What is “narrative” in philosophical practice

By Luigi Amato Kunst


A rising number of people prefer to find support by a philosopher instead of going to traditional psychotherapists for advice and treatment. Why?


Most of the problems and predicaments affecting people are not caused by psychological disorders or psychic traumas, but rather by misinterpretations of structures that underlie reality. It seems that psychology and psychotherapy have made us accustomed to the idea that everything that happens in individual’s life is a mental process and most of the predicaments affecting people are coming from an error inside the process of thinking. A sort of Ego-Ptolemaic universe, with our tiny ego at the center of life.

The “tragic,” inside the Greek thought, is that human life is a collision between what the individual makes through her agency and what that just “happens” to her. Events that simply happen to us, changing our life without our consensus. Life, therefore, is not as much governed by reason or feelings. It’s dictated by events. This collision is what makes human goodness fragile and vulnerable.

We must continually “choose” among competing values and circumstances may force us to a position in which we cannot help doing some wrong. And we must accept, as Kierkegaard points out, that “What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know (…) the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die”.

Psychology’s attempt is to demonstrate that everything that happens in life is up to us. The tragic aspect of living does not exist in psychology. The outcome is what I call “the coaching society.” If we are melancholic by character,  “Coaching Society” tries to make us smile. They smile all the time. We are surrounded by people who teach us from how to make a job interview to how to write a 500 pages novel in one month.

Of course, I am not saying that all of this is due to psychology. Is due to the idea that our lives can be improved (and this is a very ambiguous term), that we can be happier, smarter, quicker, more successful, only by following some techniques, some lectures, some wise advice. Just by taking a course. Or by reading a book.

How do we think and communicate nowadays? We don’t properly think in our daily life. Rather, we link. We jump from one topic to another in the same way as we use social networks and searching on the internet. The outcome is that culture moves horizontally. We need short texts. We don’t want to be bothered by reading long paragraphs. Communication must be quick, immediate, and most important, effective.

All these psychological and coaching approaches do not go deep into people’s predicaments. They just float on the surface. And that is the reason why some people prefer to find support by a philosopher.


What is then the difference between philosophy and psychotherapy?

I would say the object: psychology is the act of knowing. Philosophy is the object of knowledge. Whatever the object of knowledge is.

The act of knowing is not the same as the object of knowledge. My feelings and my thoughts to one person (P) are not that one person (P). Philosophy, by contrast, is not about individual actual existing facts, something empirically experienced, like thoughts, feelings, a state of affairs, things, objects. It is more about a priori truths, i.e. before any experience and before anything actual existing   And the psychological attitude, so to speak, led to the idea that everything we feel, believe, think, desire corresponds to what exists. We are, after all, surrounded by our mental projections. And we are prone to believe that our feelings directed to a person or a state of affairs are that person or state of affairs.


Are you saying that “indubitable truths” outside the experience do exist?

Let’s make an example. We are accustomed believing that laws of logic do not exist in “itself but they are rather a regulation of a psychical process called “thinking.” If it were true, then the chains of symbols processed by a computer were nothing more than a control of the mechanism of the computer. This is false, for the hardware follows an entirely different set of physical laws than the chain of symbols that it calculates. (CFR. Klaus Held, Husserl’s phenomenological method).

This approach was called psychologism in the early 20th century and has substantial similarity to the modern cognitive psychology that is interested in what is happening within our minds that links stimulus (input) and response (output). But to assume an error in our thinking process, we need to assign the same value (or magnitude) for each processed symbol.

Husserl points out that “2+3=5″ stands all by itself as a pure truth whether there is the world, and this world with these actual things or not” (Hua 9/23).

In short, logic is not an act of thinking process, but an object of thought, standing over-against the act of thinking. It is a reality outside our act of thinking. Here, the term “outside” is not to be  intended in the physical sense, something spatially located, outward or in some “pedantic platonic heaven of ideas.”  Outside our mind stands for inaccessible to us.   


So, what is then the object of knowledge?

It is not the individual actual existing object or facts and states of affairs. A tree, a cat, a cloud, of course. It is not a matter of fact in the Hume sense.

Therefore, the object is not the empirical object, but rather the way and the how the object is given to consciousness. And these manners of giveness, as Husserl says, are neither a representation of the natural object nor an existing physical object. What does exist in consciousness is content, and not an image.


You are saying that the “object of knowledge” is not the existing physical object. 

The very idea about the subject matter in phenomenology and philosophy of mind is that the object of consciousness is completely and entirely different in nature from the existing physical object. The naturalistic approach believes that the object of consciousness is just a representation, as a picture, of the external physical object. Locke believed that our mind was a container filled up with pictures.

