Husserl on Passive Synthesis

Volume IX of Edmund Husserl’s collected works is entitled in English Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis. It consists of lectures given between 1920 and 1926, supplemented with various contemporary unpublished notes and manuscripts. Husserl explicitly offers his notion of passive synthesis as a successor to Kant’s idea of a productive synthesis of imagination (see Capacity to JudgeFigurative Synthesis). As usual when I read Husserl, in spite of reservations that some more global concepts he uses seem “too strong”, I am reveling in the richness and originality of his detailed developments.

The term “passive synthesis” has an air of paradox about it, but I have been very interested in the way both Aristotle and Kant deal with aspects of human sentience and sapience that are neither entirely active nor entirely passive, and this is the real significance of this whole topic. In a more general context, Hegel and Paul Ricoeur (who was an acute reader of Husserl) both also have much of value to say about such mixed forms. I tend to think that nothing in the human sphere is ever entirely active or entirely passive.

In spite of Husserl’s pains to distinguish what he called “transcendental” subjectivity (in a sense somewhat different from, but related to, that of Kant) from “psychological” subjectivity — and his early sharp criticism of “psychologism” — translator Anthony Steinbock’s introduction points out that during the less known stage documented in this volume, when Husserl began speaking of a “genetic” phenomenology, he also wrote extensively in the area of philosophical psychology. The material on passive synthesis could be considered a prime instance of this.

For Husserl, all philosophy — and indeed all science, if it is really doing what he thinks it should — ought to make us wiser and better.

He begins with some leading points from what he calls transcendental logic. With extremely broad brush, this is concerned with neither formalization nor real-world inference, but rather focuses on the constitution of meanings.

The main section on passive synthesis begins by noting some aspects of perception that are commonly passed over, including “perspectival adumbration of spatial objects”; “fullness and emptiness in the perceptual process”; how our acquired knowledge can be freely at our disposal; and the relation between being and being perceived.

Next he develops an unusually broad notion of modality, as a kind of modification of the sense of contents. This includes negation, but Husserl is not concerned here with ordinary logical negation. Under negation he discusses things like “disappointment as an occurrence that runs counter to the synthesis of fulfillment”; “partial fulfillment”; and “retroactive crossing out in the retentional sphere and transformation of the previous perceptual sense”. Then he treats doubt, including its origin in conflicting apprehensions and its resolution. Next comes the more standard modality of possibility, which he transforms by dividing it into “open” possibilities and “enticing” possibilities that motivate us. He concludes this subdivision by discussing relations between passive and active modalization, including “position-taking of the ego as the active response to the modal modification of passive doxa [belief]” and “questioning as a multilayered striving toward overcoming modalization through a judicative decision”.

The following subdivision is concerned with the notion of evidence. Here he discusses the “structure of fulfillment” as a “synthesis of empty presentation”; then “passive and active intentions and the forms of their confirmation and verification”, including “picturing, clarifying, and confirmation in the syntheses of bringing to intuition”, “possible types of intuition”, and “possible types of empty presentation”; “intention toward fulfillment [as] the intention toward self-giving”; “epistemic striving and striving toward the effective realization of the presented object”; and “the different relationships of intention and the intended self”. This subdivision concludes with “the problem of definitiveness in experience”, including “the problematic character of a verification that is possible for all intentions and its consequence for belief in experience”; “development of the problem of the in-itself for the immanent sphere”; and “rememberings as the source for an in-itself of objects”.

A long subdivision is devoted to association. Here he will be concerned with motivational relations rather than the psycho-physical causal relations with which “association” is associated in the empiricist tradition. A partial list of the contents includes “presuppositions of associative synthesis”; “syntheses of original time-consciousness”; “syntheses of homogeneity in the unity of a streaming present”‘; “the phenomenon of contrast”; “individuation in succession and coexistence”; “affection as effecting an allure on the ego”; “the gradation of affection in the living present and in the retentional process”; “the function of awakening in the living present”; “retroactive awakening of the empty presentations in the distant sphere”; “the transition of awakened empty presentations in rememberings”; “the difference between continuous and discontinuous awakening”; and “the phenomenon of expectation”.

The final subdivision of the section on passive synthesis is devoted to the stream of consciousness. This includes “illusion in the realm of remembering”; “overlapping, fusion, and conflict of rememberings of different pasts”; “the true being of the system of the immanent past”; “confirmation of self-givenness by expanding into the outer horizon”; “the primordial transcendence of the past of consciousness and the idea of its complete self-giving”; “the problem of a true being for the future of consciousness”; “disappointment as an essential moment of expectation”; and “the constitution of the objective world in its significance for the determinate prefiguring of futural consciousness”.

