I, Me, Mine: Back to Kant, and Back Again by Beatrice Longuenesse presents a comprehensive study on different understandings of the notion of ’I’ through focusing particularly on how ‘I’ is used by Kant in ‘I think’ and comparing it with its usage by Descartes, Wittgenstein, and Sartre. This book presents the provocative claim that Freud is a good candidate for being a descendant of Kant by naturalizing his view of ‘I’. The book consists of three parts. Firstly, the author starts with a comparative analysis of ‘consciousness as a subject’ in Kant, ‘usage of I’ in Wittgenstein and ‘pre-reflective cogito’ in Sartre. Then she moves back to Kant’s understanding of ‘I’ in ‘I think’ and in ‘I ought to’ through his criticism of rationalist ideas on the nature of ‘I’ as a substance, as simple, and as a person. Lastly she presents how Freud’s notions of ‘ego’ and ‘superego’ have similarities to Kant’s ‘I think’ and ‘I ought’ and how Freud can naturalize Kant’s transcendental philosophy.
Longuenesse does not intend to give an historical study but rather aims to present a strong Kantian picture of ‘I’ that is most loyal to him and also strongest in today’s discussions, as the topic fits nicely into the contemporary discussions in philosophy of mind and language. The choice of historical figures in this sense works towards a better understanding of the intended strong Kantian position. In this direction, Descartes’ argument against skepticism for the existence of ‘self’ provides also a foundational starting point for the peculiarity of ‘I’ in ‘I think’ — that we necessarily experience ourselves as a simple substance and as a person with diachronical unity, but we cannot infer these qualities of the ‘I’ as an object as conceived by rationalists. While Wittgenstein’s distinction between ‘use of I as subject’ and ‘use of I as object’ has framed discussions in philosophy of language on self-ascription and the referent of ‘I’, phenomenological ideas like ‘pre-reflective consciousness’ have made a great influence in the philosophy of mind and consciousness in last decades, reviving a move towards One-Level Accounts of Consciousness in contrast to Higher-Order Representational Theories of Consciousness. And Freud’s notions help us to understand Kant’s ‘I’ in his theoretical and practical philosophy in an embedded and embodied context.
In the first part (Chapters 2 and 3), Longuenesse starts by treating self-consciousness as a first-person usage of ‘I’. In this direction, she introduces Wittgenstein’s distinction between two uses of ‘I’: ‘the use as an object’ and ‘the use as subject’. The author then compares this distinction by Wittgenstein with Kant’s distinction between ‘consciousness of oneself as subject’ and ‘consciousness of oneself as object.’ For Wittgenstein, the ‘use of I as object’ is exemplified in cases where you utter sentences like “my arm is broken,” “I have grown six inches,” while the ‘use of I as subject’ is exemplified as you say “I see so and so,” “I think it will rain,” and “I have toothache”. The distinguishing feature of the ‘use of I as a subject’ is that there is no possibility of error, while there is one in the ‘use of I as object’. Shoemaker describes this by saying ‘the use of I as subject’ is “immune to error through misidentification relative to first-person pronoun” and Longuenesse goes along with this description throughout the book while treating Wittgenstein’s notion. Accordingly, even when ‘I’ actually refers to ‘oneself as an object’ and that person later infers that the mentioned subject is identical to himself (as in John Perry’s example where he finds out that the person who is making a mess in the market turns out to be himself), the final criterion for finding out the truth about the statement (person x = ‘I’) is not objective. Rather, “there needs to be a point at which no more search for objective criteria is called for in order to establish the identity between the entity of which the predicate is true, and the believer and speaker of the current thought asserting the predicate to be true.” To establish this, the believer should have a special access to information about herself.
Longuenesse argues that even the ‘use of I as object’ depends on the kind of information that, expressed in a judgment, would ground a ‘use of I as a subject’. So, the question becomes what this ‘I as subject refers to’ (of course if it refers to anything at all; Anscombe argues that it does not, but Longuenesse argues against such a position). Evans thinks that the referent is the embodied entity. Accordingly, self-ascriptions, which are immune to error through misidentification (IEM), “are not limited to mental states but include bodily mental states.” For him, the referent as an embodied entity constitutes the conditions of the possibility for a referential use of ‘I’. He makes use of Kant’s ‘I’ as accompanying all our perceptions, and argues that without such an embodied and embedded referent we end up with at most a formal ‘I think”. It follows that ‘I’ in ‘I think’ represents only “a form of thought and it is not used to refer to any entity at all.” Longuenesse agrees with Evans on emphasizing the role of the embodied entity, while she disagrees that Evans’ claim about the referent of ‘I’ is true, both as a Kantian interpretation and as a claim in itself. According to Longuenesse, it is right only to say that in the lack of information about the properties of the referent of ‘I’, one cannot derive any property ‘I’ refers to. Nevertheless, this does not mean that ‘I’ in ‘I think’ does not refer to any entity at all. This is an important point on which Longuenesse builds the second part of the book where she treats Kant’s criticisms of rationalist claims about the nature of ‘I’. Accordingly, Kant denies that we can infer the properties of the ‘I’ — as being a substance, simple and a person, as claimed by rationalists, while he does not deny that ‘I’ refers to any such entity at all.
