The Apparent Inevitability of Literary Criticism

As readers of this blog may know, I have my problems with narrative. All things being equal, I prefer argument and analysis. A large part of this, I suspect has to do with temperament, and an even larger part has to do with training. There is also an aesthetic component to my preference for argument: I like the clarity and structure of good reasoning. I even have some substantive reasons for preferring argument to narrative. Story telling lends itself to a subjective and inaccessible kind of justification that makes me uncomfortable. I also suspect that many appeals in favor of the nuance of and complexity of narrative are basically attempts to avoid the hard work of reasoning. As anyone who has sat through an advanced seminar knows, the easy answer is always to insist on complexity and difficulty. Finding and justifying simplicity and clarity in the face of criticism is much more difficult.

Yet for all of this, God seems to prefer narrative. There are really very few arguments as such in the scripture. Furthermore, in those places where there are arguments they tend to be interpretive arguments. For example, 2 Nephi contains a prolonged argument in favor of baptism, but the argument takes the form of an interpretation of a story about the baptism of the Son of Man. In other words, by and large scriptural argument is parasitic on narrative. At the end of the day, God seems to teach by telling stories. This, in turn, seems to suggest that despite my resistance, literary criticism of some form or another seems to be a required part of acquiring spiritual knowledge. In a very real sense, one of our primary ways of relating to God is as a character in a literary text that we come to know by interpreting the stories.

I take solace in the fact that even if the scriptures are basically devoid of philosophical arguments they do contain a lot of law.

54 comments for “The Apparent Inevitability of Literary Criticism

  1. Nate, could it be that what we understand as reason and argument are a sort of intellectual technology of fairly recent invention?

  2. “I also suspect that many appeals in favor of the nuance of and complexity of narrative are basically attempts to avoid the hard work of reasoning.” Ahh Nate, spoken like a true lawyer. I have to say that, as a historian, I think you are drawing an all too sharp distinction between “reasoning” and narrative. Most working historians would argue that their narratives contain arguments that depend on sound reasoning. It’s true that narrative usually does not rely on precise logic, defined in the technical sense, but that does not necessarily make them unreasonable. I guess what I’m saying is that a great deal depends upon how you define narrative and logic–terms that are multivalent and which tend to be slippery.

  3. RW: You may be right. One sees virtually no arguments in the OT. There are several in the NT. The BofM has a fair number of arguments, but mainly over the interpretation of scriptures. Abstract argument seems to been discovered about two millenia ago, which makes it a bit of a late comer.

    costanza: In a sense I agree with you. On the other hand, I suspect that the historian’s preference for narrative is one of the reasons that history as a discipline has failed to produce very many ambitious or powerful explanatory theories, in contrast to less narrative-centric approaches to studying humanity like economics or sociology. Of course, you are correct that historical narratives depend on often very complex and sophisticated reasoning. I wouldn’t want to imply otherwise. I do think that there is a distinction between narrative and argument. Narrative it seems to me is ultimately about sequence, one tells a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Argument, on the other hand, in my mind is primarily about tracing out conceptual relationships between premises and concluions.

  4. Nate: I suspect that the historian’s preference for narrative is one of the reasons that history as a discipline has failed to produce very many ambitious or powerful explanatory theories.

    Isn’t that an implicit tautology? — the preference for narrative means the failure to produce arguments (i.e., theories).

  5. Nate,
    It is true that historians borrow a great deal from other disciplines for theoretical insights. No argument there. Have you read Hayden White, Paul Ricoeur, etc? They, and others like them, spend a lot of time wrestling with the issues of narrative and the distortion (or not) of narrative structures on the historical enterprise. anyway, interesting thoughts.

  6. I prefer argument and analysis – but I think people on the whole (thinking of the students that I teach for example) somehow prefer the argument and analysis embedded in narrative and discourse, perhaps to hold interest or to contextualize or just to make arguments more salient and practical.

    Straight argument and analysis (think of theoretical academic journals for example) is read and tolerated only by a limited set of folks, until someone comes along to weave a story around the bare-bones theory (the likes of Malcolm Gladwell are masters of this…). Overall, I think narrative is inevitable, and I think it is good for even staunch theoreticians to master the art of a good story.

  7. “. . .literary criticism of some form or another seems to be a required part of acquiring spiritual knowledge.”

    I would say we can’t organize a life without being literary critics. As Dan McAdams makes clear–to some of us, anyway–we are ourselves stories. Our identities have a narrative structure. We figure out who we are by authoring a life story about what has happened and what we anticipate may happen.

