Consciousness, Personhood

There is a common modern view that aims to explain who I am in terms of my consciousness. Locke, who popularized his friend the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth’s coinage of the new English word “consciousness”, already seems to have thought this way. Historically, a gradual increase in emphasis on the immediate awareness central to the thought of Descartes and Locke can be traced through Plotinus, Augustine, Avicenna, and the Latin scholastics. The curious thing is that consciousness is commonly supposed to be both a sort of universal transparent medium of experience and the locus of our personal self. I don’t think it is either of these.

I want to question the claim that there is any universal transparent medium of experience. It seems to me that the multitude of forms of awareness we experience is rooted more concretely in particular “contents”, rather than in a medium that allegedly contains them. In Lockean terms, particular kinds of awareness would be built into particular “ideas”. Ideas would no longer be inert representations as they are for Locke, but would have an active aspect of their own. In Aristotelian terms, I think the primary locus of human awareness is in our “imaginings” (see Imagination, Emotion, Opinion).

Personhood, I want to say, is neither psychological nor metaphysical but rather primarily ethical in nature. Who we are comes not from our consciousness but from our character and what we do. With respect to character, this is almost a tautology, but that is kind of the point.

Character is not inborn but acquired. It is Aristotelian ethos as particularly manifested in individuals. Ethos begins as a social acquisition of culture, but everyone completes it for themselves through the detail of their ethical practice.

The Quest for Identity

Volume 1 of Alain de Libera’s archaeology of the subject was subtitled (in French) Birth of the Subject (2007). Volume 2’s subtitle translates as The Quest for Identity (2008). Here he will ask, What is it that constitutes the “Me”?

In the hands of the scholastics and early moderns, the subject acquires the personal status of an agent, accountable for her thoughts as well as her actions. De Libera speaks of a “double parasitic relation” of the subject and the person, from whence issued the modern concept of a personal subject. In early modern inquiries into the permanence of the individual “me”, the subject seems to be effaced before the Self and the Person. It persists nonetheless, he says, under the mask of the person.

A series of unexpected itineraries will range from the theology of sacraments to early modern philosophical satire. Historic concerns with puzzles of personal identity will be reviewed together with the scholastic ontology of action and the notion of “extrinsic denomination”. He aims to consider “events in thought” — not a being or a single truth or a determinism that could follow a chronological order, but what he calls a traversal of possible itineraries.

He will ask how the subject — described in an anonymous 1680 French compendium of metaphysics as a simple receptor that de Libera, recalling Aquinas’ brutal critique of Averroes, likens to a wall’s relation to colors on it — became the all-purpose concept of psychology and ethics, of politics and of right, of linguistics and literary criticism? How did a term that had nothing to do with personhood become the modern name of the person? He aims to address these questions via a cross-section of different temporal rhythms, seeking in a nonlinear way to understand an event of thought he calls the “chiasm of agency”, or the installation of the “I” as subject-agent of thought.

He notes that Heidegger and Brentano both highlighted the fact that in scholastic philosophy, “subject” and “object” had close to the opposite of their modern meanings, and this will complicate the inquiry. The development will be much more intricate than a simple reversal.

He begins with two questions asked by Shaftesbury in 1711, in what de Libera calls an ironic arbitration between Descartes and Locke: “But in what Subject that thought resides, and how that Subject is continu’d one and the same, so as to answer constantly to the supposed Train of Thoughts or Reflections, which seem to run so harmoniously thro’ a long Course of Life, with the same relation still to one single and self-same Person; this is not a Matter so easily or hastily decided, by those who are nice Self-Examiners, or Searchers after Truth and Certainty.” (Shaftesbury, quoted in vol. 2, p. 18, footnote).

Shaftesbury mocks the cogito ergo sum of Descartes, reducing it to the tautology “if I am, I am”. According to de Libera, Shaftesbury thinks the real questions are: “What is it that constitutes the We or the I? Is the I of the present instant the same as that of every instant before or after?” (p. 19, my translation throughout).

