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Monday, August 01, 2011

Narrative Precedes Theory

One sees the claim often, in, for instance, Mises, that one cannot have history without theory. This morning I ran across it in the Review of Austrian Economics, in a book review written by Richard Wagner, where he said something like "Any narrative pre-supposes a theoretical framework needed to comprehend it." (I left my copy home before heading to the Internet cafe, so I quote from memory.)

I think this is false. I think narrative precedes theory, both in human history and in the development of a single human being. Humans had narratives for thousands of years before the first Greeks began to produce theories. Three-year-old children have no problem grasping narratives, but a lot of trouble getting theories!

A problem many rationalists have in understanding myths is that they try to understand them as theories, and wind up deciding they are really awful theories.

Query: Can autism be characterized as an ability to see things theoretically but not narrationally?

21 comments:

  1. Narratives presuppose that certain causes are the important ones and that is tantamount to a theory. A narrative of taking revenge to satisfy the desires of a vindictive god, followed by years of prosperity, presuppose that the pagan god is the source of prosperity and that the reason why one side won presupposes certain characteristics (honor, valor, determination) are what matters.

    What people believe to be pure facts are biased by what was evolutionarily useful to be biased about- e.g. xenophobia. That is why so many ancient narratives are characterized by xenophobia. Xenophobia has its own package of "theories" that are congruent to it, like that people outside your in-group are subhuman or that trade is bad.

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  2. I don't think autism can be really characterized that way. It seems to be a rather complex phenomenon from my understanding. There is undoubtedly some kind of mental disorder that fits your description and I'd be interested to find out what it is.

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  3. Maybe I'm just proving your point here, but could you clarify how your definition of "narrative" here differs from that of "theory"?

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  4. Gene, I don't mean to be a wiseguy, but since you did it twice I have to ask: Do you mean "proceeds" or "precedes"?

    And I think your autism thing is way off. I'll write up a blog post today explaining a Clark anecdote that will show you why.

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  5. Just because children cannot formulate the theories explicitly in their minds doesn't mean they don't have operating theories according to which they are interpreting sense data.

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  6. "Proceeds"? What are you talking about, Bob? :-)

    Autism: Sheer speculation on my part. I did work with an autistic kid for some months, and have read Temple Grandin, but I was really just daydreaming with the remark.

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  7. Mr.Sanchez, it also doesn't mean they *do* have such theories in their heads! Only, I think, pre-supposing that narrative must be based on theory leads to hypothesizing these implicit theories! Phronesis is its own form of knowledge, independent from theoria.

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  8. Ryan: "Narratives presuppose that certain causes are the important ones and that is tantamount to a theory."

    By even introducing "causes" you are already looking at narrative through the lens of theory, so of course then it will all seem theoretical! The very notion of a "cause" can only be formed by abstraction from many narratives. The narratives come first.

    "Pure facts" are also a theoretical concept!

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  9. Silas: 'Maybe I'm just proving your point here, but could you clarify how your definition of "narrative" here differs from that of "theory"?'

    Silas, no doubt we could define 'narrative' and 'theory' so that narrative appears as a species of the genus theory. But that is clearly not what Wagner is doing: he distinguishes the two, and says one depends on the other, which would make no sense if narratives simply *were* theories.

    So, in Wagner's case, a narrative is something like the story of Oedipus, and a theory is something like Freud's theory of the Oedipal complex. What I claim is that that theory is abstracted *from* the narrative. The narrative is prior, and without the pre-existence of such narratives there would be nothing from which to abstract such a theory. To the idea that the people telling such narratives "really had" these theories even though no one had ever formulated I call BS: why not say that invisible unicorns are pre-supposed by the narratives?

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  10. I'm trying to understand what a purely untheoretical narrative would look like. As a canonical example that you like to use, imagine the tribes that first came up with the Thor myth. They say that "lightning is Thor being angry". You, I assume, take this to be a narrative with no theoretical content, making it a confusion to say that, "Duh, that theory fails all of our experimental tests."

    However, imagine that around the time this myth arose, you somehow teleported back from the future and told the Nords that, "No, no, no, this is what causes lightning ..." and then gave them enough information to predict lightning a few days in advance. What do you think would be their more likely response?

    1) "Right -- that 'differential electric charge': that's what we meant by Thor being angry, it's just sort of a story that reflects our wonder at lightning and all that jazz."

