More on Contemplation

I’m still, as it were, contemplating Aristotelian contemplation or theoria (see also But What Is Contemplation?; Kantian “Contemplation”?).

The two main English meanings of theoria — “contemplation” and “theory” — have a rather different connotative feel. What is tricky is that by all accounts, contemplation is also an activity. But it is not grammatically obvious that the English “theory” is an activity. Indeed, a theory is commonly taken to be a kind of inert representation, and not an activity.

Nonetheless, it seems reasonable to say that “theory” by itself can also refer to a corresponding activity. Theory’s activity would be contemplative, and would not in itself aim at any external result. At least on a relative scale applicable to humans, it would be pure thinking. Meanwhile, contemplation for Aristotle is a kind of activity that does not in itself have an external result.

In the contemporary revival of American pragmatist philosophy, figures like Brandom and Pippin insist that thinking is a kind of doing. Rather than a distinction between theory and practice, this leads to a distinction between specifically “contemplative” or “theoretical” practice, and practice in general. Doing and practice in English can thus have the full generality that activity has in Aristotle. Not all doing is “external” doing; not all practice is “external” practice.

Human pure thinking may implicitly issue in a kind of result — a relatively coherent representation, or broadly speaking a “theory” of what it holds to be the case — but it may still be said that this implicit result is “internal”, until some additional external action gives the representation some kind of embodiment.

However, Hegel might remind us that the very distinction between “internal” and “external” is problematic. He argues that it is not really possible to draw an unambiguous line between them, and that internal and external are instead related by a kind of continuity.

(Hegel confusingly calls this a speculative “identity”, though he is very clear that a speculative identity is not a formal, exact identity. Having come to see the value in what Paul Ricoeur calls narrative identity — another “identity” that is not a formal, exact identity — I don’t object as strenuously to Hegel’s nonstandard uses of “identity” as I once did, though I still prefer to use some other word when what is meant is anything weaker than exact isomorphism or substitutional equivalence.)

The continuity of internal and external seems to me like a very Aristotelian point, albeit one that Aristotle does not himself make. But unlike Hegel, Aristotle has no need to respond to a sharp Cartesian or Lockean dualism between consciousness and its representations on the one hand, and everything else on the other.

I think most people would allow that contemplation may involve representations, but contemplation itself is neither an activity of representing, nor a simple consciousness of static representations.

The English connotations of contemplation and reflection are closely aligned. Connotations of words do not count as a philosophical argument for identifying terms that might be claimed to stand for different concepts, but such alignment is nonetheless helpful, because in doing philosophy we are also concerned with communicating clearly, and there are always issues with translated terms not meaning quite the same thing on the two sides of a translation.

Aristotle identifies contemplation with thought thinking itself. I am suggesting that thought thinking itself can be strongly identified with reflection in the sense discussed by Kant, Hegel, Ricoeur, and Pippin, which builds on the common one. That would mean that contemplation can be identified with reflection.

Though the precise meanings of reflection and apperception in Kant are debated by scholars, there seems to be broad agreement that Kant strongly connects pure reflection with pure or transcendental apperception, and a more empirical reflection with a more empirical apperception. (See also Reflection, Apperception, Narrative Identity).

These same concepts are fundamental to Hegel’s Logic. The three “logics” he develops there concern mere assertion; reflection or reflective constitution; and reflective or apperceptive judgment. Hegel innovatively explains the constitution of essence in terms of a pure reflective determination that presupposes no fixed terms, but builds determination from relations between terms. Then he explains judgment as normatively applying reflective determination to appearances.

I want to suggest that Hegelian reflective or apperceptive judgment should be considered as a more detailed elaboration of Aristotelian deliberation and practical judgment.

All of this leads to the conclusion that Aristotelian contemplation — at least the contemplation that he explicitly makes the goal of human life — can be explained as the exercise of reflective or apperceptive judgment. It is not clear to me that the contemplation attributed to the first cause also issues in judgment, but it certainly does seem to be a kind of pure reflection such as Hegel associates with the determination of essence, and this tracks with Aristotle’s claim that the what-it-is of things depends on the first cause.

