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It feels like narratives and knowledge are two related concepts that would appear in some sort of diagram, but I have never seen such a diagram and I'm not sure exactly what the connection between the two looks like.

My understanding is that knowledge is a collection of facts and relationships between facts. All facts and connections somehow have to be connected to truth, but I'm not sure exactly how. (some sort of network?) A narrative is a human-understandable structure created from bits and pieces of a knowledge network. A narrative may be a substructure of knowledge itself or a kind of synthesis of the person's knowledge or something else that is not "true" but is still generated from knowledge. I'm not sure exactly.

I'm imagining a generator object. This object contains some subset of all human-understandable knowledge. The generator can take this knowledge structure and generate other structures with the requirement that the generated structure is somehow human understandable. I'm thinking some or all of those structures are narratives? If some or all generated structures are not narratives, then what are they?

Is it fair to say that a narrative is generated from some body of knowledge and embedded into a transmittable context (voice, text, etc)? Someone else can extract the narrative if they receive the embedding.

Are narratives and knowledge created from the same collection of elements? Perhaps the word "beliefs" should enter the conversation to account for "not knowledge"? Is a narrative something that is either knowledge or not knowledge?

The more I think about it the more directions and possibilities I'm seeing. Can anyone help pinpoint a concise, coherent story of the relationship between these two concepts?

UPDATE: I've been thinking through the responses. Ted Wrigley and CriglCragl intuitively seem like they gave the best answers. I don't know if I've extracted the crucial points because the following are my thoughts on how to answer my original question.

If a narrative can represent knowledge, then is the narrative knowledge? If so, a narrative can also be not knowledge and this leads to the idea that narrative space is larger than knowledge space and knowledge space is a subset of narrative space. (True/False?)

I also considered the opposite. Is knowledge just narratives? The right answer is probably more subtle. Here are three possibilities:

  1. Knowledge is narratives.
  2. Knowledge can be converted into a narrative (narritivised)
  3. Knowledge has a surrounding narrative structure. Without the structure it would not be knowledge.

Which of these is definitely false and which is the best? Perhaps there is a better fourth option?

Here are some similar statements with which I'm grappling with: Narratives can be knowledge. Knowledge is a set or network of narratives. Knowledge is not a set or network of narratives but it can be mapped into a set or network of narratives, and then perhaps the mapping can be reversed (into what format)? Knowledge is abstract and can only be represented in physical reality as narrative...etc.

Overall, I think the direction I'm coming from is the idea that knowledge can be stored in the brain somehow and proof of knowledge can be shown by outputting physical action such writing text, speaking, performing some other act, etc. A narrative can also be output as text, voice, etc. Any proof of knowledge or representation of knowledge seems to be a narrative. Knowledge exists as narratives? (I'm starting to think my definition of narrative is "a pattern with meaning". A physical pattern?). I need to do more reading and thinking to really pin this down.

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    A narrative is just a rhetorical system that conveys meaning in a structured way. Knowledge is something much larger in scope, more amorphous, and, most importantly, truth oriented. Their common building blocks are concepts, but they can be used to express truth just as well as falsehood and fiction. So a narrative does not have to have anything to do with knowledge, neither wholesale nor in bits and pieces. Of course, one can construct knowledge based narratives, or even knowledge promoting narratives, but that is by no means necessary.
    – Conifold
    Jan 20 at 23:48
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    I'd recommend you to read Jean-François Lyotard's influential "booklet" (fairly brief in philosophy's standards!) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (original title: La Condition Postmoderne: Rapport sur le Savoir). You can find its freely shared copies on the Web. Though Lyotard takes up quite a specific kind of narrative and a narrow conception of knowledge, his discussion is thought-proving and illuminating about the relation between knowledge and narrative in a much broader perspective. Jan 21 at 7:56
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    I would say narratives speak to a deep cognitive bias, that relates to what our brains evolved for, but they are at best an overlay we use to make sense of things. See: Is the idea of a causal chain physical (or even scientific)?
    – CriglCragl
    Jan 21 at 13:07
  • good answer @CriglCragl really a narrative is one means to making sense of ourselves, but it does not have the only claim to truth / knowledge
    – user57343
    Jan 21 at 13:30
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    @Conifold: Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra!
    – CriglCragl
    Jan 21 at 13:42

3 Answers 3

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Meh. This is another answer people won't like, but what the heck..

The basic element of human cognition is momentary sensory experience, what we can best call 'data'. We can think of this as a snapshot, like a single frame from a movie reel. We perceive colors and patterns and gradations of shadow (plus physical sensations and sounds and smells) that have no meaning in and of themselves.

