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.

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.

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.)

Ethical Reason, Interpretation

Now I want to say that the ethical reason or practical reason I have in mind is broad enough to subsume not only a consideration of feeling and non-ego-centered meditation, but all sorts of philosophical questions, and all sorts of technical disciplines as well. It is able to learn from things as diverse as structuralism and Marcelian spirituality.

The broad perspective of ethical reason, born in Plato’s dialogues and developed by Aristotle into a generalized approach subsuming many more specific inquiries, was largely lost in early modern thought, but revived again by Kant and Hegel. To this day, much modern thought remains polarized between untenable alternatives of allegedly value-free scientific or technical analysis on the one hand, and subjectivist self-assertion and anti-rationalism on the other.

Ethical reason asks what and why in a spirit of mutual recognition, and in a way that is at once open-endedly interpretive and concerned with values. (See also Rationality.)

Oneself as Another

Paul Ricoeur’s major ethical work Oneself as Another (1992; French ed. 1990) is a real treasure trove. At top level, it is devoted to distinguishing between separate notions of personal identity and ethical/epistemic transcendental subjectivity, then developing the dialectical relation between them, along with the central importance of relations with others. That could equally well characterize a major aspect of the work I have been pursuing here.

In the introduction, he speaks first of a “primacy of reflective meditation over the immediate positing of the subject, as this is expressed in the first person singular” (p. 1). I think this perspective is shared by Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Brandom. Second, he points out the equivocal nature of identity, distinguishing between Latin ipse (self) and idem (same). Selfhood in Ricoeur’s sense — identity in the sense of ipse — “implies no assertion concerning some unchanging core of the personality” (p. 2). Third, he draws attention to a dialectic of self and other. “[T]he selfhood of oneself implies otherness to such an intimate degree that one cannot be thought of without the other” (p. 3). As a result, “autonomy of the self will appear… to be tightly bound up with solicitude for one’s neighbor and with justice for each individual” (p. 18; emphasis in original).

Such a detour by way of analysis “challenges the hypothesis of reflective simplicity without thereby giving in to the vertigo of the disintegration of the self” (p. 19). A “faith that knows itself to be without guarantee” (p. 25) is supported by a “trust greater than any suspicion” (p. 23). This perspective is thus distinguished both from the foundationalist ambitions of “philosophies of the subject” like those of Descartes, Fichte, and Husserl, and from Nietzschean skepticism. Ricoeur also anticipates Alain de Libera’s connection of his work to Michel Foucault’s late “hermeneutics of the subject”, citing the “magnificent title” of Foucault’s book Care of the Self.

Paul Ricoeur

It’s becoming apparent to me that I need to say a whole lot more about Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005). Ricoeur was a leading contributor to 20th century hermeneutics. His early intellectual formation centered on the Christian personalism of his mentor Gabriel Marcel and Marcel’s associate Emmanuel Mounier, founder of the personalist movement and the journal Esprit, as well as the work of the two greatest practitioners of a strongly subject-centered philosophy — Fichte (through Jean Nabert), and Husserl, whose Ideas I Ricoeur translated to French.

Later, he became increasingly concerned with language, discourse, and questions of interpretation. He eventually moved to a sort of “middle path” in regard to subjectivity (see Oneself as Another). Ricoeur’s work is clearly not an instance of the mentalism I am currently concerned to avoid. (I have myself moved toward the middle from the opposite, anti-subject-centered pole, where I started due to concerns about egoism.) In his later work, Ricoeur also engaged with analytic philosophy. While always motivated by spiritual concerns, he carefully kept his philosophy independent of religious doctrine.

Ricoeur’s unifying lifelong concern has been characterized as a sort of philosophical anthropology. Once upon a time, I would have rejected this very description, as antithetical to the important 1960s “structuralist” critique of existentialist “humanism”. In the past I was mainly aware of his criticisms of structuralism as a one-sided “Kantianism without a transcendental subject”, and mistakenly got the impression that he simply associated all “hermeneutics of suspicion” with reductionism. I disagreed with both these positions, and for too long did not bother to look further. One of my late father’s last recommendations to me was that I would probably find Ricoeur very interesting. Now I feel like he will turn out to be a major ally in cultivating the “middle path”.


Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) was a tremendously original, highly influential, and troublesome philosopher. What makes his work troublesome is not only conceptual difficulty and a deliberate practice of translating the familiar into the unfamiliar, but also his never clearly repudiated attempt to influence the Nazi movement in Germany. He seems to have been a cultural and linguistic chauvinist who rejected pseudo-biological racism, but nonetheless put hopes in an “inner truth and greatness” of National Socialism as an alternative to American and Soviet materialism. This identification puts a dark cloud over the interpretation of his writing, which was, however, generally very far removed from politics. The question is, how much it is possible to detach his work from a stance that seems worse than one of mere bad judgment.

A serious and innovative reader of Aristotle who also developed thought-provoking readings of Plato, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche, Heidegger combined a sympathetic but critical take on Husserl’s phenomenology with an interest in the hermeneutics of Wilhem Dilthey. Widely read as an “existentialist”, he sharply repudiated Sartre’s appropriation of his work. In his later works, he approached philosophy as a kind of poetic meditation.

