Literary Narrative

Resuming the thread on Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative, the beginning of volume 2 makes it clear he thinks the stakes in discussing fictional narrative — distinguished from historical narrative by not being oriented toward anything analogous to historical truth — extend well beyond the traditional concerns of literary criticism. (Of course, going beyond those traditional concerns is pretty much the norm for literary critics these days.) Let me say that I am no scholar of literature, though I used to write experimental “language on language” poetry, and have read a bit of literary theory mainly for its philosophical content.

Philosophically, he will defend the “precedence of our narrative understanding in the epistemological order” (vol. 2, p. 7). There will be a great “three-way debate” between lived experience, historical time, and fictional time. He will extensively take up the idea of the “world” projected by a text. There will be a sort of analogy between the place of a structuralist or semiotic analysis of a literary text and the work of explanation in history, but Ricoeur says the analysis will eventually show that literary narrative has different relations to time than historical narrative.

Thinking about literary narrative, he suggests, will turn out to be more helpful in shedding light on Augustine’s paradoxes of the experience of time. In the literary case, there will be a distinction between the time of the act of narration and the time of the things narrated.

The continuing relevance of a notion of plot in modern literature, he says, needs to be shown rather than assumed. Rather than extending and further abstracting the general principle of formal composition that Aristotle had begun to articulate, modern literary studies began with an odd combination of struggle against old conventions, concern for increased realism, and inappropriate borrowing from models of ancient genres. According to Ricoeur, this resulted in a mutilated, dogmatic, not very interesting notion of plot associated mainly with a linear sequence of events, that “could only be conceived as an easily readable form” (p. 9).

Modern novels, on the other hand, have greatly increased the importance of character, and explored the dynamic process of its growth. They may take alternate forms, such as streams of consciousness, diaries, or exchanges of letters. Action accordingly has to be understood in a broader and deeper way no longer limited to external behavior, encompassing things like growth of character and moments in a stream of consciousness. Once this is done, he says, a generalized notion of imitation of action will again apply.

But the early English novelists “shared with empiricist philosophers of language from Locke to Reid” (p. 11) an ideal of purely representational language stripped of metaphor and figurative constructs. “Implicit in this project is the reduction of mimesis to imitation, in the sense of making a copy, a sense totally foreign to Aristotle’s Poetics” (p. 12). I’m more inclined to think so-called literal language is just a limit case of metaphor. I would also note that this representationalist paradigm of transparency is the direct opposite of the “language on language” perspective. “Today it is said that only a novel without plot or characters or any discernible temporal organization is more genuinely faithful to experience” (p. 13). The kind of justification offered, he says, is the same as the one for naturalistic literature — reproduction of experience rather than synthesis. I’m sure someone must have done that, but appeals to experience are somewhat inimical to the structuralist “language on language” view.

Ricoeur wants to suggest that literary paradigms originate “at the level of the schematism of the narrative understanding rather than at the level of semiotic rationality” (p. 15). He will argue that a purely semiotic approach to narrative has the same weaknesses as the positivist “covering law” model in history. I’m a little confused by this, because earlier he more charitably compared the semiotic approach to historical explanation in general, which he had presented as legitimately different from narrative understanding.

He suggests that structural analysis at lower levels like phonology or lexical semantics does not lose nearly as much context of meaning as structural analysis of narrative, which aims to reduce away all temporal elements and replace them with logical relationships. He also says the identity of a style is transhistorical, not atemporal, and that styles are perennial rather than eternal.

He contests the assertion of Roland Barthes that there is an “identity” between language and literature, and that each sentence already has the essential features of a narrative. Behind what Ricoeur is objecting to, I think, may be the additional idea of a strictly compositional, bottom-up interpretation of meaning, which he alluded to earlier. In a formal context like that of structural analysis, compositionality is an extremely important property, but in a broader hermeneutics, I agree with Ricoeur that a bottom-up approach is basically a non-starter. My own past enthusiasm for structuralism had much more to do with its relational, difference-before-identity aspect. I’ve always had severe doubts about any bottom-up reduction when it comes to meaning.

