Ricoeur on Husserl on Memory

For Ricoeur in Memory, History, Forgetting, Husserl was simultaneously a source of valuable insights and the “apex” of a “school of inwardness” (p. 97) that threatened to make any social dimension of memory unintelligible.

On the positive side, Husserl clearly recognized that our experience of “now” is not just a point moving along a line, but involves a series of overlapping durations.  He is quoted saying “Since a new now is always entering on the scene, the now changes into a past; and as it does so the whole running-off continuity of pasts belonging to the preceding point moves ‘downwards’ uniformly into the depths of the past” (p. 34).  His other nice image for this was that the now is like a comet with a tail.  The metaphorical comet’s tail corresponds to what Husserl called “retention”, and what I have referred to as a kind of thickness of the present.  This is distinct from the “reproduction” that occurs after recollection or spontaneously.  At least at a first level of approximation, retention is a feature of perception, whereas reproduction involves a reconstruction in imagination.

“The reproach that can be legitimately made to Husserl, at this preliminary stage of his analysis, is to have enclosed the phenomenology of the present within perceived objectivity at the expense of affective and practical objectivity” (p. 33; emphasis added).

Reproductive memory for Husserl belongs to a broader family of intuitive “presentifications”.  Ricoeur suggests that experience of the temporal present for Husserl is inseparable from some form of presentification.

At a certain point in Husserl’s lectures on internal time-consciousness, Ricoeur says, Husserl’s gaze shifted from the constitution of memories with objective content to the constitution of the temporal flow itself within consciousness.  Ricoeur had applauded the earlier emphasis on objective content, and characterizes this shift to the temporal flow itself as a “retreat”.  Husserl is quoted speaking of “absolute subjectivity” in this context (p. 111).  

Ricoeur suggests that this paved the way for Husserl’s later “egological” moves that seemed to completely reverse his early motto “To the things themselves!”  The self-constitution of the internal time flow is associated with a solitary “I”.  “The primacy accorded in this way to the self-constitution of the temporal flow does not make immediately apparent the obstacles raised by this extreme subjectivism to the idea of the simultaneous constitution of individual memory and of collective memory” (p. 114).  

Ricoeur thus seems to suggest that the later Husserl’s theory of intersubjectivity, though containing valuable points of interest, ultimately fails — at least in Husserl’s own version that is tied to an egological foundation — to sufficiently shift the center of gravity back away from the egological dimension.  I think Ricoeur wants to say that an adequate account of subjectivity needs to take intersubjectivity into account from the beginning, and not treat it as an add-on.

According to Ricoeur, Husserl’s shift from “objective” to purely reflexive analysis of memories leads to a reduction of memory and memory’s directedness toward objects to purely internal retention, and the reduction of memory to retention results in a dubious “triumph of presence”.  

Turning to Husserl’s discussion of intersubjectivity in his Fifth Cartesian Meditation, which Ricoeur translated early in his career and on which he previously wrote a detailed study, he notes that Husserl speaks of the “reduction of transcendental experience to the sphere of ownness” (p. 118).  Ricoeur comments, “This forced passage by way of the sphere of ownness is essential to the interpretation of what follows” (ibid).  “[M]ust we begin with the idea of ownness, pass through the experience of the other, and finally proceed to a third operation, said to be the communalization of subjective experience?  Is this chain truly irreversible?  Is it not the speculative presupposition of transcendental idealism that imposes this irreversibility, rather than any constraint characteristic of phenomenological description?” (p. 119).

This methodological emphasis on “ownness” seems to be a result of the historical influence of Locke. “Plato… did not ask to whom the memory ‘happens’.  Aristotle, investigating the operation of recollection, did not inquire about the one who performs the task” (pp. 125-126).  Strawson in his analyses of ordinary language argued that “if a phenomenonon is self-ascribable, it is other-ascribable….  We cannot be doing the one without doing the other” (p. 127).  This sounds like something Brandom might also say.

For Ricoeur, the possibility of multiple ascription presupposes the possibility of suspension of ascription.  It is therefore incompatible with a Lockean insistence on the necessary priority of ownness.  He notes that Alfred Schutz developed a phenomenology that put the experience of others on an equal footing with the experience of self.

