Multiple Explanations

One of the great strengths of Aristotle’s approach to things is the way it makes use of multiple, complementary kinds of explanation. The paired modalities of actuality and potentiality and the four “causes” (ends and means, form and materiality) all interweave together to create rich tapestries of understanding. Aristotle famously said that to know is to be able to explain, and his notion of explanation is clearly hermeneutic and expansive, rather than reductive. (See also Interpretation; What and Why.; Difference; Classification; Definition.)

Brandom and Hermeneutics

It’s been a while since I said much about Robert Brandom, though his work — along with my own nonstandard reading of Aristotle — continues to be one of the main inspirations behind everything I write here.

Lately I’ve been devoting a lot of energy to belatedly catching up on the hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur. To my knowledge, Ricoeur never commented on Brandom during his lifetime, and Brandom has not specifically commented on Ricoeur.

Brandom has, however, in Tales of the Mighty Dead explicitly endorsed some of the broad perspectives of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutics, and he has devoted much attention to a “hermeneutics of magnanimity” in Hegel’s Phenomenology. Brandom’s mentor Richard Rorty concluded his famous work Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature by recommending a general turn from foundational epistemology to nonfoundationalist hermeneutics, and I have previously suggested that Brandom’s work as a whole could be viewed as a novel sort of hermeneutics developed within the analytic tradition.

Brandom’s fundamental concept of the priority of material inference over formal inference puts meaning — and therefore the interpretation of meaning — in the driver’s seat for reasoning, so to speak. This allows for the recovery of a more historic concept of Reason, which ever since Descartes has been mostly replaced by a mathematically based kind of rationality that is more precise and invaluable in technical realms, but also much more rigid, and in fact far more limited in its applicability to general human concerns (see Kinds of Reason).

Even prior to Descartes, Latin medieval logic already moved increasingly toward formalism. Since Frege and Russell, the rigorous mathematization of logic has yielded such impressive technical results that most philosophers seem to have forgotten there is any other way to view logic.

In the 1950s Wilfrid Sellars took the first steps toward initiating a counter-trend, reaching back to the pre-Cartesian tradition to formulate the notion of material inference later taken up by Brandom.

Modern complaints against Reason strongly and wrongly presuppose that it inevitably follows or approximates a formal path. Material inference provides the basis for a fundamentally hermeneutic view not only of Reason but also of logic and logical truth.

I have further stressed the fundamentally ethical or meta-ethical character of material inference, leading to a concept of ethical reason as the most fundamental form of Reason overall in a view that puts material inference before formal logic. As I put it not too long ago, ethical reason may optionally use the more technical forms of reason as tools. Ethical reason, I want to say, has a genuinely active character, but technical reason does not. Ethical reason is fundamentally oriented toward the concrete, like Aristotle’s practical judgment.

I want to say that there is such a thing as logical or semantic reference — saying something about something is not in vain — but a prior hermeneutic inquiry is necessary to ground and explain reference. Moreover, both Aristotle and Kant recognized something like this. Such a perspective is compatible with science, while putting ethical and meta-ethical inquiry first.

A hermeneutic concept of Reason saves us from a false dilemma between formalism on the one hand and question-begging appeals to intuition, authority, or irrational “decision” on the other. (See also Dialogue.)

Combining Time and Narrative

After an initial treatment of Augustine’s meditations on time and Aristotle’s concepts of emplotment and mimesis, Ricoeur devotes a chapter to outlining the way he intends to combine these apparently very different concerns and approaches.

A very complex spectrum of Aristotle-Augustine hybrids developed during the Latin high middle ages, but Ricoeur’s approach is quite different from any of them. As in Ricoeur’s case, the various medieval syntheses were especially motivated by questions about what it is to be a human person, but there the resemblance largely ends.