    Story comes so naturally to us and is such a fundamental aspect of our being and thinking, that’s it’s easy to mistake the profound intelligence necessary to form and see stories. In my work as a writing teacher, I’ve thought quite a lot about narrative intelligence and the work of getting people to do a better job of authoring stories–particularly nonfiction stories. I think this helps them live.

    Narrative intelligence, as I’m using the phrase, includes the ability to emplot, to find the story in all the episodes and events, to discern or decide where things are going and to select which details are part of the story and which are not, to recognize patterns and find themes, to revise for unity and coherence. People who do these things well tend to be able to live better.

    It’s astonishing how many people have tremendous trouble with unity and coherence–seeing what is an event, how events are related, and what patterns they are making.

    Good authoring (and reading) makes use of the skills of analysis and argumentation, I would argue, but includes considerably more. Scriptural stories provide types that help us to discern plots we would otherwise miss.

    As an aside, it’s interesting to consider that identities, like other stories, have genres. Hamlet couldn’t really be Hamlet if his story ended in a comic farce. Carol Pearson says most of us make our life stories fit one of the six narrative forms we learn growing up (she calls them archetypes): the Innocent, the Orphan, the Wanderer, the Warrior, the Martyr, and the Magician.

    Researchers among elderly people in Scandanavia decided that most of their subjects could be classified according to what story they thought they were living: the Suffering One, the Loser, the Fighter, the Altruist, the Careerist, or the Happy One.

    Such lists aren’t exhaustive of course. Our own cultural toolkits might include genres that help us see ourselves as tricksters, disciples, or knights. The important points are that it matters a great deal what genre we think we’re in, and that the genres aren’t inborn. We learn them.

    I rather think that all we leave this life with is our story, which we will live with in some way or another forever.

  8. Michael: I, on the other hand, think that much of the world’s confusion could be solved if people understood the difference between necessity and sufficiency and the fallacy of affirming the consequence.

  9. Incidentally, Micheal, I disagree with your claim that learning the skills necessary for good story telling necessarily means that one will be good at argument and analysis. Clearly, there are people who are both good story tellers and good reasoners/arguers/analyzers. On the other hand, there are also good story tellers who are actually pretty sloppy reasoners. (Virtually all journalists, as near as I can tell, fall into this category ;->).

    It goes without saying, of course, that there are lots arguers who are really bad story tellers.

  10. Well, there is the continuing polemic against the worldly knowledge–God using the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and all that. I’m more than happy to consider literary criticism to be one of the foolish things of the world, but I respectfully disagree about the character of worldly knowledge.

  11. I don’t disagree with either of your points, Nate.

    Nonetheless, one can’t live well without narrative intelligence.

    The greatest achievements in language are stories, though there is no end to bad stories. Reality, for humans, has a narrative structure.

    I’m talking more about living than “storytelling.” Logical analysis is woefully inadequate to the main questions in life. This is part of the reason historians cannot establish any laws in history. If I am pursued by an army of Egyptians and find a sea before me–a kind of situation that is quite common to any who is paying attention–rational analysis will not be of much help. I need to know what story I am in, and the best place to have developed such knowledge is through a contemplation of scriptural and similar stories.

    Logical analysis is a useful tool for those who have found themselves in a good story, but by itself it can’t even establish goodness. The end of Socratic reasoning is not knowledge but further questions, ever more precision leading to the disappearance of all knowing. As we increase our precision, all boundaries disappear. The sophisticate cannot find the border between America and Mexico, because he is looking for it through an electron microscope.

    The good lawyer who wanted to know who was his neighbor would not have been satisfied with any definition. He would have quibbled with whatever he was told, analyzing forever. Instead, the good master told a story. Those who wanted to know what was meant by neighbor “got it.”

  12. Arguments require premises that only narrative can provide. You might find it interesting to read Alastair MacIntyre’s argument in After Virtue that narrative is indispensable to moral philosophy.

  13. MacIntyre is good. Here’s a favorite quote from After Virtue:

    I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do? if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’ We enter human society, that is, with one or more imputed characters–roles into which we have been drafted–and we have to learn what they are in order to be able to understand how others respond to us and how our responses to them are apt to be constructed. It is through hearing stories about wicked stepmothers, lost children, good but misguided kinds, wolves that suckle twin boys, youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world and eldest sons who waste their inheritance on riotous living and go into exile with the swine, that children learn or mislearn both what a child and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are. Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words. Hence there is no way to give us an understanding of any society, including our own, except through the stock of stories which constitute its initial dramatic resources.

