1. Biographical Sketch
Paul Ricoeur was born on February 27, 1913 in Valence, France. His mother died shortly thereafter and his father was killed in the Battle of the Marne in 1915, so Ricoeur and his sister were reared by their paternal grandparents and an unmarried aunt in Rennes. They were devout members of the French Reformed Protestant tradition. He was later to speak of the role of faith in his life as “an accident transformed into a destiny through an ongoing choice, while scrupulously respecting other choices.” As a war orphan his schooling was paid for by the French government. He studied philosophy first at the University of Rennes and then at the Sorbonne. From the earliest years of his academic life he was convinced that there is a basic, irreducible difference between things and human beings as persons and as agents. Unlike things, persons can engage in free, thoughtful action. But Ricoeur never accepted any version of a substance dualism in the person as the Cartesian cogito and the Kantian transcendental subject can be read to require. He did, however, accept Kant’s doctrine regarding the antinomies of reason and the necessary distinction between theoretical and practical reason. Ricoeur was studying in Germany when World War II broke out. Soon after being called up for service in the French army in 1939 he was captured and spent the rest of the war in prison camps in Germany. There he was able to study the work of Karl Jaspers and to prepare a translation of Husserl’s Ideas I in the margins of the book which he had to conceal from his jailers. After the war, he completed his doctorate and was appointed lecturer, then professor of the history of philosophy at the University of Strasbourg, where he succeeded Jean Hyppolite. He remained there until 1956, when he was named to the chair of general philosophy at the Sorbonne. In 1965, he joined the faculty of the new University of Paris at Nanterre, now Paris X, whose establishment he had supported in light of the rapid growth in the number of university students at that time. He served a difficult year as Dean of the faculty of letters following the student uprising of 1968. Except for three years he then spent at Louvain, he continued to teach a seminar at the Husserl Archive in Paris until he reached the mandatory retirement age in 1980. From 1954 on, Ricoeur also lectured regularly in the United States and Canada. In 1970 he was named to succeed Paul Tillich as the John Nuveen professor of philosophical theology at the University of Chicago, with a joint appointment in the Divinity School, the Philosophy Department, and the Committee on Social Thought. He taught there regularly for a portion of each year until 1992. In 1986 he gave the Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh, Scotland. Ricoeur’s work has been translated into more than twenty-five languages and he was honored by a volume in the Library of Living Philosophers series. Among his many honorary doctorates are ones from Chicago (1967), Northwestern (1977), Columbia (1981), Göttingen (1987), and McGill (1992). He was the recipient of numerous awards, among them the Hegel Prize (Stuttgart, 1985), the Dante Prize (Florence, 1988), the Karl Jaspers Prize (Heidelberg, 1989), the Leopold Lucas Prize (Tübingen, 1990), the French Academy Grand Prize for Philosophy (1991), the Kyoto Prize (2000), and the Pope Paul VI International Prize (2003). In 2004, he was co-recipient of the John W. Kluge Prize in the Human Sciences awarded by the Kluge Center at the Library of Congress.
2. Pre-hermeneutic Anthropology
Ricoeur’s first major work was meant to be in three volumes that would lay out a philosophy of the will. It would also address the problem of evil and its answer, Transcendence as expressed through a poetics of the will. This latter volume never appeared. It was delayed, then set aside when Ricoeur discovered new problems he had not foreseen and when he sought to respond to new challenges to philosophy coming especially from structuralism.
The first volume, Freedom and Nature: The Voluntary and the Involuntary (1950), proposes a phenomenology of the will, while bracketing the reality of evil and its solution. It draws on the method of phenomenology developed by Edmund Husserl. In it one finds an expression of a theme central to Ricoeur’s anthropology, namely, the polar subjective/objective character of the constituent features of lived human existence. Contrary to Sartre’s claim that there is radical difference between consciousness (or the for-itself) and materiality (or the in-itself), a difference that pits the freedom of the for-itself against the sheer facticity of the in-itself, Ricoeur argues that the voluntary and involuntary dimensions of human existence are complementary. This can be seen through a phenomenological description of the three structures that constitute the voluntary: deciding, choosing and moving to action, and our necessary consent to the involuntary as that which is acted upon through our embodiment, the organ of our action. There is no seamless harmony between these dimensions of what is finally only a finite freedom. Human beings have to struggle with the tension between them and ultimately to consent to their embodied lives and the world as something they do not fully create. It is the always fragile resolution of this conflict that ultimately makes human freedom genuinely human, and that gives us our distinctive identities both as individuals and as members of larger historical communities and ultimately of humanity.
Ricoeur extends his account of freedom to take up the problem of evil in Fallible Man and The Symbolism of Evil, both published in 1960. In these works he addresses the question of how to account for the fact that it is possible for us to misuse our freedom, the reality of a bad will, a question that had been bracketed in the initial phenomenological volume. In Fallible Man he argues through a transcendental analysis that this possibility is grounded in the basic disproportion that characterizes human existence as located between the finite, perspectival nature of experience and the infinite, rational dimensions of taking up that experience in perception, practice, and feeling, leading to the concept of fallibility. This disproportion shows up in every aspect of human existence, from perceiving to feeling to thinking. It is evident in the human quest for possessions, power, and prestige. By reason of this disproportion, we are never wholly at one with ourselves and hence we can go wrong. We are fallible, yet evil, the misuse of our freedom, is neither original nor necessary, only always possible.
Nor does this disproportion render our existence meaningless. Rather, the very disproportion that makes us fallible and makes human evil possible is also what makes goodness, knowledge, and achievement possible. It is what distinguishes us from one another—each one of us has his or her unique spatiotemporal location and perspective but can we can know ourselves as one human among many and we can know the world beyond our individual perspective on it. At the same time our fallibility makes it possible for us to communicate with each other through our use of the logos which seeks to transcend our localized points of view.
Though the unity of humanity is never more than a unity founded on communication, precisely because we can communicate, the differences among us are never absolute. Furthermore, no one of us alone could be a person. Though each of us has an individual identity, our identities show that we are bound up with others: “Man is this plural and collective unity in which the unity of destination and the differences of destinies are to be understood through each other” (Fallible Man, 138).
The kind of unity that binds people to one another even though they differ is found in their quest for esteem and recognition. This quest aims for genuine mutuality that expresses a mutual esteem for the worth that each of us has by reason of both our common humanity and our individual uniqueness. This esteem positively values the disproportion constitutive of every person. This theme of mutual recognition is developed more fully in Ricoeur’s final book The Course of Recognition, where he argues that it goes beyond mere reciprocal recognition, like that found in commercial or other transactions reducible to an exchange of goods with no regard for who the other party involved might be.
