Dennett and Ricoeur on the Narrative Self
By Joan McCarthy
Humanity Books, Paperback, 9781591025481, 298pp.
Publication Date: December 2007
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A central issue in contemporary philosophy is the problem of the self. Is it some kind of real entity or a very convincing illusion? Drawing on the work of two leading philosophers, Daniel Dennett and Paul Ricoeur, philosopher Joan McCarthy examines how each of these thinkers casts the self in narrative terms.
McCarthy begins with Dennett’s naturalist objectivist account of the narrative self. Specifically, she considers Dennett’s use of the language of computer programming and his version of the self as a kind of downloadable software package, a useful theoretical fiction yet one that is not real in any scientifically acceptable sense. She poses some objections to his naturalist approach to the problem of human selfhood.
Turning to Ricoeur, she assesses his phenomenological-hermeneutic account of the self as a culturally mediated narrative unity. In comparing Ricoeur’s concept of self as an embodied character (as in a play or novel) woven from the many plots of a single life to Dennett’s neuroscientific model, McCarthy ultimately finds Ricoeur’s approach more comprehensive. The key advantage of Ricoeur’s interpretation is that it focuses, not on things, but on relationships between peculiarly human activities, such as developing long-term projects or making promises. She criticizes Dennett’s excessive objectivism as being too narrow to account for the richness and many-faceted aspects of human life.
Finally she makes links with other contemporary scholars who are deploying theories of narrative selfhood in order to address questions of moral agency in a new light. This new approach to ethical issues, narrative ethics, is currently the subject of much debate in bioethical literature.
"With this careful and critical exposition of two narrative theories of selfhood, Joan McCarthy advances our understanding not only of how selves are best understood, but why it matters that we get this right. Her book is an invaluable addition to the literature on narrative approaches to ethics."
—Hilde Lindemann (Nelson)
Author of Damaged Identities, Narrative Repair and
Editor of Stories and Their Limits: Narrative Approaches to Bioethics
"What a gift—Joan McCarthy offers a wonderfully lucid, readable commentary and critique of two of the most indispensable but difficult narrative philosophers. McCarthy summarizes a broad range of texts by Dennett and Ricoeur, showing which arguments matter and how, and always keeping the story moving. Her book is a welcome contribution to scholars in all disciplines concerned with narrative."
—Arthur W. Frank, author of
The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics and
The Renewal of Generosity: Illness, Medicine, and How to Live