  14. Culture is about the business of sociological structures and hierarchies, divisions of labor, passing along generation to generation accumulated knowledge and valued practices, having people conform and aspire to certain expectations as exemplified within tales and whose violations are taboo. Some actors within a culture are just that: actors — who take these threads of cultural beliefs and practices and weave them into forms starring themselves as active agents; others are more participants through being acted upon. So, the consummate trick of being an effective actor in a culture is that those who are the most successful at it intrinsically recognize that it’s a malleable fabric and that their participation in it is an act of creation. Others see the cultural ediface as something ominously foreboding that they are ill-equipped to struggle against. But, hey!: Religion is tales; it’s making things up! Currently forming strains of religion (As just one example: New Agers) exhibit this creative process of the making up these tales. And, once MORMONISM itslef was still in this category. Then in subsequent generations, what was once within some unstable form dynamically within the very process of being created has become more solidified as some community’s present-day orthodoxy. But what was REALLY going on was that there had once been certain actors — such as Brigham Young — who’d been very creatively forming all sorts of fantastic stuff. Yet part of this stuff Brigham bequeathed us were tales fossilizing the demarcation between blacks and whites . . . which took another creative actor to lose (in the person of Spencer W. Kimball)!

    I’m all for creative actors, in this sense!

  15. I’m quite happy to be led by prophets–who speak from story (what has happened to them and what they know) rather than by theologians–who think and think and think but do not know.

  16. Nate wrote, “Argument, on the other hand, in my mind is primarily about tracing out conceptual relationships between premises and concluions.�

    But what is the purpose of argument? I suspect that most often it is to persuade others or oneself to do something, to make them accept the truth of a conclusion and then act. Sometimes it might be just to impress others with its brilliance. But the most brilliant argument, assuming that the belief in a conclusion is its purpose, is no better than its premises. And logic can’t even begin without premises – premises which it cannot provide for itself. Michael said it better than I have in just a sentence.

    “Logical analysis is woefully inadequate to the main questions in life.�

  17. Nate said,

    “Story telling lends itself to a subjective and inaccessible kind of justification that makes me uncomfortable.”

    There are a couple of things here I don’t follow, Nate, if I’m understanding you correctly. First, it seems to me that if you don’t like the justifications that typically follow stories, what you dislike isn’t narrative, but the arguments made on its basis. If narrative isn’t argument–if they are distinct, as you maintain–then how can narrative be the site of the insufficiently supported conclusion?

    Second, I’d question the idea that subjective, personal experiences are necessarily more inaccessible than the clear, evident structures of an argument arrived at by a reason uncontaminated by narrative (if such a thing could exist or would even be desirable). Argument is far from the only, or the most important, form of public discourse.

    “I also suspect that many appeals in favor of the nuance of and complexity of narrative are basically attempts to avoid the hard work of reasoning.”

    Hmm. I tend to suspect that appeals based on abstract reasoning–particularly in certain religious contexts, but in many others as well–can also be attempts to avoid the harder and more necessary work of empathy and human understanding, a work that occurs at least partly through the exchange of narratives. Relatively few people who’ve ever lived on this earth are going to engage in much abstract reasoning, but mercy is a work for us all.

    Just for the record, I’m not at all hostile to abstract reasoning. I find it immensely challenging and satisfying–and I agree with you, Nate, that there can be a beauty in its clarity and elegance. But I also think it should be kept in its place. Physical, emotional, and spiritual experience, and the narratives we make of it, are where we live and move and have our being. Which is perhaps one reason God can speak to us so deeply in narratives.

  18. Eve: Great comment. Two points.

    First, narrative can be a form of reason giving. This can be problematic. Consider the example of bearing your testimony. You are trying to persuade someone to believe in a certain way and you do so by giving them a narrative about how you came to have your belief through an experience with the spirit. This is a very suspect kind of reason giving. It is structured such that it is impossible for the interlocutory to evaluate the validity of the reasons that you offer. Of course, we bear our testimony in the hopes that the other person feels the Spirit or that there is something appealing that makes them want to try things out for themselves. In other words, the value of the narrative as a form of reason giving rests on the hoped for intervention of the supernatural and a kind of rhetorical seduction. There are obviously contexts in which this is a fine thing to do, but I think that we are in deep trouble if most of our analysis depends on supernatural intervention and seduction. Bearing one’s testimony is a particularly stark example of the subjectivity of narrative, but it does get at the way in which stories are frequently used in the context of reason giving and the problems that it can create.

    Second, I suppose that it all depends on context. No doubt logic chopping can be a way of retreating from the work of mercy and charity. On the other hand, reason and argument is not entirely without virtues in this department. Sometimes providing clarity and simplicity is genuinely useful. People can feel pain from confusion and reason can actually be a pretty good way of managing confusion, even if we ultimately remain ignorant or confused. Furthermore, responding to a person’s arguments — the reasons that they offer — is a way of taking the person seriously. The fallacy that we all fall into is thinking that the purpose of reason giving and argument is to demonstrate who is smartest. The fallacy is the belief that only dumb people make mistaken arguments and that smart people always reason well. The fact of the matter, however, is that it is a big, complicated world and we can with the best will in the world and high intelligence and education just get things plain wrong. Reason and analysis can be a way of figuring out if we are mistaken and how we are mistaken. The fact that we are mistaken, however, shows that we are human not that we are dumb.