Longuenesse thinks that Kant`s distinction between ‘consciousness as a subject’ and ‘consciousness as an object’ does not match Wittgenstein’s distinction. The ‘use of I as a subject’ that grounds all the uses of I (as an object or subject) is better understood through the Kantian notion of ‘transcendental unity of self-consciousness’, which maps only a part of Wittgenstein`s ‘use of I as a subject’ — as in ‘I think’. So one needs to distinguish different uses of I as subject: 1) self-location, 2) self-ascription of bodily predicates, 3) self-ascription of P predicates and 4) the unity of `I’ that grounds `I think’. The fourth kind of self-consciousness on which ‘I think p` rests is presupposed in all other uses of I and is a necessary condition for any use of I and any judgment.
Chapter 3 is devoted to different uses of ‘I’ as a subject, this time from a phenomenological perspective, and continues to investigate its relation to ‘I’ as an embodied entity. Longuenesse makes use of Sartre`s distinction between ‘non-thetic/non-positional’ consciousness and ‘thetic/positional’ consciousness. ‘Non-thetic consciousness’ accompanies all consciousness that is directed to an object, and it is omnipresent, while it is not itself taken as an object (which is the case in thetic consciousness). Thetic consciousness is a reflective kind of consciousness where one`s attention is directed to the non-thetic consciousness. Sartre considers both the awareness of one`s own body (body-for-itself) and awareness of the unity of mental activity (pre-reflective cogito) as forms of non-positional consciousness. Longuenesse makes a comparative analysis between Sartre`s ‘pre-reflective cogito’, Wittgenstein`s ‘use of I as subject’ and Kant`s ‘consciousness of oneself as a subject’. She argues that Sartre`s and Wittgenstein`s notions share the weaknesses vis-a-vis Kant`s notion: Sartre and Wittgenstein defend stronger and broader claims than Kant by aiming to offer an account of the kinds of self-awareness that back all cases of the use of I as subject, but then they fall into a contradictory position. Kant`s position is stronger by presenting a less comprehensive position: it only tries to back the ‘use of I as subject’, which is then considered as a ground for other kinds of uses of I (like of our body).
It is interesting to see a comparison between Kant and Sartre that also includes Wittgenstein, if we consider recent discussions on consciousness in philosophy of mind. Phenomenology has been having an effect on theories of phenomenal consciousness in the last decades, through using ideas by Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Sartre. Dan Zahavi has been one of the pioneers to bring these ideas back to analytical philosophy to argue against representational theories – particularly Higher-Order Representational Theories. An important focus of attack of such phenomenological approaches is David Rosenthal with his classical Higher-Order Thought Theory. He argues that one can explain what-is-like-ness, a subject’s being phenomenally conscious of being in a mental state, through explaining state-consciousness. State-consciousness of a particular state that is directed to the worldly object is explained through a higher-order mental state, which is thought-like in form and makes the first-order mental state conscious by representing it in an immediate and non-inferential manner. Without the presence of such an occurrent Higher-Order Thought (HOT), our first-order mental state is not conscious and there is nothing-it-is-like to undergo that particular mental state. This state has still the property of ‘mentality’ as having a particular qualitative object as its content and this is explained though a theory of mentality, distinct from a theory of consciousness. Dan Zahavi argues against such an approach by using notions from the phenomenological tradition such as ‘mineness’, ‘subjectivity’, ‘first-person perspective’, and ‘pre-reflective consciousness’. The essential idea is that there is always a form of pre-reflective consciousness present in our experience, for which a higher-order representation is not necessary and even destructive to understand that particular phenomenological consciousness, because representation changes the nature of conscious experience by objectifying and thus modifying it. This pre-reflective consciousness makes an experience ‘for-me’, through which I experience the world and of which I am always aware. Thus, this is at the same time a form of self-consciousness: there would not be any form of self-consciousness possible without the minimal, pre-reflective consciousness, and we don’t need to give a different account for self-consciousness by explaining it through meta-representation or reflexivity.
It is important for such a discussion that Longuenesse points to the relation between a Kantian ‘I’ in ‘I think’ as the condition of possibility for any experience and ‘pre-reflective cogito’ as the condition for Cartesian ‘cogito’. But the similarities are not limited to this: both in Sartre and Kant ‘I’ is not an object, the representation of which falls under the concept ‘I think’/cogito, but rather ‘I think’ is “the very expression of the act of thinking.” This emphasis is again important to consider the activity and the subject of activity together. Only by understanding this interrelatedness is it possible to discuss the subject of experience in a proper way, for which phenomenology has had important effect against theories distinguishing between subject and its experience (and which then try to understand how an experience belongs to a self and how the unity of self is constituted through distinct theories), and against views which treat ‘I’ as representation as the outcome of a developed ability of concept usage.
The second part of the book (Chapters 4, 5 and 6) deals with the Cartesian ‘cogito, ergo sum’ and with the question of whether we can infer anything about the nature of ‘I’. Kant accuses «Descartes and his rationalist followers for having been under the illusion that they could derive not only ‘I exist’, but also an answer to the question ‘What am I?’ from the mere consideration of the proposition ‘I think’» (74). Chapter 5 deals with the different reasons Descartes and Kant choose to infer from ‘thinking’ to ‘I think’ rather than ‘it thinks’. Chapters 5 and 6 deal with Kant`s refutations of rationalist arguments that `I’ is i) a substance , ii) simple, and iii) a person (with personal identity across time).
