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DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0378.2007.00275.

Life as Narrative
Bernard Williams

We dream in narrative, day-dream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope,


despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticise, gossip, learn, hate and love by
narrative. The words are Barbara Hardys, and they are quoted with approval by
Alasdair MacIntyre, whose use of the idea of narrative to shed light on human
transactions and human lives I take as a point of departure.1 MacIntyre himself
writes: Narrative is not the work of poets, dramatists and novelists reflecting
upon events which had no narrative order before one was imposed by the singer
or the writer: narrative form is neither disguise nor decoration. In actual life, we
are the co-authors (but only the co-authors) of the stories of our lives: stories are
lived before they are toldexcept in the case of fiction.2
MacIntyre applies this idea at three distinct levels. There is the level, first, of
intelligible action. An action is intelligible if, and only if, it can be situated in a
narrative setting. Moreover, it is a mistake to think that some actions happen to
be intelligible, while others are not: the notion of an intelligible action is the
primary notion, and unintelligible actions are ones that fail to be intelligible. Thus
narrative history of a certain kind turns out to be the basic and essential genre for
the characterisation of human actions.3 When I perform actions, engage in
conversations and other human transactions, I am a character in a narrative of
which I am in part the author.
The account in terms of narrative applies, further, at the level of living. Human
beings turn out to be in their actions and practice, and not just in their fictions,
essentially story-telling animals. But the narrative I construct for myself has to be
part of a larger narrative enterprise, reaching beyond myself. This is one reason
why I am only co-author of the narrative. It means, too, that in deciding what to
do, I must consult my narrative environment. 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?. This is because we enter society with one or more
imputed charactersroles into which we have been drafted, as MacIntyre rather
threateningly puts it.4
The story of which I am part will offer, among other things, the story of my
life. So, finally, narrative provides not merely an account of the process of living:
it also provides the basis of the unity of a life. A whole life gets its sense from its
success in embodying or presenting a coherent narrative; the idea of coherence
appropriate to a life, in fact, is that of a narrative. When MacIntyre writes the
unity of a human life is the unity of a narrative quest,5 I take it that the large
ambiguity of his statement is to be resolved in favour of his meaning the quest for
a narrative, rather than the narrative of a quest. For he seems to agree that a life
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r Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2007, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden,
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might fail to achieve unity, and if so, his idea must surely be that it will present a
failed or broken narrative, rather than the coherentindeed, perhaps the entirely
unifiednarrative of a failed quest for something else.
When MacIntyre says that actions have a narrative structure, and that the
structure is not merely imposed by poets, dramatists and novelists in their
telling, we have to ask why these people in particular are introduced, what
specific role they represent. Are they introduced because they tell, specifically,
fictions? Or because they tell in an artful way?in which case they might have
included historians as well. Or because, merely, they tell?in which case they
might include any of us story-telling animals. When MacIntyre says that the
narrative structure of actions is prior to these peoples narrations, does he mean
that it is prior to fictional narration, to any artful narration, or to any telling at all?
The last of these options is very hard to understand. Philosophers have
disagreed, indeed still do, about the sense and the extent to which causality is
prior to human explanation. With regard to many causal claimsthe claim for
instance that craters on the moon are due to meteorite impactwe can
reasonably accept that that is how things are, whether there was anyone to tell
the tale or not. We can extend that idea to some proto-narratives, in the sense of
descriptions of temporal sequences of events linked by causality, which serve as
explanations: when we explain, for instance, that the mountains of the Auvergne
are shaped like that because they used to be volcanoes, or why there are
marsupial species in Australasia and hardly anywhere else. If the story we tell is
a good explanatory tale, what makes it a good tale is independent of the telling,
in the sense that if it is true, things would have been so even if there were never
any narrators. But it is hard to extend that picture of things to cover claims about
the essentially narrative understanding of complex human actions and the living
of lives; there, what makes a given story a good story cannot be altogether prior
to any telling at alleven if it may be prior to the telling of that particular story.
