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.)