Galen Strawson (born 1952)
British Philosopher
University of Reading
Galen Strawson:
Narrative & Episodic Minds

Conversation with
Kay Ryan

Poetry Workshop
(English 192V)
Stanford University
Winter Quarter 2010

Peter Y. Chou
March 2, 2010

Galen Strawson, "The Self"
Journal of Consciousness Studies
Volume 4, 405-428 (1997)

Preface: Kay Ryan, U.S. Poet Laureate (2008-2010) told her Stanford Poetry Workshop on February 23, 2010 that our homework assignment for next week is to read her handout of the British philosopher Galen Strawson's essay on narrative and episodic mind ("A Fallacy of Our Age: Not every life is a narrative" (Times Literary Supplement, October 15, 2004, pp. 13-15). Then ask ourselves "What kind of person am I?" We may use examples from our own writing, from literature, and incidents in our lives and others to answer this question. Although Strawson's essay was only three pages, it was hard reading through his arguments. I was not familiar with the analytical philosophers he cited and several of the writers he categorized as having episodic and diachronic (narrative) minds. In this essay I'll focus on Strawson's delineations of these two kinds of minds. Then I'll reflect on my own life to see whether I'm narrative or episodic in character.

Narrative & Episodic Minds

    Strawson's TLS article (Oct. 15, 2004) is not available online. However, a full version of his essay "Against Narrativity" was published in Ratio, XVII (4 December 2004) is available for downloading (25 pages PDF at UCSD). According to Strawson, the narrative person figures oneself as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future— with relatively long-term diachronic continuity, persisting over a long stretch of time, perhaps for life. The episodic person, by contrast, does not figure oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future. Episodics are likely to have no particular tendency to see their life in Narrative terms. Since Episodics are not living in their memories, they are more located in the present than Diachronics. But the past can be alive in the present for both kinds of persons simply because it has shaped the way one is in the present.

    Strawson quotes Rilke's "For the sake of a single verse" (from The Notebooks of Malte Lairids Brigge, 1910): "one must see many cities, men, and things... One must be able to think back to roads in unknown regions, to unexpected meetings... to days of childhood that are still unexplained... One must have memories... And still it is not enough to have memories. One must be able to forget them when they are many, and one must have the great patience to wait until they come again. For it is not yet the memories themselves. Not till they have turned to blood within us, to glance, and gesture, nameless, and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves." I recall finding a book containing this single Rilke poem illustrated by Ben Shahn (1974) in Palo Alto's Mitchell Park Library, and it became a guiding star to write poetry. Later I read Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet (1903) which furthered my poetic sensibility.

    Strawson's list of episodic writers include: Michel de Montaigne, Earl of Shaftesbury, Laurence Sterne, Coleridge, Stendhal, Hazlitt, Ford Madox Ford, Virginia Woolf, Jorge Luis Borges, Fernando Pessoa, Iris Murdoch, A. J. Ayer, Bob Dylan. His list of diachronic (narrative) writers— Plato, St Augustine, Heidegger, Wordsworth, Dostoevsky, Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Patrick O'Brian. Strawson counters those who say that Episodics cannot really know true friendship or love, or even be loyal by citing Montaigne, who has poor memory, but famous for his friendship with Étienne de la Boétie, who judges that Montaigne is "better at friendship than anything else". For a gift for friendship doesn't require any ability to recall past shared experiences in detail. It resides in how one is and feels in the present. Strawson also quotes the Earl of Shaftesbury: "The now; the now. Mind this: in this is all." I'd agree with this wisdom insight for everything in our past was experienced in the "Now" as well as all events coming in our future. Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now (2000) was on the New York Times bestseller for 20 weeks, selling more than one million copies ("The Wisdom of the Ages, for Now Anyway"). Perhaps people are realizing this basic truth ("Why now is bliss") that is characteristic of the Episodic mind. (Image: Michel de Montaigne, wearing the chain of office of Mayor of Bordeaux, oil portrait by Daniel Demonstier, 1585)