“In a few lines, Shaftesbury passes… from the scholastic universe of the subject understood as subject of thought… to the universe of the We and the I…, and implicitly to the Lockean response — consciousness, the Self-in-consciousness — and to [Locke’s] criterion of memory. But the latter is no less problematic than the former” (ibid).

As de Libera generalizes, “The archaeology of the subject is in large measure the archaeology of the person” (p. 22). Trinitarian theology and the so-called “mind-body problem” are only disjoint for us. They were not for the later scholastics. How do we even understand statements like those of the Renaissance Thomist Thomas Cajetan (1469-1534) that “the soul as long as it is in the body exists as a semi-nature [but] separated from the body, it exists as a semi-person” (p. 23)? This will take patient archaeological investigation.

Declining to engage in metaphysical debate, Shaftesbury had opted for a moral solution: “I take my Being upon Trust…. This to me appears sufficient Ground for a Moralist. Nor do I ask more, when I undertake to prove the reality of Virtue and Morals” (quoted, p. 20).

De Libera asks, “In a word: why is it necessary for us to posit a subject in addition to ‘ourselves’ to account for the fact that we are what we are, think what we think, and do what we do?… What is it that constrains us to make our acts or our thoughts the attributes of a subject?” (p. 24).

He acknowledges at the very beginning that this second volume did not follow the plan announced in volume 1. I confess that in the main body of this one, I often felt lost in the trees, so to speak, and no longer able to see the proverbial forest. Volume 3 resumes the thread of the main argument, and I will devote more space to summarizing it.

The remainder of volume 2 first addresses some recent English-speaking philosophers on personal identity, notably P. F. Strawson and Amelia Rorty. It goes on to discuss at length the debates occasioned by John Locke’s innovative attempt to explain personal identity in terms of a continuity of directly experienced consciousness, elementary self-awareness, and memory that does not depend on any postulated underlying substantial soul. I’m not a Locke scholar, but I noticed that the explicit wording of some of the arguments seemed to appeal to a sameness of consciousness as opposed to the criterion of continuity I would have expected, as when Locke seemed to be willing to grant the counterintuitive consequence that Socrates dreaming and Socrates awake could be two different “persons”. The difference between waking and dreaming could also be approached as a relative discontinuity, however.

In accordance with de Libera’s interest in the historic “soul-body problem”, there is a lengthy coverage of debates as to whether Siamese twins are single persons or two persons sharing one body. He then goes back in time to medieval debates on whether a two-headed baby should baptized with one name or two.

There is some additional coverage of Locke’s “forensic” approach to identity, which puts moral culpability for actions in first place, over psychological or metaphysical considerations. Some of Locke’s critics argued that notwithstanding Locke’s intentions, he actually weakened moral responsibility, as when he granted explicitly that Socrates waking is not responsible for the thoughts of Socrates dreaming. Both sides of the discussion assumed what Brandom calls a “contractive” notion of responsibility (see also Expansive Agency; Brandomian Forgiveness).

Finally, de Libera discusses the history of the concept of “external” or “extrinsic” denomination — basically, ways in which “accidental” properties are taken to refer to things. This is distinguished from both “formal” and “causal” denomination. In the case of my seeing of a wall, according to many medieval and early modern authors, the wall does not act on me in any way, so the wall would be only denominated externally or extrinsically. Many also held that I do not act on the wall in any way in seeing it either, so I would also be only denominated externally or extrinsically. In this context, de Libera discusses the Scottish philosopher of common sense Thomas Reid (1710-1796), as well as the work of Samuel Clark (1675-1729) and various critics and followers of Descartes. He then goes back to Cajetan.

In conclusion, de Libera speaks of a “chiasm of denomination” that is closely bound up with what he previously called the “chiasm of agency”. He sees a veritable revolution in the treatment of thought contents as something other than external or extrinsic denominations of persons. At the beginning of volume 3, he finally relates all this discussion of denomination back to the medieval controversy over the views of Averroes on intellect and imagination.

