« Paul Ricoeur’s place in the french intellectual landscape »

Preliminary remarks on the complexity and difficulty of Ricoeur’s thought:

Introducing the thought of Paul Ricoeur is both very complex and very easy. It is complex because he has traversed and incorporated into his discourse a great diversity of themes, disciplines and philosophical styles: Kantian criticism, Existentialism, phenomenology, hermeneutics, analytical philosophy, as well as Freudian psychoanalysis, structural semiotics, Biblical exegesis, literary criticism, historiography, political theory, the philosophy of law, and more.

Here is an example of this complexity: Paul Ricoeur has expressed the desire to leave his library to the School of Protestant Theology in Paris, were I teach; but his library comprises a good dozen different libraries, corresponding to each of these themes, each library having been assembled and read to the point of forming a totality more or less complete and coherent, the bibliographical references creating among themselves a close circle!

And this complexity is also perceptible in Ricoeur’s language, in each case a sort of hybrid construct between his language and the language of the author or discipline under consideration. This is why it is complex to read Ricoeur, as thought it was necessary to change axiomatics each time. But, by the same token, it is easy, for this multiplicity of openings renders him accessible from all sides and makes of his « oeuvre » an immense reservoir of mediations, of carefully elaborated reading notes, built one upon the other, like a system of flying buttresses.

Let us mention right away that it would have been no less legitimate to begin with a virtually inverse statement: Paul Ricoeur’s thought is not complex and easy, but simple and difficult. It is simple because it never develops fully more than a single idea, a single line of inquiry, as we will see. It is difficult, because this inquiry appears at each twist and turn of its itinerary as the unresolved residue of the preceding discourse; it’s upon these grains of sand of his own discourse that Ricoeur fixes his attention. And his thought is difficult because his precept is « to confront one’s best enemy, the adversary for whom one must be most worthy ». The arguments developed are not initally intended for the public at large, but pitched to this true philosophical friend that a respected adversary can represent.

What are Paul Ricoeur’s influences in the landscape of French philosophy, of ethics, possibly theology? Notwithstanding his brilliant career as a Parisian academic[1], one must begin by observing that Ricoeur is first and foremost a man of international philosophical conversations: his books present themselves alternately as links to the german world, and to the anglo–saxon one. This is worthy of note, particularly at a time when French and Parisian philosophy was so absorbed by its own modes (existentialism, structuralism, etc.). But this quality increases Ricoeur’s complexity: an Anglo–Saxon reader probably encounters Ricoeur as an author subject to eclipse, who like a light–house, shines one moment, then lapses into obscurity! But it’s by virtue of these eclipses in favor of each of the great philosophical continents that Ricoeur has, I believe, fostered a formidable smuggling operation among philosophical cultures (French, Germanic and Anglo–Saxon, of course, but also Italian, Spanish, Japanese, etc.).

What makes perception of his work and influence more difficult is that Ricoeur is not part of any school. Although highly respected, he has been relegated to the margins of the French intellectual landscape, perhaps because he is too Protestant for the taste of a philosophical tradition with a deeply rooted anti–religious philosophical bent; and because he is too critical for the taste of a philosophy partial to enthusiasms[2]. Moreover, Ricoeur is too Latin or Romanic for the Protestant world, and too Protestant for the Latin world. In a word, he belongs to this community at the crossroads of diverse allegiances, capable of understanding more or less everyone, but whom no one can understand entirely. Yet it’s to Ricoeur that I would like to attribute some of the most radical reorientations of current French and European philosophy.

Before the answer let us look at the questions. So, before showing in what way Ricoeur has attempted this reorientation of philosophy, I would like to begin here by returning to his sources, to the two or three fundamental philosophical experiences which have been his point of departure; for Ricoeur is not in the least a bookish philosopher, an « armchair » philosopher. To read him is to agree to undergo an experience.

I. Interrogativity: The Philosophical Experience

A. Evil : the experience of tragic

Born in 1913, Ricoeur loses his father early in the First World War, and soon thereafter also loses his mother. Raised, as a ward of the State, to respect the Republic, he will still become, despite all this, a committed and militant pacifist like many others involved as he was in the movement of Protestant students and in that of Social Christianity. The Spanish Civil War of ’36, and then the Anschluss, will show them they have taken the wrong path, and will bring them back to their earliest convictions, not to renounce them but to deepen them. The trace of this oscillation between a prophetic point of view (the evangelical ethics of love), and a political point of view (the ethics of justice, the ethics of the magistrate) is deeply inscribed in Ricoeur’s texts[3]. It’s trough this mixture of an ethics of conviction and an ethics of responsability (to use the similar categories of Max Weber) that Ricoeur has had such influence upon politicians such as Michel Rocard (the former prime minister).

