« Paul Ricœur’s Hermeneutics : from Critique to Poetics »

Abstract : Ricoeur underlines the role of language and historical critics, and the poetical performance of the reference. But to make it clearer how Ricoeur orients hermeneutics as critical hermeneutics and redirects it towards poetical herméneutics , I would like to show how those gestures may have their origin in the phenomenological experience. And because the implicit question to which the text responds is not the same question as the one the text open up, the reading and interpreting subject has to lose its initial « naïveté » trough criticism. It is on that condition that poetics can propose something like a  » naïveté seconde« .


Ricoeur is definitely considered as the leader of the French hermeneutic school. And yet he does depart from it in two main instances: the role of language and historical critics, and the poetical performance of the reference. Here I intend to underline both of these specificities. But to make it clearer how Ricoeur orients hermeneutics as critical hermeneutics and redirects it towards poetical herméneutics , I would like to start with where he comes from, why he went over to hermeneutics and how those two gestures may have their origin in the phenomenological experience. It seems important to me as we are here in a place where history of phenomenology matters.

1. Hermeneutics as learning from 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 is how that he translated the text, in minuscule handwritting, in the book’s margins.

This first translation of Husserl will put Ricoeur among the first to introduce phenomenology in France, and it is this « method » he applies to the topic of the will (a geometric crossroads of different themes like subject, choice, but also desire, tragics, or affirmation) directly paralleling 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[1], the difference is that Ricoeur analyses the ethical subject, the subject willing and desiring (le sujet du « vouloir »), the praxis of subjectivity, whereas Merleau-Ponty analyses the theoretical or esthetic subject, the perceiving subject.

1.1. The question of the acting subject:

Why did he meet with phenomenolgy under that angle of the willing, suffering and acting subject? I think it has first to do with of Ricoeur’s formative period in the French university between the two wars, marked by a reflexive neoKantianism in which Descartes and Kant ceaselessly intervene in a central question: what does it mean to be a subject[2]? 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?

But it has also probably to do with the encounter of Existentialist thought, that of Gabriel Marcel, that of Karl Jaspers, to whom Ricoeur devotes his first book ; that of Heidegger as well. And of course the thou ght 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[3]. 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[4].

In other words, that links him to a mode of thought where being is life, as opposed to a mode where being is a thing. What is a being having remained desire[5], tension bearing within itself its own alteration, its own nonbeing? What is a being that is able 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]. This motif may have something to do with the « poetical » orientation of his hermeneutics, and notably with the way he agrees with the phenomenological theme by which there is a point from where the act of the subject must be apprehended in its naïvety, in its capacity to be borne and give birthn, to initiate intiative, and not to be satisfied with reproducing its own conditions of apparition.

1.2. The phenomenological sense of aporia :

How might we characterize the phenomenological experience? What dominates Ricoeur’s thought is the failure to discover an originary experience in which consciousness is presencetoitself. With Ricoeur, this absencetoitself 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?

Besides, there is a remarkable fact: a pure phenomenological reflexion on time and evil would presuppose the experience of pure passivity regarding time and evil, an experience which escaps us. The subject’s activity is always already interfering with his passivity: that is why here, experience becomes narrative.

But this aporia in the quest of a passive predonation layer wich Experience and Jugement sets out is redoubled by the one displayed in Crisis. In his inquiry into the transcendental ego, at the deepest levels of phenomenology, Husserl is led in his Crisis into an impasse : the subject always already belongs to a « Lebenswelt », a lifeworld. By the way, let us note how Ricoeur is always looking out for the limits of any method, and how the impasses themselves are fruitful for true philosophical thinking[7]. Ricoeur says for instance, speaking about witness, and on the topic of the ascription or attribution to oneself of an action:

« As in generally the case with the most intractable aporias, these aporias of ascription do not bring a verdict of condemnation against the philosophy which discovers them. On the contrary, they should be reckoned to its credit ».

And Ricoeur adds in a note :

« Time and Narrative, volume three, is entirely constructed on the relationship between an aporetics of temporality and the retort of a poetics of narrativity »[8].

It is this fundamental aporia which for Ricoeur (as for many other) determines the hermeneutic turning point of phenomenology. Thus he writes:

« As soon as we start thinking, we discover we are already living in and by the means of worlds of representations, idealities, norms. As far as that goes we move in two worlds: the pregiven world which is the other’s limit and ground, and a world of symbols and rules through which the world has already been interpreted when we begin to think »[9].