Kingdom of Ends

This title comes from Christine Korsgaard’s influential book of essays on Kantian ethics, Creating the Kingdom of Ends (1996). “When we enter into relations of reciprocity, and hold one another responsible, we enter together into the standpoint of practical reason, and create a Kingdom of Ends on earth”, she says in the final sentence of the title essay (p. 212).

She begins the same essay with a quote from Aristotle, “As the virtuous man is to himself, he is to his friend also, for his friend is another self” (p. 188). I have previously pointed out that Hegelian mutual recognition has roots in Aristotle’s notion of friendship and love as characterized by reciprocity.

Korsgaard makes the contrast that “to hold someone responsible is to adopt an attitude… rather than to have a belief” (ibid). I’ve previously noticed that Brandom’s use of the word “attitude” has rather different connotations from what I take to be its most common meaning (a kind of purely subjective stance that is irrefutable as such, but cannot properly justify any conclusion). Korsgaard’s usage of the term also diverges from this purely subjective sense. She explicitly refers to adopting an attitude as a kind of practical doing, and I imagine Brandom would say the same. This is helpful.

She notes that British empiricists such as Hutcheson, Hume, and Smith treated responsibility in terms of the approval or disapproval of others. She likes Kant’s contrasting emphasis on agents taking responsibility. While I ultimately prefer Hegel and Brandom’s idea that responsibility involves both of these, in context she makes a good point. Noting how Kant emphasizes that we finite beings can never perfectly know ourselves, she says Kant gives philosophical foundation to the Biblical “Judge not”.

But, she goes on to say, “in a broader sense it is not possible for us to avoid holding one another responsible. For holding one another responsible is the distinctive element in the relation of adult human beings. To hold someone responsible is to regard her as a person — that is to say, as a free and equal person, capable of acting both rationally and morally” (p. 189).

“When you hold someone responsible, you are prepared to exchange lawless individual activity for reciprocity in some or all of its forms. You are prepared to accept promises, offer confidences, exchange vows, cooperate on a project, enter a social contract, have a conversation, make love, be friends, or get married. You are willing to deal with her on the basis of the expectation that each of you will act from a certain view of the other: that you each have your reasons which are to be respected, and your ends which are to be valued. Abandoning the state of nature and so relinquishing force and guile, you are ready to share, to trust, and generally speaking to risk your happiness or success on the hope that she will turn out to be human” (pp. 189-190).

Korsgaard notes that both Aristotle and Kant regard the reciprocity of friendship as a kind of perfect ethical relation. She quotes Kant saying that friendship is “the most intimate union of love with respect” (p. 191), then continues “While love moves you to pursue the ends of another, respect reminds you that she must determine what those ends are; while love moves you to care for the happiness of another, respect demands that you care for her character too” (ibid).

She points out that for Aristotle justice is not needed between friends, because friendship already embodies the reciprocity characteristic of justice. She cites passages from Kant indicating that he would agree.

Friendship or mutual recognition is a higher ethical standard that goes beyond moral obligation. I note that Leibniz also emphasized that higher virtue involves doing more than is morally required of us. Korsgaard continues, “Anyone must tell the truth when the circumstances call for it, but between friends there is a presumption of intimacy, frankness, and confidence. Anyone must help another in need or emergency, but friends promote each other’s projects as routinely as they do their own. Anyone must refrain from leading others into temptation; but friends help each other to be good…. To become friends is to create a neighborhood where the Kingdom of Ends is real” (p. 194).

I think the ethical meaning of Hegelian mutual recognition in any particular case is no different from that of friendship in Aristotle and Kant. The difference is that Hegel applies it more broadly, and in his hands it becomes not just a higher ethical standard but also a meta-ethical explanation that ends up also explaining knowledge and being.

