The Role of Epiphanies in Moral Reflection and Narrative Thinking: Two Sides of the Same Coin?


Sheila Mason, PhD

Concordia University












Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. (E.M. Forster)


If we want to develop and deepen our capacity for connectedness at the heart of good teaching, we must understand –and resist- the perverse but powerful draw of the disconnected life. How and why does academic culture discourage us from living disconnected lives? (Parker J. Palmer)




I am lying on a small table in a tiny room, dizzy with nausea and apprehension. A young woman busies herself with the preparations of a plaster mold that will be used to position my arm and chest for the twenty five ‘shots’ of radiotherapy that I will undergo during the ensuing five weeks. I had called the hospital that morning to say that I was too sick to come for this appointment.  I had better come, said a young man from the department, because if I missed this appointment I would I might not get a new appointment in time start the treatments within the recommended time frame. So I am here, on the table.  I mention the nausea to the technician. My apprehension at this moment is that I might become so dizzy as to somehow swirl out of control. The young woman gives me a mask to blunt the smell of the plaster. The procedure will take twenty-five minutes.  I keep my mind focused on each breath and get through the ordeal breath by breath. She seems, in contrast to me, gloriously free of distress and worry, listening to the radio while she works. I envy her good fortune. As we finish up the procedure I take a chance and share my experience: I say that being a cancer patient can be tricky because you are sometimes utterly in the grip of the idea that the cancer will spread and you’ll die soon and in a very unpleasant way.  

After each round of chemo I was admitted to hospital for extreme nausea and dehydration. During those days in the cancer ward some of those who were dying called out and moaned distressingly, sometimes for hours, during the night. I was, at those moments, unable to shake off the belief that I too would be in that state within a few months.  The signs of cancer had been missed on the mammogram two years earlier and, when the lump made itself evident, I was in Stage III. 

When I mentioned this experience of being gripped by the idea of death she said  “Oh I know exactly what you mean, my mother has breast cancer, and every time she has an examination I go searching the internet to find out what I can.” This young woman was twenty four, and I fifty six at the time, and she had given me an unexpected small precious gift that I took with me out of that little cupboard of a room. A brush with an angel’s wing. Simple acknowledgement.  Almost every day I was surprised with such small gifts: a doctor in emergency saying, very gently, after reviewing the results of the blood test “I know you really want to go home now, and do not want to be admitted to hospital, but your white blood count is too low for me to let you go home.” The unexpected gentleness of this response moved me deeply.  A dog I encountered on one of my walks around the neighborhood, who looked directly at me with clear intelligent eyes. “Yes” said the woman on the other end of the leash “he is a therapy dog, he visits people in hospitals. His presence makes them feel better”.  I felt better at that moment as I admired his calm, luminous eyes looking directly at me.   Another day I slipped out of my clothes into the water of a lake in a small patch of sun and felt the healing presence of this silky embracing element.  I experienced each of these tiny events as a small epiphany that restored my soul. And now as I look back, six years later, I am grateful to have had that cancer and the epiphanies it made possible because, while the cancer has left, the epiphanies recur.  It is almost as though they are there waiting to be let in the moment we allow them access.


An epiphany is an experience in which understanding and feeling are fused. It is a shift in the quality of experience that results in the recognition of something new and important.  It shakes us out of our ordinary frame of mind and sometimes results in a very dramatic change of perspective, even a change of paradigm.   In an epiphany this change of perspective is experienced as coming from a place beyond everyday consciousness. The word epiphany comes from the Greek stem ‘phainein’: to show, which, in the New Testament, is associated with a manifestation or appearance of something divine or supernatural. (The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary).