One respectby no means the only onein which the narrative structure of
complex human agency could not be entirely prior to narration, in the sense of
mere telling, is that it could not be entirely prior to telling by agents themselves.
This, surely, is what MacIntyre means. So when he says that narrative structure is
prior to narrations by novelists and so forth, he does not mean that narrative
structure is prior to any telling at all, but that artless telling is prior to artful
telling, or factual telling is prior to fictional, or both.
Yet isnt there a problem even with the relatively unambitious claim that the
ideas of complex human actions and of the unity of a life have to be explained
through the possibility of narrative? A narrative is a story about a temporal
sequence of happenings. There can be many different ways in which a story,
although about different happenings, may yet have a unity or be (in the most
extended sense) about one thing. For instance it might be about a sequence of
happenings at one place, or it might be the story of a penny. In the case of the
marsupials, it will be a story about a piece of the earths surface. Among these
stories are some, each of which could claim to be the story of one persons life.
But we could not identify those narratives unless we had a conception of a
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persons life, and recognized from that conception what the story of such a thing
might be like: any more than we could recognize a story about a penny unless we
knew, more or less, what a penny was. Hence our conception of a persons life
cannot be derived from such a narrative.
Story of one persons life cannot pick out a narrative by purely formal or
syntactic criteria. It could not be a type of narrative, for instance, defined by the
recurrence of a personal proper name: personal proper name is not a syntactic
category, and the question of the appropriate reference of such a name raises the
same problems again. In any case, if the idea of such a narrative is supposed to
imply some appropriate notions of coherence, we need more than the recurrence
of what we have somehow identified as a personal proper name: perhaps HCE
in Finnegans Wake is a personal proper name, but its use there does not invite
those notions of coherence.
It seems that we could not use the idea of narrative to model a persons life
unless we could independently pick out a person; and since what is in question is
a persons life, a sequence (at the very least) of what happens to him or her, we
need to have that notion as well. Indeed, it is reasonable to think that this is not a
separate requirement, and that we would not even have a notion of a person
unless we had some idea of what it is for a person to lead a life.6
This is the first part of an argument against MacIntyres claim. But it is
tempting to go a stage further, and extend the argument. It is not merely that we
need to have already some idea of a persons life; we need to have already an idea
of the coherence of a persons life. (This is the second part of the argument.) How,
it may be asked, could we gather from certain kinds of narrative certain forms of
coherence supposedly appropriate to peoples livesas opposed to other ways in
which narratives can hang together or make senseunless we were guided by
some antecedent notion of coherence, given to us by our understanding of our
own and other peoples lives? If we get the same result with that question as we
did with earlier questions of the same kindthat is to say, if it turns out that
we can understand the coherence given in the narrative of a life only because we
already understand the coherence of a lifethe analogy of narrative is not going
to provide anything very important. We shall have had to assume before we get
to it most of what it is supposed to provide.
MacIntyre sees that some questions of this kind are raised, but he thinks that
they are answered by speaking of mutual presupposition among these
conceptions: we understand the idea of a narrative about a person because we
understand what a person is, but we also understand what a person is because
we have the idea of a narrative about them. But this seems to me to fail in
explanation: we need more structure than this gives us, if we are to see what
these dependencies might be. Moreover, and more substantively, unless we have
a better grasp of how these ideas hang together, we shall not know how to face
in particular, we shall not be able to decide how far we should acceptsome very
sceptical consequences that are often associated with these uses of the idea of
narrative. It is a banality to say, with regard to any complex subject matter, that
there are no definitive narratives; that each is perspectival and perhaps
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incommensurable with others; that narratives are constructed, not discovered. To


the extent that these consequences roll in, the supposed priority of fact over
fiction will turn out not to have much substance to it. There are some particular
worries (I am going to suggest later that they are largely justified) about the
status of the coherence that is given to a life by a narrative structure; we need to
ask whether the inevitability that may be conveyed by a narrative, and the
capacity of narratives to represent some developmental sequences as coherent
while others seem arbitrary or inexplicable, may not express some other, external,
kinds of constraint, tacitly appealing to a power which is not simply thatif
there could be such a thingof the truth. MacIntyre himself does not discuss
these concerns, and shows a remarkably robust faith in the determinacy of
narrative interpretations of at least some peoples lives. But we will not know
how far we can agree with him unless we do some more to spell out these
dependencies.
