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Monday, May 23, 2005

Thoughts on Ricoeur

Via the invaluable Political Theory Daily Review comes the news that Paul Ricoeur has passed away. (Though, now that I scan the web, it's clear that Nathaniel Robinson and Anthony Paul Smith caught this new fresh over the weekend.) He was 92, a wonderfully advanced age, though still 10 years shy of that reached by the philosopher of hermeneutics so often linked with Ricoeur, Hans-Georg Gadamer. Is there something to be learned from the fact that more than a few of the leading lights of post-Heideggerian hermeneutics have lived such long and productive lives? Probably, though I've no clear sense of what that lesson may be.

When I wrote my tribute to Jacques Derrida last year, I aligned my sympathies with those thinkers--like Ricoeur, Gadamer, Charles Taylor, and others--who see the moral and political task implied by the phenomenological response to Nietzsche's critique of modernity as an "anthropological" rather than a "deconstructive" one. That is, I think that rather than, through the interplay of presumably always fallible human perspectives, intensifying (and thereby perhaps--hopefully?--discovering contingent ethical resources in the midst of) the now-exposed vacuum left by modernity's withdrawal from ontological commitments under the cover of science and rationalism, I take our task to be one of discerning the "strong," perhaps even metaphysical, underpinings of human subjectivity itself, and by so articulating them, concurrently investing them with greater force: as Nicholas H. Smith put it in Strong Hermeneutics, the aim is to "undertake a leveling up of identity-expressive, normative beliefs to cognitive status." This is done by shifting the philosophical project away from "the epistemological fragility of foundational truth claims" and towards the more anthropological "conditions of possibility of actual interpretive practices"--which means one's place in history and nature, of course, but most especially one's linguistic situatedness. Thinkers like Ricoeur believed phenomenology turned entirely upon "a recognition of the capacity of language to disclose domains of reality which constitute the independently subsisting subject matter of [all] competing interpretations" (SH, 1997, pgs. 19, 22, italics added). Depending on how one looks at it, this isn't so much a strengthening of subjectivity as it is an affirmation of purposefully "weak" revisions in traditional ontological thinking. But however the project is framed, it's a vital one, and Ricoeur's contributions to it have been enormous. Indeed, for many thinkers Ricoeur, far more than Gadamer, was the central figure in hermeneutic thinking--perhaps because Gadamer mostly grounded his thought in ancient Greek philosophy and applied his philosophy mostly to narrow issues in the humanities, whereas Ricoeur engaged those intellectual fields where questions of hermeneutics have been more broadly accepted: psychology, Biblical criticism, legal thought, moral philosophy, and much more.

Ricoeur was, and remains, one of those philosophers about whom I always told myself that I would eventually get around to reading more of. He's in good company in that category--I should also read more Rawls, Kierkegaard, Hume, etc.--but he stands apart from them nonetheless, if only because wrestling with Ricoeur's ideas about what it means to identify oneself through the articulation of a belief, and thereby come to an understanding of the normative purchase which a belief has upon oneself, is of tremendous importance to a religious believer like myself. Ricoeur made plain the stakes for modern believers nearly 40 years ago, in his powerful study of the problem of evil (or rather, the problem of understanding it), The Symbolism of Evil. After having exhaustively considered the way in which modern thought teaches us to comprehend everything as solely a cognitive marker, a symbol bereft of meaning besides that which we ascribe to it, and the way in which phenomenology can potentially return us to the actual meaning of symbols, Ricoeur concludes:

"In every way, something has been lost, irremediably lost: immediacy of belief. But if we can no longer live the great symbolisms of the sacred in accordance with the original belief in them, we can, we modern men, aim at a second naivete in and through criticism. In short, it is by interpreting that we can hear again . . . [T]he second immediacy that we seek and the second naivete that we await are no longer accessible to us anywhere else than in a hermeneutics; we can only believe by interpreting. . . . [Some interpretation merely means] to display the multiple and inexhaustible intentions of each symbol, to discover intentional analogies between myths and rites, to run through the levels of experience and representation that are unified by the symbol. . . . Our analysis of the symbols and myths of human evil belongs to that sort of understanding . . . But is has not been possible to limit ourselves to such understanding of symbols [by way of other] symbols. There the question of truth is unceasingly eluded. Although the phenomenologist may give the name of truth to the internal coherence, the systematicity, of the world of symbols, such truth is truth without belief, truth at a distance, reduced, from which one has expelled the question: do I believe that? . . . Such is the wager. Only he can object to this mode of thought who thinks that philosophy, to begin from itself, must be a philosophy without presuppositions [that is, something that disconnects cognition from worldhood, something that refuses to recognize the anthropological]. A philosophy that starts from the fullness of language is a philosophy with presuppositions [or, with meaningful conditions to its own subjectivity]. To be honest, it must make its presuppositions explicit, state them as beliefs, and try to make the wager pay off in understanding" (SE, 1967, pgs. 352-354, 357).

