Listening to the Witness

Scott McLemee listens to the ethical implications of Paul Ricoeur's thought and example.

May 26, 2005

On Tuesday, this column lodged the (facetious) complaint that nobody had gotten around to insulting the late Paul Ricoeur, who died last week. After all, in a discursive culture of dog-eat-dog, the index of someone's reputation is the power to incite malevolence.

In the meantime, things have gotten worse. The little bit of discussion so far has been quiet, respectful, temperate. People even tend to express regret at not having kept up with Ricoeur's work. (This is by contrast with all the sarcastic pieces about Derrida by people who seemed vaguely proud never to have understood, or even necessarily read, a thing he published.) Scholars are paying tribute to him, for heaven's sake. No doubt this is all just a phase, and we'll soon return to our regularly scheduled programming.

It's striking how often the comments seem to echo a passage from Paul Ricoeur: His Life and His Work,  (University of Chicago Press, 1996) by Charles Reagan, a scholar who was a student and friend of Ricoeur. "Above all," he writes, "Paul Ricoeur is a teacher of philosophy. He taught us to do a careful reading of philosophical texts, to always give the most generous interpretation to ambiguous or obscure texts, and to give full credit to those we have read and from whom we have learned. His fundamental thesis as a philosopher is that virtually every philosopher, ancient, modern, or contemporary, has seen a piece of the truth. Now our task is to adjudicate among competing interpretations, each of which claims to be absolute."

Since learning of his death, I've been trying to figure out what would be involved in introducing his work to someone who had never heard of Ricoeur -- or even, for that matter, of hermeneutics (the label subsuming most of his work). In an interview, Ricoeur once made the rather amiable gesture of suggesting that perhaps the very term "hermeneutics" could prove a distraction. That perhaps it would be more convenient just to speak of "interpretation," since the words effectively covered the same territory. In sketching the broad outlines of what he was doing, I'll take some courage from the philosopher's willingness to translate himself.

But first, a piece of background information. (Perhaps that is the first lesson in any hermeneutic primer: you never get to start from scratch, for there is always some context you have to deal with.) During the 1940s and '50s, Ricoeur worked in the field of phenomenology -- a philosophical approach developed by Edmund Husserl in the earlier decades of the century to analyze how any given mode of consciousness takes in and organizes the world.

An astrologer, an astronomer, and someone writing a love poem might all look at the same object in the sky and call it "the moon." But there is a sense in which each of them is living in a different universe from the other two. Each constitutes the world in a different way. Husserlian phenomenology offers conceptual tools for describing the structure of each such world. Ricoeur translated one of Husserl's most important works, and also published a volume of essays called Husserl: An Analysis of His Phenomenology (Northwestern University Press, 1967) that is still one of the best handbooks on the topic.

It would be fair to say that phenomenology was an extremely thoroughgoing effort to follow through on Descartes' principle of stripping everything down to "I think, therefore I am" and then rebuilding the world from there. Ricoeur's work begins to come into its own when he challenges the idea that we can create an adequate philosophical anthropology (that is, account of the nature of human beings) by starting out from "I think."

After all, nobody is a pure cogito. We act, as well as think. Besides cognition, there is will. The cogito is absolute and certain. But the will and the power to act, alas, are not. For one thing, much of our circumstance -- including major aspects of our identity -- remains beyond our power to control. My activity is conditioned by my circumstances, some aspects of which are involuntary. Nobody chooses to be born in a particular place and time, but those factors shape the range of one's possible actions.  

Does this sound vaguely multiculturalist in its implications? With hindsight, I suppose that it does. But in the form in which Ricoeur originally presented his argument, it was much closer to a kind of utterly secularized notion of original sin. It is an acknowledgment that the human condition is defined by a yearning for power and absolute self-definition -- but also by a tendency to fail. (As Saint Paul puts it, "That which I would not do, I do; and that which I would do, I do not.")

Ricoeur's later work on hermeneutics -- his sometimes fairly technical accounts of what is involved in interpreting a written text -- may seem far removed from such reflections. But there is a pretty tight connection between them. His later work is a matter of following through on the consequences of this challenge to the cogito's sovereign power to define itself.

As individuals, we don't have immediate and perfectly certain access to any truth that is important enough to amount to very much. (You may be aware, with absolute certainty, that there is a certain familiar pain in your stomach. But actually doing anything about the hunger will require actions that tend cause you to become involved with other people.)

Indeed, the meaning and consequences of our actions -- even the very terms by which we come to grasp our own self-identity over time -- come to us from outside. From others. In forms that no person can create ex nihilo nor utterly control.

This hardly means we are bereft of resources for understanding the world, or lack any way to foster new meanings. On the contrary, Ricoeur's thought has important consequences that are nothing if not inspiring. We are never entirely done with the task of understanding the past. Its meanings are neither absolutely fixed and inalterable nor utterly dead to us.

Literature, history, the thought of earlier eras ... these are, in effect, thickened and concentrated forms of action and meaning that continue to make demands on us -- and to offer more than our individual memories might yield up to our understanding.

Ricoeur himself put it best when he said: "Reading is not an innocent, or still less an uninteresting, act. It is the decisive intersection between the world of the work and the world of actual praxis [that is, human activity] through which there is a permanent transfer from the fictional world to the real world.... It is only in libraries that texts are closed on themselves -- and even then only when nobody reads them."

Now, to the careful reader of Ricoeur, my precis here may perhaps be almost unrecognizable in its avoidance of the technical -- not to mention the extreme simplicity of its ethical accounting, its emphasis on the idea that the humanities might have something to do with being human. To this, two responses come to mind.

(1) You want more substance? Look at this or this  or (if you have MUSE access) this.

(2) As for indulging in a kind of "second naivete" (to borrow Ricoeur's term) regarding the value of the humanities.... Well, hell, somebody's got to do it.

And anyway, it has sanction from Ricoeur himself. In particular, I am thinking of a passage in an essay that he published in 1955, about midway through his life. Charles Reagan quotes it in his book (cited above). After half a century, it reads like a perfect summing up of his career: 

"What do I do when I teach?" asked Ricoeur. "I talk. I have no other way of making a living and I have no other dignity; I have no other way of transforming the world and no other influence on other people. Speaking is my work; language is my kingdom. My students, for the most part, will have another relation with things and with people; they will construct something with their hands; or perhaps they will speak and write in business, in stores, in administrative offices, but their language will not be the language which teaches. It will be part of an action, an order, a plan.... My speaking does not begin any action, it does not command any action which can be involved, directly or indirectly, in any production. I speak only to communicate to the younger generation the knowledge and the research of the older generation. This communication by speech of acquired knowledge and research in progress is my reason for being, my profession, and my honor. I am not jealous of those who are 'in the real world,' who have a 'grip on reality,' as are certain teachers who are unhappy with themselves. My reality and my life is the kingdom of words, of sentences, and of discourse itself."

A recipe for mandarin passivity? In some hands, yes. But a short time later, Ricoeur threw himself into protest against the conduct of the French military during the Algerian war. In 1961, he and his wife were awakened at six o'clock one morning by police who searched their home. His passport was confiscated, and he was placed under house arrest. In a speech at a demonstration, Ricoeur had warned colleagues against acting "like those German university professors during the Nazi period who remained silent because they did not think it was their job to take outside of the university the principles they honored within the university."

We have lost a witness to the meaning of the word "vocation."


Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.




Back to Top