It is illuminating to see in Chapter 4 how far Descartes and Kant agree on the role of ‘I’, while they have different motivations to use ‘I think’ in their arguments. Longuenesse explains how Descartes deals with skeptical doubt and presents ‘I think’ as a foundational solution to it, while Kant responds to a Humean skepticism that is “primarily directed at the objective validity of the idea of causal connection.” According to Kant, for a representation to be possible or to be something to me, it should always be accompanied by the ‘I think’. Kant does not progress from there to “I think cannot be true unless ‘I’ is true”, nor does he infer the nature of ‘I’, but he rather moves to the claim that “all representations I ascribe to myself are so ascribed in virtue of being taken up in one and the same act of bonding and comparing them, an act that is determined according to some universal concepts of the understanding,” and the concept of causal connection is one of these with which Kant primarily deals. The author does a great job comparing the notion of thought and consciousness between these two philosophers in depth that is helpful towards any contemporary theory of consciousness, as lots of theories lack clear distinctions between different kinds of consciousness and how these relate to ‘thought’ and ‘I’. Accordingly, Descartes’ notion of ‘thought’ is broader than Kant’s in terms of including any occurrent mental state, while Kant refers only to conceptual representations, particularly to judgments.
Longuenesse’s categorization of three kinds of consciousness in Kant is useful to compare him with Descartes and Sartre: 1) the mere consciousness of the act of thinking, 2) the indeterminate perception that I think, 3) the empirically determined consciousness of the sequence of one’s mental states. The first one is self-consciousness as consciousness of the pure act of thinking. We cannot represent it as an object and we cannot categorize it. We cannot infer anything about its essence, even if we cognize it as the subject and ground of thinking. This spontaneous consciousness is considered similar to Sartre’s ‘pre-reflective cogito’. The latter kind of consciousness is an empirical intuition, “a mere perception of an act of thinking I take to be mine.” It has ‘time’ as its form and ‘sensation’ as its matter that is constituted of affecting oneself with one’s own act of thinking. This propositional ‘I think’ is located in time in relation to other perceptions but it remains indeterminate in so far as it is not. The third one is a “consciousness of my own existence in time as a thinking being” and here ‘I think’ contains ‘I exist.’ Longuenesse compares this explicit reflection on the sequence of my thoughts with Sartre’s ‘reflective self-consciousness’. The first kind of consciousness provides an immediate consciousness of myself, while the third kind of consciousness plays an important role to refute Descartes’ idealism. Descartes establishes the epistemic certainty of ‘I think’ through the identity between ‘perceiving that one thinks’ and ‘thinking’, and then infers ‘I exist’ from ‘I think’. On the other hand, Kant does not need such a move by considering ‘I think’ as a Cartesian, simple inspection of mind, because his argument is that ‘I think’ just means ‘I exist thinking’. Kant secures our knowledge of ‘I think’ through ‘perceiving that I think’, but he characterizes that perception as an act of self-affection differently from Descartes. So Longuenesse argues that there are more similarities than supposed between Descartes and Kant, while she shows that Kant essentially differs from Descartes by arguing that the consciousness of my thinking that grounds the consciousness of my own existence does not show anything about the nature of ‘I’. From the premise that ‘I think’ includes ‘I exist’, it does not follow the conclusion that “I exist merely as a thinking being distinct from my body.” This entity only refers to the individual currently thinking the proposition in which ‘I’ is used.
Chapter 5 deals with Kant’s argumentation against the ‘Paralogism of Substantiality’ and ‘Paralogism of Simplicity’ – fallacious arguments used by the rationalists towards the nature of ‘I’, respectively, that it is a substance and that it is simple. For Kant, they make use of a middle term, which has a “different meaning in [the] major and minor premise[s].” This is the reason they make syllogistic inferences from the apparently same concept that has in fact two different meanings. Kant aims to analyze these different meanings to show how rationalist arguments are valid in appearance but in fact invalid.
According to Kant’s formulation, the rationalist arguments have a ‘major premise’, a ‘minor premise’ and a ‘conclusion’. In the Paralogism of Substantiality, rationalists refer from the major premise that a subject that cannot be thought of something other than a subject as it cannot be a predicate of something else, and the minor premise that ‘I’ as thinking can only be thought of as a subject and cannot be predicated of something else to the conclusion that ‘I’ as thinking is a substance. However, there is a difference between saying ”I can only think of myself under the concept of substance” and “I am a substance,” where Kant agrees with the former claim and rationalists infer the latter one. For Kant, the minor premise is wrongly constructed to lead to an invalid inference from major premise and minor premise to the conclusion: The “entity thought under the concept ‘I’ is represented as an absolute subject only in a logical sense.” While ‘subject’ in the major premise refers to an absolute subject, ‘subject’ in the minor premise refers to a ‘logical subject’ — the substantiality of the subject is only represented to the subject itself. Hence ‘subject’ (and thus substance) that is used as a middle term by rationalists is actually not a middle term at all. Similarly, in the Paralogism of Simplicity, from the major premise “that something whose action can never be regarded as the concurrence of many acting things, is simple”; and the minor premise that “‘I’, as thinking, am something whose action can never be regarded as the concurrence of many acting things”; the conclusion “So I, as thinking, am simple” is inferred. Again, the concept ‘I’ is only logically simple and the subject thought under the concept ‘I’ is necessarily thought to be simple because “its action is thought to be indivisibly one.” However, the simplicity of the subject of the action is represented only to that subject itself.
