On Narrative through Self and Time: Diachrony, Episodes and Waking Life

Merel Groot

Written by: Bart Reinalda, Lennart van Abbema, Rianne Janssen, Merel Groot, Caya van der Plas, Maria Stoiescu and Benjamin Henninger

How do you perceive yourself in time? Do memories entangle into a uniting whole, a narrative of self? Are they only mere episodes, scattered without any coherent meaning? We will guide you through an exploration of the “inner-self” as perceived in the continuum of past, present and future. A philosopher’s analysis on narrative and psyche marks out the starting point. After a winding journey, in view emerges Waking Life, a cinematic example of no apparent story-line. We will provide a critical outlook, turning to the just traveled paths, yet in the end, the burden to make up your own mind remains only for you to take.

 A Philosopher’s view

In his article Against Narrativity, Galen Strawson (2004) argues against two claims that are popular in many scientific disciplines. The first one is the Psychological Narrativity Thesis, which means that humans naturally tend to see their lives as narratives, or as collections of stories. The second claim that Strawson (2004) refutes is the Ethical Narrativity Thesis, which states that it is essential for a well-lived life and for the full development of an identity and personhood to see one’s life as a narrative. Strawson (2004) argues against these claims by illustrating that there are alternatives to seeing one’s life as a narrative, and these alternatives may still lead to a meaningful life.

The main distinction he makes is the distinction between Diachronic and Episodic self-experience. From a Diachronic perspective, “one naturally figures oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future” (Strawson, 2004, p. 430). The idea of the self thus persists over a long stretch of time. The Episodic self-experience is the opposite. A person with an Episodic view does not experience the self as one that was there in the past and will be there in the future, although they are aware that there is a continuity in the life of a human being. Episodic people acknowledge that the past shaped the present, but they do not experience the past as being alive in the present. For example, a poet might write a poem based on past emotions, but an episodic poet does not identify with the person in the past while writing the poem. Instead they write the poem on the basis of the self in the present, that is formed by past experiences. 

Strawson (2004) argues that, although the phenomena can exist separately, people with a mostly Diachronic self-experience are often Narrative in their outlook on life, while Episodic people do not have the tendency to see their lives as narratives. Therefore, there are people who do not fit the Psychological Narrative Thesis. In the rest of the text he explains why this is not a bad view on life, thereby refuting the Ethical Narrativity Thesis. 

About Waking Life 

2001’s ‘Waking Life’ by Richard Linklater is a surrealistic rotoscoped philosophical docufiction film, which has varying interpretations and discusses many philosophical and existentialist questions. During the film, the protagonist has conversations with many different kinds of people, from professors to seemingly random people on the street, and they talk about existentialist concepts like the meaning of life and dreaming. 

During the movie, the protagonist seems to become more aware of the fact that he is dreaming, and every time he seemingly wakes up from a dream, he soon realizes that he is present in another dream. Eventually, he finds that he is unable to actually wake up from his dreams and this becomes an issue for him. In the end, the film shows the protagonist trying to hold on to a car while he is floating away, but then letting go, either willingly or not.

One popular interpretation of the movie is that the protagonist is actually dead, and that his dream-within-a-dream state represents the last minutes of brain activity, while the final scene of him letting go from the car represents him slipping into true death. One of the people the protagonist has a conversation with actually talks about how those last minutes of brain activity could feel like hours or days in dream time, which could explain the many continuous dreams that he has.

Another interesting aspect about the movie is its animation style. The style starts off relatively realistic, but as the protagonist falls deeper into his dreams, the style becomes more abstract. The movie seems to be surrealistic and random at some points, there is not a real story line and the changes between scenes are very abrupt and unexplained. This could be a representation of the way that we experience dreams: often nonsensical and strange.

An Episodic Example?

Galen Strawson’s notion of episodic self experience seems present for the first 66 minutes of the film. The film’s protagonist is experiencing these seemingly disconnected scenes, lacking any kind of narrativity, coherence, or continuous identity. The protagonist himself, when confronted about it by someone, describes it as being “on zombie autopilot lately”(Waking Life, minute 66). When he is present he is simply a passive listener, not appearing to remember any of the scenes that came beforehand, nor expressing any of the philosophical ideas he has encountered along the way. He has no goals, no plans for the future, nothing he is moving toward, suggesting there is no idea of a future self either. Due to the dreamlike nature of the film and the silence of the main character the audience cannot be sure any of these vignettes are in a chronological order, or connected in another way other than the shared existentialism of most. 

The protagonist, in these first 66 minutes, goes through no development, seems to learn nothing. Ergo, there is no, as Strawson (2004) describes, form-finding tendency either. There appears to be no relatively large-scale, coherence-seeking, unity-seeking, or pattern-seeking. All the episodes are completely disconnected, as is the protagonist himself.

