Philosophy Talk: Joshua Landy on “Reading, Narrative, and the Self”

The November 28, 2010 episode of the weekly radio show Philosophy Talk — hosted by Stanford philosophers Ken Taylor and John Perry — featured Joshua Landy (French, Stanford University) speaking about “Reading, Narrative, and the Self.” To access streaming audio of the show, please click here. Before each new episode airs, Taylor and Perry advertise the upcoming show with a brief write-up on their show’s blog. The following is the write-up for the Nov. 28 show on:

This week’s topic is Reading, Narrative, and the Self. I suppose everybody has a pretty good idea of what each of those things, taken individually, means. Reading is something that most people do. A good narrative — or story, to use a less fancy term — is something most people enjoy. And a self is something everybody has. But I think I need to explain what reading, narrative, and the self have to do with each other. I’ll take them in reverse order, starting with the self.

Everybody has a self. Or maybe it would be better to say that everybody is a self. But what exactly is a self, anyway? The answer to that question depends on who you talk to. Psychologists, for example, tend to think of the self in terms of the particular set of attributes a person most strongly identifies with – those attributes that define who and what he or she is in the world. But we philosophers tend to think of the self less in terms of particular attributes, and more as the underlying agent or thinker who possesses the kinds of attributes that define the self in the psychologist’s sense.

We’re going to be concerned with both senses of the self at various stages of this week’s episode. Let’s start with the self in the psychologist’s sense. The self in that sense is not just given to us in advance as something fixed and determinate. The self in that sense has somehow to be “constructed” out of materials that our society and culture make available.

It may sound absurd — or at the very least so very post modern — to call the self a social construct. The self, it would seem, could exist even without society and culture. But whether that’s absurd or not really depends on what notion of self you are talking about. When I say that the self is a social construct, I really have in mind only the psychologist’s notion of self. But the self in the philosopher’s sense – the thing that underlies the psychologist’s self – that definitely isn’t a social construction. In fact, I think the self in the philosopher’s sense is the thing that does the constructing, not the thing that gets constructed.

Now here’s where narrative begins to come in. Narrative helps us to make sense of our selves. One way we understand ourselves is by narrating ourselves, telling ourselves stories in which we figure as prominent characters. Think of a son who inherits the family business. In trying to make sense of his life, his choices, his situation, he narrates his life as an episode in a great drama, stretching backwards in time over multiple generations. But the stories that we tell ourselves aren’t just about relating the present to the past. They also look to the future. They help shape our choices and decisions. We try to make our narratives true, by trying to become what we’ve told ourselves we are.

I don’t mean to make it sound like we’re prisoners of the stories we tell ourselves, or the ones we inherit from our family, or our culture. We have the freedom to reject the narratives that our society or culture or family offer up. But we can’t make sense of ourselves or even plan for the future without some background narrative in place. We don’t really have a choice about that. It’s part of the human predicament.

And now it should be easier to appreciate what the third topic on our list of three – namely, reading — has to do with the other two. Great works of literature are rich storehouses of narrative possibilities. In real life, we only get one time through. We get one chance to narratively construct a self. But the great works of literature can expose us to thousands of experiments in narrative self-construction. So who better to help us with this trio of topics – reading, narrative, and the self — than someone steeped in the theory of literary narratives. That’s Josh Landy from Stanford University, where he co-directs the Literature and Philosophy Initiative.

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