I think that MacIntyre can up to a point answer the argument against him, but
only at the cost of some substantial concessions. The first part of the argument, as
I called it earlier, can be met by conceding that the narrative paradigm does not
reach all the way down to the most elementary levels of understanding what a
person is and what it is for a person to act. The narrative paradigm applies more
strongly to human and personal affairs to the extent that they are more socially
and temporally complex. Persons are human beings, and human beings are
animals, and while every one of their intentional actions is touched by culture,
some are simpler and invite (or may permit) less interpretative depth than others.
So in the order of explanation, and to some extent in the order of learning as well,
we start with a simple idea of a person and a simple idea of an action, which we
can identify without an appeal to narrative structure. These help to form ideas of
complex actions which indeed demand and rest on the idea of a narrative; but we
already have a schematic conception of what such a narrative would look like,
and of how it would present a complex action by one person over time, such
as building a house.7 (The whole thing is an example of the familiar process of
boot-strapping.)
So also with the idea of a persons life. Starting with the ideas of a persons
simple and complex actions, and a purely structural idea of their life, given in the
first instance by the extent of their biological existence, we can conceive a space
which will indeed be filled only by narrative structures.
What about the constraints of coherence? What I called earlier the second part
of the argument insisted that we needed some idea of the coherence of a life
before we could know how to deploy narrative in order to articulate it. This
second part of the argument, however, seems to me not to follow. The most that
we can properly demand is that, before we apply narratives conceptions of
coherence to a life, we must have some grasp of the material to which those
conceptions are to be applied. We must have a conception of what invites
interpretation in these terms. This material will itself no doubt involve complex
actions and in various ways use the resources of less ambitious, shorter term,
narratives. But the fact that we have this material may do very little in itself to
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determine what we expect the coherence of a life to be; it may leave it very largely
open what the resources of interpretation are, and where they come from.
This picture is enough, I think, to answer the claim pressed by the second part
of the argument against MacIntyre: the claim, that is to say, that it cannot possibly
be true that the idea of the coherence of a life is to be found essentially in
narrative, since we could not identify the right kind of narrative without already
having the idea of a coherent life. The answer is that we do not need to recognize
the coherence of a life in advance of its interpretation in narrative, because we are
not simply given a life and its narrative coherence. We are given (or, by the earlier
processes, construct) the material about which questions of coherence can be
asked, and those questions may indeed be answered in terms of a narrative and
its coherence.
But just because we are not simply given a life and its narrative coherence, we
are also not automatically provided with an answer to the sceptical doubts that
are readily raised by accounts in terms of narrative, particularly at this level. It
may emerge that in giving MacIntyre an intelligible theory, we have at the same
time left it open to the sceptical doubts, and also, perhaps, taken away from him
any substantive claim that fact is prior to fiction. Here, at the level of narrative
interpretation of a whole life, the most interesting questions are about the sources
of these interpretations; their standing; and their relations to fiction. The rest of
this discussion will be concerned with these questions.
At three different points in his book The Thread of Life Richard Wollheim refers
to an admirable remark of Kierkegaards, from his Journal for 1843:
It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood
backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived
forwards. And if one thinks over that proposition, it becomes more and
more evident that life can never really be understood in time simply
because at no particular moment can I find the necessary resting point
from which to understand itbackwards.