Reflection, Apperception, Narrative Identity

Robert Pippin recounts how in writing what became the Critique of Judgment, Kant developed a new notion of reflection, which transformed his whole philosophy from the inside:

“In early 1789 Kant began to formulate the new problem of reflective judgment, as well as a new a priori principle for such a faculty, the purposiveness of nature. What is important to notice for our purposes is that with that development, the shape of the entire critical project began to change dramatically” (Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, p. 290).

“Kant had realized that something like the deep structure of judgments like ‘this rose is beautiful’ actually contravened its own surface structure, that the predicate ‘beautiful’ was not really functioning as a standard predicate, as it appeared to. It referred to no objective property or mere secondary quality. Instead, he concluded, it involved a nonconceptually guided reflective activity on the part of the subject of the experience, whose novel logic required notions like a free play of the faculties, purposiveness without a purpose, disinterested pleasure, a commonsense and universal subjective validity” (pp. 290-291).

“The realization of the distinct features of this reflective activity was only the beginning of a series of more strikingly novel claims of interest to us…. [T]he reflective judging that resulted in aesthetic judgments, also constituted the basic structure of teleological judgments, and so could account for the unique intelligibility of organic beings” (p. 291).

“And then a number of other issues seem to be thrown into the same reflective judgment pot. The formulation of scientific theories not fixed or determined by empirical generalizations involved this activity and its logic, as did the systematizing of empirical laws necessary for genuine scientific knowledge. Finally, even the determination of ordinary empirical concepts now seemed to require this newly formulated reflective capacity…. So reflective judging and its a priori principle were now necessary not only for explaining the possibility and validity of aesthetic judgments, but in accounting for the necessary distinction between organic and nonorganic nature, the formation of empirical concepts, the proper integration of genera and species, the general unification of empirical laws into systems of scientific law, theory formation itself, and the right way to understand the attribution of a kind of necessity to all such principles, judgments, concepts, laws, and systems” (ibid).

Much of the discussion of judgment in the Critique of Pure Reason sounds like it is a simple matter of “applying” pre-existing concepts to things. But in reality, applying even pre-existing concepts is not a simple matter at all, if we care about the soundness of the application (as Kant certainly did), or about how anyone preliminarily judges what concepts might be applicable in a given case. This is what Kant began to consider in more detail with his new notions of reflection and reflective judgment.

Reflection is characterized above by Pippin as “nonconceptually guided”. I don’t think this means at all that reflection is nonconceptual, but rather only that it is fundamentally guided by something other than the kind of pre-existing concepts that Hegel would call “fixed”. Reflection involves the formation and interpretation of concepts that are not treated as already fixed. That is why it does not presuppose particular fixed concepts.

I want to relate this back to the Aristotelian deliberation and practical judgment (phronesis) that are concerned with particulars as such. The significance of addressing particulars as such is that we do not assume in advance what universals (i.e., Kantian concepts) apply to them, but rather let the particulars “speak” for themselves, and thoughtfully consider what they might mean or be in their own right. By particulars I mean in an Aristotelian way independent or non-independent “things”, not putative raw phenomena.

Aristotelian deliberation and practical judgment, I want to say, involve a “free play of the faculties” of the sort that Kant associates with reflection. Aristotle’s commonly cited conclusion that practical judgment is inferior to contemplative wisdom is entirely tied to the fact that he considers practical judgment’s outcome to be an action. I think the term practical judgment ought to apply just as much or more to the activity of interpreting particulars, without prejudice as to how the interpretation is used.

Kantian reflection seems to me to have the great virtue of uniting Aristotelian theoria (contemplation) and sophia (contemplative wisdom) with deliberation, thinking things through (dianoia), and practical judgment (phronesis). Kant also explicitly argues for the primacy of practical reason, which ultimately involves the reflective normative evaluation of particulars, even though he foregrounds a separate effort to articulate ethical universals. An Aristotelian sense for the Kantian primacy of practical reason would start from the interpretation of particulars mentioned above.

