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).

Marcel on Being

I’ve been looking at Marcel’s The Mystery of Being (1950). “[I]t is not possible to treat all experience as coming down in the end to a self’s experience of its own states…. we shall see… how difficult it is to succeed in getting a direct glimpse of whatever it is that we mean by self.” (Vol. 1, p. 63-64; emphasis in original). “I appear to myself both as a somebody and not a somebody, a particular individual and not a particular individual” (p. 106). “This self to which I have to be true is perhaps merely the cry that comes out to me from my own depths — the appeal to me to become that which, literally and apparently, I now am not” (p. 176). Properly speaking, we should not say that our self exists, as this would make it a thing among other things.

Marcel says Truth should not be reduced to what is the case; it is an illumination. He distinguishes between primary reflection, which is objectifying, and secondary reflection, in which we ourselves are part of the reflection. In secondary reflection, we are participants rather than spectators. For example, “my” body is not some thing that I have, but rather something in which I am involved. More problematically from this writer’s point of view, he adds that my body is to me a sort of “non-mediatizable immediate” (p. 135).

To be is to be in a situation, understood in the participatory rather than the objectifying sense. We navigate situations by active processes of recognition and reconnoitring. “[A] being that can say, ‘My situation’… is not… self-contained; on the contrary, such a being is open and exposed” (p. 178; emphasis in original). “My life infinitely transcends my possible conscious grasp of my life… fundamentally and essentially it refuses to tally with itself” (p. 206). We should not represent a life as a series of movie stills.

Being is also being with, or togetherness with others. “[I]ntersubjectivity plays its part also within the life of the subject, even at moments when the latter’s only intercourse is with itself” (p. 224).

We should distinguish between an object and a presence. A presence lies beyond the grasp of any possible prehension, and can only be invoked or evoked. A rose in a poem is present to us in a way that a rose in a seed catalog is not. A mystery for Marcel is something that transcends the realm of technical solutions, in that we cannot hold it at arm’s length and objectify it, because it involves our own very being. Every Marcelian “presence” is mysterious in this way. “A felt quality… is not a mental object” (p. 231). Truth is not a thing, but a spirit. It is in this sort of way, he says, that essence should be understood.

In approaching the question of what Being is, “I have to think not only for myself, but for us… for everyone who may have contact with the thought which is mine” (Vol. 2, p. 6). We must exorcize the ego-centric spirit. “A complete and concrete knowledge of oneself… must be hetero-centric” (p. 9). He contrasts “we are” with “I think”. “[T]he intelligible milieu… is only the projection on an ideal plane of what existentially speaking presents itself to us as the intersubjective nexus” (p. 12). “[I]t is literally true to say that the more exclusively it is I who exist, the less do I exist” (p. 38; emphasis in original). He equates a transcendental ego with solipsism, but says that Being is not reducible to intersubjectivity, either.

Ontology for Marcel is concerned with acts of judgment associated with the “is” of predication, rather than with objects. He contrasts the “fullness” of truth with “the hollowness of a functionalized world” (p. 47). Fullness is not to be confused with totality, and being cannot be reduced to totality. Any fullness of truth involves secondary reflection, from which we cannot separate ourselves as participants. Being cannot be indifferent to value. Faith must be distinguished from opinion; it is a matter of believing in, not believing that. Real prayer, he says, is possible only where intersubjectivity is operative.

A free act is one that “I come to think of, after the event, as having helped to make me what I am” (p. 131). “[W]e are concerned here with a certainty which I am rather than with a certainty which I have… I am a living testimony” (p. 144). Just as there is creative fidelity, there is creative testimony, but the creativity in question involves an active receptivity, not a simple production.

Marcel’s invocations of “being” and “existence”, as well as of “presence” and of “ontology” all seem rather different from the standard, representationally oriented usages of these terms, to which I have expressed various objections. He also did not engage in anything like Heidegger’s dubious historiography of a “forgetting of Being”.

