Narratives and Narrators: A Philosophy of Stories by Gregory Currie

Gregory Currie’s account of narrative is firmly rooted in neo-Gricean pragmatics. He believes that pragmatic inference—inference to the intended meaning behind the words—is ubiquitous in the comprehension of narrative. For “narratives are artefactual representations” that typically emphasize “the causal and temporal connectedness of particular things, especially agents,” which together constitute the story that the narrative communicates. In this way the intentions of the author, or implied author, are made plain to the perceptive reader. It is intentionalism, certainly, but not the fallacious sort debunked by Beardsley; it has no forensic goal, but is just “a common-or-garden activity over which we usually exercise little conscious control.”

If narratives typically concern themselves with causal and temporal connectedness, it will be no surprise to find that they often serve an explanatory function. This is seen vividly in historical narrative (or narrative histories), but fiction also partakes. And it may also account for the reciprocal and mutually supporting relationship that Currie sees later between narrative and Character (by which Currie means “the idea of character as property, as inner source of action, something related to personality and temperament”).

In the final chapters, Currie embraces Character scepticism. This might be seen as an instance of a broader challenge to folk psychological (or folk narrative) concepts. It is possible that Character scepticism also has its roots in neo-Gricean pragmatics, though Currie does not draw the connection. In any case, it is a troubling position for the reader who may have casually accepted Currie’s fine distinctions and close argument as he elaborated a plausible account of narrative. For along with Character scepticism goes scepticism for virtues and much of the machinery of moral psychology.

Running almost in parallel with the main argument of Narratives and Narrators is a series of appendices to chapters that present a speculative evolutionary account of how certain features of the practice of narrative might have arisen. It seems strange until one returns to the earlier noted explanatory power of narrative. By the end of the book Currie is exploiting his evolutionary story to underwrite his Character scepticism (where other arguments seem to have fallen short). But this seems illegitimate; here a speculative evolutionary account confers the impression of a causal explanation for why Character might have arisen as a practice even though (pace the Character sceptic) there is no such thing. I suspect Currie’s philosophical opponents may find room for disagreement here.

Currie claims that nearly everything we may want in terms of literary criticism and the expressive impact of narratives can be sustained even in the face of extreme Character scepticism. I am not so sure. But I am sure that any serious analytical philosophical discussion of narrative in future will do well to engage Currie’s position directly and forcefully.

Posted in books, review.