Paul Ricoeur: Philosophical Anthropology. Writing and Lectures, Volume 3

Michael Maidan

Philosophical Anthropology Book Cover Philosophical Anthropology
Paul Ricoeur. Edited by Johann Michel and Jérôme Porée. Translated by David Pellauer
Polity Press
Paperback €25.53

Reviewed by: Michael Maidan

This volume, much like its two predecessors, gathers Ricoeur’s miscellaneous papers and conferences; and this is all the more true for the French edition, as almost all the papers in this particular volume have already been published in English. The first volume in this collection is dedicated to psychoanalysis, and the second to hermeneutics. Subject matter is what unifies the papers in the first book, while in the case of the second the unity is predicated on the method. As for the third book, unification comes from its object, but what kind of object are we exactly talking about here?

In this publication’s introduction, the scope and limitation of the title chosen for this particular collection is explained as follows. On the one hand, Ricoeur rarely used the expression ‘philosophical anthropology’ to refer to his own work (ix) except in the essay that opens this book: ‘The Antinomy of Human Reality and the Problem of a Philosophical Anthropology’. In his intellectual autobiography, included in the series The Library of the Living Philosophers, Ricoeur refers to the Philosophy of the Will as a project of philosophical anthropology but adds that the program remains unfulfilled (ix-x). On the other hand, the major themes of Ricoeur’s philosophy seem to belong to a philosophical anthropology.

The book is composed of 16 papers, divided into three sections, representing the many stages in Ricoeur’s thought. Within each section, papers are arranged mostly by chronological order, though at times the editors chose to emphasize the thematic to the chronologic. This is the case of the first paper, which was selected as an introduction to the whole, and one of the rare ones to discuss, in an introductory paragraph, the project of a philosophical anthropology (1). Ricoeur’s claim is that there is urgency to the task of a philosophical anthropology because man is being pulled apart into the naturalized form prevalent in the sciences, the metaphysical retreat to ontology (possibly a reference to Heidegger), and the diagnostic of an alienated man in the criticism of modernity (possibly a reference to Marxism and to the theories of alienation). Nevertheless, the paper focuses on one issue, ‘both specific enough and revelatory enough to show what makes it a problem’ (2), the ambivalence in which man finds himself ‘tended between an infinite and a finite pole’. Ricoeur rejects the idea that finitude is the central concept for a philosophical anthropology, and suggests instead the triad ‘finitude-infinitude-intermediary’. Accordingly, we cannot start from something simple, such as perception, but from something double, perception and language, or maybe better, the prephilosohpical richness that exists in language, symbol and myth. But because philosophy can only partially elucidate this richness, a philosophical anthropology is a task that can never be completed (19).

The opening section, on Will, comprises four papers. The first one, on attention —Ricoeur’s first published philosophical work— is a revised and expanded version of a talk he gave in 1940, shortly before joining the army at the wake of WWII, during which he will be imprisoned in a German camp for the rest of the war. This paper is particularly interesting for its exploration of Ricoeur’s relationship to Husserl’s phenomenology, which is mentioned several times. But Ricoeur does not appear, at that time, committed to the phenomenological approach, which coexist with references to other thinkers and schools in the text (Wundt, behaviorism, William James, Gestalt psychology, etc.).

The second paper, on the phenomenology of the voluntary and the involuntary, is contemporaneous with Ricoeur’s doctoral thesis, published as Philosophy of Will, I. The Voluntary and the Involuntary (1950). Ricoeur states that the study of the voluntary and the involuntary moments of consciousness have to be guided by the ideal of the unity of the human person (53). This study has also the intention to address the big philosophical question of the relationship between nature and freedom by proposing a practical mediation between them (54). Ricoeur approaches the problem carefully, sidelining the ontological problem, engaging in a second-order reflexion on the reflexive aspects of the will.

This goes on in two additional papers focusing on the philosophy of Will, marking Ricoeur’s realization of the need to combine the phenomenological approach with an approach inspired by the analytical philosophy of language and with an hermeneutic approach, each having their own domains of legitimacy and justification (73). This is accomplished in the fourth essay in this section, which is devoted again to the relationship between phenomenology and philosophy of language.

