Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences

By Donald E. Polkinghorne | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II
Narrative Expression

OUR encounter with reality produces a meaningful and understandable flow of experience. What we experience is a consequence of the action of our organizing schemes on the components of our involvement with the world. Narrative is the fundamental scheme for linking individual human actions and events into interrelated aspects of an understandable composite. For example, the action of a narrative scheme joins the two separate events "the father died" and "the son cried" into a single episode, "the son cried when his father died." Seeing the events as connected increases our understanding of them both—the son cares for his father, and the father's death pains the son. Narrative displays the significance that events have for one another. The purpose of this chapter is to investigate the manner in which the narrative scheme operates to produce the particular form and meaning that is human existence. A secondary purpose is to examine the linguistic form through which narrative meaning is expressed.


The term "narrative"

In everyday conversation the term "narrative" is equivocal. The most inclusive meaning of "narrative" refers to any spoken or written presentation. When in a questionnaire, for example, the "narrative" designates that answers are to be given in sentences or paragraphs instead of single words or short phrases. In a written report, the "narrative" portion is that part written in essay form, as distinguished from charts, graphs, or tables. I will not use "narrative" in this generalized, derivative sense, 1 instead, I will confine my use to the more specific meaning of the term, that is, the kind of organizational scheme expressed in story form.

Even this narrowing of the term does not remove all ambiguity, however. "Narrative" can refer to the process of making a story, to the cognitive scheme of the story, or to the result of the process—also called "stories," "tales," or "histories." I will be using "narrative" and its cognates to refer to both the process and the results; the context should clarify which meaning is intended.

As I use it, the term "story" is equivalent to "narrative." The American Heritage Dictionary gives the first definition of "story" as, "The narrating or relating of an event or series of events, either true or false." Its next two definitions delimit the

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