On the other hand, while recognizing many valuable contributions of Husserl and his followers, I fundamentally disagree with what I take to be that tradition’s identification of “consciousness” with what I take Hegel to have sharply distinguished from consciousness as “self-consciousness”.

On my reading, this distinction is the radical “break” in Hegel’s Phenomenology. I have glossed “self-consciousness” as actually other-focused even though it does involve a unity of apperception, and as anything but a species of a genus “consciousness”. I think unity of apperception and Hegelian “self-consciousness” have to do with Aristotelian ethos and what we care about, as a discursive stance in relation to others. I do of course agree that there is consciousness, and that it has a kind of interiority of its own. I also agree that one of its features is something like Husserl’s “living present”, but I think consciousness and the living present belong to what Brandom calls our sentience rather than to what he calls our sapience, which I associate with unity of apperception and “self-consciousness”.

What attitude one takes on this question of the identity or distinctness of consciousness and self-consciousness matters greatly when it comes to something like the debate between structuralism and phenomenology in the tradition of Husserl. I care about rich concepts of reason and feeling, but “consciousness” not so much. I am not worried about the impact of structuralism on the living present, because I see them as pertaining to disjunct domains.

On the other hand, I think Ricoeur is right to be very doubtful whether narrative can be adequately understood without temporality, and right again to reject bottom-up determination of meaning. I am inclined to be sympathetic to his view that temporality cannot be reduced to logic.

I also think it makes a big difference whether one is considering a stereotyped form like the folk tales whose analysis by Vladimir Propp he discusses, or something as complex as a modern novel. Structural analysis may come much closer to yielding comprehensive insight in the one case, while falling much further short in the other. (Ricoeur is not satisfied even in the case of the folk tale.)

Ricoeur also discusses work on a higher level “logic of narrative” concerned with roles of characters, and the narrative grammar of Greimas. He says narrative has more to do with history than with logic. He makes the very valid point that the structuralist notion of the “diachronic” captures only a simple notion of succession. I agree that one should not look to structuralism for rich analyses of time itself, but that does not mean it cannot give us insight about things happening in time, which in turn does not mean it gives us the whole story either.

Ricoeur on History

Having just treated Ricoeur’s views on historiography at a semi-technical level, and having just received a copy of his collection of essays History and Truth (French ed. 1955), I think this less technical earlier work, roughly contemporary with Freedom and Nature, merits a digression. It gives broad expression to his desire to mediate and reconcile, as well as more specific voice to his personal views on religion and politics.

At this stage, history for Ricoeur particularly meant two special kinds of history — the history of philosophy, and the historical dimension of Christian revelation.

The kind of history of philosophy he wanted to practice would not involve treating views of philosophers as instantiations of generic types of views, but rather treating each philosopher as a singularity. He argues that good history in general is largely concerned with singulars. I would agree on both points. There is a precursor to his later argument about the mediating role of singular causal imputation, and one of the essays begins with the wonderful quote from Spinoza that to better know singulars is to better know God.

In contrast to adherents of philosophical “systems” who would reduce the history of philosophy to moments in a monolithic “philosophy of history” subordinated to a system, he poses the idea of a simultaneously sympathetic and critical account of irreducibly multiple, integral philosophies. Philosophical “problems”, he says, do not eternally have the same meaning.

I find this very admirable, even though Ricoeur at this stage sounds like he uncritically accepted a Kierkegaardian view of Hegel as the bad “systematic” philosopher of history par excellence, whereas I follow more recent readings of Hegel as a leading critic of that sort of thing. On the other hand, he very correctly points out how Hegel reduced away Spinoza’s genuine concern for subjectivity.

Somewhat circumspectly, he suggests that a Christian notion of revelatory events in history creates something like a surplus of meaning that acts as a safeguard against totalizing views of history. I’m generally very nervous about claims of revelation, as revelation is often regarded as an unchallengeable knowledge with self-evident interpretation. Arrogant humans too often claim to just know the will of God, and want to impose their certainty on others. This has nothing to do with piety, and certainly does not reflect any humility or respect for mystery. The idea of a surplus of meaning on the other hand is precisely not a claim to “just know” that meaning.

