Our everyday stories provide explanations for understanding, create meaning and agreement, validate the truth of our worldview, and also cause us pain and suffering.
Historian Arthur Herman points out that the Allegory of the Cave “reveals a bitter truth: Most people prefer life in the cave.” In our modern technology-centric world, we receive a daily barrage of stories we’re expected to believe just because they’re told to us. There is no experiential component to a story that already fits with our worldview nor to a story presenting an alternative reality. So one wonders how our worldviews will ever be truly challenged in a relatively closed-loop of spoon-fed stories pre-categorized for us by the source from whence they came. It’s much easier on a minute-to-minute basis to simply “process out” the stories that don’t fit and continue building a worldview with more stories complementary to those we already subscribe to.
There is a kind of magical potency to some stories while others are so embedded in our daily life and how we view the world that they don’t even occur to us as stories. In either case, they are how we make sense and meaning of our lives and the world around us. The more personally and socially we are invested in a story, the more important it is to us that we continue that investment. On an individual and social level, we will continue to keep our stories alive, often long past the time when they have ceased working for us. We become like the prisoners in the cave who had no interest in facing the light and were content to stay where they were, eyesight intact in their familiar world.
But what does that mean? How does a story cease to work for us? If the purpose of the story is to help us understand and give meaning to our lives, it’s conceivable that the understanding and meaning conveyed no longer fits with the situation in which an individual or society finds itself. At the individual level, a story must change when a dramatic change occurs in our lives—for example, a child’s parent dies, or a married person gets divorced. At the societal level, it may be that a war is being waged, or an economy crashes, or a natural disaster has radically altered the entire landscape. In some cases, the story that must be changed has been with an individual for as far back as she can remember. Or it has been a part of the cultural milieu of a society for hundreds of years.
At some point, the discontinuity between the present reality and the meaning provided through the story will create such discomfort that it feels as if there is no solid ground under one’s feet: What do I really know? If this isn’t right, is anything? What if I have it all wrong? Or: What if our collective story has led us down a path toward too much pain and disenfranchisement for a whole group of people? Maybe our collective story is leading us down a path toward complete destruction—now what must we do? And just that question may begin the opening up of a whole new story. When it comes to staying with the old story even if it leads to bitter unhappiness, or even societal collapse, will I—will we—be willing to let go of that story and do the work of creating and learning to live within one that better fits life’s current circumstances? Alternatively, author and teacher Byron Katie Mitchell asks us to consider the provocative question for any possible juncture: Who would we be without our story? She explains that the suffering we experience inside our minds is not reality but rather it is just a story we are torturing ourselves with.
Throughout human history, there have been periods of time when a story collectively held no longer served those who held it. Often this was apparent from the overall misery of the population, generally caused by a dramatic change in circumstances, but sometimes resulting from the passage of time and the general change that accompanies long-term transitions. To name but a few rather obvious examples of these major long-term transitions, there was the change that came with the early development of stone tool technology; another came with the move to cooking our food; still another with the transition of some people from wandering hunter-gatherers to small groups settling more permanently and building villages; and along with the settlements came the change to the domestication of animals, and the harvesting of wild seeds for planting as people transitioned to lives of agriculture; and then there were the changes wrought by the discovery and perpetuation of methods for forging metals; and so on and so on and so on.
As these changes came about and new problems (along with any benefits) were visited upon the people as a consequence of each change, circumstances often became more difficult to bear. There were new diseases, wars were fought for new reasons, and people became enslaved for purposes that previously had never existed. As misery increased, there was a greater need for gods and religions in order to rationalize the causes of people’s suffering but also to give them hope for relief from that suffering. New stories were needed. And as stories about our past change, they also change our future. This is the case both individually and collectively. While some stories are wholly unique to a particular person, most of the stories that make up our world are socially-constructed systems of meaning and agreement.
Many of these collective systems of meaning and agreement, these new socially-constructed stories, are initiated by a spiritual leader, an influential philosopher, a political figure, or (particularly today) a scientific authority. Living at roughly the same time as Socrates, Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) believed it was attachment to our stories that caused our suffering. According to the Buddha’s teachings, because all things are empty of inherent existence in and of themselves, all things are dependent upon our perceptions of them. Thus it is only our stories about them that we may use to make ourselves unhappy. In understanding this, we are able to overcome our dissatisfaction (dukkha) in everyday life.
The Buddha taught that by virtue of having a body, there is inevitable pain, but the mental duress we suffer about that pain is a self-created story that is not inevitable. Another basic premise of Buddhism is that everything is impermeable—always changing, because all is emptiness, and, relatedly, there is no soul or self that is “doing” the experiencing of life—that soul or self is yet another story. Unlike so many other worldviews, the Buddhist system of beliefs prescribes a practical approach to living differently so that we may leave the path of our self-created suffering. We must carefully observe the patterns of our mind at work, as well as the patterns of our experiences in the world, so that ultimately we may transform these patterns and experiences.
