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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 10.4 (2003) 353-355

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Emotions and Narrative Selves

Valerie Gray Hardcastle

In their commentaries, both Phillips (2003) and Woody (2003) agree that the affective side of personhood needs to be better addressed in narrative views of self. In their arguments, they focus mainly on how a patient or a subject is here and now. In contrast, Kennett and Matthews (2003) take a longer view and argue for the importance of a diachronic unity for selfhood. This commentary seeks to integrate these views by discussing how emotions are central to building our personal sense of unified agency. 1

Phillips and Woody are right: most philosophical discussions of the narrative view of self are overly cognitive and focus too much attention on our linguistic story-telling abilities and not enough on what it is like to be a person experiencing the world. This is too bad, for it is our affective reactions that drive our personal life narratives. Consider: of all the experiences in the world, we only chose a small subset to become or represent who we are. I regularly eat cold cereal for breakfast before heading off to work, but if you ask me to describe myself, I describe my work or my children, not my breakfast-eating habits. Why is this? I identify with my work, my family life, or my play, but not with my sleeping patterns, the trajectories I chose when I drive, or how I brush my teeth. How is it that I have selected the former activities to highlight in my self-stories, but not the latter?

I maintain that I choose the former because I have strong affective ties to them, ties that I do not have to driving routes or personal hygiene. And these ties are what determine what gets into our narratives of self. Actually, my claim is stronger than that. I believe that our emotions not only color what we do but they also allow us to act in the first place (this discussion is greatly expanded in my forthcoming book).

Humans delight in pretending that our most prized and most humanly attribute is our forebrain, which houses, we also pretend, our capacity for rational thought. Since Plato at least we have held that subduing our passions to the iron rule of reason is our supreme aspiration; it is the ideal for human cognition. Ironically, we think that the more we are like Star Trek's alien Mr. Spock, the more human we really are.

But what would life really be like with an overdeveloped forebrain and without emotion? Let us consider more carefully what it is we really prize about being human. We can rationalize well, it is true, but we do so in the service of personal goals. As Aristotle reminds us, we have practical rationality; we have means-ends reasoning with a point. This is just another way of saying that it is imperative that we identify what is important to us prior to cognizing.

Obviously, one might scoff, we need an end to engage in means-ends reasoning. But often, I think, what having an end entails is not well appreciated. These days it is fashionable to believe that our fundamental ends—survival and reproduction—are set by our biology and that all [End Page 353] other ends (or most other ends) derive from them in some fashion. Maybe this story is true, but it obscures how ends—whether they be hardwired in or they come later—function in the human psyche.

At a bare minimum, that we have particular ends tells us that we have to tag our abstractions, interpretations, and matched patterns with valances—some things are good, some things are bad, and some are indifferent. Tagging our experiences thus is just what it means to have emotions; we are reacting affectively to our world around us. And it is these reactions that determine which inputs we respond to and which we ignore. We literally cannot move about in our world without emotion. I think, perhaps, that this fact is what Phillips and Woody are...


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