Kierkegaard says that I am never in a position to understand my life in the only
possible way, backwards, and hence life cannot be understood in time; but that
cannot follow, unless we make another assumption (congenial indeed to
Kierkegaard) that if anyone could understand my life in time, it would be
myself. Perhaps I, for Kierkegaards very powerful reason, can never understand
my life properly in time, because I can never be in the position to give the
retrospective narration of it; but others might. But then a fundamental question
arises, of what the relation is supposed to be between the coherence of my life
and my way of living it. How does the final story of my life stand to the questions
I ask myself and the reflections I make in the course of living it?
MacIntyre, to turn back once more to his account, suggests an account of this
relation which is radically, and revealingly, mistaken. In a passage that I quoted
earlier, he suggested that I can answer the question What am I to do? only if I
know of what story or stories I am part. But how am I supposed to know what
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stories I belong to, except by deciding what I am going to do? If it is my story, that
is the way in which I decide how it is to continue. MacIntyres implication was
that there can be, to some extent, an independent answer to the question, because
society had cast me: deciding what I should do is discovering who I am supposed
to be, what character in fact I am.
An example that MacIntyre gives of the narrative significance of a life (and
incidentally of his confidence that there are right answers about such things) does
not make this answer seem appealing, or even fully intelligible. He points out8
that there have been several accounts of Thomas a` Beckets career, which assign
it, in effect, to different genres. In some medieval versions, it belongs to
hagiography; in an Icelandic poem Becket appears as a saga hero; while Dom
David Knowles treats his life as a tragedy, that of his relations to Henry II.
Knowles, according to MacIntyre, is clearly right. There are several odd features
of this account: for instance, that although fact is supposed to be prior to fiction,
these possibilities for interpreting the life of an actual man are drawn from
fiction. Moreover, it is unlikely that those possibilities would all have been
understood by Becket. But the most basic point is that even if Beckets life were
uniquely well described in Knowles terms, that could tell us nothing at all about
how he lived it. He certainly did not live it by asking, when considering what to
do, how to carry on the tale of one locked in a tragic relation to his king. Perhaps
someone, not Becket, could do thatbut his story would not be a tragedy, but
rather (in the way described in another work referred to by MacIntyre, The 18th
Brumaire of Louis Napoleon) would have already moved on to farce.
People can of course live their lives by reference to fiction, and there are many
more, and less, interesting ways of coming to grief in that project than Emma
Bovarys or Don Quixotes. But that could not provide the way of living a life. Nor
is it merely that we cannot impose narrative coherence upon our lives by
consciously referring to existing fictions: the point goes much farther than that.
Although at first it seemed surprising that MacIntyre should appeal, in Beckets
case, to narrative paradigms drawn from fiction, when he has insisted that fact is
prior to fiction, this appeal in fact reveals what his idea is. He indeed believes that
the unity of an actual life is like the unity of a fictional lifethat is what makes
narrative the grounding conception for both of them. The priority of fact over
fiction consists only in this: that the unity is found first in life, and is carried over
from life to the construction of fiction. But this conception must be wrong: there is
a deep disanalogy between the situation of a person living his life and any
fictional character. It lies in the ingenuous but significant point that fictional
characters are not living at all. MacIntyre engagingly says that fictional characters
share with us the limitation that they do not know the future. It is of course true
that they do not (standardly) know the future, for the boring reason that that is
how they are represented. But there is a more basic reason why they do not know
their future, and this they do not share with us at all: that they have no future,
that all of them is already there. When the reader starts, and in that sense when
they start, they are already finished.9 Moreover, the fact that we are conscious of
this, and indeed conscious of how the characters finish, presents no obstacle to
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our reading. Our experience of them, and in works of any real interest, our fullest
experience of them, is of characters who will finish in that way.
The life of a fictional character is necessarily something that our lives are not,
a given whole. However coherent or incoherent in everyday terms their lives may
be represented as being, they have a special unity that no real life can have, that
the end of them is present at their beginning. This peculiar unity of their lives
cannot help us in trying to find coherence in our own. It is essential to fictional
lives that their wholeness is always already there, and essential to ours that it
is not.