1.3. The world as interpreted:

So the lifeworld (Lebenswelt) is always already there before any interpretation; but it is also always already given in a languageworld. This ambiguity impossible to overcome requires two quests, one points towards critical hermeneutics and the other towards a poetical reorientation of hermeneutics.

1.3.1. Critical interpretation of the world:

The first requires giving up the attempt at thematization of all that is « precomprehension » in our use of words and things, all sedimented metaphors, dropped off metaphors, all this thickness of prefigurations and schematisms set down by the history and prehistory of our signs and images. We must explain them as far as possible, but none of this can be fully explicited by us, and this is probably where Ricoeur resists to Habermas: there are experiences, questions and convictions that are not open to full explicitation or argument.

One may even ask if this aporia is not transcendental, constitutive: about the critique of ideology, Ricoeur writes that it is:

« impossible for an individual, and even more for a group to formulate everything, thematize everyting, pose everything as an object of thought. It is this impossibility to which I shall return at length in criticizing the idea of total authority. Now it certainly seems that the nontransparence of our cultural codes is a necessary condition of the production of social messages »[10].

In that way, the returnquestionning is an endless took because we are looking for the universality of the pregiven world, when we have no other access to this universal than trough these symbolical network of the worlds of prefiguration and precomprehension. Our universals are always still rooted in languages, stories, metaphors, and the most universal and abstract concepts still bear the trace of metaphors that have helped to produce them.

1.3.2. Poetical interpretation of the world:

Answering the second quest, the metaphorisation which enlivens the sedimental layers is not satisfied with a kind of rhetorical adaptation to common presuppositions or admitted metaphors. Far from being confined to the language of tradition in the figures of already set precomprehension, the live metaphor tries to shake them up, to reshape them; it suspends and reorientates, it refigures the world and recasts the parts, trying to offer a new world where to dwell and act, a world where dwelling and acting would be possible.

The first movement was rather concerned with hermeneutical critics, the second one rather with a poetical reorientation:

« Conversion of imaginary, that is the central aim of poetics, through it, poetics moves the sedimented universe of consensual ideas, the premisses of rhetorical argument. This same break through of the imaginary at the same time shakes the order of persuasion, as it is more a matter of breeding a new conviction than of settling a controversy »[11].

And this is what we find again and again in Time and Narrative with the idea that the reader changes worlds through the confrontation with possible worlds opened up to him by the text: the narrative configuration transforms the prefiguration structures; and this makes possible a refiguration of the world of the reader.

We could even balance what we noted earlier about the metaphoric anchorage of the universal concepts. 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:

« Individualization can be roughly characterized as the process opposite to that of classification, which abolishes singularities at the service of the concept (…) It is because we speak and think by concepts that language must in some sense repair the loss which is consummated by conceptualization »[12].

If, then, metaphor is a live speech devoted to telling residual singularities all that remains unsaid on the edge of language this singularization cannot be isolated from the general structuring of language.

1.4. Variations as interminable detour:

In the preface to The conflict of interpretations, Ricoeur writes:

« My aim here is to explore the paths opened up for contemporary philosophy by what one could call the grafting of the hermeneutical problem onto the pheno menological method ».

In fact, onto each subject taken up will, evil, subject, meaning, metaphor, narrative, history, political thought or ethics, law, etc. Ricoeur grafts several methods, convinced apparently that only a hybrid method can rise to the complexity of the subjects chosen. This metaphor of grafting is quite frequent, and we find the idea that

« This conjunction among phenomenology, linguistics, and analytical philosophy in its least logicalist aspect, provided me with resources for hybridization to which I owe a great deal »[13].

In other words, one can only understand a text, a doctrine, or a theory if one understands them as responses to questions, as Gadamer said, and if one accepts the irreducible diversity of possible questions.

« A hermeneutical philosophy is one which accepts all the demands of this long detour and renounces the dream of a total mediation, at the end of which reflection would enjoy intellectual intuition in the transparence to itself of an absolute subject »[14].

Texts and 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[15]. 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. And the theme of identity of the subject needs to be sought in its variations, as we shall see later.

2. Double orientation of hermeneutics

Having reached that hermeneutical turning point by which we discover that « we appear in the very midst of a conversation already on its way and in which we try and find our own baring so as to contribute when our turn comes »[16], we shall now take up again the two themes we signalled: the one Ricoeur expounds with his « critical hermeneutics » and the other, later one, which we gather up under the title « poetics of a world as interpreted » (poetics of metaphor and narrative, and so on…).

