Stories as the cognitive frame:
We resort to functional and genetic explanations all the time. To explain any emergent happening, we tell a story that leads up to it, in which appeals to origins and goals are often combined. In his Work on Myth, Hans Blumenberg, for example, quotes Flaubert’s diary entry from the latter’s trip to Egypt in 1850:
“During the day, his group has climbed a mountain on the summit of which there was a great number of large round stones that almost resembled cannonballs. [Flaubert] was told that these had originally been melons, which God had turned into stones. The story is over, the narrator is evidently satisfied; but not the traveler, who has to ask for the reason why. Because it pleased God, is the answer, and the story goes no further.”
Existential angst as the generator of knowledge:
The question of “why,” as opposed to the question of “how,” is brought forth, I believe, by the anxiety of having failed to take into account a certain fact. To dwell a little longer on the stones-as-melons story, the explanation in this case, as Blumenberg writes, aims to “naturalize” the unusual shape and size uniformity, which goes against the familiar experience of stones and is bound to raise consternation.
What the questioner is often asking is to be reassured that the world is as previously thought or that he has evaluated the situation correctly, and what he expects to hear is some fact that would reduce the new to the familiar. Take Hempel’s example of a man who wonders why his teaspoon got dissolved in a glass of punch at a New Year’s party. Is it disinterested curiosity that makes him wonder or an underlying anxiety that all is not as he thought or as it should be with the world?
Is punch such a substance that it can dissolve spoons? Are spoons made of such a substance that they can melt in liquid? I would imagine that information about metals, such as Wood’s alloy, that are capable of melting at the temperature of hot punch and about the spoon being a party joke made of such an alloy would be received by him with some small amount of relief and not just register as an intellectually satisfactory explanation.
Why, I would like to claim, is a question of metaphysical anxiety par excellence.
This is also the province of the earliest narratives: myths, legends, fairy tales. In fact, many fairy tales have a structure not unlike explanations in evolutionary biology, with titles like How the Elephant Got His Trunk or Why the Jellyfish Has No Bones. Hagiographies and biographies, without unduly stretching the point, can be viewed as explanations of greatness. Even many novelistic narratives can function as explanations of some thematic point.
In his Work on Myth, Hans Blumenberg grounds mythological narratives anthropologically as a desire of humans to understand themselves as free from the constraints of what he calls the “absolutism of reality”—a phrase denoting man’s lack of control over the outside world, which is experienced by him as an environment hostile and impervious to his needs and resistant to his exertions to transform it.
According to Blumenberg, the exigencies of the absolutism of reality are eventually met by theory as “the better adapted mode of mastering the episodic tremenda of recurring world events.” Theory, as he points out, domesticates the world, easing its “episodicity” by regularizing knowledge and introducing ordered practices and iterative procedures. But, some of this episodicity will always retain a random, haphazard character, will forever be irreducible to law-like regularities, will fall outside the realm of what could be theoretically ascertained.
And the mythological narrative will be there to deal with unrepeatable, emergent events. What I am suggesting, however, is not that mythological narratives offer proper explanatory responses to existential why-questions about emergence–questions, which in their turn, have an originary status—but rather that why-questions are anthropologically coextensive with narratives.
The paradox of language (or the necessary transcendence of the Sacred):
Therefore, the ultimate “why” as well as its local instantiations can never be answered. The why-question itself is embedded in the structure of narrative; or to put it another way: it is “because” we have language, “because” we have narrative, that we ask “why.”
Causality as anthropomorphism:
If one extends some of the ideas about embodied cognition expounded in cognitive science today, one could speculate that narrative structures resonate with our physical alienation from the world. In Philosophy in the Flesh, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson contend that our conceptualization of the surrounding world as endowed with causal relations is fundamentally embodied, meaning that our conceptual system is “neurally” grounded in our sensorimotor experiences.
An important implication of this is that logical and rational inference are instances of sensorimotor inference. The way this works is through an observed connection between an experienced exertion and its effect on the world. From this experience of “felt” conjunction between willed movement and its imprint on the surroundings, an extrapolation is made to all other conjunctions between environmental disturbances, which is eventually conceptualized as a cause-effect association—a precondition for narrative.