In this paper I want to examine the idea that epiphanies play an important role in moral life and to explore some interesting links between narrative knowing and the Aristotelian theory of practical reasoning. After describing some key concepts associated with the idea of practical wisdom I will show that narrative thinking involves the same creative imagination, the capacity to make connections and to pull together disparate aspects of situations, that is involved in practical reasoning.  These two lines of inquiry have evolved somewhat separately in the last few decades and yet a deeper analysis of narrative knowing and of and practical reasoning reveals that in both forms of knowing the knower pulls disparate elements together into a new gestalt. In both cases we ‘connect the prose and the passion’, and for a moment, we dip into a part of life which is not ‘in fragments’. My hope is that this discussion will enhance our appreciation of the kind of reflections and conversations that lead us to be more open to the unpredictable and creative moments in both forms of thinking. We owe this sense of the importance of creative imagination to the Romantic poets and philosophers for whom “the creative imagination and the horizons of emotional fulfillment that it opens become an indispensable part of spiritual nourishment” (Taylor, 457).


When our thinking falls too far short of this sense of connection with vital experience and creative activity it becomes dry, empty, even boring.


The retrieval of the lived experience or creative activity underlying our awareness of the world which had been occluded or denatured by the regnant mechanistic construal … is felt as a liberation, because the experience can now become more vivid and the activity unhampered through being recognized, and alternatives open up in our stance towards the world which were quite hidden before (Taylor, 460).


         This is as true in moral theory as it is in narrative theory both of which are concerned with identifying the place of the Good, or the True or the Beautiful in a world increasingly affected by “the imperial claims of an all-embracing mechanism, strengthened by the march of an advancing technology” (Taylor, 459).  An increasing number of philosophers have been describing the importance of this sense of connection in moral life.  Iris Murdoch (1970), Alisdair MacIntyre (1982), Charles Taylor (1989), Martha Nussbaum (1990), John McDowell (2002) and David Wiggins (2002), Annette Baier (1995)  Ronald Beier (1997), Sheila Mason (1987), to name a few,  have all challenged the dominant paradigms in moral philosophy, while narrative theorists such as Paul Ricoeur (1981) Jerome Bruner (1990) and John Polkinghorne (1988) and many others have also  been at work describing the subtle and complex ways in which we pull events together into meaningful wholes.  “Being human is more a type of meaning-generating activity than a kind of object. It is an incarnated or embodied making of meaning-that is, it is primarily an expressive form of being (Polkinghorne, 126).



Practical Reasoning


         By what process does a value such as that of compassion, or generosity,  ‘become real’ for us?  How do we make the transition from indifference to verbal consent to wholehearted commitment to a value so that it becomes part of the ‘fabric of our lives’ (Nussbaim, 1990)?   What ‘sources’ are there to support our values?  Do we just decide, by an act of will, to include these concerns once we conclude that they are reasonable? 



 There has been a revival of interest in Aristotle’s theory of practical wisdom among philosophers in the last few decades, because many have begun to feel that ethical theory with has become dry and disconnected with lived experiences of value, a series of exercises in logic disconnected from the flow of life.  In the last century scepticism was the order of the day, as philosophers sought to teach students to think critically, take nothing for granted and to analyze all key terms and to doubt anything that could not be proved scientifically.  Realism in ethics, the idea that our notions of the good might have a reference point outside of our subjective consciousness was dismissed as metaphysical hogwash. (A.J.Ayer) The only value that could be publicly praised without fear of subjectivism was reason in the form of rational argument.  Emotional intelligence and bodily sense found no place in academic discourse. I have good friends and colleagues who worry that allowing talk of epiphanies into philosophy opens the door to irrational fanaticism of the sort that leads to violence.

In contrast to this overly rationalistic approach to moral life we have Aristotle’s very compelling notion of practical wisdom.  Practical wisdom can only be gained through life experiences and through reflection of the lives of others. We become wise through the exercise of practical reason. Practical reasoning is any reasoning aiming at a conclusion concerning what to do” (Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 1996.  But in moral thinking, reflection about the ‘ends’ worth pursuing and the ‘means’ to these ends cannot be neatly separated. 

