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American Philosophy

Narrativity, Modernity, and Tragedy:
How Pragmatism Educates Humanity

Sami Pihlström
University of Helsinki

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ABSTRACT: I argue that the modernist notion of a human self (or subject) cannot easily be post-modernistically rejected because the need to view an individual life as a unified ‘narrative’ with a beginning and an end (death) is a condition for asking humanly important questions about its meaningfulness (or meaninglessness). Such questions are central to philosophical anthropology. However, not only modern ways of making sense of life, such as linear narration in literature, but also premodern ones such as tragedy, ought to be taken seriously in reflecting on these questions. The tradition of pragmatism has tolerated this plurality of the frameworks in terms of which we can interpret or ‘structure’ the world and our lives as parts of it. It is argued that pragmatism is potentially able to accommodate both the plurality of such interpretive frameworks—premodern, modern, postmodern—and the need to evaluate those frameworks normatively. We cannot allow any premodern source of human meaningfulness whatsoever (say, astrology) to be taken seriously. Avoiding relativism is, then, a most important challenge for the pragmatist.

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1. The idea that "grand metanarratives" are dead is usually regarded as the key to the cultural phenomenon known as postmodernism. We have been taught to think that the Enlightenment notions of reason, rationality, knowledge, truth, objectivity, and self have become too old-fashioned to be taken seriously any longer. There is no privileged "God's-Eye-View" available for telling big, important stories about these notions. The cultural hegemony of science and systematic philosophy, in particular, is over.

Nevertheless, as even some postmodern thinkers themselves keep on insisting, we still have to be committed to the grand narrative of our individual life.(1) We cannot really dispense with the modernist notion of self, and the one who says we can forgets who she or he is. From the point of view of our own life, no postmodern death of the subject can take place. On the contrary, my death transcends my life; it is not an experienceable event of my lifeas Wittgenstein also famously pointed out at Tractatus 6.4311. Most (perhaps all) of us feel that one's own death is hardly even conceivable from within one's life.

On the other hand, somewhat paradoxically, death must be postulated as the imaginary end point, the final event, of the story of my life. If there were no death (i.e., the annihilation of my self) to be expected, I could not even realize that I am leading a specific, spatio-temporally restricted human life. The fact that death is awaiting for me, even if I cannot fully understand what it is all about, enables me to think about my life as a coherent whole with a beginning and an end. Only with respect to such a life can the question of "meaning" or "significance" arise.

It seems, then, that no postmodernist talk about the disappearance of the subject, connected with the distrust felt toward grand narratives, can force us to give up this meta-level fact about our life. We might perhaps even say, echoing Kant, that the inescapability of death is a necessary "transcendental condition" of a meaningful (or, for that matter, meaningless) life. Human life as we know it is intelligible only under the circumstances in which death inevitably puts an end to it. Without death, our lives would be something entirely different, something about which we can have no clear conception whatsoevernot from the point of view of our present human condition, at least.

Death, then, plays a decisive role in the modern human being's understanding of her or his life as a unified narrative. Let us explore the essentially modern notion of narrativity in some more detail. It is a central element of the modern outlook, of our typically modern conception of personal identity, to employ this notion in making sense of our lives. The modern person, often without noticing it, conceives of her or his life as a "story", and this narrativist attitude to life has been conceptualized in various ways in the history of modern thought (cf. Taylor 1989). To see one's life as a linear progression from a starting point, through various phases (corresponding to adventures in a novel), up to its final page, death, is to be a modern person. To go postmodern is to break this chain of narration, as in self-conscious fiction, in which the story itself somehow "knows", and shows that it knows, that it is only a fictional story. The postmodern person could, or such a person thinks that she or he could, understand that the subjective life she or he leads is not really the life of a single, unified subject. Then, apparently, such a "subject" would not be a person in any normal sense of the term.

