Basic HTML Version

Chapter 12
Narrative as a Mode of Explanation: Evolution and Emergence
Rukmini Bhaya Nair
Narrative is a linguistic form that accommodates fictional as well as factual accounts of the
world. It is, of course, widely recognized that there has always been a long and leaky
boundary between the two apparently orthogonal concepts of “fact” and “fiction,” and
narrative straddles both. This hybrid nature of narrative is a salient feature that endows the
form with its challenging ambiguity and recursive complexity.
The Question of Narrative Context
“Why is the sea blue?” This simple, startling question was posed by Sir C.V. Raman, an
Indian scientist who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1930. He answered it in a way that
was surprising in his time. It was believed before Raman that the sea reflected the color of the
sky, but he showed that it was an independent phenomenon to do with the diffraction of light.
Raman, that is, used a “universal” physicists’ vocabulary to explain the notion of the blueness
of the sea, and his story found acceptance and approval as a “true” account of physical
phenomena. At the same time, this scientific success story is not part of a world
science. It is little known in the West owing partly to another set of cultural phenomena,
namely the facts of colonization and the “invisibility” of India as an arena where modern
science was vigorously practiced. Both contexts, I would contend, are relevant to a broader
“meta-interpretation” of the Raman narrative.
Another way of looking at Raman’s question is not to categorize it as a physicist’s
query at all but, rather, as a philosopher’s question, where discussions might focus on matters
of sense and reference, truth conditions, and the relationship between the argument “sea” and
the predicate “blue,” and where we might go on to talk about qualia, sense datum, and so
forth. Alternatively, the same question could be asked by linguists who might, for instance,
discover that the concept “blue” in one language does not have a particular word that
designates it, while in another “blueness” is covered by the word “grue,” which encompasses
ranges of green as well as blue. This sort of investigation would give rise to deep questions of
linguistic relativism, and once again direct our attention to the “meta” difficulties of
separating fiction and fact.
My point here is simply that the “blueness” of the sea could be very differently
construed, not only across histories, geographies, and countries but even across disciplines.
How do we manage all this complexity?
This remains one of the most difficult problems in
training machines to process incoming linguistic information flexibly and to arrive in
milliseconds at the “right” conclusions; something that humans do effortlessly and
ceaselessly. Can narrative analysis help us approximate the ways in which humans handle