Nor is there any kind of story-telling tendency. The movie follows no narrative genre, because again it is a series of seemingly disconnected episodes. The protagonist never attempts to provide an interpretation of what he is experiencing. He just listens to ideas as they are presented to him, without inserting his own ideas, or sorting them in an order. By never doing this the protagonist does not cherry pick facts, or puts them in a hierarchy, causing them to be further disconnected and lacking any narrative.

Lastly the film lacks Stawson’s (2004) notion of revision. The protagonist is the only ‘continuous’ element in the film, and never does he look back on what he has previously learnt/heard/listened to to talk about it in a discussion. He never seems to revise his memories, i.e. negatively “changing one’s view on the facts of one’s life.” (Strawson, 2004, p. 443). He just passively absorbs information.

Up to that point, the film appears to be exactly how Strawson (2004) seems to describe himself; non-diachronic, without a form-finding tendency, without a story-telling tendency, and non-revisionist.

Critical outlook 

In the final 34 minutes of the film the protagonist becomes relatively more talkative and active. He starts realizing this reality, whatever it is, appears to be a dream. He explains how the only consistency of this dreamlike reality is him being exposed to ideas. He is in no fixed state. He starts trying to revise and to create some kind of narrative, to give form or meaning to the dream. The lack of narrative and realisation of the dream state appears to cause increasing dread in the protagonist. The final few vignettes are more connected. Speaking of dreams, living in the now, and how we are writing our own narratives/identities culminating into the final conversation with the director of the film himself, Richard Linklater, who speaks about the Gnostic idea there is no time. Life is rejecting going to God’s heaven.

The film itself appears to have no final conclusion, some philosophers and parts of the film itself support Strawson’s (2004) notions of an episodic self-experience, some suggest a more diachronic self-experience. The final one suggests time itself is an illusion. The movie puts forth many ideas and attempts to revise them as little as possible, putting them up for interpretation by the audience. 

Furthermore, looking critically at Strawson’s text (2004), it suggests several notions which mainly seem to either be conjecture or based completely on anecdotal thoughts and experience by the author. Strawson claims himself to be non-diachronic, without a form-finding tendency, without a story-telling tendency, and non-revisionist, which is so radically different from how most others experience life it seems hard to believe. Additionally, he seems to define the term of narrative differently from how most other writers define it, such as Barthes, Ricœur, Halbswachs. This causes a large amount of confusion on what Strawson is trying to say about narrativity. They would probably agree with Strawson: “one naturally figures oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future” (Strawson, 2004, p. 430), but they would disagree with separating Diachronic and Episodic self-experience. 

Arguably, Diachronic and Episodic self experience are not mutually exclusive. A person is constantly interpreting and reinterpreting the narrative of the past, their memories, and their identities, based on their constantly changing narrative, memories, and identity. One is currently not equal, identity and narration wise, to their past or future versions, thus Episodic. However, this does not mean a person is not also Diachronic. They are still Diachronic because they have a continued perception of time and ‘self’, but the identities making up this ‘self’ are constantly changing. A person is constantly reinterpreting this self, but there is a continuity. What happened, how they interpret what happened, and who they are, is constantly being retold as a person gains new experiences. Narration is the interpretation. The story/narrative someone tells is the Diachronic self-experience. However, a person can never say that the identity of now has the same capacity or viewpoint to interpret events as a past or future version of themselves would, so they also have Episodic self-experience.

Additionally, the four attributes Strawson (2004) ascribes to himself only have anecdotal evidence he himself alone can experience, and are strangely defined. Strawson claims he never revises, which is his own negative definition of revision, only meaning changing the facts of one’s past with a falsification. However, it is unlikely he never revises a memory, even something as simple as remembering a past event more positively or negatively. If he is able to always remember memories accurately, the experience would be incommensurable to someone who constantly re-evaluates their own past.

Discussion questions

  • Strawson (2004) argues for a seemingly completely different paradigm to how most people experience a sense of self and reality, giving only anecdotal evidence about himself, such as the claim he does not revise. Are these paradigms incommensurable? 
  • He also claims that identity in the now is not equal to the identity of your past self or the infinite possible future selves (Strawson, 2004). Would you agree? Is our past self a completely different identity our current identity is just based on?
  • Lastly, when watching Waking Life, we inevitably looked for coherence and narrative in the film. Is this a result of humans constantly looking for narrative in life, or because we simply expect a narrative to be present in a film?

In the end… 

As in the film, we have no clear answers to the questions we posed at the beginning of this article. It is as much part of one’s own interpretation as the purpose of the seemingly incoherent proceeding of the film. We have tried to show, however, by describing Walking Life in relation to the Strawson’s argument (2004), what it looks like when a usually narrative driven medium like a film, seems to lack any coherence. Is this what it is like for those experiencing life, or parts of one’s life, in an episodic way?


Strawson, G. (2004). Against narrativity. Ratio, 17(4), 428-452.

Pallotta, T. (producer), Smith, J. (producer), Walker-McBay, A. (producer), West, P.    (producer) & Linklater, R. (director). (2001). Waking Life [motions picture], USA: Fox Searchlight Pictures.