  19. “Story telling lends itself to a subjective and inaccessible kind of justification that makes me uncomfortable.”

    Cliche alert. Not the “makes me uncomfortable” part. The “Storytelling lends itself to a subjective and inaccessible kind of justification” part.

    “I also suspect that many appeals in favor of the nuance of and complexity of narrative are basically attempts to avoid the hard work of reasoning.”

    Does this suggest that any bad argument that’s lazy and convoluted cannot be classified as argument and analysis but only as narrative?

  20. I would also point out that one can denigrate just about any human activity — including story telling — an “attempt to avoid the harder and more necessary work of empathy and human understanding.”

  21. Nate: A small correction–in logic it is “denying the consequent.” “Denying the consequence” is what teenage boys often want to do.

  22. One can’t prove anything with a story. But then, neither can one prove anything with arguments.

    When we make a story in testimony meeting, we are partly deciding what had happened–in the sense of how things were causally related. Stories are something we make. They don’t exist without us. But they are as real as racism, money, generosity, and baseball. We can understand them better and better. It really doesn’t matter whether we like them or prefer them. We can’t argue with them.

    Stories in testimony meeting aren’t usually intended as proof, I think, so much as a testimony. We are cautioned that in this world proof is not available. But we can learn and know through experience that the universe is responsive to us–that it is governed by a storyteller who constructed time with a beginning, middle and end, and that as we decide his stories are true and use them as types to organize our own lives, we can can part the sea, we can walk on water, we can heal our children. We can awaken in realities previously unimagined.

    I swear it’s true. But it would be folly to try to prove it.

    But we should always reason as well as we can and try to get better. Good reason following good evidence has been one of the principle ways the world has gotten better. The progress of the Socratic way of knowing is one of the great stories of the world. Maybe the second best story.

  23. “Does this suggest that any bad argument that’s lazy and convoluted cannot be classified as argument and analysis but only as narrative?”


  24. Thanks for your response, Nate. I’m not sure about your description of giving testimony, though. It seems to me the heart of testimony isn’t actually narrative; it’s the public declaration of a personal witness, and the history of that witness may or may not be included. I’m also not sure if bearing testimony is best described as persuasion–or at least, as persuasion in the same sense that argument and rhetoric are. It seems to me better described as communication, or even communion, in that it strives toward a spiritual, rather than a purely intellectual or even emotional, relationship.

    I really like your point about reasoning as a kind of respect, and I wholeheartedly agree that argumentation can be an act of respect and compassion. But I also think that the respect and mercy–or the disrespect and disdain–are anterior to any purely logical argumentation; they exist in the complex, nuanced (sorry–just can’t resist!) fabric of our relationships, in our clumsy attempts to understand one another. It’s only in that broader relational context that we can even know what premises we might have in common, what arguments to make, how to frame those arguments, and when to stop arguing. At least in my experience, it’s narrative that provides a lot of that relational context and connection that makes argument possible, and meaningful.

  25. Oh, NO! We’ve come to the dreaded point of mutual surrender before nuance! Nate, you’re right–let’s get back to arguing. It’s more fun. ;>

  26. “But what is the purpose of argument?”

    Norman, in my mind the primary purpose of argument is not persuasion or to show off. It is to make that which is confusing less confusing. It is a way of organizing what I know so that I can draw implications about what I don’t know.

  27. “Poet and priest were one in the beginning — only later times have separated them. The true poet is however always a priest, just as the true priest has always remained a poet. Ought not the future to bring back this ancient condition of things?” — Novalis

  28. Eve: I suppose that you could start telling stories about how arguments have changed your life, and I could construct syllogisms about the importance of narrative. How is this.

    1. God provides us with a model for how we should understand and communicate the most important aspects of life.
    2. In the scriptures, God consistently uses stories to communicate and explain the most important aspects of life.
    3. Therefore, we ought to use stories to understand and communicate the most important aspects of life.

    Notice that for all of my narrative bashing, this is the argument that I more or less made in the post. I just don’t want you story people to get too triumphalist about it.

  29. Even deductive reasoning has to start from facts and axioms. Theologically speaking, where are we to get those facts and axioms, except as a rule, from a narrative of some sort?