This is followed by a section on active synthesis, which also treats of “a transcendental, genetic logic”. Voluminous appendices further expand on the topics treated. (See Husserl on Perception; Crossing Out; Enticing Possibilities?; Active and Passive; Husserl on Evidence: Introduction; Intuition, Presentation, Time; Intention and Intuition; Associative Synthesis; Passive Synthesis: Conclusion.)

The Non-Primacy of Perception

Some time ago, while in the midst of reading many works by the late Paul Ricoeur, I noted his comment that Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s project of a phenomenology of perception was ultimately untenable, because it aimed to recover a pre-linguistic layer of human experience in perception. Though Merleau-Ponty also wrote on language, his main interest was in embodied perceptual consciousness, which he regarded as a pre-linguistic and pre-conceptual level.

I quite admire the detail of Merleau-Ponty’s very non-reductionist account of perception, which brings out all sorts of interesting nuances. In life, I thoroughly relish the aesthetic dimensions of perceptual experience. But ultimately, I have to agree with Ricoeur’s gentle criticism.

I frequently translate Aristotle’s definition of the human as “talking animal”. I am also impressed by Hegel’s remark that “language is the Dasein [literally, “being there”] of Spirit”. It seems to me that a pre-linguistic perceptual consciousness could only be pre-human as well. The perception that we have as humans is always already affected by our immersion in language.

Constitution of Shared Meaning

The 20th century phenomenological tradition stemming from the work of Edmund Husserl emphasized that all meanings are constituted. With a very broad brush, one might say that Husserl redeveloped many Kant-like insights on a different basis, and with far greater detail in some areas. But like Kant, Husserl focused mainly on how each individual develops understanding for herself. Phenomenologists certainly discussed what they called “intersubjectivity”, but it always seemed to me like an afterthought. Husserl’s own development was quite complex, but it seems to me that the further he went in his later investigations of the constitution of meaning, the more he moved away from his early concern to emphasize that meaning is not something subjective.

It is the original “phenomenology” — that of Hegel — that seems to me to do a much better job of explaining simultaneously how meanings are constituted by us and yet how they are not subjective. Hegel does this by starting from the point of view of the development of shared meaning, and ultimately conceiving the constitution of meaning as a part of a great process extended across time and space. The process is grounded in concrete mutual recognition that nonetheless potentially extends to all rational beings. Individuals play an essential role in this as the anchoring points for its actualization, but do so as participants in free and open dialogue with others, rather than as the “owners” of meanings considered as private. Hegel used the Christian notion of the Holy Spirit manifesting between the members of a community as a philosophical metaphor for this.

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).

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.

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.

Psychoanalytic Interpretation

In part 1 of book 2 of Freud and Philosophy, Ricoeur begins to discuss the various stages in the development of psychoanalytic interpretation, covering the posthumously published 1895 “Project for a Scientific Psychology” and the “first topography” of unconscious, preconscious, and conscious “systems” from The Interpretation of Dreams and related papers. Ricoeur quotes Freud saying he hoped via the route of medicine to arrive at his “original objective, philosophy” (p. 86n).

As of the 1895 “Project”, Freud was mainly concerned to apply physical concepts of conservation of energy and inertia to neurology, but even there, Ricoeur says a concern for interpretation was not absent, and the use of physical concepts was actually metaphorical. “Nothing is more dated than the explanatory plan of the ‘Project’, and nothing more inexhaustible than its program of description” (p. 73). Everything is expressed in terms of “quantities” of energy stored in neurons (“cathexis”), but the quantities are purely intensive and qualitatively described, rather than measured or subjected to mathematical laws. Freud associates discrimination between the real and the imaginary with a kind of inhibition. Breaking with the dominance of brain anatomy, he had already criticized then-orthodox theories of the localization of psychic functions to different parts of the brain. Ricoeur says the “Project” is already a topography like Freud’s later topographies, and clinical interpretation actually takes precedence over mechanical explanation.

The Interpretation of Dreams develops what Ricoeur calls a topographic-economic view. Anatomy is left behind once and for all, in favor of a distinctly psychological level of explanation. This time Freud starts from clinical interpretation and works toward a theory. Instead of cathected neurons, he speaks of cathected ideas. Dreams are understood through language, through a narration of their content. Dreams are said express a kind of thought, and sometimes also a kind of wishes. They show a kind of regression to an “indestructible” layer of infantile desire. Freud insists they are meaningful and not, e.g., just some kind of psychic garbage collection. Dreams illustrate the primary process of the unconscious, which includes operations of condensation and displacement of meaning. They perform what Freud calls “work” on meaning. Ricoeur says it is inverse to the analyst’s work of deciphering. He notes that Freud contrasts his own notion of interpretation as deciphering with notions of symbolic or allegorical interpretation.

