Book Review: Human Communication as Narration (by Walter Fisher)

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In perhaps his most important contribution to rhetorical theory and the understanding of human communication, Walter Fisher presents an explanation of his narrative paradigm in Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value and Action. This book essentially elaborates on and refines Fisher’s previous articles on the narrative paradigm and aims to present a more complete explanation of the theory’s roots, as well as its main tenets and relevant applications.

Human Communication as Narration begins with an exhaustive examination of the history of narratives and logic, which includes his assertion that the logic by which human communication should be assessed return to the roots of the original meaning of logos: “story, reason, rationale, conception, discourse, thought” (p. 10). He asserts that Plato and Aristotle transformed the word logos into a specific term that applied only to philosophical/technical discourse, which launched a “historical hegemonic struggle” that has lasted for more than 2,000 years (p. 10). Fisher explains that the positivist, “rational-world paradigm” that emphasized formal logic and reasoning (p. 58) is improved upon with his view of a more post-modern, ontological foundation where meaning is co-created through less formal structures like stories. In resurrecting the original meaning of logos, grounding his theory in ontology, and classifying human beings as “Homo narrans” (p. xi) , or storytelling animals, Fisher rejects the notion that technical logic is the only path to truth and knowledge, and argues that, as the ancients believed, all human communication is rational and contains truth and knowledge (p. 20). This more inclusive account of human communication together with the view that all human communication needs to be seen as stories sets the foundation for Fishers’ theory of narratives.

In presenting the main points of his narrative theory over several chapters, Fisher explains that humans experience and understand life as a series of ongoing narratives, and that these stories are symbolic interpretations of “aspects of the world that [are] historically and culturally grounded and shaped by human personality” (p. 49). Given that stories are more than just a figure of speech and have the power to both inform and influence, Fisher establishes “narrative rationality” as a universal logic and means for the assessment for stories that is accessible by nature to all human beings (p. 47). This assessment is tested against narrative “probability (coherence) and fidelity (truthfulness and reliability)” (p. 47) – in other words, humans come to believe in and act on stories in so much as they relate to and identify with them. Going back to his assertion that human communication doesn’t have to exist in perfect structures of rhetorical arguments, he further explains that all humans possess the ability to reason and can therefore both communicate and accept truth as “good reasons” (p. 105). Perhaps an even better, more succinct explanation of this comes earlier in the book where Fisher states that “the materials of the narrative paradigm are symbols, signs of consubstantiation, and good reasons [are] the communicative expression of social reality” (p. 65).

By including both formal logic and a logic of “good reasons” in the basis for argument, Fisher’s narrative paradigm contributes to rhetorical theory by expanding the meaning of persuasion just as Burke’s theory of identification did. Since the average person isn’t trained in formal logic, Fisher believed that the logic of good reasons (i.e. common sense), sits above all other persuasive means since it is universal and inherent in all human communication. Fisher goes on to assert that narrative rationality should also be “the foundation on which a complete theory of rhetoric needs to be built” (p. 194). In this sense, the selection of stories we tell and come to accept is demonstrative of who we are and what we want...
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