In any event, the second world war was one of the fundamental experiences shaping his thought, and without it one cannot understand his obsessive reinterpretation of the problematics of evil, of pain, of culpability, of suffering. Even if one can imagine that the circles he frequented in the post–war period are primarily characterized by a desire for reconstruction[4], Ricoeur’s post–war thought is deeply marked by the disaster of this war that preceeded it, by its genocides, by the abyss that it revealed. And evil then is not only the object of an interpretation, in which all so–called explanation founders, but the object of an action, in which there also founders all practical claim to eliminate it utterly. The tragic is thus an ethical experience, a global experience. Ricoeur regularly returns to the great tragic authors, to Sophocles, to the character of Job as well, and I think that authors such as Hegel or Freud are for him indissolubly linked to this sentiment.

If I had to characterize briefly experience of the tragic for Ricoeur, I would say: 1) that it’s the point at which responsability ruptures between two duties each as imperative as the other, and radically incompatible; 2) and that it’s the point at which responsability must be maintained, even as it becomes obscure, because the irreversible consequences of my choice have placed me in a situation that I have not willed.

B. Hope: the epic affirmation

However, it would not be possible, as of this first experience of thought that I have called that of the tragic, not to evoke a sort of « fundamental orientation towards affirmation » that grounds Ricoeur’s existential attitude in the face of life, and without wich there would be no such thing as the tragic.

While he has written extensively on Husserl, Freud, Kant, or Aristotle, there is no published text on Spinoza, who was however (notably at the Sorbonne until 1966) one of his favorite authors[5]. It’s this simple and obstinate idea of a perseverance of all things in being, that illuminate the theme of originary affirmation (taken from the philosopher Jean Nabert): a theme that links Ricoeur to a certain Nietzsche, and also to Albert Camus as opposed to Jean–Paul Sartre. In other words, that links him to a mode of thought where being is life, as opposed to a mode of thought were being is a thing. What is being having remained desire, tension bearing within itself its own alteration, its own non–being? What is a being that is capable to give birth to another being? We find echoes of this fundamental intuition, it seems to me, even in Ricoeur’s most technical works on what he calls the « live metaphor »[6].

Such is probably the question that today separates Ricoeur from a philosophy like that of Levinas, which would reduce all reflection on being and the world to mere epistemology, and which would have ethics arise from the sole category of alterity, without seeking in being even a capacity or an ethical desire. And it’s indeed ethics that puts this question: what is this world if it must bear in itself the possibility of another world? In theological language: what is this world if it must not realize, actualize, but bear in itself the possibility of the Kingdom of God[7]?

The tragic in this sens is, as it were, accompanied by what Ricoeur calls an epic theology, and of which he says that it alone can get us out of an individualistic, private conception of morality, confined by Evil as by Salvation. For even if Evil makes us tremble with fear for our lives, it’s because it threatens the feeling that our sufferings and our losses have a meaning, an historical, communicable, narratable meaning. This passage from epic sentiment through the loss of meaning is perhaps what still inspires the works of Time and Narrative (1983–1985). The tragic and epic subject is thus a « we ». Redemption must traverse all of history, its political, economic, cultural structures; it concerns the entire Cosmos. And otherwise, it is not adequate to the greatness of Evil[8].

But tragic experience remains coextensive with epic affirmation, it accompanies it to the end. This is why the word that names both this experience and this affirmation, for Ricoeur, is hope. We will see now that this theology of hope is that which best corresponds to the Kantian and Kierkegaardian philosophy of finitude: the finitude of the subject.