    If you trust the narrator, narrative is revelation at is fullest. Prophecy is nearly always narrative, for example. Only once you have a base of narrative, can a commentator start making arguments, to explain the principles underlying the whole scheme, and to develop further implications.

    One other reason for narrative is that it is multi-vocal, and the Lord likes to teach on multiple levels at once. Consider it a matter of literary economy, where the keys to the higher levels are usually only apparent to the diligent disciples of the Word.

  30. People love their children and want to teach them. Children are taught most effectively and efficiently through stories. So people teaches their children through stories. Generation after generation, just a whole lot of stories get told. It turns out there’s certain setpieces in them! — and that words have developed for certain concepts. So people look at these concepts, compare them to each other, refine them, figure out overriding or underlying principles and relationships relating to them and try to break things down to first principles. . . .

    But arguments break out! — since one group’s done this process of establishing meanings along one particular line of development and another’s done it along another. And, according to survival of the fittest, one group’s system of meanings in some instance or another will win out — through its success at being replicated. One useful way to ensure their successful replication is through appeal to authority: “‘ I ‘ didn’t think up these ideas; they’re as old as the hills and in fact come from the Same Source everything does!” In fact, after awhile, certain adepts amass a reputation for being able to divine what recommendations this Source of Everything might give. The American Indians call such people holy medicine men. The Old Testament call two such men Jethro and Balam. We Mormons call such men “the brethren.”

    Is there a continued use for our having such men? Well, according to survival of the fittest, for their presence among us to survive, there’s got to exist some use for them. So, let’s see: In the present case, they teach champion conservative, middle-class values stressing individual accomplishment tempered with the altruism of supporting ones family and community — oh! and they’re also believed to have divine authority. So, yeah, their influence has a good chance of survival in some continuing form and within some evolving millieu. But what they say and do must compete with other forces within society as well: intellectual voices, cultural currents. And some battles they tend to win over the long haul, some they essentially draw, and some they lose: (Equal Rights Amendment, the win column; Prohibition, draw; Polygamy, lose).

  31. Fabulous, Nate–elegant and concise. OK, here’s my attempt:

    Once upon a time, I took a philosophy class. It was loads of fun. I read a little Descartes and wandered around for a few days wondered how I could know if I were awake or dreaming. My roommate, who was pre-med, thought I was very strange. She was right. I took a couple of logic classes. They were fun, too! It was shocking to see how fuzzy my own thinking had been, and continued to be. I took a few more classes in philosophy and other things, realized how little I knew about anything, and then, at seemingly arbitrary points in my expanding awareness of my own ignorance, got a piece of paper, and then another.

    I’ll promise that not a triumphalist word will escape my lips if you’ll refrain from pointing out what a lame storyteller I am.
    (Maybe I’d better go back to arguments after all…)

  32. Nate’s Narratives

    Ironically, one of my favorite things about Nate’s posts is his use of narrative to couch his observations and arguments. Nate is a storyteller. He often employs the narrative hook to get you to read the rest of his post, and the narrative becomes part of the argument. Nate tells a story, and he uses narrative to explain why he makes the argument/observation in the first place… for example…
    “When I first read Nibley and the work of his disciples there was something intoxicating about it.�
    “It looks as though we are finally settling down. I don’t anticipate the nearly annual ritual of moving that has characterized my married life thus far. We are now where we are going to live, at least for some time. As fate would have it, we have been cast upon the shores of the James River in the Virginia tidewater. My own roots in America are almost entirely New England and Canadian. I am not descended from Virginians. Hence, I can claim no genetic relationship to my new community…â€?
    “Having run the gauntlet that is LDS singlehood, I didn’t read it all that closely. (My apologies to all of you single LDS people who think that married Mormons are smugly unconcerned with your plight. Alas, you are often correct.) I was struck by this passage…â€?
    I am not longer an attorney. I’m still a lawyer and always will be; law school does that to you. Still, today was my last day of work at the firm. I am leaving clients and the “real world� behind for the ivory tower
    On initially reading it, I thought that basically Rees was peeved at me for being such a presumptuous young ingrate, and my first reaction was — litigator like — to provide a point-by-point rebuttal.

  33. Nate and Eve: It seems to me that argument and narrative have different purposes. I disagree with Nate. I believe that argument is about persuasion and changing minds thru offering perspectives, reasons, consderations and so forth. Arguing can be an attack, it can be a defense, it can be a perspective. So narrative can be one form of argument. Narrative shares more than argument and isn’t so much about persuasion and and changing minds or providing forces new perspectives as it is sharing, allowing others gently to come to their own insights and allowing all of the ambiguity that human life is heir to. If someone claims that Mormons are all racist, I may tell a story of Mormon who clearly isn’t — and it functions as an argument by counter-example. On the other hand, I could point out that such a generalization is self-defeating because it is in itself bigoted and a carrier of the very diseae of unjustified judgments that bothers us so much about racism.