2.1. A critical hermeneutics:

The disparate variety of hermeneutics, of types of interpretations, can be brought together in terms of a simple principle that can be stated as follows: « the meaning of a text is a function of the implicit question it is meant to answer ». I will call this principle the « principle of the implicit question ». The question is so to speak invisible.

But there are two ways to show this « invisible », a long one and an immediate one: the implicit question may be the concrete problem of the context, or the fundational questioning of the human being. So, when we insert this principle of implicit question into the conflict of interpretations, we recognize that all the heavy machinery of hermeneutic theory can be arranged in terms of two quite simple functions: 1) to indicate the distance between our context and that of the text; and 2) at the same time, to indicate that the one who interprets belongs to the same « question » as does the interpreted text.

If the hermeneutics of the implicit question is to find both its rythm and its full scope, it must not mix up these two functions and it must operate between two poles: that of a critical hermeneutics and that of an ontological hermeneutics. These poles correspond to the two ages of hermeneutics as distinguished by Paul Ricoeur: one regionally and epistemologically oriented (as in Schleiermacher and Dilthey), the other more general and ontological (as in Heidegger and Gadamer).

2.1.1. The hermeneutical distance:

According to Ricoeur, the first move hermeneutic thought makes is to say that if our understanding is confused, distorded, this is because certain conditions for communication have not been met. For example, the language is foreign, the culture unknown to us, the age far removed from our own. In this way, hermeneutics was conceived of as consisting essentially in a « critique » of the linguistic and historical conditions for communication. Hermeneutics recognized the distance introduced into understanding by language and by time. It correpondes to a « geographic » sense of this distance.

And the necessity to proceed methodologically corresponds to this distance which is not due to error or weakness, but constitutes the very structure of interpretation as soon as we have to do with the tracks of the absent (written texts, works and monuments, but also dreams and so on)[17]. And he tries to integrate Habermas critique of ideologies into hermeneutic of the communication, so as to be able to spot, and if possible amend, it’s distorsions[18].

But Ricoeur rejects an approach that turns ideological criticism into the path of free and unimpeded communication (Jürgen Habermas). To simplify greatly, Ricoeur reproaches him for neglecting the obstacle or opacity that is imposed upon this communication, 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. Even the critique of traditions has its tradition, in the European Enlightenment. And for instance, how does one prevent the ethics of debate from being reduced to a code of hightoned argumentation ? How does one ensure that debate be such as to allow the participants not to leave their convictions on the doorstep? It is thus necessary to be hermeneutically modest enough to recognize this ontolo gical belonging, and not be too quick to think that one is detached from it.

2.1.2. The hermeneutical belonging:

The second hermeneutical move consists in aknowledging that human beings, considered both individualy and socially, identify themselves and understand themselves as belonging to a single meaningful world (and because they belong to it), even when they may not be aware of this world. There is a hermeneutical relation to the language shaped world that precedes us with its traditions and its writings. In the wake of Husserl, we can say that the thinking and speaking « subject » discovers that he already belongs to this « lifeworld », and that this world is always and already a language. We have pointed out that this radicalization of criticism was probably the occasion for Ricoeur’s resistance to Habermas: we cannot explicit and discuss every thing.

According to Heidegger, to exist is a way of understanding or being understood as in a world that is a way of speaking. Hermeneutics thus belongs to an « ontology » of understanding, where understanding is a way of belonging to the world. Hermeneutics tells us the interpreting subject belongs irreductibly to the world he interprets. This apparently vicious methodological circle (stated in terms of a subjectobject relation) is in fact an unsurpassable ontological structure. The hermeneutical circle is constitutive of all understanding. We must not try to escape this circle, but on the contrary correctly situate ourselves within it, for a « presuposi tionless » interpretation is impossible.

And then, we must also recognize a difference withpost 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[19].

It is this double movement that characterizes what Ricoeur calls hermeneutic criticism, which distances him both from the hermeneutics of HansGeorg Gadamer (Ricoeur would never oppose truth and method, understanding and explanation), and from the critique of ideology of Jürgen Habermas. All this is probably very well known, but it is not very easy to think both the linguistic and historical distance, and the irreducible belonging of the interpreting subject to the lifeworld. One can say that the different kinds of hermeneutics correspond to the different answers to this problem. I think that, for Ricoeur, this equation between distance and belonging determines a tension which should offer the right distance for a perfect reading. Because the reader plays between distance and belonging with the text world.