Kantian reflection also has an important relation to the Critique of Pure Reason‘s key term of apperception. The term “apperception” was coined by Leibniz, originally to imply a kind of “higher order” perception — a perception of perception. Kant gives it a more explicitly discursive character. If we add a Hegelian dimension, the dialectical character of discourse makes discourse inherently reflective in Kant’s sense. By virtue of their common reflective, discursive character, apperception in Kant is closely related to what is called “self-consciousness” in Hegel.

Kant famously speaks of the effort to maintain a unity of apperception. Here is where I think phronesis comes to the aid of theoria and sophia. Contrary to what both Kant and Aristotle sometimes suggest, it seems to me that the interpretation of particulars is actually prior to and more governing than the articulation of universals, although there is much interplay between the two. It is the interpretation of particulars that mainly provides occasions for the articulation of pertinent universals. This comes back to Aristotle’s other point that universals do not have independent reality in their own right, and to Kant’s other point about the primacy of practical reason.

The effort to maintain a unity of apperception is the effort to maintain a unity of self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is not simple “consciousness” of a pre-existing “self”, as if the latter were a discrete, pre-existing object. Rather, self-consciousness is grounded in reflection that has potentially indefinite extent. I think a similar grounding in reflection is what makes intellect “something divine in us” — and more than just a part of the soul — in Aristotle.

Aristotle speaks of thought thinking itself as contemplation. He tends to emphasize that thought thinking itself is an identity. But with any kind of identity, we must consider the way in which it is said.

What then could constitute any persistent identity for a unity of apperception? Here we come to the problems that Paul Ricoeur discussed under the more general rubric of narrative identity. Strictly speaking, any particular unity of apperception is a concrete constellation of what Aristotle would call particular relations that hold at a given moment. It is something like the totality of what we are currently committed to. Insofar as we speak of it as existing in fact, its unity and coherence are relative. Only as a kind of ideal or ethical goal can its unity be considered to be unqualified.

Insofar as we want to speak of the relative persistent identity of a unity of apperception — or anything like the unity of a person — we also need the Aristotelian concept of entelechy. The narrative identity of a unity of apperception is a kind of entelechy in which the thing whose identity is maintained is itself a work in progress, as all living beings are. We only have the final form of a life when it is over (see Happiness).

The narrative identity of a unity of apperception, then, is a kind of entelechy of apperception. More generally, Aristotelian entelechy is the narrative identity of a unity, or just is a kind of narrative identity. An entelechy of apperception is the entelechy of a process of reflection. (See also More on Contemplation; Hegel on Reflection; Apperceptive Judgment.)


Fichte greatly admired the coherence of the quasi-mathematically structured “system” of Spinoza’s Ethics, even though he strenuously objected to Spinoza’s determinism. In his early work, he announces the objective of constructing a “system of freedom” that would be some sort of inverse of Spinoza’s. Rather than following Spinoza’s quasi-mathematical method of presentation, Fichte proceeded more informally. He was influenced by the early Kant interpreter K. L. Reinhold’s claim that philosophy should be derived from a single principle, and aimed to put this into practice with his notion of the universal “I” as the principle.

Schelling inherited the rhetorical emphasis on a system from Fichte (e.g., one of the works of his early period was entitled Presentation of My Own System), but in general was a less rigorous thinker.

Hegel also inherited the rhetorical emphasis on a system, but aimed to be more rigorous than Fichte. At the same time he expands upon Kant’s criticism of the quasi-mathematical presentation in Spinoza, and explicitly rejects Reinhold’s view that philosophy should be derived from a single principle. So, there is a serious question what “system” really means for Hegel.

It is clear from his explicit remarks that he put an extraordinarily high value on the coherence of philosophical thought. The advance of studies of Hegel, especially since the later 20th century, has confirmed that he largely succeeded in putting this into practice. Both his overall thought and his detailed arguments are increasingly recognized as highly coherent.

