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Narrative as aesthetic

July 19, 2016

I decided it was time to tackle the backlog of 238 emails in the folder I park material for potential blog posts. There are also around 100 in the Todo app so I am not short of material, just time to read, synthesis and workout what my intention was at the time. I the time honoured narrative tradition I decided to begin at the beginning and that brought to me email dated 29th September 2005 from Max Boisot. I keep coming across emails from Max, notes I made from talking with Max, memories of others who knew him and/or his work who I meet most weeks. As I said when he was tragically taken from us far too early. The series of blog posts he wrote for me remain an exemplar of a master story teller and thinker.

I’m pretty sure this comes from the period where Max and I were actively talking about the role of narrative as a form of knowledge that is transitionary between the deeply concrete knowledge of the London Taxi driver and the abstract symbolic knowledge of the map. Well less transitionary more all pervasive; it is difficult to see any type of human knowledge that does not include narrative to some degree. Given the abstract origins of human language and the critically of abstraction or aesthetics in human sense-making and intelligence this should come as no surprise. Especially when we realise that aesthetic experience is part of an overall narrative experience. Coming out of a Wagner performance we convey (or at least I try to) the ecstatic experience of being in another place, even an eschatological mode of transcending and engaging with reality. The form of that communication is narrative, and if a shared narrative then all the better.

The email from Max said:

You were supposed to remind me to remind you!
Prompt: Stories are espoused theories whereas anecdotes are theories-in-use.
I have been reading Johan Huizinga’s biography of Erasmus. It gave me some nice new insights into the deeper meaning of ‘sensemaking’. One thing that I learn is that embodied, narrative and abstract symbolic knowledge each have their own consistency requirements and that consistency is a necessary but not sufficient condition for sensemaking. Erasmus’ ‘home sickness’ was due to the disconnect between the different types of embodied, narrative and abstract symbolic knowledge that he had. You can begin to explain an awful lot with that – particularly radical Islam.

The quote gives you a sense of the wonderful enigmatic way in which Max communicated and both us delighted in using distinctions of this nature in conversation, writing an presentation. The reference to Erasmus is also important, one of the great humanists of his time he understood the concerns of his contemporary Luther but could not take the doctrinaire ideas of pre-destination and justification by faith alone. I’ll come back to that issue in a series of posts I am planning on spirituality and freedom; something I hope to get to next week. I’ve also been reminded to get and read said biography.

The distinction between espoused theories while anecdotes and theories in use is important. I’ll pick that up tomorrow. Today’s post is intended to seed the space. In the mean time reflect on the opening picture. If you understand Wagner through experience and you know about eschatology then it tells you a lot more about my thinking here than if I wrote a thousand words or more. The ability to reference common meaning through abstraction is a key, but much negated aspect of narrative. OK we seem some crude use of the world metaphor, but most of that is limited in nature and fails to take account of the building of experience. I will be teaching some of this on Thursday so I am getting my brain in gear for that – and will reflect here once I have taught. Ideas come together when teaching for me, less in reflection.

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