Ricoeur begins by saying that “time becomes human to the extent that it is articulated through a narrative mode, and narrative attains its full meaning when it becomes a condition of temporal existence” (Time and Narrative vol. 1, p. 52; emphasis in original). The “cultural abyss” that separates Aristotle from Augustine, however, compels him “to construct at my own risk the intermediary links” (ibid). “Augustine’s paradoxes of the experience of time owe nothing to the activity of narrating a story…. [Aristotle’s] ‘logic’ of emplotment discourages any consideration of time” (ibid).

Emplotment seems to be the “structuralist” moment in Aristotelian mimesis. Although he acknowledges this second of three moments of mimesis as central to the whole scheme, Ricoeur wants to say that rather than considering it in splendid isolation, we should recognize that it draws “its intelligibility from its faculty of mediation” (p. 53) between the other two moments he identified — a preliminary “preunderstanding” of actions prior to emplotment, and a reception of the ensemble by a reader or audience. “For a semiotic theory, the only operative concept is that of the literary text. Hermeneutics, however, is concerned with reconstructing the entire arc by which practical experience provides itself with works, authors, and readers” (ibid). He comments that every structural analysis of narrative implicitly presupposes a phenomenology of “doing something”.

(I was in doubt whether the first moment should even be considered as a separate layer. It at first seemed to involve the kind of “agentless actions” he found not very useful in Oneself as Another. I’m more inclined to think emplotment would relate to a blind apprehension of events as Kantian thought does to intuition, or Aristotelian form to matter. Its mediating role then would not be between bare events and the reader or audience, but in contributing form to the self-relations of the practical experience in the quote above. But Ricoeur takes a different approach, made plausible by the beginning of a real account of the first moment, which he now refers to as a “preunderstanding of the world of action”.)

Incidentally, Ricoeur now adopts Ernst Cassirer’s very general concept of “symbol”, which he had rejected for a more specific one in The Symbolism of Evil. He speaks of symbolic mediation of practical understanding as already associated with the first moment of mimesis. Human action is “always already articulated by signs, rules, and norms” (p. 57). A preunderstanding of action involves not only a “conceptual network of action” and its symbolic mediations, but “goes so far as to recognize in action temporal structures that call for narration” (p. 59). “What counts here is the way in which everyday praxis orders the present of the future, the present of the past, and the present of the present in terms of one another” (p. 60). These make up Augustine’s threefold present.

Plot in turn will be called a “synthesis of the heterogeneous” (p. 66). The “followability” of a story “constitutes the poetic solution to the paradox of distention and intention. The fact that the story can be followed converts the paradox into a living dialectic” (p. 67). The “configurational arrangement” of plot takes the experience of time beyond a bare linear succession of events. “[T]he act of narrating, reflected in the act of following a story, makes productive the paradoxes that disquieted Augustine” (p. 68). Ricoeur likens it to the Kantian productive imagination that engenders a mixed intelligibility both intellectual and intuititive. “This schematism, in turn, is constituted within a history that has all the characteristics of a tradition” (ibid).

Ricoeur develops the notion of tradition. “Let us understand by this term not the inert transmission of some dead deposit of material but the living transmission of an innovation always capable of being reactivated by a return to the most creative moments of poetic activity” (ibid). The various paradigms followed by works of art are products of sedimentation, but each individual work also embodies innovation. “[T]he possibility of deviation is inscribed in the relation between sedimented paradigms and actual works” (p. 70).

Next he argues that the emplotment moment of mimesis requires complementation by the third moment characterized by the reception of the reader or audience. “[N]arrative has its full meaning when it is restored to the time of action and of suffering” (ibid). He will be concerned with the relation between “a phenomenology that does not stop engendering aporias and what I earlier called the poetic solution to these aporias. The question of the relationship between time and narrative culminates in this dialectic between an aporetics and a poetics” (p. 71).

We should not place all consonance on the side of narrative and all dissonance on the side of temporality. Temporality cannot be reduced to pure discordance, he says. (This might seem to put him at odds with the Foucault of the Archaeology of Knowledge. I have indeed begun to wonder if some of the unspecified contrasting references of that work’s preface are actually to Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy. But Foucault’s emphasis on intelligible distinction over unity is not necessarily to be identified with a view of time as pure discordance.) Also, emplotment is never the simple triumph of order. “[P]lots themselves coordinate distention and intention” (p. 73). Even the regimented form of Greek tragedy makes essential use of contingencies and surprises.

