Activity, Embodiment, Essence

I think any finite activity requires some sort of embodiment, and consequently that anything like the practically engaged spirits Berkeley talks about must also have some embodiment. On the other hand, the various strands of activity from which our eventual essence is precipitated over time — commitments, thoughts, feelings — are not strictly tied to single individuals, but are capable of being shared or spread between individuals.

Most notably, this often happens with parents and their children, but it also applies whenever someone significantly influences the commitments, thoughts, and feelings of someone else. I feel very strongly that I partially embody the essence and characters of both my late parents — who they were as human beings — and I see the same in my two sisters. Aristotle suggests that this concrete transference of embodied essence from parents to children is a kind of immortality that goes beyond the eternal virtual persistence of our essence itself.

Our commitments, thoughts, and feelings are not mere accidents, but rather comprise the activity that constitutes our essence. I put commitments first, because they are the least ephemeral. In mentioning commitments I mean above all the real, effective, enduring commitments embodied in what we do and how we act.

Memory, History, Forgetting — Conclusion

There is a great deal more in Ricoeur’s Memory, History, Forgetting that I won’t try to summarize.

Part 2, entitled “History, Epistemology”, is a nice examination of the status of history as an inquiry, with detailed examination of the historiographical approach of the Annales school, but I got more out of his previous discussion of closely related topics in Time and Narrative.

Part 3, “The Historical Condition”, addresses something of the scope of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. Its most prominent feature is another still somewhat deferential critique of Heidegger’s analytic of Dasein as the central, deep, “existential”, “ontological” reality that is also specific to human being. Heidegger’s existential approach to “historicity” explicitly rules out any constructive engagement with actual history or the historiographical discourse of part 2, whereas Ricoeur would like to build a bridge.

Ricoeur also says Heidegger’s discourse about care ignores our embodiment. As elsewhere and as I do, he objects to the emphasis on “being toward death”. In particular, he does not like Heidegger’s insistence that only our relation to our own death can be “authentic”, not the death of others.

More broadly, with uncharacteristic sharpness he says “What is termed authenticity here lacks any criterion of intelligibility: the authentic speaks for itself and allows itself to be recognized as such by whomever is drawn into it. It is a self-referential term in the discourse of Being and Time. Its impreciseness is unequaled, except for… resoluteness…, which contains no determination, no preferential mark concerning any project of accomplishment whatsoever; conscience as a summons of the self to itself without any indication relative to good or evil…. [T]he discourse it produces is constantly threatened with succumbing to what Adorno called ‘the jargon of authenticity’. The pairing of the authentic with the primordial could save it from this peril if primordiality were assigned a function other than that of reduplicating the allegation of authenticity” (p. 349).

It seems to me that a similar point applies to Heideggerian care. Care by itself is not a sufficient criterion for anything, any more than purely formal Badiouian fidelity is. Caring for others, love, Aristotelian friendship are indispensable. What we care about matters hugely. In place of Dasein, I put ethical being.

Voluntary Action

Part 2 of Ricoeur’s Freedom and Nature is devoted to voluntary action. For Ricoeur, our embodiment is the key to understanding how this works. Careful attention to the phenomena of our embodied existence refutes all dualism of mind and body. The intentionality of action is practical rather than representational. “Action is the criterion of [willing’s] authenticity…. it is not simply a question of subsequently carrying out our plans and programs, but of testing them continuously amid the vicissitudes of reality…. The genesis of our projects is only one moment in the union of soul and body” (pp. 201-202; emphasis in original).

A tacit action accompanies even the most indecisive willing. In the application of any kind of knowledge, it “has to be moved like my body” (p. 204). Will can only be fully understood in the context of effort, but effort in turn can only be understood against a background of spontaneity. Action always involves both a doing and a happening, a combination of active and passive aspects. The body is not the object of action, but its organ. An organ is not an external instrument, but a part of us.

The body as the organ of our action has both preformed skills that form the basis of reflexes and acquired habits, and involuntary movements associated with emotion. The bodily movements associated with emotion are inseparable from the emotion itself. Habit involves a kind of degeneration of voluntary action into automatism, but this very degeneration makes it more easily deployable. Ricoeur here speaks of an involuntary that sustains and serves voluntary action. Habit can help overcome the resistance of emotion, and emotion can help overcome the inertia of habit.