Born in the 4th century BC, the Master Chuang Tzu was later deemed an early Taoist philosopher but in his own time, there was as yet no such school of thought and so Chuang Tzu was primarily thought to be a philosopher holding positions against Confucianism. Chuang Tzu held that the rational mind led away from the Tao or “the Way” which was the path of intuition. He maintained that by laughing and holding ideas up to ridicule, he was able to free himself from the tyranny of the rational mind. In this way, he was able to see clearly that we make the world from stories and the path to peace and contentment lies in remaining unattached to these stories. Instead, we are better served by simply being in accord with nature, which includes both life and death as natural processes of transformation. If we unlearn the layers of stories placed upon us by society as well as our own minds, we seamlessly reenter the flow of the Tao and are in harmony with Nature. Chuang Tzu told a parable to illustrate how we add stories to a simple moment or event, and in so doing, we are led away from the Tao.
If a man is crossing a river And an empty boat collides with his skiff, Even though he be a bad-tempered man, He will not become very angry. But, if he sees a man in the boat, He will shout for him to stay clear. If the shout is not heard, he will shout again And yet again, screaming and shouting And now cursing at him. And all because there is somebody in the boat. Yet, if the boat is empty He would not be shouting and not be angry. If you can empty your own boat Crossing the river of the world, No one will oppose you, No one will seek to harm you. Thus it is for the person Who is one with the Tao-- Their boat is empty.
Twentieth-century philosopher Henri Bergson also valued intuition over the rational intellect. While Bergson understood the functionality of scientific knowledge and its usefulness for human survival, he argued that the actual nature of reality is found through human memory and intuition. Bergson believed the evolution of all life, including that of humans, was neither predetermined nor intentionally purposeful. Our stories are open-ended and have boundless potential for creativity. But first, we must drag ourselves out of the cave. To that end, Bergson explained, “the human mind is so constructed that it cannot begin to understand the new until it has done everything in its power to relate it to the old.”
Psychoanalyst James Hillman joined Bergson in this belief in the boundless creative potential available for our stories. Hillman wrote, “ . . . put it my way, what we are really, and the reality we live, is our psychic reality, which is nothing but . . . the poetic imagination going on day and night.”
Reframing our worldview to acknowledge that we make our world of stories can at first feel like a proposition to forego all certainty and knowledge. Is anything real, anything true, then? At least one objective of the First Principle essays has been to question the viability of the concepts of concrete certainty and knowledge. But a next step would be to understand and even embrace an approach that has as its epistemological story a pragmatic measure of certainty and viability as we go through our daily life. Twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein provided a clear explanation for how stories are embedded in all aspects of our real experience in the everyday realm.
Proposing an alternative to the Cartesian understanding of thoughts as representations of the external world, Wittgenstein conflated pictures and stories (as in, every picture tells a story) when he reframed our individual system of beliefs as a “picture of the world” (Wietbild): “We form the picture of the earth as a ball floating free in space and not altering essentially in a hundred years. I said “We form the picture etc.” and this picture now helps us in the judgment of various situations. I may indeed calculate the dimensions of a bridge, sometimes calculate that here things are more in favor of a bridge than a ferry, etc. etc.,—but somewhere I must begin with an assumption or a decision. The picture of the earth as a ball is a good picture, it proves itself everywhere, it is also a simple picture—in short, we work with it without doubting it.”
With this concept, Wittgenstein challenged the notion that all statements can be understood as representational propositions or claims to fact that could be tested. “Our ‘empirical propositions’ do not,” he maintained, “form a homogeneous mass.” They do not all have the same status. Rather, many of the propositions which describe our “world-picture” are part of a kind of mythology of the culture in which they exist and their role is “like that of the rules of a game; and the game can be learned purely practically, without learning any explicit rules.” These statements are embedded within the thinking of that culture. Any story (or picture of the story) resides within and derives its significance from this mythological context. The mythology thus gives sense to our world. “At any given time and place, certain ways of behaving, imaging, and speaking are given final and unthinking sanction; they form the mythology of that culture.” Nevertheless, these statements are not representations of the “real world.” They are neither factual nor testable propositions. As Wittgenstein pointed out, “Giving grounds, however, justifying the evidence, comes to an end;—but the end is not certain propositions striking us immediately as true, i.e., it is not a kind of seeing on our part; it is our acting which lies at the bottom of the language-game.”
