This is to conclude the sequence on Ricoeur’s Symbolism of Evil, and also the larger one on his multi-volume philosophy of will, continued from Freedom and Nature and Fallible Man. The last three-fifths of the current book is devoted to a study of selected topics related to Near Eastern creation myths, Greek tragedy, the myth of the Fall, and Orphic myths of the exiled soul. While any or all of these are potentially interesting, I don’t find much to say about the particular details covered. This work does have the merit of combining a sort of phenomenology-of-religion style discourse with a broad ethical concern. After the brilliance of Fallible Man, though, it seems anticlimactic.

At the end, he reaches the somewhat lacklustre conclusion that “symbols give rise to thought”, and very briefly expands on this. “[T]he task of the philosopher guided by symbols would be to break out of the enchanted enclosure of consciousness of oneself, to end the prerogative of self-reflection. The symbol gives reason to think that the Cogito is within being, not vice versa” (p. 356; emphasis in original). Except for the part about symbols, these are familiar Ricoeurian ideas, but they do not play much of a role in the main body of the current work.

He says philosophy cannot do without presuppositions. I agree we can’t doubt everything all at once. He says it should start from the “fullness of language”, seek a “second immediacy” and a “second naivete”. I do see ethical value in a degree of deliberate “naivete” that deliberately chooses to give the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, I think immediacy is divided into mere appearance of things that are actually mediated; a trivial quality of appearance qua appearance; and a sort of obscure insistence or resistance that may point out something wrong with our thinking. Fullness of language is just an isolated phrase here; I believe it was discussed a bit in one of the earlier volumes, but can’t find the passage right now. (See also Phenomenology of Will; Ricoeur on Embodiment; Ricoeur on Choice; Voluntary Action; Consent?; Fallible Humanity; Self, Infinity; Symbolism of Evil?; Fear and Suffering; Guilt.)

Symbolism of Evil?

I’m beginning to look at Ricoeur’s The Symbolism of Evil (French ed. 1960). This was the last installment of the projected philosophy of will that he actually produced, concerned with a long detour through the experience of sin, mainly in the Old Testament and Greek traditions. Ricoeur apparently abandoned the projected final philosophical reconciliation that was to follow this, after the current investigation changed his thinking about relations between phenomenology and hermeneutics.

Near the beginning of this work, he speaks first of an experience of confession underlying the symbolism that will be investigated, then of a primitive sense of defilement or impurity. I think confession can have a positive role, but have grave doubts about the notion of impurity.

“[I]mpurity is measured not by imputation to a responsible agent” (p. 27) but rather by a violation of religious Law. He notes the huge place of sexuality in this context, adding that “the defilement of sexuality as such is a theme foreign to the ethics that proceeds from the confession of divine holiness, as well as to the ethics that is organized around the theme of justice or the integrity of the moral person” (p. 28).

Then he seems to argue that the excess of meaning inherent in symbolism will make it possible to reinterpret this nonethical content in terms that can be given ethical meaning. I don’t know yet how this will turn out, but I favor the priority of actual ethics over law, be it religious or civil. I also think sound theology puts the spirit of actual ethics before the letter of positive law.

This work has been criticized for privileging the Judeo-Christian tradition, and for presupposing too much about pre-existing meaning. But in all the works of Ricoeur that I have examined, I’ve been extremely impressed with the quality of argument, and the graceful way in which he combined personal faith with free philosophical development.

Personally, I’m happy with where he left things at the end of Fallible Man, with the potential for both good and evil. I don’t like dwelling on evil, let alone its complication in sin. But I greatly admire Ricoeur, and this is a major work of his that I want to understand.