In effort, the body is moved through the mediation of the nonrepresentational “motor intentions” of desire and habit. Accordingly, voluntary movement should not be understood as essentially preceded by representation. Instead, the realization of intentions depends on the living being’s structural subordination of motor montages to intentions. There can be no willing without ability, and no ability without possible willing.

Both ability and a certain spontaneous “docility” of the body exhibited in simple gestures like raising my arm are prior to any experience of effort. There is also “a seeing and a knowing which the will does not produce” (p. 336). On the other hand, if all our acts are attributable to a same self, it is because they participate in a unity of effort. (For more on the same book, see Phenomenology of Will; Ricoeur on Embodiment; Ricoeur on Choice; Consent?)

Ricoeurian Choice

Part 1 of Ricoeur’s Freedom and Nature is devoted to a rich discussion of choice. He says that to will is to think (p. 41), and that deciding is a kind of judging (p. 43). But also “I project my own self into the action to be done. Prior to all reflection about the self which I project, the myself summons itself… it becomes committed…. Prereflexive self-imputation is active, not observational” (p. 59; emphasis in original).

He develops at length how the interdependence of the voluntary and the involuntary can be seen in processes of choice. “The circle of ethics and practice repeats the more basic circle of motive and decision” (p. 77). Motives partially determine us in certain directions, but in deciding we choose which motives to put first. Deciding involves a combination of analysis and judgment with creativity and risk.

We should not think of a decision as an atomic act coming from nowhere. Hesitation and indecision are valid moments of a genuine process of considering alternatives, and this has implications for the self as well. “[T]his inchoate, problematic mode of myself must be grasped as it presents itself. We have no right to substitute for it the image of the triumphant self which is invariably one” (p. 140). The ambiguity inherent in our embodiment means that our decisions cannot be simply governed by a present totality of inclinations or an evident hierarchy of values (p. 143).

Neither an intellectualist approach that tries to reduce decision to air-tight determination from reasons nor a voluntarist one that turns decision into a creation from nothing is valid. “A living dialectic constantly brings us back from one aspect of choice to the other: choice as the peak of previous growth and as the surge of novelty” (p. 164; emphasis in original). “Thus we must say simultaneously that ‘choice follows from the final practical judgment’ and ‘a practical judgment is final when choice irrupts‘” (p. 181; emphasis in original). “Determination of the act and indetermination of the power do not actually represent two separate moments” (p. 186). (For more on the same book, see Phenomenology of Will; Ricoeur on Embodiment; Voluntary Action; Consent?. In general, see also Fallible Humanity; Ricoeurian Ethics; Oneself as Another; Choice, Deliberation; Practical Judgment; Potentiality, Actuality; Brandomian Choice.)

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?.)

Phenomenology of Will

I’m starting to look at Paul Ricoeur’s large early work Freedom and Nature (French ed. 1950). This was to be the first of three volumes on a philosophy of will, of which he only completed two. It turns out to be full of rich detail on the vexing question of the way transcendental and empirical aspects of subjectivity are interrelated.

In this work, Ricoeur combines a Marcelian emphasis on embodiment with a broadly Husserlian phenomenological method. The investigation is to address “Cogito’s complete experience, including even its most diffuse affective margins” (p. 8; emphasis in original). I would shy away from the Cartesian sound of saying “Cogito” at all, but the really important part here is the qualifiers Ricoeur adds. Even in Descartes, cogito has a broad usage that sometimes seems to include perception and feeling, and not just thought in the narrower sense.

Ricoeur here seems to accept something like the Stoic hegemonikon (etymologically related to “hegemony”), which was ancestral to later notions of “will” as a unified faculty or power. I prefer Aristotle’s approach, which accounts for the phenomena — including choice — without the need for such an hypothesis. In the later tradition, it is often ambiguous whether will is really supposed to be a separate power like the Stoics seem to have thought, or simply a name for the cooperation of reason and desire in governing action, as Aristotle probably would have said. (See also Kantian Will.) Here Ricoeur’s use of phenomenological method is a big help in minimizing the impact of this sort of issue.

