“Meta-Narratives”

Charles Darwin asking for quiet.

Charles Darwin asking for quiet.

“Meta-Narratives” 

There is a French post-modern philosopher who writes,

“I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.”

By that is meant, there is no large story – no history of humanity as such – into which our private stories, the novellas and anecdotes that make up our lives, can fit.

Jean-Francois Lyotard’s pronouncement, quoted above, is something close to an accepted truth of the present era. Another feature of this received view is that the private accounts we save up, about our own life experiences, are to be treated as fictional too. So novels are no more, and no less, fictional than any other report. The difference between fiction and nonfiction collapses.

One reason I would not like to write fiction, or be a novelist, is the sacrifice I feel it would require. I have trouble enough keeping track of what happened in a day or a week of my life – distinguishing fear from fact, shapeless anxiety from settled matter. If I gave over important swatches of my psyche to imagined characters and their fates, the fundamentals of real life would be that much harder to retain. So, one way I can tell fact from fiction is that the price of each is different.

Don’t take my word for it.

Check it out.

If we do live real stories, shaped by the purposes we have or discover, the hazards encountered, and ideality hovering overhead, does it follow that there is also a meta-narrative? Is Lyotard mistaken about the big picture?

Not necessarily. But meta-narrative is not as easily disposed of as Lyotard thinks. In Western history, for roughly the last two thousand years, the big picture had God as its co-author. Deniers of that big picture have tended to put man-made ones in its place, rather than leave the vacated space empty.

In the modern era (beginning in the 17th century), Descartes may be one of the first to do that. He championed The Method: starting with simple ideas whose truth is self-evident and building larger complexes out of these simple components. With the help of The Method, he envisioned a new-made world: in medicine, in physics, in urban planning. Instead of the old, winding, cobbled streets, he looked forward to straight avenues, rationally geometrized!

Any takers? Yeah, let’s fill out the application for an apartment in a geometrized housing project, the fruit of urban renewal, where the whole neighborhood has been evened out, rationalized and emptied of soul. Can’t wait to live in a place ruled by The Method!

Well, I don’t mean to oversimplify. We might like the winding streets but we don’t want a 17th century dentist. Assuredly, some things have gotten better. But many of us will spend mega-bucks, when we can afford it, to go someplace where our souls can find rest on old, cobbled streets.

Then there was Marx’s man-made meta-narrative. We were going to augment class warfare, with the goal of a classless society, where work itself would be transformed. No more wage slaves, alienated from the fruits of their labor. After the revolution, the same woman could fish in the morning, farm in the afternoon and philosophize in the evening!

On the way to this utopia, reputable scholars count the unnatural deaths world-wide at somewhere between 60 and 100 million. Rather steep for what Albert Camus called “an unreal city in the future.”

Charles Darwin discovered that there were laws of nature for living things, equivalent in scope and explanatory power to the laws of physics that Newton had found for inanimate bodies. What a discovery! We humans could begin to regard our own species scientifically! All species, ours included, had come into being by chance, but the fittest had survived by proving themselves in competitive struggle.

Okay. Maybe. But seriously, do you want to date a boy who thinks that’s all there is to the big story and acted on that thought? No ideality? Just survival of the fittest? I wouldn’t want to get in a room alone with that boy.

Adolf Hitler was once such a boy. He was, according to Timothy Snyder’s new study of AH’s thought, an uber-Darwinian. Not a German nationalist (except opportunistically), his real aim was transnational: to perfect the species in the Darwinian sense of “perfect.” In his view, the strong races have to destroy the weak races. All the abstractions that stand in the way of the Darwinian process – abstractions like ethics, norms of conduct, constitutions, scientific laws – come from Jews! If Jews are destroyed, AH believed, the fittest race would be freed to return to the invigorating laws of the jungle. It was bestiality or bust.

Jews came into it because AH attributed all humanizing “abstractions” to Jewish influence. I have a high opinion of the Jewish contribution to civilization, but here I think AH did us too much honor. What the heck. Others contributed too.

What’s the upshot? Is it just to drop the whole meta-narrative project, since the representative ones we’ve just looked at produced mixed results at best and ghastly ones at worst?

The problem is that those who deny meta-narrative actually have their own meta-narrative. (Some years back, I read a paper at the University of Sydney’s Department of General Philosophy, “Getting Past Marx and Freud,” hoping to shake some parts of their meta-narrative.)

While we can discern the shortcomings in any particular meta-narrative, it is very much harder to see the strategies by which we situate ourselves inside one macro-history or another. We are doing it even while we are denying that it should be done.

Nor is the resolve to be skeptical a preventive, since we can still feel irresistibly drawn toward those who believe something with all their mind and will, even if we doubt that they are right in what they believe.

The best lack all conviction

while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.

So wrote W. B. Yeats, and forgot to add that the “best” will be drawn to the worst, because of the latter’s passionately intense identification with a world-size story, even when the best know better.

We have a sense of ourselves as simultaneously players on the small stage of our local lives and also players on a large stage. One will either have a meta-narrative or a counter-meta-narrative, but a large story one will have, one way or the other.

I am still trying to work mine out.

 

 

 

 

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, soon to appear in a revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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