Having been talking more and more to kids, I’ve been pushed to defend my methodology—the use of myths, novels, movies in explicating my points—since they are often skeptical, and sometimes laughs out of the perceived ridiculousness of me connecting Frozen with some high-brow philosophical theory. Having tried to explain what I am doing, and sometimes finding it difficult to do so, since the assumption of the meaningfulness of foundational myths and stories lies so axiomatic in my thinking, I’ve come up with a provisional answer. It is centered around the idea of narrative.
The basic idea is this. We are story-telling and story-living animals, because we don’t merely live in the present, but is stretched out into the past and the future as well. These stories that we hear, tell, and live out can be conceptualized as ways of understanding the world and our place within it. We need stories rather than just mere facts because facts do not tell us what to do without a narrative. Facts, in fact, does not do anything at all by themselves—they state, but they do not point. Hence, we can only operate in the world by taking a stance on the facts, and this is what we call a story (along with a story’s property of being predictive of new facts, as ways, even hypotheses, of trying to understand the patterns of the world). Since we are always living out a story—and I encountered a wonderful UChicago convocation where the speaker likened her university experience as an ongoing television series which illustrates the point rather nicely https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cgUtbyqLdbA&ab_channel=TheUniversityofChicago—we better get our story right. A person with a bad story, like Don Quixote (although the novel itself is a good story), walks on opposite paths than what is real, and a society with a bad story results in starvation, loneliness, and collapse. When we are consuming stories—through movies, TV shows, biographies, myths, novels, video games—we are gathering templates of ways of being in the world that we, ourselves, can live out. And the phenomenon of interest, profoundity, and meaning are mechanisms by which we detect that something important is going on in the story, that it has got something correct.
The central importance of stories to our lives is exactly why we have to learn how to write. In writing, we strive to organize words in the optimal order for good sentences, sentences in the optimal order for good paragraphs, and paragraphs in the optimal order for a good chapter, and so on until we have got a book, and even, an entire corpus of books. This is true enough in fiction, where I attempt to think through the own myths that I embody and seek to make it as enthralling—and therefore accurate—as it can be. But also, in nonfiction, where I search for links between disparate facts, sew parts of what I know with other parts, identify repeating patterns, and turning facts into a story that has a beginning, middle, and end which tells the reader something about how the world is and why it is important that they should know this.
This may come across of trivial, the ability to organize sentences and paragraphs and to have them make a lot of sense, but it really is incredibly difficult. I only really realized this in the past few months, during college app season, when I was forced to review my own writings, as well as my friends’, again and again. What happens is this: what appears logical to me when I first finished an essay, becomes sloppy, vastly dysfunctional, and just, generally, disgusting when read after a day or two as the reader rather than the writer. This is a failure of the story that I’ve been weaving together. (Not to mention the nightmare that is essays written by Y9s, which I had the fortune to read last week: No solid introduction, no conclusion, no discernible argument, constant repetition of unnecessary information, expanding on what is unimportant and ignoring what is important…..) This difficulty attests to the importance of learning about story-telling as writing. For if one fails to understand how to tell a story, how can one understand one’s own story and act on one that is functional?
Hence, to finish this narrative and go back to the initial problem, I use myths and narratives to think because there are really no better ways to do so. (As Bernard Williams said, if philosophers make up their own examples, they’ll just be writing very bad novels.) This is because knowledge must organize itself in the form of a story, or else it is of no utility to us humans, who live out stories, consciously or unconsciously. Stories are not divorced from life. Rather, they are its very quintessence. The way to understand stories is to learn to write, and that is the hardest, but the most rewarding activity, of all. Hence, Writing—Story-telling—Living, are not separate, but forms a homogenous whole.