Matthias Fritsch: Taking Turns with the Earth: Phenomenology, Deconstruction, and Intergenerational Justice

Taking Turns with the Earth: Phenomenology, Deconstruction, and Intergenerational Justice Book Cover Taking Turns with the Earth: Phenomenology, Deconstruction, and Intergenerational Justice
Matthias Fritsch
Stanford University Press
2018
Paperback $27.95
280

Reviewed by: Christopher Black (Texas A&M University)

Introduction

Taking Turns With the Earth offers to the reader a rich and incisive analysis of intergenerational justice, especially as it relates to issues pertaining to the environment.  With intergenerational ethics being relevant to so many issues that we face today, this book offers a timely theoretical analysis of the nature of our obligations to non-contemporary others.

This book makes clear that the theoretical nature of obligations to future generations is fraught and contested terrain, and Fritsch spends a sizable amount of time early in the text outlining the major ontological problems and methods in intergenerational justice (IGJ), of which there are multitudes. At times, especially in the early expository sections, so much theoretical matter is covered in such close succession that it becomes theoretically dense.  The multifarious forms of epistemic problems, interaction problems, world-constitution issues, and nonexistence challenges, and the various responses to each problem almost blur together into one mass.  But if taken slowly and deliberately, this expository portion is tremendously helpful towards understanding the state of the IGJ literature.  Within this section, too, certain portions – such as the discussion of the nonidentity problem (34) and the challenges it raises to common moral concepts such as autonomy and personhood – raise especially powerful challenges to IGJ in general, but also ones that Fritsch ably responds to.  Only after this expository portion do we get to Fritsch’s original contributions to the topic, which include his major claim and two models of intergenerational justice that follow from it.

He responds to the epistemic and ontological problems associated with intergenerational justice by promoting a social ontology that is attuned to what he calls the “ineluctability” of normativity, and which deals directly with “the relations among subjectivity, time, and generations.” Fritsch identifies a basis of normativity which he thinks need be recognized for an ontological account of IGJ to be adequately normatively sensitive. Specifically, he claims that both natality and mortality, or the fact that we are always already living in the time of birth and death, should be considered constitutive of moral subjectivity.  Moral subjectivity is a term which he thinks contains both moral status (being a legitimate object of moral concern) and moral agency (the capacity to freely choose a course of action). This moral subjectivity-constituting view of birth and death – which he expands upon further in chapter two – foregrounds the two models of IGJ which he introduces in chapters three and four, respectively. The first model of IGJ that Fritsch proposes is indirect reciprocity, which he elaborates further into his idea of asymmetrical reciprocity.  This model is meant to capture the role that indebtedness to previous others plays in giving to future others. The model is exemplified as follows: “A gives to B who ‘returns’ the gift to C (so for example, from past to future via the present.” (11) The second model of IGJ – which is outlined in chapter 4 – is the idea of “taking turns.” Fritsch argues this model is more appropriate for holistic or quasi-holistic objects (such as the earth or nature) because such holistic objects cannot be divided up and distributed like a cake. Whereas reciprocity depends upon substitutability, taking turns does not depends upon this principle.  Thus, the latter model is better equipped to deal with holistic, intergenerational, indivisible “objects” in a way that the former is not.

Summary

Now that I have quickly outlined the general structure of book I will undertake a more detailed summary, with an eye towards identifying the way of thinking about IGJ (i.e. the presentist view) that Taking Turns With the Earth resists, and then I will summarize the alternatives models to the presentist view that Fritsch offers in this book. Following that I will offer a few comments about the strengths and weakness of this book.

 The book starts out quickly with a series of salvos directed towards a certain set of people whom Fritsch refers to as “presentists.”  Presentists are those who exist as if they gave “birth to themselves.” Such people believe themselves to be self-standing individuals that are ontologically unrelated to past or future generations. Consequently, and critically, Fritsch (with continual reference to Stephen Gardiner) claims that because of this ontological short-sightedness presentists are subject to a form of “moral corruption.” Such corruption, it seems, is derived from a lack of social-ontological self-awareness, and results in a lack of care or adequate moral concern for noncontempories (both past and future, but especially future). Presentists’ lack of moral concern for noncontempories reveals itself most clearly on issues relating to the climate and non-renewable energy use. It is certainly true that conversations about these topics often reveal that there are many people who simply do not care about the welfare of individuals who will live, say, three or more generations down the line.  (This is the concept of “non-overlapping future people” illustrated on page 21.) The general nature of Fritsch’s indictment of presentism is compelling, and his concerns about intergeneration ethics are well warranted, but I think that it would be helpful if his idea of moral corruption (3) were given more explication, especially as many who participate in “presentist” practices (heavy dependence on fossil fuels by driving daily, for example) probably do so unreflectively or out of sense of perceived necessity.  Fritsch’ concept of moral corruption seems to imply a moral quality more active and malicious than this, though.  Instead, however, the indictment of moral corruption is given as just so.