Ricoeur on Locke on Personal Identity

“John Locke is the inventor of the following three notions and the sequence that they form together: identity, consciousness, self…. Locke’s invention of consciousness will become the acknowledged or unacknowledged reference for theories of consciousness in Western philosophy” (Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, p. 102).  The English word “consciousness” was actually coined by Locke’s friend the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth in a work inspired by Plotinus, but it is Locke’s systematic use of it that was spread throughout the modern world by his famous Essay Concerning Human Understanding.  Ricoeur’s account significantly draws on that of Etienne Balibar in Identity and Difference: Locke’s Invention of Consciousness.

Chapter 27 of book 2 of Locke’s Essay, “Of Identity and Diversity”, lays out his unprecedented new theory of personal identity as grounded purely in a continuity of memory, rather than any underlying substance.  We tend to forget that Descartes’ cogito, as Ricoeur says, “is not a person….  It bursts forth in the lightning flash of an instant.  Always thinking does not imply remembering having thought.  Continual creation alone confers duration on it” (p. 103).  Ricoeur says that whereas Descartes had sought to conquer doubt with certainty, Locke sought to conquer diversity and difference with an unprecedented concept of pure reflexive identity.

“Proposing to define in new terms the principle of individuation… ‘so much inquired after’…, Locke takes as his first example an atom, ‘a continued body under one immutable superficies’, and reiterates his formula of self-identity: ‘For being at that instant what it is, and nothing else, it is the same, and so must continue as long as its existence is continued; for so long it will be the same, and no other’” (p. 104).

“It is consciousness that constitutes the difference between the idea of the same man and that of a self, also termed person…. The knowledge of this self-identity is consciousness” (ibid).  Locke is quoted saying “as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person; it is the same self now as it was then; and it is by the same self with this present one that now reflects on it, that that action was done” (p. 105).  

Ricoeur continues, “Personal identity is a temporal identity.  It is here that the objection drawn from forgetting and from sleep, considered as interruptions of consciousness, suggests the invigorated return of the idea of substance: is not the continuity of a substance required to overcome the intermittence of consciousness? Locke replies bravely that, whatever may be the status of the substantial ground, consciousness alone ‘makes’ personal identity….  Identity and consciousness form a circle.  As Balibar observes, this circle is not a logical fallacy of the theory: it is Locke’s own invention, supported by the reduction of substance…. It is not the soul that makes the man but the same consciousness.  With regard to our inquiry, the matter has been decided: consciousness and memory are one and the same thing, irrespective of any substantial basis.  In short, in the matter of personal identity, sameness equals memory” (ibid).

The word “self” is used by Locke in both generic and singular senses, with “no discussion concerning the status of the nominalized pronoun….  Locke had decided to disconnect ideas from names.  Yet, ‘Person, as I take it, is the name for this self’” (p. 106). “The shift to a judicial vocabulary is not far off.  The transitional concept is that of ‘person’, the other ‘name for this self’…. What makes it a synonym for the self, despite its ‘forensic’ character?  The fact that it signifies that the self ‘reconciles’ and ‘appropriates’, that is to say, assigns, allocates to consciousness the ownership of its acts” (p. 107).

Locke thus not only completely rethought the notion of persons in terms of a pure logical identity in consciousness and an analogy with atoms in a void, but also formulated a radically new notion of ethical agency and responsibility, based on an analogy with the exclusive ownership associated with private property.  The ownership model of agency and responsibility leaves no room for more subtle considerations of “power to”.  Indeed, Ricoeur notes that Locke’s approach to politics is entirely grounded in “power over”.

From a purely logical standpoint, Locke successfully avoids many arguments against the putative total self-transparency of consciousness, by making its self-transparency a matter of definition rather than an empirical claim.  Locke’s position is internally consistent.  From a practical standpoint, however, any claim that total self-transparency actually applies to real life is, to say the least, fraught with difficulty.  Total self-transparency seems to me to be more extravagantly supernatural than the Latin medieval notion of a substantial intellectual soul that it replaced.  Also, real people are not atomic unities. From the point of view of more recent physical science, even atoms are not atomic unities. (See also Ego; Personhood; Meaning, Consciousness; Mind Without Mentalism; Aristotelian Identity; Narrative Identity, Substance; Ricoeur on Memory: Orientation; Ricoeur on Augustine on Memory.)