He closes this section with a suggestion that close relations with others form a sort of middle ground between the individual and the abstractly social.  (See also Ricoeur on Memory: Orientation; Ricoeur on Augustine on Memory; Ricoeur on Locke on Personal Identity; Husserlian and Existential Phenomenology; Phenomenological Reduction?; I-Thou, I-We.)

Ricoeur on Locke on Personal Identity

“John Locke is the inventor of the following three notions and the sequence that they form together: identity, consciousness, self…. Locke’s invention of consciousness will become the acknowledged or unacknowledged reference for theories of consciousness in Western philosophy” (Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, p. 102).  The English word “consciousness” was actually coined by Locke’s friend the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth in a work inspired by Plotinus, but it is Locke’s systematic use of it that was spread throughout the modern world by his famous Essay Concerning Human Understanding.  Ricoeur’s account significantly draws on that of Etienne Balibar in Identity and Difference: Locke’s Invention of Consciousness.

Chapter 27 of book 2 of Locke’s Essay, “Of Identity and Diversity”, lays out his unprecedented new theory of personal identity as grounded purely in a continuity of memory, rather than any underlying substance.  We tend to forget that Descartes’ cogito, as Ricoeur says, “is not a person….  It bursts forth in the lightning flash of an instant.  Always thinking does not imply remembering having thought.  Continual creation alone confers duration on it” (p. 103).  Ricoeur says that whereas Descartes had sought to conquer doubt with certainty, Locke sought to conquer diversity and difference with an unprecedented concept of pure reflexive identity.

“Proposing to define in new terms the principle of individuation… ‘so much inquired after’…, Locke takes as his first example an atom, ‘a continued body under one immutable superficies’, and reiterates his formula of self-identity: ‘For being at that instant what it is, and nothing else, it is the same, and so must continue as long as its existence is continued; for so long it will be the same, and no other’” (p. 104).

“It is consciousness that constitutes the difference between the idea of the same man and that of a self, also termed person…. The knowledge of this self-identity is consciousness” (ibid).  Locke is quoted saying “as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person; it is the same self now as it was then; and it is by the same self with this present one that now reflects on it, that that action was done” (p. 105).  

Ricoeur continues, “Personal identity is a temporal identity.  It is here that the objection drawn from forgetting and from sleep, considered as interruptions of consciousness, suggests the invigorated return of the idea of substance: is not the continuity of a substance required to overcome the intermittence of consciousness? Locke replies bravely that, whatever may be the status of the substantial ground, consciousness alone ‘makes’ personal identity….  Identity and consciousness form a circle.  As Balibar observes, this circle is not a logical fallacy of the theory: it is Locke’s own invention, supported by the reduction of substance…. It is not the soul that makes the man but the same consciousness.  With regard to our inquiry, the matter has been decided: consciousness and memory are one and the same thing, irrespective of any substantial basis.  In short, in the matter of personal identity, sameness equals memory” (ibid).

The word “self” is used by Locke in both generic and singular senses, with “no discussion concerning the status of the nominalized pronoun….  Locke had decided to disconnect ideas from names.  Yet, ‘Person, as I take it, is the name for this self’” (p. 106). “The shift to a judicial vocabulary is not far off.  The transitional concept is that of ‘person’, the other ‘name for this self’…. What makes it a synonym for the self, despite its ‘forensic’ character?  The fact that it signifies that the self ‘reconciles’ and ‘appropriates’, that is to say, assigns, allocates to consciousness the ownership of its acts” (p. 107).

Locke thus not only completely rethought the notion of persons in terms of a pure logical identity in consciousness and an analogy with atoms in a void, but also formulated a radically new notion of ethical agency and responsibility, based on an analogy with the exclusive ownership associated with private property.  The ownership model of agency and responsibility leaves no room for more subtle considerations of “power to”.  Indeed, Ricoeur notes that Locke’s approach to politics is entirely grounded in “power over”.

From a purely logical standpoint, Locke successfully avoids many arguments against the putative total self-transparency of consciousness, by making its self-transparency a matter of definition rather than an empirical claim.  Locke’s position is internally consistent.  From a practical standpoint, however, any claim that total self-transparency actually applies to real life is, to say the least, fraught with difficulty.  Total self-transparency seems to me to be more extravagantly supernatural than the Latin medieval notion of a substantial intellectual soul that it replaced.  Also, real people are not atomic unities. From the point of view of more recent physical science, even atoms are not atomic unities. (See also Ego; Personhood; Meaning, Consciousness; Mind Without Mentalism; Aristotelian Identity; Narrative Identity, Substance; Ricoeur on Memory: Orientation; Ricoeur on Augustine on Memory.)

