Fallible Humanity

Fallible Man (French ed. 1960) was the next installment after Freedom and Nature in Paul Ricoeur’s project for a philosophy of will. This account of our fallibility was to set the stage for the following installment dealing with the problem of evil, which I will address separately.

The main body of this shorter book develops a nice interweaving of Aristotelian and Kantian anthropology, with special emphasis on the role of feeling. We are “intermediate” beings, mediating beings, and as such there is an inherent “disproportion” in our relations to self. “[T]his ‘disproportion’ of self to self would be the ratio of fallibility” (p. 4; emphasis in original).

Ricoeur says we can retain neither the Cartesian distinction between a finite understanding and an infinite will, nor any other convenient mapping of “finite” and “infinite” to separate faculties. Character makes us finite, but our participation in language involves us in what he calls a kind of infinity. An ethical Self finally uniting these aspects of our being should be considered as an end and ongoing project rather than an actuality.

Philosophical anthropology has to proceed as a “second order elucidation of a nebula of meaning which at first has a pre-philosophical character” (p. 8). As a consequence, method has to be dissociated from the idea of a starting point. “Philosophy does not start anything independently” (ibid).

He adopts the language of Blaise Pascal (1623-62) on the “pathos” of human “misery”. I don’t like such pessimistic rhetoric, but fortunately Ricoeur says the whole pre-comprehension of this “misery” is contained in the more moderate Platonic myths of the soul.

“The [Platonic] soul… is the very movement from the sensible toward the intelligible… its misery is shown in that it is at first perplexed and searches…. The soul holds opinions and makes mistakes; it is not vision… but an aim. It is not contact and possession… but tendency and tension” (pp. 12-13). “Instead of a well-balanced structure, it is a non-determined movement, a system of tensions which emerges” (p. 14). Plato speaks of an ambiguous power of the soul that is affected by both reason and desire, and results from a kind of mixture. For Plato, the account must take a mythical form, because such matters cannot be explained in terms of permanent realities.

My body is a “zero origin” that ties every perception to a point of view (p. 33). Invoking a common Husserlian theme, Ricoeur notes that perception involves inference about the back sides of things that we cannot see, and so on.

More broadly, our character may be viewed as the summation of many limiting “perspectives”, at the same time that our engagement in acts of conceptual determination implicitly involves a degree of “transgression” of those pre-given limitations (p. 38).

Ricoeur argues that our very ability to recognize something as a perspective implicitly involves a “transgression” or escape from limitation by the perspective. “Therefore, I am not merely a situated onlooker, but a being who intends and expresses as an intentional transgression of the situation” (p. 41). “[T]he project of a phenomenology of perception, wherein the moment of saying is postponed and the reciprocity of saying and seeing is destroyed, is ultimately untenable” (p. 42). “I say more than I see” (p. 44). Referring to Hegel, he adds “We are always already in the dimension of truth” (p. 46). “The fact that the self is at variance with itself is the indefeasible worm in the fruit of the immediate” (ibid; emphasis in original). “Here again we must not move too quickly to the side of the subject, act or noesis, but proceed reflectively beginning with the object, content and noema” (p. 49). Referring to Aristotle, he talks about the “power of the verb” to express affirmation and judgment. “I myself become a synthesis of speech and perspective in this projection of objectivity” (p. 61). “[I]f point of view is a characteristic of openness, namely its narrowness, openness indicates that my point of view is transgressed” (p. 62).

Ricoeur says these considerations suggest something like the Kantian transcendental synthesis of imagination, in its mediating role between the passivity of sensible intuition and the activity of thought. He also relates them to the experience of time.

“Plato… advised against rushing headlong into the abyss of the infinite or into that of the One but recommended learning to linger in between…. What Plato said of the One we can apply to the totality. Nothing gives rise to deception more than the idea of totality. All too quickly it has been said: It is here, it is there, it is Mind, it is Nature, it is History. Violence is the next step” (pp. 73-74). Instead, the idea of totality should be taken as a task, a Kantian imperative.

Our practical finitude is summed up in the notion of character. Ricoeur provocatively suggests that our practical “infinitude” with respect to the constitution of meaning is summed up in Aristotle’s notion of happiness. What extends the mediation of the Kantian transcendental synthesis of imagination into the practical domain, he says, is the constitution of the person through Kantian respect.

“Character is the finite openness of my existence taken as a whole” (p. 89). There is no science of character. Ricoeur says “My humanity is my essential community with all that is human outside myself…. [M]y character is that humanity seen from somewhere” (p. 93).

Desire too fundamentally involves a kind of openness. We are not enclosed within our desire. But there is also an affective opacity or closing involved in attachment.

Bergson is quoted saying each feeling of sufficient depth represents the whole soul.

“The person is the Self which was lacking to the ‘I’ of the Kantian ‘I think’…. The Self is aimed at rather than experienced…. There is no experience of the person in itself and for itself” (p. 106). The person is the synthesis of the “antithetical notions” of character and happiness. “[T]he person is primarily the ideal of the person” (p. 110).

According to Ricoeur, feeling already overcomes the duality of subject and object. It simultaneously tells us something about both. Feeling is essentially concerned with values, and simultaneously with what is. “If one does not take into consideration the primordial disproportion of vital desire and intellectual love (or of spiritual joy), one entirely misses the specific nature of human affectivity” (p. 140).

Not pleasure itself but a blind preference for pleasure is evil. “[H]appiness, restored by the reflection on the ‘excellences’ of the ‘good’ man, is ultimately the highest form of the pleasant” (p. 148). Thomistic and Cartesian analysis of the passions fails to see the “innocence of ‘difference’ under the cloak of vain and deadly ‘preference'” (p. 163). “[E]ncountering of another person is what breaks the finite, cyclic pattern of the sensible appetite” (p. 168).

Kantian anthropology should learn from Aristotle’s treatment of pleasure, and seek to discover behind passions an innocent quest that is “no longer mad and in bondage but constitutive of human praxis and the human Self” (p. 170). Later he quotes Hegel saying all great accomplishments involve passion, while a morality that simply condemns passion is deadly and too often hypocritical.

“The quest for reciprocity, which no will to live can account for, is the true passage from consciousness to self-consciousness” (p. 184). “I esteem myself as a thou for another” (p. 188). “[T]his belief, this credence, this trust, constitutes the very feeling of my worth” (p. 189). “[I]ts character of belief makes its corruptions possible: what is believed is presumed; and the presumption of the preesumed can turn into the presumption of the presumptuous” (p. 190). According to Ricoeur, the unstable, ambiguous “middle part” of the soul in Plato’s myth mixes the vital and the spiritual. Feeling prospectively binds things together, in the process creating the disproportion of self to self. This is the fragility of the human being, with immense potential for both good and evil.