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.)

Kinds of Reason

As Aristotle might remind us, “reason” is said in many ways. All forms of reason are potentially valuable, but there is a very important distinction between what I’ve been calling the ethical reason that is intimately involved with who we are, and other forms that are more like tools we can use. Also, ethical reason relies on concrete judgments of things, rather than formal manipulations.

In some ways — in terms of the role I see it playing — ethical reason is more like what some people have called “will”. I prefer to avoid the term “will” because it is too often associated with an arbitrary power of decision. I do very much think of ethical reason as the thing in us that ultimately decides things large and small, but the kind of decision involved is always at least implicitly ethical (concerning what we “should” do), and therefore by no means arbitrary.

Common complaints against “reason” concern what I would call what I would call a usurpation of the place of ethical reason by the tool-like kinds of reason, or claims made on their behalf. Contrary to the claims of a certain ill-conceived modernity, tool-like reason can aid us in utilitarian calculations that may help inform decisions, but cannot by itself provide an adequate basis for decision, which is always ultimately ethical.

Whereas tool-like reason aims at precision, ethical reason is maximally inclusive in what it takes takes into account. This inclusiveness is its strong point, but at the same time makes it especially fallible. Due to the fact that we are situated beings in the world, there is no such thing as an infallible decisionmaking process we could use. Aristotle already pointed out that ethical reason is less precise than other forms. Tool-like reason achieves its precision by excluding considerations that ethical reason cannot ignore.

Because of this, concrete realizations of ethical reason can be better or worse. In general, human beings are called rational animals not because we are perfectly rational, but because we have the capability for reason. Especially in the case of ethical reason, that capability is always a matter of degrees. We all use it all the time, and do better or worse. We can also learn or be inspired to do better than we did before.

Kerygma

The term “kerygma”, used by Ricoeur in discussing hermeneutics, was a Greek New Testament word. The influential 20th century theologians Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Barth — both referred to by Ricoeur — used it for the message of the Gospels, which Bultmann considered as addressed not to theoretical reason but to “the hearer as a self”. This sort of language resonates with the perspectives of Ricoeur’s mentor Gabriel Marcel.

Bultmann applied a kind of Heideggerian hermeneutics to the New Testament, and developed a sort of Christian existentialism. He contrasted kerygma with myth, and argued for a “demythologizing” view. I don’t know his work well, but have issues with his apparent opposition to an emphasis on ethics and to historical research.

I regard “theoretical” reason merely as a valuable tool used or usable by our everyday ethical reason, which I don’t quite regard as a self, but rather as associated with what we care about and how we act on that. There is, however, only a short distance from this to Ricoeur’s idea of a Self as an ethical aim rather than an actuality. I read Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel among others as identifying Reason in general first and foremost with the much broader and more “human” or spiritual ethical reason, rather than the narrow “theoretical” reason, which I see as closer to technical reason and formal logic. With this emphasis on ethical reason, it seems to me Bultmann’s dichotomy is superseded. In my view, hermeneutics applies not just to a sacred text, but first and foremost to our understanding of life and ourselves. I also take it to include a good deal of questioning.

Masters of Suspicion?

In his work on Freud, Ricoeur famously identified Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud as the three great “masters of suspicion”. Many others have picked up on this phrase, often using it in a dismissive way. While Ricoeur certainly had significant criticisms of all three of these figures, in the Freud book he also credits them with pioneering a valuable alternative approach to hermeneutics. This seems worthy of a longer than usual quotation.

“According to the one pole, hermeneutics is understood as the manifestation and restoration of a meaning addressed to me in the manner of a message, a proclamation, or as is sometimes said, a kerygma; according to the other pole, it is understood as a demystification, as a reduction of illusion…. From the beginning we must consider this double possibility: this tension, this extreme polarity, is the truest expression of our ‘modernity’. The situation in which language today finds itself comprises this double possibility, this double solicitation and urgency: on the one hand, purify discourse of its excrescences, liquidate the idols, go from drunkenness to sobriety, realize our state of poverty once and for all; on the other hand, use the most ‘nihilistic’, destructive, iconoclastic movement so as to let speak what once, what each time, was said, when meaning appeared anew, when meaning was at its fullest. Hermeneutics seems to me to be animated by this double motivation: willingness to suspect, willingness to listen; vow of rigor, vow of obedience. In our time we have not finished doing away with idols and we have barely begun to listen to symbols. It may be that this situation, in its apparent distress, is instructive: it may be that extreme iconoclasm belongs to the restoration of meaning” (Freud and Philosophy, p. 27).

Ricoeur on Freud

Paul Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation is based on 1961 lectures given at Yale. It takes up “the problem left unresolved at the end of my Symbolism of Evil, namely the relationship between a hermeneutics of symbols and a philosophy of concrete reflection” (p. xii). The phrasing suggests that he at this time viewed hermeneutics as a “regional” endeavor and not yet as a general philosophical approach, but the current work goes a long way toward generalizing it.