We intuitively grasp a kind of unity of each human person, but have no special, privileged mode of knowledge of persons as individuals. Common sense tends to be rather dogmatic, and glosses over many distinctions in such matters. Plato compared the soul to a city, a sort of community of thoughts and desires — a kind of unity to be sure, but a relatively weak one. In Kantian terms, human persons seem to be distinguished from everything else by somehow being the nexus of combination of otherwise very distinct empirical and transcendental domains.

Considerations of change over time further complicate the picture, but may also provide a kind of guiding thread. A factual “me” is mainly a retrospective construction. A normative “I” on the other hand has both retrospective and prospective aspects. Brandom’s and Pippin’s readings of Hegel emphasize that we should think of agency and acts as always comprising both a partially constituted, retrospectively constructed past and a yet-to-be-determined future. Ricoeur has developed a temporally extended, retrospective and prospective notion of self as an ethical aim or promise rather than an existing actuality. Such an aim or promise, it seems to me, can have a much stronger unity than we could legitimately claim as an existing actuality.

Rather than conflating the empirical and transcendental, as in the Latin medieval notion of an “intellectual soul” — or inflating a notion of empirical self to fill the whole space of subjectivity, in the common modern way — we can tie the unification of empirical and transcendental elements to that prospective aim or promise, without asserting it in the present. (See also Empirical-Transcendental Doublet?; Two Kinds of Character; Narrated Time; Hegel’s Ethical Innovation; Hegel on Willing.)

Fallible Humanity

Fallible Man (French ed. 1960) was the next installment after Freedom and Nature in Paul Ricoeur’s project for a philosophy of will. This account of our fallibility was to set the stage for the following installment dealing with the problem of evil, which I will address separately.

The main body of this shorter book develops a nice interweaving of Aristotelian and Kantian anthropology, with special emphasis on the role of feeling. We are “intermediate” beings, mediating beings, and as such there is an inherent “disproportion” in our relations to self. “[T]his ‘disproportion’ of self to self would be the ratio of fallibility” (p. 4; emphasis in original).

Ricoeur says we can retain neither the Cartesian distinction between a finite understanding and an infinite will, nor any other convenient mapping of “finite” and “infinite” to separate faculties. Character makes us finite, but our participation in language involves us in what he calls a kind of infinity. An ethical Self finally uniting these aspects of our being should be considered as an end and ongoing project rather than an actuality.

Philosophical anthropology has to proceed as a “second order elucidation of a nebula of meaning which at first has a pre-philosophical character” (p. 8). As a consequence, method has to be dissociated from the idea of a starting point. “Philosophy does not start anything independently” (ibid).

He adopts the language of Blaise Pascal (1623-62) on the “pathos” of human “misery”. I don’t like such pessimistic rhetoric, but fortunately Ricoeur says the whole pre-comprehension of this “misery” is contained in the more moderate Platonic myths of the soul.

“The [Platonic] soul… is the very movement from the sensible toward the intelligible… its misery is shown in that it is at first perplexed and searches…. The soul holds opinions and makes mistakes; it is not vision… but an aim. It is not contact and possession… but tendency and tension” (pp. 12-13). “Instead of a well-balanced structure, it is a non-determined movement, a system of tensions which emerges” (p. 14). Plato speaks of an ambiguous power of the soul that is affected by both reason and desire, and results from a kind of mixture. For Plato, the account must take a mythical form, because such matters cannot be explained in terms of permanent realities.

My body is a “zero origin” that ties every perception to a point of view (p. 33). Invoking a common Husserlian theme, Ricoeur notes that perception involves inference about the back sides of things that we cannot see, and so on.

More broadly, our character may be viewed as the summation of many limiting “perspectives”, at the same time that our engagement in acts of conceptual determination implicitly involves a degree of “transgression” of those pre-given limitations (p. 38).

