Emplotment, Mimesis

If Augustine “groaned under the existential burden of discordance,” and in his meditations on time spoke to a “lived experience where discordance rends concordance” (Time and Narrative vol. 1, p. 31), Ricoeur says he found in Aristotle’s discussion of the principles of composition of Greek tragedy an “opposite reply” to Augustine’s problem of the “distention” of the soul, in “an eminently verbal experience where concordance mends discordance” (ibid). Aristotle’s mending concordance is achieved through mythos or “emplotment”.

Ricoeur analyzes the poetic act of mimesis or “imitation” into three moments: simple imitation of actions; emplotment; and a reception by the reader or audience.

He notes that Aristotle uses the same word (praxis) for the actions represented by the poet, and for ethical actions. This potentially sets the stage for an innovative cross-fertilization between ethics and poetics. To anticipate a bit, it suggests to me that the Self Ricoeur elsewhere in a Kantian way treats as an ethical aim may also be viewed as an artistic work, in the sense that the Greeks spoke of beautiful actions.

In the moment of emplotment, the first, superficial view of isolated actions as successive events is transformed into a story or narrative that gives actions coherence and meaning (and, one might say, makes them true actions). Ricoeur compares emplotment to the schematism that is generated by the productive imagination in the first layer of Kantian synthesis, which preconsciously transforms the “blind” intuition of a manifold into the first stage of actual experience. A kind of synthesis turns a series of events into an ordered emplotment or story, reconceptualizing events as meaningful actions, and distinguishing those that are relevant to the story from those that are not. (See also Ascription of Actions.)

Anticipating again, it seems to me Ricoeur’s third moment of mimesis — reception by the reader or audience — is the analogue in poetics to the moment of recognition by others in ethics.

Ricoeur notes that the mimetic activity of the poet does not itself have any markedly temporal character for Aristotle. (The same could be said, I would note, of unities of apperception in Kant.) Ricoeur himself will take responsibility for connecting time and narrative.

He will abstract a generalized notion of narrative from Aristotle’s discussion of several specific genres. The notion of narrative Ricoeur wants to develop will include both fiction and history. It abstracts beyond the contrast he notes between Aristotle’s tendency to see characters in terms of their roles in a story, and some modern novels that use a story largely as a vehicle for character development.

In both cases, I anticipate, narrative will show a constitution of persons or selves. This seems to me like a very nice innovation. Integral personhood, instead of being a matter of dogma or an ontological primitive, becomes a matter of ethics and poetics. It is not so much an actuality as an aim, end, or work in progress.

For Aristotle, Ricoeur notes, the art of composing plots is comprehensive enough to be simply identified with poetics as a whole. Ricoeur wants to stress that this composition — and poetic representation generally — is an activity irreducible to any static structure. Here he begins to rejoin Augustine’s emphasis on acts of the soul. As Brandom might say, representation is first of all a kind of doing. (The Greek for “poetics” is derived from a verb meaning to do or to make.) In Marcelian terms, representation is not something we have.

Aristotle’s treatment of poetic mimesis as an activity, Ricoeur says, makes it far removed from Plato’s — a single field of human doing rather than something involving Plato’s hierarchy of copies, in which poetic “imitation” is an inferior second iteration of the way things passively resemble their ideas. Ricoeur says that Aristotle almost identifies poetic representation of action with an active organizing of events.

A plot forms a kind of whole. Its order follows a kind of practical “logic” rather than the mere sequentiality of a chronology. Coherence of the mythos is more important than the particular story, which according to Ricoeur makes Aristotelian mimesis a kind of directly universalizing making. This makes sense, given the previous comparison of mimesis to Kantian synthesis. Aristotelian “imitation” is never just a copy of a pre-existing reality; it is always creative. Ricoeur speaks of the mediating function of mimesis. The mythos is a metaphorical transformation of the ethical field.

Ricoeur analyzes several of the stylistic techniques discussed by Aristotle — such as surprises or sudden reversals of fortune — as particular examples of the incorporation of discord into an overall concordance. These are judged by a standard resembling the broadly rational “persuasiveness” that according to Aristotle is the rhetorician’s goal. This kind of effort also resembles what Brandom calls Hegelian genealogy.

