Principles and Narratives: Where is the “There?”

The American writer, Gertrude Stein, once quipped that “There is no there there” as a way of saying nothing “there” is worth noting, thinking about or getting stressed out over.

Among elite circles in Anglo-Saxon cultures, such as the U.S., U.K. and Canada, wokeness and progressive reformation of wayward cultures and individuals has grounded its epistemology on “narrative.”  Personal narratives give us our own truths; group narratives based on race – good races and bad races – provide other truths; narratives formulated by intellectuals provide “critical” assessments of others, of culture, society, religion and politics.

So, the question for the creators and advocates of such narratives is: “Is there any there there?”

Plato had a narrative about justice in The Republic.  Karl Marx had his own narrative in Das Kapital; Adolf had his narrative in Mein Kampf; Vladimir Putin has his narrative on the Rus; and Xi Jinping has his on the Chinese.  Rudyard Kipling had a narrative on the British Empire and  before wokeness, Americans had a narrative on exceptionalism taken from the Puritans.

The Caux Round Table doesn’t have a narrative.  Rather, its founders came up with “principles” only.

So, these days, I find myself thinking what is the difference between “narratives” and “principles?”

My first thought is that narratives are encumbered by what German philosopher Jurgen Habermas calls “facticity.”  Facticity is the world of facts; it is reality at its hardest core.  Facts don’t disappear when they become inconvenient or prevent us from relaxing in our safe spaces and feeling that all is well in the world, as we have perceived it to be.

Narratives can be close to or far from facticity.  As my daughter, a high school teacher of Latin, pointed out to me, narratives come from narrators.  They are personal expressions – stories, focused conversations – which may or may not be true and may or may not have a righteous purpose in being told.  Distinctions between narrative, fiction, fable, fairytale or myth are hard to discern at times.

For example, sociopaths are great storytellers – intense, articulate and charming.

Yet, some narratives are not without value.  Greek tragedies – Antigone, for example or Shakespeare’s King Lear – are most edifying and can inspire us to become better in character or draw closer to wisdom.

Principles belong to a more abstract realm of mindfulness, one less entwined with factual reality.  They don’t need many words to give their meaning.  They often invoke inductive, right-brain insights.  Principles give reasons to act.  They are guideposts.  They can be used to govern our thoughts and feelings within our moral sense and to govern our behaviors in the world.

By the way, much of Adam Smith’s book on moral sentiments, Mencius’s recommendations, Buddhism’s Eightfold Path, Qur’anic teachings, the “word of God,” which Jesus affirmed as needed over and above our daily bread, exist in the psychic realm of principle.

Principles have a normative character, but, in addition, they do contemplate reality.  To accomplish their mission, principles need to adjust to reality, to accommodate its ups and downs, its ins and outs.

In particular, principles need to account for human nature.  Principles which are oblivious to our natures, so caught up, as we are, with devils and angels pulling us in different directions, have difficulty changing the world to align better with their aspirations.  Either well-intended principles or bad principles, both can succeed or fail as they do or do not adhere to the strivings and possibilities of our natures.