Ricoeur on Imagination

Paul Ricoeur’s essay on imagination in From Text to Action invites us “to see in it an aspect of semantic innovation characteristic of the metaphorical use of language” (p. 171). The term “image”, he says, has acquired a bad reputation from its misuse in the empiricist theory of knowledge. It “corresponds to two extreme theories, illustrated by Hume and Sartre, respectively” (p. 170). Hume sought to derive images entirely from sense perception, while Sartre related them starkly to the absence of a real object. According to Ricoeur, “To say that our images are spoken before they are seen is to give up an initial false self-evidence, which holds the image to be first and foremost a ‘scene’ unfolding in some mental ‘theater’ before the gaze of an internal ‘spectator’. But it also means giving up at the same time a second false self-evidence, holding that this mental entity is the cloth out of which we tailor our abstract idea, our concepts, the basic ingredient of some sort of mental alchemy” (p. 171).

He suggests that we take the poetic image as paradigmatic. The poetic image is unfolded through what Eugène Minkowski and Gaston Bachelard called a kind of “reverberation” of things said. Metaphor for Ricoeur operates not just as substitution for nouns, but rather in a refiguration of whole sentences. Use of what would otherwise be “bizarre predicates” produces a kind of shock that leads us to “produce a new predicative pertinence that is the metaphor…. [A]t the moment when a new meaning emerges out of the ruins of literal predication[,] imagination offers its specific mediation” (p. 172). “[S]emantic shock… ignites the spark of meaning of the metaphor…. Before being a fading perception, the image is an emerging meaning” (p. 173). (See also Beauty, Deautomatization.) He says that in a Kantian sense, imagination schematizes emerging meaning, giving it concreteness.

The reverberation of meaning is not a secondary phenomenon, but rather essential to the constitution of meaning as such. Ricoeur suggests that “the power unfurled by poetic language” (p. 174) affects not only meaning, but reference too. Poetic discourse abolishes “our first-order interest in manipulation and control” (p. 175), but brings to the foreground a second-order reference to “our profound belonging to the life-world” and the “tie of our being to other beings” (ibid). This second-order reference “in reality is the primordial reference” (ibid). (See Rule of Metaphor.) Such a perspective goes along with the idea that reference is constituted by meaning, rather than vice versa. In Fregean terms, sense is prior to reference.

“The paradox of fiction is that setting perception aside is the condition for augmenting our vision of things” (ibid). According to Ricoeur, work in model theory suggests that not only in poetry but also in science, fiction plays a necessary heuristic role in articulating new meanings (see also Searching for a Middle Term). Further, “the first way human beings attempt to understand and to master the ‘manifold’ of the practical field is to give themselves a fictive representation of it” (p. 176).

Referring to Aristotle’s Poetics, he says “poetry goes right to the essence of action precisely because it ties together mythos and mimesis, that is, in our vocabulary, fiction and redescription” (ibid). In a Kantian vein, Ricoeur adds that “Its referential force consists in the fact that the narrative act, winding through the narrative structures, applies the grid of an ordered fiction to the ‘manifold’ of human action” (pp. 176-177; see also Narrated Time.)

Beyond its mimetic function, imagination also has a projective aspect. “Without imagination, there is no action…. And it is indeed through the anticipatory imagination of acting that I ‘try out’ different possible courses of action and that I ‘play’, in the precise sense of the word, with possible practices…. It is imagination that provides the milieu, the luminous clearing, in which we can compare and evaluate motives as diverse as desires and ethical obligations, themselves as disparate as professional rules, social customs, or intensely personal values” (p. 177). “Finally, it is in the realm of the imaginary that I try out my power to act, that I measure the scope of ‘I can'” (p. 178). (See also Free Play; Practical Judgment.)

Imagination is also involved in our recognition of others as like us. “[I]ndividuals as well as collective entities… are always already related to social reality in a mode other than that of immediate participation, following the figures of noncoincidence, which are, precisely, those of the social imaginary” (p. 182).

“[T]he analogical tie that makes every man my brother is accessible to us only through a number of imaginative practices, among them ideology and utopia” (p. 181). Ideology “seems to be tied to the necessity for any group to give itself an image of itself, to ‘play itself’, in the theatrical sense of the word, to put itself at issue and on stage…. [S]ymbolism is not an effect of society, society is an effect of symbolism” (ibid). Ideology covers over the real gaps in all systems of legitimacy. Utopia exposes these gaps, but also tends to subordinate reality to dreams, and to be fixated on perfectionist designs. Ideology and utopia are mutually antagonistic, and both tend toward a kind of pathology that renders their positive function unrecognizable. “[T]he productive imagination… can be restored to itself only through a critique of the antagonistic and semipathological figure of the social imaginary” (p. 181).