When it comes to the most important values the actions we take to enact our vision are already infused with the value in question. Students often have to be reminded of this. The goal for many is simply to get the grade in the course, and ultimately the degree which will lead to a job. But the processes of reading, thinking and writing are themselves realizations of fundamental values which MacIntyre labels the ‘goods internal’ to the practice (MacIntyre, 1982). So reasoning about which ‘ends’ are worth pursuing includes reasoning about the intrinsic value of the means which are constitutive of the ends.  This line of thinking is a useful corrective to any orientation that is too focused on the goal.  Goal directed thinking easily loses sight of the forms of excellence which are to be realized and experienced in the moment. This throws light on Aristotle’s claim that “virtuous actions are by nature pleasant [and that] just acts are pleasant to the lover of justice, and in general virtuous acts to the lover of virtue”  (Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 1099a).

   A good deal of meaning and satisfaction is to be derived from the activities which constitute our practices.  So when we are reflecting upon what to do, that is, trying to determine what the important thing is in any specific situation, we may discover that certain responses count  in themselves as the partial or total realization of the end (Wiggins, 2002, p. 220). The goal of many of our activities is realized in the doing.  For example, an act of courage such as speaking up in public on behalf of corporate justice as Ray Anderson has done (Bakan, 2004) can be assessed both for its success, ‘did this act accomplish the persuasion intended?’ as well as for its ‘intrinsic’ value. Acts of courage are valuable as such because courage is a good and worthy trait, it is part of a life well lived, independently of its usefulness on particular occasions.



According to this theory of practical reasoning there are several  factors whose juxtaposition and interaction make up practical thinking.  In the first case we have a general standing desire, aim or goal, say to be help people, which we want to include it in the fabric of our daily lives.  This value, so formulated has a certain vagueness to it. We might imagine paradigm cases or basic-level categorizations  (Lakoff, 1987) of ‘helping people’ (such as the work of Mother Theresa), or ‘contributing to society’, or ‘giving back’ some of what we have received from others, or some such idea.   The important move takes place when we are in a particular situation that calls for such a response. Now we have an opportunity to enact this general orientation or value by determining what to do, discerning what is to count as an expression of the general value.   John McDowell illustrates this way of thinking with the following example:  I might be looking forward to going to a party on Friday night. Just before leaving a friend comes by with a serious problem and obviously needs attention.   I see the situation as one calling for a response to this person, as an occasion to exercise a general value that I am committed to.  If I am sufficiently committed to the general value I will respond to the need and forget about the party. In such a case other courses of action which are incompatible with the response that is called for in that situation are not weighed against the preferred course but are ‘silenced’ (McDowell, 2002). The desire to go to the party simply subsides and this is where I want to be, here, right now, with my friend who is in need.

This example illustrates two interesting things about practical

reasoning. The first is that in order to discern the ‘salient’ features of the situation described in the example, I already have to be committed to the value of generosity, I have to care about being generous with my time and my attention.  If I were indifferent to this value I might not even perceive my friend’s need as important and I would certainly not perceive it as having any bearing on me.  The presence of the general value in my life and the emotions associated with it enable me to read the situation and to ‘read myself into’ the situation (Nussbaum, 1990).  It facilitates what Nussbaum calls ‘the discernment of perception’ (Nussbaum, 1990).  Secondly, if I never encountered specific situations like the one in the example I would remain with a very general value that played only a minor role in my daily life, or no role at all. I might, for example, think of generosity as calling for monetary contributions to good causes and write out cheques to these causes once a year (Braybrooke, 2003).  But this would be an impoverished understanding of the value.  We need the practical specific occasions in order to crystallize our general concerns in a practical way. 


The virtue of practical reason consists in the ability to connect the general with the specific in such as way as to gain insight into both: to deepen our understanding of what the value really means and to discern what is salient in particular situations, and to be properly affected by that recognition.  Aristotle characterizes the virtuous person as one who feels the emotions and performs actions “at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way” (Aristotle, 1941, 1106b20-23).  

According to this theory moral understanding is a dialectical process which involves a dynamic interaction between the general and the particular: the general commitment to a value such as honesty, and the specific interpretation of particular situations, of what must be done if the general value is to be enacted. The virtuous person is good at identifying occasions to practice the virtues. He or she gladly engages in acts of kindness or honesty or friendship (Hursthouse, 149).   Each part of the process is modified in our reading of practical situations, so that what we see depends on what we value and what we value is clarified by what we see (Wiggins, 233).

