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.

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.)


Michel Foucault (1926-84) played a very great role in developing approaches to subjectivity as something that is constituted, rather than pre-existing or only one-sidedly constitutive. Despite some nontrivial issues with things he said at different times, this seems like a major contribution. In his later work, he also emphasized that people actively participate in the constitution of their own subjectivity. Foucault was not only a brilliant theorist, but often expressed his ideas in beautiful, sparkling prose.

I see his focus on the constitution of subjectivity itself as an invaluable and necessary complement to the notion of a constituting subjectivity, as exemplified by, e.g., Kantian synthesis.

Much of Foucault’s work tended to fit the common trope of a “hermeneutics of suspicion” — pointing out how liberal reforms actually implemented more efficient strategies of social control, and so on. Unlike most of the people who use this phrase, I think this sort of “suspicion” of usual assumptions can play an invaluable critical role. However, I agree it can also be taken too far.

For example, received truths may turn out to be mere prejudice, and the notion of truth itself may turn out to have been naively hypostasized in many instances. But it is going too far to say — as Foucault did on several occasions — that truth and knowledge as such are inevitably caught up in strategies of domination, or — as Nietzsche and Foucault both did — that there really is no Platonic truth. In matters like this, we need an Aristotelian mean that avoids both naivete and cynicism.

I always preferred to pay more attention to Foucault’s practical multiplication of articulable differences, distinctions, and discontinuities in his historiography than to his negative rhetoric about truth and knowledge in general. During his earlier “archaeological” period, which greatly impressed me in my youth, this multiplication of articulable differences was the positive side of his questioning of too-easy unities, identities, and continuities in history.

In his later work, he developed a distinctive theory of power in society, treating it as distributed everywhere at a micro level, rather than emanating from a central authority. On a practical level, this seems to me to contain valuable lessons, although it also seems to play on an ambiguity between power as capability and power as domination. (It is easy to see that power as capability is ubiquitous, and illuminating to think of how what are really modes of control may be actualized at a micro level. But capabilities and modes of control, while they are both distributed, are two different things that cannot be just identified or assumed to have the same distribution.)

He also pointed out how control can be effectuated through the very formation and self-formation of people and things, without the overt involvement of any sort of repression or repressive apparatus. This seems like another important insight.

Foucault was much influenced by the philosopher of science Georges Canguilhem’s investigations of the concept of normality in biology and medicine, which highlighted the importance of pathology for an understanding of normality. (It also appears that within the French context, the term “normativity” has strong connotations of mere empirical “normality” and conformity, in sharp contrast to its value-oriented significance in analytic philosophy and my own usage.) Foucault himself had a sort of fascination with what sociologists call deviance, and a bit of a morbid streak that I never liked.

The discursive regularities he analyzed in his earlier work represent a kind of empirical “normality” rather than an ethical normativity. Again, these are two entirely different concepts.

In Aristotelian terms, discursive regularities fall under the domain of “art” or technique, rather than that of ethos. Technique is the canonical example of an Aristotelian means or efficient cause (not to be confused with later notions of impulse, or a scholastic act of creation). As efficient causes, Foucaultian discursive regularities operate under the mode of actuality. (Ethical normativity, by contrast, involves derived ends considered under the mode of potentiality.)

Foucault’s “archaeological” method can be seen as a specialized historiographical application of what I have been calling Aristotelian semantics, concerned with fine distinctions in the ways things actually said might be meant, as well as of Aristotelian dialectic, concerned with making the practical consequences of those distinctions explicit. (See also Empirical-Transcendental Doublet; Archaeology of Knowledge; Ricoeur on Foucault; Genealogy; Immediacy, Presence.)

Platonic Truth

Plato was much more concerned with what might be called truths of essence than with truths of fact. Truths of essence involve interpretation of meaning, and always have an implicit normative dimension. They are inseparably involved with questions of what is good or right. As Aristotle might say, they tell us what and why something is rather than merely “that” something is.

There is no general way to test whether we have completely grasped an essence, and not just what Hegel would call a one-sided view of it. As Brandom might say, all grasping of essences is defeasible. Plato makes his leading characters say many things that apply this in particular cases. Essences are the object of interpretation, not certain knowledge. (See also Dialogue; The Epistemic Modesty of Plato and Aristotle; Plato and Aristotle Were Inferentialists; Brandom on Truth; Foundations?)


Foundationalism is the mistaken notion that some certain knowledge comes to us ready-made, and does not depend on anything else. One common sort involves what Wilfrid Sellars called the Myth of the Given.

Certainty comes from proof. A mathematical construction is certain. Nothing in philosophy or ordinary life is like that. There are many things we have no good reason to doubt, but without proof, that still does not make them certain.

In life, high confidence is all we need. Extreme skepticism is refuted by experience. It is not possible to live a life without practical confidence in many things.

Truth, however, is a result, not a starting point. It must be earned. There are no self-certifying truths, and truth cannot be an unexplained explainer.