Longuenesse infers from these discussions a positive Kantian idea that has found its place in contemporary philosophy of mind in the distinction between the “first-person standpoint and third-person standpoint”. Accordingly, the entity that represents itself under ‘I’ necessarily represents itself as an existing thing (substance), as indivisibly present in all its thoughts (simple), but ‘this first-person standpoint’, however universally indispensable to the act of thinking, tells us nothing about the objective nature of the thing that thinks” (131). That Longuenesse considers this distinction as the positive Kantian idea is valuable when we consider the discussions in contemporary philosophy of mind, epistemology and science on the question whether one should apply a special first-person methodology for a research on consciousness, or whether one can give a scientific and/or reductive explanation of consciousness with a third-person methodology that is used by science and on other philosophical notions.
In Chapter 6, the focus is Kant’s argument against ‘Paralogism of Personality’ — the claim that ‘I’ is a person. For Kant, the rationalist argument has a similar structure, inferring from the major premise that someone conscious of the numerical identity of itself in different times is a person, and the minor premise that ‘I’ as thinking is conscious of the numerical identity of itself in different time, to the conclusion that ‘I’ am a person. Again, Kant accepts the major premise and he is in favor of an idea of person that is diachronically synchronous contrary to the Lockean idea of person whose memory is enough to establish psychological continuity. However, Kant rejects the idea that the consciousness of identity expressed by the use of ‘I’ in ‘I think’ is sufficient to infer that I am, as an existing entity, a person. Longuenesse sums up this issue nicely as follows:
So the paradox of ‘I’ is this: ‘I’, as used in ‘I think, refers to an existing thinking, known by the I-user (the thinker) to exist, in virtue of the fact that the I-user, in each instance of thinking knows herself to exist. ‘I’, as used in ‘I think’, is even the only purely intellectual concept that does give access to an existing thinking. But if, from the way we think of ourselves in using ‘I’ in ‘I’ think, we infer there is an object that we take to be, as a thinking thing, a substance, simple, and numerically identical through time, then we make a mistake: that object is a fiction. The error of the rationalist metaphysician (the error of Kant himself in his pre-critical incarnation) is to insist that on the basis of the thought ‘I’ think we have sufficient ground to assert that the fictitious object of that representation is transcendentally real: real in itself. The mere thought ‘I think’ in fact provides no such ground (164).
What is especially different in the discussion about personality is that Kant enriches the concept of personality by focusing on moral personality in addition to psychological personality. Moral personality is dependent on two components: i) “being an empirically determined, persisting entity, conscious of its own numerical identity through time, and ii) having the capacity to prescribe the moral to oneself, as the principle under which one’s maxims are determined.” Without an understanding of moral personality, it is not possible to comprehend Kant’s criticism of Syllogism of Personality and also his full picture of ‘I’ in general. This notion also relates previous discussions in the book to Longuenesse’s important final claim in the last part (Chapters 7 and 8) that Freud can be considered in a sense a descendant of Kant, if we consider the parallels between Kant’s ‘I’ in ‘I think’ with Freud’s ‘ego’, and Kant’s ‘I ought to’ with ‘superego’. Kant’s ‘I’ in ‘I’ think, as the concept of ‘unity of apperception’, is an organization of mental processes governed by logical rules. This is a formal condition and Kant is known to assign this capacity “to an unknown and unknowable transcendental subject” (175). Kant’s methodology is clearly not empirical and the discussion is part of his transcendental philosophy, which constitutes a clear polarity to Freud’s empirical investigation and causal-developmental account of the capacity to think in the first person. Despite the differences, Longuenesse argues that we can see important similarities between them, and Freud can naturalize Kant’s transcendental subject.
The author considers the similarities under four points: Firstly, Kant’s ‘I’ in ‘I think’ (‘I’ as discursive thinking) has its counterpart in Freud’s ego. Kant’s ‘logical use of the understanding’ is similar to Freud’s ‘reality principle’. Ego functions in line with the ‘law of secondary processes’ according to this principle and it can conflict with ‘id’ and the ‘laws of primary processes’. “Intuitions are brought under concepts and then combined in judgments and inferences according to logical rules.” So, the differentiations Freud makes between ‘id’ and ‘Ego’; ‘laws of primary processes’ and ‘secondary processes’; ‘consciousness as an immediate quality of mental states’ and ‘consciousness as the property of mental states’ (whose content obeys the rules of the ego) can be compared to the distinctions Kant makes between different kinds of consciousness (as discussed in Chapter 5). The nature and function of ‘ego’ is parallel to the second notion of consciousness in Kant, “according to which I am conscious of a representation if it is taken up in the unity of consciousness that makes objective representation and thinking possible.” Secondly, there are parallels between Kant’s ‘synthesis of imagination’ and Freud’s perceptual images that are organized according to the rules of ego. Just as in Kant the discursive expression of the unity of consciousness in concepts and judgments presupposes a “prediscursive activity of combination or synthesis performed by the imagination,” in Freud perceptual images and representations of imagination are subject to the rule of the ego, and if they are pre-conscious, these images can become conscious only if they are associated with words. Thirdly, Kant and Freud have parallel views on the mental activities of which we are generally not conscious. For Kant, there is no thought without language and intuitions are blind if they are not subsumed under concepts. In Freud, “access to words is the way a representation enters the realm of reason and level-headedness.” Kant emphasizes that qualitative or intentional consciousness of the working of our imagination is blind (not conscious), while Freud also argues that “the complex operations that go on in our minds are mostly unconscious.” Fourthly, it is necessary for Kant that ‘I’ is represented as an object in the world. The transcendental unity of apperception gets information of the body via the sensory information carried by a bodily state. Freud also argues that “the ego is first and foremost a bodily ego” and thus the emphasis on embodiment of ‘I’ in Kant and ‘ego’ in Freud is again parallel.