In respect to Freud, it is both a critique and a positive engagement, philosophical rather than psychological. He will read Freud as a “monument of our culture”. Psychoanalysis, says Ricoeur, is an interpretation of culture, but he reads it as conflicting with every other interpretation. This work will inquire into the nature of psychoanalytic interpretation, the self-understanding that emerges from it, and “what self is it which thus comes to self-understanding” (ibid).

Ricoeur says that language is the meeting ground of contemporary philosophical concerns. Sixty years later, this is still largely true. “The present study in no way pretends to offer the comprehensive philosophy of language we are waiting for. I doubt moreover that such a philosophy could be elaborated by any one man. A modern Leibniz with the ambition and capacity to achieve it would have to be an accomplished mathematician, a universal exegete, a critic versed in several of the arts, and a good psychoanalyst.. While we are awaiting that philosopher of integral language, perhaps it is possible for us to explore some of the key connections” (p. 4). Since then, I think Brandom has made phenomenal strides toward that comprehensive account.

Psychoanalysis should be “a leading participant in any general discussion about language…. The fluctuation in Freud’s writings between medical investigation and a theory of culture bears witness to the scope of the Freudian project” (ibid). Though Ricoeur limits his focus to the works of Freud himself, right at this time Jacques Lacan was becoming very famous in France for promoting a strongly language-centered reading of Freud.

Myth

This is to conclude the sequence on Ricoeur’s Symbolism of Evil, and also the larger one on his multi-volume philosophy of will, continued from Freedom and Nature and Fallible Man. The last three-fifths of the current book is devoted to a study of selected topics related to Near Eastern creation myths, Greek tragedy, the myth of the Fall, and Orphic myths of the exiled soul. While any or all of these are potentially interesting, I don’t find much to say about the particular details covered. This work does have the merit of combining a sort of phenomenology-of-religion style discourse with a broad ethical concern. After the brilliance of Fallible Man, though, it seems anticlimactic.

At the end, he reaches the somewhat lacklustre conclusion that “symbols give rise to thought”, and very briefly expands on this. “[T]he task of the philosopher guided by symbols would be to break out of the enchanted enclosure of consciousness of oneself, to end the prerogative of self-reflection. The symbol gives reason to think that the Cogito is within being, not vice versa” (p. 356; emphasis in original). Except for the part about symbols, these are familiar Ricoeurian ideas, but they do not play much of a role in the main body of the current work.

He says philosophy cannot do without presuppositions. I agree we can’t doubt everything all at once. He says it should start from the “fullness of language”, seek a “second immediacy” and a “second naivete”. I do see ethical value in a degree of deliberate “naivete” that deliberately chooses to give the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, I think immediacy is divided into mere appearance of things that are actually mediated; a trivial quality of appearance qua appearance; and a sort of obscure insistence or resistance that may point out something wrong with our thinking. Fullness of language is just an isolated phrase here; I believe it was discussed a bit in one of the earlier volumes, but can’t find the passage right now. (See also Phenomenology of Will; Ricoeur on Embodiment; Ricoeur on Choice; Voluntary Action; Consent?; Fallible Humanity; Self, Infinity; Symbolism of Evil?; Fear and Suffering; Guilt.)

Guilt

Ricoeur says the notion of sin is first of all the violation of a personal bond that involves “not essence but presence”. This is “from beginning to end… a religious dimension and not a moral one” (p. 52). His gloss of guilt as a consciousness of sin (p. 81) suggests that guilt is also not a moral concept and not related to essence. I think of guilt as a legal concept rather than an ethical one; Ricoeur’s train of thought suggests it is also ultimately religious. It seems to me what goes beyond positive law should be love and forgiveness, but Ricoeur briefly shows an overly diplomatic deference to what I would call the unholy idea of a supra-essential and supra-ethical command.

I’m also a bit nervous about a privileging of presence over essence, and about the work that presence is supposed to be doing.

Essence has often been denigrated, and some very shallow notions of it have been propounded. But insofar as we use that word to translate Plato and Aristotle, I treat their works as the gold standard for what it ought to mean. Problems arise when in opposition to Plato and Aristotle, so-called essences are assumed to be simply known, and thus taken for granted. Husserl had a different, thinner, perhaps even overly precise, almost mathematical notion of essence, adapted to a different context, aiming to be as abstract as possible, whereas I think even Plato and especially Aristotle aimed much more at the concrete.

Ricoeur speaks of a “realism of sin” (pp. 81ff) in the sense that sin is not fully captured by the consciousness of even the repentant sinner. This seems sound, but I’d still rather talk about justice and love than sin and guilt.

