Human Communication As Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action by Walter R. Fisher

REVIEW
Fisher, Walter R., Human Communication As Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action

The great value of Fisher’s book lies in its massive scope and detailed comparative reporting of the development of narrative theory over the entire history of Western thought. He has a remarkable understanding of a large body of philosophical works and movements and works tirelessly to order them in such a way as to defend the use of a “narrative paradigm” as human discourse.

While his own contributions are more subtle, the book as a whole provides a welcome framework for arguments against the application of narrative in scholarship and general intellectual thought. There’s a groundwork here that can certainly be built upon, one that would help shore up lines of inquiry in ways that could attempt to withstand attack by the more rigid technological, scientific, traditionally logically minded. But my question is: what is it that we’re trying to convince those people—i.e., people who eschew the value of narrative practice and theory—of? Or is this still part of the defensive reaction about the value of myth, religion, art, literature, personal expression and individualized experiences of reality that began when Plato decried art as lies, and Aristotle defended it as necessary, cathartic, and transcendent?

Fisher begins with this fundamental split between Mythos and Logos. Logos became the dominant form of determining truth after Plato (at least in elite Western thought, I might add – as Fisher himself admits, in later chapters), with myth being important, thanks to Aristotle’s defense, but something less precise; a probable truth. To logos was given mathematics and geometry, and the technique of the syllogism; To mythos, poetry and rhetoric, aesthetics and metaphor. Logos was for knowledge that could be positively proven, where as mythos was only a kind of temporary or lesser truth; contextual, impermanent; inaccurate, and even potentially false. Fisher quickly goes through a history of thinkers, Bocaccio, Sir Philip Sidney, and Schiller, whom he quotes on the rise of empirical knowledge and the hostility towards the intuitive and the speculative (somewhat self imposed, even in this example.) On a little tangent from this, he mentions Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, “man the player,” which he will later bring back as a proposal for homo narrans, “man the storyteller.” He is clearly aligned with this general type of thought; that the purpose of life is not a pursuit of a cold, impersonal truth; but of the experience of truth shared with others, through communication. If science is a way of knowing the world from the outside in, than art is a way of knowing the world from the inside out. Wisely, he argues more for equality than superiority of any method; arguing for the balance of perspectives, not for the elimination of traditionally logical thought.

In the end of the first overview chapter, he places a large laurel around the neck of Kenneth Burke for his work in placing rhetoric at the center of all communication; but distinguishes the dramatic nature of Burke’s interpretation from the narrative perspective by saying that dramatic makes players merely actors; while the storyteller version makes players the co-creators of knowledge. While that’s useful in terms of contemporary understanding of narrative vs. drama (particularly since the advent of the novel, a relatively recent 18th century development); I think this might gloss over some of the possibilities for a dramatic model which would place actors as playwrights; thus, we’d end up with a kind of homo dramatica. Because the difference between plays and stories is that plays are actually acted out; that they’re more dialogue than monologue; and that they are meant not to record life in the past tense, but to actually recreate life, to enact experience so that it may be objectively experienced by an audience. But I digress a bit from my review with my own commentary, which are simply a part of my own developing yet incomplete thoughts in this area.

In the next chapter, Fisher goes into depth discussing the history of logic, what types of logic are in play, and what they are used for, and by who. Interestingly, he himself brings up the issue of dialogue, and dialectic, in discussing the argumentative model of truth seeking. Going back through thought, he contrasts deductive and inductive models of reasoning, as well as dialectic itself as thought, vs. dialectic as action. Then, he begins further examination of a distinction between rhetorical logic vs. technical logic. (He has previously made a connection between philosophical and technical, which for me is still unclear; philosophy is of thought, and technical of practical application and manipulation of things, so, I’m not sure where he gets this connection from. Unless, really, he’s continuing to extrapolate Cicero’s valuing of men of action over men of thought; and just usurping philosophy for it’s scientific value?) In any case, he shows how the technical came to be “true,” where as the rhetorical came to be only “probable.”

He brings out John Locke as a witness towards the limits of technical truths; beginning with the weakness of the syllogism, in that it can only explain what we already know, not create or present new knowledge. But as recently as 1959, Rudolf Carnap claimed metaphysics all but dead by being neither “true nor false.” Here, Fisher re-iterates his primary questions, responding to a world where rhetoric has been seemingly removed from the scientific discourse:

1) How do people come to believe and act on the basis of communicative experiences?
2) What is the nature of reason and rationality in these experiences?
3) What is the role of values and human decision making and action?
4) How can reason and values be assessed?

Fisher’s answers to this is the concept of “narrative rationality,” and that the key indicators of this are basically coherence, fidelity, and identification. (p 194). Good stories for Fisher are moral in that they allow for the influence of human character, and characters that have love and compassion for humanity. Thus, he states Mein Kampf is a bad story because it ignores the humanity of some people; and that John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is preferable to Nietzsche’s The Will to Power, on a similar value judgement of it’s portrayal of man’s relationship to his fellow man, and fundamental noble traits as justice, wisdom, and compassion.

Overall, Fisher’s book makes a stronger case for reason and value in relation to the narrative paradigm than for action; which is why I keep feeling that drama should be pulled back into the discussion at some point. Also, it is hard not to get lost in the swath of names, and note that few, if any of them, are female. While Fisher does mention that narrative allows for truth to be held by those other that specialists and the learned elite, he himself has a hard time escaping that mode of discourse, making the exception for his universal “homo narrans” for people with “mental illness.” Some might say that those with mental illness just hear and tell very different stories of reality in what is a very complex and often less than rational world. But, that’s a small stone to throw at the very useful and reasonable work.