    One of the Episodics cited by Strawson is a favorite writer of mine. I was intrigued by Borges's story "Funes the Memorious" (1942) about a boy with prodigious memory of everything he sees as well as historical events to the minutest details. However another insight of Borges remained even more vivid— "What is a Divine Mind? the reader will perhaps inquire. There is not a theologian who does not define it; I prefer an example. The steps a man takes from the day of his birth until that of his death trace in time an inconceivable figure. The Divine Mind intuitively grasps that form immediately, as men do a triangle. This figure (perhaps) has its given function in the economy of the universe." [Jorge Luis Borges, "The Mirror of Enigmas" from Labyrinths New Directions, New York (1964), Reprint: Penguin Books (1970), p. 247].

    I disagree with Strawson classifying Wordsworth and Plato as narrative writers. I love Wordsworth "Tintern Abbey", especially lines 93-105: "And I have felt / A presence that disturbs me with the joy / Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused, / Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, / And the round ocean and the living air, / And the blue sky, and in the mind of man; / A motion and a spirit, that impels / All thinking things, all objects of all thought, / And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still / A lover of the meadows and the woods, / And mountains; and of all that we behold / From this green earth;" In these lines Wordsworth has embraced the four elements of nature— sun (fire), ocean (water), air, earth. But it's the mind of man that perceives this beauty, and a spirit which rolls through all things. It's this mystic vision that prompted Richard Bucke to write in his Cosmic Consciousness (1901) that Wordsworth had such a transcendental experience as Blake, Dante, and Whitman.

    The Dialogues of Plato seems dialectical and logical philosophical arguments of Socrates whose dictim "the unexamined life is not worth living" (Apology 38a) is surely narrative in nature. However, Plato has experienced transcendental vision beyond time that would make him episodic. We find in Plato's Seventh Letter that he claims as never have written any philosophy, for such illumination comes "after much converse about the matter itself and a life lived together, suddenly a light, as it were, is kindled in one soul by a flame that leaps to it from another, and thereafter sustains itself." Plato has discovered the organ in his soul that "outweighs ten thousand eyes, for by it alone is reality beheld." (Republic, VII.527e). Plato's recounts his vision of the One in the Philebus 16d: "From the gods a gift to the human race: thus I reckon the gift of seeing the One in the many and the many in the One." On April 30, 2007, Prof. Scott Bukatman screened Ernie Gehr's "Serene Velocity" (1970) in his "Cinema Machine" class. He said this 23-minutes silent film was shot in one night, with daybreak seen in the window at the end of the hallway. I shared my Platonic epiphany haiku with the class: "Square becomes circle! / Plato's cave allegory— from earth to the Sun!" I had read Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" (Republic VII.5141-520a) in college years ago. Now, I realized that we are those prisoners tied up in the cave bound to our illusory ego. The one who escaped to the outside and saw the Sun instead of shadows is one experiencing cosmic consciousness. (Image: Plato from School of Athens, 1508, by Raphael, Vatican Museum)

Am I a Narrative or Episodic Person?

    Kay asked the class to reflect upon our lives and decide whether we are narrative or episodic. Since I'm three times older than these Stanford undergraduates in the class, I have an unfair advantage to look back on my life and see certain patterns which were not apparent when I was their age. When I was a Columbia undergraduate majoring in Chemical Engineering, my life was definitely narrative. I was born in China and came to America, studied hard to get into Columbia and then to Cornell. My life was a series of events of cause and effect.

    While doing my doctorate research in physical biochemistry at Cornell, I realized that my Ivy League education did not teach me how to be a more creative person. They taught us the discoveries of Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein. In art and music classes, I learned the genius of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Mozart, and Beethoven. But how did they come up with their ideas? I read their biographies, journals, and letters, hoping to find some clues. Soon I realized that many of them had an inner experience, after which their creative works poured out. They maintained their childlike wonder which I had lost during my emphasis in getting good grades to get into good colleges. Then I found Richard Bucke's Cosmic Consciousness (1901) in the Cornell stacks. Suddenly I realized that our goal in life is spiritual enlightenment and not just material well-being. I may be able to trace biological life from DNA and proteins, but felt that I was in spiritual kindergarten, not knowing my true essence. I used Bucke's book as a road map and began my spiritual quest. The taverns I would stop by on this journey were Balzac, Blake, Buddha, Christ, Dante, Lao Tzu, Plato, Whitman, Wordsworth— spiritual mentors who offered a drink of the infinite and eternal.

