Identity, narratives, and psychopathology: a critical perspective

Pietro Perconti


We are such stuff

As dreams are made on; and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.

William Shakespeare, The Tempest,

Act 4, Scene 1, 148-158

1 Mental disorders and the stories

To capture the spirit of our times, the celebrated statement by Prospero could be reformulated slightly differently, saying that the human being’s mind is made by stories, instead of dreams. Considering stories and dreams as a fingerprint of mankind, however, is not a Shakespeare’s prerogative. History was also a leitmotiv in the classical German age. In a sense, the Phänomenologie des Geistes by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel can be considered as the attempt to show the structure of the human mind from a historical perspective. And, with his Über die Aufgabe des Geschichtschreibers, Wilhelm von Humboldt was trying to discover the “grammar” of what stories are and to highlight their role in human life. This very idea was equally celebrated in the Victorian era and it is also the basis of the theory of natural selection by Charles Darwin, which in the end is a general theory of biological change. The popularity of stories in the culture of the last decades, however, is possibly more and more increasing, by influencing almost every field of human civilization. From art to politics, every human artefact has been considered as the result of our capacity to shape stories. Everything is a story: “Narrative is the primary form by which human experience is made meaningful” (Taylor, 1996). Mental disorders are no exception.

To find what really counts as a cause for a mental disorder, many scholars claim that most of the deficits could be considered as the result of the inability to manage personal stories in the right way. Consider Multiple Personality Disorder and the typical difficulty to handle a consistent autobiography. In Borderline Personality Disorder, people are characterized by life stories which are significantly more incoherent than healthy controls (Lind et al., 2018). The same occurs with Dissociative Identity Disorder, schizophrenia, and many other mental disorders. From a therapeutic point of view, talk therapies can be basically considered as various attempts to reconstruct, or imagine ex novo, alternative narratives able to give sense to the patient’s life in terms of a consistent story. Narrative coherence is considered as a good measure of well-being and telling stories in a very incoherent manner is related to psychopathology' (Vanden Poel and Hermans, 2019; Mitchell et al., 2020). According to Roy' Schafer, psychoanalysis is nothing but a “narrational project” (1980: 83) and the therapist and her patients are mutually engaged in shaping a non-dysfunctional story, within previous difficulties can be managed in a new light (Schafer, 1981, 1992). In a word, wrong and broken stories are the mark of mental illness, while consistent narratives are the sign of a healthy' inner life.

If individuals’personal identity is considered as a result of a given narrative, this latter should be gone wrong, when the individual experiences some form of mental disorder. There is a widespread hypothesis in psychotherapy, often implicitly', according to which the idea that human identity has an essentially narrative nature is linked with the expectation that an adult and healthy' person should be an individual able of exercising full control over his or her mind and behaviour (White, 2007; Dickerson, 2016). Narrative psychotherapy, moreover, is based on a kind of story-based pedagogy'. According to Dan Hutto, children are naturally' predisposed to categorize the world narratively. The basic idea of his Hypothesis of Narrative Practice is that through the stories offered to children by' their parents in interactive contexts, they become familiar with the basic structure of common sense psychology' and the possibilities to exercise it concretely, learning how and when to use it (Hutto, 2007; Hutto, 2008). In other words, nature predisposes human beings to stories and education develops this trend in an orderly' and productive way (Good-son and Gill, 2011).

In such a view, however, there is a risk of implicitly manifesting an unjustified preference for a particular type of personality. Why', after all, should it be preferable being a kind of person which is completely in charge of her own behaviour? Why would “losing control” be a disvalue or something to be considered as dysfunctional? And why' should it be desirable to be both the author and the main character of one’s own autobiography? On what basis should we adopt a psychotherapeutic treatment that assumes such theses as desirable, without any further justification?

2 Narrative and episodic lifestyles

The popularity of narratives is mainstreaming, but not ubiquitous. Galen Strawson’s Against Narrativity (2004) is a celebrated exception. According to him, the popularity of the stories depends on the combination of two theses: the psychological narrativity thesis and the ethical narrativity thesis. In his words:

There is widespread agreement that human beings typically see or live or experience their lives as a narrative or story of some sort, or at least as a collection of stories. I’ll call this the psychological Narrativity thesis, using the word ‘Narrative’ with a capital letter to denote a specifically psychological property or outlook. The psychological Narrativity thesis is a straightforwardly empirical, descriptive thesis about the way ordinary human beings actually experience their lives. This is how we are, it says, this is our nature. The psychological Narrativity thesis is often coupled with a normative thesis, which I’ll call the ethical Narrativity thesis. This states that experiencing or conceiving one’s life as a narrative is a good thing; a richly Narrative outlook is essential to a well-lived life, to true or full personhood.

