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Integrating the self over time: memory, agency and the role of narrative distance
thesisposted on 2022-03-28, 12:02 authored by Wendy Robyn Carlton
An individual’s life comprises a multiplicity of experiences, activities and projects spread out through time. Yet to function as agents we need to forge a relatively coherent self‐conception out of this multiplicity. Coherence is never a given. It is an achievement of self‐interpretation and self‐constitution. In this thesis, I seek to explain the self-interpretative processes involved in constituting oneself as a relatively integrated diachronic agent. I begin by challenging the primarily synchronic focus of contemporary agency theories, and the inadequately temporalized accounts of self‐constitution that emerge from them, focusing on the work of Harry Frankfurt, Christine Korsgaard and Michael Bratman. To explain the importance of attending to the diachronic dimensions of agency I explore the role of memory in self‐constitution. Adopting a reconstructionist account of memory, and drawing on work by Sue Campbell, I argue that memory’s importance for self-conception lies in its capacity to extract the significance and meaning of the past. I then propose that a narrative account of practical identity is best able to explicate the diachronic dimensions of self‐interpretation and to accommodate continuity despite diversity, change and difference over time. My discussion of narrative theory engages primarily with the work of Paul Ricoeur, Marya Schechtman, David Velleman and Daniel Dennett and responds to objections to the narrative approach by Galen Strawson and John Christman. Despite the advantages of a narrative account of practical identity, I identify an explanatory gap in some influential narrative theories, arguing that they do not provide an adequate explanation of just how narrative configuration enables diachronic self‐reflection and self‐constitution. In the final part of the thesis I argue that the concept of narrative distance can fill this explanatory gap. I distinguish four dimensions of narrative distance – temporal, hermeneutic, perspectival and evaluative – and explain how we use the reflective resources provided by these dimensions of narrative distance to reconstruct, read and appropriate autobiographical memories into a self‐narrative.