Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol 7, No 2 (2011)

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Bakhtinian Thought and the defence of Narrative: Overcoming Universalism and Relativism.

Hana Owen

Abstract


In light of recalcitrant global problems such as the prevalence of various levels and forms of inequality and increased environmental destruction, there is a growing recognition of the limitations, epistemological, political, social, cultural, ethical and ecological, of the modes of thought that have dominantly governed and continue to govern our worldview. The modernist project, despite various attempts to give voice to those previously denied, has come under criticism for tendencies to totalise experience and overlook or exclude differences. On the other hand, the postmodernist glorification of difference and tendency to isolate and fragment has generated a kind of debilitating uncertainty in the form of absolute relativism rendering any pursuit of meaning meaningless. Alongside the recognition of these limitations are attempts to overcome the negative effects of these modes of understanding and to create new ways of understanding ourselves, our relationship to others, human and non-human and to the larger world process in which we find ourselves. Despite the supposed opposition between the modern and postmodern projects, the two share in common the tendency to undermine another mode of understanding that by its very nature both precludes and succeeds them. The mode of understanding referred to is narrative understanding which has the potential to pave a middle way between modernity’s totalising exclusions and postmodernity’s fragmenting nihilism, furthermore when the narrative approach is seriously undertaken it becomes clear that the formerly polarised dominant modes of thought are part of a wider, more heterogeneous process. The following article examines and highlights in detail some of the problems surrounding the modern and postmodern modes of thought in order to demonstrate the usefulness of narrative theory in overcoming these problems. In order to augment the defence of narrative theory this article also draws considerably from the work of Mikhail Bakhtin whose philosophy, it will be argued, both compliments and enhances narrative understanding and has considerable potential for generating a more inclusive and creative understanding of humanity, its relationships to others and to the world in which it is inextricably linked.

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