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The Evolution of Narrative as Theory
Let us bring this basic, irresistible “urge to question” to a particular inquiry concerning the
evolution of narrative as a form. Is the ability to produce narratives as answers to enigmas, to
questions about origins, to queries about the relationship of “cause and effect” a species trait?
Socio-biologist Stephen J. Gould (1979 with Lewontin) has plausibly argued that such
questions about the origins of our cognitive capabilities, including narrative, constitute “just
so questions” – that is, we cannot ever have definitive answers to them. However, he
concedes that our knowledge that these puzzles we set ourselves are “factually”
unanswerable does not in the least prevent us from continuing to ask them or from
constructing “fictions” around them. In a way, this argument sounds strangely similar to a
claim by
a thinker as different from Gould as is possible to imagine,
Zizek’s post-
Marxian claim about “sublimely ideological” narratives. The online
Stanford Encyclopedia of
phrases the point in the following manner: “According to Zizek, the attitude of
political subjects towards political authority evinces the same logical form: ‘
I know well that
(for example) Bob Hawke/Bill Clinton/the Party/the market does not always act justly, but
still act as though I did not know that this is the case
(italics mine).
Such a tolerance of uncertainty and paradox in narrative accounts brings together our
linguistic capacities to interweave surmise with surety and to wed enigma to explanation, so
that fictional and factual modes of narrative blend and psychologically support each other
rather than remain unconnected in separate silos. Thus, the cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett
(1994) is quite willing to take the risk of answering the question of whether narrative is a
species trait in the thumping affirmative. He explicitly claims that human beings were born to
tell stories as naturally as birds build nests and beavers build dams. In my own work on
narrative pragmatics, I interpret Dennett’s statement to mean that narratives enable us to
fashion our cognitive environments more securely. Just as much as we need food and security
and shelter, we also need narrative to describe and explain to ourselves how we fit into our
environments, and then to push and tug to change these contexts to suit us better. That, in
brief, is the story of human progress.
Narrative is a linguistic form that helps us monitor and mediate what Searle has called
the “direction of fit” between words and the world. It is, as I see it, a form specifically
designed to probe into the context of and persistently re-examine the words/world
relationship, to present conflicting hypothesis about phenomena and lay out causal
connections. Taking Dennett further, I argue that our stories are a form of “natural theory”
and that they embody an instinctive research methodology. Storytelling enables an
examination of causal evidence, decisions on what can be considered “fact” and what
“fiction” on the basis of contextual knowledge, and, finally, a coming to some kind of
As I see it, this process constitutes quite a lot of hard intellectual labor; and even
though Umberto Eco (1994) has declared narrative a “lazy machine,” I think it also demands