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plenty of work in terms of basic theory-building. Of course, it is true that when academics
talk about theory and theory-building, whether in the sciences or the humanities, they often
use an all-too-familiar vocabulary of inductive and deductive reasoning and typological and
notational variants. There are levels of explanation such as observational, descriptive, and
explanatory adequacy, and there are experiments to verify theoretical accounts as well as
empirical evidence to be investigated in favor of or against them. Paradigm shifts occur in
theory from time to time, but the goal of theory in general, we are told, is to make correct
predictions about the world.
Narrative and Theory Typologies
In this chapter, however, I am not going to be too reliant on the well-oiled apparatus I have
just described. Instead, I am going to argue that, as a species, we are designed to process the
world and to store our multiform experience in telic narrative formats that conspire, as
Dennett has suggested, to give us our “sense of self.” This process of continuous cognitive
appraisal and inference-making is something that we cannot help. In an inductive sense, a
representation immediately invites us to step inside a narrative scenario where we have to
make interpretive choices from the word go. We then proceed to process this “factual-
fictional” information via our tacit knowledge of context. .
Speculating on everyday narrative activities could give us telling insights into our
evolutionary history. Narrative functions across cultures as proto-theory and proto-method. In
the history of cultural evolution, what narratives have done is introduce us to foundational
versions of biological theory – how the leopard got its spots; political theory – Robin Hood
was a revolutionary who challenged oppressive class structures; aesthetic theory – the folk
tale of the mirror on the wall; and varieties of moral and ethical theory, typically introduced
through epic and legend. Stories across cultures perform essential paradigmatic functions not
dissimilar to those that Darwinian theory accomplished for biology or Marxist theory for
political science or Christianity for ethics.
If you look at the narrative bases of theorizing across cultures, you might be able to
derive a typology of these various sorts of theories. Here is a putative typology of theories
that I have constructed to illustrate the idea:
Explanatory theories, which
aim to explain and predict the behavior of phenomena,
including the behavior of humans beings, on the basis of universal “laws” (prototype
disciplines: physics, chemistry, linguistics, economics, logic).
Elaborative theories, which seek to interpret and comment on the phenomena, do not
postulate laws and are only weakly predictive, if at all (prototype disciplines: literature,
some kinds of philosophy, and psychology).
Ecumenical theories, which
deal in “oughts” and “shoulds” (typically including legal
theories, religious theories, etc. that usually try to bring everyone under the umbrella of a