    So I never see narrative and argument as opposed — but as two different ways that can subsume each other in the same purposes. It is in many ways just the analytic and post-modern (what it means) feud within current philosophy. I say make love and not war.

    However, I do have a difference with Jim F. about scripture and history. As I understand what he says, as a believer he is interested in hermeneutics and narrative, what it means, and he has little interest in the question of historicity of scriptures or sciptural events. I don’t take him to say that these narratives are stories, but that as a believer he is beyond the question of historicity because it is accepted as a given for him. Thus, arguments about the unreliable nature of the resurrection narratives and whether they tell us about an actual event are not at issue in the narrative because such facticity is accepted as given by the believer. He isn’t saying that such historical issues are not important to those for whom they are issues; they just aren’t issues for him. At least that is how I have read what he says.

    I have a harder time making the distinction that he believes is given in the way we approach texts. Let me give two examples. Given recent DNA arguments I believe that it is not plausible to read the BofM text as a story of all of the Amerindian ancestors. Of course, many came to the conclusion long before DNA that it wasn’t a two-hemisphere story; but that is just the point. Reading the text as the story of a small group of Jews within a sea of pre-existing Amerindians is a very different story than that of the ancestors of two continents. So issues of historicity seem to be logically prior in some way to interacting with the text.

    Further, isn’t the focus on the text without the questions of historical setting impossible? Jim mentions that he seeks to understand the melieu and culture of the of the NT — and in may ways what Paul and Jesus say is just non-sense without an understanding of the world in which they lived. Is Paul writing about fellow Christian Judaizers, about Jew or about how all of us stand before God? Are the disciples reconstructing a narrative that retells a story or are they reflecting first hand experience? Perhaps both — but it is important which we are reflecting as we engage the text.

    So let’s agree that God was not an analytic philosopher. However, God is a judge and lawyer who constantly throughout the OT and NT and often in the BofM uses arguments from within the context of Israelite/Jewish legal procedure and prior precedent to construct lawsuits against his people, to defend himself against charges of infidelity and breach of covenant, to make and renew covenants and so forth. The only reason that we miss these arguments is that for thus they are not persuasive and we lack the legal-structural context to make sense of the arguments unless we have studied what counts as an argument within this culture and time.

    Moreover, if another’s objections to the gospel are based on arguments, won’t it take counterarguments to meet these objections (Paul does it constantly)? If objections to the gospel are based on other factors, then perhaps narrative answers the issue more directly. Sometimes simply sharing experiences thru narrative framework or stories that put life in a more complete perspective and broader relief will do the trick. Narraive and argument/analysis are just different tools to address our purposes (and I don’t intend to say that all argument is analytic — a narrative can be an extended argument as telling the story of Abraham’s righteousnes before God without the law functioned for Paul).

  34. I’m exactly the opposite! I value stories above reasoning and logic (as powerful as those things can be) because I have found that in real life, the logical formulation of the problem is always missing crucial facets of reality. In logic we pare down experience into axiomatic form, and come to what seem to be sound conclusions, which we then later find out, by actually living, were incredibly obtuse. The whole reason we have to go through mortality and get a body is that there is no substitute for actually living, for real experience.

    I can’t tell you how many times my sound logical reasoning and judgement have led me to totally erroneous conclusions about life, which are then arduously and painfully (because I cling so powerfully to my logical formulation) corrected over years of life experience. Logic, for instance, led me to believe there is no God, so there was no reason to bother trying to talk to him.

    Narrative, however, is able to capture, or suggest, some of the complexity of real experience, in a way that makes it resonant to our spirits. I learn more about what it means to be alive and human from a good novel than any number of philosophical treatises. Certainly it has to be a GOOD novel, which most novels aren’t, but there are plenty of good ones if you know where to look. =)

  35. “Does this suggest that any bad argument that’s lazy and convoluted cannot be classified as argument and analysis but only as narrative?�


    Glad to hear it! Overgeneralizations cloud discourse, leading (for one thing) to false dichotomies, as perhaps your distinction between narrative and argument (degrees of rationality) might be.

    Some storytelling strikes me as irrational, as does some argument and analysis. However, storytelling may allow for a wider variety of subjective responses than argument and analysis does, and perhaps that’s the biggest difference between them. But storytelling itself is as subject to principles of reason and community good as formal argumentation.

    That people find it difficult to hold narrative to the same “high” standards that argument and analysis purport to subcribe to probably points to belief in cliches about logical and creative impetus lying at opposite ends of the spectrum of reasoning. Oh, and inexperience in applying principles of reasoning to storytelling.