There are interesting puzzles which will probably always plague this kind of wagering on belief, perhaps the greatest being the degree to which one can clarify what it means for a presumably embedded self to nonetheless affirm the results of such a "naive," interpretive wager. Is critique possible; can we pull ourselves out of our environments and judge our own convictions? If it is not possible, what is the point of speaking of the value of individual belief at all? Our "beliefs," or lack of them, would therefore be entirely in the hands of fate, or God, or some kind of Pinkeresque evolutionary psychology. But if it is possible, then how can anyone ever be clear on the "limits" of said critique, the point at which our own sense of critical subjectivity runs up against an "independently subsisting subject matter" (about what is evil, for example, or immoral or unjust) that shows us where the "domains of reality" believably begin (and end)?

Ricoeur's hermeneutical response builds upon an evaluation of our consciousness of the origin of our own prejudices and their place in our lives as human beings, and thus clearly involves an "attestation of self," wherein the subject's personal (though dialogic) extension into the whole is understood as making it freer, wiser, further along. In this way hermeneutics, and the wagering that through interpretation we can discover that aspect of being which "still speaks to us," is almost wholly a matter of "self-interpretation," or an extension of Maurice Merleau-Ponty's "I can" to a higher level. Ricoeur was aware of the solipsism which such a reading of interpretation makes possible. In Oneself as Another, he wrote that "the discourse of the 'I can' is, to be sure, a discourse in I. But the main emphasis is to be placed on the verb, on being-able-to-do, to which corresponds on the ethical plane, being-able-to-judge" (OA, 1992, pg. 181). This willingness to speak of the subject in relation to what is teleologically manifest in our linguistic appropriation of the given makes it possible to think about human freedom, social transformation, and moral innovation in a way which Gadamer, whose communal vision was ultimately somewhat passive, cannot. But it also potentially weakens the idea of a teleological revelation of truth in the event of language--which seems to me to necessarily be the operating ontological presumption behind the strong yet "naive" hermeneutical and linguistic embrace of the details of one's own place in the world in the first place. Heidegger (in whose footsteps all these thinkers tread, more or less) insisted that the fullest expression of that which is manifest through attendance to the conditions of our own existence as subjects is simply that "being speaks." For Ricoeur (in whose writings one could always discern the glimmer of old Marxist hopes), that wasn't enough: it had to be a matter that "being can still speak to me." That is, we can be modern believers and meaningful actors simultaneously; the modern, critical self can still engage the foundations of the world without eschewing that very modernity which allows us to think about the symbols of that foundation as symbols themselves.

To thinkers still committed to the fundamentals of Enlightenment, and to those thinkers who take different lessons from Nietzsche and Heidegger, "naive" is a pitch-perfect description of the hermeneutic project. It is a label that Ricoeur, to his credit, attributed to his writings with pride. Paul Ricoeur, RIP.

(Update: My discussion of Ricoeur, hermeneutics and truth continues here.)


Anonymous said...

Russell, thanks for the plug. Alfredo 

Posted by Alfredo Perez

Anonymous said...

Here a big collection of articles:

Posted by Angelo

Anonymous said...

Thanks for taking time to share your thoughts on Ricoeur.

It might be helpful to share a little more about Ricoueur's naivete. He searched for a "second naivete" that had traversed through both a "first naivete" and all forms of "critique" or critical thought. As he once expressed it, "After the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again." (or something like this, I'm quoting from memory -- See Symbolism of Evil) 

Posted by Bruce Prescott

Anonymous said...

thanks for such a wonderful tribute to Paul Ricoeur - I had a couple of chances to spend time with him during my PhD - in Dublin and in Edinburgh during the Gifford Lectures. What a great intellect and a truly kind man. He shall be missed! 

Posted by sensei jfk