Ricoeur on History

Having just treated Ricoeur’s views on historiography at a semi-technical level, and having just received a copy of his collection of essays History and Truth (French ed. 1955), I think this less technical earlier work, roughly contemporary with Freedom and Nature, merits a digression. It gives broad expression to his desire to mediate and reconcile, as well as more specific voice to his personal views on religion and politics.

At this stage, history for Ricoeur particularly meant two special kinds of history — the history of philosophy, and the historical dimension of Christian revelation.

The kind of history of philosophy he wanted to practice would not involve treating views of philosophers as instantiations of generic types of views, but rather treating each philosopher as a singularity. He argues that good history in general is largely concerned with singulars. I would agree on both points. There is a precursor to his later argument about the mediating role of singular causal imputation, and one of the essays begins with the wonderful quote from Spinoza that to better know singulars is to better know God.

In contrast to adherents of philosophical “systems” who would reduce the history of philosophy to moments in a monolithic “philosophy of history” subordinated to a system, he poses the idea of a simultaneously sympathetic and critical account of irreducibly multiple, integral philosophies. Philosophical “problems”, he says, do not eternally have the same meaning.

I find this very admirable, even though Ricoeur at this stage sounds like he uncritically accepted a Kierkegaardian view of Hegel as the bad “systematic” philosopher of history par excellence, whereas I follow more recent readings of Hegel as a leading critic of that sort of thing. On the other hand, he very correctly points out how Hegel reduced away Spinoza’s genuine concern for subjectivity.

Somewhat circumspectly, he suggests that a Christian notion of revelatory events in history creates something like a surplus of meaning that acts as a safeguard against totalizing views of history. I’m generally very nervous about claims of revelation, as revelation is often regarded as an unchallengeable knowledge with self-evident interpretation. Arrogant humans too often claim to just know the will of God, and want to impose their certainty on others. This has nothing to do with piety, and certainly does not reflect any humility or respect for mystery. The idea of a surplus of meaning on the other hand is precisely not a claim to “just know” that meaning.

Ricoeur’s idea of an inexhaustible “surplus” of meaning exceeding any interpretation has been criticized as implying that the meaning then must be predetermined on some virtual level, but that objection seems artificial to me, because Ricoeur’s idea is an acknowledgement of lack of knowledge rather than a knowledge claim. The inexhaustible surplus seems to me to be a less “metaphysical” analogue of the neoplatonic notion that ultimate principles are “supra-essential” and therefore beyond the grasp of rigorous knowledge but only hinted at in symbols, which I think actually reflected a kind of epistemic modesty. This seems to me no more objectionable than Kant’s notion of things in themselves as exceeding our knowledge.

As in the later discussion in Time and Narrative, he ambivalently develops a notion of historical objectivity and truth. On the one hand, he finds the quest for this both necessary and admirable, but on the other he worries that the truth of the historian abolishes both history as grounded in subjective consciousness, and the eschatology associated with revelation. Ricoeur wants to make room for personal faith, without compromising the autonomy of philosophy by asserting its subordination to revealed theology. He advocates for historical objectivity, but remains wary of any objectifying reduction of human or spiritual realities. The antidote to objectification is Marcelian mystery, and a recognition of ambiguity that he associates with faith. Ultimately, he wants to promote hope.

The later, even more nuanced discussion in Time and Narrative carefully weakens this work’s apparent claims on behalf of subjective consciousness, but here too, there is considerable subtlety.

In contrast to Sartre’s identification of freedom with negativity and nothingness, he wants to emphasize the primacy of affirmation. In contrast to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception, he says he wants to emphasize the primacy of a phenomenology of signification and meaning like that developed in Husserl’s early Logical Investigations. Ricoeur already thinks it is an error to treat human perception as if it could be separated from our involvement in language.

One essay is a tribute to Emmanuel Mounier, to whose journal Esprit he was a frequent contributor. Mounier’s “personalist” movement aimed at a new pedagogy to combat modern alienation, combining Christianity and a concern for the individual with a sort of democratic socialism. Another piece deals with nonviolence, and another contrasts Christian Agape with the “punitive violence of the magistrate” (p. 240).