Early in the book, he seemed to reject “what is” questions as inherently objectifying. I think that questions of what and why are most naturally treated as matters of open-ended interpretation, and that ontology, epistemology, and all manner of specific technical disciplines can be subsumed under hermeneutics, which is in turn subsumed under ethics. From my perspective, what Marcel would have regarded as objectifying perspectives can thus be subsumed in a way that undoes their objectifying character.

Although Marcel’s style of exposition and vocabulary are very different from Aristotle’s, the broad spirit of his perspective seems very close in important respects. To a greater extent than most other philosophers, Aristotle and Marcel each in their own way brought to the fore an emphasis on concreteness and the way we encounter things in life. (Marcel’s pessimistic view of “what is” questions is perhaps the most significant difference. Aristotle also did not have explicit analogues of Marcel’s “presence” and “mystery”.)

While I am uncomfortable with Marcel’s top-level characterization of my relation to my body as an un-mediatizable immediacy because I think it involves the mediation of something like the unconscious level of Kantian processes of synthesis, I very much like the ethical contrast of being and having that informs the details of his account of this. Marcel doesn’t explicitly say as I do that “being” is primarily an ethical concept, but his account seems open to such an interpolation. (See also Ricoeur on Embodiment; Platonic Truth; Meant Realities; Being, Consciousness.)


Known as the father of existentialism, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) was an unconventional Danish religious and literary figure who promoted a severe and radically irrational notion of faith. His most famous notion is that of a “leap” of faith. In Fear and Trembling, he opposed faith to ethics in very strong terms, discussing at length the biblical story of God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son, and unequivocally taking the side of sheer obedience to divine command over all ethical considerations. This kind of fideism is pretty much anathema to me (see Rational Faith; Theology; Euthyphro).

Kierkegaard originated many completely undeserved negative stereotypes of Hegel. Even during the time I was much engaged with the French anti-Hegelians, reading Kierkegaard’s attacks always made me want to defend Hegel.


Foundationalism is the mistaken notion that some certain knowledge comes to us ready-made, and does not depend on anything else. One common sort involves what Wilfrid Sellars called the Myth of the Given.

Certainty comes from proof. A mathematical construction is certain. Nothing in philosophy or ordinary life is like that. There are many things we have no good reason to doubt, but without proof, that still does not make them certain.

In life, high confidence is all we need. Extreme skepticism is refuted by experience. It is not possible to live a life without practical confidence in many things.

Truth, however, is a result, not a starting point. It must be earned. There are no self-certifying truths, and truth cannot be an unexplained explainer.

In philosophy, we have dialectical criticism or analysis that can be applied from any starting point, then iteratively improved, and a certain nonpropositional faith in reason to get us going. All we need is the ability to question, an awareness of what we do not know, and a little faith. We can always move forward. It is the ability to move forward that is key. (See also Interpretation; Brandom on Truth; The Autonomy of Reason.)

Three Logical Moments

The “Logic Defined & Divided” chapter of Hegel’s Encyclopedia Logic contains some brilliant, relatively popular aphorisms from his lectures, and provides a nice introduction to his views. Having recently treated with approval Kant’s denunciation of speculation in the usual sense, I’m turning to this now because among other riches, it contains Hegel’s recovery of an alternative, much more positive sense for “speculation”. As Aristotle would remind us, things are said in many ways, and it is wise to give heed to the differences.

Hegel says that every notion and truth involves three moments that are all essential and cannot really be separated from one another: Understanding, Dialectic, and Speculation.

In other places, Hegel frequently polemicizes against the narrowness and rigidity of mere Understanding. Here, he rounds out the picture, noting that “apart from Understanding there is no fixity or accuracy in the region of theory or of practice” and that knowledge begins “by apprehending existing objects in their specific differences”. He cites examples of how Understanding contributes to science, mathematics, law, practical life, art, religion, and philosophy.