But intentionality, i.e. consciousness, is independent of any actual existing object. My mind can be directed to an imaginary entity, like gods or dragons, which do not have any actual existence.

Intentionality is “the fundamental property of consciousness” with two main features: a) existence-independence, b) conception-dependence.  It is pretty obvious that any attempt to explain intentionality (and therefore consciousness) from a purely objective point of view, such as causality, behavior or neurophysiology fails.

Consciousness is not depending on the empirically given object that happens to be there (in this case it would be a simple connection). It depends on the “Essence,” that is the universal determination. The universal determination is a “meaning,” while the singular determination may not possess that specific meaning for consciousness.

Consciousness, therefore has an ideal structure of an act’s content, something universal and not connected with anything actual existing. Nevertheless, to get access to this ideal structure is necessary, we have the real experience.

In conclusion, intentional mental act despite has a content can be related to no object at all. In this case, the meaning of the mental act gives the act the very same intentional character that it would have if it had an object.

A hallucination is intentional and has a mental content, (a noematic Sinn) even if there is no object standing before the perceiver.

Different meanings can determine the same referent in various ways. Oedipus desiring the Queen is quite a different act than his desiring his mother, not because they are acts with different objects but because they are acts with different content

The world of life then, (Lebenswelt) is not constituted by a sequence of objects but rather by meanings. And it is up to these various meanings that we create stories since a story is the investigation of a context and a context is the set of experiences, situations, and facts that make the object or the state of affairs to be given

External objects, then, situations, are like triggers, activating an explosion of references, a universe of meanings. This frame of references can be narrated, but it needs to be done authentically, that is, “authentically experienced.”

Consciousness is, therefore, concerning an invisible structure of reality we cannot “see”. This reality is a philosophical truth since it does not depend on anything actual existing and is a priori, namely before any experience.



Can you make examples of this invisible reality?

How can we account for our social and mental existence in a realm of brute physical facts?

In psychoanalysis, the patient quite often believes that her intentional state is the real object. If I hate my teacher, or if I am disappointed with him, my teacher is my hate and my disappointment. There is quite a common linguistic misunderstanding in psychoanalysis: when we speak about x, we do not indeed talk about x, but we talk about our intentional state about x. I hate x; I love x, I desire x, I am disappointed about x. In so doing, we become prone to believe that the object corresponds to what we feel about it.

Facts are episodes occurring within a context. If John marries Jane, this fact does not have any sense, without the invisible and weightless institutional reality of “marriage.” But “marriage” is an institutional reality that goes far beyond that particular actual episode of John getting married to Jane.

Marriage, money, President of United States, are forms of social reality by human agreement.

All these institutional realities, even by human agreement, are independent of anything actual existing. They can be considered as ideal truths, essences.  Institutional realities are not vague concepts, but concrete structures of real. They carry what Searle calls “deontic powers,” that is, rights and obligations. This burden of responsibilities is what that makes a marriage, friendship, a joint project, an ethical institution.

A “We -Intention” is not an “I intention” since it starts by being a WE. The structure of togetherness  Shared Agency, Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 5-6). 



So, what is philosophical praxis to life?

Psychotherapy works on feelings, emotions, beliefs, thoughts, dreams, expressed by the patient to the therapist. The patient can keep talking for years of her feelings or beliefs to a certain object, person, state of affairs. Neither the patient nor the therapist does execute an investigation “peri tes ousias,” around the matter at hand, ever. In psychotherapy, we need to accept what the patient says.

Psychotherapy does not investigate the truth on the side of the object, but rather feeling or thoughts on the side of the subject. This “obsessive” focusing on our feelings and behavior does not help us to know the real world, that is, the object of knowledge the weightless and invisible structures we cannot see.



Why do you use the notion of “narrative” in philosophy?

Philosophy is dialogic, that is, it investigates the world by having a dialogue. The root of dialogue is dia-logos. Logos in ancient Greek means “word” while Dia means “through” (Bohm D, On Dialogue, ed. by Lee Nichol, p.6). The world of life in philosophy is more like the ancient Greek agorà, an open context to a crossroads of meanings. Narrative, in turn, entails the effort of telling a story and the effort of listening to the other wayfarers we meet at the crossroads. Listening stands for reading the other’s determinations of consciousness.


How can we do that?

To paraphrase Kierkegaard’s Enten – Eller incipit: what is an actor?  Or what is a writer? An actor is somebody who investigates other’s existence suspending any judgment. The actor’s aim is a “description,” the more authentic as possible, by suspending any judgment (a kind of phenomenological epochè). The outcome is a real investigation around (peri) the object of knowledge.


Is this the method used by narrative philosophy?

