented psychiatric states does not require whole life narratives. In his analysis, he is both defending a philosophical position regarding narrative and personal identity and exploring its application to psychopathology.

The editorial pages of PPP state that “PPP seeks to: (a) enhance the effectiveness of psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, and other mental health care workers as practitioners, teachers, and researchers by illuminating the philosophical issues embedded in these activities; and (b) advance philosophical theory by making the phenomena of psychiatry and clinical psychology more accessible to philosophers.” Although the stated goal of PPP is that philosophy will inform psychiatry and psychiatry will inform philosophy, it is fair to say that the pages of PPP are mostly filled with efforts at the first goal—various efforts to do philosophy of psychiatry. One could easily conclude that psychiatrists have more to learn from philosophy than philosophers from psychiatry.

The paper under discussion follows the above pattern. So do most of the articles cited and discussed in the paper, and so do my own publications on narrative and psychopathology (Phillips 1999, 2003a, 2003b). In this commentary, I would like to reverse direction and suggest what psychopathology and psychiatric experience might offer philosophy. Narrative is a good topic for this exercise, and I submit that narrative theorists have something to learn from psychopathology.

My argument is straightforward. There is a debate over the role of narrative in personal identity. One side argues that personal identity has and must have a narrative dimension. The other side argues that narrative is a fictive device that may be imposed on real life from the outside, but has nothing to do with life as actually lived. Philosophers, historians, and literary critics debate both sides of this question; neither side is able to persuade the other. The question I am raising is whether psychopathological experience should have a voice in this debate. That is, in this paper I will not use narrative theory to explain psychopathology; rather, I will let psychopathology [End Page 11] have a voice in the debate over narrative and personal identity. Which side of the debate will psychopathology support? In this debate, can philosophers step back from teaching psychiatry and learn something from psychiatry? Or in still other words, if the critics of narrative identity are not convinced by analysis of ordinary experience that life has a narrative dimension, would they be more convinced by the extraordinary experience of psychopathology?

The Debate Over Narrative and Personal Identity

Before we embark on the contributions of psychopathology to narrative theory, we need to quickly review the issues at stake in the debate over narrative. Lumsden has already summarized the debate, and developed his particular point regarding whole-life narratives. I add a few notes to his summary.

The cast of theoreticians challenging narrative identity has been quite broad: in history, Carl Hempel (1962), Ferdinand Braudel (1980), Louis Mink (1974), and Hayden White (1973, 1978, 1987); in literary criticism, Roland Barthes (1977) and Frank Kermode (1966, 1979); in psychoanalysis, Jacques Lacan (1977); and in philosophy—and the inspiration for at least some of the above—the Nietzsche of The Uses and Abuses of History (1980), The Genealogy of Morals (1969), and The Gay Science (1974) with its ‘infinite interpretations’ of self and world. The author adds Velleman (2003, 2006), Lamarque (2004), and Strawson (2008) to the list of narrative skeptics. Finally, Dennett (1991) should be added to this list; although he invokes narrative in his notion of the intentional stance, he thinks of it as a fictive product whose only reality is in the imagination of an (essentially...


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