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Restorying the `Polis':

Civil Society  as Narrative Reconstruction
September 3 - November 6, 1998                                        Washington, D.C.




With the demise of the Marxist critique and the rise of economic rationalism, there is danger that the question of how to create a more compassionate and just society will all but disappear from the political and economic agenda. Many of the New Deal reforms of the 30's and 40's have been wound back, the 60's civil rights agenda of affirmative action in employment and education is being overturned, and the story that capitalist democracy is the only way for the world's future is taken broadly to be beyond question. Yet there is a rising interest in civil society as part of a new agenda built around cultures, minorities and environment.

What is lacking is not simply reformist zeal, but a means of analysis that allows cultural distance from the ruling political and economic orthodoxies which have dominated public life and still impede creative responses to present problems.

The fields of linguistics and critical theory offer a mode of analysis, usually termed deconstruction, on the use of power in the construction of personal and cultural identities. The method confronts serious questions of gender and race with which the contemporary world still struggles. However, deconstruction by name has led to deconstruction in practice, leaving reformers with all the tools to disarm a problem by exposing the irony of its deceits, but bereft of ways to answer the more urgent question that always follows an awareness of what is wrong, namely, how do we make it right?

The developing body of theory and practice in narrative studies offers a critical method that inherits all the linguistic tools of postmodern thinking, but which at the same time provides ways for reconstruction. Not only can it provide the means to discover what stories construct an unjust world and its culture of power and privilege, but also what stories might create a more compassionate polis, one that takes seriously the cry for justice and solidarity, for human rights and creative freedom.



Since Enlightenment rationalism, philosophy has been conceived as a solitary practice of deductive reasoning, removed from the world. This reached its logical denouement in the Cold War polarization of an extreme monolithic individualism versus an equally monolithic communalism. The inner collapse of one of these has opened a radically different agenda for the turn of the millennia. This looks within human consciousness for the creative resources of cultures, women and minorities; in aesthetic terms it searches for harmony between peoples and with the environment.

Narrative thinking has been a corresponding trend in philosophy and epistemology over the past 20 years. It emerged into a consistent body of practice with the adoption for family therapy of the story metaphor (see Michael White and David Epston, Literate Means to Therapeutic Ends, Norton, 1990). This practice produced a sustained, consistent and devastating critique of mainstream psychological theory and praxis, and indeed of the whole therapeutic culture by which the human person's self-understanding has been constructed. In contrast there emerges a new participatory model in which persons become aware of what core narratives construct their identity and their destiny. In that awareness they can choose more intentionally what stories they stand in or act out of, and what stories most respect their experience and intentions for justice and solidarity. If one realizes that the story of power bespeaks as well the power of story, one can identify and deconstruct the culture's categorizing stories of race, gender and class which conspire to make one dependent on power and knowledge structures that cultivate subservience and feed blind consumerism.

The stories a culture enacts may not serve that society's deepest intentions. For example, lawmakers can demand harsher criminal laws, build more prisons and increase capital punishment if they accept a story of moral righteousness. But does that story serve the human polis?

In politics some consider it a truism that government's role in the economy is to be a laissé faire regulator and that markets of labor or media or technology are best regulated by themselves. But does this story of what it means to govern or to participate as a citizen serve the human needs of the polis? As Alasdair MacIntyre wrote in After Virtue, unless we have the critical tools to understand in which story we stand our praxis runs the risk of prolonging not only the problems, but the problem story. Often a problem will be solved only by dissolving the story.

We live in an ironic democracy where political freedoms are prized, but where narrative tyranny is daily exercised through the media telling people what they are to know, and how they are to story it. A truly civil society is one that remains open to all the stories and voices. It especially prizes the dissenting voice, not because it is right but because it is the litmus test of the freedom to think and believe. Akin to religious freedom, this is freedom that not only enhances the human project, but is essential to it, namely, to be able to embrace critically and creatively the wisdom of our traditions.

Every major culture hearkens back to core sacred stories in its own tradition, be it the Koran, the Jewish Scriptures, the Christian Bible or the Upanishads. A narrative exploration will not only identify the constructing stories of a culture, but also look to the sacred stories as sources for reconstruction. Sacred stories are preserved by a culture for their vision of how humans are related to the gods, to the world, and to the community. The seminar will investigate such sacred stories of the participants where wisdom is preserved, and the beauty which such stories evoke and inspire.

To bring "beauty" into the conversation about civil society opens a new seam of knowledge heretofore neglected. With the dominance of scientific method in the human sciences, literature and the arts have been largely ignored in the conversation of what constitutes the human person, and where human freedom resides. A narrative understanding honors the aesthetic response of the human person, particularly that evoked by the classical arts and great poetry, drama and literature. In the realm of story, as of life, what is true is what is most deeply felt, what calls forth the most compassionate response. Such narrative aesthetic offers another door into ethics.


The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy has invited scholars from around the world to form teams to consider how to build civil society. Having looked at civil society in terms of "social reconstruction", "who belongs" and "democratic practice", the Council will now collaborate with the Center for Narrative Studies to discover, within the critical tools of deconstruction, a praxis for reconstruction with the goal of renewing social philosophy in the same way that narrative method is revolutionizing therapy. In sum, the seminar promises to be an important act in the ongoing drama of restorying civil society beyond, but in creative inter change with, the discourses of power in politics and of profit in economics. p.11

By gathering an inter-cultural and multi-disciplinary team of philosophers and experts in literary method and the social sciences, the seminar will offer a unique opportunity to form a culturally rich community around the endeavor to apply narrative method to reconstructing civil society as the realm of responsible citizen action. The cross-cultural experience will thus be not simply a sharing of ideas, but a fusing of horizons through the medium of shared story making.

The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy will publish the papers of the scholars for dissemination to university libraries around the world, and the Center for Narrative Studies will gather an anthology of core stories shared throughout the seminar. This will demonstrate another narrative means of highlighting the stories the team puts on record as wisdom, nurture and font of renewal.

The seminar will conclude with a conference in which the participants will discuss their work before a Washington audience and invite feedback and discussion.




- Sponsor: The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy (RVP), the Center for Narrative Studies (CNS) and The Catholic University of America (CUA)/Oblate College.

- Participants in each seminar: 10-15 philosophers from the various continents, with an equal number of professors from various disciplines in the universities and institutes in the Washington area. The visiting scholars from other countries will be welcome to join in seminars and courses at CUA, where they will be designated Visiting Research Professors. They will have the use of the research facilities of the Library of Congress and of the universities and institutes of the Washington area. Thus, the period of the seminar should constitute effectively a hard working mini-sabbatical.

- Schedule: The first two weeks, Sept. 7-18, will be a two week intensive for orientation, introduction to basic texts and narrative methodology. Thereafter the weekly program will consist of Tuesdays 10.00 a.m. - 12.00 noon: discussion by the visiting scholars of key contemporary texts related to the evolution of the theme of the seminar: Fridays, 3:00-5:00 p.m.: presentation by the participants of the drafts of their chapters as a basis for intensive critical and exploratory discussion by the group.

- Costs: Successful applicants will be granted an RVP Research Fellowship which covers all fees for the seminar itself. Participants will be responsible for travel expenses and for providing their own room and board, unless otherwise arranged. The Conference organizers can provide information on accommodations.

- How to Apply: By a letter of application before May 31st, together with a curriculum vitae and bibliography, providing details of the importance of the seminar to your overall work and the achievement of specific goals.





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