Ricoeur on Augustine on Memory

Augustine “can be said to have invented inwardness against the background of the Christian experience of conversion…. But if Augustine knows the inner man, he does not know the equating of identity, self, and memory. This is the invention of John Locke at the beginning of the eighteenth century” (Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, p. 97). “It is not yet consciousness and the self, nor even the subject, that Augustine describes and honors, but rather… the inner man remembering himself” (p. 98). Augustine’s Confessions provide “interiority with a specific kind of spatiality, creating an intimate place” (ibid). Augustine is quoted saying, “It is in my own mind, then, that I measure time”. (See also Augustinian Interiority.)

Ricoeur comments, “Vast is the treasure that memory is said [by Augustine] to ‘contain’…. Moreover, the memory of ‘things’ and the memory of myself coincide: in them I also encounter myself, I remember myself, what I have done, when and how I did it and what impression I had at the time” (p. 99). “It is in the internal place of the soul or the mind that the dialectic between distention and intention… unfolds. The distentio that dissociates the three intentions of the present — the present of the past or memory, the present of the future or expectation, and the present of the present or attention — is distentio animi. It stands as the dissimilarity of the self to itself” (p. 101; see Ricoeur on Augustine on Time).

Here Ricoeur notes that in spite of Augustine’s acute sense of this “distention of the soul”, there is a “problem of knowing whether the theory of the threefold present does not accord a preeminence to the living experience of the present such that the otherness of the past is affected and compromised by it” (pp. 101-102.)

Ricoeur on Memory: Orientation

The first part of Memory, History, Forgetting is devoted to the phenomenology of memory.  Husserl’s notion of intentionality – summarized by the dictum that all consciousness is consciousness of something, which Ricoeur here calls “object oriented” and interprets as putting the what before the who – is suggested as a starting point.  “If one wishes to avoid being stymied by a fruitless aporia, then one must hold in abeyance the question of attributing to someone… the act of remembering and begin with the question ‘What?’” (p. 3).  

He notes that Plato bequeathed to posterity an approach to memory (and also imagination) centered on talking about a kind of presence of an absent thing.  Aristotle is credited with clarifying the distinction between this kind of memory and the kind of doing involved in the effort to remember something.  “Memories, by turns found and sought, are… situated at the crossroads of pragmatics and semantics” (p. 4).  It is the pragmatics of recollection that will eventually provide an appropriate transition to the who of memory, but there will also be a difficulty with an inherent potential for a kind of abuse of active recollection, foreshadowed by Plato’s worries about the manipulative discourse of the Sophist.

It will be important to distinguish memory from imagination as having different kinds of objects, and especially to avoid a too-easy assimilation of memories to images (which he elsewhere applies to imagination as well).  Memory is supposed to be concerned with a real past, and although images do seem to play a role in our experience of memory, Ricoeur suggests it will be a secondary one.

He urges that we consider memory first from the point of view of capacities and their “happy” realization, before questions of pathology and error.  “To put it bluntly, we have nothing better than memory to signify that something has taken place” (p. 21).  He also thinks it is possible to at least “sketch a splintered, but not radically dispersed, phenomenology in which the relation to time remains the ultimate and sole guideline” (p. 22).  

There is a problem of the interconnection between preverbal experience and “the work of language that ineluctably places phenomenology on the path of interpretation, hence of hermeneutics” (p. 24).  There is also an extensive problem of the relation between action and representation.  

Memories are essentially plural, and come in varying degrees of distinctness.  We remember diverse kinds of things in diverse ways — singular events, states of affairs, abstract generalities, and facts.  We have practical know-how that closely resembles an acquired habit, and other memory that apparently has no relation to habit.  There is a contrast between memory as evocation and memory as search.  He recalls Bergson’s notion of a dynamic scheme as a kind of direction of effort for the reconstruction of something.  From Husserl, there is a distinction between retention and reproduction.  There is another polarity between reflexivity and worldliness.  From Bergson, there is another distinction between “pure memory” and a secondary “memory-image”.

Ultimately, memory involves a search for truth, an aim of faithfulness.  It will have to be shown how this is related to its practical dimension, concerned with memory’s uses and abuses.  