Ricoeur on Augustine on Time

In his Confessions, Augustine strongly identifies the divine with Eternity. His approach to time is through the medium of human interiority.

Long before, the notion of time as a simple succession of “nows” had been made the subject of logical paradoxes by Zeno the Eleatic, as a way of arguing for the unreality of time. Augustine’s meditation on time proceeds through a subtler and more extensive development of similar paradoxes.

Ricoeur notes that at each step of the development, Augustine uses the literary form of aporia or “impasse”, originally developed in Plato’s “Socratic” dialogues, many of which end with an honest recognition of puzzlement. In Augustine’s day, aporia was best known as a favorite device of the ancient Skeptics. Ricoeur emphasizes that for Augustine, each new insight into time that resolves one aporia leads to a new aporia.

Plotinus — the reading of whom Augustine records as a spiritual event in his life second only to his conversion to Christianity — had already made Soul responsible for time, and had begun to cultivate a sense of meditative interiority, but Augustine is the classic early exponent of interiority in the Western tradition. His aporias related to time are expressed in terms of a novel meditation on the details of interior experience.

Augustine’s introduction of the discussion is quoted by Ricoeur: “What, then, is time? I know well enough what it is, provided that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled” (Time and Narrative vol. 1, p. xi). Neither the past nor the future seems to exist, and if we reduce the present to a point, even the present hardly seems to exist.

To condense a lot, Augustine ends up suggesting that instead of trying to analyze time in this abstract way, we should think of it in terms of a threefold present in the soul that includes memory of the past, current attention, and anticipation of the future. In terms of human experience, this an important and very original observation. The “thickness” or non-punctual character of subjective experience in the present is very plausibly explained in terms of an interweaving of current attention with a remembered past and an anticipated future.

Ricoeur emphasizes that Augustine speaks of an intentio (“intention” or attention) and distentio (“distention” or distortion) of the soul in this connection. A distention can only be the distention of a prior intention, conceived as an act of the soul. Distension is related to the fleetingness of the temporal present, negatively contrasted with the unwavering permanent presence associated with Eternity. For Augustine, the imperfect and aporia-generating experience of presence associated with the act of the soul has to do with the “fallen” state of the soul.

Ricoeur points out that Augustine’s emphasis on intentional acts of the soul will provide the basis for later developments like the phenomenology of Husserl. (I did not actually know that the intentio used in the Latin translation of Avicenna already had an Augustinian provenance, even before the extensive adoption of Avicenna by medieval Augustinians; see also Intentionality.)

Ricoeur ultimately suggests that Augustine’s aporias will mean that contrary to what Husserl wanted, there cannot be a pure phenomenology of time. Through his own very original combination of this meditation of Augustine’s with notions generalized from Aristotle’s Poetics and some ideas from Kant, Ricoeur will eventually develop his own hermeneutic account.

Time and Narrative

My next project, occupying several posts, will concern Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative (3 vols; French ed. 1983-85). I previously commented on chapters in his Oneself as Another that used this work’s concept of narrative identity. Volume 1 contains discussions of Augustine’s treatment of time in the Confessions, which I always found to be one of the most intriguing things in Augustine; Aristotle’s concept from the Poetics that Ricoeur translates as “emplotment”, which turns out to be a derived use of the Greek mythos (myth); different kinds of mimesis or “imitation”, also in the Poetics; and narrative versus explanation in the writing of history. Volume 2 is concerned with the experience of time in literature, and volume 3 has been characterized as a summary of his later philosophy.

Rule of Metaphor

In The Rule of Metaphor, which contains essays from the early 1970s, Ricoeur aimed among other things to refute Frege’s apparent claim that poetry has no reference or denotation, but only a sense or connotation. According to Ricoeur, poetic language achieves a kind of “second-level reference” by suspending first-level reference. I tend to think all reference presupposes higher-order constructs, so I am sympathetic. This is also an argument for the general importance of metaphor.

In an appendix, he describes how the rise of structuralism in the 1960s — of which he remained critical — led him from a kind of existential phenomenology to a much closer engagement with language. His earlier emphasis on symbols gave way to a more general approach to hermeneutics, and he began to also engage with analytic philosophy.

