Personal identity and narrativity

Faculty: Arts, Humanities, Education and Social Sciences
School: School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Category: Student blogs

1 February 2020

Maria Cristina Contrino

In my research, I am interested in the role narratives play for our personal identity. There are various types of narrative that focus on people’s lives and identities (for instance biographies, fiction), and everyday stories we tell about ourselves and others.

In their most accomplished forms, narratives can tell us much about a person and can effectively interlace disparate elements like aspects of one’s character, events, facts about the world, all seen from a particular perspective. Literary works give us an ideal model of how narratives can shape and reveal people’s identity, precisely because they are highly accomplished, selective, meaningful, and their authors enjoy a privileged point of view.

But not everybody compiles a biography of themselves, and I want to ask what everyday, ordinary narratives achieve. The comparison with literary narratives highlight some major differences, as everyday narratives tend to be minimal in scope and fragmentary rather than complete. They are about real people rather than fictional characters, and often concern mundane and uninteresting matters.

While these differences are important, I argue that the comparison with literary narratives does not fully capture the distinctive features of ordinary, everyday narratives; namely that they are:

  1. practical
  2. contextual
  3. often interactive in nature.

In my work, I aim to build a picture of the elements that are crucial to generating a personal narrative and show that they play a role in shaping our practical identity and influencing the way we live. I argue for three main ingredients in the narrative construction of our personal identity: the subject’s active role, an embodied presence and social interaction.

Thus, I turn to narrative views of identity, first investigating a narrative self-constituting view that emphasises three aspects:

  1. the role each person plays in creating her own narrative identity
  2. the weaving together of the different elements of one’s life from a first-person point of view
  3. the subject’s rational skills needed to create a coherent narrative, adherent to facts.

I argue that the efficacy of ordinary identity narratives does not depend only on faithfulness to facts, and one’s identity is also shaped through one’s embodied, emotional experience and social interaction. Secondly, I discuss views that emphasise the social origin of identity narratives that stress its contextual and interpersonal nature. These views have two major advantages as they:

  1. make possible also for people with limited narrative capacities to have a personal identity
  2. widen the sources of one’s identity, making space for the significance of bodily interaction.

Yet this discussion reveals the tension between the self-interpretative view of narrative identity and a socially defined one. I argue that the tension between the private and public dimension of identity narratives is a genuine one, and highlights the complexity of personal identity.

I hope to show that the variable and often limited scope of ordinary narratives, rather than being a mark of their inadequacy, is an indication of their interpersonal and practical nature. As narratives of identity are not immune from failure, I explore the conditions for their practical success.

By Maria Cristina Contrino, PhD Researcher in Philosophy of Mind


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