What Ricoeur terms the abuses of memory include the Renaissance “art of memory” celebrated by Frances Yates, which connected artificial techniques of memorization with magic and Hermetic secrets.   We will “retreat from the magic of memory in the direction of a pedagogy of memory” (p. 67).  Natural memory, too, as Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx pointed out, can be blocked, manipulated, or abusively controlled.  The phenomena associated with ideology are a part of this.  Communities attempt to obligate us to remember things in certain ways, and to forget certain things.

Ricoeur would like to avoid both the radical subjectivism of “methodological individualism” and an immediate sociological holism of a Durkheimian sort.  In this context, he again pleads for a deferral of the question of the “actual subject of the operations of memory” (p. 93).

Memory, History, Forgetting

I’ll be devoting several upcoming posts to Paul Ricoeur’s last big book Memory, History, Forgetting (French ed. 2000), to which I just added a reference in I-Thou, I-We. This work weaves fascinating discussions of memory and forgetting as well as more explicitly ethical considerations into the results of Ricoeur’s earlier Time and Narrative, to which I devoted an eight-part series, culminating in the post Narrated Time. Near the beginning, Augustine and Husserl’s more specific discussions of memory are incorporated and reflected upon. Husserl’s “egological” view is criticized after a sympathetic interpretation, and Ricoeur develops an important critique of Locke’s influential views on memory and personal identity. The middle of the book further develops Ricoeur’s thought on the writing of history. At the end, there is a long meditation on forgiveness.

Ricoeur on Augustine on Time

In his Confessions, Augustine strongly identifies the divine with Eternity. His approach to time is through the medium of human interiority.

Long before, the notion of time as a simple succession of “nows” had been made the subject of logical paradoxes by Zeno the Eleatic, as a way of arguing for the unreality of time. Augustine’s meditation on time proceeds through a subtler and more extensive development of similar paradoxes.

Ricoeur notes that at each step of the development, Augustine uses the literary form of aporia or “impasse”, originally developed in Plato’s “Socratic” dialogues, many of which end with an honest recognition of puzzlement. In Augustine’s day, aporia was best known as a favorite device of the ancient Skeptics. Ricoeur emphasizes that for Augustine, each new insight into time that resolves one aporia leads to a new aporia.

Plotinus — the reading of whom Augustine records as a spiritual event in his life second only to his conversion to Christianity — had already made Soul responsible for time, and had begun to cultivate a sense of meditative interiority, but Augustine is the classic early exponent of interiority in the Western tradition. His aporias related to time are expressed in terms of a novel meditation on the details of interior experience.

Augustine’s introduction of the discussion is quoted by Ricoeur: “What, then, is time? I know well enough what it is, provided that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled” (Time and Narrative vol. 1, p. xi). Neither the past nor the future seems to exist, and if we reduce the present to a point, even the present hardly seems to exist.

To condense a lot, Augustine ends up suggesting that instead of trying to analyze time in this abstract way, we should think of it in terms of a threefold present in the soul that includes memory of the past, current attention, and anticipation of the future. In terms of human experience, this an important and very original observation. The “thickness” or non-punctual character of subjective experience in the present is very plausibly explained in terms of an interweaving of current attention with a remembered past and an anticipated future.

Ricoeur emphasizes that Augustine speaks of an intentio (“intention” or attention) and distentio (“distention” or distortion) of the soul in this connection. A distention can only be the distention of a prior intention, conceived as an act of the soul. Distension is related to the fleetingness of the temporal present, negatively contrasted with the unwavering permanent presence associated with Eternity. For Augustine, the imperfect and aporia-generating experience of presence associated with the act of the soul has to do with the “fallen” state of the soul.

Ricoeur points out that Augustine’s emphasis on intentional acts of the soul will provide the basis for later developments like the phenomenology of Husserl. (I did not actually know that the intentio used in the Latin translation of Avicenna already had an Augustinian provenance, even before the extensive adoption of Avicenna by medieval Augustinians; see also Intentionality.)

Ricoeur ultimately suggests that Augustine’s aporias will mean that contrary to what Husserl wanted, there cannot be a pure phenomenology of time. Through his own very original combination of this meditation of Augustine’s with notions generalized from Aristotle’s Poetics and some ideas from Kant, Ricoeur will eventually develop his own hermeneutic account.