Narrative versus Neuroscientism

Review: Alex Rosenberg’s How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories(The MIT Press, 289 pp., $27.95US).

Henry Ford said: “History is bunk.” The privileged, the victors, those with an ax to grind, and those with the means to make their case and communicate their


Cover Art: Jacque Louis David: Napoleon Crossing The Alps Upside Down – just like narrative history?!

story produce narrative history.   

 Alex Rosenberg aligns with Ford’s view of history, though, unlike Ford, Rosenberg is a person of integrity when it comes to inclusion and diversity. Still, I venture to say that the one group that Rosenberg seems to want to see unemployed would be narrative historians.

Rosenberg is an excellent historian, though his formal academic appointment is in philosophy. Unfortunately, his command of neuroscience is weak. Though the book provides a tutorial on aspects of neuroscience interspersed with imaginative reconstructions of key historical examples, Rosenberg’s arguments end up being neural scientism. “Scientism” is defined as a pastiche of popular opinions, dangerous half-truths, and total nonsense, not science.  

Thus Rosenberg writes: “At least to a first approximation, our brains make decisions the same ways rat’ brains do” (p. 157). Hmmm. Not quite so fast.

This is the mereological fallacy – the fallacy of attributing the whole to the part. If you think your brain made you do it, you have the wrong philosophy of science. Brains to not think; people think. Brains do not experience; people experience. Brains do not deceive themselves; people are self-deceived. Brains do not decide, people decide.

I hasten to add that brains perform all the biological and molecular processes that neuroscientists (and Rosenberg) describe them accurately as doing.  Human beings are neurons “all the way down” and if the neurons do not function, neither does the person. If the neurons do not function to a sufficiently adequate level of performance, the person is incapacitated and cannot feed himself, much less make a decision. However, the decision-making occurs and lives in the person, not in the neurons.

People who survive diverse neurological damage including strokes, brain surgery to treat epilepsy, and brain damage sometimes engage in confabulation – story telling – to account for the resulting neurological blind spot in their experiential field. The person will at first deny that he is blind in the particular aspect in question and then, if pressured, resort to saying that he just is not interested in dealing with matter at hand right now. He could do so if he chose.

Rosenberg’s proposal is that narrative history is basically confabulation based on the human tendency to make up meaning about what is happening in the environment of natural events and the limited trustworthiness of neighboring communities. A hasty generalization from a particular instance?

This is not to say that the blind spots and self-deceptions of human beings are irrelevant to the limitations of narrative history, whether inside or outside the academy. Historians do not escape the limitations of their own time. Only instead of an economic or religious infrastructure determining the historical ideology, it is neuroscience that provides the deep structure. 

Rosenberg leaves one breathless, similar to what happens to Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz after the tornado hits: “Todo, I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore.” Neurohistory is born. 

Rosenberg forgets Herbert Simon’s (1962) guidance in The Architecture of Complexity “in the face of complexity an in principle reductionist may be a pragmatic holist.” Both history and neuroscience are nothing if not complex, and a reduction of the one to the other, while rhetorically engaging, is unlikely to stand up to rigorous scrutiny.

Rosenberg may also usefully review “The Ontology of Complex Systems” (Wimsatt 1994) in which an approach that proposes to reduce one theory to another, goes into a causal thicket, and nevercomes out again. Such is Rosenberg’s proposal that narrative history needs replacing by a neo-behaviorist account of “sharp wave ripples” – brain waves – in the Neocortex of the brain.

For example, an account that says that the water coming from my kitchen faucet is “really” composed on atoms is useful if one is looking to engage the atomic structure of H20 (my example, not Rosenberg’s). The account is less appropriate or useful if one is thirty. By saying that “water” is reducible to H20, one has not eliminated water from the being of the universe. The ontology of the universe still includes water and a realm of discourse enables us to discuss and manipulate it.

Be cautious, very cautious, when you read broad proclamations of the form: “Neuroscience shows …” Sometimes it does; but often there as much if not more interpretation in neuroscience than is suspected by would-be neurohistorians.