Ricoeur argues that our very ability to recognize something as a perspective implicitly involves a “transgression” or escape from limitation by the perspective. “Therefore, I am not merely a situated onlooker, but a being who intends and expresses as an intentional transgression of the situation” (p. 41). “[T]he project of a phenomenology of perception, wherein the moment of saying is postponed and the reciprocity of saying and seeing is destroyed, is ultimately untenable” (p. 42). “I say more than I see” (p. 44). Referring to Hegel, he adds “We are always already in the dimension of truth” (p. 46). “The fact that the self is at variance with itself is the indefeasible worm in the fruit of the immediate” (ibid; emphasis in original). “Here again we must not move too quickly to the side of the subject, act or noesis, but proceed reflectively beginning with the object, content and noema” (p. 49). Referring to Aristotle, he talks about the “power of the verb” to express affirmation and judgment. “I myself become a synthesis of speech and perspective in this projection of objectivity” (p. 61). “[I]f point of view is a characteristic of openness, namely its narrowness, openness indicates that my point of view is transgressed” (p. 62).

Ricoeur says these considerations suggest something like the Kantian transcendental synthesis of imagination, in its mediating role between the passivity of sensible intuition and the activity of thought. He also relates them to the experience of time.

“Plato… advised against rushing headlong into the abyss of the infinite or into that of the One but recommended learning to linger in between…. What Plato said of the One we can apply to the totality. Nothing gives rise to deception more than the idea of totality. All too quickly it has been said: It is here, it is there, it is Mind, it is Nature, it is History. Violence is the next step” (pp. 73-74). Instead, the idea of totality should be taken as a task, a Kantian imperative.

Our practical finitude is summed up in the notion of character. Ricoeur provocatively suggests that our practical “infinitude” with respect to the constitution of meaning is summed up in Aristotle’s notion of happiness. What extends the mediation of the Kantian transcendental synthesis of imagination into the practical domain, he says, is the constitution of the person through Kantian respect.

“Character is the finite openness of my existence taken as a whole” (p. 89). There is no science of character. Ricoeur says “My humanity is my essential community with all that is human outside myself…. [M]y character is that humanity seen from somewhere” (p. 93).

Desire too fundamentally involves a kind of openness. We are not enclosed within our desire. But there is also an affective opacity or closing involved in attachment.

Bergson is quoted saying each feeling of sufficient depth represents the whole soul.

“The person is the Self which was lacking to the ‘I’ of the Kantian ‘I think’…. The Self is aimed at rather than experienced…. There is no experience of the person in itself and for itself” (p. 106). The person is the synthesis of the “antithetical notions” of character and happiness. “[T]he person is primarily the ideal of the person” (p. 110).

According to Ricoeur, feeling already overcomes the duality of subject and object. It simultaneously tells us something about both. Feeling is essentially concerned with values, and simultaneously with what is. “If one does not take into consideration the primordial disproportion of vital desire and intellectual love (or of spiritual joy), one entirely misses the specific nature of human affectivity” (p. 140).

Not pleasure itself but a blind preference for pleasure is evil. “[H]appiness, restored by the reflection on the ‘excellences’ of the ‘good’ man, is ultimately the highest form of the pleasant” (p. 148). Thomistic and Cartesian analysis of the passions fails to see the “innocence of ‘difference’ under the cloak of vain and deadly ‘preference'” (p. 163). “[E]ncountering of another person is what breaks the finite, cyclic pattern of the sensible appetite” (p. 168).

Kantian anthropology should learn from Aristotle’s treatment of pleasure, and seek to discover behind passions an innocent quest that is “no longer mad and in bondage but constitutive of human praxis and the human Self” (p. 170). Later he quotes Hegel saying all great accomplishments involve passion, while a morality that simply condemns passion is deadly and too often hypocritical.