Both our constitutive disproportion and our quest for mutual esteem are also visible through the study of history which acknowledges the temporality of our existence. And such attention to history, in turn, further clarifies the finite nature of human freedom. For Ricoeur, there is an order and structure to history conveyed through the narrating of history. Otherwise history would be unintelligible. But this narrated history also recounts events and deeds that disrupt the prevailing order and reorder it, leading to the question whether forgiveness for the wrongs that have occurred and debts that have been incurred might be possible, however difficult to achieve.
These reflections reinforced Ricoeur’s conviction that what humans say and do presupposes both a finite freedom that allows us to intervene in natural processes and a dependence on these same processes for the efficacy of such actions. What we say and do would be meaningless if it did not fit into some antecedent structure or pattern established by natural processes, on the one hand, and into what we say about such doings which intervene in those processes, on the other. Our words and deeds are intended to express the meaning of what exists, if only because they give meaning to things as they now stand. In this sense, our words and deeds get their significance from being responses to contexts not wholly of our own making. What we say and do in such contexts can also aim beyond things as they now stand and sometimes does give expression to new meanings and values, as well as to unintended and as yet unrealized possibilities. In a word, our exercising of our finite freedom has worth and efficacy only by reason of our embodiment in a natural and cultural setting that is largely not of our own making, but this is a world that we seek to appropriate through our words and deeds—and our use of a productive imagination.
Ricoeur saw that this conception of the disproportion that characterizes human beings was insufficient to account for actual occurrence of a bad will and evil deeds. No direct, unmediated inspection of the cogito, as Descartes and Husserl had proposed, can show why these evils, contingent as each of them is, in fact came to be. Recognizing the opacity of the cogito in this respect confirmed his suspicion that all self-understanding comes about only through “signs deposited in memory and imagination by the great literary traditions” (Ricoeur, “Intellectual Autobiography”, in Hahn 1995: 16). This suspicion was a major motivator for his hermeneutic and, at the same time, “linguistic turn”.
Ricoeur next explored the problem of how then to account for the existence of evil in The Symbolism of Evil. There, he argued that we have to consider how people have tried to come to terms with their inability to make sense of the existence of evil by using language that draws on the great symbols and myths that speak of its origin and end. This is language that conveys more than a single meaning, language that can always be understood in more than one way; hence it needs always to be interpreted. This study concluded by saying that philosophy must learn to make sense of such language and learn to think starting from it, something Ricoeur summed up in a famous phrase: “the symbol gives rise to thought” (The Symbolism of Evil, 1967: 247–57). If philosophy is to take seriously this lesson taught by reflection on the symbolism of evil, it has to take up the problem of the “fullness of language”. This means considering those uses of language that extend beyond a single word or sentence, as well as those which cannot be reduced logical propositions. Like symbols these are forms of discourse that may have more than one meaning. To make sense of the fullness of language, therefore, philosophy has to develop a theory of interpretation since actual discourse is not always, if ever univocal and its meanings do change over time when discourse outlives the speakers and situations in which it was originally produced.
In working out this theory of interpretation in terms of a theory of language as discourse, Ricoeur saw that what he now called the hermeneutic field was itself divided internally between an approach such as that used in The Symbolism of Evil which sought to recover meaning that was assumed to be already there and what he now called a hermeneutics of suspicion, like that found in Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, which held that nothing ultimately means what it first seems to say. The rise of structuralism in the 1960s and 70s, drawing on developments in linguistics, contributed to this emphasis on suspicion by holding that it was an underlying structure or structures that gave rise to the apparent surface meaning. Structuralism also introduced the idea that the identifying of such underlying structures could count as a reductive explanation of any surface-level meaning. Ricoeur’s philosophical project therefore turned to showing that while structuralism could be incorporated as a method of inquiry—look for and learn from the generative structures—it went astray when it proposed itself as a theory of objectivity without subjectivity, what Ricoeur called a transcendental philosophy without a transcendental subject. Over time, he came to see that this limiting of structural analysis to a method of interpretation can be shown to follow from the fact that structuralists always presupposed the surface meaning they were trying to explain away. Moreover, because they ignored time and discarded any notion of change, because the deep structures they discovered were understood to be static and atemporal, they could not really account for how structures generated surface meanings, that is, how one structure could change into a different structure.
This critique is found in the essays collected in The Conflict of Interpretations (1969) and in Ricoeur’s detailed philosophical reading of Freud, Freud and Philosophy (1970). Freud’s own philosophy turns out to be an archaeology of the subject aimed at a theory of culture (civilization and its discontents), but it lacks the required corresponding teleology of the subject that would allow for human creativity and a capable human being. These investigations reinforced Ricoeur’s view that there is no unmediated self-understanding, leading to a turn to a more dialectic method in his work. This is an approach through which he seeks to find the middle term that can mediate between two polar terms and allow us to move back and forth between them. Locating such a mediating term leads to enhanced understanding. It always comes about through interpretation but is also itself open to critique. In other words, it is a method that mediates and negotiates rather than removes the conflict of interpretations.
Besides recognizing the fruitfulness of structural analyses of particular well-defined fields of experience, Ricoeur resisted those structuralists who sought to reduce language itself to a closed system of signs having no reference to anything outside itself. Following clues found in the works of Emile Benveniste and Roman Jakobson, he defined discourse as the use of such sign systems by someone to say something about something to someone, using existing but malleable phonetic, lexical, syntactic, and stylistic rules. That is, discourse always involves a speaker or writer and a hearer or reader as well as something said in some situation about some reality, ultimately a world that we might inhabit. It follows that any interpretation of a form of discourse requires both the objective sort of analysis for which structuralism provides a tool and an acknowledgment that there is always a surplus of meaning that goes beyond what such objective techniques seek to explain. There is a surplus of meaning because we apply objective techniques to things we already understand as having a possible meaning without fully exhausting that meaning. The meaning of acts of discourse is moreover always open to new interpretations, particularly as time passes and the very context in which interpretation occurs itself changes.
3. Interpretation and the Fullness of Language
On this basis Ricoeur’s work after The Conflict of Interpretations addressed a number of related topics. On one level, he explored the practice of methods of interpretation as an arc leading from an initial situation and understanding to broadened understanding, both of the interpreter and the world as a world we can imagine ourselves as inhabiting. On a second level, he explored the broader notion of the fullness of language through investigation of different forms of extended discourse. These are uses of language that are longer than the single sentence and whose truth and meaning is not simply reducible to the sum of the truth values of the individual sentences which constitute such extended discourse. On the basis of these two interwoven levels, he could also take up the questions of selfhood and responsible human action, allowing him in turn to spell out in greater detail the ethical theory that had always been implicit in his philosophy. This discussion of ethics started from a focus on person to person relations, the self and just one or only a few nearby others, and subsequently moved on to the question of justice and living with others beyond those one may meet every day or face to face. The specific question what is just (The Just, 2000; Reflections on the Just, 2007), developed out of Ricoeur’s participation in a seminar for judges, and led to his reflections in the last work published during his lifetime on the idea of mutual recognition (The Course of Recognition, 2005). In those final years, he also continued to explore other dimensions of the fullness of language, for example, through some significant essays on the notion of translation as occurring not just between languages but also within them (On Translation, 2006).