  36. P.G.: I am affraid that I literally don’t know what you are talking about. What do you mean by degrees of rationality? Furthermore, I am at a bit of loss as to see how the position that you are criticizing is recognizable as anything that I have said. Why is there a false dichotomy between narrative and argument? Are you really claiming that it doesn’t make sense to talk about story telling and argument as different sorts of things?

    I’m confused.

  37. Thanks for the post and comments. This issue reminds me of several issues that come up among Dostoevsky scholars. His writing is often taken as a precursor/inspiration to later existential-type philosophy b/c of the tension he explores in his narrative between rational philosophy and truths evident in his characters’ lives.

    I highly recommend his writings if these issues interest you. A good place to start is the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor which, through Alyosha’s kiss of Ivan, is sometimes taken (and controversially so) as a microchosm of Dostoevsky’s own thinking: that he can’t come up with a rational argument to counter all of the philosophical questions and doubts that he has raised, but that is b/c of the limits of rational philosophy in capturing deeper truths such as love, humility, and faith….

  38. Hey Nate, let’s talk. This is a passion of mine–narrative, stories.

    Two modest proposals:
    1. As far as I’m concerned argument is displaced narrative. The most complex argument and explication comes through narrative. Argument is pale, simplified, an after thought.

    2. On this, I believe I have Joseph on my side. He explored the world through narrative. His argument and law and theory were propped on stories. In my view, you can’t trace Mormon theology by tracing argument. You can only trace Mormon theology by following stories–Moses, Joseph, Enoch, and so on and so on. It’s a wonderfully complex theology, but only if you obsess on the narrative, story, hiSTORY first.

  39. Nate said, “Are you really claiming that it doesn’t make sense to talk about story telling and argument as different sorts of things?”

    My interest in your post lies in how you seem to distinguish story telling from argument by virtue of the presence and quality of reasoning: argument is rational and clear; story telling is irrational and avoids taking responsibility for its reasoning (if any). I take this from statements like: “I also suspect that many appeals in favor of the nuance of and complexity of narrative are basically attempts to avoid the hard work of reasoning.”

    This “A is rational, B is not; therefore I find A superior to B” argument is passed around a lot. I’ve heard it used by some fiction writers to assert fiction’s higher rational ground over poetry, using precisely the reasons you give in your post for preferring argument over narrative: poetry is “subjective,” “inaccessible,” “makes me uncomfortable.” To be clear, this argument is: “Fiction is rational; poetry is not. Therefore fiction is superior to (more concise than, more responsible than, more dependable than, etc.) poetry.

    Isn’t there a similar popular yet inverse contest that asserts that spiritual inquiry is superior to reasoning? In this case, lack of rationality is ascendent. But probably T&S has been over this particular dichotomy again and again, given how strongly some people feel about the spirituality vs. rationality issue and Jim F’s presence on this blog.

    Or how about this oldie but goodie: “Men are rational, women are irrational. So men are superior to women.”

    I know the point of your post is not that argument is superior to narrative. This is your point: ” literary criticism of some form or another seems to be a required part of acquiring spiritual knowledge.”

    I simply think that when you separate narrative from argument on the assertion that argument relies on reasoning and story telling relies on, well, irrationality, you’re leaning on a cliche that while popular doesn’t hold up and that may even to some degree enable the bad reasoning rampant in bad story telling. As a student of the effects of narrative and a great admirer of fine reasoning, I would like to see this dichotomy between reasoning and narrative dropped in favor of holding both to the same standard of attractive and well thought-out language.

  40. Eve (#18): “Relatively few people who’ve ever lived on this earth are going to engage in much abstract reasoning, but mercy is a work for us all.”

    Eve, why do you believe that empathy and mercy follow so intimately behind narrative? It seems to me that story is used at least as often, if not, indeed, more often, to inflame hatred, ossify entrenched prejudices, and militarize status boundaries, no? Indeed, I think it could be argued that mercy’s precondition is justice, not merely philosophically or personally but also socially, and that modern societies, in their complexity and pluralism, require a substratum of reasoned principle to achieve justice.

  41. Indeed, modernity may be best understood as a society of competing narratives. Plato’s point about banning poets from the Republic was that narratives needed to be evaluated by philosophers. He would actually let poets in, but only if their stories had been properly vetted by reason. He had a point. But the 2,000 year rise of the philosopher king to dominance leading to the governance of society by rationality hasn’t really solved the problem. Stories, including bad ones, are persistent, and all philosophers are caught in one or another. Not being a historian, I still feel comfortable taking lessons from history: in the end, the best story wins.