Freud’s naturalization of ego makes use of ‘second nature’ as the developmental account he presents on the occurrence of ego happens in a social context. This structure that includes the social aspects of this developmental process is understood through his notion of ’super-ego’ (ego-ideal). This is in accordance with the notion of ‘I’ in Kant’s ‘I ought to’ and his account of ‘personality’ that includes a moral self (as dealt in Chapter 6). The argument on this similarity between Kant and Freud has the same structure: just as we can give a causal-development account of Kant’s ‘I’ in ‘I think’ through Freud’s ‘Ego’, we can do the same of ‘I ought to’ through Freud’s ‘super-ego’, which “can be seen as providing a developmental story for the conflicted structure of mental life that grounds, according to Kant, the use of ‘I’ in the moral ‘I ought to’” (226). Freud considers Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’ as the direct heir of ‘Oedipus complex’ — as an unconditional normative constraint on the ego. Freud explains the practice of reason-giving and justification as characteristic of a developed ego, and gives a causal history of the idea of categorical imperative through the development of ideas from eigtheenth-century rationalistic philosophy. More than that, just as Kant considers the manifestation of moral attitude primarily through a feeling of respect, there is also a moral feeling at work in Freud’s picture on “curbing libido and aggression,” which he calls the “supra-personal side of human nature” (221). Another point is that in both pictures we have blindness to one’s real motives. Even if this blindness is to be treated in different ways, there is one thing in common: Freud’s ‘unconscious’ and Kant’s ‘motivated blindness’ both refer to our lack of knowledge of our real motives for performing an action, even in cases when we believe we acted upon a universal maxim. Lastly, the relation between ego and body is comparable to the way Kant indexes transcendental unity of apperception to a particular body.
After showing the similarities and differences, Longuenesse ends up with the claim that Freud gives us a naturalized account of Kant’s picture of ‘I’: firstly, in Freud we do not need to refer to an unknown and unknowable transcendental subject to explain ‘I’ in ‘I think’ and ‘I ought to’. Secondly, a developmental history is presented to our capacity to settle norms of cognition and practical agency. Thirdly, second nature is naturalized. The contents of our norms are constituted by the internalization of parental figures and (through language) by the social and symbolic tools, rather than by our relation to nature. All of these parallel points present us a path to understand a non-transcendental subject through relating bodily and transcendental self in an empirical way, while also doing justice to a Kantian, broad understanding of ‘I’ by including psychological and moral self under the study of self.
Longuenesse’s book does not only provide us with a deeper and enriched understanding of Kant’s understanding of ‘I’, but it is also packed with many insightful ideas about how we can relate different notions of various philosophers from different paradigms and disciplines. She fills in the gaps within the history of philosophy to get a better understanding of contrary positions both within a particular time-period and across time, and traces back many important distinctions and ideas in contemporary philosophy of mind to Kant. This is a special source for anyone working in Kant for sure, but other than that it will also be an invaluable source for philosophers of mind and language and epistemologists who work in any aspect of self and consciousness such as phenomenal consciousness, phenomenology of our experience, the nature of self, first-person perspective, unity of self, first-person usage of ‘I’, personal identity, agency and moral self, and ego. I believe it will lead to further analysis of Kant under the auspices of such contemporary discussions, and it will motivate further comparisons between Kant and other historical figures. Most importantly, her treatment of Kant through Freud’s ego and superego opens up a new dimension of discussion, and as her argumentation has a deep and solid structure, it is not easy for anyone working in philosophy of mind and ethics to stay unresponsive to this provocative and thought-provoking comparative analysis.
The title of this anthology (originally published in 1981 and including eleven studies published in the 70’s) hints at the prospect of expanding our knowledge of human affairs in light of a general theory of textual interpretation (“hermeneutics). The more immediate purpose of these essays, however, consists in the articulation of the basic motivations for considering the “method” of the human sciences (sciences de l’esprit) as hermeneutical without renouncing their status as sciences. Indeed, according to Paul Ricœur, the psychological, social and historical disciplines constitute not so much a potential application of hermeneutics as its proper domain — hermeneutics being conceived by the French author as the “theory of the fixation of life expressions by writing” (even if, originally, it was confined to the field of biblical exegesis). At the same time, many of the essays in this collection are not merely concerned with methodological and epistemological questions. By reflecting on the nature and paradigmatic features of textual interpretation, Ricœur was engaged in the project of exploring the “subjectivity” which at once presides over and results from action as well as text-interpretation.
As Ricœur explains in his response to John Thompson’s illuminating introduction, his own hermeneutical turn, in the second volume of his first major project on the will (especially The Symbolism of Evil) was at least partially motivated by the desire to overcome a “disturbing gap” between “the essential structures of the volitional consciousness” (the subject of his first two books, Freedom and Nature and Fallible Man), and “the historical or empirical condition of the human will, prisoner of the passions and prone to evil.” That is to say, Ricœur’s interest in interpretation (of symbols and, later, of “all phenomena to a textual order”) was initially motivated by his identification and critical engagement with the tradition of “reflective philosophy” (or philosophy of reflection) – as developed by Descartes, Kant, and Husserl – which “seeks to disclose authentic subjectivity through a reflection upon the means whereby existence can be understood.”
