Meaning and Narrative: Reading Paul Armstrong

FALL 2020

by Kimberly Aimée AlvaradoCohort ’18

Book cover:  Stories and the Brain . Image courtesy of the author.
Book cover:  Stories and the Brain . Image courtesy of the author.

Book cover:  Stories and the Brain . Image courtesy of the author.Book cover: Stories and the Brain. Image courtesy of the author.In this write-up, I read Paul Armstrong’s article “The Conflict of Interpretations and the Limits of Pluralism” (1983) with his Stories and the Brain: The Neuroscience of Narrative (2020) for a short intertextualized review. Reviewing the texts in light of one another sheds light on the role of a Hermeneutical and Phenomenological approach to analyzing meaning and narrative from the perspective of a literary theorist with a specialization in the neuroscience of storytelling. Armstrong’s article asks the question, “Can any interpretation lay a definitive claim to correctness?” (Armstrong 1983, 341) while his book asks, “What do our abilities to tell stories reveal about language and the mind?” (Armstrong, Introduction, 2000).

In “The Conflict of Interpretations and the Limits of Pluralism,” Armstrong theorizes that a middle line must be sought and/or created in order to temper interpretivism extremes of “radical monism,” or the idea that everything comes down to one meaning, one intention, one ultimate; and “radical pluralism,” or the idea that everything is relative, contingent, and dependent. It is clear that Armstrong wrote his article amid a communal reconsideration of Hermeneutics as a whole and in parts. One of the most relieving aspects of Armstrong’s theory is that it does not set interpretive methodologies against one another but sees, for example, Phenomenology, as one among other “interpretive approaches,” or “a different method of interpretation because each has a different metaphysics, a different set of convictions that make up its point of departure and define its position in the hermeneutic field” (Armstrong 1983, 342). One may see a hierarchy of approaches in Armstrong’s statement and/or one may see Armstrong momentarily using a Hermeneutic-Phenomenological methodology. I sense the latter if the phrase “hermeneutic field” can be exchanged for “phenomenological field.”

In Stories and the Brain, although phenomenologically heavy in terms of theory (on reading and narrative), Armstrong uses Phenomenology, or more specifically Neuro-Phenomenology, as an interpretive methodology to put forward his efforts “to clarify the correlations between cognitive experience [of storytelling] and its biological underpinnings” (Armstrong 2000). Armstrong is not necessarily interested in forcing jigsaw-puzzle seamlessness among the main topic of neurosciences and narrativity theory and further key points concerning figuration and temporality of experience, nor in finding patterns of action in narration and the social exchange of narrative. Neither is he interested in causing or finding a cause for their relationships. Indeed, Armstrong is more interested in “correlations [which] are not [necessarily] causation,” but imply intimate and mutual connection but not an excuse for one or the other.

One of Armstrong’s arguments in Stories and the Brain is that “the inability of literary theorists and neuroscientists to overcome the differences between their perspectives is not a bad thing because it allows them to exchange insights about matters of mutual concern from distinctive disciplinary vantage points.” This point exemplifies the middle line approach of a limited pluralism that he argues for in the article (Armstrong 2000). I dare say that an essence of Armstrong’s interpretive approach is pluralistic, but that his reliance on Neuroscience tempers the plurality to a monism dependent upon the evolving data of the science itself and its own “testing and evaluation” (interpretations) within the natural science community (Armstrong 1883, 349).

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“A degree of heterogeneity of material compelled into unity by the operation of the poet's mind is omnipresent in poetry” (qtd. in Armstrong 343; T.S. Elliot, “The Metaphysical Poets”)

Works Cited

Armstrong, Paul B. Stories and the Brain: The Neuroscience of Narrative. Kindle edition. 2020._____. "The Conflict of Interpretations and the Limits of Pluralism." PMLA. 98.3 (1983): 341-352.