Saga and Philosophy

In this paper, which gives its name to a collection of articles in English published in 1999, I argue that we need to bring narration and philosophy together in order to understand our historical world. I take as an exemple the philosophies of Hegel and Marx to show how they require realistic narrations to give substance to their theories.


Where do philosophy and narration stand in relation to each other? Are we to conceive of their relationship on the basis of the common view that philosophy is philosophy of something, of science, religion, art, or whatnot?

In this case, what would a philosophy of narration be? An analysis of the concepts involved in the narrative thinking? Or something else? Let us leave that question open, because it does not seem obvious that narration stands in the same kind of relationship to philosophy as do science, religion and art; narration, perhaps, is much closer to philosophy, or at least to the kind of philosophy which deals with human actions and events in human life. The idea of a close relationship between saga and philosophy makes only more striking the gap between them. When we think under the rules of narration, reality is present to us as a history, as a series of events in which people are caught in unpredictable ways. On the other hand, when we think under the rules of philosophy, we look away from, to put it bluntly, the chaos of human actions and events into the world of concepts and theories.

To tell a story (or to follow a saga) and to deal with a conceptual problem may thus appear as diametrically opposed activities: You follow a story and you are open to a world where what is at stake is not your own thinking as such but rather the reality itself of what has happened or is happening in the world to which you belong. In contrast, you deal with a conceptual problem and you are open to a possible world of your own thinking; you have to come to terms, not with the world, but with a coherent structure of thought. How are we to conceive of the relationship between these two kinds of attitudes which seem equally basic to human thought? Are we bound to think of them as radically different, and even, as it may seem, diametrically opposed, or is this very conception based on some strange misunderstanding?

This problem is of course a very old one. As usual, we can find something most relevant in Plato’s work concerning what is in question, e.g. where he says that philosophy begins where one stops telling stories – that is to say, when one stops trying to explain things by other things on the same level and starts referring to ideas or concepts.1 If this is true, philosophy is born by rejecting narration as an inferior mode of thought. And this certainly is a belief held by many philosophers. But here we must distinguish between at least two quite different views. One can look at narration as having been abandoned once and for all by philosophy and having nothing whatsoever to do with it. Narration would, at best, be considered a specific mode of expression, like music or dance. It would thus be rejected as a mode of understanding and explanation comparable to science and philosophy. In this view, narration is only related to philosophy as an object of philosophical inquiry. I have been tempted to hold this view myself because it is so reassuring. It presupposes that philosophy and saga both have their own well-determined territories, their own specific means to exploit their respective fields and their own ultimate ends.

There may be some truth to this, but history teaches us that all intellectual activities intersect, and therefore I must believe that the frontiers between saga and philosophy – and indeed between saga, philosophy, science, religion and art as well – are all moving and that there are not, and should not be, any clear and definitive boundaries between them. Such a view is not only realistic; it should also prevent us from debilitating stagnation. The other view which I had in mind looks at narration as an immature mode of rational thinking which is to be overcome by a dialectical way of thinking. Instead of rejecting narration as an invalid mode of understanding, we would have to comprehend the specific rationality of narrative thinking and incorporate it into a richer mode of expression more appropriate to conceptual thought.

The most brilliant champion of this view is without a doubt Hegel. By recognising the specific rationality at work in history and in narrative thinking – as well as in religion, art and science – Hegel would certainly have claimed to have overcome the very dichotomy between saga and philosophy I described above. His main argument is as powerful as it is simple. To use old terms, we could say that according to Hegel the material object of saga and of philosophy is the same: both are trying to reveal the rationality inherent in reality itself. What makes the difference is their formal object, their point of view or perspective. In the saga, rationality is viewed as external to the narrative thinking. Rationality appears in the unfolding of particular actions, events and thoughts, and thus narration is submitted to a reality it does not really recognise; or which it recognises, as in the Icelandic sagas, as an Accident of Fate. Philosophy, on the other hand, views rationality in terms of its own unfolding and thus truly realises the rational reconciliation of thought and reality, that reconciliation being both the road and the goal of the world-spirit.
The fact is that this grandiose synthesis has been accepted neither by philosophers – at least not yet – nor, so to speak, by reality itself; even people trained in philosophy continue to practice narration as a serious form of expression. But this fact does not say much about the validity of the Hegelian solution to our problem, and we will certainly have to go more deeply into the matter before we make up our minds about it, especially in light of the later development of our problem.