Accordingly, and since a detailed summation would require more words than the present review can offer, I shall focus here on the way in which these essays reflect the development of Ricœur’s understanding of subjectivity. This emphasis is also justified by the fact that the anthology constitutes an important transition to Ricœur’s later studies of selfhood and narrativity. I will focus primarily, although by no means exclusively, on one essay (arguably the most significant) from each of the three parts in which the collection is organized: “Phenomenology and Hermeneutics,” regarded by Ricœur as “the real introduction” to his subsequent work; “Appropriation,” which appeared for the first time in this collection; and “The Model of the Text: Meaningful Action Considered as a Text,” which was originally written in English and represents the most immediately relevant essay to the anthology’s topic. As Ricœur points out, “the basic analogy between text and action is the key to the relation between the theory of interpretation and the social sciences.”
In his preface to this edition, Charles Taylor writes that the similarity between “text interpretation” and “making sense” of action, as it is entailed by the dialectic between explanation and understanding, is also reflected by the “impossibility of claiming closure” in both domains. “No matter how convincing our present reading, it is always possible that someone could propose a better one. And the same applies to human action in history.” Ricœur’s overall project in these essays, as I read them, consists in showing that while all interpretation (the very means by which subjectivity can be realized as well as disclosed) entails the impossibility of “absolute knowledge,” the inherent openness of the interpretative process —its irreducible distance from its own ideal fulfillment — is at the same time the positive condition for pursuing a “science” of human life.
- The Central Discovery of Phenomenology
Ricœur was a Husserlian phenomenologist well before his involvement with Gadamer’s work and philosophical hermeneutics. Indeed, such an interest emerged from his realization that, insofar as all “intuition” entails “explication” (explicitation) — a coincidence which Husserl “perceived” without being able to “draw all its consequences” — “phenomenology can be realised only as hermeneutics.” At the same time, the inescapable character of explication — the fact that nothing at all can be intuited, grasped or experienced without being somehow articulated or “interpreted” in the most basic sense of this word — is itself explained by the “universality of intentionality” — the idea that, since all consciousness is consciousness of an object, “no consciousness is self-consciousness before being consciousness of something towards which it surpasses itself.” Thus, if phenomenology can only be realized as hermeneutics, it is only because intentionality, our being “outside” of ourselves “towards meaning,” is the (phenomenological) presupposition of all forms of understanding.
In particular, according to Ricœur, it is “the reference of the linguistic order back to the structure of experience” which constitutes “the most important phenomenological presupposition of hermeneutics.” Indeed, “when the latter subordinates lingual experience to the whole of our aesthetic and historical experience, it continues, on the level of the human sciences, the movement initiated by Husserl on the plane of perceptive experience.” But if experience is always already “structured” or articulated, we cannot confuse it with any sort of “ineffable immediacy;” rather, “Lebenswelt” must be understood as “the surplus of sense in living experience” which “renders the objectifying and explanatory attitudes possible.” This is why Ricœur eventually moved away from an idealistic phenomenology of “foundations” toward a speculative philosophy of ontological manifestation. As he puts it, “the concept of manifestation of a world, around which all other hermeneutical concepts are organised, is closer to the idea of the ‘self-presentation’ of the true, following the preface to The Phenomenology of Mind, than to the Husserlian idea of constitution.”
- Belonging, Distanciation, Appropriation
This triad constitutes the core of Ricœur’s conception of interpretation. Belonging — “the hermeneutical experience itself” — represents the positive counterpart of the experience of finitude which is entailed by the discovery of intentionality. If we cannot become conscious of ourselves without explicating features of a world in which we are already implicated, it follows that such a worldly engagement “comes before any constitution of the object by a sovereign subject.” Belonging expresses, in this sense, the Heideggerian concept of being-in-the-world, hence the “primacy of care over the gaze,” or, more precisely, the “priority of the ontological category of the Dasein which we are over the epistemological and psychological category of the subject which posits itself.”
Up to this point, Ricœur was commenting upon aspects of Heidegger and Gadamer’s hermeneutical thought. His novel contribution consists in the way he tried to overcome what he saw as the “central problem of hermeneutics,” implied in the “epistemological specificity” of interpretation: the fact that interpreting a text appears as a radically different process than, for example, explaining a natural phenomenon, as Dilthey and others had already pointed out. What makes this difference particularly problematic is that interpretation, unlike explanation, seems to involve a circularity whose hypothetical viciousness would affect the validity of its results. If the “human sciences” as a whole are hermeneutical in their method, it might be the case that, after all, no scientific knowledge of human affair could ever be attained.
According to Ricœur, both Heidegger and Gadamer partially supported this conclusion for the sake of preserving the specificity of philosophical, historical, and other forms of “human” understanding. This move, however, depended upon accepting, without questioning any of it, an opposition between “alienating distanciation”, allegedly produced by scientific explanation (alienating because it abstracts from our concrete experience of being-in-the-world) and the “participatory belonging” which is the constant presupposition of all interpretation. In light of this antinomy — which, according to Ricœur, is “the mainspring of Gadamer’s work,” as attested by the very title of his major book (Truth and Method) — all forms of objectification entail some level of falsification of the experience they intend to describe and explain.
