Human Actantiality

RELATED TERMS: Actantiality; Agon; Audience; Hero; Actantial model - Greimas; Agency; Actant; Philosophy; Narrative environment design

People are a crucial part of narrative environment and learning environment design. They are not exterior (whether anterior or posterior) to the design process nor the designed environmental outcome. An important question, then, in designing such environments, is how this human dimension is to be theorised and practised. Are the people involved in the narrative or learning environment participants, actors, agents, bodies, identities, selves, subjects, persons, or an admixture of some or all of these categories, and more besides?

Such questions concern who navigates (the guiding environment or the itinerant?) and who is learning (the pedagogue or the subject of pedagogy?) in the narrative or learning environment; how these actants are materialised; and the nature of what it is that they (whoever they are) are doing or learning, for example, a group of selves acts and learns differently from a group of subjects and both, in turn, act and learn differently from a group of individuals.

Amelie Rorty (1988), in examining the concept of personhood and personal identity as it has developed in Western and Christian culture, explains that the vocabulary for describing persons, their powers, limitations and alliances is a rich one. She proposes to attend to the nuances of that vocabulary in order to preserve some important distinctions that have been made over the centuries. Thus, Rorty distinguishes among heroes, protagonists, characters, persons, souls, selves, figures, individuals, presences and subjects, while arguing that each inhabits a different space in fiction and in society.

Rorty’s analysis is important for narrative and learning environment design because it highlights that designing for a group or a society of persons differs from designing for a group or society of selves or a group or society of individuals. Equally, educating a group or society of persons differs from educating a group or society of selves or individuals, just as educating for (i.e. in order to to create) a group or society of persons differs from educating for a group or society of selves or individuals.

Rorty’s investigation, in part because of its scope in covering fictional and social worlds, is therefore of significance for narrative environment design and analysis, particularly for developing an actantial and agonistic approach which emphasises narrative environments as fields of human and non-human action, interaction, agency, conflict, functionality and actantiality, i.e. complex, world-forming, human-and-non-human inter-acting and intra-acting. Such an approach permits discussion of ‘causality’ in narrativity and learning or the ‘drivers’ of narrative or learning action in sequences of events and the consequences of prolonged inter-action.

Rorty’s insights may be of value, therefore, in developing a conception of what kind of actants and actantiality a particular narrative environment or learning environment constitutes; and what are the ‘drivers’, ‘causal’ determinations, power dynamics and fields of conflict or contest (agon) at play in that narrative environment or learning environment.

What this approach makes clear is that while narrativity and learning are not equivalent, they are co-implicated, and both have consequences for understanding what it means to follow a lead or to follow a clue or a sign, and to ‘come to know’ or to arrive at a destination or a conclusion: an end.

For a fuller outline of Rorty’s historical survey of the concepts of person and identity, see Parsons (2006).


Parsons, A (2016) Modes of actantiality. Poiesis and Prolepsis [Blog]. Available at [Accessed 10 December 2016]

Rorty, A. (1988). Characters, persons, selves, individuals. In: Mind in action: essays in the philosophy of mind . Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 78–98.

edited 10 December, 2016 by Allan Parsons