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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 10.4 (2003) 361-367

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Psychopathology and Two Kinds of Narrative Account of the Self

Tim Thornton

self, narrative, reductionism, embodiment, Dennett, Strawson, McDowell

The self plays an important role in psycho pathology. Conditions such as dementia raise the question of how much loss of memory and awareness there can be before there is, if ever, also a loss of the self. Syndromes such as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) or Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) raise the possibility of a fragmentation of one self into a number of selves. Depersonalization disorder suggests a kind of diminution both of the sense of self and the reality of the world. Symptoms such as thought insertion suggest a different kind of fragmentation of the coherence of thought within a self.

At the same time there is something prima facie paradoxical about the very idea of the fragmentation or loss of self. It seems to be one thing for a self to suffer loss, quite another to think of the self as being lost. Although the experiences or beliefs had or entertained by a self might be disordered or chaotic, how can a self be anything other than whole and seem real and whole to itself?

The narrative approach to the self looks like a tool purpose built to shed light on some aspects of psychopathology. The papers in this issue have examined its application to four revealing case histories and questioned its effectiveness in accounting for features of psychopathology. But in this short note I wish to stand back from the particular cases discussed in previous papers and to shed light on the general approach by setting out two contrasting versions of it. Crudely put, the first forges a connection between the concepts of self and personality; the second between the concepts of self and person. I will use the contrast between these two to draw some general lessons for the philosophy of psychopathology.

Dennett's Austere Narrative Account

I will start with Dennett's influential version of a narrative account of the self. His central idea is that the very idea of a self should be understood as dependent on a particular kind of interpretative strategy. Roughly, this contrasts with the idea that it is a more basic datum calling out for notice prior to adopting a specific theoretical perspective.

Dennett suggests an analogy with centers of gravity both to outline the consequences of this view for the reality of selves, and the connection between the self and the interpretative strategy involved. [End Page 361]

A center of gravity is just an abstractum. It's just a fictional object. But when I say it's a fictional object, I do not mean to disparage it; it's a wonderful fictional object, and it has a perfectly legitimate place within serious, sober, echt physical science. (Dennett 1992)

The concept of a center of gravity is deployed within a branch of physics to describe and predict the behavior of physical systems acting under physical forces. It is the theoretical context that determines the nature of centers of gravity; at the same time, they contribute to that broader context. Dennett stresses that they are abstract or calculation-bound theoretical objects to contrast with objects that are also theoretically posited but causally interactive, such as microphysical particles (Dennett 1987, 53).

Dennett has also used the analogy with abstracta to account for mental states such as beliefs, desires, and other propositional attitudes, which he suggests are ascribed using a particular interpretative strategy: the "Intentional Stance" (Dennett 1987, 13-42). The suggestion is that by showing the necessity of adopting that stance to make sense of human behavior he can defend a form of objectivity about mental states even while rejecting the industrial-strength realism that requires identifying mental states with physical, and thus causally interactive, internal states.

Selves are given similar treatment. Like centers of gravity or mental states, they are theoretical, even fictional, entities articulated within an interpretative theoretical stance:

A self is also an abstract object, a theorist's fiction...


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