C. The subject : reflexion and existence

A third experience or source of thought is to be found at the intersection of two inquiries. The first has to do with of Ricoeur’s formative period in the French university between the two wars, marked by a reflexive neo–Kantianism in which Descartes and Kant ceaselessly intervene in a central question (or one always already excentric with respect to itself!): what does it mean to be a subject[9]? And what does it mean for a subject who carries in himself the disproportion between will, knowledge, pleasure and suffering, etc.? It’s in this universe that Ricoeur acquired the critical gesture with which he distinguishes registers (for the same statement does not have the same meaning, depending on the sort of question it is responding to: descriptive, moral, esthetic, judicial, loving, and so on). A sort of Wittgensteinian discipline that does not prevent, but rather, on the contrary, permits the posing of the true question: what is it to say « I », what is the unity of the subject across this disparity of registers, of languages and of experiences ?

I spoke of Gabriel Marcel (cf. note supra). The second inquiry is a way to answering the former question, and has precisely to do with the encounter of Existentialist thought, that of Jaspers, to whom Ricoeur devotes his first book; that of Heidegger as well (I have mentionned Ricoeur’s reservations regarding Sartre, and will speak later of his reservations regarding Heidegger). And of course the thought of Kierkegaard, which allowed him to radicalize originary affirmation through anguish, through a broken dialectic that proposes no synthesis but designates a singularity in the margins of all discourse. The central reflexion here bears upon the existential decision. How does the project take shape, what does it mean to choose, to decide and to choose oneself among the possible, in spite of that whih limits and diminishes my choice? This is the dominant question, from a few short texts of the pre-war period to the great treatise on The Voluntary and the Involuntary published in 1950[10]. But it reappers in the theme of promise on which Ricoeur has recently done so much work[11].

Nowhere does one feel the juncture between these two inquiries so much as in Fallible man[12], the second volume of Philosophy of Will in which the analyses of temporality unite the Kantian notion of the imagination with the Kierkegaardian notion of finitude in the theme of the fragility of the subject.

I would now slip into this complex the reading of Bultman, for it’s perhaps here that the first hermeneutic experience takes place for Ricoeur; the place where it grafts itself upon reflection. that is also a way of answering (or radicalize) the question of unity of the subject. Indeed any choice encounters a non–choice, an unconscious, the accident of birth, of corporeal, social and cultural situation. The critical distance of the considered choice encounters the belonging to an horizon: « how to make of chance a destiny accepted through a continuous choice », he says, speaking of his Protestantism. And it’s this hermeneutical meaning that immediatly tempers the existential radicality of decision, and that reinscribes it in a history, a geography, a context. But Bultman separates the historical objectivity of the text from his existential meaning for us: we will see that Ricoeur wants to show that they are inseparable.

D. The absence: the impasse of phenomenology

One must mention yet a final source of Ricoeur’s thought, one that was also a true philosophical experience: his encounter with Husserlian phenomenology. When in 1940 he was taken prisoner of war by the Germans, he knew Husserl only through his reading of the Logical investigations. Ricoeur managed to hide a pencil and a copy of the first volume of Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy (the books of the old master of Marburg were forbidden: he was a Jew), and it’s thus that he translated the text, in minuscule handwritting, in the book’s margins (a rare example of sympathy for the language of the enemy). This first translation of Husserl will put Ricoeur among the first to introduce phenomenology in France, and it’s this « method » that he applies to the topic of the will (a geometric crossroads of different themes hitherto mentionned, tragic, affirmation, subject, choice) directly paralleling the Merleau–Ponty’s work during the sames years. As we see very clearly in the collection of articles entitled in French At the school of Phenomenology[13], the difference is that Ricoeur analyses the ethical subject, the subject of will and desire (le sujet du « vouloir »), the praxis of subjectivity, whereas Merleau–Ponty analyses the theoretical or esthetic subject, the perceiving subject.

How might we characterize this phenomenological experience? I would say right off that, unlike his friend Mircea Eliade (they lived together for thirty years, first in Paris, then in Chicago) for whom phenomenology became a virtually positive tool, what dominates Ricoeur’s thought is the failure to discover an originary experience in which consciousness is presence–to–itself. « The question of consciousness is more obscure than that of unconscious » he said. I believe that one cannot understand contemporary French philosophy without acknowledging this true feeling of absence that phenomenology has led to: absence of the subject, absence of the object, absence of being. This is particularly evident in such authors as Deleuze, Lyotard, Derrida. In Ricoeur, this absence–to–itself of the subject is translated primarily through an anthropology of fragility: what becomes of the identity of the subject when it is dislocated by time? What becomes of will, when it bears within itself the opacity of evil?