The historic negative reception of Hegel has consisted largely in caricatures of his systematic ambitions. I call them caricatures because they rely on attributing to Hegel notions of “system” that were not his.

Hegel’s rhetorical emphasis on system, I want to suggest, is a red herring. What really matters in his thought is not “system” but coherence.

The notion of systems originates in mathematics, and there it has unambiguous meaning. Systems in mathematics do have great utility, because you can’t mathematically prove anything independent of a particular presentation, but this makes mathematical systems intrinsically presentation-dependent. That is to say, the particular terms and order with which the content is developed and presented are essential to making it a system for the same reasons that they are essential to proof. Mathematicians recognize that there may be multiple equivalent formulations, presentations, and systematizations of the “same” content.

I don’t find any of the attempts to present non-mathematical “systems” very helpful or convincing as such. (The common talk about real-world “systems” in engineering and science — which does also have utility — I take to be grounded in a kind of transference from the mathematical concept of a system. It is really the mathematics that describes the things or behavior of interest that may be expressible as a system.)

On the other hand, I want to say that the notion of coherence is more universal than that of a system or systems — systems are presentation-dependent, and coherence is not. The rhetorical stance of the German idealists seems to me to have assumed that the only way to achieve coherence is through the uniform presentation of a system. Certainly it is the most straightforward way, but that does not mean it is the only way.

Coherence in Hegel, I want to suggest, is “development-dependent” but not presentation-dependent. Robert Pippin points out that none of Hegel’s works is structured in a deductive order — rather, they all follow a “developmental” order that more resembles the telling of a story or an account of a history.

Hegel’s notorious idiosyncratic and paradoxical straining of language to talk about “identities” that preserve distinctions is helpfully explainable in terms of the notion of narrative identity developed by Paul Ricoeur. Aristotle’s articulation of things “said in many ways” and his more subtle development of “substance” in the Metaphysics are relevant background for this. (See Aristotelian Identity; Univocity.)

Ricoeur is the main developer to date of a synthesis of Kant and Aristotle independent of Hegel’s. Mediation is as central to his thought as it is to Hegel’s, and he explicitly recognized the convergence. However, he strongly rejected the “system” aspect of Hegel, and his development also doesn’t explicitly include anything resembling the Hegelian absolute, even in the deflationary form in which I think Hegel really meant it.

Ricoeur on Foucault

I still vividly recall the moment over 40 years ago when the sharp questioning of unities of all kinds in the preface and first chapter of Michel Foucault’s 1969 work The Archaeology of Knowledge very suddenly awoke me from erstwhile slumber in neoplatonic dreams about the One. Today I would say Foucault like many others was terribly wrong in his reading of Hegel, but I still look on that text as a sort of manifesto of historical method. As Aristotle too might remind us, distinctions are essential to intelligibility and understanding.

Just this year, the work of Paul Ricoeur has become very significant to me. Ricoeur expressed admiration for Foucault’s late work The Care of the Self, but in both volume 3 of Time and Narrative and his late work Memory, History, Forgetting, he criticized The Archaeology of Knowledge rather severely.

Ricoeur did not object to Foucault’s emphasis on discontinuities in (the field Foucault did not want to call) the history of ideas, but rather to Foucault’s closely related polemic against the subordination of such discontinuities to an encompassing continuity of historical “consciousness”, and to his further association of the idea of an encompassing continuity of consciousness with the would-be mastery of meaning by a putatively purely constitutive Subject. Ricoeur as much as Foucault objected to such notions of Mastery, but he still wanted to articulate a kind of narrative continuity of what he still wanted to call consciousness.

Ricoeur scholar Johann Michel in his book Ricoeur and the Post-Structuralists agrees that “the subject” for Ricoeur is far from purely constitutive, and “in reality, is not a subject in the substantialist sense” (p. 107). Rather, it is mediate, and only understandable via a long detour through cultural objectifications. As Ricoeur says, consciousness is “affected by the efficacity of history” (Time and Narrative vol. 3, p. 217). “We are only the agents of history insofar as we also suffer it” (ibid, p. 216). Ricoeur’s suffering-as-well-as-acting “subject” gives very different meaning to this highly ambiguous term from the kind of voluntaristic agency attributed to the Cogito by Descartes, and Ricoeur’s “consciousness” is very far from the notion of immediate “consciousness” classically formulated by Locke. I prefer to avoid confusion by using different vocabulary, but agree that the notions Ricoeur wanted to defend are quite different from those Foucault wanted to criticize.