The second section, on Action, opens with ‘The symbol Gives Rise to Thought’, which presents Ricoeur’s distinctive philosophical approach. Playing with the multiple meanings of the expression in French, Ricoeur claims that ‘the symbol gives; I do not posit its meaning; it is what gives meaning, but what it gives has to be thought, has to be thought through’ (108). The immediacy represented in the symbol is already mediated in Ricoeur’s approach, as he takes his examples from the domain of the history of religion, psychoanalysis, and poetics (110). This material is further refined in a three staged process, a phenomenological, a hermeneutical and finally, a properly philosophical one. His approach starts with symbols but steers clear of allegorical interpretation (120). Ricoeur explains this point with an example taken from his Fallible Man, published the same year. Ricoeur claims that in order to speak about guilt we need to have recourse to certain symbols (e.g., pollution, deviation, erring, hybris, etc.). According to Ricoeur, these symbols do not add to the original experience of evil, but are the experience of evil. The symbol truly opens and uncovers a domain of experience (121, and philosophy should ‘decipher human beings starting from the symbol of chaos, of intermixture, and of a fall’ (121). In this context Ricoeur refers to Kant’s essay on ‘radical evil’ (a recurring reference in other papers), and refers to his philosophical approach as a form of ‘transcendental deduction’ (122). But the ‘symbolic turn’ does not end at the anthropological and reflexive level. Ricoeur tasks philosophy with the challenge to surpass anthropology, and reintegrate human beings in a totality (123). He does not elaborate about the meaning of such totality, which does seem to point to a religious dimension.

The next two papers in this section, respectively on freedom and myth were written for the Encyclopaedia Universalis, a French offshoot of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. They illustrate Ricoeur’s combination of a philosophy of language and the hermeneutics of symbols.

In ‘The Symbolic Structure of Action’ Ricoeur argues that ‘there is no human action unless it has already been articulated, mediated, and interpreted by symbols’ (176). This is valid not only for social action but also for elementary actions, insofar as singular agents can confer meaning to them. Ricoeur proposes to postpone to a second stage the study of how an individual, a group, or a culture represents the symbolic conditions of its existence (representative symbolism), and to look first at symbolism as constitutive of action. He achieves it by temporarily bracketing the difference between symbol and signification. Signification is analytically present in action, insofar as we understand action as being different from an event. Action refers to intention, motives, agent, i.e., to the language game of action. The next step is to ask what it is exactly that the symbol adds to this signification. Ricoeur lists six features: (1) the term symbol accentuates the public character of the signifying; (2)the symbol introduces us to the structured character of action; (3)the symbol introduces us to the idea of a rule; (4) the symbolic order is ruled-governed, and the rule for rules is exchange, a notion that Ricoeur borrows here from Levy-Strauss; (5) A symbolic system provides a context for the description of particular actions; (6) Finally, we can speak of symbolism as a readability of action. But is it legitimate to speak of the symbolism of action as a discourse? Ricoeur underlines a few potential objections but concludes that, within a certain limit, it is possible speak of a culture as a discourse (186). The second part of the paper focuses on symbolism as representation of action. The problems exposed here concern the ‘representative gap’ between the symbolic order and the order of action. Citing a famous section of Marx and Engels’s German Ideology, Ricoeur suggests that the real problem is not the presumed gap between the material praxis and its imaginary representation, but ‘the passage from constitutive symbolism [in Marx’s text, ‘the language of real life’ MM]…to representative symbolism’, i.e., from one symbolism to another (188). This change does not preclude the existence of a gap between these two symbolisms, which Ricoeur studies briefly in the following sections on narrative fiction and on ideology. Ricoeur concludes his paper with a reflexion on the role of the philosopher in identifying and condemning the hijacking and perverse use of symbolism and discourse for a rhetoric of domination (194)

This section concludes with Ricoeur’s address to the 1988 World Congress of Philosophy. Entitled ‘Human Beings as the Subject of Philosophy’, this paper is probably the closest that Ricoeur comes to offering an account of his philosophical anthropology. This paper follows closely the argument which will be later presented in Oneself as Another, published in 1990.

Ricoeur begins by asking what kind of discourse on human beings is the philosopher’s own. He goes on saying that this restriction of the field reflects the linguistic turn adopted by most contemporary thinkers, but even from there it ‘cannot proceed in a direct…immediate and intuitive fashion’ (195). Rather, we would need to take a number of stages in an itinerary that starts with the almost neutral idea of a person, until we progressively reach the complex determination of the self. Ricoeur suggests here three levels: linguistic, praxeological and ethical. The linguistic level is itself divided into a semantic and a pragmatic level. At the semantic level, we can speak of an individual as just an entity we can refer to (197). It is only at the pragmatic level, a level that takes into account the context of interlocution, that the individual appears not only as something that can be spoken about but also as the one who speaks, as in the illocutionary act. But the self shown in the speech acts is still mired into paradoxes, which cannot be resolved at this level, without involving a form of pre-understanding, similar to the one presented in Husserl and Heidegger’s philosophy. According to Ricoeur, the relationship between the results of analytical philosophy and phenomenology is that of a ‘reciprocal implication’ (201).

The transition between the linguistic and praxeological level is somewhat abrupt. Ricoeur explains: ‘I propose to make concrete the characterization of the person as a self, by tying the notion of a speaking subject to that of an acting and suffering subject’ (201). Human action is action that is spoken about, but action cannot immediately be reduced to the philosophy of language. The theory of action has a certain degree of autonomy. This section concludes with a reaffirmation of the necessary entanglement between phenomenological approach and philosophy of language, already stated at the end of the prior section.