Thus, Rosenberg is more than a tad “over sold.” Though neuroscience may eventually discover a normative, belief or desire module or “box” that maps to brain anatomy, it seems improbable. Does that means that beliefs and desires cease to exist in our conversations, recollections, and behaviors?

It means that the human being does not stop at his or her skin. Humans are originally connected to their birth mothers by an umbilical cord. When it is cut, a long process of development in time begins, including language acquisition, enrollment in community, required to create a full-blown, adult person. Norms, beliefs and desires LIVE (i.e., exist) in language, community, and intersubjectivity.

Ultimately Rosenberg is reenacting the conversation proposed by Patricia and Paul Churchland that folk psychology is like alchemy and astrology. Someday scientific psychology will eliminate such folk terms as “belief” and “desire” and produce an authentic science of psychology. (To be fair to the Churchlands, they eventually came around to a much more nuanced view that allowed for the reduction of certain theories while preserving the integrity of human experience and social forms.)

There is truly nothing new under the sun. Rosenberg also reenacts and reverses Spence’s Narrative Truth and Historical Truth (Norton 1982). According to Spence, a person’s story of what happened gets confused with what happened, but what is really significant for influencing people’s motives and mindedness is precisely the story.  Rosenberg substitutes neuroscience as the master narrative for “historic truth” plain-and-simple, as if one could get at it without interpretations.

One reason that the biological, neurological narrative is not the master narrative is that no master narrative exists. None. Such a lack of a master narrative extends to narrative history, too. There is no master narrative of history nor can it can be reduced to neuroscience – neither Marxism, nor Freudianism, nor organized religion, nor neural scientism, and so on.

Thus, Rosenberg is a candidate to become the Talleyrand of neurohistory. An astute interpreter of narrative history, Rosenberg profiles Talleyrand (1754 – 1838: Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, 1st Prince of Benevento, then 1st Duke of Talleyrand). The latter was one of the most duplicitous, backstabbing, double-dealing survivors of the period of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars.

Seemingly totally lacking in a moral core, Talleyrand successfully survived multiple bloody revolutions, regime changes, and social catastrophes. Talleyrand opportunistically abandoned the Church when he saw the French Revolution was decisively moving against it and made his fame and fortune expropriating the Church’s ill-gotten gains in favor of the ill-gotten gains of the Committee of Public Safety. No one is saying Rosenberg, an astute philosopher, lacks integrity as in Talleyrand’s instance. The key term here is: sophistry. 

The risk is that neurohistory is a would-be but ephemeral attempt by fallen or frustrated Humanities scholars, understandably hungry for a research grant, to colonize the Humanities using derivative and popular misinterpretations of neuroscience, licensing inferences that no practicing normal neuroscientist scientist would contemplate unless they had been experimenting on themselves with psychedelic drugs. Key term: colonization.

At least for purposes of his book, Rosenberg is self-described neo-behaviorists with “sharp wave ripples” in the brain cortex being reinforced by rewards or extinguished by punishments (pp. 154–155). Mental representations such as beliefs and desires are going to be replaced with nudges, conditioning, and recommendation engines that address inclinations. But if that were so, the neurology would fall out of the stimulus-response loop and we would be back to B.F. Skinner’s famously and spectacularly discredited “verbal behavior.”

While the source of the spontaneously new in narrative history remains undefined, the innovative proposals that persons are able to articulate in language and express in speech acts using language become political speech that inspires engagement with the issues of the day.

As a would-be neuroscience, Rosenberg appreciates that every object in nature works according to law. What he does not appreciate is that human beings, subjects, work according to the representation of law. What is “representation of law”? A norm.  

For instance, Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975) gives an example in her essay “Truth and Politics.” After World War I, the German ambassador is supposed to have asked Georg es Clemenceau (1841 – 1929 ), the French Premier during World War I, the confronting question of what the future will say about the war reparations that the Allies required of Germany as a result of the Treaty of Versailles. Clemenceau’s response was to the effect: “The one thing they will not say is that Belgium invaded Germany in 1914.”