At the beginning of the book, he notes how the study of rhetoric became much narrower after Aristotle, losing its connection with dialectic and philosophy. Later, he goes on to argue that meanings of sentences take precedence meanings of words, and meanings of whole discourses take precedence over meanings of sentences.

Apparently, some structuralist writers on rhetoric argued for the contrary, bottom-up approach starting with meanings of words. My own past interest in so-called structuralism never led in this direction; I was initially more concerned with the priority of relations over “things”, and later with the explanatory power of Foucaultian “discursive regularities”. I do think a compositional, bottom-up approach has great value in formal contexts, and that formal analysis is not irrelevant to ordinary language, but I think ordinary language meaning is best approached mainly in terms of material inference, which has a holistic character.

Ricoeur on Psychoanalysis

The concluding book of Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy aims at a reconciliation of two contrasting approaches in hermeneutics — demystifying and kerygmatic — that would be not merely eclectic but genuinely dialectical. He suggests on the one hand that faith ought to be entirely compatible with a sharp critique of idols, and on the other that Freud never adequately considered how his late concept of Eros and its sublimations could be legitimately reconnected with notions of spiritual love.

He develops a bit further his earlier contrast between a “philosophy of consciousness” and a “philosophy of reflection”. A philosophy of consciousness grounds a false Cogito on the immediacy of consciousness. A philosophy of reflection on the other hand pays attention to the always mediated character of experience, and to subjectivity as something that is constituted as well as constitutive. It therefore decenters subjectivity. Ricoeur argues that Husserl as much as Freud considered subjectivity as something constituted.

At the same time, Ricoeur in this work still wants to speak of a true Cogito of reflection, and in this context wants to distinguish between immediate consciousness and the “living self-presence” to which Husserl appealed. Although Ricoeur does not say it, it seems to me that Husserl’s living self-presence is supposed to be precisely a kind of non-empirical (i.e., transcendental) immediate consciousness. I think on the contrary that the transcendental is all mediation, and hold what I take to be a Kantian position that feelings of living presence or self-presence belong on the side of introspective appearance that is ultimately empirical rather than transcendental.

Ricoeur notes that for Freud, it is more a question of “it speaks” rather than “I think”.

He thinks there is an ambiguity in Freud between primitive, sub-linguistic and transcendental, supra-linguistic concerns, so that symbolic meaning expressing poetic or spiritual truth is not clearly separated from something like word play. This goes back to his earlier concern with the phenomenology of religious symbols. I actually think that word play can serve as an indirect expression of poetic or spiritual truth, but then I also think spiritual truth is inherently “poetic”.

In spite of criticizing (the old stereotype of) Hegel for claiming a sort of omniscience, Ricoeur suggests that Hegel’s phenomenology, with its distinction between Consciousness and Spirit and its discussions of the relation between Spirit and desire, provides a “teleology” complementary and inverse to Freud’s “archeology” of subjectivity. For this to be a truly dialectical relation, he says, each must contain a moment approximating the other, and he thinks that in fact they do.

He also connects Freud’s work with Spinoza’s critique of consciousness and free will; Leibniz’s theories of unconscious perception; and Kant’s simultaneous assertion of a transcendental idealism and an empirical realism. Freud’s “topographies” are associated with a kind of realism in this Kantian sense.

For Ricoeur’s Freud, life and desire always have an unsurpassable character. Because of this, a relation to reality is always a task, not a possession. What ultimately distinguishes psychoanalysis, Ricoeur says, is not just the idea that we have motives of which we are ignorant, but Freud’s account of the resistance of an always somewhat narcissistic ego and the corresponding extended work of overcoming it. This relates directly to the idea of reality as a task. “We did not regard this realism as a relapse into naturalism, but as a dispossession of immediate certitude, a withdrawal from and humiliation of our narcissism” (p. 432). “It is one and the same enterprise to understand Freudianism as a discourse about the subject and to discover that the subject is never the subject one thinks it is” (p. 420).

“I consider the Freudian metapsychology an extraordinary discipline of reflection: like Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, but in the opposite direction, it achieves a decentering of the home of significations, a displacement of the birthplace of meaning. By this displacement, immediate consciousness finds itself dispossessed to the advantage of another agency of meaning — the transcendence of speech or the emergence of desire…. We must really lose hold of consciousness and its pretension of ruling over meaning, in order to save reflection” (p. 422). What Ricoeur called reflection and will, I give the more classical name of Reason.

