Fernando Savater

The Narrative Thinking

Unless Borges is mistaken, the impressive collection of Western thinking is no more than the history of a few metaphors: Plato’s cave, Descartes’ malignant genius, Kant’s pigeon (that wanted to fly in a vacuum because it thought that the air was holding it back, while in reality it sustains it), Nietzsche’s superman (Übermensch)... That is: a handful of audacious stories is holding the roof of our ideas and providing the fuel for our most active ideologies. These stories (or myths if you like) do not only illustrate the scope of our thoughts, but they also constitute their influence and true impact. After all it is a question of intensity. Theoretic reasoning is subtle and complex, but you never forget a good story: and it is a fact that we often forget what we have enjoyed step by step in order to understand it well, while on the other hand we never forget a narrative image which we may understand only partly. It is not only the case in philosophy, it also happens in significant literary works: Cervantes’ famous novel contains many dialogues between Don Quixote and Sancho which inspire scholars, but most of the readers – and many others who have not read the book – epitomize the story in the indelible battle of the knight against the windmills that he believes are giants. The novel covers a thousand pages, the incident with the windmills is told in only one ... but it’s unforgettable. It is all a question of intensity.

When considering the matter in a superficial manner, the characteristic abstract thinking of philosophy seems opposite to the task of the story-teller who seeks the concrete and circumstantial. He who proposes and discusses ideas cares about what is most general; he who tells stories concentrates on what is individual. Philosophy is about understanding the permanent structure of things, meaning that it does not change under the constant, apparent changes of all that we see and feel: it tries to discover what all human beings have in common beyond their superficial differences, and it calls what has no date, what is equally real today as a thousand centuries ago or in another thousand centuries to come, the true “reality”. Contrary to this, story-telling always talks about what is unique, what is incomparable, what happened at a certain point in time and place for the first and only time. The story is what has happened, not what remains: nobody tells what is always happening, but the news of the world and the transience of what happens in it. The philosopher generalizes, the story-teller personalizes: the studious anthropologist is interested in Man while the poet is only carried away by Ulysses, in the same manner as some scholars study botany and others sing to the rose of the day that has just been in bloom and will wither in a few hours.

Nevertheless, from its very origins philosophy has been inseparably mixed with stories and tales. Often in its own form of expression: The first great thinker of the most abstract and general, Parmenides, who invented the theory of the immutable Being, demonstrated his thinking through a narrative poem in which a wise goddess enlightens and educates the shy mortal who has come to her in search of knowledge. And of course Plato who, in addition to establishing philosophy as such, created one of the most unforgettable characters in Western narrative memory: the perspicacious, cunning and in his own way heroic Socrates. It is not always easy to understand the platonic lectures on ideas or the organization of justice among men, but no reader of his dialogues can avoid the undoubted seduction of the figure of Socrates and his personal destiny as agitator of conscience, which made him fall out with his fellow citizens, led him to prison and finally to his death. There is no doubt that we are very interested in the more abstract thoughts of Plato, but to a large degree we are excited by them because they reach us through the leading part of this unequalled individual that was Socrates, whose personal adventure is not less moving than what we are told of Achilles and Hector, of Hamlet or of Don Quixote. In a single word: What would be of Plato’s philosophy without the story about Socrates?
The narrative stories in which the philosophic thinking is based are not always as explicit as in the platonic dialogues, but if you search a little for them you will find them no less evident. Some times they are autobiographical like Descartes’ story at the beginning of his “Discourse on the Method” of how he had the revelation – if we can call it that – of his methodological skepticism, sitting by a stove in a military camp. It’s an anecdote just as illustrative and memorable as Combray’s evocative Madeleine at the beginning of “In search of lost time” (actually “Discourse on the Method” might as well have had the Proustian title “In search of Future Time”). And it is also Descartes who, by the hypothetic invention of his “malignant genius”, dedicated at deceiving our senses and making us live in a false reality of mere appearances, introduces the first figure of terror in the habitually placid environment of philosophy, a remote precedent of those extra-terrestrials who at the beginning of sci-fi in the 20th century seized the human minds and submitted them to their delusional dictatorship.

We can also find stories of fiction at the basis of fundamental works of modern political philosophy. Hobbes for example invented the kind of existence – poor, miserable, rude and short-lived – that mankind endured before experiencing another imaginary moment, the social pact, after which society organized as State began, according to him. They are all legends, but without their narrative support he would not have been able to convey his brilliant ruminations about the political institutions and their meaning. And the description of the “state of nature” that Rousseau opens his “Discourse on inequality” with also belongs to the same kind of stories invented ad hoc. At least Rousseau has the honesty to inform his reader that such a mythical situation, without hierarchy nor competition, has probably never existed nor is likely to exist, and that it is only a mental device that he imagines, enabling him to theorize about the problems that consequently brought mankind social and cultural institutions.