“The quest for reciprocity, which no will to live can account for, is the true passage from consciousness to self-consciousness” (p. 184). “I esteem myself as a thou for another” (p. 188). “[T]his belief, this credence, this trust, constitutes the very feeling of my worth” (p. 189). “[I]ts character of belief makes its corruptions possible: what is believed is presumed; and the presumption of the preesumed can turn into the presumption of the presumptuous” (p. 190). According to Ricoeur, the unstable, ambiguous “middle part” of the soul in Plato’s myth mixes the vital and the spiritual. Feeling prospectively binds things together, in the process creating the disproportion of self to self. This is the fragility of the human being, with immense potential for both good and evil.

Ricoeurian Ethics

In the final chapters of Oneself as Another, Ricoeur develops a meta-level discourse about ethics, and concludes with a few “ontological” suggestions. Universalizing Kantian morality and the obligation it entails are said to provide a valuable extension to Aristotelian ethics, but ultimately to require supplementation by a return to Aristotelian practical judgment. This seems just about exactly right.

On the Kantian side, norms are said to concretize Aristotelian aims. The most important and general Kantian norm, according to Ricoeur, is reciprocity. He argues for the importance of the golden rule, citing Rabbi Hillel and the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. The distinction between “power over” and “power to” is discussed. The notion of persons as ends in themselves is emphasized. Procedural justice is seen to complement Aristotelian distributive justice. John Rawls’ summary of justice as fairness is endorsed. Although it is ultimately necessary to return to the openness of practical judgment, the passage through universalizing morality is equally necessary, as a safeguard against arbitrariness. Universality and contextuality go hand in hand, much as I have been arguing.

Writing at a time when French anti-Hegelianism was still quite influential and before the rise of new interest in Hegel, Ricoeur did not think Hegelian Geist — which he mistakenly saw as turning the state into an “agency capable of thinking itself by itself” (p. 255) — fit well with the notion of self Ricoeur wanted to advance. He did not want to follow what he saw as Hegel’s path in returning to an ethics of Sittlichkeit or mores embedded in concrete culture, but saw great potential value in a Sittlichkeit separated from the “ontology of Geist” (ibid) and the “thesis of the objective mind” (p. 256), especially if Sittlichkeit were “bent” in the direction of the openness of Aristotelian practical judgment. (A reading of Geist free of such ontology has more recently been argued by Brandom and others to be a better reading of Hegel himself.) “Our final word in this ‘little ethics’… will be to suggest that the practical wisdom we are seeking aims at reconciling Aristotle’s phronesis, by way of Kant’s Moralität, with Hegel’s Sittlichkeit” (p. 290).

On other matters such as the broad thrust of Hegel’s critique of atomistic individualism in the Philosophy of Right and the general value of dialectic, Ricoeur defended Hegel. The Hegelian concept of Right, he says, “surpasses the concept of justice on every side” (p. 253). The “problematic of realization, of the actualization of freedom, is ours as well in this study” (ibid). Reflection, he says, needs the mediation of analysis.

He says that institutionalized conflict is an essential feature of democracy. We should be accepting of conflict, but draw the line at violence. The idea of Rawls that argumentation is “the critical agency operating at the heart of convictions” (p. 288; emphasis in original), raising convictions to the level of considered convictions and resulting in a “reflective equilibrium”, is cited with approval. Ricoeur speaks of a “reflective equilibrium between the ethics of argumentation and considered convictions” (p. 289).

Respect for persons should take priority over respect for the law. The importance of keeping promises extends beyond its role with respect to personal identity to the space of reciprocity and the golden rule. Gabriel Marcel is quoted as saying all commitment is a response to an other. A notion of imputability is introduced as an ascription of action “under the condition of ethical and moral predicates” (p. 292). To this is added a notion of responsibility. Finally, he endorses Hegel’s concept of mutual recognition.

Unlike Brandom, Ricoeur construed the philosophy of language as analytically separate from ethics. He thus saw a need to go beyond its boundaries, and characterized that as an “ontological” moment. This seems to have two main ingredients.