Fritsch then argues that recently certain issues that are intergenerationally relevant, such as climate change, have come nearer to the center of public consciousness, and in doing so have made the topic of intergenerational justice more approachable. Notwithstanding these shifts in public approachability, he argues that there is still a prevailing – or at least a significant –  mythology of the temporally and historically isolated individual alive today, and he sets it as his task to debunk the myth of this kind of individualism in this book. In the introductory section he seems to come very close to claiming that those who hold to ideals such as individuality or autonomy, or perhaps even those who even believe that individuals exist at all, do not have the capacity to have care-filled relationship with contemporary or noncontemporary others. Surely it is the case that our identities are significantly extended through past and future, but it also seems that individuals are the kinds of being – and perhaps the only kinds of beings – that are capable of the capacity to care, be they a dog, a frog, or a friend. Crowds can’t care, only the individuals in them, at least if we are talking about the kind of care that can turn into moral corruption, not the kind of synergetic “care” that a superorganism (i.e. an ant colony or a coral reef) might be said to have for itself. But, to be clear, it seems that the idea of individuality that he is resisting is an idea of something like the liberal or the neo-liberal self, not an idea of selfhood like Heidegger’s authentic Dasein or Levinas’ other-constituted moral subject, and in the overarching scheme of this book this interpretation seems more sensible.  Indeed, later in the book Fritsch uses Heidegger’s “being-towards-death” as a stepping-stone (45/46) to get towards Levinas’ modified, intergenerationalized interpretation of self: being-for-beyond-my death (l’être-pour-au-delà-da-ma-mort). (67)  Upholding an intergenerational idea of self is critical to moving beyond a presentistic idea of self and, if Fritsch is right about presentism leading to moral corruption, then eschewing a presentistic idea of selfhood should lead us towards a better ontological alternative.  As the title of Chapter 1.4 states: “Ontological Problems Call for Ontological Approaches.”

To make the ontological adjustments that Fritsch argues that we need, the argument of the book turns towards an engagement with Levinas.  Fritsch specifically engages with the intersections of time, normativity, and sociality that can be found in Levinas’ thought.  Levinas offers a way of thinking about death, temporality, sociality, and normativity in a way that is helpful to Fritsch’ project of re-orienting IGJ. Fritsch seems to rely most heavily on Levinas’ thinking about temporality, and for good reason, because – as will soon be shown – this section adds strength to this book’s argument. Fritsch demonstrates that for Levinas death is not an isolating, individualizing event – as the existentialist pathos of Heidegger would have us believe – but that it is instead an inherently interpersonal, historical event.  Levinas agrees with Heidegger that meaning and agency depend of death, but contra Heidegger Levinas maintains that one’s own death is always inaccessible, and that it is only known in and through the experience of others.  For Levinas death is ever futural and never calculable; because of this, it is possible to psychically murder someone, but it is impossible to morally annihilate someone. (76)  Moral traces, vestiges, and memories of the moral other remain in a meaningful order beyond their physical death – even if the body is dead, there is no total annihilation of the other.

Levinas’ argument that a meaningful order exists beyond one’s death and his claim that death is a fundamentally interpersonal event, paired with Levinas’ assessment that our being is always already existing between the “immemorial past” and the infinite future, leads Fritsch towards his development of a model of ethical responsibility based upon Levinas’ idea of fecundity (fecondité).  Taking adequate precautions (86-91), Fritsch uses fecundity to argue that fecundity makes manifest the claim that relations with future people are not an afterthought but, instead, should be thought of as the exemplification of ethics in general. (88) It is the natal-mortal exposure to one’s child that both opens one up to a meaningful sense of time beyond one’s own life-span, but which also simultaneously hearkens back to the past, to previous generations – to those that gave birth to the parents, and the parents’ parents, and so on. At this nexus – in the fecund sense of time between birth and death – moral subjectivity emerges.  This fecund nexus demonstrates to us phenomenologically the kind of temporal being that we are, and also simultaneously infuses both the past and the future with ineluctable moral significance.

At this point, after having argued that we are the kinds of beings that exist as being-for-beyond-my-death and also always in relation to the past, Fritsch begins to turn the argument towards his reciprocity based model of IGJ, which is the first of the two models he proposes in this book.  Section 2.5 (“Intergenerational Reciprocities,” 91) introduces the language of reciprocity by stating: “If subjectivity can give birth to a fecund future only by owing to previous others, then its moral-ontological historicity can be captured by a Janus-faced form of reciprocity that refers both backward and forward.” Despite the wordiness of this passage – a regular trait in this book – the introduction of this concept is well-timed, and through its phenomenological descriptions this section does well to set up the normative argument for indirect reciprocity that Fritsch will soon move to.  But before doing this, and immediately after introducing the idea of reciprocity, Fritsch invokes Butler’s theory of cohabitation –  a theory which argues that Levinas’ distinction between my life and the lives of others is too strong – to gain support in order to help him begin his theory of indirect (or asymmetrical) reciprocity.  This interpretive reworking and clarification is needed because Levinas himself held a strongly negative view of the concept of reciprocity (92), and this caveat does well to demonstrate that Fritsch is well aware of the limitations of using Levinas to support his model  of reciprocity.

After introducing the basic idea of reciprocity in view of the ontological-normative claim that we exist fundamentally as past and future oriented (and constituted) beings, Fritsch expands the concept of reciprocity beyond its traditional mutualistic usage and argues that a tripartite understanding of reciprocity would better serve our ethical purposes.  That is, if we are to understand ourselves, ethically speaking, in terms of the concept of fecundity.  This tripartite usage of the concept of reciprocity a distinguishing factor that makes Fritsch’s model of indirect (asymmetrical) reciprocity distinctive. Indirect reciprocity is called “indirect” because the person that what I may owe is not limited exclusively to the person from whom I initially received something, but also to others. Traditional mutualistic ideas of reciprocity depend on the assumption that morally relevant parties will exist in a shared space of time and that the perspectives of morally relevant parties can be simply reversed.  They also depend upon the idea that the person who deserves reciprocity is the same person as the one who gave the first gift of exchange in the first place. However, Levinasian temporality and fecundity reveals this basic notion of reciprocity to be incomprehensive. Indirect reciprocity is a sense of reciprocity that cannot be distilled into a traditional form of simple, direct, presentist exchange, but instead extends beyond it. (94) This model of reciprocity calls for “giving back” to the future what is received from the past, even though the recipients of the gift are not the same as those who gave the gift in the first place.

