« Ricœur and French Skepticism »

Philosophical conversation

I asked myself a number of times why, for this presentation, I should have chosen non only such a complex but such a difficult subject. Ricœur is not only complex but difficult. Where is the difficulty ? For Ricœur as for Plato, it is difficult to know where his thinking really lies. He “externalizes” every form of discourse that he is able to isolate, if possible by attributing it to someone else, to an “other”. But with this comes the question of his own “voice” : Can it lie anywhere other than in the interval between and even the composing of successive readings, ones that he takes up but then abandons, none of them being able to claim the status of the final word? A bit like the lively portraits of Protagoras or Aristophanes that Plato presents are also literary creations, Ricœur’s successive readings of Aristotle or Augustine, of Levinas and Heidegger are both wonderfully faithful to them, and free reconstructions of their discourses. Here is my first question : where is the unity of his own thought? Where is the guiding question that gives it its coherence? And I want to follow the perhaps somewhat unexpected path of what turns out to be a quite particular kind of skepticism, one that oddly enough brings Ricœur close to a thinker like Stanley Cavell.

For Ricoeur as for Plato, it is not possible to know the ideas as some separate units, and there is no accessible meta-language. We have to work with our ordinary language, and this is why we have to become, as Plato says,  “better dialecticians”.

My thesis will be that Ricœur to the end was someone who defended the philosophical order, I mean the philosophical genre, from the properly philosophical usage of this interrogative inquiry, sceptein in the dialectical exercises of Plato’s Academy. Indeed, the Socratic doubt for Plato has to take place between two limits : the one based on doubt that ends in a witty quip or cynical invective, if you think only the Other or the Many, and the other which is that of an eleatic Pyrrhonism that takes shelter in an impenetrable silence, if you think only the Same or the One. For Ricoeur as for Plato, there is a One only in relation to the Many and vice versa.[1] This is the philosophical way of Ricoeur.


French Melancholy

My second question, linked to the first one, has to do with the desire to situate Ricœur in relation to what we can call the French school of phenomenology, as well as in relation with the structuralist turn that characterized the human sciences in France during the 1960s and 70s. To put it briefly, it is as if on both sides Ricœur said “let’s not exaggerate.” Paul Ricœur was one of the most eminent representatives of French phenomenology, which from Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas and Michel Henry until Lyotard and Derrida, has given rise to so many different interpretations. But he was at the same time discussing the structuralist turn in human sciences, and the epistemological rupture of Levi-Strauss, Michel Foucault, and many other.

What can the thinkers I have referred to have in common ? First of all, it is a certain distrust with regard to modernity. This observation was already made by Habermas against French tradition, who for so long has been the champion of the ideals of the Enlightenment, of modernity, of universalism, and who has become more and more conservative — let us say radical-conservatist! In short, a France that resists globalization and no longer believes in progress. To be sure, this announced defeat of modernity can also be read and respected as a genuine thinking about decline.

My thesis here will be that Ricoeur faced head on the question that haunted his generation, but in a different way. In a seminal article published in Esprit in 1961, and entitled “Planetary Civilization and National Culture”, he begins with the paradox of a culture or civilization wherein we see unfolding at the same time the technical progress of modern, planetary civilization and an anthropological threat to the diversity of cultures, through a subtle destruction of what he speaks of  as their “ethico-mythical core.”[2] He proposes a profound and quite original analysis of this, one close to his argument with Claude Levi-Strauss to whom he is close here in the way he states the problem, even if he wants to take it in a quite different direction. For Ricœur, the problem is really that of a gnawing skepticism for which there are only “others.”

