Ricoeur on Imagination

Paul Ricoeur’s essay on imagination in From Text to Action invites us “to see in it an aspect of semantic innovation characteristic of the metaphorical use of language” (p. 171). The term “image”, he says, has acquired a bad reputation from its misuse in the empiricist theory of knowledge. It “corresponds to two extreme theories, illustrated by Hume and Sartre, respectively” (p. 170). Hume sought to derive images entirely from sense perception, while Sartre related them starkly to the absence of a real object. According to Ricoeur, “To say that our images are spoken before they are seen is to give up an initial false self-evidence, which holds the image to be first and foremost a ‘scene’ unfolding in some mental ‘theater’ before the gaze of an internal ‘spectator’. But it also means giving up at the same time a second false self-evidence, holding that this mental entity is the cloth out of which we tailor our abstract idea, our concepts, the basic ingredient of some sort of mental alchemy” (p. 171).

He suggests that we take the poetic image as paradigmatic. The poetic image is unfolded through what Eugène Minkowski and Gaston Bachelard called a kind of “reverberation” of things said. Metaphor for Ricoeur operates not just as substitution for nouns, but rather in a refiguration of whole sentences. Use of what would otherwise be “bizarre predicates” produces a kind of shock that leads us to “produce a new predicative pertinence that is the metaphor…. [A]t the moment when a new meaning emerges out of the ruins of literal predication[,] imagination offers its specific mediation” (p. 172). “[S]emantic shock… ignites the spark of meaning of the metaphor…. Before being a fading perception, the image is an emerging meaning” (p. 173). (See also Beauty, Deautomatization.) He says that in a Kantian sense, imagination schematizes emerging meaning, giving it concreteness.

The reverberation of meaning is not a secondary phenomenon, but rather essential to the constitution of meaning as such. Ricoeur suggests that “the power unfurled by poetic language” (p. 174) affects not only meaning, but reference too. Poetic discourse abolishes “our first-order interest in manipulation and control” (p. 175), but brings to the foreground a second-order reference to “our profound belonging to the life-world” and the “tie of our being to other beings” (ibid). This second-order reference “in reality is the primordial reference” (ibid). (See Rule of Metaphor.) Such a perspective goes along with the idea that reference is constituted by meaning, rather than vice versa. In Fregean terms, sense is prior to reference.

“The paradox of fiction is that setting perception aside is the condition for augmenting our vision of things” (ibid). According to Ricoeur, work in model theory suggests that not only in poetry but also in science, fiction plays a necessary heuristic role in articulating new meanings (see also Searching for a Middle Term). Further, “the first way human beings attempt to understand and to master the ‘manifold’ of the practical field is to give themselves a fictive representation of it” (p. 176).

Referring to Aristotle’s Poetics, he says “poetry goes right to the essence of action precisely because it ties together mythos and mimesis, that is, in our vocabulary, fiction and redescription” (ibid). In a Kantian vein, Ricoeur adds that “Its referential force consists in the fact that the narrative act, winding through the narrative structures, applies the grid of an ordered fiction to the ‘manifold’ of human action” (pp. 176-177; see also Narrated Time.)

Beyond its mimetic function, imagination also has a projective aspect. “Without imagination, there is no action…. And it is indeed through the anticipatory imagination of acting that I ‘try out’ different possible courses of action and that I ‘play’, in the precise sense of the word, with possible practices…. It is imagination that provides the milieu, the luminous clearing, in which we can compare and evaluate motives as diverse as desires and ethical obligations, themselves as disparate as professional rules, social customs, or intensely personal values” (p. 177). “Finally, it is in the realm of the imaginary that I try out my power to act, that I measure the scope of ‘I can'” (p. 178). (See also Free Play; Practical Judgment.)

Imagination is also involved in our recognition of others as like us. “[I]ndividuals as well as collective entities… are always already related to social reality in a mode other than that of immediate participation, following the figures of noncoincidence, which are, precisely, those of the social imaginary” (p. 182).