Death Instinct?

Part 3 of book 2 of Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy examines the considerable perturbations to Freud’s views that resulted from his introduction of a “death instinct” in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Ricoeur notes that Freud’s German is more literally “drive” rather than instinct, which seems to make fewer assumptions, and that Freud often refers to “death instincts” in the plural. He sees this phase of Freud’s work as involving a partial return to Freud’s youthful interest in a Romantic “philosophy of nature” like that of Goethe, from the more scientific orientation of his earlier work.

According to Ricoeur, the late Freud ends up proposing his own sort of Romantic philosophy of nature in opposition to the dominant “philosophy of consciousness”. Ricoeur notes that at this point Freud’s presentation becomes frankly speculative and increasingly tentative. Whereas The Interpretation of Dreams derived theory from clinical interpretation, the later work in part bases clinical interpretation on a new “mythology” of instincts. Three great questions arise: What is the death instinct? What is pleasure? And what is the “reality principle”?

It turns out that for the later Freud, “death instinct” is said in many ways. The idea originated from his questioning of his own previous view that the unconscious is uniformly governed by the “pleasure principle” — seeking pleasure and avoiding unpleasure — with pleasure understood as an ultimately physical decrease of tension. Investigating phenomena of obsessive repetition, Freud began to wonder if something even more primitive than the pleasure principle were involved, a sort of compulsive psychic conservatism.

Ricoeur says the initial presentation of the death instinct was largely in terms this sort of conservatism; only later did Freud begin to emphasize aggressive impulses. The death instinct can also be sublimated into negation that need not be related to any aggression. (Ricoeur reminds us that for Freud there is no negation in the unconscious, so this involves an expression through the ego.) It is also expressed in feelings of guilt, associated with the “cruelty” of the superego’s authoritarian “conscience” toward the ego. (The superego is said to be closer to the id than to the ego; it seems very far from a pure moral conscience, heavily weighed down with psychological baggage. Neither aggression nor a cruel superego seems “natural” to me; I would call them both phenomena of alienation.) Finally, there is a complex relation between the death instinct and the ego. An instinct for conservative self-preservation against change becomes interpreted as ultimately a desire to die in one’s own way.

Freud’s notion of pleasure became increasingly ambiguous, as he began to emphasize cases in which a detour through unpleasure leads to a greater pleasure. This should not be too surprising; Plato and Aristotle already pointed the highly equivocal character of pleasure.

Ricoeur says Freud initially took a notion of “reality” for granted, in contrast to hallucination. Later it became a task and a problem, associated with Ananke, the word for “necessity” in the Greek tragedies. Whereas in Freud’s earlier work the “pleasure principle” governing the unconscious was contrasted with the “reality principle” associated with the development of consciousness, in the later work Eros or love is the principle that binds all things together, from cells in a body to people in society, and helps protect us against the ravages of the death instinct and aggressive self-assertion. Ricoeur associates the Freudian Eros with a kind of wisdom that comes to recognize reality through or in spite of the distortions of the death instinct.

“Death instinct” is a paradoxical term. It becomes less paradoxical if we consider its evolution or variation from a conservative impulse to an aggressive impulse. As mentioned above, I don’t consider human aggression to be primarily a natural phenomenon, but rather mainly an emergent result of bad socialization, so I don’t want to call it an instinct, but at most a distorted expression of an instinct. On the other hand, I find it a good deal easier to accept the idea that there could be a “conservative instinct” alongside Eros, leading to the disharmony of instincts that was the late Freud’s great theme. (See also Psychoanalytic Interpretation; Culture and the Freudian Ego.)

Meditation on Death?

I’m preparing to write something about Ricoeur’s treatment of the Freudian “death instinct”, but first wanted to separately express some views of my own. I disapprove of attempts to make death into a philosophical theme. Our finitude has plenty of other more illuminating and ethically relevant aspects, and I think the living should focus on life. Spinoza’s “The philosopher thinks of nothing less than of death” seems right to me. In cherishing the memory of lost loved ones, it is the loved ones who are important.