Soon after these clarifications – and roughly halfway through the book – Fritsch introduces two major figures in the book: Derrida and Marcel Mauss.  Fritsch uses this middle portion to expound further on the idea of indirect reciprocity. He makes the case that because we are indebted to others from the past this should play a role in our giving to others in the future, even if the “gift” we give to future others is dramatically asymmetrical or altruistic.  Because of this second part, Fritsch argues that the notion of indirect reciprocity should be expanded into what he calls asymmetrical reciprocity. (107) Derrida’s critique of Levinas and The Gift by French sociologist Marcel Mauss figure heavily into this portion.

There are two critical elements to asymmetrical reciprocity that make it asymmetrical, and they form the bedrock of this distinctive way of thinking about IGJ. The traditional formulation of indirect reciprocity states that “(past) A gives to (present) B who ‘returns’ the gift to (future) C.” (108) Fritsch argues that this should be traditional formulation should be elaborated into asymmetrical reciprocity first because “if A’s gift is co-constitutive of B (i.e., is part of what allows B to be B), then B cannot ever fully repay the debt; full appropriation would amount to full self-annulment.  Thus, the gift remains inappropriable, excessive, and asymmetrical for B, who therefore must free herself from the debt in some way.” (108)  According to this argument one cannot fully repay a debt to the original donor without in some way substantially undermining or annulling their identity; the gift, and by extension the repayment, are inextricable from both the donor and the recipient. (Shades of the nonidentity problem appear here.)  The debt can only be repaid – in some way, shape, or form – to future others; other others than those who first gave the gift. The second element of asymmetrical reciprocity takes into consideration the excessive, overflowing characterr of this sort of debt.  Since this form of debt can never be fully returned to the original donor, this form of debt is always outstanding.  Thus, those in the present are always in the process of “giving back” to the future.  Thus, in this idea of continual future-oriented obligations constituting our normative being, we can see how this theory of asymmetrical reciprocity links up with Levinas’ of being as being-for-beyond-my-death.

Marcel Mauss is invoked in order to give a concrete sociocultural example of this sort of asymmetrical reciprocity standing at the center of a community’s ethos. Also Mauss is presumably used to suggest that since this sort of gift-receiving-and-giving can be witnessed in certain archaic cultures, then perhaps it can be used as a model of intergenerational relations for our modern world. In the cultures that Mauss studied the donor is not separable from the thing given, but also at the same time the donor is not taken to be the sole owner of the gift.  Instead the gift is understood to come from the clan, tribe, traditions, and ancestors. The recipient receives some of the donor’s spirit (in Maori hau or mana), and this spirit co-constitutes both donor and recipient. The obligation to reciprocate originates in the fact that in accepting the gift the recipient assimilates into themselves something that is fundamentally inassimilable (the mysterious elemental spirit of the gift), and thus it necessarily overflows them.  Because it overflows, it cannot but be passed on to future others, and in being passed on to the future it is in a sense returning to its own past.  This idea, as we can see, in many ways parallels the Levinasian structure of fecundity.  An ontological claim (that the gift itself is unassimilable) leads to a moral claim (that one should not try to make it theirs alone, but ought to pass it on.)  An example of this kind of gift would be food, for the food in one’s mouth – at least the kind of food that the cultures Mauss studies would eat – bespeaks the presence of ancestors; it would not come about without the gift inheritance of food-related gifts like tilled land, knowledge about farming, hunting, fishing, and so forth. (112) To account for the “return obligation,” that is, the obligation to pass the gift on, the gift is said to be imbued with an active spirit that wishes to return to its origin – to its clan, tribe, tradition, or ancestors. This model of socio-economy stands in marked contrast to the utility-maximizing agency that comprised the bedrock of Hobbes’ society, and indeed “the gift” offers an alternative model for the basis of the social contract.  For Mauss the foundation of society (at least in the one’s he reports on) is the gift that comes from the past and demands to be “returned” to future others.

Derrida is brought in to serve as a check on Mauss.  Derrida warns against Mauss’ “Rousseauist schema” which attempts to find an absolute bedrock of normativity in some far-off archaic origin.  Both Derrida and Mauss agree that there is an element of the “unpossessable” in the gift, but Derrida rejects Mauss’ foundationalism, and resists the idea that a singular normative origin can be found. Fritsch agrees that there is an issue with this sort of Rousseauism in Mauss – and that there is an issue in trying to identify a point of origin in normative life – but does not think it is sufficiently troublesome to motivate us to overlook the role that gifts play in intergenerational relations.  They allow us an opportunity to see a normativity that binds past generations to future generations, and thus are relevant to helping understand the nature of intergeneration normativity. Fritsch spends the rest of this chapter outlining more of Derrida’s thoughts about reciprocity and the gift, and defends his view against a variety of potential critiques.  He responds to the claim that asymmetrical reciprocity blurs the boundary between gift and exchange, and between private life and the world commerce, by suggesting (via Given Time) that this challenge – and challenges like this – presume the existence of utility-maximizing agents on the one hand, and the family one the other, whereas such a substantial distinction cannot be made.  (152).