“There is no question of denying that the personal imputation of fault marks an advance over the scandalous collective responsibility that permits someone other than the guilty person to be punished. But it must be understood that the price of this advance is the loss of the unity of the human species…. The pseudo-concept of original sin is only the rationalization at the third degree, through the Adamic myth, of that enigmatic bond which is acknowledged rather than understood in the ‘we’ of the confession of sins” (p. 84). Now we seem to have divine blessing of a social bond among all of us talking animals rather than a supra-intelligible command, and I am happy again.

Fault should not be reduced to guilt (p. 100). We are “responsible and captive” (p. 101; emphasis in original). “[M]an had the consciousness of responsibility before having the consciousness of being cause, agent, author” (p. 102). This may begin to anticipate the need for something like the expanded notion of responsibility that Brandom has developed in his work on Hegel. Ricoeur says the recognition of individual responsibility and of degrees of guilt were decisive steps forward.

He stresses a paradoxical character of the “servile will” that is both free and in bondage. I don’t see any paradox in this. The reality just is that we have meaningful freedom, but it is far from total. Aristotle already pointed the way, and Ricoeur himself explained it very well in Freedom and Nature and Fallible Man.

Fear and Suffering

This is a response to a few more pages of Ricoeur’s The Symbolism of Evil. I was initially greatly troubled by the statement, “Man enters into the ethical world through fear and not through love” (p. 30). I prefer the spirit of Augustine’s “Love, and do as you will”, and really dislike that fear and trembling stuff. A few pages later, though, Ricoeur already begins to sublimate the emphasis on fear.

Historically, there have been tendencies to confuse unintelligible suffering with personal punishment by God. (Less diplomatically than Ricoeur, I would associate these with superstitious, unethical forms of religion.) The lesson of Job was a separation of “the ethical world of sin from the physical world of suffering” (p. 32). “[S]uffering has had to become absurd and scandalous in order that sin might acquire its strictly spiritual meaning. At this terrible price, the fear that was attached to it could become the fear of not loving enough and could be dissociated from the fear of suffering and failure” (ibid).

Ricoeur goes on to say that the lingering symbolism of defilement “furnishes the imaginative model” (p. 34) for a transposition from a ritual purification or catharsis into a philosophical one. “It is not the immediate abolition but the mediate sublimation of fear… which is the soul of all true education.” (p. 44; emphasis in original). I still prefer to emphasize seeking the good, but the argument now seems headed in a better direction.

Symbolism of Evil?

I’m beginning to look at Ricoeur’s The Symbolism of Evil (French ed. 1960). This was the last installment of the projected philosophy of will that he actually produced, concerned with a long detour through the experience of sin, mainly in the Old Testament and Greek traditions. Ricoeur apparently abandoned the projected final philosophical reconciliation that was to follow this, after the current investigation changed his thinking about relations between phenomenology and hermeneutics.

Near the beginning of this work, he speaks first of an experience of confession underlying the symbolism that will be investigated, then of a primitive sense of defilement or impurity. I think confession can have a positive role, but have grave doubts about the notion of impurity.

“[I]mpurity is measured not by imputation to a responsible agent” (p. 27) but rather by a violation of religious Law. He notes the huge place of sexuality in this context, adding that “the defilement of sexuality as such is a theme foreign to the ethics that proceeds from the confession of divine holiness, as well as to the ethics that is organized around the theme of justice or the integrity of the moral person” (p. 28).

Then he seems to argue that the excess of meaning inherent in symbolism will make it possible to reinterpret this nonethical content in terms that can be given ethical meaning. I don’t know yet how this will turn out, but I favor the priority of actual ethics over law, be it religious or civil. I also think sound theology puts the spirit of actual ethics before the letter of positive law.

This work has been criticized for privileging the Judeo-Christian tradition, and for presupposing too much about pre-existing meaning. But in all the works of Ricoeur that I have examined, I’ve been extremely impressed with the quality of argument, and the graceful way in which he combined personal faith with free philosophical development.

Personally, I’m happy with where he left things at the end of Fallible Man, with the potential for both good and evil. I don’t like dwelling on evil, let alone its complication in sin. But I greatly admire Ricoeur, and this is a major work of his that I want to understand.

Constituted Intentionality

It seems to me that Brandom effectively says intentionality — the basis of meaning — as such not only is not a mental act, but not an act at all or in any way reducible to an act, even though intending is certainly a doing. Further, unlike Husserl’s version, Brandom’s intentionality seems to be something constituted by something else. That something else would be processes of mutual recognition both actual and ideal, which I think also normatively but not causally ground judgment and objectivity, knowledge and logic, while in addition incorporating considerations of reasonableness grounded in feeling, associated with the respect in recognition. I think intentionality is a kind of form having to do with linguistic meaning and potentialities for material inference, and that this form is normatively constituted through mutual recognition.