It is not easy to remain oneself and practice tolerance with regard to other civilizations. (…) Suddenly it becomes possible that there can only be others, that we ourselves are only one other among others. (…) We can easily represent to ourselves a time that is close when any person having the needed money can endlessly change scenes and taste his death in terms of some interminable voyage without any goal. (…) This would amount to a planetary skepticism, the triumph of absolute nihilism in the midst of our well-being. We need to admit that this peril is at least equal to and perhaps more probable than any atomic destruction.[3]

You see how groundbreaking this article was in 1961. We can take skepticism to be a form of solipsism, an inability to get beyond oneself, and we are going to see that this is what threatens phenomenology, up to and including its hyperbolic reversal in Levinas. But we can also take it as the inability to have a self, when there are only selfless others. This is why Ricœur writes here, more or less against Levi-Strauss and what we are going to call the structuralist Pyrrhonism, for which there is nothing outside of language : “in order to meet another, one must have a self.”[4]

His question is that of the conditions of possibility of an encounter between diverse cultures, an encounter that would not be mortal for all of them. It means breaking once and for all with the vertiginous idea of universal, total translation or communication and with the idea of an absolute unity of humanity, but also with that of a total alterity among humanities that do not and cannot understand one another. Let us explore the two sides of the problem.


Eleatic Structuralism and Phenomenological Cynicism

On the first side, we may consider the fascinating conversation between Levi-Strauss and Ricœur. The anthropologist was willing to recognize himself in the formulas that Ricoeur proposed to characterize him, that of a “Kantianism without a transcendental subject” which Levi-Strauss acknowledged “corresponds well to a radical Pyrrhonism which probably represents the final state of my thought.”[5] We have to apply the qualification of a “radical Pyrrhonism” to define Levi-Strauss’s quasi-Parmenidean postulate that “human beings always think rightly”[6]. It is a postulate with great heuristic and descriptive power, since we can only think and speak correctly, and there is no need for us to know the rules or consciously to adhere to them in order to put them to work.

The problem is that this kind of Pyrrhonian skepticism wipes out any possibility of a gap between our discourse and what there is. There are no more lies, and no more fiction. No errors or mistakes, but also no history, no imagination or anything to wish for. And it seems to me that this debate was already that of Plato with Gorgias, who took shelter behind Parmenides, in the Sophist. In order to trap the sophist, one has to show that we can say something that is false, and therefore talk or think about what is not. This is what Plato called parricide for he had to refute Parmenides in order to get out of the nihilistic Eleatic philosophy in which everything comes down to being the Same.

On the second side of the problem, we have the example of his discussion with Levinas. We can say that Levinas put the accent on dissymmetry and the priority of the other, whereas Ricœur privileged the reciprocity between the other and the self. This is why he tries to pluralize the self (on the basis of the pragmatic postures of the I, the you, and the he or she) so as to make the self capable of receiving the injunction of an alterity that is itself pluralized.


He concludes therefore that Levinas opposes a solipsistic self, closed-in on itself, to a radically exterior other, who is totally other, in a hyperbolic, excessive fashion. He points again to this hyperbolic language in his reading of Levinas’s Otherwise than Being where he refers to the sophist Cratylus as presented by Plato.[7] My hypothesis is that Ricœur here takes up again Plato’s argument against one of the sides of sophism, one that returns again in the Cynics, as when Antisthenes, for example, says that we never speak of the same thing. And I think we can apply this same analysis to Derrida and to all those who “exaggerate” differences of opinion, even differance.


The conversation of cultures

So there are two ways of getting out of skepticism by a radical solution, which in effect are ways to fall into it.  This is where Ricoeur tries another way. He writes :

 “Man is a stranger to man, yes, but always also a fellow creature (…) To believe that translation is possible to some point, is to affirm that the stranger is human (…) I can make myself other in remaining myself. To be human is to be capable of this transfer into another perspective”[8].

This is the point in our text where a skeptical questioning arises, no longer about any doubt about the possibility of understanding the other, of encountering him, of translating, but just the opposite : “So the question of confidence arises : what happens to my values when I understand those of other peoples?” The question of confidence is in fact the question of confidence in oneself, in one’s own existence, one’s own capacities to receive and to give.

“Only a living culture, one both faithful to its origins and creative when it comes to art, literature, philosophy, spirituality is capable of supporting an encounter with other cultures, not only of supporting it but of giving meaning to such an encounter. When an encounter is a confrontation of creative impulses, an enthusiastic confrontation, is it itself creative. I believe that, from creation to creation, there can exist a kind of consonance, even in the absence of agreement”.[9]

The task for coming generations therefore will be to get beyond the dogmatic clash of civilizations without sinking into an indifferent, skeptical relativism.