Ricoeur’s idea of an inexhaustible “surplus” of meaning exceeding any interpretation has been criticized as implying that the meaning then must be predetermined on some virtual level, but that objection seems artificial to me, because Ricoeur’s idea is an acknowledgement of lack of knowledge rather than a knowledge claim. The inexhaustible surplus seems to me to be a less “metaphysical” analogue of the neoplatonic notion that ultimate principles are “supra-essential” and therefore beyond the grasp of rigorous knowledge but only hinted at in symbols, which I think actually reflected a kind of epistemic modesty. This seems to me no more objectionable than Kant’s notion of things in themselves as exceeding our knowledge.

As in the later discussion in Time and Narrative, he ambivalently develops a notion of historical objectivity and truth. On the one hand, he finds the quest for this both necessary and admirable, but on the other he worries that the truth of the historian abolishes both history as grounded in subjective consciousness, and the eschatology associated with revelation. Ricoeur wants to make room for personal faith, without compromising the autonomy of philosophy by asserting its subordination to revealed theology. He advocates for historical objectivity, but remains wary of any objectifying reduction of human or spiritual realities. The antidote to objectification is Marcelian mystery, and a recognition of ambiguity that he associates with faith. Ultimately, he wants to promote hope.

The later, even more nuanced discussion in Time and Narrative carefully weakens this work’s apparent claims on behalf of subjective consciousness, but here too, there is considerable subtlety.

In contrast to Sartre’s identification of freedom with negativity and nothingness, he wants to emphasize the primacy of affirmation. In contrast to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception, he says he wants to emphasize the primacy of a phenomenology of signification and meaning like that developed in Husserl’s early Logical Investigations. Ricoeur already thinks it is an error to treat human perception as if it could be separated from our involvement in language.

One essay is a tribute to Emmanuel Mounier, to whose journal Esprit he was a frequent contributor. Mounier’s “personalist” movement aimed at a new pedagogy to combat modern alienation, combining Christianity and a concern for the individual with a sort of democratic socialism. Another piece deals with nonviolence, and another contrasts Christian Agape with the “punitive violence of the magistrate” (p. 240).

Political power, Ricoeur says, is eminently prone to evil. Utopian belief in the future withering away of the state allowed many to justify a disregard for terrible abuses in the present, while the “false truth” of fascism was morally far worse. Clerical power is as dangerous as political power. “[T]he religious totality and the political totality are genuine totalities of our existence. This is why they are the two greatest temptations for the spirit of falsehood, the lapse from the total to the totalitarian” (p. 189). Ricoeur says that “the Christian has everything to learn from the critique of power elaborated by classical ‘liberal’ thought from Locke to Montesquieu, by the ‘anarchist’ thought of Bakunin, by those who supported the [Paris Commune of 1870], and by the non-Stalinist Marxists” (p. 117).

Ricoeur on Historiography

The overarching objective of part 2 of the first volume of Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative is to show that it is indeed plausible to apply a literature-based notion of narrative to the writing of history. This has to be distinguished, however, from a naive notion of “narrative history”.

With his usual honesty, he dwells at length on two major trends in historiography that are typically understood to be completely opposed to a narrative approach — the French Annales school, and work derived from logical positivism. He then builds a case that in spite of everything, there is an essential narrative aspect to history, even if it is only indirect.

Ricoeur sagely observes that debates on historiography often end up in the same philosophical territory as the Latin medieval debates on nominalism and realism. He says he will apply the later Husserl’s concept of “questioning back”, concerned more with the genesis of meaning than with epistemology, to uncover the intentionality of historical knowledge.

The French Annales school is famous for emphasizing long periods in history rather than episodic events, and economics, “mentalities”, and cultural practices over the superficial drama of politics and actions of individuals. Even though he ultimately wants to push this meta-level interpretation in a different direction, Ricoeur dwells at length on his admiration for their achievements. I am myself quite sympathetic to an approach to history broadly of this sort.

From the seemingly unpromising ground of the approach to history that developed from the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle, he extracts the idea of what he calls, following Bachelard, an epistemological break between simple narrative and historical explanation. Historical explanation has goals of objective truth that do not apply to literature. Ricoeur says the break opened up by an emphasis on explanation is real and should be maintained, even if we end up deploying a very different kind of explanation from what those influenced by logical positivism had in mind.