It’s this double separation of the subject, with respect to assured identity, and with respect to the desired good, that has made of Ricoeur this Ulysses embarked upon the hermeneutic ocean of significations, of interpretations, of meanings, and that has sent him along countless twists and turns in this complex and brave journey figured by his « oeuvre ».

Ii. Responsability: The Reorientation of Philosophy

In the first part of this paper, I tried briefly to sketch the philosophical landscape that Ricoeur encountered, as well as those experiences he might be said to have shared with his contemporaries, the generation of thinkers who repeatedly turned their attention to the same questions. In the second part of this paper, I would like to show, point after point and symetrically (from my own point of view, and more as a narrative than as an argument) how Ricoeur has changed this lands–cape. The answers he brings to those questions.

A. From phenomenology to poetics

Let us take as our point of departure the above considerations on the phenomenology of will. If we link this theme with that, already mentioned, of affirmation and its power, we feel very close to Nietzsche. What distances us from him is precisey what we might call the aporia of the will, the fact that the will is always also a non–will; in other words, that the will is not creative but always already itself created[14].

What becomes, then, of the will? It has discovered within itself desire, the unconscious, and that’s why the book on Freud[15] follows upon the three volumes of Philosophy of will[16]. Ricoeur demonstrated in it a link somewhat obliterated by the « all–language » of Lacan and of structuralism, a link between the order of the bios, pulsion, and the order of logos, discourse; he demonstrated the necessity to maintain this association so as to understand the symboles, cultures, and institutions in which experiences of will, of desiring, and even of imagining, find expression.

He also demonstrated the complementarity without any possible synthesis between an archeology of the subject (in the manner of Freud) and a teleology of the subject (in the manner of Hegel and perhaps Marx also). And this demonstration starts with the « polysemy », the multiplicity of significations, of signs, of words, of symbols. For Ricoeur, this multiplicity is not a bad thing, but a good one, nearly a blessing, an equivalent of « the superabondance of Grace » in the words of Saint Paul. Anyway, we are here in a hermeneutic situation that explains what Ricoeur means by « The Conflict of Interpretations »[17]: that’s to say, the fact that great human works, as well as dreams and myths, and even great institutions, can be the objects of rival hermeneutics, each probably as legitimate as every other, and all of which together needing to renounce their claims to exclusiveness.

In other words, condemned as we are to the conflict of interpretations from which we cannot hope to emerge via a synthetic hermeneutic, we need to find in the conflict itself, in the very plurality and variety of interpretations, the method appropriate to what we seek. If phenomenology, through the method of eidetic variations, wanted to reach invariant essences, it’s the absence of these invariant meanings that sends us back to variations, to their rules and irregularities. The theme of identity of the subject needs to be sought in its variations.

In this sense, we understand that the response to the aporetics of will throughout Ricoeur’s « oeuvre » is a poetics of will: a work formerly announced but never written, though it is, as it were, dispersed throughout the entirety of Ricoeur’s writings. This poetics, to be sure, pursues certain of Nietzsche’s intuitions, but in a minor mode. It is not the will that creates; it is itself created or recreated by its works. For instance, it’s because the text precedes imagination and extends it, opens up for it new possibilities, that the imagination can speak to will, can animate it. This explains the importance of reading: not only for the formation of the perceiving subject, as Merleau–Ponty and Bachelard have shown, but for the formation of the ethical subject (desiring, acting, narrating, judging, etc.).

Thus it is, with regard to the phenomenological experience of absence, that I can call the philosophical reorientation proposed by Ricoeur, a poetics. It is with speaking or writing, or acting that we return from absence towards presence. This, perhaps, is the only idea that Ricoeur never fails to pursue, an idea as simple as a joy that has known sorrow, and that one does not want to take into one’s arms too quickly, nor embrace too forcefully, so as to avoid the fate of Orpheus losing Eurydice at the moment when he wants to take her in his arms. In this sense, the keystone of Ricoeur’s « oeuvre », the book that translates into patient and modest arguments the great intuitions of originary affirmation, is The Rule of Metaphor. Multi– Disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language (op.cit.). It is to be found in diverse guises in each of Ricoeur’s trajectories.

