Sunday, September 27, 2020

The Narrative Paradigm of Walter Fisher

For the past several years, I've been writing a novel about southern Pentecostals, their origins in the Appalachians and the fringes of southeastern society, and their eventual emergence into and influence on the current evangelical movement. I was raised in this faith, and though I left it about the time I left home for college, most of my family is still engaged with it and with its ideas. For the last several years, I've been perplexed how this group of people has championed Donald Trump, who for many of them is God's appointed man of the hour sent to protect them from the demonic Democrats who seek to destroy them and the United States. They are the true Church and the true State, and Trump is their miraculous leader.

I've tried to think my way rationally through this point of view, and I can't do it. I don't think it makes rational sense. So I've come to suspect that something non-rational is at work, and I'm exploring narrative theory as a way of helping me understand what is happening with many of my family and friends. I am not giving up on complexity theory, even though I considered shifting this exploration to a new blog. Rather, I suspect that narrative theory will help me expand and enrich my own thinking about complexity and that complexity will frame and inform my understanding of narrative. So what is narrative theory?

The Psychology Wiki says that narrative theory started with Walter Fisher in the 1980s with his 1984 article "Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm" in Communication Monographs and his 1987 book Human Communication as Narration. Fisher calls his idea narrative paradigm rather than theory because he views paradigm as the more inclusive term. The wiki says that Fisher's paradigm:

is based on the concept that people are essentially storytellers. Storytelling is one of the oldest and most universal forms of communication and so individuals approach their social world in a narrative mode and make decisions and act within this narrative framework.

In his article, Fisher quotes Alasdair MacIntyre's book After Virtue (201): "man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal" (1). Story, then, is at the ground of what it means to be human. At first reading, I interpreted narrative theory as the ground of human knowing, but Fisher's article corrected that view. Storytelling is the ground of human being. It is ontological rather than epistemological. Fisher says that homo narrans can function as the master or root metaphor for what it means to be human, thus, incorporating the other metaphors such as homo faber, homo economous, homo politicus, and so forth. These other conceptions, then, are different modes of storytelling, different ways "of recounting or accounting for human choice and action" (6). Storytelling is not, then, merely how humans come to know their world; rather, it is how they come to exist in their world. To my mind, this takes narrative to a different level, and I suspect I will require some time and much writing to work out the implications, but I find it enticing enough to think on it.

Fisher develops his paradigm by contrasting it with what he sees as the prevailing paradigm in rhetoric, communications, and social theories: the rational paradigm inherited from Plato and Aristotle, which says that humans are basically rational. According to the Wikipedia article "Narrative paradigm," Fisher believes that "humans are not rational and propose[s] that the narrative is the basis of communication" and that "people communicate by telling/observing a compelling story rather than by producing evidence or constructing a logical argument." According to Psychology Wiki, Fisher contrasts the rational and narrative paradigms this way:

Rational World Paradigm: Narrative Paradigm:
  • People are essentially rational.
  • People are essentially storytellers.
  • People make decisions based on arguments.
  • People make decisions based on good reasons.
  • The communicative situation determines the course of our argument.
  • History, biography, culture, and character determine what we consider good reasons.
  • Rationality is determined by how much we know and how well we argue.
  • Narrative rationality is determined by the coherence and fidelity of our stories.
  • The world is a set of logical puzzles that we can solve through rational analysis.
  • The world is a set of stories from which we choose, and constantly re-create, our lives.
  • In general, Fisher's ideas as presented here and in his 1984 article resonate with me. Stories tell people not only what they believe but who and what they are, and we all assimilate and become the narrative structures that we grow up with and experience, and we recount and account for our experiences through story first. If we bother with rationality at all, we do so after the story. From my experience, most people are persuaded far more by engaging stories drawn from their culture than by impeccable logic and facts that apply to a given situation. Even those people who are trained to look only at the facts when assessing the truth of a situation appear to have great difficulty overcoming their stories even when the facts obviously don't fit their stories. All too often, people prefer to fit the facts to their stories rather than change their stories to accommodate the facts.

    Think of the detectives trying to solve a crime. Most of them are not a Sherlock Holmes who can self-righteously proclaim, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." This principle holds if you are agnostic, with an amazing ability to shapeshift your worldview to incorporate a new worldview that makes sense of the available facts. Of course, you must have a worldview to make sense of facts and observations. Though I'm no Sherlock Holmes scholar, I suspect that he had a worldview, a paradigm or story, but that he was willing and able to shift that worldview when he needed to make sense of new facts. He was something like the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, who says, "If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims." One can hardly imagine a modern televangelist saying anything similar.

    And difficulty accepting facts is not limited to religious believers. Most people — including all those detectives outside the realm of fiction — are highly threatened by challenges to their worldviews, religious, scientific, political, or otherwise. As Thomas Kuhn has shown, hard-nose, empirical, highly trained scientists will resist challenges to their paradigms — their worldviews, their stories — until the facts are simply too overwhelming to ignore. Many well-intentioned, thoughtful scientists die never accepting the new paradigms of a Newton, Darwin, Einstein, or Bohr. We today pity those poor scientists trapped in their antiquated paradigms but only because we have had sufficient time to adjust to the new paradigms. Note, however, that 100 years after Einstein's first papers most people still have no idea what we was talking about and wouldn't believe it if they did. Most people are still locked into very different stories that are totally challenged by the notion that the rules of the universe are relative to one's position and trajectory in space/time. Rational analysis and verifiable experimentation seldom hold against a powerful story. Indeed, the genius of a Newton or Einstein is expressed mostly in their abilities to envision a new story — a new paradigm — that accommodates more facts better than the old stories did. It's the story that makes sense of the facts, not the other way around. Usually, the intuitive story comes before the math and the experiments. It's telling to me that Fisher quotes a couple of theologians to make this point:

    Neither "the facts" nor our "experience" come to us in discrete and disconnected packets which simply await the appropriate moral principle to be applied. Rather, they stand in need of some narrative which can bind the facts of our experience together into a coherent pattern and it is thus in virtue of that narrative that our abstracted rules, principles, and notions gain their full intelligibility. (Goldberg 242)

    The Laws of Motion came after Newton watched an apple fall from a tree, and E=MC2 simply cleaned up the details of Einstein imagining what it would be like to cruise through deep space alongside some light. Story first.

    And once we have a new story, then we tend to see only those facts that fit the story. It is much easier for most people to challenge and dismiss a few facts than to challenge and dismiss the world stories upon which they have built their personal and professional lives. If your eternal salvation depends upon your story, then you'd better ignore a few inconvenient and incongruous facts. Or find a way to accommodate those facts. It's much easier to fold a sinner such as Donald Trump into your existing stories — Trump as King David — than to dismiss him as a really poor president. Whichever way you see Trump, the story is key, and facts are folded into the story and either accepted and kept or discredited and discarded.


    •  Fisher, Walter R. “Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm: The Case of Public Moral Argument.” Communication Monographs, doi:10.1080/03637758409390180.
    • "Narrative Paradigm." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Accessed 20 Sep. 2020.
    • "Narrative Theory." Psychology Wiki, Fandom, Inc., Accessed 20 Sep. 2020.

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