The nuanced section on asymmetrical reciprocity nicely leads into the introduction of the second and final model of IGJ that Fritsch introduces: Turn-Taking.  While asymmetrical reciprocity is meant to show how the indebtedness to previous generations plays a role in our obligation to give to (and to care about the welfare of) future people, even if the gift is asymmetrical or altruistic, taking turns is meant to provide a model for intergenerational sharing of things that cannot be returned partially or incompletely.  That is, taking turns is concerned with holistic or quasi-holistic “objects” of sharing, such as the earth or nature.  Fritsch argues that there are three merits to the turn-taking model of IGJ. First, turn-taking demonstrates that there are ways other than the reciprocity of the gift that, normatively speaking, take into account the ontological presence of the dead and the unborn in our lives.  Secondly, turn-taking is better with respect to quasi-holistic and holistic object in a way that reciprocity is not, because reciprocity implies owing to the future an “equivalent among substitutables” and needs a “common metric to calculate such equivalents.” (155) Reciprocity is inadequate when discussing holistic objects such as the natural environment, the earth, or nature, because substitutability is not a principle that can easily applied to such totalizing entities. However, turn-taking can account for how to treat such holistic objects. Finally, taking turns better treats questions of intergenerational justice as inherently political questions. By citing Aristotle’s Politics Fritsch argues that this is so because a fundamental model of justice relies on the sharing of nonsubstitutable political offices. Turn-taking, Fritsch argues, is the model that free equals ought to take when attempting to share an object that is not divisible like a cake. (155) Fritsch notes this this basic idea of taking turns has received hardly any attention in the IGJ literature, and – in a very general way – this is surprising since this idea can be applied to a wide range of things, from political offices to the earth itself.  It is a model that provides a helpful way of thinking about IGJ in the context of holistic, indivisible, intergenerational objects, and for this reason it is a needed (and a very helpful) contribution to this book.

In a method not unlike that one found in the portion on asymmetrical reciprocity, which relied on the temporality of the “time of life and death” to reconceive of past-present-future obligations, in this chapter on turn-taking Fritsch invokes Derrida to deconstruct (“depresentify”) presentism, and to reconceptualize life as a matter of “lifedeath,” or even as “lifedeathbirth.” (161) This is meant to aid in understanding the ontologically connected, co-constitutive nature of the relation between living and nonliving generations.

After a few more forays through Derrida and Aristotle, Fritsch turns towards clarifying precisely what he means by turn-taking by laying out his model of “double turn-taking.” It has two components in its most general formulation: T1 and T2.  T1 is the turning of the self back towards itself over time.  “Given the noncoincidence of time, no identity is simply given.  Any self must, from the beginning, seek to return to itself, promising itself to its future self.” The second part of the turn is T2, which takes into account the differential contexts that the self passes through, but which are always constitutive of the self in the first place.  This is the turn toward the other: “To affirm oneself as oneself is to affirm the context without which one could not be what one is, and that means to welcome unconditionally the future to-come as an alterity within itself.” (167)  This two-step model of turn-taking can be applied specifically to intergenerational relations, but also to environment issues.  For the former, intergenerational relations, the attempted self-return would take place in and through birth from previous generations, and the turn towards the other takes place insofar as we turn towards the next generation.  For the latter, the environment, the attempted self-return takes place by the consumption of biospherical resources, and the turn towards the other is the turn towards the earth upon death and also through life’s continuous exchange with nature. (173)

In summary of this discussion of double turn-taking Fritsch says “saying yes to turn-taking means accepting that I receive power from previous others and will leave it to others.” (173)  In general the idea of turn-taking being an appropriate model for intergenerational sharing of holistic objects seems good and well-justified, however the level of theoretical detail and distinction-adding in this chapter seems unnecessary, and at times it seems to obfuscate the main point of turn-taking rather than clarifying it.

Final Comments

This general critique mentioned in the previous paragraph applies throughout this book.  In this book, as hopefully I have able to show in this review, there are many excellent, lucid, and compelling sections.  The early section on ontological problems in IGJ, the middle section on Levinas and fecundity, and the following section on Mauss and asymmetrical reciprocity were each particularly clear, well-argued, and engaging.  However, these rich and rewarding veins of thought are often buried beneath mounds of distinctions, caveats, and repetitions. Sometimes it gets hard to dig through, because the essential matter of the main argument is not always separated from additional theoretical matter. Moreover, the book tends to go on a bit longer than needed and to lose steam at the end. Chapter four – the section which introduces turn-taking as a model of IGJ – gives way to a chapter five.  This final chapter, while fascinating if standing on its own, seems primarily to turn around and rehash ideas previously covered in a way that is not terribly helpful to the overall experience of the book. This chapter concerns itself with life as lifedeath and the terrestrial claim over the corpse, both ideas which were previously covered. At this point I only have a few tiny, almost trifling critiques. First, there is a slight tendency to introduce very complex issues and then to simply say “I will not be able to discuss these interpretations here.” (115, for example) This leads to bit of expectation disappointment. Secondly, there is also a slight tendency to compile lists of “ists” and isms,” sometimes almost seemingly for its own sake. (212, for example.) This is certainly not a big deal, but just worth noting.