Political power, Ricoeur says, is eminently prone to evil. Utopian belief in the future withering away of the state allowed many to justify a disregard for terrible abuses in the present, while the “false truth” of fascism was morally far worse. Clerical power is as dangerous as political power. “[T]he religious totality and the political totality are genuine totalities of our existence. This is why they are the two greatest temptations for the spirit of falsehood, the lapse from the total to the totalitarian” (p. 189). Ricoeur says that “the Christian has everything to learn from the critique of power elaborated by classical ‘liberal’ thought from Locke to Montesquieu, by the ‘anarchist’ thought of Bakunin, by those who supported the [Paris Commune of 1870], and by the non-Stalinist Marxists” (p. 117).

Ricoeur on Embodiment

I’m still working through the introduction to Ricoeur’s Freedom and Nature. Having said a bit about how he intends to adapt Husserlian phenomenology, here I’ll add a few notes on the impact of Ricoeur’s Marcelian concerns.

“[A]s we examine actual practice, the understanding of articulations between the voluntary and the involuntary which we call motivation, motion, conditioning, etc., becomes stymied in an invincible confusion…. The triumph of description is distinction rather than a reuniting leap. Even in the first person, desire is something other than decision, movement is other than an idea, necessity is other than the will which consents to it. The Cogito is broken up within itself ” (pp. 13-14).

Considerations like this are why I think it is actually more precise to speak more loosely of “subjectivity” rather than “a” or “the” subject. Ricoeur draws the consequence that “the Ego must abandon its wish to posit itself, so that it can receive the nourishing and inspiring spontaneity which breaks the sterile circle of the self’s constant return to itself” (p. 14). He then introduces Marcel’s point about the mystery of incarnation as the answer to the question “How can I regain the sense of being alternately given over to my body and also its master… if not by… attempts to identify with the definite experience of existence which is myself in a corporal situation?” (p. 15; emphasis in original). In a more Aristotelian way, I’ve been making a similar point by suggesting that the hylomorphic, form-of-the-body notion of “soul” makes a good top-level model for the subtleties of what I’ve been calling empirical selfhood. (See also Two Kinds of Character; The Ambiguity of “Self”.)

Ricoeur goes on to say “the concepts we use, such as motivation, completion of a project, situation, etc., are indications of a living experience in which we are submerged more than signs of mastery which our intelligence exercises over our human condition. But in turn it is the task of philosophy to clarify existence itself by use of concepts. And this is the function of a descriptive phenomenology: it is the watershed separating romantic effusion and shallow intellectualism” (p. 17). He goes on to identify this “region of rational symptoms of existence” (ibid) with the space of reason as distinct from analytic understanding.

As Aristotle might remind us, “existence” is said in many ways. I have issues with the use of many of them in philosophy, but I take Marcel’s use of this term in a different and much more positive way than those, as mainly emphasizing all the aspects of things that don’t fit into neat schematizations, and that Aristotle would say are not univocally ordered. Aristotle and Ricoeur both take an emphasis like Marcel’s and reinsert it into a broader context that includes a more positive role than Marcel himself found for developments of reason. (For more on the same book, see Phenomenology of Will; Ricoeurian Choice; Voluntary Action; Consent?.)

Subject, Object

Subject and object are functional roles. There is no guarantee that either has any stronger unity than is required by its role. Referentially, members of a subject-object pair may pick out parts of the same content. This can result in confusion when terms are used at different levels of analysis.

In the Sociology of Knowledge? post, I complained about a naive, unproblematic distinction between mind and world, then went on to speak of an asymmetric mutual determination. The latter sort of language might standardly be taken to imply a relation between distinct things, contradicting the former language. However, in context, the latter phrase is intended to be anaphoric at a higher level. In this case, mutual determination and the lack of an unproblematic distinction are two ways of talking about the same state of affairs.

This sort of mixed-metaphor-like phenomenon leading to apparent literal inconsistency often crops up when different dialectical levels are mentioned. We have to choose between potentially cumbersome formal disambiguation and extra interpretive work. (See also Aristotelian Dialectic.)