The situation since Hegel’s philosophy of rational reconciliation is, in the case of our problem, rather clear: On the one hand, there have been several kinds of subjectivist exaltation of the narrative discourse from Kierkegaard to Sartre and his contemporaries. On the other hand, there have been many objectivist analyses of narrative works and of narrative forms, from 19th-century philology to contemporary structuralist and semiological analysis where the fact that narration is about reality seems often quite forgotten. This situation is, of course, not peculiar to our problem of narration and can be seen mutatis mutandis in moral and political philosophy. Those common tendencies in modern thought and philosophy, subjectivism and objectivism, are victims of a specific partiality: they both view reality basically as a synchronical order, one under the perspective of the individual subject separated from nature and society seeking certainty for his own contingent life, and the other under the perspective of a technique to analyze problems into a formal structure. The search for certainty for a separated subject and the search for a formal structure are both bound to overlook the narrative dimension of human reality.

There have, of course, been a number of theories dealing with the development of history, but they have often, like some versions of Marxism, lost their hold on reality and succumbed to fiction. I do not say this in order to deprecate fiction. Without doubt, nonrealistic fiction has been a most powerful tool for breaking the chains laid on thought by the combined action of subjectivism and objectivism. In this respect, Nietzsche, the inimitable master of fiction in philosophy, gives us both a warning and a guideline. If fiction does liberate our thought, it does not give us the means to overcome the nihilism at work in our individualistic and technological culture. The remaking of reality by fiction opens up the possibility of an understanding which would face reality itself. And such an understanding, I claim, has to take into account the important function of realistic narrations.

My thesis is, therefore, that to be able to understand our historical world, we have to rehabilitate the function of narration as a way to understand how men through their actions and enterprises “write history.” In other words, we have to generate a narrative philosophy, a philosophy which takes seriously into account “the narrative quality of experience,” to quote the title of a remarkable essay written by Stephen Crites.2

In this paper I can neither develop this thesis in all its consequences nor make clear all it presupposes. I will therefore limit myself to illustrating this thesis by taking up one of the most discussed themes of philosophy since the beginning of modern times: the question of freedom. What I will try to show is that freedom has to be viewed within the perspective of saga, if we are to come to a realistic understanding of what it means to be free. I will not enter into the many versions of this general concept of freedom, but will turn to what seems to me to be the central problem of freedom: How are we to understand freedom in real situations? This global question can be sub-divided into at least two others: (1) How are we to decide whether an agent of his actions in a given situation can be said to be free or not? and (2) How is freedom articulated in the concrete world of human deeds and works? We can call (1) the question of free choice or decision; (2) can be called the question of free action or of the realization of freedom. How are we to recognise a free choice? There are at least two ways in which we can proceed. One is to analyze the general conditions under which a choice can take place. The other is to inquire into the conceptual network needed for an agent “to make a decision.”

The main condition for a choice to occur is that there be an alternative open to the agent. Otherwise, talk of choice is meaningless. It is this elementary and very important truth which makes Sartre claim that we are condemned to freedom: We cannot help choosing to be free – freedom being our very condition according to Sartre’s theory in Being and Nothingness. It is easy to see how this theory destroys itself when it comes to recognising a free choice in a real situation. The possibility of a free choice depends on whether or not there is an alternative; and by postulating freedom as our lot in the world, Sartre is bound to say that there is an alternative in every situation. But this, as Sartre has himself admitted, is false. The problem then is to see when and whether there truly is an alternative in our situation so we can be said to have the possibility of choice. How are we to do that? We certainly have to look at the concrete situation. But what is it to be in a situation? In order to understand that, we have to look at real or fictitious situations, and that is exactly what philosophers have done over and over again.

