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How We Think Narratively Pt.1

As a researcher I am interested in the identity formation of communities for social transformation. Particularly I am interested in the Black church’s identity formation for social transformation. How do we, the church, live up to and live out our obligation to step into the world with a transforming mission? How do we understand our usefulness in society? How do we think about ourselves individually and collectively? My research is positioned in congregational studies, which is the study of congregational life, from its formation, to the daily actions, to her eschatological hope. In identity formation I have noticed that identity and change comes from the experiences of our life.

This is what I believe it means to think. To develop identity around the narration of pivotal experiences that shapes a more ethical self and community. Thinking beyond this is useless to the transformation of society. To conceptualize religion, philosophy, mathematics, science, or any other subject without confronting the social impact of the discipline is not thinking at all, but blatant blindness to the interrelatedness of all things. Even in the most empirical disciplines there must be room for narrative inquiry into the ethical historicity of practices. How to think is the question of how to narrate.

In this post I seek to express preliminary ideas about narrativity, thinking, identity formation and change that will be key aspects of my dissertation. This is not a polished conception of thinking or of narrativity, but what simply can be. I welcome any and all critique and ideas to further this study as my plan is to form a lifelong framework for congregational transformation and leadership with the use of narrative. This paper will follow this prescribed format: How We Think Narratively, which is an explanation of the narrative identity formation of the individual; How “We” Think Narratively, which is a an explanation of the narrative identity formation of the congregation; and Narrative in Context, which is brief explanation of the use of narrative in for the Black context.

How We Think Narratively

In order for an individual to think narratively, there must be an understanding of oneself in relation to another. Paul Ricoeur gives an outline as to how narrative personhood effectively situates oneself in relation to another. Ricoeur states that true personhood can only happen in reference to the fourfold question of who: Who is speaking? Who is acting? Who is recounting? Who is the responsible moral agent? (Ricoeur, 1990/1992, p. 16) Each question answers various aspects of the self such as What is selfhood? Who is acting and hurting? How is one identified, and who is responsible for ethical action? The idea of the ‘self’ thinking narratively is the concept of the self ethically locating oneself apart from and connected to the other.

Ricoeur identifies the person as one who has sameness and selfhood. When speaking of the primitive concept of a person, or the bare-minimum-requirements for personhood there arise two very necessary and mutually depend aspects: physical predicates and mental predicates. Ricoeur states:

The strangeness related to the primitive notion of person—or better, that which makes this notion a primitive one—consists in the fact that the person is the “same thing” to which two different sorts of predicates are ascribed: physical predicates which the person shares with bodies, and mental predicates which distinguish it from bodies (Ricoeur, p. 35-36).

Ricoeur here is stating that the basic understanding of the human being is to see himself or herself as physically the same as every other human being. To locate and think of oneself as a person one does not start with differences. Personhood starts with associating oneself with what is similar, with finding a match physically to your own physicality. It is to locate our own self as a thing “of a particular type” (Ricoeur, p. 32) and different from other types of things. To locate oneself amongst same-type-things and other-type-things is basic and necessary to our very being. Before we can “think” we must categorize. The second primitive concept is that of mental predicates. We have identified how our physical predicates, our physical attributes that make us of the same species, shows us as ‘same’. Now our mental predicates, our various cognitive abilities separate us from the group we find our selves physically associated with. What makes us different from one another is not our physical attributes but our mental capacities. These two predicates help us to understand the difference and similarities between ‘self’ and ‘other’, or ‘someone’ and ‘another one’.

What is extremely important to the conversation is the relationship these two predicates have with one another. Since they are seen as primitive predicates, not in the sense of inferior but first, they both make up the very basic understanding of personhood, and our primary understanding of thinking.

…whatever the true sense of the correlation “someone”-“anyone else” may be…, it imposes a constraint from the start, one just as unavoidable as the necessity to consider the person from the outset as a “thing” that possesses a body; as we said, there is no pure consciousness at the start. We shall now add: there is no self alone at the start; the ascription to others is just as primitive as the ascription to oneself. I cannot speak meaningfully of my thoughts unless I am able at the same time to ascribe them potentiality to someone else (Ricoeur, p. 38).

To locate oneself as a person means to notice that there are other persons in the description of personhood based on their physical attributes. To locate oneself as a person also means to notice that different persons have different mental attributes that help to tell a person apart from other persons. To think that you are a person is to say that you recognize that you fall into the same physically identifying group (human), but it is also to say that you are a unique cognitive entity. However, in order for you to reach these premises (that you are the same physically as those in the same grouping as you, but different than them because of your unique mental capacity) there must be “another” who is both “same” and “other”. You cannot identify yourself as a person without recognizing that there are other persons. This realization and recognition is the basic understanding of community and individuality. To be a person is to think of others and of oneself.

The above explanation has vast implications on how we think, and in particular how we form identity. Freeman (2014) develops the idea that identity development is the process of thinking of the self in relation to others through narrative. This section on how we think narratively is actually the question how we should think narratively. It moves the conversation from how we develop and think about the “the sovereign self” (Freeman, 2014, p. 12) to the better story of the connected self-other. Freeman develops a model for determining a holistic way to develop identity that does not neglect the “other”, called the double triad.

The first triad, which I call “spheres of temporality,” suggests that narrative identity emerges in and through the interplay of past, present, and future in the form of remembering, acting, and imagining. As for the second triad, which I call “spheres of otherness,” I suggest that this temporal interplay is itself interwoven with our relation to other people, to the non-human world (e.g., nature, art), and to those moral and ethical goods that serve to orient and direct the course of human lives. By linking these triadic spheres together, therefore, my aim is to arrive at a picture of narrative identity appropriate to the complexities of its formation (Freeman, p. 15).

To think narratively, first and foremost is to remember, in relation not only to oneself as the primary character of recollection, but also to remember others who are involved in the story. In the process of identity formation the dialectical reflection on self-narrative and other-narrative is what Freeman determines as “narrative gain” (Freeman, p. 19). Narrative gain is seen as developing a superior position of the self. Superior positioning is not the need to be better than another, but it is an ethical term that states that the current narrative identity is more ethical than the previous narrative identity that you once lived by.

To construct an identity is to recollect and rewrite based on narrative reflection. As Freeman states, “development was to be understood as a perpetual process of reconstructing or ‘rewriting’ one’s own ends, goals, teloi, in the service of something better” (Freeman, p. 11). This way of becoming is the way we inherently think. The brain, as the thinking mechanism of the human being, does not recall, but rather constructs and reconstructs reality and meaning. Each time the brain recalls a series of events it constructs for fresh application. The brain is a story constructor, not regurgitating exact events, but rather ordering and re-ordering what has happened for greater meaning today. As we recollect on our own stories from the past, stories that involve other people, other non-human things, and ethical and moral goods, we shape our identity and our actions toward the “spheres of otherness” for today and visualize better ways for our interaction with the “spheres of otherness” in the future...



Freeman, M. (2014). Narrative, ethics, and the development of identity. Narrative Works: Issues, Investigations, & Interventions, 4(2), 8-27. Retrieved from

Ricoeur, P. (1992). Oneself as another (K. Blamey, Trans.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1990)

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