Names, Actors, and Storytellers

This essay was shortlisted for the New Philosopher Essay Prize

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d

Retain that dear perfection which he owes

Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,

And for that name which is no part of thee

Take all myself.

What’s in a name? Shakespeare’s star-crossed lover once asked. What matters isn’t what a rose is called, but how it smells – something the name has no power over. Juliet is right to belittle the significance of names with regard to roses, but her real point is to suggest that the names of people – Capulets, Montagues – are equally unimportant. However, pleasant though the poetry is, the sentiment is mistaken. The difference between roses and people is in no small part the fact that human names do matter: they name a unique self.

‘Rose’ is the description of a type of plant – it is not the name of any particular flower. Each flower is the same, and each is called a rose. People, by contrast, are not each called ‘human.’ We are Jim, Mary, Shania, Paulo, and so on. Each of us is an entity of our own. Why don’t we name individual flowers? Practicalities aside, the reason is simple: we don’t need to. Humans are creatures that name things when and as we need to. Names are tools that help us to understand and explain the world. The name rose is not essential to the plant, it’s an easy way for people distinguish one kind of flower from another.

Of course, we do name individual things that aren’t people. Each of my cars has had a name – Roxy, Steve, The Tumbler – but the names are part of my story, not theirs. They are a projection of myself. I can be described as a self in part because I can name things; my cars are not selves because they have no sense of naming, of narration. Agency, the ability to do things, is a central characteristic of the self. Objects can have names, and can be parts of our story, but this alone doesn’t make them ‘selves.’

They might, however, be part of our self. Australian Philosopher David Chalmers talks about the possibility of an “extended mind,” consisting not only in our own thoughts, feelings, and senses, but also in devices. Smartphones and other forms of technology function as part of our minds, even if they are not part of our bodies.

As well as being parts of our minds, perhaps these can also form part of our selves. U.S. Marine Doctrine includes the “Rifleman’s Creed,” in which Marines recant that “my rifle is human, even as I, because it is my life.” Metaphor aside, perhaps someone who invests so much value into an object, perhaps even gives it a name, makes that object an integral part of their character: losing the rifle is like losing a limb.

When we give a particular, limited thing a name, we create something new: a character that persists over time. This is why we give ourselves, and each other, names – they provide a way of unifying our various experiences within one consistent identity: a self. The self needs a name because it is the central character in a story of which it is both author and plot. Throughout its existence, the self will meet and interact with other people and things, it will change shape and appearance, create and achieve things, and eventually die. The name allows us to bookend the history and activities of this individual self, and distinguish them from the activities of others.

The self is not only a tool by which we delimit the history of our agency and experiences from that of others, it is a way of projecting our continued agency and experience into the future. The self allows us to write our own stories. We plan activities, we plan how our story will continue, and who we might have become by the end.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett describes the self as a “centre of narrative gravity,” it is the concept around which we can unify the story of an individual. Who is Daniel Dennett? He is, in part, the person who wrote that the self is a centre of narrative gravity. His identity – his self – is constituted in part by the fact that he had ideas and wrote them down. His name allows us to identify that the idea was his – it is a part of who he is.

Does this mean the self is a simply a fictional tool – a useful name like any other? True Detective’s paradigmatic nihilist, Rust Cohle, goes further in telling us that “we are things that labor under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory, experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody.” The self is not only a tool, it is a deception.

Fortunately for those of us who are slightly more optimistic, Rust is mistaken. His mistake is to see humans as the passive experiencers of the world around them, rather than active participants in that world, able to relate to it and engage with it. In doing so, Rust misses what it means to be human.

If humans were entirely passive, there would be no self in the way we know it. There are no individuals in the hive mind, because there are no individual actors. David Hume argued that the self is not only developed through relationships with others, but that it was constituted by the capacity to have relationships. Without this capacity, the self would be an impossible fantasy.

We can’t separate the concept of the self from the concept of agency. The self is constituted by activity, and the self is possible for us because humans are actors. But as self-determined agents, we are actors who are performing scripts of our own writing. We move toward goals of our own making, we strive to become who we want ourselves to be, and we are defined by this continually re-shaping ourselves.

Sartre similarly believed that the self was constituted by such activity. Our existence, he argued, precedes our essence, meaning that an individual creates him/herself through action. However, as empowering (or terrifying, as Sartre saw it) as this thought might be, it doesn’t appear clear that the first act of the self is consciously and freely chosen. Agency develops over time, but by the time the self is a fully-functioning storyteller, part of her story has already been told. She is clever, or shy, or creative, before she ever chooses to become such things. The character at the heart of the self’s narrative is partly shaped before our self-authorship begins.

Importantly though, the self is not just the author of its own story, but the audience as well. We tell our stories, first and foremost, to ourselves. In a television series that is unapologetically fixated on names, Doctor Who, The Doctor is known only by his title. His name remains a mystery. However, the Doctor’s story is told in no small part by his title – it is a story that he tells to himself about who he is, and who he wants to be. “The name I chose is the Doctor. The name you choose […] it’s like a promise you make.” The Doctor cannot be defined except by what he does, what he has done, and what he hopes to do in the future. In fact, without these things, there would be no Doctor at all.

Reminiscing on old stories, The Doctor says that “we are all just stories in the end.” Maybe we are, but we’re also stories when we’ve just begun.

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