Philosophy of History?

Hegel’s Philosophy of History lectures are written in an accessible, semi-popular style and are not without interest, but it is a huge mistake to take them as representative of his core views. “Philosophies of history” had actually been a common genre in late 18th century Germany, as witnessed by the title of Herder’s 1774 book Yet Another Philosophy of History. Works by now-forgotten authors typically took the form of valorizing the present in terms of the past. The triumphalist character commonly associated with Hegel’s philosophy of history in particular was actually a norm of the genre. In conjunction with the common, highly inflationary misunderstanding of Hegel’s “absolute knowledge”, this makes it easy to completely misunderstand what Hegel was getting at, as I did myself for many years.

Though sympathetic to various aspects of Hegel’s thought, Ricoeur in volume 3 of Time and Narrative associates Hegel’s view with insistence on an “impossible total mediation” (p. 202). Quite properly, Ricoeur says what we really want instead is an “open-ended, incomplete, imperfect mediation” (p. 207). “We must renounce consolation to attain reconciliation” (p. 197; emphasis in original). “The realization of freedom cannot be taken as the plot behind every plot” (p. 206). There is no “plot behind every plot” in history. I could not agree more. But careful reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology, Science of Logic, and other works actually refutes the very widespread idea that Hegel claimed to have achieved a total mediation. In fact, I would say it was Hegel who originally thematized mediation as inherently open-ended, incomplete, and imperfect.

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).


The last post suggests another nuance, having to do with how “total” and “totality” are said in many ways. This is particularly sensitive, because these terms have both genuinely innocent senses and other apparently innocent senses that turn out to implicitly induce evil in the form of a metaphorically “totalitarian” attitude.

Aiming for completeness as a goal is often a good thing.

There is a spectrum of relatively benign errors of over-optimism with respect to where we are in achieving such goals, which at one end begins to shade into a less innocent over-reach, and eventually into claims that are obviously arrogant, or even “totalitarian”.

Actual achievements of completeness are always limited in scope. They are also often somewhat fragile.

I’ll mention the following case mainly for its metaphorical value. Mathematical concepts of completeness are always in some sense domain-specific, and precisely defined. In particular, it is possible to design systems of domain-specific classification that are complete with respect to current “knowledge” or some definite body of such “knowledge”, where knowledge is taken not in a strong philosophical sense, but in some practical sense adequate for certain “real world” operations. The key to using this kind of mathematically complete classification in the real world is including a fallback case for anything that does not fit within the current scheme. Then optionally, the scheme itself can be updated. In less formal contexts, similar strategies can be applied.

There are also limited-scope, somewhat fragile practical achievements of completeness that are neither mathematical nor particularly ethical.

When it comes to ethics, completeness or totality is only something for which we should strive in certain contexts. About this we should be modest and careful.

Different yet again is the arguably trivial “totality” of preconceived wholes like individuals and societies. This is in a way opposite to the mathematical case, which worked by precise definition; here, any definition is implicitly suspended in favor of an assumed reference.

Another kind of implicit whole is a judgment resulting from deliberation. At some point, response to the world dictates that we cut short our in principle indefinitely extensible deliberations, and make a practical judgment call.

Lévinas on the Other

Emmanuel Lévinas (1905-95) was an important religiously oriented philosopher within the existential-phenomenological tradition. He translated Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations to French. His most famous work Totality and Infinity (French edition 1961) — dedicated to Gabriel Marcel and Jean Wahl — argues at top level that philosophy has often been dominated by a drive for a vision of totality, and that we should abandon this in favor of the “infinity” of our experience of the Other, which for Lévinas leads from an ethical concern to a sort of eschatology. He puts ethics before ontology, which I like, but still takes a more metaphysical approach than Marcel, for instance.

I appreciate his stress on concern for others, but have trouble applying the notion of infinity in this context. I’m more comfortable talking about the essential incompleteness of our experience as finite beings. Lévinas is right that reaching for totality is overreaching, but I think Plato and Aristotle — and also Kant, and even especially Hegel (so different from the common stereotype) — already clearly recognized this. In my view, ordinary open-ended interpretation already implicitly poses a potentially infinite (i.e., indefinitely extensible, and therefore always incomplete) task that we cut short in order to act, but we never in experience encounter an actual or completed infinite. Ethical encounter with others highlights the incompleteness (i.e., non-totality, in Lévinas’ terms) of our understanding.