(Strawson, 2004: 428)

The two aforementioned theses provide four main combinations as shown in Figure 11.1.

The ethical and psychological version of the thesis of narrativity requires different reasons and leads to different theoretical commitments. Generally speaking, it is a matter of appreciating the idea that it is different to believe that our inner life has an essentially narrative nature and to believe that cultivating this psychological

Psychological Narrativity thesis +

Psychological Narrativity thesis

Ethical Narrativity thesis +


Human beings are narrative creatures.

Narratives are crucial for a good life.


Human beings are not narrative creatures.

But, they should have a narrative inner life to have a good life.

Ethical Narrativity thesis


Human beings are narrative creatures, but narratives are an obstacle to a good life.


Human beings aren’t narrative creatures and this isn’t a bad thing.

Many non-narrative individuals have a good life.


characteristic should be considered as a value. In this way, indeed, we end up preferring lifestyles that emphasize our narrative nature and discourage the more episodic ones. For example, children are encouraged to keep a diary, but not in the style ofjames Joyce’s Finnegans IVake or The Big Lebowski in the crime comedy film directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.

By imagining how personal identity could be shaped without stories and storytelling, Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, with his typical jumping from an isolated experience to another one, can be taken as a champion. Lebowski’s days go by without following a particular pattern. He certainly has preferences and projects, but the overall sense of his existence, if any, does not seem to derive from those preferences and plans, but from temporary episodes, which seem to happen without any particular reason. According to the mainstream trend, this kind of scattered lifestyle is less worthy than one that accomplishes a storyline. Yet, in the perspective here proposed, some people don’t narratively experience their lives and yet are virtuous (whatever it means - who decides?). It’s a kind of personality that we could call “episodic”, to distinguish it from narrative and diachronic. Individuals who have an episodic personality do not try to structure their stream of consciousness in such a way as to make sure that it is the same individual who takes part in it (Strawson, 2007, 2017).

David Hume is celebrated for proposing a concept of the self that does not match the expectations of coherence which are typical of the narrative perspective. He is often regarded as a sceptic, but perhaps he is simply suggesting a non-narrative view of what introspection is:

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception. . . . If anyone, upon serious and unprejudiced reflection, thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can reason no longer with him. All I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continued, which he calls himself; though I am certain there is no such principle in me.

(Hume, 1739-40: 252)

It could be argued that, after all, Lebowski’s experiences also form a story, as does the kaleidoscope of events found in James Joyce’s Finnegans I44ike or Ulysses. That is a good point. However, it overestimates the objection to the thesis of the ubiquity of narratives. This latter, indeed, is not intended to maintain that there are experiences that are impossible to describe narratively. More modestly, the point is that those experiences are not lived in a massively narrative way and that they can be told using a particular narrative style in the attempt to give back what it means to have a non-narrative experience.

3 Not only episodes: non-conceptual (self-)knowledge

Considering the possibility of a style of personality not based on narratives, which is indeed highly episodic, and yet morally virtuous, or neutral, it’s definitely a way of contrasting the thesis of the ubiquity of narratives. But, perhaps, it is not radical enough. The problem with episodes is that, after all, by definition they are only segments of a story. They are constituent elements, indeed, like beaded necklaces. Otherwise, they are episodes of what? It is doubtful whether an episode should be understood as the minimum element endowed with meaning in a story (a sort of ‘narratological morpheme’) or whether it’s even a more elementary one, like a simple green card in a mosaic, without an inherent sense. In any case, however, an episode is such because it is a constituent element of a story. Defending the idea that even an episodic lifestyle can be ethically virtuous, or neutral, is, therefore, a way of arguing that even the constituents of stories can have the same value that we are ready to accord to the story as a whole.

The logical feature that makes the episodes the constituent parts of a narrative is the fact that their content can ever be described. Like the stories, precisely, only in a simpler way. The underlying rationale of the narrative perspective is that personal identity, after all, is a kind of identity and that “identity” is a conceptual and linguistic matter. The joint job of language and concepts are traditionally intended to provide a referential criterion made up by satisfying conditions, i.e., a set of conditions able to designate a given state of affairs in the world in a non-equivocal way. Definite descriptions are the linguistic champions of this use of language to refer to individuals. “The capital of the People’s Republic of China” refers to Beijing because this latter is the only city which satisfies the condition of being the capital of the People’s Republic of China.