If the preponderance of critique that I offer about this book is in the form of writing critique, and anodyne critique at that, then that speaks to the strength of this book as a strong work philosophical scholarship.  Philosophically, I only suggested a concern about Fritsch’s use of “moral corruption” (which I mentioned in my 4th paragraph), and a concern about the idea of “self” that Fritsch is employing (which I mentioned in my 5th paragraph). This book is tremendously well-researched and takes pains to be sure that no theoretical stone goes unturned.  Appropriate sources are consulted at appropriate times, and the limitations of claims are clearly articulated.  More importantly, this book addresses a pressing ethical issue in our world today. What do we owe to future others, especially in view of our growing knowledge about climate issues?  If Fritsch is right, then we owe a lot, and certainly much more than many people take the time to consider that we do.  And we owe this to the future because of who, how, and, perhaps most importantly shown by this book, where we are.  Taking Turns With the Earth offers a vast reservoir of theoretical material to help us re-conceptualize the nature of our ontological and normative relation to both past and future noncontempories, and it demands that we pay attention to our status as interpersonal beings always living in the time of life and death. In doing so it calls for us to develop our ethical self-understanding, and this call is not just thrown out haphazardly.  Instead, this call is motivated and supported by astute philosophical argumentation.

Geoffrey Dierckxsens: Paul Ricœur’s Moral Anthropology

Paul Ricoeur's Moral Anthropology: Singularity, Responsibility, and Justice Book Cover Paul Ricoeur's Moral Anthropology: Singularity, Responsibility, and Justice
Geoffrey Dierckxsens
Lexington Books
2017
Hardback $100.00
266

Reviewed by: Alex de Campos Moura (University of São Paulo)

Ricoeur Between Moral and Anthropology

For researchers and readers accustomed to Ricœur’s thought, the book of Dierckxsens is full of remarkable surprises. Both for those who are habituated to the philosopher of the “word” and of the “poetry”, concerned with reflections about narrative and its multiple dimensions, and for those who are involved with his discussions about hermeneutic, historically and genetically conducted. In this sense, the investigations brought by the author reveal a new and largely unexplored field of Ricoeur’s philosophy.

The book by Geoffrey Dierckxsens, Paul Ricoeur’s moral anthropology: singularity, responsability and justice, undoubtedly brings a considerable contribution to studies in the area. Choosing Ricoeur’s reflection about what is here called his “moral anthropology” as the main theme of his investigation, Dierckxsens’ text is articulated around three main axes, that could be gathered, under the risk of a little extrapolation, as an “ethical” discussion, taken in its largest sense: the concepts of moral, anthropology and hermeneutic.

These three axes, as we will see, offer the author an original perspective to consider the philosopher’s thought, and, at the same time, allow him to propose an extension in the way we understand the recent conflicts faced by current moral discussions, in which they reveal their limits and their contradictions. This possibility is strongly affirmed by Dierckxsens, seeking to establish a cohesive triad where these three elements become inseparable.  The core of his thesis is the defense of this articulation, simultaneously complex and full of deep implications.

Through this preliminary delimitation, beginning with his first descriptions, Dieckxsens sets the context from which he builds his investigation. And here is the first remark to be made to his work: the clarity of the text, a characteristic that immediately appears to the reader. The author, in a careful and accurate construction, structures his text not only with extreme acuity, but also communicating this “architecture” to his readers, outlining its stages and its internal logic. The text systematically presents clear parts and objectives, progressing safely step by step in its main strategies. That accurate construction reveals the author’s full mastery over the direction of his investigation.

This is what can be noticed if we accompany the main center of his work, concentrating on the three main axes mentioned above. The first important observation to comprehend is exactly the idea of a “moral anthropology” itself.  About this, we would like to highlight two points.

The first, and most evident, is the choice of the philosopher who guides the discussion. This issue will be worked in the second part of this review, but it’s important to correctly introduce the theme to enhance some aspects of this option and the peculiar appropriation that it implies.  In a perspective that is now gaining strength, but which is still with a wide horizon remaining to be explored, the Ricoeur we see here is quite different from the one we are most accustomed with, especially considering his inescapable phenomenological accent. It is not that this “tradition” is absent from Dierckxsens’ debate, but his proposal seems to accomplish a certain dislocation, moving Ricoeur’s major themes – like narrative, singularity and alterity – to a new scenery, not one opposite to, but without a doubt different from the traditional comprehension of phenomenological and hermeneutical perspectives.

But where could we situate this new “place” where the philosopher can now be found? The Ricoeur presented by Dierckxsens study is, in many aspects, very close to the analytical philosophy. Yet this “proximity” involves a large spectrum of dimensions. It concerns not only the themes or the general issues here considered, but much more significantly, it refers to a kind of structural affinity that the book intends to reveal. It doesn’t mean, and this is an important strategy implicitly assumed by the author, to seek direct relations of affiliation or influence, but rather to develop a kind of confluence or an intersection zone in which Ricoeur’s thought and the main themes of analytical analysis would find their community.

The proposal is captivating, bringing new horizons to research and debate around Ricoeur’s philosophy. His approach to this strand of thought, despite an increasingly growing number of studies, remains a new zone of investigation, yet to be consolidated. Thus, two important points seem to guide the ongoing research, indeed offering significant prisms under which the philosopher is read in Dierckxsens’ text. On the one hand, we have Ricoeur as proponent of a „moral anthropology“, which, as we shall see, brings a new dimension not only to the notions of singularity, justice, and responsibility, but through them also retraces the understanding of the human condition and its limits of action. On the other hand, exactly because of this reconfiguration, the philosopher appears as someone capable of shedding new light on the current debates of analytical thinking, especially those related to morality and the implications of human performance. In other words, from the recognition of the proximity between Ricoeur and analytical thought, Dierckxsens defends the possibility of a reciprocal re-interpretation.