The topographic-economic approach was further developed in papers from Freud’s middle period. The way we make inferences about the unconscious, Freud said, differs little from the way we make inferences about the consciousness of others. By this point, Ricoeur says, consciousness for Freud “far from being the first certitude, is a perception, and calls for a critique similar to Kant’s critique of external perception” (p. 120; emphasis in original). In this respect, I would point out, Freud also essentially recovered the perspective of Aristotle on what the moderns call consciousness.

On a more distinctly Freudian note, Ricoeur adds that “The question of consciousness has become the question of becoming conscious, and the latter, in great part, coincides with overcoming resistances” (ibid).

Ricoeur says Freud develops a “reduction” opposite to Husserl’s phenomenological reduction — a reduction of consciousness, instead of a reduction to consciousness. This approach “implies that we stop taking the ‘object’ as our guide, in the sense of the vis-à-vis of consciousness, and substitute for it the ‘aims’ of the instincts; and that we stop taking the ‘subject’ as our pole of reference, in the sense of the one to whom or for whom ‘objects’ appear. In short, we must abandon the subject-object problematic” (p. 122). “From now on the object is defined in function of the aim, and not conversely” (p. 123). “Not only are this and that object interchanged, while subserving the same aims, but also the self and the other, in the reversal from active to passive role” (p. 125). Once again, Freud seems to have unwittingly recovered an Aristotelian insight, this time concerning the priority of ends over subjects and objects in processes of constitution. “The history of the object is the history of the object function, and this history is the history of desire itself” (p. 126).

“[T]he ego itself is an aim of instinct” (p. 127). Freud is quoted as having later said that “The theory of the instincts is so to say our mythology” (p. 136). Instincts “represent or express the body to the mind” (p. 137). We are “always in the mediate, the already expressed, the already said” (pp. 140-141). “Psychoanalysis never confronts us with bare forces, but always with forces in search of meaning” (p. 151).

Phenomenology of Will

I’m starting to look at Paul Ricoeur’s large early work Freedom and Nature (French ed. 1950). This was to be the first of three volumes on a philosophy of will, of which he only completed two. It turns out to be full of rich detail on the vexing question of the way transcendental and empirical aspects of subjectivity are interrelated.

In this work, Ricoeur combines a Marcelian emphasis on embodiment with a broadly Husserlian phenomenological method. The investigation is to address “Cogito’s complete experience, including even its most diffuse affective margins” (p. 8; emphasis in original). I would shy away from the Cartesian sound of saying “Cogito” at all, but the really important part here is the qualifiers Ricoeur adds. Even in Descartes, cogito has a broad usage that sometimes seems to include perception and feeling, and not just thought in the narrower sense.

Ricoeur here seems to accept something like the Stoic hegemonikon (etymologically related to “hegemony”), which was ancestral to later notions of “will” as a unified faculty or power. I prefer Aristotle’s approach, which accounts for the phenomena — including choice — without the need for such an hypothesis. In the later tradition, it is often ambiguous whether will is really supposed to be a separate power like the Stoics seem to have thought, or simply a name for the cooperation of reason and desire in governing action, as Aristotle probably would have said. (See also Kantian Will.) Here Ricoeur’s use of phenomenological method is a big help in minimizing the impact of this sort of issue.

“To say ‘I will’ means first ‘I decide’, secondly ‘I move my body’, thirdly ‘I consent'” (p. 6). This sort of concrete delineation is very helpful. These are all kinds of things that actually happen and that we can describe or interpret as phenomena, independent of any assumed theory of the will.

Ricoeur had already said he would use something like Husserl’s method of phenomenological and eidetic reduction, “putting in brackets” questions of existence or of the objectivity of appearances in order to focus on what Ricoeur here calls “elaborating the idea or meaning” (pp. 3-4). Eidos was the word Plato and Aristotle used for form. Husserl adopted it for the second of three stages of “reduction”.

Briefly put, Husserl’s first, “phenomenological” reduction emphasizes a suspension of existence claims about the content under examination. The second, “eidetic” one emphasizes a positive examination of the ranges of variation of pure “essences” of mental objects, still not assumed to have any particular metaphysical or objective status. Ricoeur’s gloss “idea or meaning” (emphasis added) already anticipates a shift of emphasis in the direction of hermeneutics. He says he will not use Husserl’s third, “transcendental” reduction, which was supposed to arrive at a “pure” consciousness unaffected by empirical psychology. Ricoeur explicitly notes that “we cannot pretend that we are unaware of the fact that the involuntary is often better known empirically, in its form, albeit degraded, of a natural event” (p. 11).