He wants to address an objection that “If there is no human experience that is not already mediated by symbolic systems, and, among them, by narratives, it seems vain to say, as I have, that action is in quest of narrative” (p.74). He suggests that in the first moment of mimesis — now associated with action and life — there are only potential stories. In life, he says, we are passively entangled in untold stories. Our quest for personal identity, he says, ensures there is a continuity extending from our potential stories through to those for which we actually assume responsibility. “[H]uman lives need and merit being narrated” (p. 75). Thus he speaks of a hermeneutic circle of narrative and time.

Notions like schematization and traditionality, he says, already undo a rigid separation between the “inside” and “outside” of a text. They are “from the start” categories of interaction between writing and reading. Emplotment is the “joint work of the text and the reader” (p. 76). The written work is a “sketch for reading” (p. 77).

Extending what he said about metaphor in The Rule of Metaphor, he insists that the literary work is not just language upon language, but also has a kind of reference. (This will be further explored in volume 2 of Time and Narrative.) The communicative role of the work, he says, already implies that it must have some sort of reference, saying something about something. At the level of sentences and texts, language is oriented beyond itself. “Reference and horizon are as correlative as figure and ground” (p. 78). Language does not constitute a world unto itself, but rather belongs to our world. Reciprocally, Ricoeur suggests that the verb “to be” itself has metaphorical import. Hermeneutics will aim “less at restoring the author’s intention behind the text than at making explicit the movement by which the text unfolds, as it were, a world in front of itself” (p. 81).

From Augustine to Husserl and Heidegger, the phenomenology of time has made “genuine discoveries” that nonetheless “cannot be removed from the aporetic realm that so strongly characterizes the Augustinian theory of time” (p. 83). Ricoeur suggests this means phenomenology in the sense of Husserl and Heidegger cannot play the foundational role that Husserl and Heidegger wanted to give it; nonetheless, he will also take up this phenomenology, and place it in a three-way conversation with history and literary criticism.

Rule of Metaphor

In The Rule of Metaphor, which contains essays from the early 1970s, Ricoeur aimed among other things to refute Frege’s apparent claim that poetry has no reference or denotation, but only a sense or connotation. According to Ricoeur, poetic language achieves a kind of “second-level reference” by suspending first-level reference. I tend to think all reference presupposes higher-order constructs, so I am sympathetic. This is also an argument for the general importance of metaphor.

In an appendix, he describes how the rise of structuralism in the 1960s — of which he remained critical — led him from a kind of existential phenomenology to a much closer engagement with language. His earlier emphasis on symbols gave way to a more general approach to hermeneutics, and he began to also engage with analytic philosophy.

At the beginning of the book, he notes how the study of rhetoric became much narrower after Aristotle, losing its connection with dialectic and philosophy. Later, he goes on to argue that meanings of sentences take precedence meanings of words, and meanings of whole discourses take precedence over meanings of sentences.

Apparently, some structuralist writers on rhetoric argued for the contrary, bottom-up approach starting with meanings of words. My own past interest in so-called structuralism never led in this direction; I was initially more concerned with the priority of relations over “things”, and later with the explanatory power of Foucaultian “discursive regularities”. I do think a compositional, bottom-up approach has great value in formal contexts, and that formal analysis is not irrelevant to ordinary language, but I think ordinary language meaning is best approached mainly in terms of material inference, which has a holistic character.

Ricoeur on Psychoanalysis

The concluding book of Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy aims at a reconciliation of two contrasting approaches in hermeneutics — demystifying and kerygmatic — that would be not merely eclectic but genuinely dialectical. He suggests on the one hand that faith ought to be entirely compatible with a sharp critique of idols, and on the other that Freud never adequately considered how his late concept of Eros and its sublimations could be legitimately reconnected with notions of spiritual love.

