A theologian once told me that philosophy and theology are two approaches that have the same object of knowledge, truth, but they come toward it from different directions due to their respective natures. According to him, philosophers stretch their hands toward heaven, playing with their fingers in the sky. On the contrary, theologians stretch their hands from heaven toward the earth. Coming from two different places, the fingers of philosophers and theologians become intertwined. Brian A. Butcher’s volume, Liturgical Theology after Schmemann. An Orthodox Reading of Paul Ricoeur, takes place on the stage of this encounter, bringing into dialogue Orthodox theology and contemporary philosophical problems.
Such an endeavor, while truly needed, always proves to be difficult, primarily because one needs to explain the benefits of this encounter between philosophy and theology. Does liturgical theology benefit from philosophical work? Do we understand a philosopher’s ideas better if we apply them to the study of the liturgy? The answers to these questions bring to surface both the virtue and the inherent problems of Butcher’s volume. On the one hand, his work is a remarkable excursion into Paul Ricoeur’s work, which emphasizes themes that remain at the core of theology: personhood, memory, symbol, and interpretation. On the other hand, it is difficult to establish whether we are dealing with a work in liturgical theology or one of philosophical exegesis. The double nature of the work is suggested by the two parts of the title: first, the impression is that we are dealing with a book that discusses the future of liturgical theology after Alexander Schmemann’s work; second, we are told that the author focuses mainly on an Orthodox interpretation of Paul Ricoeur’s philosophy.
Be that as it may, the connection between Ricoeur’s philosophy and theology is an appropriate one. Even if Ricoeur ‘s work referred to the liturgy only tangentially, as Butcher’s acknowledges, his analyses of memory, symbol, metaphor, or personal and communal identities “offer liturgical theology a plethora of resources” (2). I take it, though, that this work of bringing together Ricoeur and liturgical theology generates a question: whether the use of these philosophical resources improves theology, or whether it shows that philosophical methods and theological methods may arrive at similar conclusions. Butcher’s book does not engage this question directly, and this leads to some lack of clarity as to how it should be read. It takes as its starting point liturgical theology as developed by Alexander Schmemann. One should not expect, however, that Butcher writes in the vein of Schmemann. In fact, Butcher criticizes him and his alleged claim that, throughout history, it is not the liturgy that has changed, but its interpretation. Butcher is in accord with various critiques of Schmemann which accuse him of rejecting prior interpretations of the liturgy because they are interpretations instead of revelations of meaning, while he, Schmemann, does not acknowledge that his work is an interpretation as well. I think, however, that Schmemann’s claim that we have departed from the liturgy is interpreted too radically by them, which has led to a misunderstanding of his work. I take it that Schmemann starts from the idea that we can find the meaning of the liturgy in the experience of the service itself. His critique was directed toward those who, in his perspective, considered the liturgy a symbol removed from that which it symbolizes. For him, however, liturgy is similar to an icon: it does not represent reality, but rather it makes reality present. If I am correct in assessing his approach, we can say that Schmemann advocated for a partaking of truth in the analysis of the liturgy and criticized what he perceived a discussion of the liturgy as a mere symbol.
Butcher departs from Schmemann and is more interested in finding a philosophical methodology that is applicable to theology. After the initial critique of Schmemann’s thought, he engages it only in passing, focusing rather on Ricoeur’s hermeneutical approach found in his philosophy, and thus analyzing how his methods of studying a text can be applied in liturgical theology.
The first obvious concern is the appropriateness of using Western philosophical tools for Eastern theological discourses, and Butcher engages this problem in his first chapter, arguing successfully for his approach. He emphasizes that Ricoeur’s work has already borne fruit in some Western theologians’ analyses of the liturgy. He believes that Ricoeur’s work can enrich the field of theology because the French philosopher shows that the nature of symbolism, “liturgical or otherwise, [is] to engender nolens-volens a multiplicity of meanings” (15). Butcher continues, “this is so because symbols, particularly as represented verbally through the work of metaphor, do not merely adorn a meaning equally accessible in a nonsymbolic, or nonmetaphorical manner. Instead, they give rise ex opera operato, so to speak, to original thinking, to a creative redescription of the world” (15). This attribute of Ricoeur’s approach can lead us, Butcher believes, to a liturgical theology that goes beyond that of Schmemann. The author’s perspective is well described by the quote I just mentioned and it shows the difference between his and Schmemann’s views. Butcher follows Ricoeurian thought, and so he begins from the perspective that symbols are meant to produce a creative redescription of the world. Schmemann is not interested in descriptions, but rather in how symbols bring in people’s presence the reality of the Kingdom. He should not be read as claiming that symbols have only one valid interpretation, but that any interpretation is irrelevant in the absence of communion between man and the deeper reality that the symbol brings forward. For Schmemann, I would argue, symbols do not interpret reality, but rather allow us to commune with it.