But how do we cultivate the right desires and how do we sharpen our appreciation of values so that we are capable of creative solutions to practical problems?  How do we cultivate the breadth and depth of moral understanding, that continuous return of attention to the richness of the world?  Narrative is the vehicle which takes us directly into that world because narrative understanding involves a pulling together of elements into a gestalt, much the way practical reasoning involves a pulling together of our love of the general value with perception of the salient details particular situations.


Narrative Knowing

 The phrase ‘narrative knowing’ is redundant because the root of ‘narrative’ is ‘gnarare, gnarus’: ‘knowing’, ‘to give an account of ‘ (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1968).  Yet in a world heavily influenced by scientific paradigms of knowledge and rational decision making, it is worth emphasizing the cognitive component of narrative and, showing, as I hope to do here, that narrative provides the occasion for us to enrich and renew our knowledge of what is important in human life. Further, I want to show that  narrative can provide emotional contact  with the deepest “sources” of our standards and ideals.

In this section I begin with a story which illustrates an epiphany which for Charles Taylor is the means of breaking through from ordinary thinking to contact with our moral sources. I will analyze the story making use of Ricoeur’s notion of ‘plot’ and ‘making present’. I have taken this story from an exquisite book on compassion by the Buddhist leader, Ram Dass, and the philosopher, Paul Gorman, filled with stories taken from interviews with ‘unsung heroes and heroines’, volunteers working out of Voluntary Action Centers in several cities.  The stories are presented in the voice of each anonymous speaker. I find this story to be a very moving account of a moral gestalt shift that occurs as a result of an epiphany. The story which appears in the chapter entitled The Helping Prison, is neither named nor defined.  The point of the chapter is to remind us to avoid being imprisoned in our categories and our roles.   Once we become ‘helpers’ or ‘helpless’ we are swallowed by the role and lose contact with what’s read, the helping (Ram Dass & Paul Gorman, 147).

You walk the halls of this place, and what do you see from room to room? Most people peer in and see this retarded child or that one. They focus on this particular mannerism or that deformity.  I do it too. It’s very compelling, that picture.

But one kid flipped me around on that.  We were doing language exercises.  And for some godforsaken reason I’d chose the exchange “How are you?” …”I’m doing fine. ”We’d go back and forth. Well, he was having quite a hard time of it, slurring out, “Iy dluee fie” or some such.  “Let’s try again, really slowly,” I said. “How … are…you?” And he slurred “Iy dluee fie”.  Then suddenly he burst into this wonderful crazy laugh.  It was the nuttiest sound we’d ever heard, either of us.  He wasn’t doing fine at all.  Neither was I.  We were doing terribly.  It was absurd. We just began to howl.

In the midst of that he suddenly gave me this very clear look-the eyes behind the expression.  And I had a sudden thought: “My God, he knows more that I’ll ever know about all this.  He sees the whole situation.” At which point he just scrunched up his face like a clown and gave me this wonderful wink.

I was just stunned.  All I could see was this incredible sense of the humor of things.  It was so deep in him.  He just had it all in perspective.  And he gave that perspective to me.

When I left him, my head was spinning.  I walked down the hall and looked into the other rooms, at kids I’d known, or so I’d thought, for months.  It was totally new. I don’t quite know how to describe it.  In this room I saw courage. In that room I saw joy.  Across the hall, patience.  In yet another room , such sweetness: a little boy who was so continuously filled with love.. (cited in Dass & Gorman, 1985, pp. 140-141).

Three elements of this story stand out as examples of the kind of narrative knowing that enhances our grasp of value: surprise, humor and awe. The story begins with ordinary categories of thought: ‘retarded’ children, and the ‘logical’ approach to problem solving which states that if there is a deficiency, repeated practice will remedy it. The surprise comes with the sudden flash of recognition of the incongruity of that approach, repeating this particular sentence whose meaning was absurdly false in the context.  This opens a dimension that was previously hidden from view:  the emotional recognition of deep human values. These are the deeper meanings that do not appear in non-narrative discourse. In a treatise on moral philosophy we can attempt to name them, but they do not resonate emotionally unless we hear the speaker’s voice.  As we have seen above the retrieval of the lived experience or creative activity is what works toward establishing contact with the value (Taylor, 460-461).