Ricoeur’s focus on practices of interpretation did not propose a single general theory applicable in each and every case. His approach was rather to connect his theory of discourse as a use of language meant to say something to someone with examples of such discourse and their interpretation. But language as spoken is ephemeral, it disappears. Ricoeur’s genial insight was to turn to examples that fixed such discourse by inscribing it in texts or what might be treated as analogous to a text. The event of speaking might disappear but the text remains for anyone who knows how to read. Hence it is the meaning of the text rather than the original author’s intention or the originating situation that becomes the object of interpretation. Structuralism was correct that texts have a structure. But this structure varies depending on the kind of discourse inscribed in the text, so discerning that structure and how it contributes to shaping that discourse helps one identify the discourse as being of a certain type or genre. Initially recognizing this genre is something like a guess that has to be confirmed through interpreting the text, but a good reading also opens the interpreter to being questioned about one’s initial assumptions by the text in question. What one discovers through such investigations, Ricoeur believed, is that there is something like a world of the text that lies not behind the text but metaphorically in front of it as something to be explored by the interpreter’s imagination. This is a world that we can think of ourselves as inhabiting. Interpretations, of course, need to be checked against and challenged by other interpretations and they will sooner or later need to be redone as situations change over time. So there is a possibility of both internal and external critique: is a text coherent in terms of its generic form, can it be confirmed or falsified by other similar documents or subsequent data? Explanatory techniques also play a role, particularly when understanding breaks down. In a nice turn of phrase, Ricoeur liked to say one seeks to explain more in order to understand better. He also agreed with Hans-Georg Gadamer’s theory of hermeneutics that what is at stake in interpretation is a kind of appropriation, although Ricoeur saw this as more oriented to action in the present than to what Gadamer called the appropriation of tradition, although tradition always did have a role to play, even when critiqued or rejected. He agreed with Gadamer, moreover, that the goal of interpretation was to enable us to make sense of our embodied existence with others including our predecessors and successors in the world.
Ricoeur did not produce a general theory of interpretation. His reflections on hermeneutics were themselves an instance of the philosophical practice of interpretation leading to insight into what ultimately underlies and enables such activity: the need to interpret in order to make sense of human life; the move from an initial understanding to greater understanding on the basis of critical reflection and an appeal to the imagination; interpolating explanatory techniques and procedures where understanding breaks down; appropriation of the meaning of discourse in terms of the world it projects, as a world one might inhabit. And finally: increased self-understanding.
4. Forms of Extended Discourse
Ricoeur examined a number of different forms of extended discourse, beginning with metaphorical discourse. Like the talk about symbols he had explored earlier a live metaphor is a kind of discourse that says more than one thing at the same time. Live metaphors are the product of sentences, not the result of substituting one word for another for decorative or rhetorical effect. They presuppose a kind of odd predication, a “metaphorical twist”. Unlike logical propositions which say something is or is not the case, a live metaphor says “is” and “is not” at the same time, resulting in a redescription of reality. As creative instances of the use of language, live metaphors can die and be absorbed into the dictionary (a watch runs). Live metaphors can also extend beyond a single sentence as in the case of poetic language. Poetic language is thus language that redescribes reality. Its truth is more a matter of manifestation than of coherence or correspondence with what is assumed to be external reality. In an important sense, this experienced truth is the basis for talk about coherence and correspondence, yet paradoxically metaphorical discourse always presupposes an already existing language that it can make use of. In this sense, we are never at the origin of language. We can question back toward this origin but never reach it, since we always must begin by making use of existing language to question language. Philosophers of the fullness of language therefore always begin as having already begun.
Narrative discourse is another form of extended discourse investigated by Ricoeur. It is a use language that allows us to make practical sense of human action and time. Ordinary language already contains concepts that apply to action—those of intentions, motives, causes, reasons, acts, consequences, agents and patients, for example—just as it contains concepts applicable to time: past, present, future, now, then, when. Narrative discourse configures such heterogeneous concepts into a discourse that locates actions in a time where one thing happens not just after something else but because of something else in a followable story or history. It refigures physical events as narrative events, events which make sense because they tell what happens in a story or history. But because narratives have endings or must end, they never fully exhaust time or the possible long-term meaning of action. Through their plots they are always a synthesis of heterogeneous concepts into a kind of discordant concordance which configures the episodes of the story into a told story. In so doing they resolve practically if not theoretically the conflict between time understood as a lived now—this present which has a past and a future—and cosmic time conceived of as a sequence of points, where any point can be a now point defined not in terms of its past and future but merely in terms of points that come before and after it. Narrative interweaves these two perspectives on time into human time without ever fully resolving the aporias raised by thinking about time in time.
Religious discourse, at least as found in the Hebrew and Christian biblical tradition takes many forms: hymns, laws, narratives, parables, prophecy, wisdom sayings. What they have in common that specifies them as religious discourse is that they are all forms of poetic discourse and they all in their own way “name” God. Within their setting within the biblical canon they do so furthermore through their constituting a polyphony that enables the religious traditions that use these texts both to identify and to legitimate themselves through a kind of hermeneutic circle. That is, such texts are sacred to traditions which take them as legitimating the tradition founded on these texts, something discovered through their reading and interpreting of such texts.
Political discourse is a particularly fragile form of extended discourse since the political dimension of human existence is one realm among others like commerce or the arts and also the one that contains all the others. It is an especially rhetorical form of discourse in the sense of being discourse that aims at persuasion. Persuasion is necessary because there is no final resolution of the conflicts that can arise over questions about the best form of government or whether there should be, say, a law, what that law ought to be, or whether laws are required in this case at all. That politics also is about power, the power to make decisions and command others adds to the fragility of such discourse. This leads to a dialectic of ideology and utopia in Ricoeur’s political philosophy. Ideologies both claim to legitimate the positions of those in power or those seeking power and cover the gap between what they assert and the way things actually are. Utopian thinking, in return, imagines a world without or beyond ideology. It sometimes enables people to overthrow particularly ruinous forms of ideology, only to fall back into a dependence on ideology since utopia exists “nowhere”. Yet politics is necessary because it makes possible life together. That it always takes place between these two poles of ideology and utopia is another example of a mediating term between opposed poles in Ricoeur hermeneutics.
