Most dictionaries define a narrative as telling about consecutive events. However i frequently see in philosophical works and discussions, especially postmodernist ones, the use of this word in such way, where it doesn't make sense for me. Examples:

... with his claim that the postmodern was characterised precisely by a mistrust of the grand narratives (Progress, Enlightenment emancipation, Marxism) which had formed an essential part of modernity.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metanarrative

This is the narrative that Drudge is trying to create, especially on slow news weekends when there's nothing real to aggregate and post: The blacks are rising up and attacking the whites. Black people are angry and they're taking over!

Source: http://www.theroot.com/buzz/whats-scary-black-people-narrative

I don't understand how is Marxism a narrative, when it is a body of theories, rather than a storytelling, and how somebody's supposition of black people being evil is a narrative too.

What is narrative? How do you define it and why there is a need for such a term in contemporary philosophy?

  • 1
    I would relate metanarrative to 'meaning-cosmology', our account of our cosmos & our place in it. So religions are key examples of metanarratives.
    – CriglCragl
    Feb 4, 2023 at 10:55
  • Antin associates "story" with diegesis and narrative "mimesis... identification with a subjectivity in a situation that you’re not in... narrative... produces subjectivity" so the two over lap but don't need to exist with the other
    – user64448
    Feb 5, 2023 at 2:36

5 Answers 5


It's language being used metaphorically; here it's being used as a synonym for ideology. Grand narrative = big story. But there is a bit more to it than that. An ideology, say for example Marxism, has a start point: Marx's theories, these then develop and change over time. In this sense ideology has a narrative. But there is more, by reducing their truth value to a narrative, to a story, one questions their truth, in a sense placing them of all equal value. This is where post-modernism starts.


Two cents.

A narrative as used (mainly) in postmodern discourse has the meaning of "theory" or "explanation" about the state of affairs, whatever that may be. A grand narrative or metanarrative is supposed to be a theory or explanation that explains many things and/or unifies many disparate theories into one grand theory.

For example modernity was full of grand narratives, eg how the universe was formed, how humans evolved, how societies arose, etc..

The word "narrative" is used to signify the relation to explanatory myths and stories and in some sense it implies that modernity theories were little more than that.

Postmodernist thought focuses heavily on textual analysis as everything can be taken to be (some kind of) text.

A basic tenet of postmodernist thought is that theories are socially constructed, up to a certain degree, and thus are products of and serve the culture they are part of instead of being absolute truths about reality itself. In this sense, the term "narrative" is more suitable than "theory" or "explanation".

Lyotard famously defines the postmodern as ‘incredulity towards metanarratives,’ where metanarratives are understood as totalising stories about history and the goals of the human race that ground and legitimise knowledges and cultural practises. The two metanarratives that Lyotard sees as having been most important in the past are (1) history as progressing towards social enlightenment and emancipation, and (2) knowledge as progressing towards totalisation. Modernity is defined as the age of metanarrative legitimation, and postmodernity as the age in which metanarratives have become bankrupt. Through his theory of the end of metanarratives, Lyotard develops his own version of what tends to be a consensus among theorists of the postmodern – postmodernity as an age of fragmentation and pluralism.

Jean-François Lyotard - The Postmodern Condition (IEP)

Lyotard and other poststructuralist thinkers (like Foucault) view this as a broadly positive development for a number of reasons. First, attempts to construct grand theories tend to unduly dismiss the naturally existing chaos and disorder of the universe, the power of the individual event.

[..]Lyotard proposed that metanarratives should give way to petits récits, or more modest and "localized" narratives, which can ''throw off" the grand narrative by bringing into focus the singular event.

Metanarrative - Wikipedia


  1. Jean-François Lyotard: Introduction to The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge

In philosophy, according to the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy article "Narrative":

Work on the theory of narrative has largely concentrated on fictional narratives; the results so far constitute a suggestive taxonomy rather than a systematic theory. An important distinction should be made between the story presented and the discourse that presents it.

So simply put, narrative is a story telling, which makes it chronological and focused on the interactions of agents, but that the stories generate thought and dialogue, discourse, which shapes those who participate in the conversation. A theory of narrative then largely is developed within critical or literary theory (IEP):

“Literary theory,” sometimes designated “critical theory,” or “theory,” and now undergoing a transformation into “cultural theory” within the discipline of literary studies, can be understood as the set of concepts and intellectual assumptions on which rests the work of explaining or interpreting literary texts. Literary theory refers to any principles derived from internal analysis of literary texts or from knowledge external to the text that can be applied in multiple interpretive situations.

