An Argument for Narratives as Arguments: Subjective Knowledge, Indian Narrative, and Moral Learning

By Ricky Shear, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Dr. Scott Stroud, Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies, led the March 7th meeting of the Humanities Institute’s Faculty Fellows Seminar. Stroud posed the question of how narratives argue, which expanded into two related questions: whether narratives “can argue well for a point or position” and whether they can convey truths about the world in a way similar to that in which we think arguments convey truths. Stroud indicated that his interest in these questions stems from his concern with how we value narrative, suggesting that understanding how narratives argue and identifying standards for narrative argument will enhance our understanding of what narrative can and should do in the world.

Stroud’s partial answer to this question, discussed during the Faculty Fellows Seminar and laid out in greater detail in his 2008 essay, “Simulation, Subjective Knowledge, and the Cognitive Value of Literary Narrative” (Journal of Aesthetic Education), is that narratives can convey truths or knowledge about the world by providing readers opportunities to simulate narrated subjective experiences and in doing so expand our knowledge of what it is like to have experiences that the limits of our human would otherwise prevent us from obtaining. Stroud argues that simulated experiences “can be forces” pushing readers “toward identifying or not identifying with certain characters and their values,” and this identification can cause readers to appropriate “values and/or strategies” that appear good or advantageous in light of their narrative representation and may further our current “moral projects” or induce us to take on new ones (33,38). Stroud is careful to point out that though subjective knowledge may be a “means to” identification with characters and “moral learning,” moral learning does not necessarily follow from this subjective knowledge and this knowledge has “cognitive value” in and of itself because it enables “reflective thinking about some aspect of the world” (24).

Stroud also discussed his interest in how ancient Indian narratives argue using narratives nested within narratives (also known as embedded narratives) to suggest how narrative structures and strategies have been used to craft effective arguments. His 2017 essay, “Embedded Stories and the Use of Ambiguity in Ancient Indian Narratives: Selfshadowing in the Anugītā, (Journal of Narrative Theory)” elaborates on this idea by analyzing the way the Anugītā, a part of the ancient Indian epic, Mahābhārata, uses ambiguity generated through embedded narratives to persuade readers to “free [themselves] of the illusions of self and of its worldly desires” and understand that “people are not as disconnected or individuated as readers might think” (193). Stroud also explained that his current research for a book project on the life of Bhimrao Ambedkar, a dalit (“untouchable”) scholar, social reformer, and politician, induced him to consider the challenges of analyzing how autobiographical narratives like Ambedkar’s autobiographical writing argue, whether their inherently particular narratives can convey more general knowledge of the world, and to what extent these narratives engage in and enable “deception of self and other.”

In the lively discussion that followed Stroud’s presentation Faculty Fellows countered Stroud’s claims about narratives by arguing that narratives provide certain moving affective and cognitive experiences, but they do not necessarily engage in argument that seeks to persuade an audience of specific truths. Other Fellows (including Stroud) suggested that the fact that narratives in news media regularly persuade audiences to accept certain things as true (or try and fail to do so) indicates that narratives can be created to persuade and/or convey “truths” about the world with varying levels of effectiveness and ethical worth. Another Fellow suggested that certain literary narratives contain ambiguity that enables them to be understood and analyzed in a variety of well-reasoned and persuasive ways, and this multivalence complicates or resists readings that try to identify their arguments and/or evaluate how they argue.

See the Humanities Institute’s website for more information about the Faculty Fellows Seminar and the 2018-2020 class of Faculty Fellows.