German soldiers crossed the border into Belgium in August 1914. So much is a fact. Rosenberg acknowledges the value of chronology. Certain individuals made certain statements at a certain time and place. Certain people put one foot in front of another. 

However, when some ten years later leaders of the Nazi party say: “Germany was stabbed in the back by Jewish politicians who misrepresented Germany’s legitimate right to self defense” [or words to that effect], this is no longer a use of language to describe facts; it is performative, not descriptive, use of language.

This speech act does something. This is in an attempt to create a new fact. The statement is an attempt to create a commitment and reason for behavior. If uttered often enough, “Belgium invaded Germany” becomes a candidate fact, an alternative, to “Germany invaded Belgium” as if this were just one opinion among many – and people were entitled to their own opinion.

Speech acts create norms by enacting commitments. “I promise …” This creates an expectation about the future that a person will act in such a way to deliver on the promise. Naturally, a neurological implementation of the dynamics of commitment, expectation, and performance has to exist in memory and in the back-and-forth of the neural correlates of consciousness (NCCs) underlying interpersonal relations. However, one starts to suspect that emergent properties are activated at another level of discourse, human relations in community, that are consistent with neurology but irreducible to it.

By the way, the distinction “neural correlates of consciousness” (NCCs) is a basic concept missing from Rosenberg’s account. He has little use of NCCs because the neo-behaviorist agenda has no use for consciousness.

At the level of the descriptive use of language in narrating historical chronology – a kind of level zero narrative – there is nothing wrong with Rosenberg’s description of chronology (which he considers valid and proper over against volatile narratives). But there is something missing.

What is missing is that human beings use language to make assessments, evaluations, create and honor commitments, and build community. Germany was wrong to invade Belgium, a neutral country, in 1914. While Germany was arguably expected to provide compensation for its wrongs, the level of war reparations reached onerous, unsustainable levels that were excessive and detrimental to the victors too, leading to legitimate grievances that generated World War II.

Two wrongs don’t make a right. One may agree or not, but the narrative history often unfolds as one normative judgment after another and over against a third. Indeed the value and benefit lie as much in the back-and-forth process of the debate as in the bottom line conclusion.

By page 120, Rosenberg rhetorically pretends to be searching for the neural circuits of beliefs and desires, but cannot make sense out of the question – and so cannot find them. This could mean that folk psychology – and its cousin narrative history – are illusions like astrology or alchemy, but it could also mean that we lack an account of emergent properties such as belief, desire, and norms that would enable us to connect the different levels of neuroscience, folks psychology, and narrative history.

Rosenberg is a good, at times even an exceptional interpreter of history, but his neuroscience is weak. For example, John O’Keefe is awarded the Nobel Prize (2014) for research that demonstrates that the rat brain has an internal representation of its activity space that is used in further upstream processing in the rat’s life (pp. 137 – 138). This is one of the few potential points of actual overlap with narrative history in Rosenberg’s account. The opportunity is lost.

Rosenberg does not like the idea of this representation being a case that provides a paradigm for a “belief” or “desire” so he has to interpret O’Keefe against himself. It doesn’t work. Here “Neuroscience demonstrates ….” is not good enough.  My recommendation? Pick a story and stick to it.

Rosenberg argues that theory of mind (TOM) “solves” the problem of cooperation between conspecifics, i.e., early Homo sapiens. I happen to think this is one “just so” story that has legs, even if it requires the addition of joint intentionality in order to really boot strap itself into existence.

Rosenberg establishes that we humans have capabilities [theories] that operate to decode sounds into meaningful speech, relate to other people as minded, and understand narratives (pp. 34 – 35). Thus, Rosenberg suggests that narrative history is an aspect of theory of mind. At this point, Rosenberg opens up a significant tutorial on theory of mind (TOM), Nichols and Stich flow charting of belief and desire (“boxology”), autism spectrum disorders, modularity, fMRI research, search for the brain regions with TOM.

Rosenberg then tries to distinguish TOM from mindreading. The latter is generally good; the former leads us astray. I am not buying it – they go together.