I don’t like early Heidegger’s melodramatic talk about “being toward death”. I don’t even like Plato’s literary representation of what I would call Socrates’ excessive acceptance of his impending execution. Even though it is counterbalanced by more life-affirming passages in other places, the suggestion that the philosopher should welcome death goes too far.

I thoroughly approve of Brandom’s reinterpretation of the Hegelian myth of a “struggle to the death” between competing would-be Masters as a melodramatic extreme illustration of an underlying much more general concept of risk-taking. The importance of risk-taking is the real essence there and the message to carry forward, not struggle against others and not death. (Apart from this, Hegel’s Master serves as an extreme negative example of attitudes that exist but should be overcome.)

Culture and the Freudian Ego

Part 2 of book 2 of Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy is concerned with psychoanalytic interpretation of culture, and with Freud’s “second topography” of id, ego, and superego. Ricoeur says the first topography gave rise to a theory of culture, which in turn gave rise to the second topography, but that Freud will only achieve a unified view of culture with his late theory of the so-called death instinct. Culture will become a “battle ground” between Eros and death. At this point, Ricoeur says, psychoanalysis will turn “from science to philosophy, perhaps even to mythology” (p. 157).

Psychoanalysis is very different from transcendental reflection. “[W]hat is first for analysis is never first in reflection; the primary is not a ground. Hence we must not ask psychoanalysis to resolve questions as to root origins, either in the order of reality or in the order of value” (p. 154).

“The first topography remained tied to an economics of instinct, with instinct as the one basic concept; the division of the topography into three systems [unconscious, preconscious, conscious] was made in relation to the libido alone. The second topography is an economics of a new type: here the libido is subject to something other than itself [that manifests as culture], to a demand for renunciation that creates a new economic situation” (p. 156).

“The interpretation of culture will be the great detour that will reveal the dream model in its universal significance. Dreams will prove to be something quite other than a mere curiosity of nocturnal life or a means of getting at neurotic conflicts…. [T]hey reveal all that is nocturnal in man, the nocturnal of his waking life as well as of his sleep…. In and through man desires advance masked…. The entire drama of dreams is thus found to be generalized to the dimensions of a universal poetics…. ‘Idols as the daydreams of mankind’ — such might be the subtitle of the hermeneutics of culture” (p. 162).

Freud ends up with a “history of desire and authority. What matters in this history is the way authority affects desire” (p. 179). Beneath this and through this, Ricoeur says, a more fundamental “debate between the pleasure-unpleasure principle and the reality principle” (p. 180) will come to be presented much more clearly.

“The question of the ego, i.e. of domination, is completely different [from that of consciousness]…. The ego finds itself threatened, and in order to defend itself must dominate the situation…. [The ego is a] ‘poor creature’ menaced by three masters, reality, the libido, and conscience” (p. 182). “The value of all the psychoanalytic investigations concerning the moral phenomenon stems from the fact that man’s relation to obligation is first described in a situation of weakness, of nondomination” (p. 183).

“[W]e cannot go very far in describing the functions of the superego without appealing to the history of their constitution” (p. 184). “Will such an analysis be rejected because it views conscience not as a primal given but as something to be deciphered through the screen of the clinical? The advantage of the Freudian ‘prejudice’ is that it begins without taking anything for granted: by treating moral reality as an a posteriori reality, constituted and sedimented, Freud’s analysis avoids the laziness that is part of any appeal to the a priori” (p. 185). “Thought that begins by rejecting the primordial givenness of the ethical ego has the advantage of placing the whole focus of attention on the process of the internalization of the external” (p. 186). “[P]sychoanalysis, having made a dogmatic beginning, renders its own explanation increasingly problematic in proportion as it puts it to use” (p. 187).

Psychoanalytic Interpretation

In part 1 of book 2 of Freud and Philosophy, Ricoeur begins to discuss the various stages in the development of psychoanalytic interpretation, covering the posthumously published 1895 “Project for a Scientific Psychology” and the “first topography” of unconscious, preconscious, and conscious “systems” from The Interpretation of Dreams and related papers. Ricoeur quotes Freud saying he hoped via the route of medicine to arrive at his “original objective, philosophy” (p. 86n).