In philosophy, we have dialectical criticism or analysis that can be applied from any starting point, then iteratively improved, and a certain nonpropositional faith in reason to get us going. All we need is the ability to question, an awareness of what we do not know, and a little faith. We can always move forward. It is the ability to move forward that is key. (See also Interpretation; Brandom on Truth; The Autonomy of Reason.)

Truth and Judgment

Negative reactions to Brandom are a veritable industry these days. Another one I just encountered, by Karl Hahn, comes from a Thomistic direction, and mainly wants to reassert an incompatible view of truth. This yields a useful delineation.

Humanity owes Thomas Aquinas an immense debt of gratitude for helping end the European dark ages and usher in the high medieval development that led to the Renaissance, by making Aristotle acceptable to the Church. But while I am broadly sympathetic to Aristotelian tendencies in theology, I also think theological “improvements” to Aristotle were not improvements.

Aquinas had a very distinctive and sophisticated view of truth. It was extremely remote, however, from that of Brandom and the one I attribute to Aristotle. Aquinas wanted to combine Aristotelian learning and ethical discourse with Christian revelation and the broadly Augustinian tradition of faith seeking understanding, into one seamless edifice. From this perspective, there are truths of reason, truths of experience, and truths of revelation, but truth must agree with truth, so things must be interpreted in a way adequate to them all.

Hahn, following Alasdair MacIntyre, summarizes the Thomistic view of truth as something said primarily of intellect, rather than of propositions. Aristotle discussed truth in the context of things said, but Plotinus already articulated something like MacIntyre’s view, which apparently puts a kind of immediate synthetic mental apprehension ahead of any extended articulation. Simultaneously, Plotinus contributed to a shift in emphasis from form or concept to something more like what we think of as a subjective “mind”. (I would argue that Aristotle’s own notion of intellect is fundamentally not subjective in the modern sense; see Substance Also Subject.)

When we speak of some understanding as “true”, I take that as a sort of poetic metonymy, not a literal statement. Truth can be derivatively said of an act of understanding, based on judgment of that understanding’s soundness and circumstantial appropriateness, which is to say not only the inferential but also the broader emotional and social reasonableness of its articulable content. Understanding-as-truth could almost be taken to hint at something like Hegelian truth-as-process, except that for Plotinus or Aquinas it is an achieved result that should be valid for all time.

Hahn is wary of “intra-rational” criteria for the evaluation of reasons, relating this to what he calls idealist-pragmatist “relativism”. Such worries about relativism depend on a huge equivocation between views that want to take more distinctions into account, and views that implausibly deny the reality of all distinctions. (For Aristotle as well as Kant, distinctions rather than assertions form the basis for evaluation and determination of content. Responsible, serious assertion is an outcome of evaluation.)

Thomism, while placing high value on reason, is fundamentally at odds with the Kantian autonomy of reason, which is an ethical imperative that evaluation be exclusively “intra-rational”. Here, “rational” means not just narrowly logical, but substantively reasonable.

I see strong textual evidence for anticipation of Kant’s autonomy-of-reason thesis in Plato and Aristotle. While we should respect the opinions of the wise, no opinion or received truth can be the final word. An assertion is just as good as the evaluation on which it is based.

As important as reasoning is for Aquinas, it is ultimately subordinate to a body of received truths, both of revelation and of what he calls natural light. (Along with Duns Scotus, Aquinas was an important precursor of modern doctrines of truth-first representationalism that stand in contrast to Aristotle and Brandom’s reason-first inferentialism.)

My view is that even the most polite, well-intentioned claims of received truth prematurely end the possibility of real dialogue about what is reasonable and good, and that they are in that way opposed to truth in a deeper sense like the Hegelian truth-as-process (or, I would argue, even Platonic truth). Kant called claims of received truth “dogmatism”. Genuinely good insights are diminished by being presented with inappropriate finality. (See also What and Why; Theology; God and the Soul; “Said Of”; Justification; Realism, Idealism; Metaphysical, Nonmetaphysical; Weak Nature Alone; Brandomian Forgiveness.)

Truth, Beauty

In my very first post here, I mentioned a reversal of order of precedence in my own top-level view of things. An always ongoing quest for better understanding of things large and small, combined with intuitive sympathy or empathy for others, used to seem to come first. (Such “understanding” would not be the univocal representational Understanding that Hegel talked about, but something broader and more open-endedly interpretive.) Ethics would thus have basically taken care of itself, and would at most have been a matter of working out details.

At another intermediate point, I thought what should come first would be to seek beauty in all things, incorporating a sort of ancient Greek notion of beautiful actions. Again, ethics would have basically taken care of itself. If queried about this, I might have added that provided one sincerely cares, it is better to be light of heart than worried all the time. (See also Affirmation.)

Now I have come to think that understanding of things large and small is itself at root an ethical or meta-ethical activity, and have even begun to speak of a normative monism. The point I want to make here, though, is that there is a common theme across all three of these stages.