Rosenberg employs the gambit of saying: okay, the provisioning in TOM of a hyperactive intentionality detector (“mind reading”) was adaptive in the environment of evolutionary origin. Hyperactive meaning making was defensive. If the breeze moving the high grass looked like a tiger, it was better to “see” a tiger there and take defensive measures than be surprised and eaten. The penalty for false negatives was high.

The penalty for false positives – “seeing” a tiger where there was no tiger is less severe – wasted time. But fast-forward through evolutionary time and humans are still making meaning in a place and time where the dangers are just plain different. Othello learns that his rival Casio has the specific handkerchief that he (Othello) gave to his faithful loving wife, Desdemona. That means that he has to strangle her. Stop! Wait – don’t go there, man! It is just a hyperactive intentionality detector – otherwise known as paranoid delusion. H-bombs and auto accidents were just not envisioned by evolution. Hence, the birth of narrative history – human beings are designed to see meaning whereas often there is just mostly random behavior.

Two responses. Even though there are fewer natural dangers, there are still many indifferent neighbors and hostile situations in nature and community in Q2 2019 as this is being written that require hypothesizing about the would-be outcomes and/or intentions of other individuals, communities, or natural processes. Even if the hyperactive intentionality detector is responsible for examples of wrong narrative history, it is this mechanism that is responsible for culture and community.

Presumably Rosenberg relates this so-called hyperactive intentionality detector to the “addiction” to narrative that occurs in the title of the work. Humans go about making up meaning because it was adaptive in the context of [Darwinian] evolutionary origin, but is now less adaptive than it used to be. Hence, the loss of power – or addiction – in the face of narrative. That is one possibility. Another possibility is that we humans may usefully be more innovative, astute, accurate, thoughtful, altruistic, forgiving, tolerant, rigorous, critical, empathic, and so on, in composing our narratives.

Humans make up meaning, and some people are very good at it. Think of Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, Goethe, Einstein, and so on. The hyper active intentionality mechanism may have produced debatable (and even wrong) narrative history, but it also created the works of Sophocles, Caesar’s The Wars in Gaul, the paintings on ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Picasso’s GuernicaHamlet, the Eiffel Tower, the Declaration of Independence, the lunar excursion module, Facebook, the spaghetti westerns of Clint Eastwood, and so on. Never was it truer, our strengths are our weaknesses. Maybe narrative history, for all its significant need for improvement, is the best we’ve got.

These two complex systems – biology and history – are about as far apart as one can imagine. In particular, the person as a subject in community eventually envisions possibilities for individual and communal accomplishment and well-being. For example, that Marx envisioned a worker’s community in which workers flourished and that Stalin implement a prison on earth, privileging the few while others writhed in a paranoid hell, exemplifies the complex mixture of the imaginary and actual that constitutes human history.

Rosenberg acknowledges that a historical chronology occurs and can be documented, but that our narratives about the chronology are fatally flawed – at least wrong and ultimately impossible. What he forgets is that we can have alternative descriptions and redescriptions of the same events and that much of history is about who gets to say which description gets preserved for posterity.

Yes, people are disputing over territory, natural resources, possessions, economic factors, but they are also disputing over the descriptions of what these are and what is occurring. The boundary between two countries is a conventional and thereby imaginary distinction. However, when a dispute over the boundary sets armies marching, then one learns of the power of imaginary meaning. The conflict of interpretations is conflict, period. This describing and redescribing and the conflicts of interpretation thereby engendered are the stuff of narrative history.

Ironically, having ranted against the distinction “purpose,” Rosenberg has to write of “trajectory, a Darwinian one” and a “Darwinian scenario.” Trajectory = purpose? Scenario = narrative? Evidently with the introduction of variation and natural selection (the causal mechanism of evolution) we are not in Kansas anymore – neither are we in neuroscience. Neuroscientism is more like it. 

While both neuroscience and Darwin’s results on evolution are in the realm of biological mechanisms, I found the switch from the one to the other was unmotivated and a tad perplexing.

By the time Rosenberg gets around to inferring that variation and natural selection are what accounts for the Congress of Vienna (1815), the inadequacy of his argument and its rhetorical excess of reduction are manifest.