By contrast, Ricœur wants to think of “distanciation” (or objectification) as a “moment” of belonging. To be clear, he did not intend to deny that the natural and human sciences are concerned with different “regions” of reality. His point was rather that, if we pay attention to the “paradigm of writing” and its counterpart, reading, distanciation ceases to be a merely necessary but problematic dimension of understanding — necessary because all signification requires interrupting our “lived experience in order to signify it;” problematic because thereby the problem emerges how not to distort experience in the very act of signifying it. And it ceases to be problematic because it now appears as having a “positive and productive function at the heart of the historicity of human experience.” In this respect, as Gadamer himself perceived (“without perhaps giving it the emphasis which it deserves”), “mediation by the text is the model of a distanciation which would not be simply alienating… The text is, par excellence, the basis for communication in and through distance.”
Of course, distance here doesn’t merely refer to the temporal distance of texts and other text-like monuments from the past, but also to that “positive distancing” which, on the one hand, “establishes the autonomy of the text with respect to its author, its situation, and its original addressee” and, on the other and, projects “a new being-in-the-world … freed from the false evidences of everyday reality.” With respect to the latter, Ricœur suggests that the “non-ostensive reference” or “matter” of the text, as he often calls it, can be understood or “rendered near only in and through” the distance generated by the “imaginative variations” which the text “carries out on the real.” Thus, in the last essay of the collection (“The Narrative Function”), Ricœur argues that this dialectic between the alien and the familiar “places history in the neighborhood of fiction.” Similarly, after recalling Benedetto Croce’s claim that there is only a history of the present, he suggests to modify it as follows: “there is only a history of the potentialities of the present. History, in this sense, explores the field of ‘imaginative’ variations which surround the present and the real that we take for granted in everyday life. Such is the way in which history, precisely because it seeks to be objective, partakes of fiction.”
The “consubstantiality” between belonging and (positive) distanciation has two important implications. First, as we have already seen, “there is no need to search, under the title ‘sphere of belonging’, for some sort of brute experience which would be preserved at the heart of my experience of culture, but rather for an antecedent which is never given in itself.” I belong to this or that tradition, or undergo a given experience, always according to a certain modality of participation or engagement, under a certain description or respect, and from the perspective generated by certain interests. “In spite of its intuitive kernel, this experience remains an interpretation. ‘My own too is discovered by explication and gets its original meaning by virtue thereof’,” as Husserl himself wrote. Second, insofar as understanding a text involves a final act of “appropriation” (the act of rendering near what is far), interpretation can no longer be understood as a projection into the text of the reader’s prejudices. This is because the act of appropriation is dialectally related to the experience of distanciation (of the matter of the text from the reality of our habitus) whereby, “as reader, I find myself only by losing myself.”
But how is this possible? “How can this letting-go, this relinquishment, be incorporated into appropriation?” How can it be anything more than a temporary distraction from which we must eventually recover in order to ascertain, from the perspective of our own interests and concerns, what the text means (to us)? In order to answer this question, Ricœur links the act of appropriation “to the revelatory power of the text which we have described as its referential dimension. It is in allowing itself to be carried off towards the reference of the text that the ego divests itself of itself.” Here as elsewhere, Ricœur makes clear that it is not a matter of compromising between objective meaning and personal subjectivity, but of showing how they are reciprocally generated. “The notion of subject must be submitted to a critique parallel to that which the theory of metaphor exercises on the notion of object. In fact, it is the same philosophical error which must be understood from both extremities: objectivity as confronting the subject, the subject as reigning over objectivity.”
Consequently, as writing carries out imaginative variations on the real, “reading introduces me into the imaginative variations of the ego” (Ricœur goes so far as to say that “it is the text, with its universal power of unveiling, which gives a self to the ego”). Indeed, “the metamorphosis of the world in play is also the playful metamorphosis of the ego.” And since the later “implies a moment of distanciation in the relation of self to itself … understanding is as much disappropriation as appropriation.”
- Text as Paradigm of Action
One of the most interesting aspects of this anthology is Ricœur’s attempt to find a concept of interpretation which could explain the foregoing experience of reading, in which a text seems to have intentions or “injunctions” of its own, independent of its author, and capable of engendering self-transformation through the imaginative variations it induces of the reader’s world and ego. A text, in this sense, is not only the embodiment of the author’s intentions, but a semi-autonomous source of potential meaning. If “to interpret is to follow the path of thought opened up by the text” — to comply with its injunctions — our concept of interpretation as a subjective act on the text must be replaced by, or combined with, an understanding of it as an objective act of the text itself (upon the reader). In this respect, Ricœur’s appeal to Aristotle’s On Interpretation and, above all, to Charles Peirce’s semiotics, become central to his argument.
Unfortunately, Ricœur’s engagement with Peirce’s work does not go beyond a superficial assessment and appears to be mostly informed by secondary sources. At the same time, he does capture a quite crucial point of Peirce’s concept of interpretation: its “synechistic” nature, namely the continuous, non-extrinsic character of the relationship between (to use Ricœur ’s terminology) “tradition” — what a text or other forms of discourse signify (tradit) — and “interpretation” — what it evokes in the mind of the interpreter. “According to Peirce, the relation of a ‘sign’ to an ‘object’ is such that another relation, that between ‘interpretant’ and ‘sign’, can be grafted onto the first.” We have here another expression of the consubstantiality between belonging and distanciation, in that a sign can signify or “belong” to an object only by determining a further sign (the interpretant). For instance, the word “chair” can only signify a chair by evoking an image of it, which is course another sign. Yet this irreducible “distance” of any sign from its object is a necessary condition for understanding it. A sign incapable of generating a further interpretant of its object would be as incomprehensible as a sign without any object whatsoever — it would indeed be meaningless.
