How do I know?

It’s a tough time for many of us in education. We are working in a time (and yes, there has always been a recurring concern here) where reasoned discourse is not only often absent but readily dismissed. Facts are in dispute, and the idea of expert credibility seems to lack credibility.

For the few of you who read this, you know my academic background: Rhetoric. So that phrase alone may make you think I and my fellow practitioners are responsible for the mess we all find ourselves in–mere” rhetoric–making the worse appear the better cause and all. But Socrates never did like rhetoricians and rarely missed the opportunity to engage in a good straw person fallacy when discussing rhetoric.

No, today we get to think about how rhetorical theory does offer a good and productive way to think about how we do decide what we think. Let’s take a look at what Walter Fisher wrote a few years ago about the concept of narrative reasoning.

Fisher conceptualized what he termed a narrative paradigm which he placed in opposition to a “rational world” paradigm. Human beings, Fisher argues, do not come to conclusions solely or even primarily through reason and logic (that would be Vulcans for you ST followers) but through understanding their world through the stories and narratives we share. Human beings are best understood as homo narrans not homo  sapiens.

But narrative theory doesn’t toss reason out the window–credibility and “good reasons” are still at the heart of how we come to a conclusion. Reasoning takes place primarily through the concepts of narrative coherence and narrative fidelity. Narrative coherence look at the internal structure of the narrative–does the story work as a story? Is it internally consistent and internally logical? Narrative fidelity looks outside the narrative–is what is being presented in the specific narrative supported by our other experiences? Is there an external reason to find the narrative convincing?

So how does that get us to making a “reasoned” decision and what is the relevance of narrative theory to the times we live in today?

Well, we decide what is “right” and “correct” and “true” not just by rationally weighing the evidence and impartially reaching a conclusion. We reach our conclusion by analyzing the narrative (all the information we receive from various sources) through its internal consistency and its external connectivity–is it a coherent narrative and does it match/is it supported by our other experiences and our understanding of our culture and society?

The meaning of this: Beliefs, values, cultural assumptions and yes cultural stereotypes (often just another form of cultural assumptions) shape our decision-making process. Narrative reasoning is still reasoning, but it acknowledges that we actually do employ more than logic and rationality in our decision-making, and that the stories and narratives with which and in which we live shape how we reach our conclusions.




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