The Narrative Theory of Epistemic Responsibility


Here's the puzzle, in the form of an argument:

  1. We must have voluntary control over our beliefs, in order to be held epistemically responsible for them
  2. We don't have voluntary control over our beliefs
  3. We can't be held epistemically responsible for what we believe

Various proposals have been offered in light of this puzzle: (a) we aren't epistemically responsible for what we believe, (b) we are epistemically responsible in virtue of some form of indirect voluntary control, (c) voluntary control isn't a necessary condition on epistemic responsibility. These views -- at least in the forms in which they've been offered -- are all unsatisfactory. I aim to offer a more satisfactory response. A view that incorporates (but goes beyond) view (b) above.

Here it is. 

Upon recognizing experience as inherently meaningful, we are forced to conceptualize our selves, others, and the world at large in ways that make sense of the significance of experience. But this process requires us to locate ourselves -- in relation to those other two things -- within ongoing narratives of meaning. This processs -- a process that I call "self-conceptualization" -- is equal parts discovery and constitution, though these aspects are no separable from one another. I constitute myself as Catholic because I discover, through my experience of the world, that I'm living in a universe best captured by the Catholic narrative. My suffering is meaningless unless united with Christ's, and when so united a source of strength, intelligibility, and compassion.

We constitute ourselves, then, through self-conceptualization, and this is a process that depends on the faculties we possess that are supposed to make experience intelligible. The process itself, though, is a process of telling a (more or less accurate) story. A story that incorporates our experiences -- of ourselves, others, and the world -- in a coherent, intelligible, and meaningful whole.

Responsibility comes in, then, when we consider two things: (1) how virtuous are the faculties by which form our self-conception? In other words: to what extent are we reliable narrators of our lives and experiences? And (2) how broadly accurate are the pictures we form of ourselves, others, and the world, through this process of self-conceptualization? How well do allow us to act intelligibly and effectively in a world populated by ourselves, others, and -- perhaps -- non-personal sources of experience?

The concept of narrative, then, figures into both of these sources of epistemic responsibility. Regarding (1): these faculties are essentially those that allow for us to tell more or less accurate stories. Regarding (2): the extent to which our self-conceptions are accurate depends directly on those abilities as well. Interestingly, too: the central virtue of our self-conceptualizing faculties is appropriately sensitive trust, in oneself and others, since it is this trust that allows for experience to appear intelligible to us in the first place, and is also a prerequisite for the organization of that experience into meaningful content that can serve as the basis for belief and action.