He also discusses the work of Max Weber, Raymond Aron, and Hayden White.

Weber propounded a notion of what Ricoeur calls singular causal imputation in history that is worlds apart from the positivist “covering law” approach of Hempel, which looked for something analogous to mathematical-physical laws in sociology to explain history. Looking for the “adequate” cause of a singular development requires an extensive interpretive effort (Weber’s famous Verstehen method for the human sciences). Weber’s analysis of the relation between Protestantism and capitalism developed a large-scale singular causal chain that involved roles, attitudes, and institutions rather than individuals. Such imputations of cause for large-scale singular things must necessarily consider many dimensions, and many contingent developments. This reminds me of my own characterization of Aristotelian causality.

Raymond Aron famously applied to history what I would call the Kantian point that, as Ricoeur puts it, “Understanding — even the understanding of another person in everyday life — is never a direct intuition but always a reconstruction” (p. 97). No such thing as a historical reality exists ready-made. Historical explanation involves real work.

Ricoeur calls Hayden White’s Metahistory a “poetics” of historiography. White wrote at length about historical “explanation by emplotment”.

Ricoeur refers to the historian’s credo of objectivity as “a secret dream of emulating the cartographer or the diamond cutter” (p. 176) “[T]he facts dealt with in historical works, when they are taken one at a time, interlock with one another in the manner of geographical maps, if the same rules of projection and scale are respected, or, yet again, like the different facets of the same precious stone…. The final corollary is that, precisely because history has objectivity as a project, it can pose the limits of objectivity as a specific problem. This question is foreign to the innocence and naivete of the narrator” (ibid).

“[H]istory replaces the subject of action with entities that are anonymous, in the strict sense of the term…. This new history thus seems to lack characters. And without characters, it could not continue to be narrative…. It no longer seems to refer to the living present of a subjective consciousness…. [The] ‘times of history’, to use Braudel’s expression, seem to be without any apparent relation to the time of action…. [This heightens] the necessity for a new type of dialectic between historical inquiry and narrative competence” (p. 177).

However, criticism of the “covering law” model has already led to a “diversification of explanation that makes it less foreign to narrative understanding, without thereby denying the explanatory vocation” (p. 178). Meanwhile, “to narrate is already to explain…. [and] narrative is in no way bound to the confused and limited perspective of the agents and the eye-witnesses of the events” (ibid).

Ricoeur says that narrative cannot replace an explanatory approach to history. “This question must be unreservedly answered in the negative. A gap remains between narrative explanation and historical explanation, a gap that is inquiry as such. This gap prevents us from treating history… as a species of the genus ‘story'” (p. 179). History has its own explanatory procedures, its own “first order entities”, and its own time, or rather plurality of times.

He argues, however, that “the paradox of historical knowledge… transposes onto a higher level of complexity the paradox constitutive of the operation of narrative configuration” (p. 180). The first-order entities of history will turn out to be quasi-characters that “bear the indelible mark of concrete agents’ participatory belonging to the sphere of praxis and narrative” (p. 181). Weber’s notion of adequate singular causal imputation, he suggests, “constitutes the requisite mediation between the opposing poles of explanation and understanding” (ibid). The kind of contingency built into what Ricoeur now calls “historical causality” would prevent any historical determinism. Historical causality will mediate between narrative explanation and explanation by law.

Ricoeur thinks apparently non-narrative history nonetheless has an indirect narrativity. He tests this through an examination of several works of the Annales school, especially Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. He finds Braudel’s entire work to be organized by a “quasi-plot”. Braudel has “invented a new kind of plot” (p. 216) that “teaches us to unite structures, cycles, and events by joining together heterogeneous temporalities and contradictory chronicles” (ibid).

Ricoeur finds a kind of quasi-events at the level of long duration. “For me, the event is not necessarily something brief and nervous, like some sort of explosion. It is a variable of the plot…. For the historian, the event continually appears in the very midst of structures” (p. 217). Ricoeur argues that people and politics thus remain effectively important for Braudel and the other Annales historians, even though they overtly focus on structures. Looking to several treatments of the French revolution, Ricoeur concludes that their brilliant and convincing analyses of mentality and ideology do not eliminate the role of an event of taking power. “[A]ll change enters the field of history as a quasi-event” (p. 224; emphasis in original).