Story telling has a lot of ideas connected to it, the least of which is that it might embody principles that themselves are story that people may tell about themselves, that is, establishing their identity. It is held by some, that the stories that are told in society, benefit some at the expense of others. It is a classical position of Friere's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, for instance, that a people must decide for themselves what to learn, educate, and believe and look for motifs that maintain the exploitation of one people by another. Narratives can serve that purpose when people internalize stories that allow others to establish their identities or circumscribe their rights. Friere's term for approaching metanarratives skeptically was called critical consciousness and resembles Engel's phrase false consciousness.


Technically it means story telling. But telling a story is more than what meets the eye. The thing is by telling a story you're not just reciting the facts, because facts alone are hard to memorize and don't make any sense. So telling a story is (the attempt) to make sense (of the facts).

Like a movie is just a series of pictures shown in fast progression. It shows you what the camera saw at a particular point in time and space. So if you throw a dart at a map, go to that place, drop a camera there and just let it roll for idk a random amount of seconds for a random amount of days of raw footage until you've got 90 minutes or whatever is the appropriate length of a movie would that be a story?

Probably not, it's just a series of pictures shown in rapid progression, that you didn't give any meaning to. It makes no sense. And it would probably be puzzling to the viewer why you would have recorded, so to say immortalized, that.

Now despite you not telling a story but just reciting events as they happened, the viewer, confused by what is shown, might try to "make sense of it". So let's say by chance you took pictures of 2 humans first getting their look at things, than again looking at each other, than again holding hands, then again kissing and then just one of them. Or a group of animals that happens to be there when you are there and that just do their thing or maybe just the plants in the background growing, blooming and fading.

These are isolated events, that might even be unrelated to each other, but in our attempt to "make sense" of our environment we'd connect the lines to a story, just like the rapid progression of pictures connects each of these pictures to a continuous flow. So we might call that a tragic love story, a documentary, we might even see it as a metaphor for life itself and expand it beyond what is shown. Maybe we even imagine a meta story of what you as the author of this piece might have been thinking, feeling and experiencing when you made it. We try to make sense of it.

And this flow, that we imagine based on the glimpses of data that we see, that is the story. It's something that helps us to memorize these events, to recite them, to put them into context because now they are no longer random events they are milestones in a journey from a start to an end and so the story becomes drawing by numbers, you know where you're coming from and where you're going to and you can fill the space between in a way that makes sense, but still connects the "plot points". The facts are so to say the points of progression or change where things happened that change the flow and so that are the parts that become memorable.

So stories are our means to make sense of the world. So religion, science, history, politics and so on. They all try to make sense of what we see and experience and draft stories that try to explain that. And so we create big and small stories, small stories like what happens in every day life, on microscopic scale, in niches where no one is looking, things without impact and big bombastic stories about the universe and everything, about things that are literally much bigger than us, about life, death, creation, destruction, humanity as a whole, the meaning of life and so on.

The problem is, after all these are just stories. They are not necessarily true. Even if the facts themselves are true, the way we connect the facts might be so wrong that the facts themselves no longer are meaningful facts. Imagine I have 3 points positioned in a triangle. Now I connect points A and B (doesn't matter which is which just that they are different) with a straight line and via A to C and C to B. In that case I've have told the story of a cycle, a rough one but one going round from a start back to the start. I also could draw a line right through these points so that the points have the least distance to the line and pretend these are facts suggesting a linear progression from an entirely different point to a yet entirely different point.

So the problem with telling stories is often not that people would ignore the facts, it's that different stories consider different facts to be relevant or irrelevant to the story. Because their importance relies on whether they change the progression of the flow or whether they just follow it.

And so the "grand narratives" that explain the big important events that include all of us and influence all of us are pretty damn dangerous as the 20th century has shown (probably happened before but older story tellers might not have considered that relevant). Like ideas of progressing from the rule of the many to the rule of the few by ways of material improvement or the general idea of progression towards a goal, took a hard fall with WWII and the atomic bomb.

Like there were a lot of great and contradicting narratives and they met each other in genocides and carnage and massive graveyards that didn't care about any story and reduced humanity itself to irrelevance. Promises of progress ended in dystopian nightmares of totalitarian system and the A-Bomb hinted at "The End" of any story. So people had to face the uncomfortable truth that they might actually be wrong and that the grand narratives that ignore the inherent contradictions as insignificant to the larger story until they become significant (such as in massive destruction). Might actually be very problematic as we might not be able to ditch them in case they are wrong and that we might start with smaller stories and closer observations of facts being in conflict with them.