5. Narrative Identity and the Turn to Selfhood
At the end of his three volume study of narrative (Time and Narrative, 1984–88) Ricoeur realized that what was said there pointed to the importance of the idea of a narrative identity. This has to do not just with the identity of the characters in a story or history, but with the larger claim that personal identity in every case can be considered in terms of a narrative identity: what story does a person tell about his or her life, or what story do others tell about it? In effect, narrative identity is one of the ways in which we answer the question “who?” Who is this? Who said that? Did that? Who is that? Who are we? In his 1986 Gifford Lectures (published as Oneself as Another, 1992) Ricoeur expanded this investigation to the broader question of what it is to be a self. This discussion was meant to reply to interpretations of the Cartesian cogito which either made it too strong (one can immediately be in touch with the self as certain of itself) or too weak (a merely abstract truth) or even saw it as non-existent. Against this latter idea of a “shattered cogito” Ricoeur proposed a hermeneutics of selfhood and a “wounded cogito”. This was a person capable of attesting to his or her own existence and acting in the world, a self that both acted and was acted upon who could recount and take responsibility for its actions. Insofar as we can speak metaphysically of such a self it has to be in terms of act and potentiality rather than substance.
Ricoeur’s argument regarding selfhood proceeds through a sequence of stages. He begins from the philosophy of language and the question of an identifying reference to persons as selves, not simply things. This leads to consideration of the speaking subject as an agent, passing through the semantics of action Ricoeur had learned from analytic philosophy during his time in North America. Next comes the idea of the self as having a narrative identity. Then this is followed by the question of the ethical aim of being such a self. This hermeneutics of selfhood culminates in the conclusion that one is a self as one self among other selves, something that can only be attested to through personal testimony or the testimony of others. Selfhood is thus closely tied to a kind of discourse that says “I believe-in”. Its certainty is a lived conviction rather than a logical or scientific certainty.
Along the way Ricoeur also introduces a key distinction between two kinds of identity in relation to selfhood. Idem identity is the identity of something that is always the same which never changes, ipse identity is sameness across and through change. Self-identity involves both dimensions: I am and am not the person I was ten years ago. It is the existence of ipse identity that indicates that a self is better thought of in terms of the question “who?” than in terms of the question “what” is a self.
Since the self is an agent the question of its ethical aim arises, allowing Ricoeur to introduce what he calls his “little ethics”. This introduces new predicates for the self and another path toward the self, one that shifts the argument from description toward prescription. Ricoeur presents this little ethics through what he calls its ethical intention: “aiming at a good life lived with and for others in just institutions” (Oneself as Another, 1992: 172). This formula indicates that there is a priority of ethics (understood as teleological) over morality (understood as normative practice). In fact, the structure is threefold: the ethical aim has to pass through the sieve of the norm, which is meant to realize the ethical intention, to be applied in specific situations on the basis of phronesis or practical wisdom that will apply the norm appropriately. It is also possible to read the sequence backwards: for example, when a disaster, say a new disease, leads to new normative practices growing out of the response to it, thereby throwing new light in turn on the ethical intention. At the level of relations between a self and nearby or intimate others, the ideal of reciprocity entailed here is best expressed as solicitude that enables both self-esteem and self-respect on the parts of those involved. At the level of the distant other or others, the question of justice arises and with it new notions of respect and of institutions such as the rule of law that establish and help maintain or restore a just distance between those involved in them. Behind both levels lies the idea expressed by the golden rule that one ought not do to others what one does not want done to him- or herself. And beyond every institutionalized system of rules lies the transformative possibility of love which transcends the fragile and provisory practical mediations established by every ethical system through reinterpreting the golden rule. Love is a way of responding not just to the limits of any such system but to the tragic dimension Ricoeur sees as inherent in all human action, which never fully achieves what it intends, another reminder that human freedom is always a finite freedom.
6. Memory, History, Forgetting
All these threads in Ricoeur’s philosophy come together in Ricoeur’s last big book (Memory, History, Forgetting, 2004) pointing to the final revised lectures on recognition. This three part work first takes up the question of memory and recollection in response to questions about uses and abuses of memory in contemporary society. Ricoeur lists these as occurring on a pathological-therapeutic level as the problem of blocked memory; on a practical level as manipulated memory, and on an ethical-political level as obligated memory. He then asks whether history is a remedy for or a hindrance to these problems. This leads him back to the question of the epistemology of historical research and writing, a topic he already had addressed in History and Truth (1965) and Time and Narrative. Now the question is to what extent history depends on memory. Historians know more about the past than individuals remember, but can history completely break with an appeal to memory as a kind of testimony: I was there, believe me. The problem here is suspicion not simply falsification. What is new to Ricoeur’s account is that he sees at work a closer tie between explanation and understanding than he had considered in his earlier work. It runs through what, following Michel de Certeau, he now calls the historiographical operation that characterizes the whole process of historical documentation, research, and writing, leading to the question of historical representation as an image based on both narration and rhetoric. History as written, Ricoeur suggests, “stands for” the past as “having been”.
On this basis, he can again ask about human existence as historical, as being within time and ultimately uncanny. He seeks particularly to address the problem of forgetting in relation to the three problems listed earlier. Traces of the past can be lost, and that past will be forgotten in the sense of being beyond memory. But what of forgetting where the traces remain? Here is where the problems of blocked, manipulated, or commanded memory remain, especially in the latter case with attempts to order forgetting either through amnesty or censorship. This problem leads to an epilogue on the possibility of forgiveness, something Ricoeur admits is left incomplete. Along the way though, he shows that the idea of guilt, historical guilt necessarily runs up against the limit of the imprescriptible and that forgiveness, which is difficult but not impossible, is something like a gift, one that unbinds the agent from the act. Beyond the distinction of a happy memory and an unhappy one in other words lies the possibility of a forgetting held in reserve. To forgive is not to forget. It is this idea of a gift, not as requiring or expecting a gift in return but as something received and passed on as a second gift that leads the discussion of mutual recognition and states of peace in Ricoeur’s last book, The Course of Recognition.