Earlier, while discussing the work of Raymond Aron, he says the historian in pursuing the work of explanation is concerned with a vast field of “what ifs”. In effect, this invokes something like Aristotelian potentiality, the importance of which Ricoeur has elsewhere explicitly recognized. I would definitely include the historical structures analyzed by the Annales school and others in my previous generalization that structuralist concepts of structure should be understood as defining fields of multiple potentiality, not some kind of univocal determination. Although deeper understanding requires a lengthy detour through the mode of potentiality, it never reduces away the ultimate dependence of potentiality on actuality. I see Ricoeur’s quasi-events as occurring on a plane of actuality correlative to the potentiality of structure. (See also Combining Time and Narrative).

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.

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.

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”.

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.

Ricoeur on Psychoanalysis

The concluding book of Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy aims at a reconciliation of two contrasting approaches in hermeneutics — demystifying and kerygmatic — that would be not merely eclectic but genuinely dialectical. He suggests on the one hand that faith ought to be entirely compatible with a sharp critique of idols, and on the other that Freud never adequately considered how his late concept of Eros and its sublimations could be legitimately reconnected with notions of spiritual love.

He develops a bit further his earlier contrast between a “philosophy of consciousness” and a “philosophy of reflection”. A philosophy of consciousness grounds a false Cogito on the immediacy of consciousness. A philosophy of reflection on the other hand pays attention to the always mediated character of experience, and to subjectivity as something that is constituted as well as constitutive. It therefore decenters subjectivity. Ricoeur argues that Husserl as much as Freud considered subjectivity as something constituted.

At the same time, Ricoeur in this work still wants to speak of a true Cogito of reflection, and in this context wants to distinguish between immediate consciousness and the “living self-presence” to which Husserl appealed. Although Ricoeur does not say it, it seems to me that Husserl’s living self-presence is supposed to be precisely a kind of non-empirical (i.e., transcendental) immediate consciousness. I think on the contrary that the transcendental is all mediation, and hold what I take to be a Kantian position that feelings of living presence or self-presence belong on the side of introspective appearance that is ultimately empirical rather than transcendental.

Ricoeur notes that for Freud, it is more a question of “it speaks” rather than “I think”.

He thinks there is an ambiguity in Freud between primitive, sub-linguistic and transcendental, supra-linguistic concerns, so that symbolic meaning expressing poetic or spiritual truth is not clearly separated from something like word play. This goes back to his earlier concern with the phenomenology of religious symbols. I actually think that word play can serve as an indirect expression of poetic or spiritual truth, but then I also think spiritual truth is inherently “poetic”.

In spite of criticizing (the old stereotype of) Hegel for claiming a sort of omniscience, Ricoeur suggests that Hegel’s phenomenology, with its distinction between Consciousness and Spirit and its discussions of the relation between Spirit and desire, provides a “teleology” complementary and inverse to Freud’s “archeology” of subjectivity. For this to be a truly dialectical relation, he says, each must contain a moment approximating the other, and he thinks that in fact they do.

He also connects Freud’s work with Spinoza’s critique of consciousness and free will; Leibniz’s theories of unconscious perception; and Kant’s simultaneous assertion of a transcendental idealism and an empirical realism. Freud’s “topographies” are associated with a kind of realism in this Kantian sense.

For Ricoeur’s Freud, life and desire always have an unsurpassable character. Because of this, a relation to reality is always a task, not a possession. What ultimately distinguishes psychoanalysis, Ricoeur says, is not just the idea that we have motives of which we are ignorant, but Freud’s account of the resistance of an always somewhat narcissistic ego and the corresponding extended work of overcoming it. This relates directly to the idea of reality as a task. “We did not regard this realism as a relapse into naturalism, but as a dispossession of immediate certitude, a withdrawal from and humiliation of our narcissism” (p. 432). “It is one and the same enterprise to understand Freudianism as a discourse about the subject and to discover that the subject is never the subject one thinks it is” (p. 420).

