Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences

, Volume 15, Issue 1, pp 103–116 | Cite as

The toiling lily: narrative life, responsibility, and the ontological ground of self-deception

  • Steven DeLay


In this essay, I argue that genuine responsibility and ethical self-understanding are possible without narrative—or, at least, that narrative is not always sufficient. In §2, I introduce and clarify a distinction between our ontological subjectivity and everyday practical identity—one made famous by Heidegger and Sartre. On the basis of this distinction, in §3 I argue that narrative is unable to ground ethical choice and decision. For, although acting in light of practical identities is something we do, it cannot wholly capture what it is to be who we are. Irrespective of whatever worldly projects and identities we press into, something about our subjectivity always remains unchanged. Narrative identity, which trades merely on practical identity, thus obscures this ontological dimension of life wherein human action, decision, choice, and responsibility truly originate. By way of conclusion, in §4, I briefly examine depictions of the narrative life found within the authorships of Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, and Voltaire, illustrating how self-narrative at times invites self-deception and annuls responsibility. A life of genuine responsibility demands more than what the most candid and best intentioned of self-narratives can supply us. Living the good life, I shall intimate, is thus not something that involves mere narrative. It depends, rather, on inwardness.


Heidegger Inwardness Kierkegaard Narrative Ontological subjectivity Responsibility Self-deception 



I owe thanks to Steve Crowell, Mike Griffiths, two anonymous referees, my dad, and the participants at the “Narrativity: Interpretation, Embodiment and Responsibility” workshop. Their feedback helped me think through all the issues at stake. Also, thanks Barns.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Christ Church, Faculty of Philosophy, Radcliffe HumanitiesUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK

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