    I was introduced to Dante's Commedia in 1965 by three wonderful Dante scholars— Etienne Gilson, Charles Singleton, and John Freccero at Dante's 700th Birthday Symposium at Cornell University. When Singleton's mentioned Dante's Commedia as a work of reflective symmetry, a crystalline snowflake which may be seen in all his Cantos balanced at the beginning, middle, and end, I was skeptical at his analysis. A snowflake is God's creation. Dante is a man, so how can his work be God-like? At the time, I had not read Dante's Commedia and didn't know that he had cosmic consciousness. Having taken Professor Freccero's "Dante's Divine Comedy" class at Stanford in 1991 and 2000, I've gained more insight to this great poem that I approach Dante with much awe and humility. Dante's spiritual journey has inspired my own quest for wisdom. His vision of the cosmos has given me much energy in my research on protein structures, nature's language of life. Dante's poetry has helped me in teaching poetry writing to students in the California-Poets-in-the-Schools program, as well as uplifting my creative writing. Dante at Wisdom Portal is my homage to Dante with his love for Beatrice and story of Romeo of Villeneuve providing me with much inspiration. (Image: Mexico C308 postage stamp, issued Nov. 23, 1965. Dante Alighieri by Raphael, from Mount Parnassus, Vatican Museum)

    Balzac's Louis Lambert taught me that the Specialist was someone who can see "things of the material world as well as those of the spiritual world... seeing things in its entirety. Jesus was a Specialist. He saw the deed in its roots and in its products;... his sight penetrated the understanding of others... Specialism carries with it Intuition— witness Napoleon instinctively changing his position before the bullet came which would have struck him." Having written under various pseudonyms for ten years, Balzac felt confident to put his own name on Louis Lambert (1832). He told his sister that this would be the first in a series of novels called La Comédie humaine where he'd write a historical, psychological, and sociological panorama of Parisian life. From this vision, 95 novels poured out of Balzac in 18 years. Soon I made Balzac my spiritual mentor along with Dante and Goethe. If I could see things in its entirety, I would not be looking at things piecemeal through experiments on a variety of instruments. I'd delve into the mysteries of proteins and DNA directly inside myself and understand the building blocks of life. (Image: Honoré de Balzac on an 1842 daguerreotype by Louis-Auguste Bisson)

    So in addition to my chemical experiments on polyamino acids as models for proteins in the laboratory, I'd spent times in the Cornell stacks searching for cases of cosmic consciousness in additon to those in Bucke's 1901 classic. In Mozart's biography, I found this revelation— "Nor do I hear in my imagination the parts successively, I hear them all at once. What a delight this is! All this inventing, this producing, takes place in a pleasing, lively dream." I was baffled by Mozart's quote. A painter may have a vision of a landscape, still-life, or portrait, and proceed to paint it on canvas. But music takes time to unravel, so how could Mozart hear an entire symphony at once? After Prof. John Hsu's performance on the viola da gamba (circa 1967), I walked with him and another music professor across the campus. When I asked them about Mozart hearing his symphony "all at once", they laughed loudly. When I asked them why it's so funny? They explained to me that "Mozart letter" was a forgery (Strawson was fooled too). My bubble was bursted! Here I had found an example of cosmic consciousness, and it turned out to be a fake. As I was just a beginner on the spiritual path, this was a devasting blow. That night I had a dream telling me to pursue my inner quest— I was in a train looking out of the window seeing in sequence a hill, a lake, a forest. When I was seeing the lake, hill was past and forest the future. But someone on top of the train would see the hill, lake, forest all at once— for the past, present, future, are all in the Eternal Now! I asked how to get on top of the train to see it all at once, and was told "Not if you continue to identify with your body and the ego self. See not with your physical eyes out of the train's window but with the cosmic eye (Plato's organ of the soul that's more powerful than 1000 physical eyes)." So in losing Mozart's episodic experience story in the day, I found my own example in an episodic dream that same night.