On the one hand, proximity, and on the other, reciprocal reading, the two prisms which in our view support the perspective assumed by Dierckxsens. Let us address each of them, always remembering the complexity of such a proposal that in principle requires strong mediations and a very careful construction, recognizing the impossibility of reconstructing them entirely here, given the limited space of a review.

An Anthropological Morality

As mentioned above, Dierckxsens clarifies, in an accurate and consistent way, the perspective under which he will develop his reading of Ricoeur. The main proposal is the description and the comprehension of the idea of “moral anthropology.” The subject — and the reunion of these two terms into “one-word”, into one unique concept — is, by itself, neither immediate nor free of difficulties. This observation seems to be shared by the author, as he is, from the start, concerned in carefully delimiting the sense in which this concept is to be understood. This circumscription is necessary since the articulation between morality and anthropology, as well as the possibilities of its effective achievement, remain the subject of intense debate, not only for analytical thought, but, in a larger sense, for contemporary reflection in general.

Full of implications by itself, this proposal gets even more complex, since another step is taken by the author and another term introduced to this “pair”. To the idea of an anthropological morality is added an element that is also intrinsic to Ricoeur’s thought, and also not peacefully comprehended by his researchers: the hermeneutic. According to Dierckxsens’ thesis, the moral anthropology proposed by Ricoeur only achieves its valid meaning when comprehended by a hermeneutical perspective. The question then gains in density and sophistication.

Let the author, then, speak in his own words: “By moral anthropology I understand the philosophical and hermeneutical approach to the ontological conditions of the moral existence of human beings” (VII). And, in the sequence, he complements: “By hermeneutics I mean the theory of the interpretation of concrete lived existence in relation to narratives.” (VII)

Once these axes are set, Dierckxsens is able to place his proposal and its originality in relation to other studies about Ricoeur that could be considered closer to his perspective. Following his delimitation, it’s possible to recognize two main lines of reading, in relation to which his work might be approached, even though without strictly converging with any of them. On the one hand, there is a tradition of studies on the philosopher — notably the most recent ones — that recognize and discuss the centrality of anthropology in his thought[i], dealing mainly with the problem of action and its implications. On the other hand, there is a number of researchers that work with the moral aspects of his philosophy and, simultaneously, propose a comparison between them and the current developments in morality studies, particularly those related to the ethics of care and to feminist theories.[ii]

There would be, therefore, a line of research specially occupied with the anthropology dimension of his reflections and, another, focused particularly on his arguments about morality. In fact, the articulation between these two aspects of his thought is not feasible without solid mediations. This is where an original mark of Dierckxsens’ work is inserted: the meeting of these two elements, not only recognizing them as closely related, but actually treating them as a single concept, in which the sense of morality is established by an anthropological view.

Following the author himself, however, the originality of his perspective only appears completely with the inclusion of the third axis mentioned above, the hermeneutic. According to him, “[…] few works so far examined the significance of Ricoeur’s hermeneutical approach to anthropology in light of contemporary moral theories in analytical philosophy” (VII). In other words, the originality of his proposal would be related to an effort to comprehend how a certain conception of contemporary morality could illuminate the way in which Ricoeur understands the approximation between hermeneutic and anthropology. It allows him to reveal a kind of “organic connection” — to use a term typical from another philosopher, to which Ricoeur also owes a large influence, Merleau-Ponty —, between these two axes, marking not only the originality of the philosopher’s reflection, but also of Dierckxsens’ own investigation. The discussion, then, gets even more focused: the project is to understand how an analytical moral view can shed new light on the philosopher’s thinking.

This makes more explicit the movement we are trying to highlight, accentuating the originality of his investigation. The point, defended by his thesis, is that it is not any moral that can fulfill this function. It is not any general discussion about the strong themes of the political and philosophy that is able to establish such connection to the philosopher’s reflections. The philosophical current most able to serve as a “clarifying” instrument of Ricoeur’s thought, especially in the way it’s presented here, is the analytical one. According to this, understanding the moral anthropology constructed by him demands this passage to a field nowadays mostly occupied by analytical studies.

But then a caveat is required. There would be a kind of one-side view if the author’s analysis were to dwell only on this perspective. There is a counterpart, and that brings some of the most interesting elements to the discussion. On the one hand, the analytical proposal about morality is able to illuminate the philosopher’s reflection, on the other hand, his reflection is capable of shedding new light and new horizons on this analytical thinking itself. In this sense, the importance of Ricoeur, rather than being re-read by this school of thought, is allowed a new understanding of the issues with which it operates, giving it the means to extend its spectrum. In the words of the author:

“This orientation toward reduction in moral invites to reflect on Ricoeur’s moral anthropology, which aims for a more cohesive, metaphysical-ontological account of human actions and responsibility. Whereas theories in analytical philosophy tend to naturalize our understanding of morals, Ricoeur, on the contrary, defends a hermeneutical approach to understanding what it means to be human and to be capable of responsibility and justice by living a concrete existence.” (VIII)

Against a reductionist appeal to the “data” and against a biological or neuro-scientific tendency that has crossed the current discussions on the moral, the philosopher’s thought brings a hermeneutical approach, in charge of understanding what is human and what is its capacity of responsibility and judgment, considering them in a concrete existence. Just as a parenthetical note, we can not fail to mention a similarity of this project assumed by Ricoeur, to a certain direction of contemporaneous thinking, expounded, among others, by Hannah Arendt. Even though in a completely different context, once she deals with a strong conception of politics and does not operate with this articulation between moral and anthropology, here enhanced by Dierckxsens, the problem concerning the human condition, its capacities and its ways to act and judge, is an extremely important issue for her. In fact, we believe the possible convergences between the two authors offer a subject to be thought trough and to be worked on.