What I want to point out is the obvious fact that each time we try to view a situation, we do so by telling a story about what is going on. And thus I claim that a human situation is only to be understood as a segment of a saga where the historical dimensions of experience and of action are brought to light. What makes this very important for a theory of situated freedom, i.e., of freedom in an actual situation, is the difficulty we often have in identifying the real alternatives in our lives. It is easy to think of freedom, outside the context of a situation, as a rejection of what is offered to us by nature and by society. It is much harder to see freedom as consenting to what we are offered. And this is so because the rejection is in itself only a specification of our possibility of choice. We can choose not to choose, and we can even choose to deny our own freedom. But a real, situated choice has to involve both a no and a yes, it has to be both affirmative and negative, and this abstract complexity of the act of choosing is correlative to the concrete complexity of the alternatives which are given to us only in the light of our whole historical and natural condition. This condition is articulated in a story which we cannot tell totally “from the outside,” a story which, by each of our important decisions, we are writing into the world.
Now it can be argued that by what I have been saying I am retreating from philosophy, because a philosophy dealing with human reality is concerned with generating universal truths about human situations out of typical examples. Moreover it can be argued that it is unimportant whether such examples are segments of narratives or not. But I am not denying this “Universalizing” function of philosophy; I am merely underlining the fact that those possibly “universal truths” of which philosophers are so fond have to be tested against the reality out of which they have been generated and with which they are supposed to deal, if they are not to be mere word play (which, of course, they also are). And human reality, I claim, is narrative in its most basic characteristics.

My point will become clearer if we now apply the second of the two methods I mentioned above: clarification of the conceptual network upon which a person has to rely in making a free decision. Here I will just mention one important conclusion of such an analysis. The agent cannot be said to have made a decision if he does not try to carry it out; his decision must be related to an intention which involves the motives for the decision. The motives make the decision comprehensible, or at least they give a possible meaning, whether it can really be understood or not. Now this very important function of the motives – to make the decision appear as meaningful – consists precisely in placing the decision in a narrative process. The answer to the question “why” about a decision, i.e. the question of the motives, is always both retrospective and anticipatory. Through the motives, both the past (remembered) and the future (anticipated) appear in the present as a process of unifying experience and action, thought and will, at a crucial moment of a saga which has to be written into the world.

This narrative character of the process of freedom is best seen when someone quite conscious of his situation is unable to carry out any decision and every initiative is restrained. In such a situation, which is common to many neurotic and depressed people, one of the most striking characteristics is the loss of any clear sense of time: The past is in chaos; the future is out of sight or grasp. The living present is dissolved; it does not have any substance. There is no meaning to anything; the world, “everything,” becomes nonsense. When our belonging to the world has become so absurd that no decision can be made, it is not only because our many possible motives for action conflict with each other, it is also because they mutually destroy each other and thus block entirely our power of decision or even use it up. In other words, we are not able to make an intelligible story out of our lives; our lives have, so to speak, stopped, and we are still alive, suffering this impossible “ending.”

How is freedom to be regained? If my description so far is consistent with reality, the person who suffers this obstruction is suffering from an impossible story, and thus the only way to regain the possibility of free choice is for the person to retell the story of his or her life. And this is, I gather, the essential function of many therapeutic methods like psychoanalysis, namely to help the person restore continuity and coherence in his experience through narration. The basic need of the suffering person to tell somebody what has happened to him directly supports this view. His distorted and fragmentary discourse seems to be placed in between various possible stories which constantly undermine each other, producing this effect of distortion, violence and incoherence through which human life appears to be “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” “Idiot” means here that there is no clear perspective either inside the story or outside of it; all points of view are banned.

