Good Reasons

Good reasons

Woke up this morning to read a great article, “Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm: The Case of Public Moral Argument” by Walter Fisher. It opens with a quote from Kenneth Burke:

The corrective of the scientific rationalization would seem necessarily to be a rationale of art— not, however, a performer’s art, not a specialist’s art for some to produce and many to observe, but an art in its widest aspects, an art of living.

I don’t care for Burke much, but in looking at this fragment I see a fundamental premise at work. The corrective for one rationale is another rationale? This is a side-step, an evasion of more fundamental oppositions, which are dealt with by Fisher. It made me think of the 18th century method of dealing with the emotions— to rationalize and apply logic to them— which was totally overthrown in the revolt of Romanticism. The comparison of reason vs. the emotions, or rationality vs. magic, or any other convenient lumping strategy may be just a diversion from other core issues. In order to make Burke’s stratagem effective, a redefinition of what constitutes reason is in order, which is exactly what Fisher suggests.

The core assumptions of the article are easy for me to accept. Fisher asserts:

“Humans as rhetorical beings are as much valuing as they are reasoning animals.”

A quick check of web behaviors confirms this pretty clearly. Hot or not? We question value more often than we apply logic, it seems to me. Reason is a factor, but not the central issue in most of our decision making behaviors. But still we call them reasoned choices, or as Fisher labels it, we employ “good reasons” for making decisions. Fisher defines good reasons as “those elements that provide warrants for accepting or adhering to the advice fostered by any form of communication that can be considered rhetorical.” He groups this with a fairly common definition of rhetoric: rhetoric is practical reasoning. Note that in dealing with practical reason, Kant also admitted the potential influence of transcendent concepts, magic if you will, on this practical reason— because, as I have often observed, there is just no accounting for taste.

Fisher’s usage of paradigm must be clarified. While I think it works well in the linguistic sense (a set of available elements), he defines it more broadly as “a representation designed to formalize the structure of a component of experience and to direct understanding and inquiry into the nature and functions of that experience.” The structure of the classical world is represented as the Rational World Paradigm:

  1. Humans are essentially rational beings
  2. The mode of decision making is argument— clear-cut inferential structures.
  3. The conduct of argument is ruled by situation— legal, scientific, legislative, etc.
  4. Rationality is determined by knowledge and skill.
  5. The world is a set of logical puzzles which can be resolved by the appropriate analysis, argument, and reason.

The postmodern crisis (note the similarity of this word with its root krisis or argument) is rooted in the failure of these constructs. It doesn’t take much to disassemble them. People don’t make decisions based entirely on this form of rationality. The limits of knowledge are constantly under question.

Rather than adopting Burke’s construct of man as a symbol making creature, Fisher proposes the metaphor of homo narrans, man the storyteller. The narrative paradigm alternative proposed by Fisher makes a lot of sense:

  1. Humans are essentially storytellers.
  2. The mode of decision making is “good reasons” which vary in form among situations.
  3. The production of “good reasons” is ruled by history, biography, culture and character.
  4. Rationality is determined by the nature of people as narrative beings.
  5. The world is a set of stories which must be chosen among to live the good life in a process of continual recreation.

Classical rationality is subsumed in this, of course. We use clear-cut inferential structures in many situations, but not all. That’s the difference, really. We do understand that side of the process, but in reality, we know very little about how stories work and why we value them.

I do believe that this is a paradigm I can work with. It’s a wider view of humanity, and in my opinion a more truthful view. It also dovetails nicely with some theories of self that Dr. Anderson was working with last night. More to come on all this, I am sure.