    It's been said that when the student is ready, the guru will appear. I didn't know this spiritual dictim back on April 5, 1968 when I met Anthony Damiani the proprietor of American Brahman Bookstore on 118 West State Street in downtown Ithaca. I've told this story elsewhere and will not repeat it here. I didn't know that the Sanskrit word for spiritual teacher is guru, composed of gu: darkness and ru: light. So a guru is someone who guides us from darkness to light or from ignorance to knowledge. Now in hindsight, I realized that Anthony was my first guru and spiritual mentor. Anthony recommended the books of Paul Brunton and Ramana Maharshi, two sages who had experienced cosmic consciousness. However, I was only interested in learning from the original source— words from Buddha himself. One day while browsing through the Cornell Library stacks, I came across a book titled Open Secret by Wei Wu Wei. Here's my encounter with this Irish sage in the Cornell Library (1968) and 40 years later at Stanford Library (2008). Paul Cornwell's 2004 book Only by Failure: The Many Faces of the Impossible Life of Terence Gray about Wei Wu Wei surely tells someone who lived an episodic life. Through Wei Wu Wei, I finally read the books of Paul Brunton and Ramana Maharshi. [Image: Anthony Damiani (1922-1984), Wisdom's Goldenrod]

    Whitman sings in "Song of Myself" (1855): "What is a man anyhow? What am I? and what are you?" (line 390). The Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950) gave the mantra "Who am I?" to students seeking enlightenment. Paul Brunton introduced Ramana to the West in his book A Search in Secret India (1934) and also experienced enlightenment in Ramana's ashram. However in Brunton's Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga (1941), he suggested "What am I?" as a better query since "Who" still connotates the ego, while "What" is more scientific and impersonal and a more fitting description of the Higher Self. Anthony regarded Paul Brunton (PB) as a sage always in cosmic consciousness. I met PB on August 30, 1972 in Montreux, Switzerland, and have told this story in my poem "Sage and Sin". PB told me "I am not a guru. The guru is within you." I then made my laboratory at Brandeis a garden of meditation. I realized that proteins express the language of life— it's our oldest language and a living language. I made the 20 amino acids my elfin friends, and began to decipher proteins like Champollion with the Rosetta Stone. After determining experimentally the helical potential of Leucine from copolymers, I derived the conformational potentials of 20 amino acids from the known X-ray structures of 15 proteins (1973). Not knowing computer programming, I devised a simple method of six rules looking for amino acids that are α-helix and β-sheet makers or breakers in tetrapeptides along the protein sequence in predicting its structure. Being the first in the world to see this table of amino acids and their α-helix and β-sheet potentials in hierarchical order, I had the key to protein structural prediction. It was a most joyous moment as a scientist, the feeling of exhiliaration that Galileo must have felt in his discoveries. "Prediction of Protein Conformation" was published in Biochemistry, Volume 13, 222-245 (1974). In two international prediction contests, this simple method did better than most computer methods. When Current Contents had a list of "Citation Classics" with papers by Einstein and Bohr, I couldn't believe that my paper was ranking up there with science heroes I'd worshipped since my youth. At last my scientific and spiritual quests have merged as one— it was an episodic enlightenment moment.

