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During a recent symposium a speaker stated that "Thomas Kuhn's book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was not a narrative, it was an essay".

In searching online there are discussions of narrative vs descriptive writing (e.g., on Synonym.com) or expository vs narrative writing (e.g., on Prezi) but nothing in the way of a discussion specific to distinguishing between narrative and essay.

It may be that this query can be related back to writing genres. It may also be that I should not be dissatisfied with the links that did turn up.

Any suggestions on drilling deeper into the distinction?

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I'm no expert, but I do think there can be an overlap here. A narrative is traditionally defined as a piece of writing chronicling a connected series of events or a story in which a person or various persons interact; narratives are often descriptive and creative. An essay is merely "a short piece of writing on a particular subject," typically nonfiction, informative, and desiring to convey the author's argument. That is the main dichotomy, I'd assume; one of these styles is primarily designed to entertain or divert with piquant details and descriptors while the other functions strictly to inform an audience.

Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, to me, is a fascinating example of how narrative style and journalistic reporting blend. While Capote sets up his book in a literary format (creating dialogue between the Clutters, who essentially feel like characters, employing vibrant imagery to describe Holcomb, building suspense in several ways), his true purpose within the book is to bring up the view he holds on capital punishment. His literary style helps build readers' interest and enables them to connect with the family and, at times, the criminals, while also setting the foundation for his argument. Of course, ICB isn't an essay, but it shows a possible coexistence of both narrative and honest nonfiction or essay–type writing. (I don't really read essays in my free time, otherwise I could have provided a better example.)

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The resources at Synonym.com and Prezi explain the differences between narrative and descriptive writing (Synonym.com) or between narrative and descriptive essays (Prezi) but they are not very helpful at understanding the comment about Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Especially Prezi bases the distinction between the two types of essays by focusing on the genre of the "personal narrative", which has nothing to do with Kuhn's book.

Definitions of "narrative" can differ considerably from each other, but narrativity is essentially the set of formal and thematic features that distinguish narrative texts from non-narrative texts. For example, some theorists point out that narratives present a sequence of events or actions that unfold over time. Other theorists state that narrativity is primarily determined by "experientiality" (M. Fludernik, 1996), by the "the quasi-mimetic evocation of real-life experience" (see "experientiality" in the living handbook of narratology). The iving handbook of narratology also points out that narrativity "has become a contested term". The preceding comments on the term "narrativity" are only marginally helpful in explaining the quote about Kuhn's famous book. The term "essay" is also hard to define because so many disparate types of texts have been termed "essays"; it is typically a type of writing that presents an argument rather than a narrative. (But, then, Wikipedia claims the term has also been applied to short stories.) Since I don't know the symposium speaker, I don't know why they said that Kuhn's book was not a narrative but an essay; I can only assume that they had in mind a clear distinction between the two types of writing.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is one of the most influential books in philosophy of science. I have not yet come across an introduction to philosophy of science that does not discuss it at some length (it often gets a chapter on its own). Kuhn introduced or revived a number of concepts to describe progress in science, such as "normal science", "paradigm shift" and "scientific revolution".

This is not the type of writing that one associates with "narrative" as defined by Synonym.com or on Prezi; the term "essay" seems more appropriate here. But the quote about Kuhn's book assumes that The Structure of Scientific Revolutions can be seen as a narrative, or at least as having aspects of narrativity. Why is that? Kuhn's book is also a book about the history of science; it replaces the way in which progress in science was usually presented (roughly as a steady accumulation of facts) with a new way of describing progress in science, i.e. by presenting as a type of activity that is dominated by a certain "paradigm" until that paradigm leads to contradictions and dead ends that force its rejection and replacement with a new paradigm. So in a way, Kuhn retells the history of science in a new way, which is why the term "narrative" applies here.

  • Without naming names, the speaker referred to in the query is an eminent historian of science. Your initial example, "some theorists point out that narratives present a sequence of events or actions that unfold over time," may get at the heart of the issue which is in its essence ambiguous -- as you take care in pointing out. Thank you for this response! – DJohnson Nov 15 '18 at 14:59
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The OED is a thing of beauty. Wrt essay it has ten usages beginning with "the action or process of trying or testing" and ending with "a test-scale." The eighth entry has the most relevance for my question,

a composition of moderate length on any particular subject, or branch of a subject; originally implying want of finish, 'an irregular, undigested piece', but now said of a composition more or less elaborate in style, though limited in range...

Regarding narrative, the OED has much less to say,

an account or narration; a history, tale, story, recital (of facts, etc.)...a consecutively developed story...

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