I am not simply suggesting that we should not at all attempt to go postmodern in this sense. The "antihumanist" French (as well as American) thinkers have had many insightful things to say about the ways in which the modern subject is constituted in terms of the social and political structures (e.g., power relations) which make life-narratives possible in the first placeinstead of being the fully autonomous center of its life we are (modernistically) inclined to think it is. Furthermore, interesting post-structuralist developments of these investigations have been pursued. Some are still emerging. Yet, from the point of view of an individual human being living in her or his natural and cultural environment, there can be no total disappearance of the subject any more than there can be a total disappearance of all acting characters in a literary narrative. Narratives are about actionsusually about human actions in some problematic circumstances. There simply is no way for us humans to remove this fact of humanity. To do so would require that we turn into beings quite different from what we in fact are. As long as our life is intelligible to us, we will presumably be unable to fail to see ourselves as characters in a narrative, acting in the midst of the problems our environment throws against our face. Even the postmodernist writers themselves, whose work I am unable to comment upon here in any detail, must view themselves as subjects engaging in the intentional action of writing postmodernist prose.

It is, in fact, somewhat ironical that postmodernist philosophers and sociologists of sciencefor example, Joseph Rouse (1996) in his recent bookstrongly emphasize the need to take seriously the narrative aspect of science, thus employing an inherently modernist notion in apologizing for postmodernism. "Modernist" philosophers of science need not necessarily oppose the idea that science, like any other human practice, is partly constituted through the narratives told in and about it.(2) On the contrary, they may join the postmodernist thinkers in granting narrativity an important place in the formation of scientific world-views.

2. I would now like to suggest that, despite the thoroughgoing modernity (or postmodernity) of our age, we should not only take into account the modern and postmodern literary analogues of human life (i.e., linear narrative and broken, "self-conscious" narrative), but also be prepared to look at our lives, at least occasionally, in premodern terms, e.g., in terms of classical tragedy. Our serious mistakes in life will, we might come to think, be "revenged"perhaps not by any supernatural forces, but by other human beings or by the non-human nature nevertheless. Or at least so we can interpret those mistakes. We might, for example, conceive of a disastrous car accident or plane crash as analogous to the nemesis the tragic hero confronts after having committed the tragic mistake. Many people would undoubtedly consider this an irrational idea. The people who die in such accidentslet alone those millions who die in wars and massacres are usually innocent. They never did anything that ought to be revenged: they made no tragic mistakes; they just died, unnecessarily.

But this is not the point. The tragic figuressay, Oedipus or Hamletwere, in some sense, innocent, too. Perhaps the most tragic thing that can happen to a human person is that even an innocent life may be "revenged". Even if, in some conventional sense, the character has been innocent or even virtuous, there may still be something fundamentally "wrong" in her or his life, or in the very fact that she or he lives at all. In our (post)modern economic societies, we may quite easily think about our lives as crimes against humanity. It is because we live in the way we do that the non-human nature and all the poor people in the third world suffer incredibly. We cannot help contributing to the increasing of that suffering, even though we live as responsibly as we can within our standard Western liberal democracies. We deserve a nemesis.(3)

I do not think that any authentic feeling apparently captured in (quasi-)religious exclamations like "I am guilty" or "I have sinned" can be easily reached in concrete human life. But the Christian experience of sin, or moral condemnation in front of God, is perhaps the closest analogue to the experience I try to describe (an experience that we, rich Western people as we are, ought to be capable of having), except that the world-view of tragedy recognizes no Christian salvation. Therefore, tragedy is conceptually closer to us non-believers.

What I try to say is that the points of view to the world provided by fundamental physics, molecular biology, and neurophysiology are not the only legitimate ones to be taken into account when we try to understand our humanity. We should open our eyes to what, say, tragedy (among many, perhaps conflicting perspectives) can tell us about our lives. In the pluralistic spirit of pragmatism, we should tolerate various different points of view language-games employing different standards of acceptability, pursuing different goals, and satisfying different human needs for interpretively structuring the world, including our own place in its scheme of things (see Pihlström 1996a). Modern science is, of course, one of these human perspectives to reality, but the premodern tragic picture of man's fragile position in the world cannot be excluded just because there is no "scientific evidence" for its correctness. It is a correct picture in an entirely different sense, based on entirely different practical purposes. Pragmatists, early and late, have respected this plurality of our ways of experiencing and making sense of both human and non-human reality. They have had no use for the fiction of a "God's-Eye-View" to the world (here the traditions of pragmatism and postmodernism of course resemble each other), but, unlike postmodernists, they have not attempted to destroy the notion of a human subject. Instead, they have respected our need to ask questions about the significance of our individual lives. Therefore, pragmatism might also be able to accommodate our need a very human need indeed to be able to conceive of our lives as tragic (or, to point out a possible link between the premodern and modern standpoints, as tragic narratives).

