Narratives of self-knowledge (public talk)

I was delighted to co-present a talk on therapy, bio-ethics and philosophy alongside my longtime pal Emily Postan at Blackwell’s Bookshop in Edinburgh on Monday 18th March 2019. There was a mixed audience including the general public, therapists, and academics from a range of different disciplines.

The idea for the talk emerged after I attended an earlier Cafés Philosophiques session, one which explored ideas of self-knowledge through an examination of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape.

My thought was that narrative therapy presents interesting challenges to at least some traditional ideas of self-knowledge. Not least, when I am working with people I sometimes find myself asking “What story do you prefer?” This seems to call into question the idea that there is a single “right” story that I, as some sort of mind expert, might be able to investigate and discern. I like this result. But it can also be puzzling. Can we just make up who we are? My answer might be “sort of, but not anything goes…”

Getting this answer into some sort of coherent shape was the aim of doing the talk. And, if I got there at all, it was with great help from Emily who is interested in themes of narrative and personality identity because of the crucial role they play in our thinking about bio-ethics. Along the way we touched on a range of themes, including how diagnoses can be both tools and weapons and how to think about the body (as opposed to just the mind) in relation to our identity.

Emily and I haven’t written up the talk and I suspect we won’t. It was very much a live event and being in the moment. But the abstract is below.

Narratives of self-knowledge – locating ourselves between decision and discovery

Matthew Elton and Emily Postan

Psychotherapy may be seen as an investigation into a (broken) self followed by an attempt to make internal changes leading to a new (and fixed) version of that self. But one particular approach, narrative therapy, resists the idea that what’s most needed is some internal re-jigging of the innards of the mind and favours something more like a re-positioning in relation to the range of stories that can be made to fit the many episodes that make up our lives. In doing so, it often challenges dominant and socially privileged narratives – for example ones featuring categories such as depression, anxiety, and many more – that may be what has brought a person into the therapy room in the first place.

Similar challenges arise way beyond the therapy room, not least in bioethics. The radical prospect of being willing to set aside any pre-existing narrative can be dizzying for the individual and troubling for the theorist. The idea that every one of us creates who we are through the stories we tell about ourselves poses a beguiling yet unsettling prospect. If such freedom is permissible, does anything constrain our investigation of who we are and who we can be? And if something does constrain it, in what ways does this differ from the imposition of others’ ideas of who we are allowed to be? Drawing on examples from psychotherapy, philosophy, and bioethics our speakers explore what self-knowledge might mean for those who are strongly motivated to embrace a narrative conception of identity.

Speakers: Matthew Elton is a psychotherapist in private practice in Edinburgh and a former lecturer in philosophy at the University of Stirling. Emily Postan is Early Career Fellow in Bioethics in the School of Law, University of Edinburgh.