B. Critical Hermeneutics

We need now to examine what Ricoeur calls the graft or superimposition of hermeneutics upon phenomenology. One might variously present this conjonction: first of all, phenomenological investigation, instead of a transcendental ego, discovers a speaking and acting subject that always already belongs to the life–world (Lebenswelt) that it interprets. This is the Heideggerian trajectory, pursued by thinkers as different as Hans–Georg Gadamer in Germany, Maurice Merleau–Ponty and Paul Ricoeur in France. Why is it, for the latter, a matter of graft or surimposition and not of substitution? In what respect is Ricoeur not simply, as he is often said to be, the master of the hermeneutic school in France? It is that, with the appearance of the hermeneutic theme of interpretation at the end of The Symbolism of Evil[18], Ricoeur sets forth the idea that what he aims at, is not a meaning hidden behind the symbol or the text, but rather that semantic act as point of departure, giving rise before him to thought, to imagination, etc. There is here something like a post–hermeneutic and post–critical phenomenology that one might call a micro–phenomenology, a little like what one finds in Bachelard, where each poetic image, as a pure act or intention, brings to the world a micro–subjectivity, an « imaged cogito ».

And then, we must also recognize a difference with post–Heideggerian hermeneutics. Indeed, with Ricoeur, hermeneutics ceaselessly insist upon the historic and linguistic distance introduced by time and by contextual differences, and the necessity for critical methods that allow us to map this distance. In this respect, Ricoeur reproaches Heideggerian hermeneutics with being less intent on resolving problems of historical and social knowledge, than on dissolving them in the mere comprehension of self (of being). This is why, instead of the short route leading directly to an analysis of Dasein, Ricoeur always chooses the longest detours, those that demand the most diverse methods: the better, it would seem, to mark out the diversity of distances, the diversity of alterities. This indeed is what distinguishes Ricoeur from the other French phenomenologists, from Michel Henry, from Emmanuel Lévinas, and even from Jacques Derrida[19].

On the other hand, Ricoeur rejects a merely critical approach, one that turns history into a mere inventory of differences (Paul Veynes, Michel de Certeau), one that reduces justice simply to procedures of possible universalisation (John Rawls), or an approach that turns ideological criticism into the path of free and unimpeded communication (Jürgen Habermas). To simplify greatly, Ricoeur reproaches them for neglecting the obstacle or opacity that is imposed upon this communication, this universality, this difference, by the fact of the interpreting subject’s belonging to a world of language, to a form of life and to a complex of traditions. For instance, how does one prevent the ethics of debate from being reduced to a code of high–toned argumentation ? How does one insure that debate be such as to allowthe participants not to leave their convictions on the doorstep? Even the critique of traditions has its tradition, in the European Enlightenment. It is thus necessary to be hermeneutically modest enough to recognize this ontological belonging, and not be too quick to think that one is detached from it.

It is this double movement that characterizes what Ricoeur calls hermeneutic criticism[20], which immediately distances him so clearly from German hermeneutics, as exemplified by Hans–Georg Gadamer: Ricoeur would never oppose truth and method, understanding and explanation. To give tangible examples of this hermeneutic criticism and to let you have a sense of its gestures, I won’t turn to Biblical exegesis, nor to historiography (see Time and Narrative vol.3, 1985), but (even if these are more debatable examples) to the more concrete register of two institutions with which Ricoeur has had much contact: the Churches and the University. The Churches because, as a militant Protestant, he showed his concern for the divorce between the knowledge of the clerics and the ignorance of the Church congregations, the divorce between the ethical and political utopia of the one group and the conservative and particularist ideology of the other. It would be necessary, according to Ricoeur, to conjugate ideology and utopia as reproductive imagination and creative imagination, as the necessary balance and rythm between the tradition that reproduces and the critical invention of the possible, between the logic of debt and the logic of hope (cf note 4 supra).

Similarly, if he accepted the duties of Provost of the University of Nanterre in Paris in March 1969, just at the time of the post–’68 unrest, it’s because he felt that unity was possible between an imagination that refused all institutions and an institution wary of all imagination. It’s the defeat of this attempt at reconciliation that led him to resign in March 1970, after the clash between students and police, after the police entered the University despite Ricoeur’s instructions, and after students emptied a garbage can on his head. One might say that Ricoeur experienced first–hand the death of University (French university, at least) as a research community, and also as the locus of experimentation in social forms. It was then that he left Nanterre and agreed to teach each winter in Chicago.