This incompleteness — and the thickness and “overflowing” character of meant realities or informal “being” that is its complement — already seems to me sufficient to support an ethical, hospitable relation to the other. I want to say that an overflowing beyond objectifying schemas is characteristic not just of absolute transcendence and infinity, but of ordinary being and ordinary meaning. Routinely in everyday life, there is meaningful intelligibility and there is overflow, in the very same context. Even in the most ordinary moments, with sufficient openness we can find poetic reverie and ethical awe that takes us outside of ourselves.

Lévinas speaks of the “absolutely other” as “truth” in the sense of a religious transcendence, to which ethics is the “royal road” (p. 29). Transcendence, Lévinas says, should not be confused with ecstasy or magical communion. He has in mind a more sober kind of religion. He cites Marcel and Martin Buber on the irreducibility of the relationship to the Other to objective knowledge, and associates the driving of practice by theory with a failure to recognize this primacy of the other. With Kant, Hegel, and Brandom, I think we should recognize that theoretical reason actually depends on a practical reason that renounces Mastery; that theoretical reason is more of a tool, whereas practical reason is more of an agency; and that practical reason begins with recognition of the other.

I like when he speaks of a “generosity nourished by the Desired” (p. 34). He goes on to talk about a metaphysical Desire for the absolutely Other, “non-adequate to the idea” (ibid). Less metaphysically, I see forms overflowing their boundaries without thereby ceasing to be forms, and locate meaning in a foundationless but relatively stable difference in a relation of reciprocal co-grounding with moral commitment and practical judgment.

He talks about the reduction of the Other to the Same, and seems to think most philosophy does that. I have a more optimistic or charitable view that I think is also more historiographically valid. Aristotle and Hegel especially (contrary to common stereotypes) are very careful to avoid claiming overly strong Identity, so it is really not fair to say they reduce the Other to the Same.

Directly contrary to my view, he says that “The calling into question of things in a dialectic is not a modifying of the perception of them; it coincides with their objectification” (p. 69; emphasis in original). Disappointingly, he seems to prefer an authoritative teacher whom he calls an absolute Stranger. “The absolutely foreign alone can instruct us” (p. 73). It’s starting to sound like Kierkegaard here. I feel that hyperbolic expressions like this begin to denigrate ordinary life, and ultimately lead to a sort of absolute inflation. Lévinas’ Other is supposed to be a source of gentleness rather than arbitrariness, but to me what is gentle — much as it may exceed any objectification — cannot be absolutely foreign. I prefer to emphasize goodness rather than power, and I want to say that goodness speaks to us, so it cannot be absolutely foreign. (See also Immanence, Transcendence.)

Marcel on Being

I’ve been looking at Marcel’s The Mystery of Being (1950). “[I]t is not possible to treat all experience as coming down in the end to a self’s experience of its own states…. we shall see… how difficult it is to succeed in getting a direct glimpse of whatever it is that we mean by self.” (Vol. 1, p. 63-64; emphasis in original). “I appear to myself both as a somebody and not a somebody, a particular individual and not a particular individual” (p. 106). “This self to which I have to be true is perhaps merely the cry that comes out to me from my own depths — the appeal to me to become that which, literally and apparently, I now am not” (p. 176). Properly speaking, we should not say that our self exists, as this would make it a thing among other things.

Marcel says Truth should not be reduced to what is the case; it is an illumination. He distinguishes between primary reflection, which is objectifying, and secondary reflection, in which we ourselves are part of the reflection. In secondary reflection, we are participants rather than spectators. For example, “my” body is not some thing that I have, but rather something in which I am involved. More problematically from this writer’s point of view, he adds that my body is to me a sort of “non-mediatizable immediate” (p. 135).