This leaves the question of the relative priority of continuity and discontinuity. Foucault in his Archaeology phase advocated a method grounded in the conceptual priority of discontinuities of meaning, while Ricoeur wanted to give discontinuity an important subordinate role in an approach dedicated to recovering a continuity of consciousness. In my own current Aristotelian phase, I want to emphasize a view that is reconciling like Ricoeur’s, but still puts the accent on discontinuity like Foucault’s. My historiographical notes both tell stories and offer explanations somewhat in the way that Ricoeur advocated, and emphasize the differences and discontinuities favored by Foucault.

Ricoeur also seems to have been troubled by Foucault’s disinterest in what Ricoeur calls the “first-order entities” (p. 218) of history — actual communities, nations, civilizations, etc. (I would note that he is not using “first order” in the logical sense, which is a purely syntactic criterion; he just wants to suggest that these kinds of things are more methodologically primitive for historical inquiry.) I actually think apprehension of something like form comes before apprehension of any substantialized “things”, so my sympathy is more with Foucault on this point. Undoubtedly Ricoeur would say these have a narrative identity rather than a substantial one, which seems fine in itself, but I think any narrative identity must be a tentative result and not a methodological primitive.

Ultimately, I think Ricoeur was motivated by an ethical desire to put people first — a concern Foucault did not make clear he actually shared until The Care of the Self. Ricoeur would also agree, though, that historiography is not simply reducible to ethics, but has largely independent concerns of its own. He seems to have wanted to say that the history of ideas is fundamentally a history of people. I’m a pluralist, so I have no objection to this sort of account as one alternative, but I think people’s commitments tell us who they are more than who holds a commitment tells us about the commitment. I also think higher-order things come before first-order things, and that people are better thought of as singular higher-order trajectories of ways of being throughout a life than as first-order entities. Ricoeur, I believe, was reaching for something like this with his notion of narrative (as opposed to substantial) identity, which I would rather call something other than identity.

Narrated Time

The third volume of Paul Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative returns to more overtly philosophical themes. From the beginning of volume 1, he has been using Augustine’s aporias concerning time as a sort of background to everything else he considers. He had suggested that both Husserl’s phenomenology of internal time consciousness and Heidegger’s existential phenomenology of time — contrary to the intentions of their authors — ended up in aporias similar to Augustine’s.

Ricoeur says that neither a phenomenology of the experience of time nor a “cosmological”, measurement-oriented approach to its objective aspects can avoid some dependency on the other. “The distension of the soul alone cannot produce the extension of time; the dynamism of movement alone cannot generate the dialectic of the threefold present” (vol. 3, p. 21). His hope is that a poetics of narrative, even if it too is unable to resolve the Augustinian aporias, can at least make them “work for us” (p. 4). It will develop the “complicity as well as the contrast” (p. 22) between the two approaches.

He will subordinate the “dimension of reference to the hermeneutic dimension of refiguration” developed in volume 2’s discussion of literary narrative (p. 5, emphasis added). The approach to a “real” historical past can then be understood in terms of a narrative refiguration, rather than vice versa. (This differs significantly from Brandom’s subordination of reference to what might be called a hermeneutic dimension of material inference, but both Ricoeur and Brandom are putting some kind of hermeneutics or interpretation of meaning conceptually ahead of reference to “things” (see also What and Why; Objectivity of Objects). For both of them, reference is still a valid concept, but it is something that potentially stands in need of explanation, rather than something that provides an explanation.)