Back to our main subject, one of the axes that is widely worked in the book — and that we, also, would like to emphasize as one of its most important contributions — is this idea that Ricoeur’s thought can bring an expansion to the conception of morality, in particular to that developed by analytical thinking, currently the subject of intense debates. The proposal brings these two main movements together, not independent but correlated. On the one hand, to argue that certain conceptions and perspectives present in analytical philosophy can contribute to thinking about the way Ricoeur approaches anthropology and hermeneutics, re-reading his reflection on moral action. And, on the other hand, to understand how Ricoeur allows the amplification of the current debates on morality, bringing new layers to the understanding of human existence. It is to satisfy the “gap” of this perspective in studies about the philosopher — that, even in their closer versions to the Dierckxsens’, oscillate between an approach from analytical theories or from morality, incapable to internally articulate them — that his work presents itself, emphasizing Ricoeur’s moral anthropology as a central and original contribution to the current discussions.

Notably, this becomes clear when we consider the debates in analytical philosophy about moral responsibility and justice. Faced with a kind of reductive tendency present in the most recent discussions, polarized between anthropology and psychology — taken in their more conventional sense —, moral anthropology emerges as an appeal to a more cohesive and inclusive view, inaugurating a new comprehension about justice and responsibility. It is as a refusal of the current “naturalism” that this moral perspective gains greater weight. Instead of explaining morality in terms of mechanical processes or through natural conceptions, the philosopher calls for a unified understanding of human capacities that constitute the ethical and moral life, remembering us that they must be comprehended, first of all, by a hermeneutical interpretation of the narratives and the concrete existence in which human lives take place. In other words, in contrast to mechanistic and naturalistic perspectives, Ricoeur appeals for a hermeneutical approach.

The Structure of the Text

In this movement, in this project of a hermeneutical “re-reading” of moral and anthropology, one notion will be especially mobilized by Dierckxsens to guide his analysis, the idea of singularity. It is based on this concept that he structures the book in three parts. Singularity, he argues, is one of the most adequate concepts to recognize the originality of the philosopher’s thought and its capacity to bring new elements to current moral discussions. The problematization of this notion is the way Dierckxsens finds to achieve a new understanding of the questions concerning responsibility and justice, establishing the three main topics on which the book is organized. Working on these ideas — singularity, justice and responsibility —, the text proposes increasingly closer links between the philosopher and analytical thinking. The internal connection between these elements is, in his view, almost organic:

“The case I will aim to make in the following pages is that the concept of singularity, which lies at the heart of Ricoeur’s moral anthropology, highlights the importance of hermeneutical phenomenology for understanding responsibility and justice in light of analytical moral theories. Singularity is without doubt an important concept in contemporary European philosophy in general, and in Ricoeur’s hermeneutics in particular.” (IX)

According to this perspective, the structure of the book, organized in three parts — ipseity, alterity and “evil and narrative” — establishes a way of discussing the notion of singularity, exploring in each part one of its different meanings. Dierckxsens argues that each step is an explanation of the “place” taken by this concept in Ricoeur’s moral anthropology. At the same time, through this path, it becomes possible for him to describe the meaning of hermeneutics for the notions of responsibility and justice, reconfiguring the general constellation in which they are inserted. This discussion allows the internal articulations between anthropology and the moral to become more evident, supporting his main thesis. Once again, it is important to emphasize the remarkable clarity and the careful organization in which all this argumentation is constructed. The reader can follow, step by step, the progress of the investigation, in an accurate and logical system that leaves little spaces for doubt. Ricoeur’s thought appears, progressively, each time closer to an analytical field.

But it is worth remembering yet another aspect of this proposal, that was mentioned before and that can now be adequately explained: the recognition that it is not only in its objectives that this intersection appears in the text, but, much more organically, in the very way Ricoeur is here read and presented. Unlike several other studies about the philosopher, here he appears as if he were, almost, an analytical thinker, or, if this affirmation sounds too strong, as if his thought could be structured on an analytical basis. The idea the author suggests is that they are not just close, but in some way and more importantly, that they are communing the same main lines, especially the ones here enhanced. Curiously, it seems to us that it is this element that provides more solidity to Dierckxsens’ thesis. The reader has no problem following his path because it seems, throughout all his exposure, that Ricoeur’s approach to this school of thought was drawn from the beginning, somehow inscribed in the philosopher’s writings and works. It is almost as if the philosopher were a precursor of the style of thought with which he would after be confronted.

Corroborate to this, as Dierckxsens reminds us, the philosopher’s own references to this school, variously recalled throughout the book. Yet, though frequent, they do not seem to us the central axis on which this approach can be sustained, nor its most solid point. The reference or the interest — and sometimes even the admiration — of a thinker by an author or by a current of thought, is not in itself capable of sustaining an affiliation or even an approximation in more strict terms. Moreover, such relations are being largely debated nowadays, and the approaches and distances among them are neither wholly clear nor entirely peaceful.