C. The Language of Hope

To come back to another bifurcation already mentioned, what also keeps Ricoeur from being considered part of the Hermeneutic school, is the fact that after having been considered the leader of this school in France, he redirected hermeneutics toward a poetics of meaning, of narrative, and so forth, in a word, toward something entirely different. This began with the encounter and first debates with structural semiotics, Claude Levi–Strauss of course and Roland Barthes, but particularly A.J.Greimas, the true master of the method in its most essential form. What Ricoeur wanted to transgress, or traverse, is the absolute separation between a pure philosophy, concentrated upon the ineffable singularity of a subject that neither speaks nor acts, in a word, that does not in any way engage life or history; and on the other hand, those sciences of language or of history that would limit themselves to the structural inventory of enunciations or actions without subjects.

He then turned towards the resources of analytic philosophy (and notably of post– Wittgensteinian pragmatics) as an antidote, based upon language itself, to that aspect of French structural semiotics that was too much confined within language alone, as in a text without referent. The idea, springing from a basis in metaphore, is that the language that appears to be the least referential, the language of poetic metaphors itself is less a closed world of language than the intersection and the tension between two linguistic worlds, and that this mixture thus opens up a reference to the real that reveals another reality, another possible world; one no less real than the first–order reality. The parables of Jesus, for instance, designating both the ordinary world of his time and the Kingdom of God, introduce a tension into reality, as though this world were going to give birth to another world.

Moreover, live metaphor is an anomaly of language, but a normal anomaly, so to speak, a vital anomaly that allows language to repair the loss of singularities expended by the conceptual and linguistic structuration of the real. If, then, metaphor is a live speech devoted to speaking residual singularities (all that remains unsaid on the edge of language) this singularization cannot be isolated from the general structuring of language (against an excess of « subjectivization »). On the other hand, the most universal and abstract concepts still bear the trace of metaphors that have helped to produce them. The categories of the Civil Rights of Man, in this sense, still belong to a network of metaphors arising within a context and a culture (against an excess of « objectivisation »). The entire problem of the dialogue of cultures resides in this question of the possible confrontation, not only between particular traditions, but among a plurality of universals in contexts.

One can say that in the three volumes of Time and Narrative Ricoeur generalizes this dialogue between literary criticism, analytic historiography (Anglo–American), and structuralist historiography (French). Deploying the notion of poetic reference, the poetics of narrative responds to an aporia which is that of the phenomenology of time, from Augustine to Heidegger. Human time cannot be thought directly, it can only be narrated (like evil, perhaps). Between fictional and historic narratives, narration takes diverse forms that structure diverse links to the real, to the possible, to characters, to narrators, to readers and to time itself. Finally, there is historic truth in fiction, and there are narrative plots in history. In those literary or historic forms of writing that have most deconstructed narrative structures, there still remains narrative; and in those that, opposing the primacy of the event, have sought to construct the most abstract or the most general models, there still remains something discordant that characterizes the historicity and contingency of events. And it’s the whole of this narrative fabric that shapes personnal and collective identity, like a subtle composition of memory and purpose.

In every case, identity is not a psycho–sociological category only, but a « poetic–ethical » one: it is not what the subject puts together for himself, but that for which he is responsible before others: identity only takes shape in the variation and the very plurality of narratives of self, discourses, forms of life or action through which the self subject itself bit by bit. The massive identity of the « I », of the « we », is what one must agree to lose in order to find a self, a self that bears alterity within itself, the possibility of forgiving what it once was, the promise of what will be: it’s upon these lofty themes that the final great work, Oneself as Another[21], concludes.

D. Ethics and Politics

We will conclude this presentation of Ricoeur with the matter of the reorientation that he has stamped upon ethical and political philosophy, and which is first and foremost a plea (an ethical one) for serious thought about the law. Let us first recall that the fifties and sixties were dominated in France by Marxist thought (a Marx more or less mixed with Freud and Nietzsche: this curious trio was what Ricoeur called the « Masters of suspicion »). Ricoeur is not primarily anti–marxist; he is too socialist, in the Latin or Romanic sense, for that. But he criticizes Marxism, particularly after the events in Hungary in ’56[22], for lacking in political thought. Because Marxism did not believe in the autonomy of the political, in its specific violences (irreducible to economic exploitation): 1) it did not theorize law, that it did not seek to found the political in a desire to live together that gives institutional form to the common good; 2) it did no more seek to criticize the abuses of this desire with specific judicial procedures to resist all domination that would leave the dominated without recourse to counter–vailing power.