The two approaches are not contradictory, and we would be mistaken in placing them in opposition. Instead, they approach the same thing from different directions, as in the image with philosophers and theologians stretching their hands towards the sky. Nevertheless, I think that clarifying the difference between the two of them would be helpful. This is particularly so in the second part of Butcher’s volume (chapters 3 and 4). Here, the author analyzes the role of the metaphor in religious language. First, Butcher offers a convincing description of Ricoeur’s application of metaphor to the biblical text, emphasizing the polyphonic naming of God. God, for Ricoeur, becomes a limit-expression, “i.e., an expression that cannot be fully thought specifically because it dwells at the frontier of thinking” (73). Butcher dwells on this idea and develops elegantly the directions in which it can go, pointing to the perennial question of what kind of truth can be expressed in a metaphorical utterance. In the fourth, the author continues this approach, providing a rich discussion on metaphor.
When analyzing Biblical texts, one must always clarify how one understands the connection between that which is expressed and the expression itself. Butcher points out that Ricoeur’s analysis of metaphor is useful because the Bible speaks of events that are ineffable. The question is whether language can foster a connection between these events and the one who reads about them. Butcher gives the example of the Incarnation (92). If it is completely ineffable (92), then there are no accounts of it. “But if ineffability does not altogether preclude description (and, in turn, inscription) then the resultant texts—whether treating of the Incarnation or the Shoah—ought to be duly subject to analyses in keeping with their genre” (92-93). But one may allow for the possibility that we can look at these “descriptions” not as representations of some events, but rather as openings toward them. If we apply this to the liturgy or to sacred texts, then we could claim that the liturgy or these texts can be understood as places that make present the Kingdom of God on earth. Butcher does not travel on this path, though. It is true, however, that the effort of these pages is concentrated on clarifying Ricoeur’s thought and defending it against accusations that his view on metaphor (1) ignores “the uniqueness of the events attested in Scripture,” (2) subverts “the due authority of the Bible by making this authority a function of the believing community,” and (3) subscribes “to a perilously subjectivist notion of biblical ‘truth’” (91).
Butcher rejects this criticism (proposed by Graham Ward and others), emphasizing primarily that Ricoeur is not a subjectivist. Consider, for example, the claim that Ricoeur’s philosophy entails that the authority of the Bible is subordinated to the believing community. As a consequence, the community takes precedence over the sacred text. Still, even in a Ricoeurian analysis, one may say that the Bible has precedence even if, at the same time, the Bible must be read within a community, and this is because the community is the one that receives the revelation, and not because the community, as an entity different than an individual member of the community, tells him or her how to read the Bible.
Butcher, however, says that, “because Ricoeur appreciates the historical process by which the Bible was produced and canonized, he is reluctant to speak of its authority apart from the community integral to this process” (93). The possible implication of this is still that the community establishes what is true and not true in the Bible. The solution arrives in Ricoeur’s claim that “metaphor by its very nature points to the unsayable” (101). If this is the case, then even if the sacred text points to the unsayable, it does so within a specific community, and thus it depends on the community while it is connected with a truth beyond it.
The discussion on whether it is possible to meaningfully say something on Divine Being is not new. The question has often been raised, in theological as well as philosophical discourses. In philosophy, it becomes this: is it possible to have logos about the Logos? Is it possible to ever understand the deep structure of reality? Is it possible to ever reach an understanding of God?[i] Butcher moves immediately to the difference between the kataphatic and the apophatic ways. It may prove helpful to also consider a distinction between studying as observers and studying as participants. The observers contemplate their object of study and give more or less complete definitions of it. The participants cannot distinguish themselves from the object of study because there is no such object to begin with, but rather only relation in communion. Consider this example: if we were to claim that our role is to understand the divine being in Trinity and thus offer definitions of what nature and personhood are and how these definitions can be applicable to the three divine persons, then we place ourselves in the positions of researchers who study an event (again, using the notion loosely) from the outside. Similarly, those who study the song of birds describe the various sounds they make, the sequence of the sounds, the movements, the relations between them, but are never able to sing with them. The birds themselves do not “understand” the Song—they are in the middle of it; they are living it. They have it in their hearts. The birds’ song is not their Song, but it is the Song that is sung in them on different voices. The Song takes place in their midst only when they are coming together with their own voices. But one can see here that the Song is both the beginning, the source of their singing, and also the end. The Song is that which nourishes them and that which is expressed in their communion. The Song is that which lives each one of them—the Lord in their hearts. At that moment, the personal logos is nothing else than the glorification of the Logos, its joyful expression. In the tradition of someone like Vladimir Lossky (to whom Butcher will refer in the third part of his work), Orthodox theology has this precise aim: to glorify the Trinity in the union between the “knower” and Divine Being.