Relevant examples could be multiplied. Another crucially important premodern source of insight for those who wish to make sense of their human limitedness might be the Book of Job (which is not a tragedy, of course). Reading the story about Job may make us appreciate our smallness and insignificance as parts of a vast amoral universe (cf. Wilcox 1989) irrespective of whether we are theists, atheists, or agnostics, I would add.

The problem here, as so often in philosophy, is how to avoid uncritical relativism. Why can (or should) we "structure" our lives on the basis of tragedy, recognizing our hubris and the resulting nemesis, or on the basis of the Book of Job, recognizing our ignorance and weakness against the great mysteries of the creation, but not at least not rationally and responsibly on the basis of astrology (another premodern practice or viewpoint), postulating interstellar causal forces which determine the events of our lives? Both tragedy, the Bible, and astrology are, to use Nelson Goodman's term, "entrenched" in human culture. There has to be a normative point of view from which we can say that two of them should be taken seriously (though critically) in reflecting on human life whereas the third one should not. There has to be a way of saying that the human purposes which tragedy and the Scriptures (non-foundationalistically interpreted) serve are more serious and better purposes than the ones served by astrology (or other irrational pseudo-sciences).(4) It is hardly surprising that one of the constantly reoccuring charges that pragmatists have had to meet with is the accusation that pragmatism amounts to relativism.

The ultimate form of philosophical relativism is the first-person subjectivist view, according to which I am myself the only possible standard for the rationality (or moral acceptability, or any other normative virtue) of my beliefs, actions, etc. This is no doubt a possible position. It is related to still another example admittedly, a modern rather than premodern one which might throw light on the philosophical relevance of certain non-scientific, prima facie non-rational frameworks: the search for authentic existence, or authenticity for short, as constitutive of our individual lives. This search, inseparably connected with the inevitability of death and the above-mentioned experience of guilt, has been extensively discussed in the existentialist tradition, i.e., in the work of such literary and philosophical figures as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, and Camus (see Golomb 1995).

If it is true that we ourselves "create our authenticity" and that "[t]here is no one but ourselves to condemn or appreciate our behaviour" in the course of that creation (ibid., p. 25), there is a danger of solipsism that we must not fail to observe. If I am the measure of how my life its authenticity, moral quality, or anything else about it should be evaluated, then I am, in a profound sense, alone in the world. The world is my world.(5) Again, it is quite possible to hold this view. One cannot really argue against solipsism on theoretical grounds. Instead, the "argument" can only be based on an ethical decision to lead a certain kind of (authentic) life, to expose one's individual opinions to public normative criteria.

3. There is, then, no easy argumentative "solution" to the problem of relativism, subjectivism, and solipsism. This problem must be constantly faced when dealing with philosophical-anthropological issues such as the meaning (or lack thereof) of human life.

My main proposal here is that the tradition of pragmatism might be able to accommodate our need for a normative reflection on the relevant standpoints from which our life can be structured in a premodern, modern, or postmodern way better than most other philosophical or metaphilosophical frameworks. Pragmatism, at least in the form inherited from William James and John Dewey, can be a reasonable reaction to "the tragic sense of life".(6) Giving up all kinds of foundations, whether philosophical, religious, or scientific, it may help us live with our utter fragility and metaphysical insecurity, with our lack of absolute guarantees of happiness or moral order a theme emphasized in what we might more generally call the anti-foundationalist tradition in philosophy, all the way from the Book of Job through the classical pragmatists up to authenticity-seeking existentialism, the Wittgensteinian conception of certainty (see Wittgenstein 1969), and the thought of such neopragmatists as W.V. Quine, Richard Rorty, and Hilary Putnam.(7)

