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Why does science despise storytelling?

The resistance to rethinking the role of narrative in organizations is considerable. Academics sometimes suggest that doing research on storytelling might drag the world back into the Dark Ages of myth and fable from which science has only recently extricated us.

The antecedents to science's current hostility to storytelling is of long date:

  • Plato had a hand in whipping up the hostility to storytelling although his own masterful practice of storytelling undercuts the explicit arguments that he makes in The Republic writers like Francis Bacon (1561-1621) were sometimes seen as opposing scientific experimentation to mere narrative or anecdote, often without the recognition that the results of scientific experiments could only be described in a narrative;
  • The antagonism towards storytelling may have reached a peak in the twentieth century with the determined effort to reduce all knowledge to analytic propositions, and ultimately physics or mathematics.
  • Logical positivists vainly struggled to construct a clockwork model of the universe, in which only observable phenomena were conceded to exist, and the universe was thought of as comprising a set of atoms randomly bouncing off each other, and human thoughts and feelings were non-existent.
  • Towards the end of the century, consciousness and cognitive science has made something of a comeback, with the mind once again becoming a fit subject for study, but for the most part, the work remained locked in the prison of scientific and quasi-scientific modes of inquiry, which usually fails to provide access to narrative modes of thinking.
  • Literary studies took narrative seriously, but with the rise of science, they were considered to be very much on the intellectual periphery, the seamy slum of modern academia. It didn't help that modernist literary critics like E.M.Forster disparaged plot as a mechanism, arguing that the novel should "emerge" from the interaction of the characters.
  • The failure of the structuralists like Roland Barthes to decompose narrative into its smallest units and find the fundamental underlying structures, tended to confirm narrative as an unfit subject for the scientific enterprise.
  • The post-modernist critique of Jean-Francois Lyotard that science itself rests on a foundation of narrative was intellectually impeccable, but, as Lyotard's own theories would predict, was systematically ignored by the high priests of science.
  • Nevertheless, some progress was made. We discovered the limits of analytic thinking. We learnt of Godel’s proof of the incompleteness of arithmetic, and began to absorb the implications of the indeterminacy of quantum physics and complexity theory.

    But many years of schooling had instilled in us a continuing itch for reductionist simplicity. This itch reflects what Freeman Dyson calls the Napoleonic approach, and leads to hierarchy, procedures, rules and a distinctive form of myopia. It doesn’t help us much in coping with a rapidly changing world, where innovation is the key to success.

    Innovation – what Dyson calls the creative chaos and freedom of the Tolstoyan approach – swims in the richness and complexity of living. It breeds on the connections between things. As participants, we can grasp the inter-relatedness of things in the world – and so are able to connect them in new ways – much more readily than when we are seeing them as an external observer through the window of rigid analytic propositions.

    The need to understand, and cope with, a quickly shifting world, and its bewildering economic shifts, has forced attention on knowledge and the Tolstoyan approach, and a rebirth of interest is narrative thinking in the business world is now apparent.


    Stephen Denning, The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative (Jossey-Bass, October 2007)

    Stephen Denning, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations. Boston, London, Butterworth Heinemann, October 2000, chapters 4-7, 11-12.

    Aristotle, Organum

    Dale Carnegie, How To Win Friends and Influence People (1936)

    Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Quill, New York. 1984.

    Plato, Symposium

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