 Incommensurability exists between the time frame of natural selection and that in culture and community. There is a genuine sense in which the participants in the Congress were fighting for survival, but the variations and innovations were not random. The struggle over the balance of power can be described as purposeful in a language of belief a desire, even if individuals were routinely self-deceived as the best way to deceive others. Neuroscience falls out of the argument at this point as selection pressures influence negotiating tactics and techniques independently of beliefs and desires.

The Congress of Vienna (1815) includes diplomats enacting numerous performatives in language [“performative” = speech act = doing something with words]. In addition to beliefs and desires, numerous promises and commitments are articulated and brought into being. Some of them are honored; some, not. But, all in all, the purpose of the Congress as described in Kissinger’s narrative history – to keep the peace by maintaining a balance of power between nation states – worked well enough for about a century until it stopped working.

People are routinely deceived about what are their own beliefs and desires as well as those of their fellow persons. However, such self-deceptions, descriptions, and redescriptions, are they very stuff of narrative history. A genuine sense exists in which the formal study of history is an exploration of the beliefs and desires – many imaginary, some actual – of the participants. But the incorporation of neuroscience into history is a digression of numbing grossness that serves neither neuroscience nor narrative history.

As noted, this is no longer neuroscience. It is neuroscientism. Rosenberg takes a position (p. 215) that neuroscience mechanisms explain narrative history. For example, that Talleyrand did not believe the best way to save his own self was to save France into the bargain. It was just brain waves, which, of course, it was, but not mere brain waves.

A charitable reading may suggest that many points of overlap exist between narrative history and neuroscience, which an analysis between different levels of complexity might explore. Both narrative history and neuroscience present realms of significant complexity as regards candidate models, frameworks, and accounts of understanding and explanations. However, in fact, I could find very few connections, links, or intersections.

For those readers who want more detail, Rosenberg’s opening salvo is from military history. The German’s use basically the same plan four times to invade France: the Franco-Prussian War (1870), World War (WW) I (1914), WW II (1940), and the Battle of the Bulge (1944). Read: the same narrative: attack through Belgium and the Ardennes.  

From this Rosenberg argues that such wisdom as Santayana’s “those that do not learn from history get beat” is useless.  The French military studies a lot of narrative history. They got beat. The Germans study a lot of military history; they are unable to come up with anything better than invading through Belgium. Notwithstanding the rich comic possibilities regarding French military prowess, the argument is badly incomplete. If anything, this is an argument for geographic determinism: the invasion route between Germany and France lies through the Ardennes whether one is riding horse or driving a tank.

 Rosenberg does a nice job of describing and redescribing, interoperating and reinterpreting, historical narratives. Military generals are indeed demonstrably fighting the last war. Except that’s not what the German’s did in 1940 as they went around the Maginot line. The geography was the same. Blitzkrieg was a new development. Whence the military innovation? Could it be that the Germans used the cognitive abilities of the brain in ways that could not be predicted by neuroscience of its day or ours?

If Rosenberg were to have argued that narrative historians have undervalued the role of technology (such as tanks and airplanes in the above example) in crafting their narratives of human meanings and purposes, he might be onto something. For example, Rosenberg is a fan of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, but he did not merely find an alternative narrative but a mechanistic neo-Darwinian paradigm.

Technology itself takes mechanism and causal models and applies such tools in a context of human conflict or cooperation, generating results that are not readily predicable in spite of the best laid plans of persons. But, no, Rosenberg embraces a reductive approach that ends up throwing out the narrative baby with the historical bathwater in favor of a neo-behaviorist master narrative resembling B.F. Skinner’s Walden II. Curious.

The philosophy of history from Wilhelm Dilthey (1833 – 1911) to R. G. Collingwood (1889 – 1943)  distinguishes the explanations of natural sciences from the understanding of the humanities. Dilthey called the latter the spiritual sciences (Geisteswissenschaften) by which he meant an amalgamation of the humanities and social sciences. Another term for them is the “hermeneutic” or “interpretive” disciplines.