If the world is neither the summation of matters of fact, nor a projection of our feelings, thoughts, and emotions, then it must be the crossroad of meanings. Klaus Held in his essay on Husserl’s Phenomenological Method (Stuttgart 1985) points out that “the character of activities of consciousness is not dependent on the empirically given objects that happen to be there, but instead of Essence, that is, in the universal determination of types of objectivities.” Now consciousness that is not tied to the factual perception of individual situations is called fantasy. According to Husserl, in fantasy, we can imagine an intentionally lived experience, and we can “run through the variants” always differently in free variations.

We need to find good stories. And good stories contain the authentic description of consciousness content or determination. I know much more of a writer by reading his books than by reading his biography.

One may say that this is what psychoanalysis does. It comprehends patient’s stream of consciousness. But it does differently. “In psychoanalysis, nothing occurs but the interchange of words between the patient and the physician. The patient talks, tells of his past experiences and present impressions, complaints, confesses his wishes and emotions” (Freud 1917). It is not a dialogue but rather a monolog.In turn, the risk of this kind of monolog is to believe the word as being a mental projection.Reading a book is a dialogue with the author. We need to meet somewhere on the halfway.

Let’s make an example. You think you hate your father because he left your mother some years ago. And he left “you” of course. the one who left your mother and you.” A reduction is an explanation that explains your feelings, that, for example, you are angry at him. Through the psychoanalytic process, if you can explain the reason why you feel what you feel, and the symptom tends to fade away. This is the original aim of psychoanalysis.

Is your father this kind of utterance? Your feeling is not him. Let’s take an actor; I mean a good one. He should interpret the role of your father. What do you think he would do? Do you think he just would read the sentence “He is the one who is going to leave the family” and right after starts acting?  This is not a story. A story is about revealing characters, and a person’s character only appears in a plot. we only can do that by What is a plot? “That man left his family” is a story. “That man left his family and his daughter hated him for the rest of her life” is a plot. “That man was so angry at his wife that he left her” is another plot. “That man was so mad at life, that he left everything he had.” That’s a good story about that person’s character. And here is where a good actor or a good writer starts with the investigation. 


So, what?

To understand somebody, you need to amplify an existing part of you. You should not be artificial. You need to think beyond the stereotype, and the stereotype is precisely the sentence running over again in your mind. You must work on causality. Your father was not the few sentences running in your head, and you need to make a step forward and go beyond this artificial simplification. This is an explanation and not a comprehension. Maybe he was a real bastard, but you should understand why and to investigate about circumstances, since probably in many ways you are like him. And that is one of the most powerful subtexts we have in our daily life. We are like the others. This similarity gives us the opportunity to investigate and expand something we do have in ourselves.



Quite often we exchange mental processes with the objects toward which the processes are directed. This holds true when we speak about somebody or a state of affairs. We tend to identify our feelings and emotions, our thoughts with that person or situation. No matter whether we are in a marriage, in a job context, in a friendship, in a family, etc.

This kind of confusion assumes that consciousness content is a representation of the same nature of the object in “itself.” Rather than “objects” the world of life is made up by meanings. These meanings are not representations but essences.

I raise my doubts about phenomenology applied to psychotherapy. This method is based on the idea of the psychotherapist who pretends to “see” the world through patient’s eyes. This is a category mistake since intentionality of consciousness is context-dependent. Therefore, the patient would be inevitably influenced by the therapy session’s context. And psychotherapist would be subjected to the homunculus fallacy, a “regressio ad infinitum“. Like, who is watching into the therapist’s eyes?

The human being has the capacity to “see” and to “image” the future. The past or future organize themselves according to their greater or lesser distance from the current now (CFR Klaus Held The new Husserl, p.45).  The manners of givenness remembrance and expectation.

This stream of time constitutes an invisible plot we are not conscious of. Nevertheless, this plot is a logical and coherent story. Every time a high emotion strikes into it, we get stuck, and our behavior seems to lose the invisible path, and we behave incoherently and illogically to the reader. Hamlet’s behavior, so detached from the plot, is a good example in literature.

My hope in narrative philosophy is that we can locate ourselves into a wider story, exploring contexts, revealing characters. We can re-write our story and change it, but only if we learn how to explore this crossroad of stories that make our world alive.

We need to meet the other (Thou) in the dazwischen (there in-between) as Martin Buber points out.

Buber makes a distinction between I-It and I-Thou relation. In the meeting with the Thou, man is no longer subject to causality and fate because when one faces a human being as one’s Thou he is no longer an object among objects, a particular point of space and time. Meeting then is not in space and time but space and time in meeting. (CFR. Friedman M, Martin Buber the life of dialogue, Univ. Chicago Press, 1956, pp-57-58).









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