This reminds us of one important fact about storytelling which has to be taken into account in order to understand the function of narration in relation to human life, and to freedom in particular. In order to tell a story or to follow a story you have to place yourself both on the inside and on the outside of it; you have to have at least one perspective inside of it the story from which you are able to judge and participate in what is going on; but at the same time you have to be able to follow the story from the outside in order to grasp the basic structure of the saga, e.g., its having a beginning and an end. This objectivity cannot be gained from inside the story. Now this dialectic of perspectives in narration is crucially similar to the dialectic which takes place in our own lives when we try to understand them. The questions we ask from the inside of our lives are something like: What am I really doing? What has now happened to me? Where am I going with my life? And thus we view our lives as on-going stories or as incipient stories we have to write by our decisions and from which our lives have taken a certain form. In short, our lives have an articulation of their own, and we know it is there even though we cannot tell exactly of what it consists. But neither can we do so in most cases for the stories we read or write. And we know that, like stories, our lives will come to an end.

This dialectical principle of narrative understanding, and, as I claim, of the ordinary understanding of our own lives as well, is the key, I will now suggest, to a realistic answer to the second question of freedom, the question about free action – or, more precisely, about the realization of freedom, of how freedom is articulated in the concrete world of human deeds and works. Instead of proceeding, as I have done so far, in a descriptive way, I now want to test my thesis directly with one of the most powerful, though often misunderstood, theories of freedom in modern philosophy, the theory of Hegel; at the same time, I am going to say something about freedom as conceived in Marxism.

I want to start with a striking contradiction between the theories of Hegel and Marx with respect to freedom. Hegel by his dialectical way of thinking intends to give us the conceptual framework we need to understand concrete freedom in modern society and the political state. Marx, on the other hand, by somewhat similar thinking intends to give us the conceptual framework we need in order to understand our real alienation in modern society and the political state. But these two theories which apparently deal with two sides of the same thing, not only go each their own way, but also directly contradict each other. From a Marxist perspective, Hegel’s theory of the state, which is the core of his philosophy of freedom, is a dangerous illusion, an ideology in the hands of the ruling class which has to be overcome in order to create the conditions of freedom for all people. From an Hegelian perspective, the Marxist theory of absolute freedom of all people is, on the other hand, not only an empty slogan, it is also a terrific illusion in the hands of demagogues striving for power, or even a fascist state. Now I believe there is something true on both sides, and although I do not dream of solving this problem in a few pages, I would like to suggest a way of dealing with it, a way which is not based upon the traditional way of arguing out from a dubious interpretation of the texts of the dead masters, but a way which concentrates on some questions of method.

Hegel’s dialectical method starts with the abstract, the pure immediate, and leads us to the concrete, the mediated truth, to the Idea which is reality itself in its unity. That is the logical or the systematic way of thinking in Hegel’s philosophy. But there is also the historical way of thinking in Hegel, a kind of genetic phenomenology where reality as Geist is described, unfolding itself in nature, in human thought and society, gaining, step by step, consciousness of its own nature until it culminates in the self-consciousness of reality as being its own essence. This occurs in the state as the rational organization of human life, and in philosophy where spirit proceeds to a pure expression of itself.

There is one very important problem which I think most followers and careful interpreters of Hegel's philosophy will agree is not really resolved. That is the final problem of concrete freedom in the relation between the individual and the state. Everything needed to solve this problem seems to be in place. The solution simply does not fit the reality of our experience as citizens, and did not, I believe, even fit for Hegel himself. I will state the problem briefly.

In order to be truly free, the individual must see himself as a rational self-conscious being, determining itself according to its own nature. And all of Hegel’s arguments tend to show that such a freedom can be realized only within the objective ethical order of a community which forms a state. Our question about situated freedom thus receives a clear answer in Hegel’s political philosophy: Concrete freedom is achieved only within a political organization where the individual subject sees the meaning of his life as deeply rooted in a community which forms a state. Thus, the mediation par excellence of freedom is political life in a state. But no satisfactory method is to be found in Hegel’s political philosophy which shows just how this mediation by political life is really to be employed in an effective reconciliation. Thus the reconciliation of the individual subjectivity and the objectivity of the state is merely postulated as the only true solution to the problem of concrete freedom. Because of this, Hegel’s theory of the state is open to severe criticism. Its ideality seems to contradict empirical reality.