    2) "Ohhhh, that makes so much more sense! Boy, we were sure off the mark with that Thor business, weren't we!"

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  11. Well, Silas, I don't know what their response would be, except that it certainly would not be your #2.

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  12. "However, imagine that around the time this myth arose, you somehow teleported back from the future and told the Nords that, "No, no, no, this is what causes lightning ..." and then gave them enough information to predict lightning a few days in advance. What do you think would be their more likely response?"

    They would probably fall at the feet of Gene Callahan and begin to worship him as some type of god-like fellow.

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  13. Could you please elaborate on your reasoning or intuitions behind that assessment?

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  14. Because myths are not bad scientific theories, Silas. Aphrodite is not the "cause" of love, she is a poetic representation of it

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  15. And you're sure you're correctly representing how the *actual* people in these cultures fostering the myths regarded Thor et al., rather than re-writing history to make them look more sophisticated than they really were? There are actual characteristic e.g. Nord writings clarifying that Thor is merely a poetic representation of the feelings thunder evokes?

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  16. Silas, of course these people were not *theorists* of myth! But you might check out some actual theorists of myth, like Cassirer or Collingwood or Voegelin or Langer, and find why I make this claim. (Cassirer's _Language and Myth_ is very good in this regard.)

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  17. I think Silas' question was what ordinary people in these cultures believed, i.e., what they understood their own cultural myths to mean.

    Granted, modern theorists have a more sophisticated understanding of myth as poetic representations. And perhaps even the wise/learned ancients did as well. But didn't the ordinary people who originally accepted these myths (i.e., the "these people" in your most recent post) largely understand them as explanatory theories?

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  18. "Granted, modern theorists have a more sophisticated understanding of myth as poetic representations."

    No, Mike, that's not what I'm saying at all. It's not that *they themselves* understand myths that way, it's that they understand primitive people understood them that way. (With the caveat that they weren't theorists of myths, and so could not have articulated this understanding.)

    "But didn't the ordinary people who originally accepted these myths (i.e., the "these people" in your most recent post) largely understand them as explanatory theories?"

    So, no: "It is not ignorance of causal relations, but the supervention of an interest stronger than his practical interests, that holds holds him to magical rites [and she extends this to myth as well]. This stronger interest concerns the expressive value of such mystic acts." -- Suzanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key

    The idea that magic and myth are real bad science is made up out of whole cloth by Enlightenment thinkers who wanted to paint all earlier ages as "superstitious." It is a modern fairy tale!

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  19. "It's not that *they themselves* understand myths that way, it's that they understand primitive people understood them that way."

    That's what I originally thought you meant, but then one of your subsequent replies to Silas confused me.


    "(With the caveat that they weren't theorists of myths, and so could not have articulated this understanding.)"

    OK, now I see what you're saying. I'll have to get around to reading Langer et al. one of these days.


    "The idea that magic and myth are real bad science is made up out of whole cloth by Enlightenment thinkers who wanted to paint all earlier ages as "superstitious." It is a modern fairy tale!"

    I agree that much of the standard Enlightenment account -- Comte's Law of three stages nonsense comes to mind in particular -- is ahistorical BS. On the other hand, it seems like you're overstating the case in the opposite direction. I was raised as an orthodox Jew and studied the Torah and Talmud, so I know for a fact that a lot of otherwise very intelligent people believe in the historicity and explanatory power of biblical narrative, and have traditions of having done so for millennia. (Even though there are classical rabbinic commentators who held that, say, the story of creation was a poetic representation, this was a distinctly minority position).

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  20. "On the other hand, it seems like you're overstating the case in the opposite direction."

    Perhaps so, Mike. Let me clarify: I do not mean to say that the ancient didn't really believe in Thor, or that they would not have understood "Thor's anger" to explain why someone was hit by lightning. But that was not a bad sort of scientific explanation, as can be seen, for instance, by the fact that it does not contradict the scientific explanation!

    Think about it this way: If my house is blown up, I might say, "That was caused by Silas's anger." It would not be a contradictory explanation, but an explanation of a completely different sort if you said, "No, it was TNT that caused your house to blow up!"

    Similarly, "God caused the Red Sea to part" and "The wind caused the Red Sea to part" are not contradictory explanations. The first is not a bad scientific explanation; it is of an entirely different order.

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  21. "They would probably fall at the feet of Gene Callahan and begin to worship him as some type of god-like fellow."

    phel, they do that all the time regardless of what I say.
    :-)

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