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In this paper I look at narrative as a mode of explanation and at various ways in which the explanatory value of narrative has been criticized. I begin with the roots of narrative explanation in everyday action, experience, and discourse, illustrating it with the help of a simple example. I try to show how narrative explanation is transformed and complicated by circumstances that take us beyond the everyday into such realms as jurisprudence, journalism, and history. I give an account of why narrative explanation normally satisfies us, and how or in what sense it actually explains. Then I consider how narrative is challenged and rejected as a mode of explanation in many scientific and other contexts and why attempts are made to replace it with something else. I try to evaluate the nature and sources of these challenges, and I describe this controversy over narrative against the historical background of its emergence. My paper ends with a pragmatic defense of narrative explanation against these challenges.

  • 1

    On this account the explanation of individual actions retains a crucial role in historical narratives, as Karsten Stueber argues in “Reasons, Generalizations, Empathy, and Naratives: The Epistemic Structure of Action Explanation,” his contribution to this Forum (History and Theory 47 [February 2008], 3143).

  • 2

    These passages are from Fernand Braudel, Ecrits sur l'histoire (Paris: Flammarion, 1969), 11f.

  • 3

    Ibid., 21.

  • 4

    Ibid., 61.

  • 5

    Quoted in Lawrence Stone, “Reflections on a New and Old History,” in The Narrative and History Reader, ed. G. Roberts (London: Routledge, 2001), 283.

  • 6

    François Furet, “From Narrative History to Problem-Oriented History,” in Roberts, ed., The Narrative and History Reader, 279.

  • 7

    Stone, in Roberts, ed., The Narrative and History Reader, 283.

  • 8

    Ibid., 288.

  • 9

    Ibid. 293.

  • 10

    Thus I agree with Tor Egil Førland's resistance to what he calls the “explanatory imperialism” of methodological individualism in “Mentality as a Social Emergent: Can the Zeitgeist have Explanatory Power?”, his contribution to this Forum (History and Theory 47 [February 2008], xx–xx). Though I am not arguing here for plural subjects and social entities such as the Zeitgeist as elements in narrative explanations, I have done so elsewhere. I thus agree with his pragmatic defense of what he calls an “explanatory ecumenism,” which would allow the careful and circumscribed use of such notions.