Ricoeur’s argument there starts from the surprising fact that there has been no recognized theory of recognition similar to what exists for theories of knowledge. In fact, when he looks in the dictionary he finds that the word (which in French carries as strong a sense of gratitude as of what English calls recognition), the word has numerous lexical senses. Ricoeur therefore proposes to construct a chain of conceptual meanings that runs from recognition in the active voice to its use in the passive voice, being recognized. The demand for recognition that runs through this sequence can only be answered, he claims, by mutual recognition, “where this mutual recognition either remains an unfulfilled dream or requires procedures and institutions that elevate recognition to the political plane” (The Course of Recognition, 19). This sequence of concepts of recognition runs from identifying something to identifying oneself to recognizing and being recognized by others. In the process the concept moves away from simply being identified with knowledge. Instead it opens the way to it as it relates to self-knowledge and genuine community for which one is and can be grateful in that recognition “lightens the weight of obligation to give in return and reorients this toward a generosity equal to the one that led to the first gift [of being recognized]” (243).
Books by Ricoeur
- Karl Jaspers et la philosophie de l’existence, with Michel Dufrenne, Paris: Seuil, 1947.
- Gabriel Marcel and Karl Jaspers : Philosophie du mystère et philosophie du paradoxe, Paris: Temps Present, 1947.
- Freedom and Nature: The Voluntary and the Involuntary, trans. Erazim Kohak, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1966 (1950).
- History and Truth, trans. Charles A. Kelbley, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1965 (1955).
- Fallible Man, rev. trans. Charles A. Kelbley, New York: Fordham University Press, 1986 (1960).
- The Symbolism of Evil, trans. Emerson Buchanan, New York: Harper and Row, 1967 (1960).
- Husserl: An Analysis of His Phenomenology, trans. Edward G. Ballard and Lester E. Embree, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1967.
- Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, trans. Denis Savage, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970 (1965).
- The Conflict of Interpretations: Essays in Hermeneutics, ed. Don Ihde, trans. Willis Domingo et al., Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1974 (1969).
- Political and Social Essays, eds. David Stewart and Joseph Bien, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1974.
- The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-Disciplinary Studies in the Creation of Meaning in Language, trans. Robert Czerny with Kathleen McLaughlin and John Costello, S. J., Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978 (1975).
- Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning, Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1976.
- The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of his Work, eds. Charles E. Reagan and David Stewart, Boston: Beacon Press, 1978.
- Essays on Biblical Interpretation, ed. Lewis S. Mudge, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980.
- Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Action and Interpretation, ed. trans. John B. Thompson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
- Time and Narrative, 3 vols., trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984, 1985, 1988 (1983, 1984, 1985).
- Lectures on Ideology and Utopia, ed. George H. Taylor, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
- From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics II, trans. Kathleen Blamey and John B. Thompson, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1991 (1986).
- Oneself as Another, trans. Kathleen Blamey, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992 (1990).
- A Ricoeur Reader: Reflection and Imagination, ed. Mario J. Valdes, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.
- Lectures I : Autour du politique, Paris: Seuil, 1991.
- Lectures II : La Contrée des philosophes, Paris: Seuil, 1992.
- Lectures III : Aux Frontières de la philosophie, Paris: Seuil, 1994.
- Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination, ed. Mark I. Wallace, trans. David Pellauer, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995.
- Critique and Conviction, trans. Kathleen Blamey, New York: Columbia University Press, 1998 (1995).
- Thinking Biblically: Exegetical and Hermeneutical Studies, with André LaCocque, trans. David Pellauer, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998 (1998).
- The Just, trans. David Pellauer, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000 (1995).
- Memory, History, Forgetting, trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004 (2000).
- What Makes Us Think?, with Jean-Pierre Changeux, trans. M. B. DeBevoise, Princeton: Princeton University Press 200 (1998).
- On Translation, trans. Eileen Brennan, New York: Routledge, 2006 (2004).
- Reflections on the Just, trans. David Pellauer, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007 (2001).
- The Course of Recognition, trans. David Pellauer, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005 (2004).
- Living Up To Death, trans. David Pellauer, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009 (2007).
- On Psychoanalysis, trans. David Pellauer, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012 (2008).
- Hermeneutics, trans. David Pellauer, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013 (2010).
- Being, Essence and Substance in Plato and Aristotle, trans. David Pellauer and John Starkey, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012 (2011).
- Philosophical Anthropology, trans. David Pellauer, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015 (2013).
Selected Secondary Literature
- Amalric, Jean-Luc, 2013, Paul Ricoeur, l’imagination vive : Une genèse de la philosophie ricoeurienne de l’imagination, Paris: Hermann.
- Blundell, Boyd, 2010, Paul Ricoeur between Theology and Philosophy: Detour and Return, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Clark S. H., 1990, Paul Ricoeur, London and New York: Routledge.
- Cohen, Richard A., and James L. Marsh (eds.), 2002, Ricoeur as Another, Albany: State University of New York Press.
- Dauenhauer, Bernard P., 1998, Paul Ricoeur: The Promise and Risk of Politics, Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield.
- Dosse, François, 2008, Paul Ricoeur : Les sens d’une vie (1913–2005), édition revue et augmentée. Paris: La Decouverte.
- Dosse, François, 2012, Paul Ricoeur : Un philosophe dans son siècle, Paris: Armand Colin.
- Greisch, Jean, 2001, Paul Ricoeur : L’itinérance du sens, Paris: Millon.
- Gutting, Gary, 2001, French Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Hahn, Lewis E. (ed.), 1995, The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur, Chicago and La Salle: Open Court.
- Hall, W. David, 2007, Paul Ricoeur and the Poetic Imperative: The Creative Tension Between Love and Justice, Albany: State University of New York Press.
- Ihde, Don, 1971, Hermeneutic Phenomenology: The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur, Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
- Jervolino, D., 1990, The Cogito and Hermeneutics: The Question of the Subject in Ricoeur, Dordrecht: Kluwer.
- Johnson, Greg S. and Dan R. Stiver (eds.), 2013 Paul Ricoeur and the Task of Political Philosophy, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
- Joy, Morny (ed.), 1997, Paul Ricoeur and Narrative, Calgary: University of Calgary Press.
- Kaplan, David, 2003, Ricoeur’s Critical Theory, Albany: State University of New York Press.
- Kearney, Richard (ed.), 1996, Paul Ricoeur: The Hermeneutics of Action, London: Sage.
- –––, 2004, On Paul Ricoeur: The Owl of Minerva, Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing.
- Kemp, T. P., and D. Rasmussen (eds.), 1989, The Narrative Path: The Later Works of Paul Ricoeur, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
- Klemm, David E., and William Schweiker (eds.), 1993, Meaning in Texts and Action: Questioning Paul Ricoeur, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
- Mann, Molly Harkirat, 2012, Ricoeur, Rawls, and Capability Justice, London and New York: Bloomsbury.
- Michel, Johann, 2015, Ricoeur and the Post-Structuralists: Bourdieu, Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, Castoriadis, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield
- Pellauer, David, 2007, Ricoeur: A Guide for the Perplexed, New York: Continuum.