Let it be said in passing that these two faces of the political ethics proposed by Ricoeur can be considered characteristic of a Latin Protestantism, which would thus comprise: 1) on the one hand, a teleological style, Platonic or Aristotelician, but in a form indigenous to Mediterranean and Catholic cultures; 2) and on the other hand, a deontological style, that does not seek the common good so much as it attempts the present evils, more critical in the style of Hobbes or Kant, and typically found in Protestant cultures.

Ricoeur objects, for instance, that behind Rawl’s pure utilitarian calculus of equitable procedures, there always remains an intention towards what is equitable and good, a teleology (itself anchored in a style, a tradition). But on the other hand a purely teleological conception would not manage to do justice, through judicial and institutional techniques, to the unavoidable conflicts that characterize ordinary life. So Ricoeur seeks the just as a mixt of the good and the legal[23].

Still more precisely, on this example we can see the trajectory of an ethical thought that would seek judgement or just action: 1) would take as its point of departure a search for those values which express the roots of the ethical intention in desire and the plurality of its forms; 2) it would seek a possible universalisation in constructing the moral rules of an equity, of a possible reciprocity between these diverse aims; 3) the tragic conflict that sometimes appears among moral imperatives, each as legitimate as the other but mutually contradictory, would at least lead to practical wisdom, which imagines and interprets what is right in the particularity of situation. A marvelous meditation on this topic is to be found in Love and Justice[24]. Thus the last word on ethics goes to wisdom, which alone is equal to the tragic aspect of our histories. But even here there is a certain poetics that allows one to remain just despite unhappiness: it’s because a text opens and unfolds an (other) possible world, that I can nevertheless act, that I can be sure that this world is not finite, not totalisable.

In the French intellectual landscape, unlike lesser thinkers who bark at every subject and never truly sink their teeth into any, Ricoeur gives the impression of being a much quieter thinker, and much more dangerous! In other words, in a landscape defined by Parisian fashions, where all thought is first monopolized by one discourse, then by another, Ricoeur has always sought to honor the plurality of discourses, and to speak them together. All of a sudden, a little like in the old Plato in his dialogues, we no longer know quite where he situates himself.

He enacts all together a critical gesture that separates questions; a dialectical gesture that articulates them in a debate; an ethical gesture that designates the point of view or of question that were excluded from the debate; a poetic gesture which demonstrates that these points of view or these questions are compossible, compatible, possible in the same world, a world we can make together. At the end of the first section I spoke of Ulysses who delayed his return to Ithaca, but it was because of an ever greater loyalty to his homeland. We would have to counterbalance this image of Ulysses with that of Moses, who dies before reaching the promised land.

Olivier Abel

Conférence pour le Wesley Theological Seminary de Washington, le 20/10/92.

Notes :

[1] At the Sorbonne from ’56 to ’66, then at Nanterre, the University that Ricoeur helped to found, and where the events of May ’68 began.

[2] According to some (Dominique Janicaud in The Theological turn of the French phenomenology) the French philosophy has given itself over not to onto–theology but to theo-ethics (we can think to Emmanuel Levinas, of course, and Michel Henry, but also Jean–Luc Marion, and Jacques Derrida himself in his own way.

[3] See History and Truth 1965, for instance the text upon « State and Violence ».

[4] For example, at the « College Cevenol », in Chambon sur Lignon (the little protestant village that protect 5000 jew children during the war), where he taught from 1945 to 1948, and where he met the Quaker circles that were, in 1952, the first to invite him to lecture here, in Washington ; or else at the « Murs Blancs », in Châtenay–Malabry in the south suburbs of Paris, where, appointed to the Sorbonne in 1956, he joined the intellectual community of the journal « Esprit » created by Emmanuel Mounier (at the time he shared his house with H.I.Marrou, the historian). About this theme of reconstruction, I ask myself if historically it is not exactly what refuse the deconstruction of Jacques Derrida : the reconstruction is oriented towards future by the idea of « project », and the deconstruction rather towards the past by the idea of « debt ». After having been dominated by the existentialist them of project, the French philosophy is now largely dominated by the them of debt.