Pragmatism may turn out to be a useful philosophical framework for the search of a middle ground between optimistic religious and metaphysical reactions to the problem of life, on the one hand, and nihilistic pessimism, on the other. It can, moreover, offer us a normative perspective to what sort of language-games and practices should be included in our serious, reflective paideia to how we should further develop our insecure and non-foundational predicament. The pragmatist insists not only that our practices themselves determine the normative criteria of their success but also that they can fail to meet those criteria. Since the search for meaningfulness in human life is itself a practice, its success must also be normatively evaluated.

The role of philosophy in the "education of mankind" may, thus, be considerable, even though it may demand a lot of hard work of individual philosophers for this role to be actually played. Why, after all, should avoiding non-normative relativism be an easy task? Why shouldn't we think about the threat of relativism as a positive challenge for us pragmatists to be as critical and reflective, though simultaneously as pluralistic and tolerant, as we can?

The educational role of philosophy is, of course, essentially modern. It is from the normatively loaded point of view of modernity that we can, and must, evaluate the premodern and postmodern (and, for that matter, modern) viewpoints we employ in making sense of our lives. In this sense (but not in any more fundamental sense), modernity is still in a privileged, or at least distinguished, position among the various frameworks we share and go on to develop. Pragmatism offers us no way to escape this morally concerned predicament, but it may help us open our eyes to both premodern and postmodern ways of educating ourselves and our modernity.

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(1) One of the thinkers I have in mind here is the Finnish philosopher Esa Saarinen, the co-author of the recent postmodern "anti-book" on "media philosohy", Imagologies (Taylor & Saarinen 1994).

(2) For a review of Rouse's work, seeking to show that his postmodernism does not escape the "modernist" issue of realism in the philosophy of science, see Pihlström (1996c). It should be noted that what Rouse defends is a "pro-science" version of postmodernism not to be confused with the more popular "anti-science" or science-abusing kind of postmodernism ridiculed by the physicist Alan Sokal in his well-known academic joke in 1996.

(3) In his Swedish and Finnish essays discussing the environmental crisis, G.H. von Wright has used the term nemesis naturalis.

(4) Some religious doctrines, such as creationism, are of course pseudo-sciences themselves.

(5) For a critical discussion of solipsism from the viewpoint of pragmatism and the realism debate, see Pihlström (1996b). In his book on authenticity, Golomb also wishes to avoid the solipsistic interpretation of the search he deals with.

(6) Cf. Hook (1974). The term is originally de Unamuno's.

(7) Pihlström (1996a) contains a detailed assessment of the work of these key figures of contemporary pragmatism as well as of their relations to the classical pragmatists.


Golomb, Jacob (1995) In Search of Authenticity: From Kierkegaard to Camus, Routledge, London & New York.

Hook, Sidney (1974) Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life, Basic Books, New York.

Pihlström, Sami (1996a) Structuring the World: The Issue of Realism and the Nature of Ontological Problems in Classical and Contemporary Pragmatism, Acta Philosophica Fennica, vol. 59, The Philosophical Society of Finland, Helsinki.

Pihlström, Sami (1996b) 'A Solipsist in a Real World', Dialectica 50, 275 - 290.

Pihlström, Sami (1996c) 'Is Postmodern Philosophy of Science Possible?' (review of Rouse, 1996), Science Studies 2/1996.

Rouse, Joseph (1996) Engaging Science: How to Understand its Practices Philosophically, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Taylor, Charles (1989) Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1994.

Taylor, Mark C. & Saarinen, Esa (1994) Imagologies: Media Philosophy, Routledge, London & New York.

Wilcox, John T. (1989) The Bitterness of Job: A Philosophical Reading, The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1992.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1921) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1961.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1969) Über Gewissheit / On Certainty, Blackwell, Oxford.

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