“[T]he analogical tie that makes every man my brother is accessible to us only through a number of imaginative practices, among them ideology and utopia” (p. 181). Ideology “seems to be tied to the necessity for any group to give itself an image of itself, to ‘play itself’, in the theatrical sense of the word, to put itself at issue and on stage…. [S]ymbolism is not an effect of society, society is an effect of symbolism” (ibid). Ideology covers over the real gaps in all systems of legitimacy. Utopia exposes these gaps, but also tends to subordinate reality to dreams, and to be fixated on perfectionist designs. Ideology and utopia are mutually antagonistic, and both tend toward a kind of pathology that renders their positive function unrecognizable. “[T]he productive imagination… can be restored to itself only through a critique of the antagonistic and semipathological figure of the social imaginary” (p. 181).

Narrative Time

For Aristotle, Ricoeur says, “fiction is a mimesis of active characters” (Time and Narrative vol. 2, p. 65). This seems very sound. The notion of activity applicable to a character has a good Aristotelian basis that is entirely independent of the modern notion of consciousness (see digression in last post). It has a richness and ethical relevance that it is hard to attribute to a static formalization of the functional role of a character. Character development over time also does in fact seem to be the main thing that engages me in actual fiction.

(Very different from this, I used to write what I called poetry, in a “language on language” or “texture of the text” style somewhat in imitation of Finnegan’s Wake. This was not fiction and entirely lacked characters, but I felt it had profound meaning of a broadly figurative but mainly nonrepresentational sort, indirectly affecting what I would now call self-consciousness (see digression in last post) as well as expressing aspects of the unconscious. It used long nested series of adverbial phrases modifying previous adverbial phrases in a grammatical way, with the idea of conveying to the reader that we can generate an overflow of meaning while indefinitely deferring mention of a grammatical subject. This was in accordance with my old idea of the conceptual priority of adverbial phrases and parenthetic developments. So, I would emphasize that there is literature apart from narrative and active characters, but that does not detract in the least from the importance of active characters where they are present.)

Fiction is unique in that it can present the subjectivity of third persons in a first-person-like way. It creates a present that is different from the real present of assertion. Ricoeur discusses at length the fictional use of verb tenses, pointing out various ways in which they subtly differ from uses in ordinary assertion. We distinguish between the time of narrating and the narrated time. Like Braudel’s historical time, fictional time has a speed or slowness and a rhythm as well as a length. Fictional time is “folded”. Thomas Mann said that narrating is a “setting aside”, a choosing and excluding. Ricoeur says that thinking draws narrated time out of indifference. Narration brings what is foreign to meaning into the sphere of meaning.

Fictional characters can have something worthy of being called “experience”. We reach a shift toward character by considering that the mimesis of action is implicitly a mimesis of acting beings with thoughts and feelings. Increased emphasis on character leads to notions of point of view and narrative voice. Ricoeur says, however, that in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, the notion of narrative voice “is not sufficient to do justice to the fictive experience the narrator-hero has of time in its psychological and metaphysical dimensions” (p. 86). There can be a further shift from characters to the discourse of characters.

Fictional narrative, he says, is constituted as the discourse of a narrator recounting the discourse of the characters. This redoubled aspect would seem to have a relation to the “folded” nature of fictional time. I confess that not being very interested in the re-creation of subjective “presence” per se, until this very moment I have felt genuinely puzzled why anyone would consider narrative to be philosophically somehow “better” than a thick description or other discourse. But if we take narrative in general as discourse about discourse or second-order discourse, this would seem to be strictly richer than first-order discourse, applying nicely to nonfiction cases as well, like history or my own accounts of philosophers.

He notes that several authors consider third-person narrative actually more revealing than first-person narrative. He asks whether the “polyphonic novel”, which seems to have many narrative voices, can still be understood in in terms of emplotment, and wants to suggest that it can. This would mean that the notion of plot cannot be tied down to a “monologic”.

The distinction between utterance and statement within narrative leads to a “reflexive temporal structure” (p. 100). The work is closed upon itself by a formal principle of composition (emplotment), but opens onto a fictional world. A confrontation of the world of the text with the life-world of the reader leads to a “reconfiguration of time by narrative” (ibid).

All fictional narratives are “tales of time”, but only a few are “tales about time” (ibid). He examines examples of these by Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann, and Marcel Proust. They exhibit “uncharted modes” of the discordant concordance analyzed by Aristotle. Meanwhile, the sharing of a whole range of temporal experiences between the narrator and the reader refigures time itself in our reading. Time moves further and further away from simple measurement, exposing aporias like those of Augustine.