It is tempting to put this by saying that for a fictional character there are no
unrealized possibilities.10 There is a boring falsehood in that, which mirrors the
boring truth that in the fiction a character is represented as having a future. In the
sense that Pip, when he first runs into Magwitch, is a boy to whom many things
are going to happen, he is a boy to whom many different things may happen, and
equally at the end he is a man to whom other things might have happened. But in
the fundamental sense in which the Pip of Great Expectations is a given whole,
there is nothing else (it is tempting to say) that he might have been except what
he is. Yet this, again, seems not quite right. Even though it may be an unhelpful
kind of speculation, there is sometimes room for the idea of how the fiction might
have gone otherwise; and in the case of serials, and a succession of works
presenting the same character, there is practical room for it. To that extent, Pip, or
(less interestingly) Sherlock Holmes, might have been rather different.
One may say, of course, that in that case there would have been no such
character as Pip, and Dickens would have created a different character. (It is what
Leibniz said about Gods creation of an actual person: it is significant that, for
Leibniz, actual people are a species of possible people, and the end of a possible
persons life (as it is called) is, in the real order of things, timelessly co-existent
with its beginning.) It is not clear to me how helpful it is to insist on that, but
whether we say it or not, it is clear that this dimension of literary possibility gives
us no help at all in developing any notion of coherence that can be applied to our
own lives. We shall say that Pip might have gone a different way only if the
different way would have been in Pips style; and our notion of Pips style can be
derived, again, only from the Pip we have got, the completed whole, and that is
exactly what, in our own case, we do not have.
In some cases more than one style may be associated with one and the same
character, appearing in different works. The Odysseus of Sophocles Ajax
displays characteristics different from those of Odysseus in Sophocles Philoctetes.
They are, in a sense, the same character, because they are both, in ways that the
audience understood, Homers Odysseus, and that is an important fact about
each of them. But they are not one character with a variable style, because it
makes no sense to add these works together, even to the extent (and that is
problematical) that it makes sense to see the Oedipus at Colonus as presenting us
with the old age of the Oedipus who was Tyrannus. This shows again the primacy
in literature of the given whole: the difference in style of those two figures of
Odysseus is given to us only by the given whole that is each of them.
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There is nothing in any of this for understanding our life as we live it. There
may seem to be various possibilities, but none of them is helpful. To consult the
style of an existing literary character is an eccentric possibility, but it is not a
paradigm of living ones life. To consult, rather, a style which will be, finally,
ones own personal style, in just the sense that a fictional character may have a
style, is impossible, precisely because, unlike the lives of those characters, my life
is not a given whole. All that is left is that one should consult what (as it seems to
one) has so far emerged of ones final style. This may be a recognizable
description of some reflective thought, but it would have to be a delusion to
suppose that it embodied the basic reflection involved in living. For if any such
style has begun to emerge, then it has done so in ones actions and in ones firstorder considerations of what to do; it has not (and necessarily not) emerged up to
now in reflections on the style in which one does those things. If that same style is
to continue to emerge, then it might be expected to do so in the same way, in
further actions and first-order considerations, rather than be altered by this
reflection into the clearly different style that consists principally of thinking about
ones style.
The given whole of a fictional character does present us, I have suggested,
with a peculiar unity, which consists in its end being there with its beginning; just
for this reason, that unity is not available to us. However, in more everyday terms
that may indeed invite comparison with reality, the fictional life need not be to
any notable degree coherent. A life narrated in fiction may be even more
picaresque, episodic, disjointed and arbitrary than an actual life, and, unlike an
actual life, there is no chance of looking for further material to make more sense
of it. Even if we lack any overall picture that is notably coherent, we may of
course think that we understand to some extent how the character is supposed to
have got from one stage to the next, and that we have some insight into what it
would be to live such a life. But those insights do not primarily rely on ideas
drawn from completed narrations. They demand only a conception of what it is
to be at a certain point and to think, if only on a small scale, about how to move
on from there. That is a conception of living a lifeindeed, it is the conception of
living a life; but it does not specially depend on conceptions of narration, whether
fictional or not.