[5] Perhaps this was to allow free rein to Sylvain Zac, whom he had appointed to the University of Nanterre.

[6] French title of The Rule of Metaphor. Multi–Disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language, Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1977.

[7] It must be said in passing that following the example of this great generation of Protestants arising, between the thirties and the fifties, under the teachings of the « Professing Church » so powerfully thematised by Karl Barth, Ricoeur has been very affected by the Barthian thought.
In retrospect, it seems to me that this doctrine of Grace alone, which again places us all beneath « the Lordship of Christ » in delivering us from the powers of this world, has served particularly to create a void. As Husserl, in his Phenomenology, cannot find the very ground of knowledge, Karl Barth, in his Dogmatic, cannot establish theological analysis at the level of pure Grace. And this parallelism between those procedures shows the same results : as the incapacity to find the World itself transforms for Ricoeur Phenomenology into Hermeneutic, the incapacity to speak directly about God himself, transmutes the Dogmatic into a sort of poetics of the Kingdom of God. This entire waning generation, some, like Georges Casalis, in the political mode, others like André Dumas in a more sapiential mode, have been the witnesses of this poetic. Ricoeur, for his part, has elaborated an entire theology of Scriptures and of reading that structures this poetic link not only to the text, but to the world and possibly to God, through their absence. This remark explains the plot of the present little lecture about Ricoeur.

[8] See History and Truth 1965, for instance the text upon « Imago Dei and human Epic ».

[9] The great masters of the university of the third Republic have grappled with it, the Lachelier, Lagneau, but also Bergson with his attention to the vital and to the immediate givens of consciousness ; and for Ricoeur, Dalbiez in Britanny, and later in Paris Léon Robin, Emile Bréhier, Léon Brunschwicg, et Gabriel Marcel, the french master of christian existentialism, who gathered a few students each Friday and with whom Ricoeur found a philosophy of the subject as corporality (before Maurice Merleau–Ponty and Michel Henry were to develop this sort of theme).

[10] Freedom and Nature : The Voluntary and the Involuntary, Evanston (Ill): Northwestern University Press, 1966.

[11] The difference is very signifiant : the promise is no more the will or the decision before the language, but through the language, beyond it.

[12] Fallible Man, Chicago : Gateway Editions, 1965.

[13] In English Husserl. An Analysis of His Phenomenology, Evanston (Ill): Northwestern University Press, 1967.

[14] One observation is necessary here : as a rule, in Ricoeur’s thought, the aporias are valorized ; the aporias uncovered by a philosophy (for example, the inability of Husserl to describe an experience that might be considered absolutely originary, preceding all judgement) are, says Ricoeur, to the philosopher’s credit.

[15] Freud and Philosohy: An Essay on Interpretation, New Haven and London : Yale University Press, 1970.

[16] This book by a nonpsychoanalyst produced solid enmities against Ricoeur in the French Freudian establishment dominated largely, at that time, by Jacques Lacan.

[17] The Conflict of Interpretations. Essays in hermeneutics, Evanston (Ill): Northwestern University Press, 1974.

[18] The Symbolism of Evil, Boston : Beacon Press, 1969

[19] Even if Derrida deconstructs the logos–speech of Heidegger by the infinite margin of writing : does Derridean writing render criticism possible? This is an uncertain question, and it is probably not exactly his problem.

[20] See From Text to Action. Hermeneutics 2, Evanston (Ill): Northwestern University Press, 1991. And also Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences. Essays on Language, Action and Interpretation, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1980.

[21] Oneself as Another, Chicago : The University of Chicago Press, 1992. In French, Soi– même comme un autre Paris : Seuil 1990.

[22] In a famous article published in the periodical Esprit in May, 1957, and entitled « The political paradox ». This text was one of my war horses while in high school in 1968–1971 ; there were many classmates who abandonned Marxist perspectives trough this kind of critique, which is also to be found in such authors as Claude Lefort, one of Merleau–Ponty’s disciples, who directed a post–marxist journal in the fifties, called « Socialism or Barbarism ».

[23] See in French Lectures 1 Paris : Seuil 1991, a collection of articles on political philosophy, Eric Weil, Hannah Arendt, Jan Patocka, John Rawls, etc.

[24] In French and German, Liebe und Gerechtigkeit, Amour et Justice, Tübingen : Mohr 1990.