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For Ricoeur here, “pure” semantics and foundationalist epistemology are both superseded by a “hermeneutic of the ‘real’ and the ‘unreal'” (p. 6) he expects will yield insight into both history and fiction.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).

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 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.


The final part of Paul Ricoeur’s Freedom and Nature was to discuss our “aquiescence to necessity” (p. 341). At one point he says he is looking for a way to ground something like Nietzsche’s amor fati or “love of fate”. The idea would be to explain how to achieve reconciliation to what must be, but without falling into an overly passive stance. Here he notes that “Pure description raises more problems than it resolves or than it presents as resolved” (p. 347).

His attempts to describe various aspects of necessity — principally under the forms of character, the unconscious, and life, which he notes also involve other wills, history, and the whole course of nature — he finds to be irremediably tainted by the “spell of objectivity” (ibid). The problem seems to be that he honestly thinks empirical data — or psychoanalytic theories, in the case of the unconscious — give the best insight into the operations of “bodily necessity” (p. 343), but then his Marcellian concerns about objectification lead him to conclude that none of the work he surveys in this context is usable for achieving the kind of reconciliation he wanted.

He ends up hinting that this will be resolved in a future work that does not rely on a Husserlian “bracketing” of questions related to what Ricoeur calls Transcendence that he had announced would limit the scope of this work. Transcendence, he suggests, will be addressed in the new context of a “poetics” of the will, rather than the modified Husserlian phenomenology he was pursuing here. He seems to have believed that ultimate reconciliation of freedom and necessity could only be achieved through a spiritual relation to Transcendence. Without in any way diminishing the value of such a spiritual relation, I am more optimistic that there is a purely philosophical resolution of this issue, using Aristotelian and Brandomian resources. Meanwhile, having myself already used the term “poetic” to describe statements about spiritual beliefs, I look forward to seeing how he developed this notion of a “poetics”. (See also Phenomenology of Will; Ricoeur on Embodiment; Ricoeur on Choice; Voluntary Action.)