Agency, Narrative, and Mortality

In Luca Ferrero (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Agency. New York: Routledge. pp. 385-393 (2022)
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Narrative views of agency and identity arise in opposition to reductionism in both domains. While reductionists understand both identity and agency in terms of their components, narrativists respond that life and action are both constituted by narratives, and since the components of a narrative gain their meaning from the whole, life and action not only incorporate their constituent parts but also shape them. I first lay out the difficulties with treating narrative as constitutive of metaphysical identity and turn to its function in practical identity. I then explore the ways narrative shapes our agency—by tapping into our motivational structures, providing an understanding of the social background within which our agency operates, guiding our agency through an understanding of our histories and aspirations, providing the links that structure actions internally, and allowing us to change the meaning of our pasts. I suggest that putting these functions of narrative together may allow us to genuinely shape our past motivational structures through our actions. Finally, if life has the form of a narrative, it may seem as if mortality is necessary for our lives and their contents to be meaningful: a narrative, it might seem, relies on the ending for its meaning. If so, an immortal life would be meaningless. I examine the possibility that even an immortal life may draw meaning from local narratives that constitute projects within such a life, while arguing that, to the contrary, narrative may be a tool exclusively adapted to mortal lives.

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Roman Altshuler
Kutztown University of Pennsylvania


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