- Reagan, Charles E., 1996, Paul Ricoeur: His Life and Work, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- ––– (ed.), 1979, Studies in the Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur, Athens: Ohio University Press.
- Ritivoi, Andreea Deciu, 2006, Paul Ricoeur: Tradition and Innovation in Rhetorical Theory, Albany: State University of New York Press.
- Simms, Karl, 2003, Paul Ricoeur, New York: Routledge.
- Savage, Roger (ed.), 2015, Paul Ricoeur in the Age of Hermeneutical Reason: Poetics, Praxis, and Critique, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
- Shenge, Adrien Lentiampa, S.J., 2009, Paul Ricoeur : La justice selon l’espérance, Brussels: Lessius.
- Thompson, John B., 1981, Critical Hermeneutics: A Study in the Thought of Paul Ricoeur and Jürgen Habermas, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Treanor, Brian and Henry Isaac Venema (eds.), 2010, A Passion for the Possible: Thinking with Paul Ricoeur, New York: Fordham University Press.
- Vansina, F. D., 2008, Paul Ricoeur: Bibliography 1935–2008, Leuven/Paris: Peeters.
- Venema, Henry Isaac, 2000, Identifying Selfhood: Imagination, Narrative, and Hermeneutics in the Thought of Paul Ricoeur, Albany: State University of New York Press.
- Wall, John, 2005, Moral Creativity: Paul Ricoeur and the Poetics of Possibility, New York: Oxford University Press.
- Wall, John, William Schweiker, and W. David Hall (eds.), 2002, Paul Ricoeur and Contemporary Moral Thought, New York and London: Routledge.
- Wiercinski, Andrzej (ed.), 2003, Between Suspicion and Sympathy: Paul Ricoeur’s Unstable Equilibrium, Toronto: Hermeneutic Press.
- Wood, David (ed.), 1991, On Paul Ricoeur: Narrative and Interpretation, New York: Routledge.
The title of this anthology (originally published in 1981 and including eleven studies published in the 70’s) hints at the prospect of expanding our knowledge of human affairs in light of a general theory of textual interpretation (“hermeneutics). The more immediate purpose of these essays, however, consists in the articulation of the basic motivations for considering the “method” of the human sciences (sciences de l’esprit) as hermeneutical without renouncing their status as sciences. Indeed, according to Paul Ricœur, the psychological, social and historical disciplines constitute not so much a potential application of hermeneutics as its proper domain — hermeneutics being conceived by the French author as the “theory of the fixation of life expressions by writing” (even if, originally, it was confined to the field of biblical exegesis). At the same time, many of the essays in this collection are not merely concerned with methodological and epistemological questions. By reflecting on the nature and paradigmatic features of textual interpretation, Ricœur was engaged in the project of exploring the “subjectivity” which at once presides over and results from action as well as text-interpretation.
As Ricœur explains in his response to John Thompson’s illuminating introduction, his own hermeneutical turn, in the second volume of his first major project on the will (especially The Symbolism of Evil) was at least partially motivated by the desire to overcome a “disturbing gap” between “the essential structures of the volitional consciousness” (the subject of his first two books, Freedom and Nature and Fallible Man), and “the historical or empirical condition of the human will, prisoner of the passions and prone to evil.” That is to say, Ricœur’s interest in interpretation (of symbols and, later, of “all phenomena to a textual order”) was initially motivated by his identification and critical engagement with the tradition of “reflective philosophy” (or philosophy of reflection) – as developed by Descartes, Kant, and Husserl – which “seeks to disclose authentic subjectivity through a reflection upon the means whereby existence can be understood.”
Accordingly, and since a detailed summation would require more words than the present review can offer, I shall focus here on the way in which these essays reflect the development of Ricœur’s understanding of subjectivity. This emphasis is also justified by the fact that the anthology constitutes an important transition to Ricœur’s later studies of selfhood and narrativity. I will focus primarily, although by no means exclusively, on one essay (arguably the most significant) from each of the three parts in which the collection is organized: “Phenomenology and Hermeneutics,” regarded by Ricœur as “the real introduction” to his subsequent work; “Appropriation,” which appeared for the first time in this collection; and “The Model of the Text: Meaningful Action Considered as a Text,” which was originally written in English and represents the most immediately relevant essay to the anthology’s topic. As Ricœur points out, “the basic analogy between text and action is the key to the relation between the theory of interpretation and the social sciences.”
In his preface to this edition, Charles Taylor writes that the similarity between “text interpretation” and “making sense” of action, as it is entailed by the dialectic between explanation and understanding, is also reflected by the “impossibility of claiming closure” in both domains. “No matter how convincing our present reading, it is always possible that someone could propose a better one. And the same applies to human action in history.” Ricœur’s overall project in these essays, as I read them, consists in showing that while all interpretation (the very means by which subjectivity can be realized as well as disclosed) entails the impossibility of “absolute knowledge,” the inherent openness of the interpretative process —its irreducible distance from its own ideal fulfillment — is at the same time the positive condition for pursuing a “science” of human life.
- The Central Discovery of Phenomenology
Ricœur was a Husserlian phenomenologist well before his involvement with Gadamer’s work and philosophical hermeneutics. Indeed, such an interest emerged from his realization that, insofar as all “intuition” entails “explication” (explicitation) — a coincidence which Husserl “perceived” without being able to “draw all its consequences” — “phenomenology can be realised only as hermeneutics.” At the same time, the inescapable character of explication — the fact that nothing at all can be intuited, grasped or experienced without being somehow articulated or “interpreted” in the most basic sense of this word — is itself explained by the “universality of intentionality” — the idea that, since all consciousness is consciousness of an object, “no consciousness is self-consciousness before being consciousness of something towards which it surpasses itself.” Thus, if phenomenology can only be realized as hermeneutics, it is only because intentionality, our being “outside” of ourselves “towards meaning,” is the (phenomenological) presupposition of all forms of understanding.
In particular, according to Ricœur, it is “the reference of the linguistic order back to the structure of experience” which constitutes “the most important phenomenological presupposition of hermeneutics.” Indeed, “when the latter subordinates lingual experience to the whole of our aesthetic and historical experience, it continues, on the level of the human sciences, the movement initiated by Husserl on the plane of perceptive experience.” But if experience is always already “structured” or articulated, we cannot confuse it with any sort of “ineffable immediacy;” rather, “Lebenswelt” must be understood as “the surplus of sense in living experience” which “renders the objectifying and explanatory attitudes possible.” This is why Ricœur eventually moved away from an idealistic phenomenology of “foundations” toward a speculative philosophy of ontological manifestation. As he puts it, “the concept of manifestation of a world, around which all other hermeneutical concepts are organised, is closer to the idea of the ‘self-presentation’ of the true, following the preface to The Phenomenology of Mind, than to the Husserlian idea of constitution.”