As of the 1895 “Project”, Freud was mainly concerned to apply physical concepts of conservation of energy and inertia to neurology, but even there, Ricoeur says a concern for interpretation was not absent, and the use of physical concepts was actually metaphorical. “Nothing is more dated than the explanatory plan of the ‘Project’, and nothing more inexhaustible than its program of description” (p. 73). Everything is expressed in terms of “quantities” of energy stored in neurons (“cathexis”), but the quantities are purely intensive and qualitatively described, rather than measured or subjected to mathematical laws. Freud associates discrimination between the real and the imaginary with a kind of inhibition. Breaking with the dominance of brain anatomy, he had already criticized then-orthodox theories of the localization of psychic functions to different parts of the brain. Ricoeur says the “Project” is already a topography like Freud’s later topographies, and clinical interpretation actually takes precedence over mechanical explanation.

The Interpretation of Dreams develops what Ricoeur calls a topographic-economic view. Anatomy is left behind once and for all, in favor of a distinctly psychological level of explanation. This time Freud starts from clinical interpretation and works toward a theory. Instead of cathected neurons, he speaks of cathected ideas. Dreams are understood through language, through a narration of their content. Dreams are said express a kind of thought, and sometimes also a kind of wishes. They show a kind of regression to an “indestructible” layer of infantile desire. Freud insists they are meaningful and not, e.g., just some kind of psychic garbage collection. Dreams illustrate the primary process of the unconscious, which includes operations of condensation and displacement of meaning. They perform what Freud calls “work” on meaning. Ricoeur says it is inverse to the analyst’s work of deciphering. He notes that Freud contrasts his own notion of interpretation as deciphering with notions of symbolic or allegorical interpretation.

The topographic-economic approach was further developed in papers from Freud’s middle period. The way we make inferences about the unconscious, Freud said, differs little from the way we make inferences about the consciousness of others. By this point, Ricoeur says, consciousness for Freud “far from being the first certitude, is a perception, and calls for a critique similar to Kant’s critique of external perception” (p. 120; emphasis in original). In this respect, I would point out, Freud also essentially recovered the perspective of Aristotle on what the moderns call consciousness.

On a more distinctly Freudian note, Ricoeur adds that “The question of consciousness has become the question of becoming conscious, and the latter, in great part, coincides with overcoming resistances” (ibid).

Ricoeur says Freud develops a “reduction” opposite to Husserl’s phenomenological reduction — a reduction of consciousness, instead of a reduction to consciousness. This approach “implies that we stop taking the ‘object’ as our guide, in the sense of the vis-à-vis of consciousness, and substitute for it the ‘aims’ of the instincts; and that we stop taking the ‘subject’ as our pole of reference, in the sense of the one to whom or for whom ‘objects’ appear. In short, we must abandon the subject-object problematic” (p. 122). “From now on the object is defined in function of the aim, and not conversely” (p. 123). “Not only are this and that object interchanged, while subserving the same aims, but also the self and the other, in the reversal from active to passive role” (p. 125). Once again, Freud seems to have unwittingly recovered an Aristotelian insight, this time concerning the priority of ends over subjects and objects in processes of constitution. “The history of the object is the history of the object function, and this history is the history of desire itself” (p. 126).

“[T]he ego itself is an aim of instinct” (p. 127). Freud is quoted as having later said that “The theory of the instincts is so to say our mythology” (p. 136). Instincts “represent or express the body to the mind” (p. 137). We are “always in the mediate, the already expressed, the already said” (pp. 140-141). “Psychoanalysis never confronts us with bare forces, but always with forces in search of meaning” (p. 151).

Hermeneutics and Psychoanalysis

At the beginning of book 2 of Freud and Philosophy, Ricoeur lays out the plan for the rest of the work. As I guessed, he says the final result will be a much more reconciling view, but he thinks it is important to first lay out the potential conflict between psychoanalysis and other hermeneutics in a very stark way, before successively tempering it through several layers of further considerations. The initial stark reading “governs the ascesis of that narcissism that wishes to be taken for the true Cogito. Hence this reading and its harsh schooling will not be retracted but rather preserved in the final reading” (p. 60). Nonetheless, the opposition will be greatly refined. “The whole movement of this book consists in a gradual readjusting of that initial position…. In the end it may seem that… Freud is nowhere because he is everywhere” (pp. 59-60; see also Conflicting Hermeneutics.)