For Ricoeur here, “pure” semantics and foundationalist epistemology are both superseded by a “hermeneutic of the ‘real’ and the ‘unreal'” (p. 6) he expects will yield insight into both history and fiction. History and fiction are two ultimately interdependent modes of narrative refiguration, so that there is no history without an element of creative fiction, but also no fiction without an element of something like what is involved in historical reconstruction. This seems like an important and valid point.

The main body of this volume contains further elaboration on various matters he discussed before (see Time and Narrative; Ricoeur on Augustine on Time; Emplotment, Mimesis; Combining Time and Narrative; Ricoeur on Historiography; Literary Narrative; Narrative Time). In separate posts, I will selectively comment on a few parts of this. (See Philosophy of History?; Ricoeur on Foucault.)

At the end, he wants to “verify at what point the interweaving of the referential intentions of history and fiction constitutes an adequate response” (p. 242) to the aporia resulting from the interdependence of the phenomenological and “cosmological” views of time. Second, there is the question “what meaning to give to the process of totalization of the ecstases of time, in virtue of which time is always spoken of in the singular” (ibid). He expects the answer here to be less adequate. It will yield “a premonition of the limits ultimately encountered by our ambition of saturating the aporetics of time with the poetics of narrative” (p. 243). Finally, most “embarrassing” of all is the new question, “can we still give a narrative equivalent to the strange temporal situation that makes us say that everything — ourselves included — is in time, not in the sense given this ‘in’ by some ‘ordinary’ acceptation as Heidegger would have it in Being and Time, but in the sense that myths say that time encompasses us with its vastness” (ibid; emphasis in original). This, he suggests, ultimately remains a mystery in the Marcelian sense.

“Narrated time is like a bridge set over the breach constantly opened up by speculation between phenomenological time and cosmological time” (p. 244). “Augustine has no other resources when it comes to the cosmological doctrines than to oppose to them the time of a mind that distends itself” (ibid), but his meditations on Creation implicitly require a “cosmological” time. Aristotle’s cosmological view made time dependent on motion but distinct from it as a measurement of motion, but any actual measurement seems also to depend on some action performed by a soul.

Husserl elaborated a view of something like Augustine’s threefold present, which included memory and anticipation as well as current attention. He spoke of time as constituted through “retention”, “protention”, and a sort of comet-like duration rather than a point-like present. I am barely skimming the surface of a sophisticated development.

Ricoeur was a great admirer of Husserl, but in this case suggests that Husserl failed to achieve his further goal of establishing the primacy of phenomenological time with respect to other sorts of time. For Husserl, Ricoeur says, the constitution of phenomenological time depends on a “pure hyletics of consciousness” (ibid), but any discourse about the hyletic (i.e., relationally “material” in a broadly Aristotelian and more specifically Husserlian sense) will depend on the “borrowings it makes from the determinations of constituted time” (ibid). Thus for Ricoeur, the articulation of what Husserl wanted to be a purely constitutive phenomenological time actually depends on what he had wanted to treat as constituted results. As a consequence, despite Husserl’s wishes, phenomenological time should not be simply said to be purely constitutive.

Heidegger’s “authentic temporality” takes this aporia to its “highest degree of virulence” (p. 245). Being-in-the world does appear as a being-in-time. However, that time remains resolutely “individual in every case” (ibid), owing to Heidegger’s fixation on being-toward-death.

For Ricoeur, the “fragile offshoot” of the “dialectic of interweaving” of the “crisscrossing processes of a fictionalization of history and a historization of narrative” (p. 246) is a new concept of narrative identity of persons and communities as a practical category. A narrative provides the basis for the permanence of a proper name. He alludes to a saying of Hannah Arendt that to answer the question “who” is to tell the story of a life. Without such a recourse to narration, there is an “antinomy with no solution” between simply positing a substantially or formally identical subject, or with Hume and Nietzsche globally rejecting such a subject as an illusion.

(I have proposed a different “middle path” by decoupling actual subjectivity from the assumption of more unity than can be shown, and associating it more with what we care about and hold to be true than with “us” per se. Yet I also find myself wanting to tell a story of how the sapient “I” and the sentient “me” I want to distinguish are nonetheless interwoven in life, which is also what I think Hegel wanted to do.)