But what elements of narrative enable us to break through to the underlying values?  Ricoeur has identified the plot as the organizing function of the story. The plot is a gathering together of the events of the story into a meaningful whole which expresses some human concern or value.  The events of the story consist of actions and experiences whose sense is given by means of the plot (Ricoeur, 1981, p. 170).  These actions, and the thoughts and feelings surrounding them, move in a certain direction, toward a conclusion. The conclusion of a story is not something that follows deductively from the events and the plot.  Rather, the conclusion is something unpredictable which must be acceptable to the audience. “The conclusion is the ‘pole of attraction’ of the entire development” (Ricoeur, 1981, p. 170). The conclusion works if the audience is open to the idea that these sorts of events can happen and can have the meaning implied in the story.   In the volunteer’s story above the events of the lesson and the sudden sense of theabsurd become meaningful as vehicles for creating a shift of perspective from the ordinary to the extraordinary. The shift of perspective records an epiphany:  a sense of awe at the recognition of the presence of courage, joy, and love. The conclusion offers the hearer the occasion to experience an epiphany, provided, of course, that the hearer is open to this interpretation of events, or in terms of virtue theory, already committed to certain values.  Such a story told to skeptics would fall on deaf ears. 

.        Ricoeur places this analysis of narrative within a discussion of Heidegger’s notion of the “publicness of Being-in-the-world with one another” (Ricoeur, 1981, p. 172).  When a story is told it gathers together an audience of those who collude in the interpretation of events as described in the story and this gathering involves a sense of being-in-time which is different than the ordinary notion of clock-time as a series of equal moments moving toward infinity.  The being-in-time of a narration is first of all the shared time of the characters of the story, and secondly that sense of the present which the listerners experience when the plot of the story is ‘made present’.  Narrative combines the chronological and the non-chronological: the chronological consists of the episodes or events of the story, while the non-chronological consists in  “the configurational dimension, according to which the plot construes significant wholes out of scattered events” (Ricoeur, 1981, p. 174).  It is the latter element, the ‘grasping together’ into a whole of a set of events that is similar to  the exercise of practical reason, which, as we have seen,  is also a bringing together, or a making present in one moment, the salient features of a particular situation with our general values. Both forms of knowing share in this break-away from chronological time and move us into the ‘making present’ of the moment.  This involves “a slippage from our normal sense of measured time [which] is the essential condition for a deeper experience which opens another dimension of life” (Taylor, 464).  We will, of course lose that poignant moment, we “go under again … and again … and again. But something has changed. There is a new buoyancy” (Ram Dass & Paul Gorman, 146).


In this paper I have tried to show that practical reason and narrative knowing are forms of thinking that require linking together two dimensions of experience, our sense of what is important, of value, and the particular events which, seen through the lens of value, are appreciated for the value they have.  Both practical reason and narrative activity make present, are venues for,  the value dimension in the world.  Values appear clothed in the specifics of the situation in the case of practical reason and, in the case of narrative,  in the specifics of the events in the story. Grasping the enacted values is a kind of thinking that does not fit the model of scientific thinking nor the model of rational decision making, which involves arbitrarily deciding that something is going to count as a value, to be projected out on a value neutral world.  Valuing is better described as a form of discovery of what is there to be valued.

         By the process of careful attention to the world we can improve our moral beliefsabout the world, make them more approximately true; by the same process we can improve our practical understanding, our sensitivity to the presence of instances of moral concepts that figure in these beliefs. But this process of attention to improve beliefs and understanding goes on without end; there is no reason to believe … that we shall ever be justified in being certain that we have now completely understood any of the moral concepts occurring in these beliefs. Those lacking the interest or the experience will find this discussion of little use, whereas those who have had such experiences might, at best, be reminded to pay more attention to the possibilities that arise in situations which we construe through the creative methods of practical reason and narrative thinking.