“This is why we are in a kind of intermediary moment, an interregnum, where we can no longer practice the dogmatism of one unique truth, and where we are not yet capable of conquering the skepticism we have fallen into. We are in a tunnel, at the twilight of dogmatism, but on the threshold that leads to genuine dialogues”[10].

The Question of Credibility

It seems to me important to note that this article ends on the question of skepticism, which seems to me to be one of the guiding threads of Ricœur’s thought, up to his last great works on recognition and his book Memory, History, Forgetting. In reading this book, one may ask oneself retrospectively where Ricœur ever stopped rethinking today’s skepticism.

To him, our civilization seemed caught up in doubt, as if everything that had been taken for granted for a long time had become vain. This crisis of legitimation stems from the fact that we no longer recognize ourselves in the form of society we now live in. Modern people, Ricœur says, “have come to detest what they loved, without having found any credible alternative to the form of society that defines their identity.”[11] Mastering nature, growth, prosperity all come down to a kind of generalized instrumentalization, the crumbling of cultures, a loss of meaning, disaffection about both public and private life.

A kind of general incredulity is spreading, which soon or later touches everything : How are we to have any confidence in politics, justice, history, narrative, memory, traces of the past, promises, language? History seems to be a perpetual oscillation between excessive yet related forms of dogmatism and skepticism. To any excess of certainty and assurance corresponds an excess of uncertainty, a renouncing of knowing, a defiance and suspicion that gnaws away at everything.

We can see that rather than responding to this excess of incredulity with an excess of certitude, that would be its inverse form, Ricœur digs beneath the surface of doubt itself and in this way radicalizes attestation, taking up in different ways what was said by Husserl and Wittgenstein. When Ricœur considers the hermeneutics of those he called, in a well-known phrase, “masters of suspicion,” he does so not in order to reject suspicion, but on the contrary in order to closely associate critique and conviction.

And indeed his hermeneutics seems to be stretched in two different directions. On the one hand, there is a question of thinking about trust, something that brings him close to Gadamer. The faculty of understanding, of recognizing what gives itself, implies the capacity to say “yes, that’s it,” it really is. On the other hand, there is the question of giving room to suspicion, something that comes to him from the critical tradition and the great masters of suspicion up to and including Habermas. The faculty of pointing out misunderstandings, differences, distances that are often distortions, presupposes the power to say no, “it’s not like that.” We do not have on one side ontological belonging and on the other methodological distance. Belonging too is methodological. And distance too is ontological.

Attestation that has not encountered suspicion, affirmation that has not encountered critique, reconstruction that has not encountered deconstruction, agreement that has not encountered disagreement, would lack the dissensus that is the basic element of any testimony or attestation, and coextensive with it. A certain skepticism is unsurpassable, because the solution does not lie in some assured certitude, but in the confident acceptance of uncertain situations, of that uncanny strangeness of the everyday, in our astonishment that we should so often understand one another, without being obligated to do so but simply because we do trust in the capacity of ordinary actors, speakers, and narrators.

Olivier Abel

Version longue : ici

Notes :

[1] “But nowadays the clever ones among us . . . go straight from the one to the unlimited and omit the intermediates. It is these, however, that make all the difference as to whether we are engaged with each other in dialectical or only in eristic discourse” (Philebus 16e-17a).

[2] This composite concept strikes me as being quite original and I find it interesting that ever since 1961 Ricœur refused to separate ethics from myth, morality from stories, action from the plots within which it gets told.

[3] HV 330–31 [??].

[4] Ibid., 337.

[5] See the interview between Marcel Hénaff and Levi-Strauss in Esprit (2004) and the discussion between Ricœur and Levi-Strauss in the same journal in 1963.

[6] Esprit (2004) : 198.

[7] Paul, Ricœur, “Otherwise : A Reading of Emmanuel Levinas’s Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence,” trans. Matthew Escobar, Yale French Studies no. 104 (2004) : 82–99.

[8] HV, 336.

[9] Ibid., 172.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Lectures I, 172.