I want to suggest that the seeming contradiction would be better understood if we look at Hegel’s way of proceeding in light of the dialectical principle which is basic to narrative thinking. Then the systematic way of proceeding appears as a way of looking at reality from the outside, the historical way of proceeding as one from the inside. In the systematical mode of thinking, the basic word is the Idea; in the historical one, it is Spirit or Geist. The spirit is the idea in the unfolding of its own history. It is thus a narrative principle: it is at the same time what history is all about from an internal perspective and it is also the global articulation of history from an external perspective. Thus, it is a hybrid concept which can generate all the perspectives needed in order to make everything appear in its place within the conceptual story Hegel wanted to write, and did indeed write, of mankind. But applied consistently at a level of thinking which was to be essentially systematic and not narrative, this dialectical principle of inner and outer perspectives finally works only for the philosopher, who, armed with the concept of reality as spirit, has the role of apprehending his own time in thought. Thus from an inner perspective, Hegel writes those words, often quoted to show him as a reactionary: To recognise reason as the rose in the cross of the present and thereby to enjoy the present, this is the rational insight which reconciles us to the actual, the reconciliation which philosophy affords to those in whom there has once arisen an inner voice bidding them to comprehend, not only to dwell in what is substantive while still retaining subjective freedom, but also to possess subjective freedom while standing not in anything particular and accidental but in what exists absolutely.3 And from an outer perspective Hegel gives us as a conclusion to his Philosophy of Right, the main articulations of the saga which he could contemplate as the progressive realization of freedom from the beginning of history to his German world. It is obviously only for the philosopher, according to Hegel, that the reconciliation takes place: Those who have not recognized reason “dwell in what is substantive while still retaining subjective freedom.” And so it still is.

Before we try to appreciate this speculative thinking about freedom in the light of our thesis about narrative understanding, let us have a brief look at Marx’s view of freedom as contrasted with that of Hegel. Marx says somewhere that he has returned the dialectic to its feet, that he is applying a dialectical method, not under the perspective of an omnipresent spirit, but under the perspective of man as labourer who, by his actions and works, is transforming nature and producing his own existence, and yet constantly facing material and ideological oppression and alienation of his own creative power. From this perspective, the freedom postulated in Hegel’s political philosophy of the state is pure illusion. As Marx says, “In the state... man is the imaginary member of an imaginary sovereignty... [he is] infused with an unreal universality.”4

The young Marx applies two basic concepts in order to understand the real articulation of freedom in history, the concept of generic man (Gattungswesen) and the concept of class struggle. The theory of generic man states that the essence of man is self-expression or self-creation, but that in the real conditions of natural and social life, this power which characterizes men as men is lost or alienated because of their positions in their struggle with nature. In that struggle, alienation results mainly from the many divisions which are created among men by their specific works. Thus, the class struggle, which is the motor of historical development, and which explains the function of basic political institutions such as the state, is generated because of the natural conditions of men who have to make nature their own expression. And because of this, once men have reached a sufficient mastery over their natural world, they will turn to those alienating divisions of classes and overcome them in a revolution leading to a form of society where man’s generic essence is fully expressed and all divisions, all oppositions between man and nature and between man and man, are overcome: Communism as a fully developed naturalism is humanism and as a fully developed humanism is naturalism. It is definitive resolution of the antagonism between man and nature, and between man and man. It is the true solution of the conflict between existence and essence, between freedom and necessity, between individual and species. It is the solution to the riddle of history and it knows itself to be this solution.5

A similar observation can be made here about the conclusion of this dialectic of freedom as has been made regarding the conclusion of Hegel’s dialectic of freedom: that it is merely postulated as a final solution to the problem of concrete freedom, and therefore the way is also open for sharp criticism of this theory of a final reconciliation which would give freedom to all people. This criticism, quite similar to the one often directed against Hegel, is that this postulated reconciliation is an illusion in the hands of a revolutionary group which uses it as a justification in its striving for power. (The parallel criticism of Hegel would say that his postulate of reconciliation is used as a justification of the maintenance of power.)