His most famous thesis was that Western thought largely lost its way from Plato onward, neglecting the question of the meaning of Being in favor of preoccupation with things. While he made good points about the preconceptions involved in our ordinary encounters with things, I think he too sharply rejected “ontic” engagement with empirical, factual concerns in favor of a purified ontology. He also promoted a valorization of what I would call the pre-philosophical thought of the pre-Socratics Heraclitus and Parmenides. I think Plato and especially Aristotle represented a gigantic leap forward from this.

Some of Heidegger’s very early work was on the medieval theologian Duns Scotus, who seems to have originated the standard notion of ontology later promoted by Wolff and others. In sharp contrast to the tradition stemming from Scotus, Heidegger argued that Being is not the most generic concept, and wanted to emphasize a “Being of beings” in contrast to their factual, empirical presentation. He did not follow the path of Aquinas in identifying pure Being with God, either, and Aquinas probably would have rejected his talk of the Being of beings.

I think his most important contribution was an emphasis on what he called “being-in-the-world” as a way of overcoming the dichotomy of subject and object. His associated critique of Cartesian subjectivity has been highly influential. In later works, he also recommended putting difference before identity, and relations before things. Although the way he expounded these notions was quite original, I prefer to emphasize their roots in Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel. (See also Being, Existence; Being, Consciousness; Beings; Phenomenological Reduction?; Memory, History, Forgetfulness — Conclusion.)


Standard notions of intentionality as a mental state involving representations of objects go back to the medieval Iranian philosopher Avicenna (980 – 1037). Augustine had already spoken of of “intentions” as acts of the soul, but it was Avicenna who explicitly gave what were translated to Latin as “intentions” the later standard sense of mental representations. Discussion of Avicennan “intentions” was common in the Latin scholastic tradition, but disappeared in the early modern period, only to be revived by Franz Brentano. In his 1874 work Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, Brentano characterized intentionality as having to do with mental states that are directed toward objects that are themselves mental representations, and argued that intentionality is the defining characteristic of mind in general. Edmund Husserl later attempted to separate a logical concept of intentionality from empirical psychology, and made it a central theme of his phenomenology. Intentionality is widely discussed among analytic philosophers as well.

A main focus of Brandom’s Making It Explicit was to develop in great detail a novel concept of intentionality that is linguistic, social, and normative, rather than mental in the usual sense. Intentionality for Brandom is rooted in normative social practices and dialogue rather than psychology. Representation is treated as something to be explained, rather than as an unexplained explainer. The objects Brandomian intentionality is concerned with are not objects of mental representations, but objects of normative social practices and dialogue. Accepting Brentano’s thesis that intentionality is the defining characteristic of mind, this gives us a concept of mind that is mainly ethical, linguistic, and social (see Mind Without Mentalism).

I think the kind of hermeneutics implicitly practiced by Aristotle throughout his work was concerned with real things, but primarily as objects of normative social practices and dialogue, and only secondarily in a more direct way. Aristotle also said that intelligence comes to us “from outside”. I read him too as working with a primarily ethical, linguistic, and social notion of mind (see also Aristotelian Subjectivity). Plato’s Forms were also explicitly nonpsychological. Even Augustine’s “inner man” has nothing private about it, but rather participates in an ethical community of the spirit that tends toward universality.

An ethical-linguistic-social view of intentionality also gives us a good way of talking about all the practical, real-life concerns of human subjectivity, without the bad theoretical baggage of referring all those concerns to a supposedly sovereign individual Subject or Ego.

Intro to Hermeneutics

“Hermeneutics” is derived from the Greek word for interpretation. It has a complex history, with roots in Greek literary interpretation, scriptural interpretation, and Renaissance humanism. In an 1808 work, the German philologist Friedrich Ast formulated a first version of the hermeneutic circle, emphasizing that we encounter a sort of chicken-and-egg relationship between the meaning of the parts and the meaning of the whole in a text. Wilhelm Dilthey (1833 – 1911) promoted a discipline of hermeneutics as the grounding for a distinctive kind of scientific method for the human sciences. In contrast to Dilthey, Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976) emphasized that we do not begin from the outside with a theoretical methodology, but rather find ourselves in the world along with the things we seek to understand.

The name most strongly associated with 20th century hermeneutics is Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900 – 2002). Combining neo-Kantian and Heideggerian influences with a strong interest in Platonic and Aristotelian ethics, Gadamer emphasized that all understanding has the character of a dialogue, and dwelt extensively on Aristotelian phronesis, or practical wisdom regarding concrete situations and what to do.

Another major figure is Paul Ricoeur (1913 – 2005), who dwelt on the nature of human beings as responsible ethical agents, while rejecting claims that the self is immediately transparent to itself, or fully master of itself. He sought to understand subjectivity without falling prey to subjectivism or presupposing a sovereign Subject. Both he and Gadamer also emphasized the irreducible role of language in understanding.

At least on these points, there is an interesting convergence with themes I have been pursuing here. I see philosophy as fundamentally hermeneutic, rather than seeking to formulate a “system of the world”. The kind of semantics I have attributed to Aristotle, along with his use of dialectic, seems to me to be the earliest developed philosophical hermeneutics, with roots in Socratic questioning. Brandom’s mix of semantics with what he calls normative pragmatics, in conjunction with his work on Hegel, can be considered as a very original form of hermeneutics within analytic philosophy.