In the so-called Age of Enlightenment, the remainder of the enlightened also resorted generously to narrative effects in order to transmit their ideas more intelligibly to an audience of non-specialists, consisting of curious people rather than students or academics. Voltaire and Diderot preferred always to express their thinking using tales, allegories and dialogues. Just remember the novelette “Candide” of the former, intended to dismantle the Leibnizian illusion of optimism, and “Rameau’s Nephew” of the latter, a dramatized reflection of the difficulties in establishing what is moral and distinguish it from the immoral in a world that has renounced the traditional foundation and which is ruled by the precarious social convention. Both French writers were undoubtedly in debt to other stories with a philosophical meaning: those of the Irish satirist Jonathan Swift. Concerning the great Scottish scholar, David Hume, his most mature and subversive work is  “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion”, a subtle and implacable demolition of any rational basis for religious beliefs, written in the form of a dialogue between characters who not only expose but also represent the world’s different perceptions being the matter of dispute.

Nor did the unsentimental Kant shy away from the option of occasionally telling anecdotes or short stories to support and illustrate his theories. We have already mentioned the little story about the pigeon that flies supported by the air, and when feeling its resistance under its wings imagines that it would fly better in a vacuum: Kant uses it to denounce the error of assuming that our conceptual capacity would work more smoothly if it did not have to subject itself to what our senses actually experience. But Kant also resorts to a small, ironic narrative to justify the title of his short and justifiably famous essay “Perpetual Peace”: it is about an inn, real or imaginary, that has a sign with the picture of a cemetery, and is called exactly “Perpetual Peace”. Schopenhauer, the most unruly of Kant’s disciples, constantly uses allegories and short stories to stimulate his system and usually does so with particular literary success, because contrary to most of his fellow philosophers he was undoubtedly an excellent writer. Schelling, on the other hand, explicitly contributed to the “narrative philosophy” and as an example wrote a philosophy of mythology in which he resumes the classic myths in a metaphysical manner – a method that only rarely makes them more suggestive to say the truth. Even Hegel, the most speculative and abstract thinker of all, sometimes tells stories and some of them as unforgettable as the master and the servant in his “Phenomenology of Spirit” which later inspired Marx and, I even dare say, was much later taken to the screen by Joseph Losey with the title “The servant”.

It’s hardly necessary to recall the indebtedness of Kierkegaard or Nietzsche’s thinking to the narrative. Every one of Kierkegaard’s synonyms (Johannes de Silentio, Victor Eremita, Constantin Constantius, Johannes Climacus, Frater Taciturnus, etc.) does not only create a disguise for the author, but also an intellectual character with its own peculiar nature and its own obsessions. And the subjects developed in this manner also appear wrapped in a clearly narrative style: the diary of the seducer, (the search for) repetition, the adventures of the Knight of faith or of Don Juan, etc... After all, Kierkegaard’s entire thinking is directly or indirectly autobiographical: He does not only display theoretic problems, but relates the difficulty and the angst of existence, taking his own life experience as starting point. Nietzsche for his part continuously applies explicit or covert narrative formulae in all his works. “Thus spoke Zarathustra” is kind of a metaphysic story, didactic and moral, told in a pastiche biblical style, but also the rest of his books are abundantly inlaid with fiction, like the famous travel of the madman, searching for God and asking the mocking crowd about him, who has not yet heard the terrible news of his death. Later, the thinking of the 20th century resorts no less to literary, narrative or dramatic sources, which is proven by the work of Miguel de Unamuno, George Santayana (whose wonderful and little known “Dialogues in Limbo” I would like to point out), Jean-Paul Sartre or Albert Camus. Not to mention the stories in the proper sense of the word of writers who created non-academic but first class philosophy through these stories, like Thomas Mann, Musil, Canetti or Thomas Bernhard. You could almost say that in the past century the best philosophy has appeared in the form of novels or plays...

In short, philosophic thinking does not only express itself through abstract categories and speculative arguments, but also uses the narrative form and tells stories. Well then, what kind of stories? In his Poetics, Aristotle makes the famous statement: “The historian tells what has happened, the poet tells what can happen.” Actually, the narratives that the philosophers use to illustrate and represent their thinking do not pertain fully to any of these two genres: That is, they are not precise events that have happened at a certain date and place, nor are they imaginary occurrences that could happen at some point in time. It’s rather a question of recounting events that are essentially fictitious – in the same sense as the “state of nature” which Rousseau explained as something that has neither happened, nor is happening or will happen – but are significantly true, meaning that they allow us to understand reality before, now and forever. Meaning that they do not tell stories that happened, nor that could happen, but stories that never happen, that last, that are always there ... and that never the less take place as arguments, with their problems and solutions. Yes, as has been said, time is nothing but a mobile metaphor for eternity, the stories of philosophers are provisionary metaphors for the lasting and immutable. They try not only to tell a story but to help realize something.

Their last meaning is a warning intended to wake us up: Our existence is also composed of fleeting appearances, anecdotes and coincidences like in a novel, but their ultimate substance is to repeat and dedicate the necessary forms of that which stays unalterable. In “The Tempest” Shakespeare declared that we are such illusive stuff as dreams are made on; the philosophers don’t deny this, but add that this dream is eternal and always woven and unravelled according to identical norms. Are we talking about pedantic arrogance or deep wisdom? I don’t know,
I don’t dare answer.

Fernando Savater,31st IBBY Congress, Copenhagen, Denmark.

September 2008

Translated into English by Lisbeth Arne Pedersen