- Belonging, Distanciation, Appropriation
This triad constitutes the core of Ricœur’s conception of interpretation. Belonging — “the hermeneutical experience itself” — represents the positive counterpart of the experience of finitude which is entailed by the discovery of intentionality. If we cannot become conscious of ourselves without explicating features of a world in which we are already implicated, it follows that such a worldly engagement “comes before any constitution of the object by a sovereign subject.” Belonging expresses, in this sense, the Heideggerian concept of being-in-the-world, hence the “primacy of care over the gaze,” or, more precisely, the “priority of the ontological category of the Dasein which we are over the epistemological and psychological category of the subject which posits itself.”
Up to this point, Ricœur was commenting upon aspects of Heidegger and Gadamer’s hermeneutical thought. His novel contribution consists in the way he tried to overcome what he saw as the “central problem of hermeneutics,” implied in the “epistemological specificity” of interpretation: the fact that interpreting a text appears as a radically different process than, for example, explaining a natural phenomenon, as Dilthey and others had already pointed out. What makes this difference particularly problematic is that interpretation, unlike explanation, seems to involve a circularity whose hypothetical viciousness would affect the validity of its results. If the “human sciences” as a whole are hermeneutical in their method, it might be the case that, after all, no scientific knowledge of human affair could ever be attained.
According to Ricœur, both Heidegger and Gadamer partially supported this conclusion for the sake of preserving the specificity of philosophical, historical, and other forms of “human” understanding. This move, however, depended upon accepting, without questioning any of it, an opposition between “alienating distanciation”, allegedly produced by scientific explanation (alienating because it abstracts from our concrete experience of being-in-the-world) and the “participatory belonging” which is the constant presupposition of all interpretation. In light of this antinomy — which, according to Ricœur, is “the mainspring of Gadamer’s work,” as attested by the very title of his major book (Truth and Method) — all forms of objectification entail some level of falsification of the experience they intend to describe and explain.
By contrast, Ricœur wants to think of “distanciation” (or objectification) as a “moment” of belonging. To be clear, he did not intend to deny that the natural and human sciences are concerned with different “regions” of reality. His point was rather that, if we pay attention to the “paradigm of writing” and its counterpart, reading, distanciation ceases to be a merely necessary but problematic dimension of understanding — necessary because all signification requires interrupting our “lived experience in order to signify it;” problematic because thereby the problem emerges how not to distort experience in the very act of signifying it. And it ceases to be problematic because it now appears as having a “positive and productive function at the heart of the historicity of human experience.” In this respect, as Gadamer himself perceived (“without perhaps giving it the emphasis which it deserves”), “mediation by the text is the model of a distanciation which would not be simply alienating… The text is, par excellence, the basis for communication in and through distance.”
Of course, distance here doesn’t merely refer to the temporal distance of texts and other text-like monuments from the past, but also to that “positive distancing” which, on the one hand, “establishes the autonomy of the text with respect to its author, its situation, and its original addressee” and, on the other and, projects “a new being-in-the-world … freed from the false evidences of everyday reality.” With respect to the latter, Ricœur suggests that the “non-ostensive reference” or “matter” of the text, as he often calls it, can be understood or “rendered near only in and through” the distance generated by the “imaginative variations” which the text “carries out on the real.” Thus, in the last essay of the collection (“The Narrative Function”), Ricœur argues that this dialectic between the alien and the familiar “places history in the neighborhood of fiction.” Similarly, after recalling Benedetto Croce’s claim that there is only a history of the present, he suggests to modify it as follows: “there is only a history of the potentialities of the present. History, in this sense, explores the field of ‘imaginative’ variations which surround the present and the real that we take for granted in everyday life. Such is the way in which history, precisely because it seeks to be objective, partakes of fiction.”
The “consubstantiality” between belonging and (positive) distanciation has two important implications. First, as we have already seen, “there is no need to search, under the title ‘sphere of belonging’, for some sort of brute experience which would be preserved at the heart of my experience of culture, but rather for an antecedent which is never given in itself.” I belong to this or that tradition, or undergo a given experience, always according to a certain modality of participation or engagement, under a certain description or respect, and from the perspective generated by certain interests. “In spite of its intuitive kernel, this experience remains an interpretation. ‘My own too is discovered by explication and gets its original meaning by virtue thereof’,” as Husserl himself wrote. Second, insofar as understanding a text involves a final act of “appropriation” (the act of rendering near what is far), interpretation can no longer be understood as a projection into the text of the reader’s prejudices. This is because the act of appropriation is dialectally related to the experience of distanciation (of the matter of the text from the reality of our habitus) whereby, “as reader, I find myself only by losing myself.”
But how is this possible? “How can this letting-go, this relinquishment, be incorporated into appropriation?” How can it be anything more than a temporary distraction from which we must eventually recover in order to ascertain, from the perspective of our own interests and concerns, what the text means (to us)? In order to answer this question, Ricœur links the act of appropriation “to the revelatory power of the text which we have described as its referential dimension. It is in allowing itself to be carried off towards the reference of the text that the ego divests itself of itself.” Here as elsewhere, Ricœur makes clear that it is not a matter of compromising between objective meaning and personal subjectivity, but of showing how they are reciprocally generated. “The notion of subject must be submitted to a critique parallel to that which the theory of metaphor exercises on the notion of object. In fact, it is the same philosophical error which must be understood from both extremities: objectivity as confronting the subject, the subject as reigning over objectivity.”
Consequently, as writing carries out imaginative variations on the real, “reading introduces me into the imaginative variations of the ego” (Ricœur goes so far as to say that “it is the text, with its universal power of unveiling, which gives a self to the ego”). Indeed, “the metamorphosis of the world in play is also the playful metamorphosis of the ego.” And since the later “implies a moment of distanciation in the relation of self to itself … understanding is as much disappropriation as appropriation.”
- Text as Paradigm of Action
One of the most interesting aspects of this anthology is Ricœur’s attempt to find a concept of interpretation which could explain the foregoing experience of reading, in which a text seems to have intentions or “injunctions” of its own, independent of its author, and capable of engendering self-transformation through the imaginative variations it induces of the reader’s world and ego. A text, in this sense, is not only the embodiment of the author’s intentions, but a semi-autonomous source of potential meaning. If “to interpret is to follow the path of thought opened up by the text” — to comply with its injunctions — our concept of interpretation as a subjective act on the text must be replaced by, or combined with, an understanding of it as an objective act of the text itself (upon the reader). In this respect, Ricœur’s appeal to Aristotle’s On Interpretation and, above all, to Charles Peirce’s semiotics, become central to his argument.