In The live metaphor Ricoeur speaks of « the work of ressemblance » (or of similarity) through the dissimilar ». And he recalls this formula quoted by Jakobson « Aixo era y no era » (it was thus and it was not thus), a formula that ended Majorcan tales. It expresses very well the same double move and tension between: 1)the ontological vehemence which says that « it was »; 2) the critical distanciation which says that « it was not », both neutralizing the reality as designated by the narrative and thus, opening on the field of possible[20].

2.2. The poetical world:

This first polarity within hermeneutics is made more complex by a second one that we can characterize by drawing upon the difference between the « hermeneutical essays » of Paul Ricoeur. In the first, published under the title of The conflict of interpretations[21], the work has to do with the attempt to find the meaning or truth as that which is hidden « behind » the object of interpretation. The meaning or the truth of a text in some sense precedes the text, and answers the question which produced it.

In the second « hermeneutical essays », published under the title From text to action, to interpret means to imagine a world, or worlds possibly unfolded by the text. The imagination « plays » with this world just as a musician performs a score or a preacher interprets a biblical text. Hermeneutics, therefore, operates in the open space « in front of » the text. It unfolds the possible mode of being to be found in the text. The meaning or the truth of a text comes after it, in the world made by it, and by the work of its reception.

For Ricoeur, the text breaks away from its author’s intention, its original social and cultural setting, and from its original audience as well. That a text can become autonomous in this way is attested to by its depth, its breadth. And a text is able to « open » new spaces in front of itself, other worlds than te world to which it first responded[22]. But this autonomy of the text makes not only the obligation of a methodical distance. It makes also the possibility of opening new meanings, new worlds.

And that keeps Ricoeur from being considered part of the Hermeneutic school: after having been considered the leader of this school in France, he redirected hermeneutics toward a poetics of meaning, of narrative, and so forth. This began with the encounter and first debates with structural semiotics, Claude LeviStrauss of course and Roland Barthes, but particularly A.J.Greimas, the true master of the method in its most essential form[23]. Ricoeur shows, as regards both live metaphor and fictionnal narrative, the suspension of the world of literal reference to the benefit of an opening in the direction of what we can call a metaphorical reference. The place of analytic philosophy in this argument may be outlined.

But this idea of « suspension », or of « neutralization », is probably a modest echo to the phenomenological « epoche », « reduction ». Following Ricoeur, there is already « a relationship between distanciation as hermeneutics have it and epoche as phenomenology has it »[24]; but he also writes « epoche is a virtual event, the fictitious act wich inaugurates the whole game by which we exchange signs angainst things… » (ibid. p.58). What makes the liveliness of a metaphor is the double movement by which a poetical utterance first suspends the ordinary meaning of words, their first descriptive reference so as to open up soon a new space of meaning and of descriptive reference.

In a way we have to do here, à propos the metaphor, with this microphenomenology of Gaston Bachelard in his Poétique de la Rêverie, where each poetical image as read and received by the reader is a kind of microprocess of suspension of the ordinary world and unfolding of the poetical world; it has indeed the capacity to suspend all the semantic, descritive and explanatory sedimentation which makes our knowledges and prejudgements, so as to give us the naïvety and birth of a world yet unheard of. From that image, the reader receives a kind of naïve identity: what Bachelard calls a « poetical cogito », which is near Ricoeur’s « poetical subject ». Here there is something like a posthermeneutic and postcritical phenomenology.

And because we started by reducing the literal reference to the world, we can see that the poetical text does not lack a reference, rather it opens unto a world, it proposes possible worlds for us. Similarly, if narrative can break up our usual temporal framework, if it suspends the present, it does so in order to open another temporality to us, another space. It opens what we could call a quasitime, a quasispace, which are like variations on our world and the opening to another world in front of us. Ricoeur writes:

« What is to be interpreted in a text is a proposal of a world, the project of a world where I could dwell and could project my more personal proper possibles (…) So, reality is metamorposed by the way of what I could call the imaginative variations literature operates on the real »[25].

2.3. The imaginative variations:

The phenomenological method of « eidetic variation », by which one varies the profiles of a thing in order to seize its being or essence, is here taken up again, but reversed: far from searching for an invariable identity, it is in the variations, in the very conflict of interpretations that existence is to be interpreted. It is all as if after a first move of the phenomenological inquiry, by which reduction aimed at establishing invariants through eidetic variations, the same inquiry found as invariant this only interrogation about eidetic invariants. As from this problematicity, this aporetics, the inquiry reroutes itself through the imaginative variations themselves, without an attempt at finding behind them, through elimination, something that might remain identical.