He develops a bit further his earlier contrast between a “philosophy of consciousness” and a “philosophy of reflection”. A philosophy of consciousness grounds a false Cogito on the immediacy of consciousness. A philosophy of reflection on the other hand pays attention to the always mediated character of experience, and to subjectivity as something that is constituted as well as constitutive. It therefore decenters subjectivity. Ricoeur argues that Husserl as much as Freud considered subjectivity as something constituted.

At the same time, Ricoeur in this work still wants to speak of a true Cogito of reflection, and in this context wants to distinguish between immediate consciousness and the “living self-presence” to which Husserl appealed. Although Ricoeur does not say it, it seems to me that Husserl’s living self-presence is supposed to be precisely a kind of non-empirical (i.e., transcendental) immediate consciousness. I think on the contrary that the transcendental is all mediation, and hold what I take to be a Kantian position that feelings of living presence or self-presence belong on the side of introspective appearance that is ultimately empirical rather than transcendental.

Ricoeur notes that for Freud, it is more a question of “it speaks” rather than “I think”.

He thinks there is an ambiguity in Freud between primitive, sub-linguistic and transcendental, supra-linguistic concerns, so that symbolic meaning expressing poetic or spiritual truth is not clearly separated from something like word play. This goes back to his earlier concern with the phenomenology of religious symbols. I actually think that word play can serve as an indirect expression of poetic or spiritual truth, but then I also think spiritual truth is inherently “poetic”.

In spite of criticizing (the old stereotype of) Hegel for claiming a sort of omniscience, Ricoeur suggests that Hegel’s phenomenology, with its distinction between Consciousness and Spirit and its discussions of the relation between Spirit and desire, provides a “teleology” complementary and inverse to Freud’s “archeology” of subjectivity. For this to be a truly dialectical relation, he says, each must contain a moment approximating the other, and he thinks that in fact they do.

He also connects Freud’s work with Spinoza’s critique of consciousness and free will; Leibniz’s theories of unconscious perception; and Kant’s simultaneous assertion of a transcendental idealism and an empirical realism. Freud’s “topographies” are associated with a kind of realism in this Kantian sense.

For Ricoeur’s Freud, life and desire always have an unsurpassable character. Because of this, a relation to reality is always a task, not a possession. What ultimately distinguishes psychoanalysis, Ricoeur says, is not just the idea that we have motives of which we are ignorant, but Freud’s account of the resistance of an always somewhat narcissistic ego and the corresponding extended work of overcoming it. This relates directly to the idea of reality as a task. “We did not regard this realism as a relapse into naturalism, but as a dispossession of immediate certitude, a withdrawal from and humiliation of our narcissism” (p. 432). “It is one and the same enterprise to understand Freudianism as a discourse about the subject and to discover that the subject is never the subject one thinks it is” (p. 420).

“I consider the Freudian metapsychology an extraordinary discipline of reflection: like Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, but in the opposite direction, it achieves a decentering of the home of significations, a displacement of the birthplace of meaning. By this displacement, immediate consciousness finds itself dispossessed to the advantage of another agency of meaning — the transcendence of speech or the emergence of desire…. We must really lose hold of consciousness and its pretension of ruling over meaning, in order to save reflection” (p. 422). What Ricoeur called reflection and will, I give the more classical name of Reason.

Hermeneutics and Psychoanalysis

At the beginning of book 2 of Freud and Philosophy, Ricoeur lays out the plan for the rest of the work. As I guessed, he says the final result will be a much more reconciling view, but he thinks it is important to first lay out the potential conflict between psychoanalysis and other hermeneutics in a very stark way, before successively tempering it through several layers of further considerations. The initial stark reading “governs the ascesis of that narcissism that wishes to be taken for the true Cogito. Hence this reading and its harsh schooling will not be retracted but rather preserved in the final reading” (p. 60). Nonetheless, the opposition will be greatly refined. “The whole movement of this book consists in a gradual readjusting of that initial position…. In the end it may seem that… Freud is nowhere because he is everywhere” (pp. 59-60; see also Conflicting Hermeneutics.)

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.)


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).