In our view, the strength of Dierckxsens’ work comes precisely from the way Ricoeur is, from the beginning and throughout all the argumentation, presented in terms of analytical thinking. We know that this interpretation is by no means consensual — and we know, at the same time, how this word loses force in philosophy, meditation and endless dialogue born from dissent and exchange. What seems more relevant to us is the recognition, implicit in Dierckxsens’ proposal, of the greatness of Ricoeur’s thought, capable of opening horizons such as the one defended here. As Merleau-Ponty argues in a commentary dedicated to Husserl, in his text The philosopher and his shadow, the greatness of a philosophy lies precisely in the Tradition he is capable of founding. Dierckxsens’ reading testifies, without any doubt, to this power of Ricoeur’s thought. Philosopher’s appropriation by the analytical thought, rather than instituting a divergence of interpretations, should be read as the establishment of one of the multiple dimensions his thought is capable of illuminating and, at the same time, under which it can be illuminated.

Following the author in his central proposal, the philosopher’s reflection allows us to bring new light to current ethical discussions, opening unsuspected horizons to analytical thinking, strained between explanations that place all its bets on the causes, or place them in cognitive processes, leaving aside the dimensions of “affection”, “empathy” and, in more general terms, all the knowledge and all the relations that involve the “other”. Ricoeur, on the contrary, would have been able to construct an ethic of responsibility structured precisely on notions such as affectivity, care, and solitude: “According to Ricoeur, ethical and moral interactions with others are motivated  by affection for others: compassion, conscience, neighbor love, or love for humanity and respect for other persons”.(167)

As we know, these sort of questions, concerning relational fields, alterity and affectivity, have always been essential to Ricoeur. These concepts — and this shouldn’t be forgotten — necessarily brings a phenomenological and existential support to the discussion. And that’s why we mentioned before that the work of Dierckxsens doesn’t properly present an “other” philosopher, but, more specifically, a “different” perspective of him, “dislocated” from his habitual context. Enhancing his greatness, a “unique” Ricoeur is able to bring together different directions of thought, different layers of understanding.

That’s why notions like singularity — without doubt, related to a phenomenological approach — can be here appropriated in moral debates without conflicts or contradictions. If the author operates a peculiar shift toward analytical thinking, inviting us to extend our ethical conception, an idea of singularity that does not exclude otherness will be particularly important for him. If the current discussions of analytical thinking seem to entrench ethic in the regime of a solipsism difficult to escape, Ricoeur’s thought appears as a crevice from which the relation — and all the dimensions brought by it, like affection, care and solitude — are able to figure, allowing us to rethink its limits and its deepest sense.

This is one of the main stakes of this book. And it is here that we rediscover the philosopher whose phenomenological and hermeneutic accents are clearly present, in charge of a reflection on responsibility articulated to the issues of care and relational affectivity inscribed in an existential field. That’s how, beyond approximations, Ricoeur is constructed, simultaneously, as a kind of precursor of analytical thought, and, curiously, as its antithesis or, even deeper, as its antidote, re-discussing and re-opening its frontiers. In this way, the question established by Dierckxsens is more complex than it may appear at first. Is it possible to think of the philosopher in these terms? The book, we saw, defends an affirmative answer, not only supporting the approach itself, but making it internal and organic.

However, sagaciously, at no time does the author refuse any of the other possible currents, or defend one against the others; there is no suggestion of a direct confrontation, which strengthens, once again, his description. That is one of the reasons that makes his work a significant contribution in a debate that concerns not only Ricoeur’s thought, but also his dialogues, exchanges and affiliations. As he implicitly assumes, there isn’t a unique answer to this problem; on the contrary, like we argued above, the strongest point of his work would be precisely the testimony of the openness and the inexhaustibility of Ricoeur’s thought. As the philosopher himself has taught us, the space to comprehend this kind of question should be searched for in some place that does not build walls or divided elements, instituting conflicts and separations, but, on the contrary, one that recognizes a more plastic, open and dialogical field, made of transitions and reversibilities, capable of sustaining the difference, without transforming it into conflict or separation. What is clear, in Dierckxsens’ work, is this recognition of Ricoeur’s strength and appeal towards a stronger, larger and more inclusive ethic[iii]; one solid enough to face the problems brought by contemporary issues. This extended ethical sense is, undoubtedly, one of the greatest teachings of Ricoeur’s philosophy.


[i] Dierckxsens himself enhances some examples: Richard Kearney (Ed.), Paul Ricoeur: The Hermeneutics of Action (London, SAGE, 1996); Jonathan Michel, Paul Ricoeur: une philosophie de l’agir humain (Paris: Cerf, 2006); Todd S. Mei and David Lewin (Eds.), From Ricoeur to Action. The Socio-Political significance of Ricoeur’s Thinking (London and New York: Bloomsburry, 2012).

[ii] The author enhances, particularly, two works: Nathalie Mailard, La vulnérabilité. Une nouvelle catégorie morale ? (Genève: Labor et Fides, 2011); Cyndie Sautereau, “Répondre à la vulnérabilité. Paul Ricoeur et les éthiques du care en dialogue”. Journal for French and Francophone Philosophie/Revue de la philosophie française et de la langue française, 23, n. 1, 2015, 1-20.

[iii] “In that respect, the task of hermeneutics is not so much to search for one universal objective truth about morality, like a blueprint of our ethico-moral constitution, but rather to understand what humans have in common along their differences, through dialogue and interpretation and across their singular lived experiences, in order to understand what motivates their ethical and moral actions.” (73)