The main idea of Time and Narrative is that identity must be seeked in a narrative but at the same time this narrative is a transformation programme. There is an intrigue because there is rivalry between a number of narrative programmes, or between a number of ways to report about one’s life in an infinite tangle up. Basically, it is time that problematise identity, but the narrative process of identification may retaliate with two answers, with two kinds of identities: there would be an identity same as itself, an idem identity, and there would also be a variable identity which would not be same as itself, an ipse identity. This last one is the one that matters for Ricoeur:

« To tell the identity of an individual or a community, comes to answering this question: who has done such act? who is the agent, the author? this question is first answered when somebody is named, pointed out with a proper name. But what is the support of the permanence of the proper name? (…) The answer can only be narrative. To answer the question « who? », as Hannah Arendt so strongly stated, comes to tell the story of a life. The story that is told names the « who » of the action (…) First narrative identity is not a stable or flawless identity (…) it is always possible to plot different or ever contradictory intrigues about one’s own life (…) So that, narrative identity does not stop doing and undoing itself »[26].

And in Soi-même comme un autre one may say that the overlapping of the studies (about referential or pragmatic semantics, actancial semiotics, narrative identity, ethical aiming, moral rules, practical wisdom, and so on) corresponds to as many answers to the question who, as many variations on the subject.

2.4. The circle of hermeneutics:

Let me summarize our itinerary. On the one hand, if we seek the meaning « behind » the text, this meaning is a function of the implicit question to which the text reponds. As regards critical distance, our inquiry will be directed towards the analysis of historical and linguistic contexts and will seek to uncover the concrete set of implicit questioning that underlies the text. As regards ontological belonging, our interrogation will bear on the most fundamental, originary question, the question to which all the answers belong, by whatever name we may call it.

On the other hand, if we seek the meaning « in front of » the text, the question to which the text responds is not the same question as the one the text open up and to which it refers[27]. As regards a critical stance of the aunonomy of the text, meanings are unfolded when exploring the possible worlds proposed by the poetic structure of the text. The reader stands in the gap between these possibilities. But we can also say that, as regards belonging, the text outlines a form of life, we must say an ethics; and the interpreter understands the text which refers to his own existence: he is responsible for it. Ricoeur writes:

« Subjectivity must be lost as origin, if it has to be found again in a more humble role according to which, far from beginning, the subject has to respond to the proposals of meaning the text unfolds »[28].

That is the reason why imagination makes its way from text to action.

In this way, we have a topology of hermeneuticss that divides into four orientations: critical, ontological, poetic, and ethical. There is a circularity to this topology. This infinite circle, however, is a vital, not a vicious circularity, where we never return to the same point. The reading, interpreting subject is a problematic subject, one that loses its initial « naïveté » trough criticism. It is on that condition that poetics can propose a  » naïveté seconde« , that of an act of approbation.


Olivier Abel

Publié dans Between Suspicion and Sympathy. Paul Ricœur’s Unstable equilibrium, edited byAndezej Wiercinski, the hermeneutic Press, Toronto 2003, p.11-21.

Notes :

[1] A l’école de la phénoménologie, (Paris: Vrin, 1987); for a part of it, see in English Husserl. An Analysis of His Phenomenology, (Evanston (Ill): Northwestern University Press, 1967).

[2] 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).

[3] I would slip into this complex how he read 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 radicalizing) the question of unity of the subject. Indeed any choice encounters a nonchoice, an unconscious, the accident of birth, of corporeal, social and cultural situation. Critical distance of the considered choice meets with 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 existential meaning for us : we will see that Ricoeur wants to show them as inseparable.

[4] In english Freedom and Nature : The Voluntary and the Involuntary (Evanston (Ill): Northwestern University Press, 1966). But it reappers in the theme of promise on which Ricoeur has recently done so much work: and the difference is very signifiant: the promise is no more the will or the decision before language, but through language, beyond it.

[5]  There is no published text on Spinoza, who was however (notably at the Sorbonne until 1966) one of his favorite authors. 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 JeanPaul Sartre.

[6] It is the French title of The Rule of Metaphor. Multi Disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977). Nowhere does one feel the juncture between these two inquiries so much as in Fallible man (Chicago: Gateway Editions, 1965), the second volume of Philosophy of Will in which the analyses of temporality unite the Kantian re flexion on imagination with the Kierkegaardian feeling of finitude in the theme of the fragility of the subject.

