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).

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.

Emplotment, Mimesis

If Augustine “groaned under the existential burden of discordance,” and in his meditations on time spoke to a “lived experience where discordance rends concordance” (Time and Narrative vol. 1, p. 31), Ricoeur says he found in Aristotle’s discussion of the principles of composition of Greek tragedy an “opposite reply” to Augustine’s problem of the “distention” of the soul, in “an eminently verbal experience where concordance mends discordance” (ibid). Aristotle’s mending concordance is achieved through mythos or “emplotment”.

Ricoeur analyzes the poetic act of mimesis or “imitation” into three moments: simple imitation of actions; emplotment; and a reception by the reader or audience.

He notes that Aristotle uses the same word (praxis) for the actions represented by the poet, and for ethical actions. This potentially sets the stage for an innovative cross-fertilization between ethics and poetics. To anticipate a bit, it suggests to me that the Self Ricoeur elsewhere in a Kantian way treats as an ethical aim may also be viewed as an artistic work, in the sense that the Greeks spoke of beautiful actions.

In the moment of emplotment, the first, superficial view of isolated actions as successive events is transformed into a story or narrative that gives actions coherence and meaning (and, one might say, makes them true actions). Ricoeur compares emplotment to the schematism that is generated by the productive imagination in the first layer of Kantian synthesis, which preconsciously transforms the “blind” intuition of a manifold into the first stage of actual experience. A kind of synthesis turns a series of events into an ordered emplotment or story, reconceptualizing events as meaningful actions, and distinguishing those that are relevant to the story from those that are not. (See also Ascription of Actions.)

Anticipating again, it seems to me Ricoeur’s third moment of mimesis — reception by the reader or audience — is the analogue in poetics to the moment of recognition by others in ethics.

Ricoeur notes that the mimetic activity of the poet does not itself have any markedly temporal character for Aristotle. (The same could be said, I would note, of unities of apperception in Kant.) Ricoeur himself will take responsibility for connecting time and narrative.

He will abstract a generalized notion of narrative from Aristotle’s discussion of several specific genres. The notion of narrative Ricoeur wants to develop will include both fiction and history. It abstracts beyond the contrast he notes between Aristotle’s tendency to see characters in terms of their roles in a story, and some modern novels that use a story largely as a vehicle for character development.

In both cases, I anticipate, narrative will show a constitution of persons or selves. This seems to me like a very nice innovation. Integral personhood, instead of being a matter of dogma or an ontological primitive, becomes a matter of ethics and poetics. It is not so much an actuality as an aim, end, or work in progress.

For Aristotle, Ricoeur notes, the art of composing plots is comprehensive enough to be simply identified with poetics as a whole. Ricoeur wants to stress that this composition — and poetic representation generally — is an activity irreducible to any static structure. Here he begins to rejoin Augustine’s emphasis on acts of the soul. As Brandom might say, representation is first of all a kind of doing. (The Greek for “poetics” is derived from a verb meaning to do or to make.) In Marcelian terms, representation is not something we have.

Aristotle’s treatment of poetic mimesis as an activity, Ricoeur says, makes it far removed from Plato’s — a single field of human doing rather than something involving Plato’s hierarchy of copies, in which poetic “imitation” is an inferior second iteration of the way things passively resemble their ideas. Ricoeur says that Aristotle almost identifies poetic representation of action with an active organizing of events.

A plot forms a kind of whole. Its order follows a kind of practical “logic” rather than the mere sequentiality of a chronology. Coherence of the mythos is more important than the particular story, which according to Ricoeur makes Aristotelian mimesis a kind of directly universalizing making. This makes sense, given the previous comparison of mimesis to Kantian synthesis. Aristotelian “imitation” is never just a copy of a pre-existing reality; it is always creative. Ricoeur speaks of the mediating function of mimesis. The mythos is a metaphorical transformation of the ethical field.

Ricoeur analyzes several of the stylistic techniques discussed by Aristotle — such as surprises or sudden reversals of fortune — as particular examples of the incorporation of discord into an overall concordance. These are judged by a standard resembling the broadly rational “persuasiveness” that according to Aristotle is the rhetorician’s goal. This kind of effort also resembles what Brandom calls Hegelian genealogy.

Time and Narrative

My next project, occupying several posts, will concern Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative (3 vols; French ed. 1983-85). I previously commented on chapters in his Oneself as Another that used this work’s concept of narrative identity. Volume 1 contains discussions of Augustine’s treatment of time in the Confessions, which I always found to be one of the most intriguing things in Augustine; Aristotle’s concept from the Poetics that Ricoeur translates as “emplotment”, which turns out to be a derived use of the Greek mythos (myth); different kinds of mimesis or “imitation”, also in the Poetics; and narrative versus explanation in the writing of history. Volume 2 is concerned with the experience of time in literature, and volume 3 applies the results of volume 2 to the problems posed in volume 1, developing the philosophical consequences. Hayden White called this work the 20th century’s “most important synthesis of literary and historical theory”.