This perspective, however, is more controversial than one could expect. First of all, language and concepts are not the only way to refer to something in a univocal manner. This picture, indeed, does not take into the right consideration the role of the demonstrative reference. Gareth Evans (1982) famously argued for the idea that reference can occur also in another way, by using demonstrations, like pointing and gaze following. Demonstratives, i.e., words like “this” and “that”, are the linguistic counterpart of this way of referring. Their typical use of demonstrations (Kaplan, 1977) shows how linguistic resources are not able to refer successfully in every circumstance. There is another way to refer, like in the case of indexicals and demonstratives, where these non-linguistic devices are necessary and sufficient conditions for the linguistic reference.

Furthermore, the ability to detect more perceived objects than our language can describe is another evidence that concepts and definite descriptions are not the only cognitive devices to univocally refer to individuals in the world. Consider, for example, our common ability to discriminate between colours of a certain colour range. Red, therefore, can be “ruby”, “Pompeian”, or “bordeaux”, and many other nuances without a name. This capacity for discrimination is amplified by education and culture. Thus, a painter will probably be able to identify more colours than ordinary people. Furthermore, however great this ability may be, it will still be greater than the corresponding descriptive ability. It’s kind of a recursive process. It is always possible, indeed, to identify one more shade of red than all those for which we have a description. And it is also always possible to identify that point of red employing a new description. But it is also always possible to further expand our discriminating ability beyond the descriptions and vocabulary available at a given moment, alluding to a new chromatic tone, perhaps simply a little more saturated than the one for which we had just found a name or a description. The scope of non-conceptual experiences, therefore, is by definition much broader than that of linguistic description and conceptual articulation. It also constitutes the largest part of the human experience.

But what about ourselves? Is self-reference simply a case of traditional linguistic reference, or do we need to suppose something else? If concepts and definite descriptions are not the only way to gain the identity of the external individuals, we can suppose that the same happens also in the case of the self. It is possible to refer to ourselves using descriptions. But it is very different from the case of the essential self-reference (Perry, 1979). Here is an example by John Perry:

I once followed a trail of sugar on a supermarket floor, pushing my cart down the aisle on one side of a tall counter and back the aisle on the other, seeking the shopper with the torn sack to tell him he was making a mess. With each trip around the counter, the trail became thicker. But I seemed unable to catch up. Finally it dawned on me. I was the shopper I was trying to catch. I believed at the outset that the shopper with a torn sack was making a mess. And I was right. But I didn’t believe that I was making a mess. That seems to be something I came to believe. And when I came to believe that, I stopped following the trail around the counter, and rearranged the torn sack in my cart. My change in beliefs seems to explain my change in behavior.

(Perry, 1979: 3)

On the whole, there two ways to have ‘de se’ thoughts, the first using a description which univocally refers to the speaker, and the second using an essential indexical (Perconti, 2013).

There is, therefore, alternative way in which people shape their self, compared to the narrative perspective, and this is made of psychological episodes and non-conceptual experiences. Héctor-Neri Castañeda (1989), John Perry (2001), and many others argued that self-reference works, thanks to the logical rules of pronouns and indexicals, i.e., the capacity to refer to the speaker in a manner which is (more or less) independent from the speaker’s intention and the mechanism of satisfying conditions. They claim that self-reference is not a matter of concepts and stories; rather, it is a matter of logical rules and the ability to handle the context in the right way.

The relationship between moral norms, which are more or less widely accepted in a community, and what should be considered as a mental disorder, is a major problem in psychopathology. Foucault (1972) identified in this link one of the main repressive mechanisms embodied in the social structure. It is well known how controversial is the relation between the Viennese ethics of the late nineteenth century and Freud’s psychoanalysis (Goodman and Severson, 2016). The popularity of the notion of‘dysfunctional’ in psychopathology can be seen just as an attempt to bypass this problem through a hopefully ethically neutral notion. But, of course, it is just an illusion. This is demonstrated by the numerous nosographic changes in the various editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V, 2013). Consider, for example, the various sexual disorders in relation to social change and it will easily be seen how this relationship is still highly controversial. The case of narrative and episodic personality styles I discussed so far can be considered as a chapter in this long book.

The point is that, according to today’s prevailing ethical stance, it is a value for individuals having the absolute and conscious control over their preferences and behaviour. This control usually takes the form of a story, made up of autobiography and public narratives which are consistent with the story of one’s own life. A frilly developed individual would be able to hierarchize his or her preferences, making plans to accomplish them, by cooperating or competing with other people. Stories are what hold together all the just mentioned elements. They give them a sense and allow people to monitor the progress of their projects by comparing the events in their personal lives into a comprehensive account. Films, novels, social media, and intersubjective relationships are part of an overall story, partly private and partly public, that measures the quality of one’s life. What it was argued earlier is that this picture is both a widely accepted assumption in psychopathology' and a claim that is lacking in justification which is offered to interlocutors explicitly.


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