“To say ‘I will’ means first ‘I decide’, secondly ‘I move my body’, thirdly ‘I consent'” (p. 6). This sort of concrete delineation is very helpful. These are all kinds of things that actually happen and that we can describe or interpret as phenomena, independent of any assumed theory of the will.

Ricoeur had already said he would use something like Husserl’s method of phenomenological and eidetic reduction, “putting in brackets” questions of existence or of the objectivity of appearances in order to focus on what Ricoeur here calls “elaborating the idea or meaning” (pp. 3-4). Eidos was the word Plato and Aristotle used for form. Husserl adopted it for the second of three stages of “reduction”.

Briefly put, Husserl’s first, “phenomenological” reduction emphasizes a suspension of existence claims about the content under examination. The second, “eidetic” one emphasizes a positive examination of the ranges of variation of pure “essences” of mental objects, still not assumed to have any particular metaphysical or objective status. Ricoeur’s gloss “idea or meaning” (emphasis added) already anticipates a shift of emphasis in the direction of hermeneutics. He says he will not use Husserl’s third, “transcendental” reduction, which was supposed to arrive at a “pure” consciousness unaffected by empirical psychology. Ricoeur explicitly notes that “we cannot pretend that we are unaware of the fact that the involuntary is often better known empirically, in its form, albeit degraded, of a natural event” (p. 11).

A main top-level thesis of this work of Ricoeur’s is that the voluntary and the involuntary are reciprocally interdependent, and we cannot really understand either one without the other. Not only is the voluntary partly shaped by the involuntary, but also we only fully understand the involuntary through its impacts on the voluntary. (For more on the same book, see Ricoeur on Embodiment; Ricoeur on Choice; Voluntary Action; Consent?. In general, see also Willing, Unwilling; Rethinking Responsibility.)

Primacy of Perception?

Having mentioned Merleau-Ponty in passing the other day, I should say a bit more. Merleau-Ponty was the leading exponent of existential phenomenology in the 20th century. One of his most central theses was what he called the primacy of perception, developed in his most famous work The Phenomenology of Perception.

The Husserlian and existential phenomenological traditions generally put strong emphasis on immediate consciousness or something like it as a universal common-denominator medium of all apprehension and experience. This is a stance quite opposite to that of Hegelian phenomenology, in which “Consciousness” specifically names the lowest and least adequate of many stages of development, and mediation rather than immediacy comes first in the order of explanation. Nonetheless, there is much of interest.

For Merleau-Ponty in particular, perception was the favored term. He was also especially concerned with our experience of embodiment. “The evidence of the perceived thing lies… in the very texture of its qualities…. We experience in it a truth which shows through and envelops us rather than being held and circumscribed by our mind.” (Merleau-Ponty, The Prose of the World, p. xii.) This is a nice alternative to the narrow mentalist, representationalist views of Descartes and Locke that still tend to dominate, even today.

Merleau-Ponty’s investigations of perception occupy the same general territory as Kant’s synthesis of intuition, but are concerned with a yet much finer-grained level. They show perception already in itself to be anything but simple and direct. I think Aristotle would have welcomed such elaboration.

From my perspective, the primacy of perception is superseded for us talking animals by a primacy of normative reason and meta-ethics, but most of the detail of Merleau-Ponty’s investigations can stand independent of what happens with the primacy thesis, and thus can be incorporated into a larger perspective framed by meta-ethical considerations. A more limited primacy of perception might apply to the at least analytically distinguishable organic layer of our being — what Aristotle would call the parts of the soul that talking animals have in common with other animals, and Brandom would call our sentience.

As is also the case with Husserl, in spite of a misguided core commitment to an immediacy-first strategy of explanation, Merleau-Ponty’s actual accounts of things are full of subtlety and nuance, and of lasting value for their rich detail. Intellectual honesty led both Husserl and Merleau-Ponty in spite of themselves to exhibit what I would interpret as abundant evidence for the always-already mediated character of what presents itself as immediate. They were both already sensitive to the shortcomings of empiricism as it is usually understood, while embodying the best strengths of what might very broadly be considered an alternate vision of empiricism, somewhat related to what William James called “radical” empiricism. (Husserl explicitly adopted a number of notions from James. Merleau-Ponty’s focus on perception and non-adoption of Husserl’s Ego concept brought him even closer. See also The Non-Primacy of Perception.)