Unfortunately, Ricœur’s engagement with Peirce’s work does not go beyond a superficial assessment and appears to be mostly informed by secondary sources. At the same time, he does capture a quite crucial point of Peirce’s concept of interpretation: its “synechistic” nature, namely the continuous, non-extrinsic character of the relationship between (to use Ricœur ’s terminology) “tradition” — what a text or other forms of discourse signify (tradit) — and “interpretation” — what it evokes in the mind of the interpreter. “According to Peirce, the relation of a ‘sign’ to an ‘object’ is such that another relation, that between ‘interpretant’ and ‘sign’, can be grafted onto the first.” We have here another expression of the consubstantiality between belonging and distanciation, in that a sign can signify or “belong” to an object only by determining a further sign (the interpretant). For instance, the word “chair” can only signify a chair by evoking an image of it, which is course another sign. Yet this irreducible “distance” of any sign from its object is a necessary condition for understanding it. A sign incapable of generating a further interpretant of its object would be as incomprehensible as a sign without any object whatsoever — it would indeed be meaningless.
Accordingly, the above mentioned continuity between tradition and interpretation does not entail the kind of deductive closure one might expect from it. Paradoxically, the more one enters into the actual meaning of a text, the more her insights are “open” to interpretation, not only in the sense of being revisable, but also in the positive sense of being intellectually fecund, capable of generating new ways of being read, articulated and developed (the Gospel’s notoriously enigmatic phrase might be illuminating in this context: “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath [Matthew 13:12, KJV]). Ricœur clarifies this point by citing Gilles-Gaston Granger: “The sign-interpretant association, realised by whatever psychological processes, is rendered possible only by the community [continuity], more or less imperfect, of an experience between speaker and hearer,” or text and reader. But this experience “can never be perfectly reduced to the idea or object of the sign,” that is, to an immediate or “brute” notion of belonging. “Whence the indefinite [open] character of Peirce’s series of interpretants.”
We finally come across Ricœur’s argument concerning the analogy between text and action. “My claim is that action itself, action as meaningful, may become an object of science, without losing its character of meaningfulness, through a kind of objectification similar to the fixation which occurs in writing” — a fixation in virtue of which, as we have seen above, “the author’s intention and the meaning of the text cease to coincide.” But how can the same dissociation take place with action? Doesn’t an action by definition require the contemporaneous presence of an agent? Isn’t here a deeper subjective irreducibility than in the case of the text? For instance, while a text can indeed become relatively independent of the original writer’s intentions, the action of writing cannot in the same way be dissociated from the agent’s intention to write.
And yet, as Ricœur insists, unless human behavior can be “fixated” or objectified without losing its significant (intentional) character — unless “the expressions of life undergo a kind of objectification” — it won’t be suitable to become an object of scientific inquiry. This is because inquiry always requires its object to be inscribed in “external marks,” in the same way in which a discourse must be written down in order be not only practically understood but also theoretically analyzed. And if it is indeed impossible for the meaning of “action events” to be inscribed, a scientific understanding of human affairs could only amount to explaining away their original significance as a subjective phenomenon (as it happens with reductive explanations of action in terms of biological and neural concepts). This phenomenon, in turn, could only be understood or interpreted in a “romantic” sense of the term, namely, in virtue of our “pretension of recovering, by congenial coincidence, the genius of the author.” This is why there might be a genuine antinomy between understanding and explanation.
On the other hand, as Ricœur points out, action does sometime appear to dissociate itself from the agent’s intentions without losing its meaningful character. That is the case of actions which, as we sometime put it, leave “traces” or “marks” — not only because they have consequences (this is true of all actions), but also insofar as their importance goes beyond their relevance to the initial situation, even if only by embodying general features (such as “desirability characters”) which may be made the object of subsequent practical reflection. Accordingly, “could we not say that the process of arguing linked to the explanation of action by its motives unfolds a kind of plurivocity which makes action similar to a text?” Thus an action-event, like a speech-act, entails “a similar dialectic between its temporal status as an appearing and disappearing event, and its logical status as having such-and-such identifiable meaning or ‘sense-content’.” On this point, I believe Ricœur’s work might benefit by an even deeper interaction with “analytic” theories of agency — an interaction he continued to pursue in his subsequent work (see especially Oneself as Another).
“But if the ‘sense-content’ is what makes possible the ‘inscription’ of the action-event… what corresponds to writing in the field of action?” In other words, how can an action become “detached from its agent” and develop “consequences of its own”? Ricœur’s answer to this question echoes the above seen concept of interpretation as an essentially open and communal process. If the inscription of discourse has a spatial dimension, it is in “social time” that the “autonomization” of action occurs. And social time, Ricœur points out, “is not only something which flees; it is also the place of durable effects, of persisting patterns. An action leaves a ‘trace’, it makes its ‘mark’ when it contributes to the emergence of such patterns which become the documents of human action.” The objectification of meaningful behavior is essentially social, and it is social in virtue of the temporal dimension of all human interactions, in which certain actions and events come to be seen as weighing more than others, and their effects are consequently more lasting and pervasive (however less discernible and thus more easily discardable).
But in order for the effect of an action to last, its capacity to be recollected is not enough. It must, on the contrary, be developed into persisting and increasingly complex patterns of behavior, so as to transcend its original address and situation. In order for an action to become important (worthy of being recollected, registered, celebrated, questioned, interrogated, institutionalized, etc.), it must be capable, like a text, of opening up a “world” whose relevance “exceeds … the social conditions of its production and may be re-enacted in new social contexts. Its importance is its durable relevance and, in some cases, its omni-temporal relevance.”
This is only the skeleton of Ricœur’s answer to the question about the nature of “truth” in the human sciences. The essays of the third part, in particular, articulate the implications of the foregoing remarks for critical theory, psychoanalysis, and history. Most importantly, the anthology as a whole reflects Ricœur’s commitment to show how a philosophy of reflection can become “concrete” without renouncing its “scientific” aspirations. It can do that by pursuing, at all levels of analysis, the dialectical relation between freedom and necessity, distanciation and belonging, method and tradition, fiction and history or, from another perspective, critique and ideology. Thus, one the one hand, “all objectifying knowledge about our position in society, in a social class, in a cultural tradition and in history is preceded by a relation of belonging upon which we can never entirely reflect.” On the other hand, the impossibility of “complete reflection” is but an expression of that “potentiality of meaning” which it is our fundamental responsibility to “appropriate” by giving up our dominant world-interpretations for the sake of their impending explications.