Ricoeur here introduces the connection between narrative identity and an ethical aim of “self-constancy” that he developed later in Oneself as Another. “[T]he self of self-knowledge is not the egotistical and narcissistic ego whose hypocrisy and naivete the hermeneutics of suspicion have denounced, along with its aspects of an ideological superstructure and infantile and neurotic archaism. The self of self-knowledge is the fruit of an examined life, to recall Socrates’ phrase” (p. 247). In Hegelian terms, this is the “self” involved in self-consciousness. In my terms, who we are is defined by what we care about and how we act on that. It is a “living” end or work always in progress rather than an achieved actuality. For Ricoeur, psychoanalysis and historiography provide “laboratories” for philosophical inquiry into narrative identity.

The second aporia concerned the unity or “totality” of time. “The major discovery with which we have credited Husserl, the constitution of an extended present by the continuous addition of retentions and protentions… only partially answers this question” (p. 252). It only results in partial “totalities”.

(While rejecting claims to unconditional “totality”, Ricoeur here accepts the terminology of “totalization” as an aim. I prefer to take something like Ricoeur’s conclusion that we only ever achieve partial “totalities” as a ground for saying that even as an aim, we should speak more modestly of (always partial and local) synthesis rather than “totalization”. To my ear, even as an aim “totalization” sounds too univocal and predetermined. I want to say that an aim of totalization is inherently unrealizable for a rational animal, whereas any end we turn out to have been actually pursuing based on interpretation of our actions must in some sense have been realizable. Ricoeur emphasizes that the mediation involved is imperfect, so that I think the difference in his case is merely verbal, but other authors’ use of “totalization” is more problematic.)

For Ricoeur, “the constitution of a common time will then depend on intersubjectivity” (p. 253), rather than on the unity of a consciousness. We should replace a “monological” theme of fallenness with a “dialogical” theme of being affected by history. Meanwhile, all initiative is in a sense “untimely”. The dialogical character of a historical present opens onto the same space of reciprocity as the making of promises. “[T]he imperfect mediation of historical consciousness responds to the multiform unity of temporality” (p. 257). But meanwhile, “it is not certain that repetition satisfies the prerequisites of time considered as a collective singular” (ibid). In this context he speaks of “an original status for the practical category that stands over against the axiom of the oneness of time” (ibid), and of a return to Kantian practical reason that “can be made only after a necessary detour through Hegel” (p. 258).

Ricoeur proposes “an epic conception of humanity”. Nonetheless, the “good correlation between the multiform unity of the ecstases of time and the imperfect mediation of the historical consciousness” (p. 259) cannot be attributed to narrative. “[T]he notion of plot gives preference to the plural at the expense of the collective singular in the refiguration of time. There is no plot of all plots capable of equaling the idea of one humanity and one history” (ibid). Narrativity does not so much resolve the aporias of time as put them to work.

The final aporia concerned the inscrutability of a unified time. He associates this with our non-mastery of meaning. We are “pulled back” toward an archaic, mythical, poetic form of thinking of the oneness of time that “points toward a region where the claim of a transcendental subject (in whatever form) to constitute meaning no longer holds sway” (p. 263). About returning to an origin we can only speak in metaphors. Finally, he asks if it is possible to speak of a narrative refiguring of the unrepresentability of time. “It is in the way narrativity is carried toward its limits that the secret of its reply to the inscrutability of time lies” (p. 270). “[T]he narrative genre itself overflows into other genres of discourse” (p. 271). Fiction multiplies our experiences of eternity in various ways, “thereby bringing narrative in different ways to its own limits” (ibid). It serves as a laboratory for an unlimited number of thought experiments. It “can allow itself a certain degree of intoxication” (ibid).

“It is not true that the confession of the limits of narrative abolishes the idea of the positing of the unity of history, with its ethical and political implications. Rather it calls for this idea…. The mystery of time is not equivalent to a prohibition directed against language. Rather it gives rise to the exigence to think more and to speak differently” (p. 274). It is only in the context of a search for narrative identity “that the aporetics of time and the poetics of narrative correspond to each other in a sufficient way” (ibid).