The requirement of the natural sciences is prediction of future behavior, and Rosenberg applies that standard across the board. The possibility is not appreciated that the benefit is not prediction of the behavior of objects but the self-understanding, humanization, and enrichment of human subjects and human life. Rosenberg neither acknowledges nor questions this fundamental distinction between interpretation and explanation. The neurohype is in ample supply.  

Narrative history turns out to be impossible, according to Rosenberg. What has been passed off as narrative history so far is the equivalent of astrology or alchemy.  Astrology became astronomy and alchemy became chemistry. Narrative history is about to become – what? Neuroscience? Even if narrative history were to become some sort of rigorous science that we cannot currently envision, neuroscience would not be the likely outcome.

The possibility that the interpretive disciplines such as narrative history do not stand or fall based on the ability to predict the future is not engaged and indeed dismissed out of hand. That is a shame. The interpretive disciplines deepen and expand the self-understanding of one’s own humanity and possibilities of human flourishing.

That is not to say that the consequences of human behavior, technology, and systems with hundred of variable do not escape the actors. They do. Hence, the need for such interpretive disciplines as narrative history. Hence the need for human interventions such as truth and reconciliation commission. Hence the need for remembrance and, on occasion, even innovations such as forgiveness. 

The challenge to narrative history and any interpretive discipline – and what makes them endlessly engaging and rewarding – is the ability to describe and redescribe the same phenomena from different perspectives, parallel levels of complexity, and semantic entanglements of causes and purposes. Each deepens our appreciation of our shared humanity and the difficult issues that each generation and community must engage in bridging or abandoning the path between the past and the future.

Though his professional appointment is in philosophy, Rosenberg seems never to have read Elizabeth Anscombe on Intention (1959). Had he done so, he might have written a different – and more nuanced – book. Like that ambiguous Gestalt figure, the phenomenon seems like a duck, but it might also be redescribed as a rabbit. It seems like a young woman, but when you look from a different angle, an old woman pops into view.

The commitment and strength of the humanities, including narrative history, is not to produce a fixed body of propositions such as Newtonian physics or neuroscience. Rather it is the process in engaging in an ongoing conversation of interpreting and reinterpreting events in an ongoing tradition of significant inquiry and meaning making. There is no more a single canonical interpretation of The Congress of Vienna or the American Civil War than there is of Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Innovation in narrative history consists precisely of the elaboration of a new interpretation that may include aspects of former interpretations or not.

The text confronts neuroscience with neuroscientism (pp. 216 – 217). Most neuroscientists are not expected to agree with Rosenberg, because they too are addicted to story telling as well as quasi-political reasons that would put their funding at risk (according to Rosenberg). I agree to the extent that if they embrace Rosenberg’s scientist, they risk defunding. It is debatable, but my dander is up at the blatant scientism: defund Rosenberg; do not buy this book.

While researchers and humanists used to enjoy a consensus that such an inquiry was worthwhile and enriched the self-understanding of the individuals and community, Rosenberg’s work is evidence that such a consensus has broken down and we have not yet found our way forward as humanists or philosophers.


Arendt, Hannah. (1967). “Truth and Politics, The New Yorker, February 25, 1967, reprinted with minor changes in Between Past and Future (1968).

Bechtel, W. [1998]: ‘Representations and Cognitive Explanations: Assessing the Dynamicist’s Challenge in Cognitive Science’, Cognitive Science, 22, pp. 295–318.

Churchland, Patricia. (1986). Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Simon, Herbert A. (1962) “The Architecture of Complexity,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 106: 467-482, reprinted in idem. (1981) The Sciences of the Artificial, 2nd ed. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 193-229.

Wimsatt, William. (1994) “The Ontology of Complex Systems: Levels, Perspectives, and Causal Thickets.” In Biology and Society: Reflections on Methodology, eds M. Matthen and R. Ware. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, supplementary vol. 20: 207-274.

 (c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project




Categories: brain science, Darwin, fMRI, Hermeneutics, historical empathy, human being, mindreading, mirror neurons, narrative, narrative empathy, narrative history, Neurology, neuroscience, Philosophy

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