  42. Rosalynde, certainly any morally charged language can be used for good or ill; a dollop of Nate’s logic will demonstrate that “If we have achieved mercy, then we have done so by telling a story” does not entail “If we have told a story, then we have achieved mercy.” (I wouldn’t hold narrative as the only path to empathy and mercy, simply as one of the most significant.) It seems likely to me that justice and mercy are profoundly interdependent, and in any case that reasoned principle depends, both in its genesis and in the particular situations in which it becomes meaningful, on narrative.

    Patricia said,

    “I would like to see this dichotomy between reasoning and narrative dropped in favor of holding both to the same standard of attractive and well thought-out language.”

    I agree. It seems that little of our language falls neatly into one category or the other, and that both are characterized by the same linguistic, sequential forms of reasoning.

  43. Eve,

    I said: “I would like to see this dichotomy between reasoning and narrative dropped in favor of holding both to the same standard of attractive and well thought-out language.�

    I’ve thought this over, and perhaps “engaging and well thought-out language” gets at my meaning better than “attractive and well thought-out” does. “Attractive” is too passive.

  44. P.G.: Your are ascribing to me positions that I did not take. I did not say that story telling is irrational. (I still don’t know what you mean by rational, btw.) My point is that arguments aim for transparency while narrative creates opacity. It is precisely this opacity which is the virtue of narrative: it gets at nuance better than argument does. The virtue of argument is precisely its capacity to simplify complexity. As I made more or less clear in the post, my preference for argument is more a matter of temperment and training than some cosmic weighing of “rationality.” Given that temperment and training, however, I am particularlly sensitive to what I see as the intellectual pathologies of narrative. Obviously those with different training and temperment are going to be particularlly sensitive to the pathologies of argument.

    Look, I get it. You are a poet and a story teller. You get tired of being dissed as being irrational or dumb. I am really not trying to say that story tellers are irrational or dumb. Promise. Certainly, once you start bringing in the suggestion that I am somehow arguing for the irrationality of women, I am fairly certain that the conversation has taken flight and your are jousting with your own ideological demons rather than anything that I said. Good luck. I hope that you get them.

  45. One primary difference between stories and argumentation is this:

    As far as narrative goes, reading and believing is epistemically prior to reading and disbelieving (e.g., when we read a scary book or a scary story, we want to sit with our back against a wall and away from a window). Not so with argumentation. With an abstract argument, the relationship between reading and believing vs reading and disbelieving is altogether independent. So it’s possible to read and analyze an argument and have it make no impact whatever on your behavior. Since part of the need to disseminate information in the Kingdom of God is propagandistic, narrative serves the purpose much better than argumentation (this is, for example, one reason Plato why didn’t trust art).

  46. Patricia (Patty? Ms. Karamensines? I’m not sure exactly how I should address you)–nice emendation. I like the pairing of “engaging” with “well thought-out.”

  47. Rapid eye movement sleep aids memory and what we remember of it, if and when we do, resembles narrative! (Although I’ve also dreamtime-reasoned about something or another, dreamtime-argued over something, dreamtime-felt something ineffably deep — all kinds of stuff.)

    “Divines” consider such passive reception of this mystical “processing” of their thoughts and reactions to be — well, yes, Divine; so they’ll actively and purposely access a passive state of brain-wave activity somewhat mimicking that of rapid eye movement and analyze their impressions from it as a key, its imagery then shared with others in a form to be memorized and savored — that is, in verse; and priests immersed in it are considered well versed (sorry! lol) in the Divine communications to the people, sought after to determine the Divine will and to perform rites to entreat the Divine. Then histories of the people are composed which reinforce the peoples’ ordering of their thoughts according to these oracular orthodoxies of these storehouse of verses; and then theologies develop from out of that — with each level of development framed as being but a more powerfully formed presentation or reinterpretation that’s still supporting what went before. And it’s given to each person in the kingdom on some level to hear (and read) and ponder this body of literature and those who propound it and to enter into dialogue with it and thus to compose their own stories and in the process to to instill out what principles and redefinitions as they’re wont. . . .

    Ya know?

  48. “Look, I get it. You are a poet and a story teller. You get tired of being dissed as being irrational or dumb. I am really not trying to say that story tellers are irrational or dumb. Promise. Certainly, once you start bringing in the suggestion that I am somehow arguing for the irrationality of women, I am fairly certain that the conversation has taken flight and your are jousting with your own ideological demons rather than anything that I said. Good luck. I hope that you get them.”

    Woo-hoo! Either I missed this back in June, or maybe I saw it and thought it wasn’t a real argument, or something. I can’t remember. But wow, look at all those clever assumptions! Here is my belated reply:

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