With chapter 7 of Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another, we finally reach the territory of ethics. I think the idea behind this deferral is not to suggest that we are not always already in ethical territory in living in the world, but only to prepare the way by separately treating aspects that are analytically distinguishable, even if in real life we only find them embedded in richer contexts.

Aristotle, Kant, Emmanuel Lévinas, and Hannah Arendt provide Ricoeur’s leading inspiration here. Somewhat like I have proposed, he suggests a hybrid of Aristotelian “ethics” and Kantian “morality” that gives priority to Aristotle. Lévinas is famous in continental circles for promoting recognition of “the Other”. Arendt provides Ricoeur’s focal point for connecting ethics to political concerns.

From Aristotle, Ricoeur extrapolates the ideal of “aiming at the good life with and for others, in just institutions” (p. 172). To Aristotle is also attributed a basing of the aim of the good life in praxis (action or practice). Using Aristotle’s analysis of Greek tragedy, Ricoeur develops an expanded notion of action based on what he calls “emplotment”. A literary plot embodies a dialectical interplay of characters and actions, each informing the other. This will be related to Ricoeur’s concept of narrative identity. Narrative identity is also implicitly tied to Aristotle via the Thomist Alasdair MacIntyre’s “narrative unity of a life”. Ricoeur develops a concept of self-esteem, related to the morally good pride in Aristotelian magnanimity. The importance of self-esteem is also related to Charles Taylor’s idea that man is a self-interpreting animal. A notion of mutuality and equality is developed from Aristotle’s concept of friendship. The importance of Aristotelian practical judgment is discussed. Kantian norms and obligations serve as implementation for Aristotelian aims.

Solicitude is Ricoeur’s main term for concern for others. It is discussed mainly in terms of Aristotelian friendship, with a bit of Lévinas. The use of Lévinas seems to create a tension with Aristotelian mutuality, due to Lévinas’ asymmetric emphasis on the Other. Ricoeur says that among friends, roles are reversible but each person is irreplaceable. Feelings also play a fundamental role in solicitude.

Following Arendt, he speaks of the “ethical primacy of living together over constraints related to judicial systems and political organization” (p. 194). He refers to Aristotle’s “foray into the vast polysemy of the just and the unjust” (p. 198). Finally, he concludes that “Equality… is to life in institutions what solicitude is for interpersonal relations” (p. 202).

Narrative Identity

Chapters 5 and 6 of Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another are concerned with the concept of narrative identity, developed in his earlier three-volume work Time and Narrative . We get at least the beginning of an answer to the doubts that occurred to me about a concept of identity based on reflexivity rather than sameness, when he applied it to Aristotle. I have not yet consulted the earlier work, but the treatment of narrative identity here itself seems a bit literary and elliptical. On the other hand, reading this I had the thought that literary theory was finally giving something back to philosophy, after so much borrowing in the other direction.

Narrative identity is intended to be a sort of Aristotelian mean between an identity of character — which according to Ricoeur follows the pattern of sameness — and an opposite pole he introduces, associated with what he calls self-constancy, which is to follow the pattern of reflexivity. Self-constancy is associated especially with keeping promises, and more generally with being reliable. This provides a more concrete model of what identity based on reflexivity is supposed to look like. Self-constancy involves success in a constant, self-directed effort. The self-directedness of the effort makes it clearly reflexive, in a temporally extended sense that seems much less problematic than an instantaneous reflexivity.

This notion of self-constancy reminds me of what we would get if we separated out Brandom’s ethical use of a responsibility or imperative to aim for consistency in one’s commitments, and directly gave it a more explicit temporal dimension that for Brandom arises mainly in a larger context. Narrative identity itself seems like the kind of thing that for Brandom is constructed writ large by Hegelian genealogy. (See also Time and Narrative; Narrated Time; Narrative Identity, Substance.)