Together, then, we give the grounding to our statements through the transparent process of creating our shared world-picture. It is this alone that can make these stories true for us. The systematic mythology of our culture is what we test our stories against for falsification and confirmation. Wittgenstein maintained that “when we first begin to believe anything, what we believe is not a single proposition, it is a whole system of propositions. (Light dawns gradually over the whole.) It is not single axioms that strike me as obvious, it is a system in which consequences and premises give one another mutual support.” He provides the example of a child being told that long ago someone climbed a nearby mountain. The child’s reaction is rarely to question the reliability of the person who said this or to investigate whether the mountain was even there when the person is said to have climbed it. Long before we learn about the reliability of informants, we learn by taking in the stories conveyed to us. Questions like the age of the mountain don’t even occur to the child. The long-standing existence of the mountain is a learning taken in freely along with the information that someone has climbed it. Wittgenstein continues, “The child learns to believe a host of things. I.e., it learns to act according to these beliefs. Bit by bit there forms a system of what is believed, and in that system some things stand unshakeable fast and some are more or less liable to shift. What stands fast does so, not because it is intrinsically obvious or convincing; it is rather held fast by what lies around it.” It stands fast because of the other stories that make up the worldview of which it is a part.
Wittgenstein has put forth a proposal regarding truth that can be considered both pragmatist and coherentist. But he has also done much more than that. He has shown that the development of our belief systems is a largely unconscious process based upon trust rather than justification through reasoning. We form a system of doubts just as we do a system of beliefs, and from this, we make our judgments about what is true. When I say that I regard something as true, i.e., that I regard a particular story to be the case, I am saying that this is a characterization of how I have interpreted my experience.
Trust must begin somewhere; that, said Wittgenstein, is part of judging. He claimed that “the child learns by believing the adult. Doubt comes after belief.” What we find so troubling, and devise whole systems to circumvent, is the realization of the groundlessness of our believing. “I act with complete certainty. But this certainty is my own.” When one says “I know . . . ,” that person is expressing “comfortable certainty.” She is not struggling with the veracity of her story. Wittgenstein regarded this kind of certainty “not as something akin to hastiness or superficiality, but as a form of life.” Thus, it is a decision that one makes that one knows something, a decision based on a judgment based in trust—trust in an adult when one is a child, trust in an authority or expert, trust in the way this story in question fits with the rest of one’s worldview.
It is essential to our being able to think through things and communicate that we discern and understand things with some kind of certainty. Our worldview, then, provides the backdrop against which we can determine what, for us, is true or false. Wittgenstein held that a whole system—a worldview or world-picture—forms, thereby making a totality of judgments plausible. Cartesian propositions are fixed, permanent; Wittgenstein’s are fluid and can change based upon what happens within our world-picture. Of course, this can be construed as a very pragmatic argument. It is, I believe, also representative of what we mean when we say “I know . . .” in all but formal logical uses of the phrase. So often that we are generally unaware of it, the phrase is used in this way in scientific discourse as well as in everyday conversation.
But this certainty regarding our worldview is also why it can be so difficult to let go of a story that is no longer serving us. We have convinced ourselves of our own certainty because this is how knowing in our everyday life works. Now we are in crisis as our worldview, or a central story within that worldview, is not serving us given the current state of our life or our world. We have to unwind that certainty and recreate it for a different story. This sometimes happens all at once in a moment of realization or recognition of something completely other than what we were holding to be true. But more likely it is the case that it is a process, and sometimes a difficult or even a painful one.
Existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers points out that it was through Socrates’ extreme questioning that “he arouses a real, living certainty that is not mere knowledge of something. He transcends the world without negating. He forgoes total knowledge, total judgments, contenting himself with a non-knowledge in which truth and reality are actualized.” For Socrates, the ascent from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge, was the gift of the soul. And for many wise people then and now, this still holds as they employ the story of the inner light of the soul to cast its rays and illuminate the absolute absence of all story at the heart of being. In either case, we will have had to leave the cave and step out into the light.
Bergson, Henri. 1991. Matter and Memory. (N. M. Paul & W. S. Palmer, Trans.). New York: Zone Books.
Bergson, Henri. 2007. The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics. New York: Dover Books.
Herman, Arthur. 2013. The Cave and the Light: Plato versus Aristotle, and thestruggle for the soul of Western civilization. New York: Random House.
Hillman, James. 1993. We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy—And the World’s Getting Worse. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Jaspers, Karl. 1962. Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company.
Mitchell, Byron Katie. 2008. Who Would You Be Without Your Story?: Dialogues with Byron Katie. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1969. On Certainty. (D. Paul & G. E. M. Anscombe, (Trans.). New York: Basil Blackwell.
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