To be is to be in a situation, understood in the participatory rather than the objectifying sense. We navigate situations by active processes of recognition and reconnoitring. “[A] being that can say, ‘My situation’… is not… self-contained; on the contrary, such a being is open and exposed” (p. 178; emphasis in original). “My life infinitely transcends my possible conscious grasp of my life… fundamentally and essentially it refuses to tally with itself” (p. 206). We should not represent a life as a series of movie stills.

Being is also being with, or togetherness with others. “[I]ntersubjectivity plays its part also within the life of the subject, even at moments when the latter’s only intercourse is with itself” (p. 224).

We should distinguish between an object and a presence. A presence lies beyond the grasp of any possible prehension, and can only be invoked or evoked. A rose in a poem is present to us in a way that a rose in a seed catalog is not. A mystery for Marcel is something that transcends the realm of technical solutions, in that we cannot hold it at arm’s length and objectify it, because it involves our own very being. Every Marcelian “presence” is mysterious in this way. “A felt quality… is not a mental object” (p. 231). Truth is not a thing, but a spirit. It is in this sort of way, he says, that essence should be understood.

In approaching the question of what Being is, “I have to think not only for myself, but for us… for everyone who may have contact with the thought which is mine” (Vol. 2, p. 6). We must exorcize the ego-centric spirit. “A complete and concrete knowledge of oneself… must be hetero-centric” (p. 9). He contrasts “we are” with “I think”. “[T]he intelligible milieu… is only the projection on an ideal plane of what existentially speaking presents itself to us as the intersubjective nexus” (p. 12). “[I]t is literally true to say that the more exclusively it is I who exist, the less do I exist” (p. 38; emphasis in original). He equates a transcendental ego with solipsism, but says that Being is not reducible to intersubjectivity, either.

Ontology for Marcel is concerned with acts of judgment associated with the “is” of predication, rather than with objects. He contrasts the “fullness” of truth with “the hollowness of a functionalized world” (p. 47). Fullness is not to be confused with totality, and being cannot be reduced to totality. Any fullness of truth involves secondary reflection, from which we cannot separate ourselves as participants. Being cannot be indifferent to value. Faith must be distinguished from opinion; it is a matter of believing in, not believing that. Real prayer, he says, is possible only where intersubjectivity is operative.

A free act is one that “I come to think of, after the event, as having helped to make me what I am” (p. 131). “[W]e are concerned here with a certainty which I am rather than with a certainty which I have… I am a living testimony” (p. 144). Just as there is creative fidelity, there is creative testimony, but the creativity in question involves an active receptivity, not a simple production.

Marcel’s invocations of “being” and “existence”, as well as of “presence” and of “ontology” all seem rather different from the standard, representationally oriented usages of these terms, to which I have expressed various objections. He also did not engage in anything like Heidegger’s dubious historiography of a “forgetting of Being”.

Early in the book, he seemed to reject “what is” questions as inherently objectifying. I think that questions of what and why are most naturally treated as matters of open-ended interpretation, and that ontology, epistemology, and all manner of specific technical disciplines can be subsumed under hermeneutics, which is in turn subsumed under ethics. From my perspective, what Marcel would have regarded as objectifying perspectives can thus be subsumed in a way that undoes their objectifying character.

Although Marcel’s style of exposition and vocabulary are very different from Aristotle’s, the broad spirit of his perspective seems very close in important respects. To a greater extent than most other philosophers, Aristotle and Marcel each in their own way brought to the fore an emphasis on concreteness and the way we encounter things in life. (Marcel’s pessimistic view of “what is” questions is perhaps the most significant difference. Aristotle also did not have explicit analogues of Marcel’s “presence” and “mystery”.)

While I am uncomfortable with Marcel’s top-level characterization of my relation to my body as an un-mediatizable immediacy because I think it involves the mediation of something like the unconscious level of Kantian processes of synthesis, I very much like the ethical contrast of being and having that informs the details of his account of this. Marcel doesn’t explicitly say as I do that “being” is primarily an ethical concept, but his account seems open to such an interpolation. (See also Ricoeur on Embodiment; Platonic Truth; Meant Realities; Being, Consciousness.)