Ricoeur on Imagination

Paul Ricoeur’s essay on imagination in From Text to Action invites us “to see in it an aspect of semantic innovation characteristic of the metaphorical use of language” (p. 171). The term “image”, he says, has acquired a bad reputation from its misuse in the empiricist theory of knowledge. It “corresponds to two extreme theories, illustrated by Hume and Sartre, respectively” (p. 170). Hume sought to derive images entirely from sense perception, while Sartre related them starkly to the absence of a real object. According to Ricoeur, “To say that our images are spoken before they are seen is to give up an initial false self-evidence, which holds the image to be first and foremost a ‘scene’ unfolding in some mental ‘theater’ before the gaze of an internal ‘spectator’. But it also means giving up at the same time a second false self-evidence, holding that this mental entity is the cloth out of which we tailor our abstract idea, our concepts, the basic ingredient of some sort of mental alchemy” (p. 171).

He suggests that we take the poetic image as paradigmatic. The poetic image is unfolded through what Eugène Minkowski and Gaston Bachelard called a kind of “reverberation” of things said. Metaphor for Ricoeur operates not just as substitution for nouns, but rather in a refiguration of whole sentences. Use of what would otherwise be “bizarre predicates” produces a kind of shock that leads us to “produce a new predicative pertinence that is the metaphor…. [A]t the moment when a new meaning emerges out of the ruins of literal predication[,] imagination offers its specific mediation” (p. 172). “[S]emantic shock… ignites the spark of meaning of the metaphor…. Before being a fading perception, the image is an emerging meaning” (p. 173). (See also Beauty, Deautomatization.) He says that in a Kantian sense, imagination schematizes emerging meaning, giving it concreteness.

The reverberation of meaning is not a secondary phenomenon, but rather essential to the constitution of meaning as such. Ricoeur suggests that “the power unfurled by poetic language” (p. 174) affects not only meaning, but reference too. Poetic discourse abolishes “our first-order interest in manipulation and control” (p. 175), but brings to the foreground a second-order reference to “our profound belonging to the life-world” and the “tie of our being to other beings” (ibid). This second-order reference “in reality is the primordial reference” (ibid). (See Rule of Metaphor.) Such a perspective goes along with the idea that reference is constituted by meaning, rather than vice versa. In Fregean terms, sense is prior to reference.

“The paradox of fiction is that setting perception aside is the condition for augmenting our vision of things” (ibid). According to Ricoeur, work in model theory suggests that not only in poetry but also in science, fiction plays a necessary heuristic role in articulating new meanings (see also Searching for a Middle Term). Further, “the first way human beings attempt to understand and to master the ‘manifold’ of the practical field is to give themselves a fictive representation of it” (p. 176).

Referring to Aristotle’s Poetics, he says “poetry goes right to the essence of action precisely because it ties together mythos and mimesis, that is, in our vocabulary, fiction and redescription” (ibid). In a Kantian vein, Ricoeur adds that “Its referential force consists in the fact that the narrative act, winding through the narrative structures, applies the grid of an ordered fiction to the ‘manifold’ of human action” (pp. 176-177; see also Narrated Time.)

Beyond its mimetic function, imagination also has a projective aspect. “Without imagination, there is no action…. And it is indeed through the anticipatory imagination of acting that I ‘try out’ different possible courses of action and that I ‘play’, in the precise sense of the word, with possible practices…. It is imagination that provides the milieu, the luminous clearing, in which we can compare and evaluate motives as diverse as desires and ethical obligations, themselves as disparate as professional rules, social customs, or intensely personal values” (p. 177). “Finally, it is in the realm of the imaginary that I try out my power to act, that I measure the scope of ‘I can'” (p. 178). (See also Free Play; Practical Judgment.)

Imagination is also involved in our recognition of others as like us. “[I]ndividuals as well as collective entities… are always already related to social reality in a mode other than that of immediate participation, following the figures of noncoincidence, which are, precisely, those of the social imaginary” (p. 182).

“[T]he analogical tie that makes every man my brother is accessible to us only through a number of imaginative practices, among them ideology and utopia” (p. 181). Ideology “seems to be tied to the necessity for any group to give itself an image of itself, to ‘play itself’, in the theatrical sense of the word, to put itself at issue and on stage…. [S]ymbolism is not an effect of society, society is an effect of symbolism” (ibid). Ideology covers over the real gaps in all systems of legitimacy. Utopia exposes these gaps, but also tends to subordinate reality to dreams, and to be fixated on perfectionist designs. Ideology and utopia are mutually antagonistic, and both tend toward a kind of pathology that renders their positive function unrecognizable. “[T]he productive imagination… can be restored to itself only through a critique of the antagonistic and semipathological figure of the social imaginary” (p. 181).

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.

Primary Process

Lacan saw both language and the primary process of the unconscious as mainly governed by Jakobsonian metaphor and metonymy. While especially well adapted to accounting for poetry, word salads, and dreams, the Jakobsonian approach seems insufficiently constrained to be able to account for proprieties of inference; but then, it was not developed for that purpose. (See also Imaginary, Symbolic, Real.)

Brandom sees any descriptive, formal view of language such as the Jakobsonian one as ultimately parasitic on a nonformal, normative, and material-inferential view. For rational, discursive purposes where we want deontic modal constraints, Brandom’s approach works very well. Brandom’s account focuses on the normative and inferential meaning of ordinary empirical concepts, and has nothing to say about free metaphor and metonymy, which also have a big place in the wider world; but then, it was not developed for the latter purpose.

I don’t mean to suggest any facile symmetry here, just the bare possibility of some reconciliation in view of the fact that the main concerns of the two approaches are mutually exclusive. Saying that a view is parasitic on another view is very different from saying it is wrong. The question is whether it is fair to expect that Brandom’s claim of parasitism at a general level of formal on “material” and of descriptive on normative approaches imposes on Brandom an obligation to be able to explain any possible formal account in his terms, including one mainly designed for a case well outside his focus. I think it does impose on him an obligation to be able to explain any formal account addressing the scope of determination of empirical concepts, but does not impose an obligation to be able to explain something like metaphor and metonymy. So, at least in this measure I do think the perspectives can coexist.

In my youth when I was a linguistically experimental poet among other things, I put more stress on metaphor and metonymy myself. At that point, I still believed in rational intuition, did not really think of reasoning in terms of language, and was even a bit disdainful of breaking things down into steps. Now I think all intuition is secondary to some prior development. As soon as I encountered Brandom’s argument about the priority of inference over representation, it seemed very right, and I began to engage with other aspects of his work from there. We could squint and say metaphor and metonymy are forms of representation, but if so it is certainly not empirical conceptual representation, so I’m inclined to think in that case we’re dealing with an Aristotelian homonym.