Mark Turner goes further in his book, The Literary Mind, arguing that storytelling is a fundamental human activity, with stories, as “complex dynamic integrations of objects, actors, and events,” rather than individual objects or concepts, being cognitive “primitives” that reflect a unit of thought.
The first transcendence of language, restated:
Language maps the world of material culture that is no longer embodied. Things suddenly come into our view and just as suddenly disappear. We can manipulate them prosthetically with the help of hand-held tools and thrown projectiles, but can only make the tools extensions of our physical bodies in an ever-diminishing sense, as they continue to become more removed from our bodies, more virtual. Representation, a crucial anthropological mark of human culture, reflects this separation anxiety.
The epistemological terminus:
The point here is not to assign epistemological primacy, to provide, as it were, an explanation of explanation, because we are mining a territory that is “beyond” the notions of causality or succession. What I see rather as an anthropological project of interest is tapping into the connections between explanatory exigencies and narrative representational structures.
Meaning as thematization of time in time (‘lived experience’), which narration transposes:
Meaning thus is anchored both in the past (as something that finds itself simply thrown into the world) and the future (as something that looks ahead to what it could potentially be in order to understand what it is), and we have access to it in a temporal act of understanding called the Moment, whereby we “retrieve” future possibilities by mapping the past upon the future.
Unlike categorical and grammatical structures, which are atemporal, the structure of thrown projection both thematizes time and unfolds in time, and the temporal actuation of this structure can be read narratively. Thus, what I am suggesting is that Heidegger’s basic unit of meaning is narrative, although it is important to note that it reveals a different understanding of narrativity than in Turner, where a story is understood simply as a sequential action.
Heidegger’s human-scale narrative, on the other hand, resonates with affect, wherein the Moment crystallizes an act of awed reflection on the facticity of existence, its momentous occasions, and lost opportunities. The pathos of this reflection is of the same variety that animates functional explanation: its Moment is topologically similar to the vantage point of the post-factum appreciation of survival from which the functional why-question is asked; at the same time, its attunement to the future is comparable to the teleology of functional “in-order-to” purposiveness.
Aesthetics and narrative closure as the humanizing mechanism:
In The End of Culture, Eric Gans gives an analysis of narrative as a cultural adaptation for sublimating resentment: “The resentful imagination is a reaction against real perceptions that are painful in that they show another in the place that the self would like to occupy.” Instead, mimetic desire, which originally intends the real, gets redirected toward the imaginary and propitiated by a satisfactory fictional resolution.
Hence “[t]he esthetic offers an internal solution to resentment” by instantiating a movement of its deferral. The Heideggerian schema can accommodate the mimetic scenario of deferral by constructing a representational framework within which the subject can articulate an explanatory narrative of imaginary fulfillment. But, its emphasis is shifted to explanation, which marks the subject’s understanding of his own predicament as significant.
Declarative science as ultimately anthropoetically generated:
We should approach explanation theory as the watershed issue between the humanities and other disciplines. The fault line between the two types of discourses runs, I believe, along the narrative schema of generative explanation—a story that tells us not only about things we want to know, but just as much about ourselves.
I have argued that representation and, in particular, narrative give rise to the explanatory problematic. In the sciences, the search for explanation is the engine that drives the scientific enterprise. The illuminations that it affords allow for predictive knowledge and yield insights into necessary connections and regularities—as well as their practical outgrowth in the form of rockets, vacuum-cleaners, and other nomological machines.
But, given that explanatory activity in the humanities is essentially circular, can we, under these circumstances, talk about the progress of human knowledge, and if so, how do we define it? If humanistic knowledge illuminates—and I believe it does—what kinds of insights does it generate, what investigative methods does it avail itself of, what practical applications does it give rise to?
Resolution of declaratives by the maintenance of linguistic presence:
Making an informed choice is unproblematic in the areas of proceduralized knowledge, that is to say, when our mode of knowing becomes theoretical. But, for the plurality of cases that cannot be attributed to law-like regularities or subsumed under nomological machines, the rationale behind the decision-making process must either be bolstered by the authority of dogma or work itself out “parabolically” by seeking legitimacy through modeling itself on culturally-sanctioned “master”-narratives.