First, the key to understanding the notion of self he wants to advance lies in Aristotelian potentiality and actuality. He also wants to understand actuality and self in connection with Heideggerian being-in-the-world. “[S]elf and being-in-the-world are basic correlates” (p. 313). Actuality should not be thought in terms of presence. Self should not be confused with “man”, and is not a foundation. Spinoza’s conatus or the general effort of beings to persevere finds its highest expression in Aristotelian energeia or actuality, and thus overflows its deterministic origins. The distinction between actuality and potentiality is associated with that between selfhood and sameness. (See also The Importance of Potentiality.)

Second, a discussion of Husserl’s distinction between the body (viewed externally) and “flesh” in which we live leads eventually to the conclusion that a dialectic of the Same and the Other cannot be constructed “in a unilateral manner” (p. 331). A final discussion of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Lévinas leads to an “ultimate equivocalness with respect to the Other in the phenomenon of conscience” (p. 353). We need an alternative to “constitution in and through the ego” (p. 334), and he thinks an adaptation of Husserl’s notion of flesh provides this. Unfortunately, he speaks in passing of an “originary, immediate givenness of the flesh to itself” (p. 333). I think the notion of flesh is supposed to suggest something that softens the kind of rigid boundaries between self and other that we associate with an ego, and that is all good. But the other big issue with constitution of meaning through the ego is precisely that the ego was supposed to be a locus of originary, immediate givenness. It seems to me that one of the great values of a hermeneutic perspective is that it does not need to assume anything like that.

With the exception of this brief reference and his apparent attribution in passing of a reflexive “self” to Aristotle, the degree of convergence with what I have been developing here is impressive indeed.

(I think the kind of reflexivity Ricoeur had in mind in the latter case was only intended to be related to action, so his intent was to capture the fact that we can and do act on ourselves. This, I think, is a true and important observation. My quibble there is with attributing a notion of self as a simple unity to Aristotle.)

Persons, Identification

The first chapter of Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another addresses identification of persons as individuals at a preliminary, very abstract level. He calls this a semantic inquiry. At this first stage, persons are effectively objects like other objects, and are identified as individuals in a similar way. I take this to be related to what Aristotle and Kant said about the non-primitive nature of self-consciousness.

Ricoeur refers to the analytic philosopher P. F. Strawson’s argument that bodies are the first kind of particulars we identify, which has the consequence that they are conceptually prior to mental events. Ricoeur adds that persons are no less primitive than bodies, but says a person is not a second kind of referent, being constituted rather by a second series of predicates with the same referent as a body.

According to Ricoeur, this rules out views of a person as a pure consciousness adjoined to a body. Further, predicates applicable to persons are such that they can be applied with the same meaning to myself and others.

Persons and mental events are thus public entities in the same way as bodies are. “I cannot speak meaningfully of my thoughts unless I am able at the same time to ascribe them potentially to someone else” (p. 38).

Kantian Respect

One of the fundamentals of Kantian ethics is a universal respect for people — not just those of whom we are fond, or those of whom we approve, or those who belong to a group with which we identify. This of course does not mean we should one-sidedly tolerate extremes of abuse. Respect for people is actually an Aristotelian mean. Like all ethical considerations, it requires a bit of thought in the application.

I used to worry about “metaphysical” or theological preconceptions about what it means to be a person. Even now, I would not base respect for people on a theological notion of substantial personhood, which carries too many presuppositions. Rather, I would start from the Aristotelian concept of rational or talking animals, understood as participating in Brandomian sapience.

I actually believe in respect for all beings, period — including animals, plants, and even inanimate objects. At this level, respect just means a sort of general kindness. But Kant was right to note that there is a profound practical difference when it comes to our fellow talking animals. The fact that we can talk to each other and ask questions of one another makes our interaction with fellow rational animals unique. Even under a broad, somewhat non-Kantian notion of respect for all beings, the kinds of interaction that are possible among beings possessed of language are far richer, and entail more specific responsibilities. Kant himself chose to reserve the term “respect” for those more specific responsibilities.

Kantian respect for people has nothing to do with judgments of the competence or goodness of individuals. It is grounded in the sheer possibility of dialogue. (See also Recognition.)