A main top-level thesis of this work of Ricoeur’s is that the voluntary and the involuntary are reciprocally interdependent, and we cannot really understand either one without the other. Not only is the voluntary partly shaped by the involuntary, but also we only fully understand the involuntary through its impacts on the voluntary. (For more on the same book, see Ricoeur on Embodiment; Ricoeur on Choice; Voluntary Action; Consent?. In general, see also Willing, Unwilling; Rethinking Responsibility.)

Paul Ricoeur

It’s becoming apparent to me that I need to say a whole lot more about Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005). Ricoeur was a leading contributor to 20th century hermeneutics. His early intellectual formation centered on the Christian personalism of his mentor Gabriel Marcel and Marcel’s associate Emmanuel Mounier, founder of the personalist movement and the journal Esprit, as well as the work of the two greatest practitioners of a strongly subject-centered philosophy — Fichte (through Jean Nabert), and Husserl, whose Ideas I Ricoeur translated to French.

Later, he became increasingly concerned with language, discourse, and questions of interpretation. He eventually moved to a sort of “middle path” in regard to subjectivity (see Oneself as Another). Ricoeur’s work is clearly not an instance of the mentalism I am currently concerned to avoid. (I have myself moved toward the middle from the opposite, anti-subject-centered pole, where I started due to concerns about egoism.) In his later work, Ricoeur also engaged with analytic philosophy. While always motivated by spiritual concerns, he carefully kept his philosophy independent of religious doctrine.

Ricoeur’s unifying lifelong concern has been characterized as a sort of philosophical anthropology. Once upon a time, I would have rejected this very description, as antithetical to the important 1960s “structuralist” critique of existentialist “humanism”. In the past I was mainly aware of his criticisms of structuralism as a one-sided “Kantianism without a transcendental subject”, and mistakenly got the impression that he simply associated all “hermeneutics of suspicion” with reductionism. I disagreed with both these positions, and for too long did not bother to look further. One of my late father’s last recommendations to me was that I would probably find Ricoeur very interesting. Now I feel like he will turn out to be a major ally in cultivating the “middle path”.

Heidegger

Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) was a tremendously original, highly influential, and troublesome philosopher. What makes his work troublesome is not only conceptual difficulty and a deliberate practice of translating the familiar into the unfamiliar, but also his never clearly repudiated attempt to influence the Nazi movement in Germany. He seems to have been a cultural and linguistic chauvinist who rejected pseudo-biological racism, but nonetheless put hopes in an “inner truth and greatness” of National Socialism as an alternative to American and Soviet materialism. This identification puts a dark cloud over the interpretation of his writing, which was, however, generally very far removed from politics. The question is, how much it is possible to detach his work from a stance that seems worse than one of mere bad judgment.

A serious and innovative reader of Aristotle who also developed thought-provoking readings of Plato, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche, Heidegger combined a sympathetic but critical take on Husserl’s phenomenology with an interest in the hermeneutics of Wilhem Dilthey. Widely read as an “existentialist”, he sharply repudiated Sartre’s appropriation of his work. In his later works, he approached philosophy as a kind of poetic meditation.

His most famous thesis was that Western thought largely lost its way from Plato onward, neglecting the question of the meaning of Being in favor of preoccupation with things. While he made good points about the preconceptions involved in our ordinary encounters with things, I think he too sharply rejected “ontic” engagement with empirical, factual concerns in favor of a purified ontology. He also promoted a valorization of what I would call the pre-philosophical thought of the pre-Socratics Heraclitus and Parmenides. I think Plato and especially Aristotle represented a gigantic leap forward from this.

Some of Heidegger’s very early work was on the medieval theologian Duns Scotus, who seems to have originated the standard notion of ontology later promoted by Wolff and others. In sharp contrast to the tradition stemming from Scotus, Heidegger argued that Being is not the most generic concept, and wanted to emphasize a “Being of beings” in contrast to their factual, empirical presentation. He did not follow the path of Aquinas in identifying pure Being with God, either, and Aquinas probably would have rejected his talk of the Being of beings.

I think his most important contribution was an emphasis on what he called “being-in-the-world” as a way of overcoming the dichotomy of subject and object. His associated critique of Cartesian subjectivity has been highly influential. In later works, he also recommended putting difference before identity, and relations before things. Although the way he expounded these notions was quite original, I prefer to emphasize their roots in Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel. (See also Being, Existence; Being, Consciousness; Beings; Phenomenological Reduction?; Memory, History, Forgetfulness — Conclusion.)