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Record Type: Review   ID: 815

Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences

Polkinghorne, Donald E.

This book is of central relevance to the aims of EHE, and so it will be reviewed in more detail than we usually have space for. Polkinghorne, who is a counseling psychologist, became disenchanted because the findings of behavioral science that were based on the methodology appropriate to the natural sciences did not provide any assistance to those working in the area of applied psychology or social science (the human sciences). He decided to look for "complementary approaches that are especially sensitive to the unique characteristics of human existence" (p. x). He turned to the practitioners, such as psychotherapists and organizational consultants, to discover what type of knowledge they found useful in their practice on the assumption that "the practitioners, perhaps, are better commonsense epistemologists than academics" (p. x). In a similar manner, EHE was founded because of disillusionment over the application of natural science methods in the investigation of mystical and psychical experiences and in the hope that other methods could be found or devised that would be more appropriate to the study of exceptional human experience.

Polkinghorne found that the type of knowledge practitioners work with is narrative knowledge. "They are concerned with case histories and use narrative explanations to understand why the people they work with behave the way they do" (p. x). In a similar fashion, it seems to me that we should work with exceptional human experiences (EHEs) as narratives—instead of treating them as objects to be verified and if possible, manipulated—it should be our aim to discover ways in which they can be amplified, both in breadth (outwardly) and in depth (inwardly). We have also emphasized the need to discover the meaning of EHEs, and Polkinghorne points out that narrative is "the primary form by which human experience is made meaningful" (p. 1). He grants that narrative meaning is a mental observation, and therefore it can't be treated as an object (any more than a mystical or psychic experience can be so treated, but, he continues, "the individual stories and histories that emerge in the creation of human narratives are available for direct inspection" (p. 1). Again, in a similar vein, we have argued that instead of devising laboratory analogues of psychic experience in an attempt to better understand these experiences, we should deal with the very experiences themselves: they form our natural data base. Even if a drug or hypnosis or some other method enabled us to approximate a psychic or mystic experience in the lab, it would still be a kind of secondary source—the primary sources are the experiences as they occur in lived lives.

To summarize the book I will draw on Polkinghorne's own outline of its plan (pp. 10-12). The introduction (chap. 1) examines the structures of human existence and the realm of meaning in particular. The second chapter examines the linguistic forms in which narrative meaning is expressed with the emphasis on "the unique strata of meaning communicated through discourse" (p. 11). The third, fourth, and fifth chapters review the investigation of narrative in literary criticism, history, and more recently, psychology. Chapter 5 is on the interest in "self-theory and life stories" at various periods in the human sciences, including psychology, especially "the recent renewal of interest in research on narrative as the basis for an understanding of life development and personal identity" (p. 11). In the next chapter Polkinghorne "draws together the implications the study of narrative meaning has for understanding human existence" (p. 12), and the final chapter is on how narrative meaning relates to the work of both human science researchers and practitioners. Of special importance, at least to this reviewer, is the emphasis Polkinghorne places on "the significance of time for self-understanding" (p. 184). This certainly appears to be an important—though little studied—aspect of exceptional human experiences. It would seem to be important to take a longitudinal approach to their study—not only backwards but even more importantly, their role in shaping the future as well as the present. Instead of ends in themselves, perhaps they are seeds just beginning to germinate—just becoming conscious for the first time. But once they enter consciousness we must ask: What then? This work is highly recommended to anyone interested in the study of EHEs.

Publisher Information:Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1988. 232p. Bibl: 215-228; Chap. bibl: 185-213; Index: 229-232
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