Narrative and the “Art of Listening”: Ricoeur, Arendt, and the Political Dangers of Storytelling

Published date01 April 2023
Date01 April 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Political Theory
2023, Vol. 51(2) 413 –435
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/00905917221108160
Narrative and the “Art
of Listening”: Ricoeur,
Arendt, and the Political
Dangers of Storytelling
Adriana Alfaro Altamirano1
Using insights from two of the major proponents of the hermeneutical
approach, Paul Ricoeur and Hannah Arendt—who both recognized the
ethicopolitical importance of narrative and acknowledged some of the
dangers associated with it—I will flesh out the worry that “narrativity” in
political theory has been overly attentive to storytelling and not heedful
enough of story listening. More specifically, even if, as Ricoeur says, “narrative
intelligence” is crucial for self-understanding, that does not mean, as he
invites us to, that we should always seek to develop a “narrative identity”
or become, as he says, “the narrator of our own life story.” I offer that,
perhaps inadvertently, such an injunction might turn out to be detrimental
to the “art of listening.” This, however, must also be cultivated if we want
to do justice to our narrative character and expect narrative to have the
political role that both Ricoeur and Arendt envisaged. Thus, although there
certainly is a “redemptive power” in narrative, when the latter is understood
primarily as the act of narration or as the telling of stories, there is a danger
to it as well. Such a danger, I think, intensifies at a time like ours, when, as
some scholars have noted, “communicative abundance” or the “ceaseless
production of redundancy” in traditional and social media has often led to
the impoverishment of the public conversation.
1Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, Ciudad de México, México
Corresponding Author:
Adriana Alfaro Altamirano, Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, Río Hondo no. 1,
Progreso Tizapán, Álvaro Obregón, CDMX, 01080, México.
1108160PTXXXX10.1177/00905917221108160Political TheoryAlfaro Altamirano
414 Political Theory 51(2)
narrative identity, listening, Paul Ricoeur, Hannah Arendt, social media
One of the central insights offered by hermeneutic philosophy in the twenti-
eth century is that narrative and storytelling have ethicopolitical implications.
More specifically, hermeneutics has taught ethical and political theory that
narrative is central to self-knowledge and that the search for a “narrative
identity” is crucial to a life with meaning—that is, a life worth living—again,
both in individual and collective terms (Taylor 1989; Ricoeur 1992; MacIntyre
2007). Further, it has shown that storytelling allows us to rescue, rediscover,
and reconstruct a past that is fragmentary and/or morally compromised,
attesting thus to what has been called the “redemptive power of narrative”
(Benhabib 1990; Disch 1993; Herzog 2001).1 Finally, the importance of a
“politics of memory” has been elucidated, bringing to light that the “control
of the past is one of the most powerful weapons available to those who would
control the future” (Dienstag 1997, 201).
Not everybody agrees. From a rationalist standpoint (i.e., McDermott
2008), narrative can be quickly dismissed for being too subjective to consti-
tute an admissible ground for ethical and political theory. Alternatively, and
this time from either an empiricist (Strawson 2004) or a postmodern per-
spective (Derrida 1992), narrative and “narrativity”—that is, the whole set
of expectations put on the “power of narrative,” as it has been developed by
hermeneutic philosophy—have been accused both of being unfaithful to the
more episodic character of human experience and of presenting a tendency
to falsification and fabulation that actually compromises self-understanding
and veracity.
Here, I want to pose a different concern with narrative as it is usually
treated in political theory. I do not intend to contest any of the various onto-
logical and epistemological premises that can be found among advocates of
the hermeneutical approach—to name a few, that time is a key part of our
horizon of understanding; that there is an “I” that persists through time; that
1. For the redemptive power of narrative more generally, arguing moreover that the
latter underlies not only individual and collective memory but also ethical and
political theories, see Dienstag (1997).

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