Hindsight: The Promise and Peril of Looking Backward

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Although the idea of hindsight is frequently associated with the biases, distortions, and outright lies of memory—as in the infamous "20-20" scenario or the conviction that one "knew it all along"—Mark Freeman maintains that this process of looking backward over the terrain of the past can also serve as a profound source of insight, understanding, and self-knowledge. Consider Tolstoy's harrowing tale of Ivan Ilych, revisiting his past on the eve of his death, only to realize that the life he had been living was a lie. Consider as well the many times in our own lives when, upon reviewing the past, we are able to see what we could not, or would not, see earlier on.

Hindsight is also intimately connected to what Freeman calls narrative reflection: Through the distance conferred by time, we can look back on past experiences and see them anew, as episodes in an evolving story. As important as "being in the now" and "living in the moment" are, it is no less important to pause at times and, by looking backward, seek to discern those aspects of experience that might otherwise escape our notice. Far from necessarily leading to deception and lies, therefore, hindsight can lead to wisdom and indeed truth—of a sort, Freeman contends, that is only available in retrospect.

In addition to serving as a central site of self-knowledge, hindsight plays an integral role in the process of moral growth. For, through hindsight, there emerges the opportunity not only to see the possible errors of our ways but to transcend them and thereby to move on to better ways of being in the world. Drawing on psychology, philosophy, literature, and personal experience, this wide-ranging volume offers an insightful and engaging exploration of the role of hindsight both in discerning the personal past and in deepening moral life.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Recipient of the 2010 Theodore Sarbin Award!

The Theodore Sarbin Award is intended to honor a specific body of work by an individual psychologist that demonstrates notable achievement in one or more of the fields to which Theodore Sarbin contributed. These include narrative psychology, contextualist theory, social psychological theories of hypnosis, and other innovative theoretical work that is "critical" in the broadest sense of the term. This award is presented annually by the Society for Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology (Division 24). Past winners are Ruthellen Josselson, Donald Polkinghorne, Kenneth Gergen, Dan McAdams, and Jefferson Singer.

"Mark Freeman is one of the foremost thinkers in the ever-growing field of narrative research. Freeman shows, in a style which is both personal and very scholarly, the richness that perspective brings, as well as its psychological and moral complexity. Freeman has a wonderful ability to pose complex philosophical problems in a style that draws the reader in, intellectually and emotionally."

——Molly Andrews, Reader in Sociology, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of East London, Co-director, Centre for Narrative Research, University of East London
Author of Shaping History and Lifetimes of Commitment

"Freeman shows an extraordinary command of the literature on memory and time. His development of the narrative unconscious, narrative foreclosure, and moral lateness are extraordinary contributions to narrative psychology; they widen the conceptual frameworks through which we see and understand how narrative works in our lives, that is, how we actually use narrative and what calls us to narrative over the course of our lives."

—Arthur P. Bochner, Distinguished University Professor of Communication, University of South Florida, Author of Composing Ethnography and Ethnographically Speaking

"One of the indisputable strengths of this book is its language, its style. Its author displays a rare mastery in transforming complex psychological and moral issues into accessible narratives, into clear and simple storylines."

— Jens Brockmeier, Visiting Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Manitoba, Senior Scientist, Department of Psychology, Free University Berlin, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Narrative Research, University of East London, Co-editor of Health, Illness, and Culture; Literacy, Narrative, and Culture; Narrative and Identity

"The scope of this relatively short book is of huge importance, dealing as it does with the perennial issue of how to lead a good life."

—Peter G. Coleman, Professor of Psychogerontology, University of Southampton, Co-author of Ageing and Development and Ageing and Reminiscence Processes

"This book is a well-written, subtly-reasoned, example-rich, soulful piece of work that helps redeem the familiar phenomenon of hindsight from its typically negative portrayal in mainstream psychology, as an unfortunate distortion of memory, and reclaim it as indeed pivotal to our growth as conscious, moral beings. A good many readers, myself included, will be thrilled to have another book by Freeman in their collection."

—William L. Randall, Associate Professor in Gerontology, St. Thomas University, Director, Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Narrative, St. Thomas University, Co-author of Reading Our Lives and Ordinary Wisdom

"A compelling and fascinating book. Its strengths are that it is written in such a way that one accompanies a gifted thinker and writer through his comments on and dialogue with other gifted thinkers and writers as they ponder the vicissitudes of hindsight. The experience of reading it is like a lengthy conversation with a brilliant friend and one comes away enriched and thoughtful."

—Ruthellen Josselson, School of Psychology, Fielding Graduate University, Author of Revising Herself; The Space Between Us; Irvin D. Yalom; and Playing Pygmalion, Co-editor of The Narrative Study of Lives multi-volume series

"Mark Freeman is the rare psychologist with the gift of discerning the philosophical undercurrents and the deep moral significance of everyday behavior and consciousness. In this provocative and personal meditation, Freeman explores the nature of memory, narrative, and time in human lives. His intriguing examples and insights will pull you along as you read; and in hindsight, you will look back on your time with Freeman's book as a profound intellectual experience."

— Dan P. McAdams, Professor of Human Development and Social Policy, Northwestern University, Professor of Psychology, Northwestern University, Director, Foley Center for the Study of Lives, Northwestern University, Author of The Redemptive Self; The Person; and Power, Intimacy, and the Life Story
Co-editor of The Narrative Study of Lives multi-volume series

"Freeman's central point in this engaging and stimulating book is that in looking backwards in time we are doing far more than simply recollecting what has happened...To do that he tells stories, including some of his own, he cites literature and philosophy, he proposes thought experiments, and he refers to case material. Above all, he writes in an accessible and engaging style—so much so that at times I forgot he is an academic psychologist." —Kenneth Eisold, American Journal of Psychology

"This deeply stimulating book speaks to scholars in psychology, philosophy, the health disciplines, and literature... Hindsight provides an important complement to psychological studies of memory, biases, and self by building on the richness of human experiences in the (re)fashioning of meaning in our lives. We have known at least since Augustine's Confessions how malleable and selective our minds and selves are in the composition of our life narratives. Indeed, Augustine was working hard, per hindsight, to demonstrate God's determinist designs and absolute truths to an implicit audience. Freeman's efforts, however, invite us to embrace the complex vagaries of the human condition as we construct and reconstruct meaning, within the contexts of our local, cultural, and historical lives." — Ulrich Teucher, Department of Psychology, University of Saskatchewan, Canada, British Journal of Psychology

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195389937
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 12/31/2009
  • Pages: 247
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Freeman is Professor of Psychology and Dean of the Class of 2011 at the College of the Holy Cross, where he has also served as the W. Arthur Garrity, Sr. Professor in Human Nature, Ethics and Society. He is the author of Rewriting the Self: History, Memory, Narrative; Finding the Muse: A Sociopsychological Inquiry into the Conditions of Artistic Creativity; and numerous articles on memory, self, and autobiographical narrative. Freeman is also the 2010 recipient of the Theodore Sarbin Award.

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Table of Contents

Introduction. The Power of Hindsight
Chapter One. Hindsight, Narrative, and Moral Life
Chapter Two. The Narrative Information
Chapter Three. Moral Lateness
Chapter Four. The Narrative Unconscious
Chapter Five. Narrative Foreclosure
Chapter Six. The Truth of Story
Chapter Seven. The Good Life
Coda. Hindsight and Beyond
Bibliographic Note

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