From the theory of action Ricoeur moves to the ethical level in the next section, which centers in the experience of moral imputation. Imputation, a judgment that a person is responsible for the consequences of his or her actions, presupposes not only the linguistic and practical aspects of the self previously accounted for, but also to consider the ‘logical, historical and teleological structure of action’. Ricoeur also refers to the need to elucidate the role of self-evaluation and to account for the potentially conflictual nature of action. Ricoeur ends his exposé with two methodological comments. In the first one, he explains his journey as a cumulative one, as a grafting procedure, whereas the ethical is added to the practical dimensions, as these were previously added to the linguistic ones. In the second one, he offers, in a few lines, a brief but stern defense of philosophy’s role elaborating the presuppositions of any empirical science of man (208).

The third section is composed of Ricoeur’s late papers. The first three focus on Ricoeur’s reworking of the analytical discussion of personal identity. A fourth paper explore a phenomenology of the uncanny, concentrating on the experience of the foreign or Other.. This last paper is followed by a conference talk, presenting a two-fold interest. First, it is one of the rare occasions in which Ricoeur addresses explicitly the question of religion in a philosophical context, as opposed to his many confessional writings; second, it is possibly the first time that Ricoeur uses the notion of the ‘capable man’, appearing first in the subtitle and then as the headline of the essay’s first section.

Ricoeur begins in agreement with the organizers, stating that what constitutes the modern understanding of religion is the shift from ontology to ethics. He goes on considering his contribution as the exploration of a region of human experience, the experience of the capable man, and of the way religion can be said to address this experience. In the short development that follows, Ricoeur presents the discourse of capability as a discourse that precedes the ethical discourse, while intimately bound to the hermeneutic of selfhood. Capability appears as the primary ground, reflecting different types of inabilities or incapacities. It also appears as the presupposition of imputability, defined here as the capacity of an agent to be subject to an imputation, and the capacity of an agent to submit his or her action to the requirement of a symbolic order (271) –the most important aspect of which is an agent’s capacity to place his or her action under the role of justice. Capability is not an ontological trait, but a belief that is more than an opinion (275). This belief coexists with its opposite, disbelief, where Ricoeur now places much of what he placed before under the umbrella of the fallible. Ricoeur then goes on presenting religion in its interaction with man as capable man, though we should note that he does so under the form of the ‘incapable’. Ricoeur lists several points to this interaction: (1) Religion touches man at the level of a specific incapacity; (2) Religion purports to bring help and liberate a buried capacity; (3) Religion brings about this regeneration by specific symbolic means that reawaken fundamental moral capacities (276).

Ricoeur here analyzes over several pages Kant’s notion of a radical evil, reframing the problem of evil from an ontological stance into an anthropological and phenomenological one; rendering evil as a crisis of attestation, one whose origin is inscrutable (286). But even if man is corruptible, there is hope insofar as man possesses also a good will. Here, hope is primarily mediated by religion, a mediation that includes also tensions that may develop between hope and its institutional and symbolic instances. Finally, Ricoeur states, together with Kant, that hope is beyond the alternative of ontology and ethics, it is the ‘opening to a dimension alien to the dichotomy’ (289). Ricoeur’s considerations certainly reflect his deep personal beliefs, but the reader may wonder if he is not inadvertently crossing the fine line between a phenomenology —albeit one instructed by a negative hermeneutics— of religion and theology here.

The epilogue of this compilation is a short text prepared by Ricoeur for the award of the Kluge Prize in 1994. Ricoeur’s paper examines the ‘bases of his humanism’ (290). In the first section Ricoeur describes the notion of capacities while developing a typology of basic capacities: capacity to say, capacity to act, capacity to recount, imputability and promising (291), presented from the morally neutral to the explicit moral pole, in which the capable subject attests to himself or herself as a responsible subject. The second section focuses on the correlative nature of these capabilities, where each of them requires a vis-à-vis. But this correlativity is not immediately mutual, nor is it without conflict, and this introduces the question of the struggle for recognition. In the final section, Ricoeur wonders if the social bond can be established solely in the basis of a ‘struggle for recognition’, or whether is not also based on a prior experience of ‘good will’, based on the resemblance of one person to another, on practices of compromise and of generosity. As it is always the case with Ricoeur, such possibilities are raised and carefully examined, but the question remains unanswered.

The conference talks and articles gathered in this volume offer an overview of the manifold aspects of Ricoeur’s work around the possibility of a philosophical anthropology. But this collection is not a propaedeutic for such a discipline. As stated in the ‘Translator Note’, the main objective of this series is to give the English reader access to Ricoeurs’s important ‘early texts or previously not widely known’. This has certainly been accomplished here.

Published by

Michael Maidan

Independent scholar. Interested in the contemporary continental tradition, with particular emphasis on ethics, social and political philosophy