The Mess Inside: Narrative, Emotion, and the Mind by Peter Goldie

The death of Peter Goldie in late 2011, as is increasingly becoming evident, was an immense loss to philosophy. Few thinkers move so deftly between the rarefied atmosphere of analytic metaphysics, moral psychology, and ethics, and the real stuff of life, of who we are in our living rooms when we think about our lives. The posthumous publication of The Mess Inside, which was already completed at the time of his death, brings Goldie’s considerable insight to bear on the role of narrative in our lives. Not, as one might suspect (or hope), the role of fiction. But rather the role that our autobiographical narrative thinking has when we reflect on past actions (and errors), present plans, and future possibilities.

Goldie describes his view as a modest narrativist view. He disavows the strong narrativist stances of Alasdair MacIntyre and Marya Schechtman in which our self narratives constitute our selves. But equally he distances himself from anti-narrativists such as Galen Strawson who maintain that narrative has no role at all in establishing who we are. Goldie threads the needle with an account of narrative that acknowledges its capacity to provide narrative structure—coherence, meaningfulness, and evaluative and emotional import—to our lives without binding us to a fictionalizing metaphysics.

One of the distinctive components of Goldie’s view is found in his account of free indirect style, which he borrows from the literary critic James Wood. In literature, free indirect style facilitates an emergent dramatic irony as evaluative and emotional terms flit between a narrated subject and a narrator. Goldie argues that something similar occurs in our autobiographical narratives, where we also invest the actions of our narrated subjects (ourselves) with evaluative import: I think back now on my foolish behaviour at the office party last year. There, the regretful foolishness is projected by me as narrator on my own past action. This kind of self-reflective bootstrapping helps me to think through my past in preparation for a better, less foolish, future.

Equally important, perhaps, is Goldie’s use of the French notion of tâtonnement, which is a kind of tentative, groping towards something. It has a technical use in economics that Goldie, as a former investment banker, was no doubt aware. But here it characterizes the jumbled, blurry perspective we have on ourselves, a perspective that we revise again and again through our narrative thinking. It is, or can be, a lengthy process, but the narrative sense of self that emerges provides us, so Goldie maintains, with all we want and need in a narrativist account of the self, without the unfortunate fictionalizing metaphysical tendencies of strong narrativist theories.

There is a great deal here (much more than my brief survey permits me to show) to agree with, to question, and to outright reject. And there will undoubtedly be a fair amount of thinking, narrative or otherwise, spurred by Goldie’s substantial and subtle contribution. One only regrets that Goldie’s further participation in the conversation has come to a close.

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