[7] As he puts it speaking about LéviStrauss structural analysis, « the awareness of the validity of a method is never separable from the awareness of its limits. It is in order to be fair to this method, and above all in order to let myself be taught by it, that I shall seize it in its movement of extension, beginning from an indisputably valid kernel, rather than to consider it in its final stage, beyond a certain critical point at which, perhaps, it loses the sense of its limits » (In Le Conflit des interpretations, Paris: Seuil, 1969, 34.)

[8] Soi-même comme un autre (Paris Seuil 1990), 118. There is also a possible debate with Nietzsche, about his philosophy of will. If the will to be true is able destroy everything, veil after veil, to reach its goal, and if it discovers that its goal is in fact nothing but this very destruction, the sole way out of the impasse is turning around again and create : to accept that truth itself is poetic. It seems to me that the project of a « poetics of the will », announced by Ricoeur in 1950, responds to this aporia.

[9] « L’originaire et la question-en-retour dans la Crisis de Husserl », in Textes pour Emmanuel Lévinas (Paris: 1980), reprint in A l’école de la phénoménologie, 295.

[10] « Sciences et Idéologie », in Du texte à l’action (Paris Seuil 1986). In Ricoeur contemporary in that matters of Heidegger as a reader of Kant transcendental aporia is found when we reach back from speech and action towards imagination, towards the schematization which is their condition of possibility, and which we know is a hidden art or a « blind spot ». « The transcendental imagination remains an enigma ». The most we can say is that this enigma has to do with temporality. This aporia in which the aporias of the thought of evil and of time converge in those of the imagination is probably at the heart of Ricoeur’s thinking. It is with this aporia as a point of departure that he turns towards a poetics of the imagination.

[11] P.Ricoeur, « Rhétorique, Poétique, Herméneutique », published in De la métaphysique à la rhétorique. A la mémoire de Chaïm Perelman, ed.M.Meyer (Bruxelles: Publications des Facultés Saint Louis, 1987), reprint in Lectures 2, Paris: Seuil, 1992), 487.

[12] Soi-même comme un autre, 40.

[13] Paris : Autrement 1988, n°102, 177.

[14] Du texte à l’action, op.cit. p.32 (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). However, Ricoeur offers a critique in the same style when he denounces, on another front, what he calls the epistemological trap: « A current argument is to say that ideology is a surface discourse which ignores its own real motivations. The argument becomes still more impressive when it opposes the unconscious character of these real motivations to the simply conscious character of the public, official motivations (…). But this elimination of subjectivity in the case of historical agents does not guarantee that the sociologist himor herself has attained a discourse without a subject » (Du texte à l’action, 325).

[15] Ricoeur writes that the coherent figure of the being which we are « is given nowhere else than in this dialectic of interpretations » Le Conflit des Interprétations, 27.

[16] Du texte à l’action, 49.

[17] As Charles Trenet sings it: « Long, long, long, after the poets are gone, their song still go round the streets… ».

[18] Du texte à l’action, 52.

[19] This indeed is what distinguishes Ricoeur from the other French phenomenologists, from Michel Henry, from Emmanuel Lévinas, and even from Jacques Derrida. 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] La métaphore vive, (Paris: Seuil, 1975), 321.

[21] We must outline that this title comes from Kant, with a criticist idea.

[22] Here we encounter a difficulty because for Ricoeur this fact of a text becoming autonomous depends on the difference between speaking and writing. In this way, questions and answer belong to speech, autonomy to writing. The polysemy of words calls for the selective role played by context, where the handling of this context comes down to the interplay of question and answer, which alone is said to be capable of producing univocity relative to a given situation (Ricoeur thus quotes a text where Husserl shows this selective role of circomstances in the definitions of meanings (in TA p.63). But these conditions are not fulfilled with written text. So if hermeneutics requires a specific method, this is due to the fact that « interpretation is our reply to that fundamental distanciation, which constitutes man’s objectifying himself in his works ». In this way, Ricoeur seeks to distance himself from the hermeneutics of HansGeorg Gadamer which takes the oral dialogue of questions and answers, in face to face relations, as the act of genuine communication.

[23] 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 (Soi-même comme un autre, Préface).

[24] Du texte à l’action, 57. And also: « hermeneutical distanciation is to belonging what epoche is to experience in phenomenology » (ibid., 58).


[26] Ricoeur Temps et récit III, Le temps raconté (Paris: Seuil, 1985), 355 and 358.

[27] Cf. P.Ricoeur, « Experience et langage dans le discours religieux », in Paul Ricoeur, L’hermeneutique à l’école de la phenomenologie, 160.

[28] Du texte à l’action p.54.