At various levels this raw data is processed:

  • Mechanically, to resolve patterns of data into objects, motions, positions, etc. This is the level on which pervasive optical illusions occur, or aural effects like the sense of direction and distance we can get from stereo recordings.
  • Pre-consciously, where learned attitudes and reactions filter out or augment the material from the lower level, bringing certain things to the fore and dismissing others as irrelevant. This is the level where things like prejudice, attraction, knee-jerk fear, aggression, self-righteousness, and other non-conscious reactions manifest.
  • Consciously, where we can modify, redirect, stop, or allow the learned attitudes and reactions from the earlier stage, and then re-process them into higher-order assertions of continuity, purpose, meaning, etc.

In other words, what we experience is effectively isolated freeze-frames (like frames in a movie), and from that we build the coherent cognitive construction that we refer to as 'understanding'.

I dislike the word 'fact', because 'fact' (as it is usually used) is a product of the preconscious. I.e., we have a sensory experience that our mechanical and pre-conscious mind processes into the image of a (say) a chair, and then that chair appears to our conscious mind as an immutable 'fact'. Our conscious mind may then recalibrate, asserting that the ostensible 'chair' is perhaps a hologram, hallucination, or regularly shaped tree-trunk. But that moment in which the lower cognitive processes present the chair as a bare 'fact' is hard to shake. The point is that bare 'facts' are already heavily processed by lower cognitive processes; they are already interpretations or extrapolations from the world of sensory experience.

All of this is to preface and highlight the idea that narrative runs deep in our cognition. The reason our preconscious mind organizes base sensory experience into the 'fact' of a chair is that we have learned through a narrative process that this kind of thing is called a chair, and has certain stereotypical uses: sitting on, fending off lions in a circus, standing on to change a lightbulb... Without those use-narratives, we would still perceive the same base sensory experience, but our pre-conscious mind would interpret the sensory data entirely differently, presenting conscious mind with different bare 'facts', aligned with different use-narratives. Perhaps we'd see it as an odd sort of table, or a cutting board with legs... The 'fact' of the chair would disappear entirely (or rather never appear at all).

Broadening this a bit, every theory is effectively a narrative: a way of reorganizing base data into apparent 'facts'. Newton's laws are effectively a narrative that say: "We should think about the motion of objects in this way, for these reasons." It's an effective and convincing narrative — enough so that most people treat Newton's Laws as bare 'facts' — but that doesn't belie the idea that these laws began as something Newton said.

Of course, narratives really take off when we start discussion subjects instead of objects; the narratives we make about people are qualitatively different from the narratives we make about things. But that doesn't change the case that narratives are an essential component of establishing the nature of 'facts'. The presence of a chair is no less based in narratives than the assertion of a prejudice, and neither is less based in narratives than a philosophical principle like Hegel's 'zeitgeist' or Kant's 'categorical imperative'. These are merely different orders of narrative.

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  • I liked it. thanks
    – user57343
    Jan 21 at 16:08
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By definition, knowledge is

  1. facts, information, and skills acquired through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject.
  2. awareness or familiarity gained by experience of a fact or situation.

Narrative is a spoken or written account of connected events.

In the case of a narrative, there will be a producer and a receiver. As in Raman effect the receiver (or the receiver's knowledge) has a role in a narrative. So we can say, "when a person acquires knowledge through a narrative, that knowledge can create a new narrative and that narrative can also produce new knowledge". That is why the effect of the same narrative is different in two different people. And this is because of the difference in the knowledge in them. The confusion in you might be due to the interference of 'knowledge' in narration.

Are narratives and knowledge created from the same collection of elements?

No. Of these two words you used in this question, we are compelled to consider knowledge as the first and narrative as the second, because no narrative generates without knowledge. Here, knowledge (this knowledge) is the received one and narrative, the produced one. That is, one is input and the other is output. So there will be some changes in the elements due to the change in the receiver's knowledge (the receiver becomes the narrator).

The things mentioned above are just my opinions. If you think this idea is reasonable, using an apt Raman effect diagram you can draw a diagram yourself .

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A narrative is a way of making sense of ourselves, as protagonists, pilgrims, whatever. This is why the crisis in narrative makes lyric poetry so problematic.

There is no one narrative essential to all knowledge. We might think the subject is, but there is a long tradition of trying to get past the subject in phenomenology, even ones which make humanity its focus (cf post structuralist narratives).

Personally, I think a narrative (in general, no one being necessary) is more essential to understanding science, than it is ourselves or our moral choices. So what if God is dead or you're hurting.

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