Preparing the transition to dialectic, he notes “It is the fashion of youth to dash about in abstractions — but the man who has learnt to know life steers clear of the abstract ‘either-or’, and keeps to the concrete”. Dialectic for Hegel if viewed separately is the moment of “negative” Reason or criticism. He says that dialectic subordinated to Understanding’s mode of thought leads to skepticism, but dialectic freed from this subordination builds on distinctions developed by the Understanding, even while “the one-sidedness and limitation of the predicates of understanding is seen in its true light”. Dialectic studies things “in their own being and movement”. He goes on to expound Plato’s use of dialectic, and its difference from sophistry. (See also Contradiction vs Polarity; Aristotelian and Hegelian Dialectic.)

Speculation in Hegel’s special sense is the “positive” moment of Reason, which if considered separately begins from a kind of faith in reasonableness in the world. He implicitly connects it with a charitable reading of the long religious tradition of faith seeking understanding, construed in such a way as to be not incompatible with a charitable version of Enlightenment criticism. He notes that “the true reason-world, so far from being the exclusive property of philosophy, is the right of every human being [of] whatever grade of culture or mental growth”, adding that “experience first makes us aware of the reasonable order of things… by accepted and unreasoned belief”. Once this rational order becomes an object of thought rather than mere belief, we have speculative Reason proper.

Speculative Reason builds on both Understanding and dialectic. “A one-sided proposition… can never even give expression to a speculative truth.” He notes a connection between this and basic intuitive fairness. Starting from a simple faith in the reasonableness of the world and advancing through various stages of criticism, speculative Reason ultimately realizes substance as subject, and overcomes the dichotomy of subject and object.

Dialectic undid the abstract, atomistic, foundationalist, “either-or” tendencies of isolated Understanding. Speculative Reason in Hegel’s sense turns this into a new affirmation. In many places, Hegel talks about Reason or dialectic in ways that subsume both the dialectical and the speculative moment described here.

I read Hegelian speculative Reason — or dialectic incorporating the speculative moment — as just ordinary reason moving forward without the crutches of foundationalism and dogmatic claims of certainty. Reason without foundationalism is concerned with the very same open-ended work of interpretation I have attributed to Aristotle. Ultimately, Hegelian Reason is defeasible rational interpretation of experience, optimistically doing the best we can with the resources we have, and always on the lookout for something better. Thus, it too can be reconciled with Kantian discipline. (See also “Absolute” Knowledge?)

Augustinian Interiority

Among the hallmarks of historiographical seriousness is a concern to avoid over-generalization. In that spirit, since I have made quasi-polemical references to Augustine and Augustinianism in broad-brush sketches of the history of notions of subjectivity, it seems right to pause for a few caveats.

Augustine is the main early source in the Western tradition for a specific notion of mental interiority. However, at the very beginning there is a surprising twist. At least, it is surprising for us moderns conditioned by Descartes and Locke. For it turns out that for Augustine, when one looks within to the inner man, what one finds is the opposite of something private.

For Augustine, the inner man participates in a community of the spirit, and interiority opens out into universality. The inner man is a source of a kind of integrity more than individuality. It is rather our view of the external world that is the locus of what we might call subjective particularity. The idea that what is inner is universal puts Augustine much closer to Plotinus than to Descartes in this way. The inner man is not a modern ego. Augustine fused notions of mind and personality, but again, his variant of the notion of personality had more to do with trinitarian theology than with individuality. Even the meaning of his early strong voluntarism is modified by this.

Among the early Christian fathers, Augustine was among the most philosophical. According to his own testimony in the Confessions, his reading of Plotinus was a spiritual event second only to his conversion to Christianity, and remained important after his conversion. As much as he emphasized faith, he also emphasized seeking understanding. He clearly acknowledged a degree of bilateral accommodation of faith and reason, for instance in his writings on the interpretation of scripture.

It should also be noted that many of the later theologians I broadly characterize as Augustinian developed sophisticated hybrid positions on various philosophical issues, however much I might criticize, e.g., their voluntarism or their anti-Aristotelianism couched in Aristotelian vocabulary. (See also Ricoeur on Augustine on Time; Mind Without Mentalism; Subject; Freedom and Free Will; God and the Soul.)