    When Science Citation Index invited me to write an essay on my discovery in July 1981, I didn't comply because the letter came the same week when I learned that PB had passed on. So I spent the week writing poems about my time with PB and sent it to his son, Kenneth Thurston Hurst, President of Prentice Hall International. He was thankful for my gift in memory of his Dad. Prof. Fasman sent his essay to Science Citation Index in 1987, so there's a record of our pioneering work. Eugene Garfield noted that our paper has been cited in over 1160 publications, making it the most-cited paper for Science Citation Index. PB advised me at Montreux in October 1978 to follow the Short Path to spiritual enlightenment— I had followed the Long Path of meditation, polishing my mind to do creative work in science. Now I need to abandon that effort and rely on Grace for the final gift. Biotechnology envisions genetic engineered individuals and transhumanism, but I feel the Enlightened Self (Bodhisattva Ideal) to be the summum bonum of life. So I changed my career from biochemistry to poetry. When Joseph Campbell told Bill Moyers on PBS "Power of Myth" (1988) that "poetry is a language to be deciphered" in order to express the ineffable transcendental experience, it dawned on me that I've not left my field at all. I've devoted ten years to deciphering protein structures from their amino acid sequences as nature's language of life. Now I'm learning poetry, the language of the human heart. This is the simple life I'm now living enjoying each day as it comes, following my bliss, with no regrets of the past, nor worries of the future— being in the present moment of Eternal Now, but remembering the family, friends, and spiritual mentors who brought me here. So I'm both narrative and episodic, and perhaps neither or beyond both. This is Buddha's answer to our true nature— "Neti, Neti" ("Not this. Not this.")— for to define who we are limits us to the Infinite Self that's beyond all human ideation. I also like the insight of Lu Hsiang-shan (1139-1193), the sage of Elephant Mountain in Kiangsi, where he lectured and taught philosophy. He said "The four directions plus upward and downward constitute the spatial continuum. What has gone by in the past and what is to come in the future constitute the temporal continuum. The universe is my mind, and my mind is the universe." Joyous are the sages who abide in that vision. Here's a poem that came to me whole in a dream— "Do You Know Who You Are?" (11-22-2004) [Image: Paul Brunton (1898-1981) in Switzerland circa 1978].

— Peter Y. Chou, March 2, 2010

References for Futher Reading:

Strawson & Narrativity
  (By Charlie Huenemann, Huenemanniac, January 3, 2010)
My Narrative Mind: Joanna Howard
  (Interviews by Michael Kimball, The Faster Times, November 30, 2009)
"Narrative or Episodic, or Both"
  (By Deborah Barlow, Slow Muse, August 5, 2009)
"The End of the Episode"
  (By Lee Siegel, Wall Street Journal, August 3, 2009)
Galen Strawson, The Self, University of Reading Conference (Chapter 4)
  (Review by Natalie F. Banner, Metapsychology, Volume 12, Issue 2, Jan. 8, 2008)
Towards a Narrative Mind: The Creation of Coherent Life Stories for Believable Virtual Agents
  (By Wan Ching Ho & Kerstin Dautenhahn, Springer Berlin, 2008)
Episodic Memory, Autobiographical Memory, Narrative
  [By Christoph Hoerl, Philosophical Psychology, 20, 621-640 (2007)]
Narrative identity and narrative imperialism: a response to Galen Strawson and James Phelan
  (By Paul John Eakin, Narrative, May 1, 2006)
Narrativity, self, and self-representation
  (By James L. Battersby, Narrative, January 1, 2006)
Narrative Memory, Episodic Memory aand W.G. Sebald's idea of Memory
  (By Gloria Origgi, Paper at Italian Academy, Columbia University, April 2005)
Galen Strawson and Narrativity
  (By David Auerbach,, November 23, 2004)
Narratives Selves?
  (By Peter J. Leithart,, October 26, 2004)
Galen Strawson, Against Narrativity: Philosophy Papers
  (4 abstracts of papers in response to Strawson's "Against Narrativity", 2004)
Blood and memory
  (By Galen Strawson, The Guardian, January 4, 2003)
Episodic memory: from mind to brain
  (By Endel Tulving, Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 1-25, February 2002)
Episodic Narrative
  (Narrative Paradigm in New Testament Genre and Book of Acts)

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