What this has shown, if it is right, is that the idea of a completed, unified, or
coherent narration is of no help in leading a life. The idea of living as a quest for
narrative is baseless. Yet it is no doubt true that in understanding peoples lives
above all, other peoples livesnarratives that give them a certain direction or
meaning are very important: the story of someones life might for instance be the
narrative of a quest. But this invites, finally, the sceptical problem. If a particular
and significant narrative structure can plausibly be applied to a life retrospectively and from outside, and yet the person whose life it was could not,
typically, have lived it with the aim of its embodying that structure, where does
the plausibility, the fit, come from? It seems like magic.
There are only two possible lines of answer to this problem. One is that,
although the agent could not consciously direct his life to live out that narrative,
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nevertheless the considerations that appealed to him at various stages of his life
and which moved him to act were appropriate to such a narrative: they were
drawn from a repertoire of stories defining recognizable, perhaps acceptable,
lives. The other line is that the narrative is a fiction, the power and plausibility of
which lies in such things as its resemblance to familiar stories, its capacity to help
us make sense of some larger set of events, or its reassurances that there can be
some immanent meaning, if no more, in the totality of our variously improvised
moves from one set of circumstances to the next. The two lines cannot
consistently both be pressed all the way together, but they can be mixed, even
in the case of one life.
The types of scepticism invited by these two lines are rather different. The first
is primarily a scepticism about the considerations that help to shape ones life,
and the extent to which they are part of a conventional repertoire of which one is
not fully conscious. To the extent that they are, a narration of ones life as unified
in these terms may well be appropriate, but its appropriateness might come as an
unpleasant surprise to one. The second form of scepticism leaves the considerations that shape ones life in the disorderly state that is natural to them, and
attacks the supposed coherence and unity that narration can give to peoples
lives.
There is surely a good deal of room for both forms of scepticism, but less room,
as I have already said, for both at once. My own hope is that the second form is
more important than the first. We have a much greater interest, as it seems to me,
in living a life that is our own and in having an adequate grasp, at the time, of the
considerations that at various stages direct it, than we do in the ambition that it
should genuinely present a well shaped tale to potential narrators of it.11
Bernard Williams

NOTES
1

MacIntyre 1981: ch. 15: quotation at p. 197 from Hardy 1968.


MacIntyre 1981: 197.
3
MacIntyre 1981: 194.
4
MacIntyre 1981: 201.
5
MacIntyre 1981: 203.
6
Wollheim 1984 is built round this claim, in the particular form of emphasizing the
living of a life.
7
MacIntyre is wrong to reject the discussion of basic actions, by Davidson and many
others, as misguided given the importance of narrative. My point is that, on the contrary,
the latter can be got going only given (something like) the former. It is true, however, that
some work in basic action theory has neglected the many ways in which complex actions
go beyond conjunctions of basic actions.
8
MacIntyre 1981: 198.
2

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Genuine serials (as opposed to serializations), such as TV soap operas, are a partial
exception, and it is a commonplace that they can generate a startling ambivalence in some
viewers, who care passionately about what is to happen to a character and show it
sometimes by trying to persuade the writers to take the story in one direction rather than
another.
10
Alexander Nehamas presents a very strong version of this claim in his application
of related ideas to the thought of Nietzsche: see Nehamas 1985, esp. ch. 6.
11
[This is the unrevised text of a talk which Bernard Williams gave in the late 1980s, in
Berkeley, to the editorial board of the journal Representations and which he never prepared
for publication. We are grateful to David Heyd, who obtained a copy of the talk, for
drawing it to our attention.Adrian Moore and Patricia Williams (Bernard Williams
literary executors).]

REFERENCES
Hardy, B. (1968), Towards a Poetics of Fiction: An Approach through Narrative, Novel, 2:
514.
MacIntyre, A. (1981), After Virtue. London: Duckworth.
Nehamas, A. (1985), Nietzsche: Life as Literature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wollheim, R. (1984), The Thread of Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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