The common theme is a profound interdependence between how the world is for us, how we ought to think about it, and how we ought to act. The three stages mentioned above represent not changes of values that would result in different ground-level ethical conclusions, but rather a progressively deepening “self-consciousness”. (According to Brandom, this sort of autobiographical Hegelian genealogy itself plays an important role in the improvement of what I am here loosely calling “understanding”.)

From a Kantian critical point of view, we know that there will always be a difference between how we think the world is and how it actually is (and ultimately that anything like Cartesian certainty can only be a dogmatic illusion). But from an Aristotelian pragmatic point of view, we can go ahead and work with our current best understanding. Then from a Hegelian point of view, without forgetting that our understanding will never be the last word, we can charitably or forgivingly recognize that current best understanding as an expression of Reality and Truth. (See also Objectivity; Objectivity of Objects; Brandom on Truth.)

Aristotelian Propositions

Every canonical Aristotelian proposition can be interpreted as expressing a judgment of material consequence or material incompatibility. This may seem surprising. First, a bit of background…

At the beginning of On Interpretation, Aristotle says that “falsity and truth have to do with combination and separation” (Ch. 1). On its face, the combination or separation at issue has to do not with propositions but with terms. But it is not quite so simple. The terms in question are canonically “universals” or types or higher-order terms, each of which is therefore convertible with a mentioned proposition that the higher-order term is or is not instantiated or does or does not apply. (We can read, e.g., “human” as the mentioned proposition “x human”.) Thus a canonical Aristotelian proposition is formed by “combining” or “separating” a pair of things that are each interpretable as an implicit proposition in the modern sense.

Propositions in the modern sense are treated as atomic. They are often associated with merely stipulated truth values, and in any case it makes no sense to ask for internal criteria that would help validate or invalidate a modern proposition. But we can always ask whether the combination or separation in a canonical Aristotelian proposition is reasonable for the arguments to which it is applied. Therefore, unlike a proposition in the modern sense, an Aristotelian proposition always implicitly carries with it a suggestion of criteria for its validation.

The only available criteria for critically assessing correctness of such elementary proposition-forming combination or separation are material in the sense that Sellars and Brandom have discussed. A judgment of “combination” in effect just is a judgment of material consequence; a judgment of “separation” in effect just is a judgment of material incompatibility. (This also helps clarify why it is essential to mention both combination and separation affirmatively, since, e.g., “human combines with mortal” canonically means not just that human and mortal are not incompatible, but that if one is said to be human, one is thereby also said to be mortal.)

This means that Aristotle’s concept of the elementary truth and falsity of propositions can be understood as grounded in criteria for goodness of material inference, not some kind of correspondence with naively conceived facts. It also means that every Aristotelian proposition can be understood as expressing a judgment of material consequence or incompatibility, and that truth for Aristotle can therefore be understood as primarily said of good judgments of material consequence or incompatibility. Aristotle thus would seem to anticipate Brandom on truth.

This is the deeper meaning of Aristotle’s statement that a proposition in his sense does not just “say something” but “says something about something”. Such aboutness is not just grammatical, but material-inferential. This is in accordance with Aristotle’s logical uses of “said of”, which would be well explained by giving that a material-inferential interpretation as well.

The principle behind Aristotelian syllogism is a form of composition, formally interpretable as an instance of the composition of mathematical functions, where composition operates on the combination or separation of pairs of terms in each proposition. Aristotelian logic thus combines a kind of material inference in proposition formation and its validation with a kind of formal inference by composition. This is what Kant and Hegel meant by “logic”, apart from their own innovations.

Brandom on Truth

One of the essays reprinted in Brandom’s Reason in Philosophy (2009) was “Why Truth Is Not Important in Philosophy”. Epistemic conscientiousness and the honesty that I largely equate with it are still important; it is the explanatory and justificatory role of truth that he wants to question. For Brandom, inferential goodness explains and justifies claims of truth rather than the other way around. Saying an assertion is true is a lot like just repeating the assertion; it adds no content. (See also Interpretation; Foundations?)

Brandom argues that Frege understood propositional contentfulness in terms of being able to play the functional role of a premise or conclusion in an inference, and suggests going beyond Frege to say that truth just is what is preserved by good inference. Brandom wants to say that inference is constitutive and truth is constituted. We seek not just knowledge but understanding, and not just truth but reasonableness.

All this seems entirely right to me. Though unlike Brandom in Spirit of Trust I do still see a positive role for truth-as-goal, I take this in a Socratic ethical sense that belongs entirely on the side of epistemic conscientiousness, so the difference is not large. (See also Inferential Semantics; Normative Pragmatics.)

(Working with a notion of inference that was simultaneously formal and material, Aristotle made inferential goodness the main criterion of episteme, so I think he would also be sympathetic to the thrust here. See also Aristotelian Propositions; Aristotelian Demonstration.)