18. Narrative Structure and the Notion of the Self

A pioneer of ‘virtue ethics’ in modern philosophy, Alasdair MacIntyre (born 1929) is also known for putting forward a somewhat controversial theory regarding the structure of human existence.

In this theory, he states that ‘narrative history’ is the basic and essential genre for the characterisation of human actions. Not only does he understand by this that they have beginnings, middles and endings just as do literary works, but he grants special significance to context, without which our personal ‘narratives’ would not be intelligible. He also identifies the importance of intentions in human behaviour, and isolates distinct categories of intentions: longer and shorter term intentions. Short-term intentions can only be made, in MacIntyre’s view, in relation to one or more longer term objectives. Hence, these intentions exist in relation to both time and setting, or context, as mentioned earlier in his paper.

From this, MacIntyre establishes that we are creating a ‘narrative history’. Further, he explains that in order for them to be intelligible, intentions must necessarily be ordered both causally and temporally, and in turn, both orderings must make references to settings. Inextricably linking human actions to their context in this manner, he asserts that “there is no such thing as ‘behaviour’, to be identified prior to and independently of intentions, beliefs and settings” (194). It is thus impossible to establish an intelligible narrative without considering it in reference to its context.

In MacIntyre’s view, then, as much as we now claim to be separate from where we were born, who we were born to, our family, our socio-economic standing (and we are, to a certain extent: we are not always forcefully directed by our past experiences or the beliefs of those surrounding us), our personal narratives are not intelligible without them. In other words, our lives do not make sense, we do not make sense, without this context.


MacIntyre, Alasdair C. After Virtue: A Study In Moral Theory. London: Duckworth, 1981. Print.

Image: Custer’s Last Stand by Robert Taft


2 thoughts on “18. Narrative Structure and the Notion of the Self

  1. Context is everything, isn’t it? But what if we could function without the continual narrative that we hold about ourselves and our world as we go through our life? What if we could stop identifying with the little voice in our head which constructs this narrative, and just let it fade away on its own? Would we be lost, without a narrative context according to which we can define ourselves and our world?


    1. If we cease to ‘identify’ with the little voice in our head, we would lose our notion of the self. Context and the narrative structure that we impose on human existence are only valuable insofar as they contribute to this notion. Without the self, and without the context necessary to define it, we wouldn’t be lost, we would simply cease to be we.

      Liked by 1 person

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