If we apply our principle of narrative understanding to Marx’s visionary story of mankind, the external perspective is determined by the concept of generic man which, so to speak, gives the story a beginning and an end. On the other hand, the internal perspective is determined by the class struggle which gives the story its dynamic aspect. The difference between Hegel and Marx now becomes clear in the different perspectives under which they view historical reality: Hegel views the unfolding of spirit in history at the level of speculative thought which aims at a coherent system of basic concepts needed to understand that reality; Marx views the network of basic contradictions which surrounds men as labourers in class society, not in order to have a conceptual framework for a speculative thought of freedom, but in order to diagnose the multiple forms of alienation and illusion which make human ideals of freedom appear out of reach. But we have not yet resolved the contradiction
between these two theories.

How do these two important dialectical theories of freedom stand in relation to our thesis of narrative understanding as basic to human life, and to freedom in particular? It seems to me that the strength of these theories as well as their real or apparent failure results from their transposition of the principles of narration into the field of philosophical thought.

Let us look at their strength first. The narrative quality of experience and action (which, if my previous descriptions are consistent with reality, is basic to understanding our own freedom) is in both theories taken fully into account. Their strength comes from the fact that they transpose the dialectic of narrative understanding into the position of freedom itself: To talk about freedom is to talk about freedom in history, as articulated in a narrative which shows the individual subject in a process of objectification and alienation which can only, as a global process, be understood in the light of philosophical concepts such as idea, spirit, generic man, class struggle, as applied in a dialectic of perspectives at the level of philosophical discourse. However, if the transposition of the principle of narrative understanding into a philosophical dialectic is the key to the strength of these theories of freedom, it also explains their failure, real or apparent; and, in particular, it explains the fact that they seem to contradict each other directly. The reason for this is that the essential function of realistic narration is to corroborate, or better, to fulfill, the dialectical intention of the philosophical analyses, if these are not to appear as empty or even illusory verbal games. The transposition itself of the narrative principle constantly requires this fulfilment if the dialectic is not to fall short of, or merely to postulate, a reconciliation which does not take place in the narrative reality of our situated freedom. A dialectical philosophy which aims at a coherence and a reconciliation of thought and reality is bound to “fail” in that way, and thus always to succumb to the criticism of concealing reality instead of illuminating it; this is so because the essential function of philosophy is to generate conceptual clarity and coherence out of a world of experience and action which is basically narrative and not in itself submitted to any transcendental scientific principle which would operate as some mysterious key to the mystery of our world. This is no condemnation of a dialectical philosophy of human experience and action, of social and political reality; on the contrary, it makes us appreciate the essential limits as well as the essential merits of that kind of philosophy, and in particular it makes us view in a realistic light the apparent contradiction between our two theories of freedom in history. We need not only take into account their different narrative perspectives, we have also to respect their dramatic nonfulfilment. There may be some essential conceptual truths in both Hegel’s and Marx’s theories which do not at all conflict, although those theories, because of their respective nonfulfilment, may appear to contradict each other.

Thus, the very dichotomy between saga and philosophy with which I started is overcome by means other than that of an Hegelian dialectic. If the rationality of narration can be integrated into a dialectic philosophy, this does not at all mean that philosophy has left narration behind as something inessential; on the contrary, it constantly depends on the saga for its own fulfilment and fails inevitably when it loses contact with the reality revealed in a saga. On the other hand, if realistic narration showes us the limit and possibilities of men in real situations, thereby revealing their connection with a certain community, it cannot give us the view we need in order to understand the dialectic of human life in its essential characteristics. Ultimately, narration calls for philosophy as much as philosophy calls for narration.


Sophist, 242c.

Stephen Crites, “The Narrative Quality of Experience,” Journal of the American Academy of
Religion (September 1971), pp. 291-311.

Hegel, Philosophy of Right, trans. T.M. Knox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1942), p. 12.

Karl Marx, Early Writings, trans. T.B. Bottomore (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1964),
pp. 13-14.
5  Ibid., p. 155.



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