“I consider the Freudian metapsychology an extraordinary discipline of reflection: like Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, but in the opposite direction, it achieves a decentering of the home of significations, a displacement of the birthplace of meaning. By this displacement, immediate consciousness finds itself dispossessed to the advantage of another agency of meaning — the transcendence of speech or the emergence of desire…. We must really lose hold of consciousness and its pretension of ruling over meaning, in order to save reflection” (p. 422). What Ricoeur called reflection and will, I give the more classical name of Reason.

Death Instinct?

Part 3 of book 2 of Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy examines the considerable perturbations to Freud’s views that resulted from his introduction of a “death instinct” in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Ricoeur notes that Freud’s German is more literally “drive” rather than instinct, which seems to make fewer assumptions, and that Freud often refers to “death instincts” in the plural. He sees this phase of Freud’s work as involving a partial return to Freud’s youthful interest in a Romantic “philosophy of nature” like that of Goethe, from the more scientific orientation of his earlier work.

According to Ricoeur, the late Freud ends up proposing his own sort of Romantic philosophy of nature in opposition to the dominant “philosophy of consciousness”. Ricoeur notes that at this point Freud’s presentation becomes frankly speculative and increasingly tentative. Whereas The Interpretation of Dreams derived theory from clinical interpretation, the later work in part bases clinical interpretation on a new “mythology” of instincts. Three great questions arise: What is the death instinct? What is pleasure? And what is the “reality principle”?

It turns out that for the later Freud, “death instinct” is said in many ways. The idea originated from his questioning of his own previous view that the unconscious is uniformly governed by the “pleasure principle” — seeking pleasure and avoiding unpleasure — with pleasure understood as an ultimately physical decrease of tension. Investigating phenomena of obsessive repetition, Freud began to wonder if something even more primitive than the pleasure principle were involved, a sort of compulsive psychic conservatism.

Ricoeur says the initial presentation of the death instinct was largely in terms this sort of conservatism; only later did Freud begin to emphasize aggressive impulses. The death instinct can also be sublimated into negation that need not be related to any aggression. (Ricoeur reminds us that for Freud there is no negation in the unconscious, so this involves an expression through the ego.) It is also expressed in feelings of guilt, associated with the “cruelty” of the superego’s authoritarian “conscience” toward the ego. (The superego is said to be closer to the id than to the ego; it seems very far from a pure moral conscience, heavily weighed down with psychological baggage. Neither aggression nor a cruel superego seems “natural” to me; I would call them both phenomena of alienation.) Finally, there is a complex relation between the death instinct and the ego. An instinct for conservative self-preservation against change becomes interpreted as ultimately a desire to die in one’s own way.

Freud’s notion of pleasure became increasingly ambiguous, as he began to emphasize cases in which a detour through unpleasure leads to a greater pleasure. This should not be too surprising; Plato and Aristotle already pointed the highly equivocal character of pleasure.

Ricoeur says Freud initially took a notion of “reality” for granted, in contrast to hallucination. Later it became a task and a problem, associated with Ananke, the word for “necessity” in the Greek tragedies. Whereas in Freud’s earlier work the “pleasure principle” governing the unconscious was contrasted with the “reality principle” associated with the development of consciousness, in the later work Eros or love is the principle that binds all things together, from cells in a body to people in society, and helps protect us against the ravages of the death instinct and aggressive self-assertion. Ricoeur associates the Freudian Eros with a kind of wisdom that comes to recognize reality through or in spite of the distortions of the death instinct.

“Death instinct” is a paradoxical term. It becomes less paradoxical if we consider its evolution or variation from a conservative impulse to an aggressive impulse. As mentioned above, I don’t consider human aggression to be primarily a natural phenomenon, but rather mainly an emergent result of bad socialization, so I don’t want to call it an instinct, but at most a distorted expression of an instinct. On the other hand, I find it a good deal easier to accept the idea that there could be a “conservative instinct” alongside Eros, leading to the disharmony of instincts that was the late Freud’s great theme. (See also Psychoanalytic Interpretation; Culture and the Freudian Ego.)