Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences

By Donald E. Polkinghorne | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER I
Introduction

EXPERIENCE is meaningful and human behavior is generated from and informed by this meaningfulness. Thus, the study of human behavior needs to include an exploration of the meaning systems that form human experience. This book is an inquiry into narrative, the primary form by which human experience is made meaningful. Narrative meaning is a cognitive process that organizes human experiences into temporally meaningful episodes. Because it is a cognitive process, a mental operation, narrative meaning is not an "object" available to direct observation. However, the individual stories and histories that emerge in the creation of human narratives are available for direct observation. Examples of narrative include personal and social histories, myths, fairy tales, novels, and the everyday stories we use to explain our own and others' actions.

Before beginning the investigation of narrative proper with Chapter 2, I will use this preparatory chapter to describe the general characteristics of human existence. The first section examines human existence as a systemic synthesis of multiple kinds of reality, and identifies narrative meaning as an aspect of one of these realities, the realm of meaning. The second section then investigates the problems inherent in studying narrative meaning and suggests that, given its characteristics, hermeneutic methods provide the most adequate tools for understanding narrative.


The realms of human existence

Human existence consists of a stratified system of differently organized realms of reality—the material realm, the organic realm, and the mental realm. Narrative meaning is one of the processes of the mental realm, and functions to organize elements of awareness into meaningful episodes. The idea of different kinds of reality—in opposition to the popular notion that there is only one basic reality, the material—is explained by the concept of emergence developed in systems theory. 1 This section first describes the theory of the emergence of multiple realities, and then examines in detail the operations of the most evolved of these realities, the mental realm.

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