Accordingly, the above mentioned continuity between tradition and interpretation does not entail the kind of deductive closure one might expect from it. Paradoxically, the more one enters into the actual meaning of a text, the more her insights are “open” to interpretation, not only in the sense of being revisable, but also in the positive sense of being intellectually fecund, capable of generating new ways of being read, articulated and developed (the Gospel’s notoriously enigmatic phrase might be illuminating in this context: “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath [Matthew 13:12, KJV]). Ricœur clarifies this point by citing Gilles-Gaston Granger: “The sign-interpretant association, realised by whatever psychological processes, is rendered possible only by the community [continuity], more or less imperfect, of an experience between speaker and hearer,” or text and reader. But this experience “can never be perfectly reduced to the idea or object of the sign,” that is, to an immediate or “brute” notion of belonging. “Whence the indefinite [open] character of Peirce’s series of interpretants.”
We finally come across Ricœur’s argument concerning the analogy between text and action. “My claim is that action itself, action as meaningful, may become an object of science, without losing its character of meaningfulness, through a kind of objectification similar to the fixation which occurs in writing” — a fixation in virtue of which, as we have seen above, “the author’s intention and the meaning of the text cease to coincide.” But how can the same dissociation take place with action? Doesn’t an action by definition require the contemporaneous presence of an agent? Isn’t here a deeper subjective irreducibility than in the case of the text? For instance, while a text can indeed become relatively independent of the original writer’s intentions, the action of writing cannot in the same way be dissociated from the agent’s intention to write.
And yet, as Ricœur insists, unless human behavior can be “fixated” or objectified without losing its significant (intentional) character — unless “the expressions of life undergo a kind of objectification” — it won’t be suitable to become an object of scientific inquiry. This is because inquiry always requires its object to be inscribed in “external marks,” in the same way in which a discourse must be written down in order be not only practically understood but also theoretically analyzed. And if it is indeed impossible for the meaning of “action events” to be inscribed, a scientific understanding of human affairs could only amount to explaining away their original significance as a subjective phenomenon (as it happens with reductive explanations of action in terms of biological and neural concepts). This phenomenon, in turn, could only be understood or interpreted in a “romantic” sense of the term, namely, in virtue of our “pretension of recovering, by congenial coincidence, the genius of the author.” This is why there might be a genuine antinomy between understanding and explanation.
On the other hand, as Ricœur points out, action does sometime appear to dissociate itself from the agent’s intentions without losing its meaningful character. That is the case of actions which, as we sometime put it, leave “traces” or “marks” — not only because they have consequences (this is true of all actions), but also insofar as their importance goes beyond their relevance to the initial situation, even if only by embodying general features (such as “desirability characters”) which may be made the object of subsequent practical reflection. Accordingly, “could we not say that the process of arguing linked to the explanation of action by its motives unfolds a kind of plurivocity which makes action similar to a text?” Thus an action-event, like a speech-act, entails “a similar dialectic between its temporal status as an appearing and disappearing event, and its logical status as having such-and-such identifiable meaning or ‘sense-content’.” On this point, I believe Ricœur’s work might benefit by an even deeper interaction with “analytic” theories of agency — an interaction he continued to pursue in his subsequent work (see especially Oneself as Another).
“But if the ‘sense-content’ is what makes possible the ‘inscription’ of the action-event… what corresponds to writing in the field of action?” In other words, how can an action become “detached from its agent” and develop “consequences of its own”? Ricœur’s answer to this question echoes the above seen concept of interpretation as an essentially open and communal process. If the inscription of discourse has a spatial dimension, it is in “social time” that the “autonomization” of action occurs. And social time, Ricœur points out, “is not only something which flees; it is also the place of durable effects, of persisting patterns. An action leaves a ‘trace’, it makes its ‘mark’ when it contributes to the emergence of such patterns which become the documents of human action.” The objectification of meaningful behavior is essentially social, and it is social in virtue of the temporal dimension of all human interactions, in which certain actions and events come to be seen as weighing more than others, and their effects are consequently more lasting and pervasive (however less discernible and thus more easily discardable).
But in order for the effect of an action to last, its capacity to be recollected is not enough. It must, on the contrary, be developed into persisting and increasingly complex patterns of behavior, so as to transcend its original address and situation. In order for an action to become important (worthy of being recollected, registered, celebrated, questioned, interrogated, institutionalized, etc.), it must be capable, like a text, of opening up a “world” whose relevance “exceeds … the social conditions of its production and may be re-enacted in new social contexts. Its importance is its durable relevance and, in some cases, its omni-temporal relevance.”
This is only the skeleton of Ricœur’s answer to the question about the nature of “truth” in the human sciences. The essays of the third part, in particular, articulate the implications of the foregoing remarks for critical theory, psychoanalysis, and history. Most importantly, the anthology as a whole reflects Ricœur’s commitment to show how a philosophy of reflection can become “concrete” without renouncing its “scientific” aspirations. It can do that by pursuing, at all levels of analysis, the dialectical relation between freedom and necessity, distanciation and belonging, method and tradition, fiction and history or, from another perspective, critique and ideology. Thus, one the one hand, “all objectifying knowledge about our position in society, in a social class, in a cultural tradition and in history is preceded by a relation of belonging upon which we can never entirely reflect.” On the other hand, the impossibility of “complete reflection” is but an expression of that “potentiality of meaning” which it is our fundamental responsibility to “appropriate” by giving up our dominant world-interpretations for the sake of their impending explications.