  • film elementary segment is not a frame picture, but the shot. A-Bomb can be end of the story only if you think by formal frames. narrative makes by hard work and aletheia, not by bombs or terroristic acts. "grand narrative" - just a meme for short goal getting without strategic line. "grand narrative" - it fake empty treasure box, that exploits only selfish nature of the pop-culture mind. Hiroshima and Nagasaki wasn't ever a win, only a demonstration of impunity of the winner. stop looking this fake drama. demonstration of destroying can't win anything except the fall, proofed by Herostratus. Feb 11, 2023 at 12:07
  • @άνθρωπος I think you miss the point. Like a shot is a meaningful atom of a movie, but I deliberately focused on the fact that it is not meaningful so I went for the even smaller unit of frame/picture rather than shot, despite what I describe technically being called a shot if it were deliberate. And it's not about "a bomb" but about "the A- or H-bomb", meaning the newly developed type of super weapons that have such excessive powers that they might be able to end the world as we know it and thus put an "end" to our very ability to tell stories.
    – haxor789
    Feb 11, 2023 at 19:12
  • it is not same, cuz shot unit have meaning - it is mind, but making alive the pictures it is reflex - cuz brain functions. second is natural illusion, first is culture influence. you don't speak by letters, you speak by words. film word/phrase it is a shot unit. and again, you trying to tell about narrative, but went depth into semantic, that made your fantasy create chthonic himeras and you beget pseudonarrative. It is impossible to define a narrative from the pseudonarrative view. Feb 11, 2023 at 20:46
  • @άνθρωπος I'm not sure I understand or agree with you here. Like I'm not exactly sure how good my analogy is between the continuous flow of pictures to a shot and plot points or facts being connected to a narrative, but they probably both involve brain functions that are influenced by culture. I see your point between the difference of drafting a narrative and having one formed seemingly natural but I'm not sure where you found that or where you're going with it. And in terms of terminology the point is that seemingly random shots are in their effect closer to a frame than a scene or shot.
    – haxor789
    Feb 12, 2023 at 18:34
  • It is not close, it is a montage (filmmaking film editing). You can use any "words": film shot, music, text and their mix. Two photos are possible, but "words" can be not similar. It can be a mood music and a sea video. You need "word" of "phrase", you can't saw a single film frame - theory of 25-frame is a fake. But semantic get the montage - meaning between 2 words. Piter Greenway did next: he took video it could be his daughter playing and added above the video the completely inappropriate text - words and sentences speaking voice-over.But it was metanarrative with video and text together. Feb 12, 2023 at 22:01

Narrative is a story telling act.

The same story can be told by different ways. If you ask a someone who did this:

  1. Theist - "God do this".
  2. Atheist - "it was a physical phenomenon".
  3. Mystic - "a spiritual essence".
  4. Philosopher - "it is an illusion, nothing was happened".
  5. Lady(an emotional) - "Aaa, o-oo, it was terrible, i don't know! It was a black(mean murk, not the skin) man".

One story but the different narratives. Read Acutagawa's "In a Grove"

The narrative depends on what does the narrator consider the facts. That mean that the narrative have an author. Narrative it is a story that have an author - a storyteller.

You can say: but not all stories have authors. Yes, the myth have no direct authors(authorship is unknown), but they still had listeners, that live in mythology reality, those who believe in myth. Authors of mythos and listeners are people, where people are not narrators but actors.

But if the narrator can't be certainty identify? If the narrator is an anonymous(not an unknown someone "among us"). Who is he? what is his nature? has he good or bad intentions? why he tell this?

Postmodern. Postmodern can be identify with few words: you have a box with a notice about the thing, but box has no the thing inside, it has something another - the content. Postmodern is a view point with broken reference from waiting to promising (from future to past). And you have no "your" now - reference is broken, but you have another time line - anonymous(welcome to multiverse). And this is the metanarrative (read pseudonarrative).

The metanarrative it is a story that have an anonymous author - the anonymous creator of content. And the content hasn't listeners or actors, but it has customers(users) and players(welcome to the game theory).

The most actually question to the metanarrative: who are all these people?

Simplest examples of the metanarrative - this or this

Large amount references, hypertext, memes, clickbait, reklama - are also a content of the metanarrative.

future... the criptonarrative.

Edit 1:

im sorry, but i have to say, that future is already here. AI-algorithms and Neurnets are able to composing criptonarratives (same pseudo as meta-) selected by operator.

CN looks close to metanarrative content, because it used mainly it's texts: general knowledges, popular information tags, some algorithms with simple logic inside, memes.

I read some on English language and my native language on sites like "quora". This texts looks like something meaningless but soon it will be more targeting to themes i guess. Usually their structure have 2-4 sentences in passages. Passages usually haven't holistic idea or something and it looks like box with different facts and opinions but at the same time you not need any of them, no introduction and no conclusion, only raw facts, no humor, no lage mistakes, very tolerance... i think next step will be make texts with refers (like metanarrative). so, be happy with this in a close soon moment.

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