Conflicting Hermeneutics

Returning to Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy, the leading conclusion of book 1 is that “the home of meaning is not consciousness but something other than consciousness” (p. 55). A bit earlier, he develops an important notion of “reflection” he sees as rooted in Fichte, and perhaps more specifically the work of the French Fichtean Jean Nabert.

Reflection, he says, requires a work of deciphering; it is not a “return to the so-called evidence of immediate consciousness…. [R]eflection is not intuition” (p. 47). The Ego Cogito of Descartes is “given neither in a psychological evidence, nor in an intellectual intuition, nor in a mystical vision…. [I]t has to be ‘mediated’ by the ideas, actions, works, institutions, and monuments that objectify it” (p. 43). “A reflective philosophy is the contrary of a philosophy of the immediate…. [A] philosophy of reflection is not a philosophy of consciousness, if by consciousness we mean immediate self-consciousness” (pp. 43-44).

Such a mediation-first perspective is rare among existential-phenomenological thinkers, and seems to me to mark a significant advance, reconnecting with a key insight of Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel.

Earlier, he had stipulated what to me is a very narrow meaning for “interpretation”, tied to a clarification of the notion of symbols he had used in Symbolism of Evil. (My own usage of “interpretation” is closer to Ricoeur’s “reflection”.) He wants to say that a “symbol” is a discrete thing that has a double meaning — an immediate surface one and a deeper one — and that “interpretation” is specifically directed at such symbols. He objects to Ernst Cassirer’s very general use of “symbol” for any kind of signification in The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, and distances himself from the broad but shallow usage of “interpretation” in Aristotle’s treatise that bears that name, pointing out that like Cassirer’s use of “symbol”, it covers all signification. (He doesn’t mention here that Aristotle’s own deeper hermeneutics — or semantic dialectic — is to be found distributed through other works.)

I have significant reservations about a division into “immediate surface meaning” and meaning requiring interpretation. I think all meaning at least implicitly requires interpretation. For me, the relevant distinction is between cases where we rely on spontaneous, preconscious interpretation from something like the preconscious layer of Kantian synthesis, and cases that we deliberately revisit.

He devotes some pages to contrasting mathematical (“symbolic”) logic’s concern for strict univocity with the ambiguity inherent in the symbols addressed by the phenomenology of religion. Here he seems to be reaching for an understanding that reason can still be reason yet not be strictly univocal, because (I would say) reality itself “overflows”, and is not strictly univocal. At least for me, this goes far beyond a statement about symbols.

He presents psychoanalysis and the phenomenology of religion as two radically opposed kinds of hermeneutics. Here he explains the “fullness of language” referred to at the end of Symbolism of Evil by saying “The fullness consists in the fact that the second meaning somehow dwells in the first meaning” (pp. 30-31). From this perspective, there is a “truth” of symbols. Symbols have a “revealing power” (p. 31). For Ricoeur, the phenomenology of religion takes this approach, whereas psychoanalysis tells us that conscious meaning is just an illusion. Psychoanalysis for Ricoeur develops its own “semantics of desire” in opposition to what is said on the surface.

At this point, I have a serious doubt whether the specific emphasis on symbols is appropriate in talking about Freud. It does undoubtedly have a large applicability to Jung, but we are not talking about Jung here. Freud’s approach was much more global and process-oriented. The Freudian unconscious has operations of “condensation” and “displacement” that are very different from waking logic.

I think Freud’s negative attitude toward religion had less to do with any specifics of psychoanalytic interpretation than with his more general commitment to rather narrow views of scientific explanation that were especially common among medical practitioners in his time.

I also think there is a kind of “truth” of the unconscious that can even be revelatory, though not in a religious sense. Further, I don’t think Freud intended to consign all products of conscious effort to a realm of illusion; his very commitment to a form of science makes this implausible. So, in this context I don’t see the extreme opposition of revelation versus illusion that Ricoeur saw — contrast, yes, but not a polar opposition.

Moreover, the phenomenology of religion is concerned with specifically religious experience under the broad motif of “faith seeking understanding”, whereas the direct and primary concern of psychoanalysis is with the earthly doings of the human psyche. I don’t see the kind of head-on clash here that Ricoeur apparently saw. I have reservations about various details of Freud’s theories, but think his fundamental idea of the unconscious and its different way of processing things is very important. Ricoeur’s own remarks about consciousness that I began with seem to me to allow space for this.

At the end of book 1, he asks, “Can the dispossession of consciousness to the profit of another home of meaning be understood as an act of reflection, as the first gesture of reappropriation?” (p. 55). “For the moment our perplexity is great. What is offered to us is a three-term relation… reflection, interpretation understood as restoration of meaning, interpretation understood as reduction of illusion” (p. 56). I think both “restoration” and “reduction of illusion” are overly blunt formulations here, but suspect he will refine this later on. (See also Hermeneutics and Psychoanalysis; Ricoeur on Freud; Masters of Suspicion?; Kerygma; Myth.)