If Orthodox theology contemplates the divine being, this contemplation cannot be done from the outside, but from the inside. This means that the contemplation of the Trinity is not analysis of it, but its glorification: the birds sing not their song, but rather the Logos of the universe. Vladimir Lossky says that Christian apophaticism transforms rational speculation into “a contemplation of the mystery of the Trinity” (50). The negative way of apophatic knowledge cannot be, though, only this, a negative way. If it is understood as a method, apophaticism inscribes itself in a list of methods from which one may choose in one’s attempt to achieve knowledge. In some respect, apophatic knowledge stems precisely from a preference for a way of approaching knowledge. However, if it is to be Christian, apophaticism begins in love. Contemplation of the divine stems from the thirst for being, if I may use Mircea Eliade’s phrase (64). If we consider the example with the birds, contemplation of their Song stems from the thirst for this Song which awaits its birth in them.
In fact, any time we approach metaphor and truth, we are also called to give an account of knowledge, and Butcher does exactly that in various parts of the book. In Chapter 6, he shows that the notion of truth at work in the liturgy “constitutes just that kind of truth eligible for the designation ‘attestation’” (138) that we have in Ricoeur. Attestation is not knowledge in the sense of episteme, but neither is it belief in the sense of doxa, in the sense of opinion that has no given justification. Attestation goes beyond these categories—it does not lack justification in the sense that justification is not applicable to it. As Ricoeur proposes, “attestation belongs to the grammar of ‘I believe in’” (see Butcher 138), and so it corresponds to testimony—I would even say to glorification. Butcher reminds us of Ricoeur’s important discussion about the one who engages in attestation, the witness. In “The Hermeneutics of Testimony,” the French philosopher shows that the agent of attestation is the figure of the martyr. Butcher cites Ricoeur saying, “Testimony is also the engagement of a pure heart and an engagement to the death” (Ricoeur, Essays in Biblical Interpretation, see Butcher 141). Ricoeur’s observation is remarkable and it engenders a discussion about the recognition that takes place in the liturgy, which, according to Butcher, is best seen in the exchange of gifts, the moment of the kiss of peace. There are various aspects that Butcher mentions here, and I think they can be furthered developed. First, the exchange of peace takes place between persons who recognize each other as witnesses by the very fact of participating in the liturgy. At the same time, the exchange is personal: it is performed with someone who maintains his ipse-identity, different than mine, and different than any other person’s, and thus making the exchange unrepeatable. This idea correctly leads the author to mentioning Emmanuel Levinas’s notion of face, which, as he says, reveals the otherness of the other (147). But Butcher rejects too hastily that it is possible to behold this “Levinasian” face because, “all that is unveiled, as with Moses on Mt. Sinai, is the shekinah or glory of the Lord—and this from behind” (147). I think, however, that in a liturgical context, the one who is revealed—and the one to whom people also give testimony—is the ultimate Other, Christ. One can also find scriptural textual support in Jesus’ own words, in John 14:7: “If you had known me, you would know my Father as well. From now on you know Him and have seen Him.” Since Jesus proclaims that he himself is the truth, as Butcher reminds us, perhaps one could find here even more reasons to point to attestation. The one who testifies to Christ in the liturgy, the ultimate Other revealed in the face of any other, testifies also implicitly to the Father, the one whose shadow was seen from behind on Mount Sinai.
The third part of the book is the strongest and most germinal. It focuses primarily on self-identity and how Ricoeur’s notions of self apply to the interpretation of the liturgy. There are two reasons for its germinal nature. On the one hand, the text abounds in information, and the author has some powerful intuitions. He proposes that Ricoeur’s analysis of memory can “chasten the hubris of a facile historicism” (151), such as the one proposed by Michael Aune, who believes that liturgical theologians would have to focus more on historical research. Calling on Vladimir Lossky’s discussion of the Church’s tradition as holy memory to support his thesis, the author reminds us of Lossky’s view of Mary’s life “as the paradigm of anamnesis” (160). However, while Butcher agrees that a historical approach may “yield a wealth of insights” (160), he also shows that this cannot “replace the qualitatively different, existential engagement with the past that is memory; the past as lived from within” (160). In doing so, he places himself in the tradition of a Lossky or a Schmemann, and he does so by summoning Ricoeur to his defense: “According to Ricoeur, the former [the “objective” historical approach] depends in great measure upon the latter [subjective memory]” (160).
On the other hand, the text abounds in questions that need further elucidation. The author has a habit of proposing interesting avenues by asking questions that suggest an answer already formed in the author’s mind. But the connections the readers should make between what is stated and what is implied are not always that evident, and are in need of a deeper analysis. For example, on page 163, at the end of the section, “The Crisis of Testimony: Experiences ‘At the Limits,’” the author asks two questions. He begins, “Do not ‘incredulity and the will to forget’ threaten the memory of the magnolia Dei that Christian worship attempts to preserve through a manifold deployment of poetic and aesthetic resources?” Then, after just a few lines, another question ends the section: “Does not this dichotomy impel the very mutation and multiplication of forms of worship to which liturgical history bears witness, while also occasioning the atavism within this same history of iconoclastic (and fundamentalist) movements—as well as the perennial presence of mystical currents eschewing corporate prayer altogether in favor of silence and solitude?” (163). Both questions purport to be rhetorical, and asking such questions seems to belong to the author’s style. Nevertheless, their frequency throughout the book can be frustrating.
The final section focuses on the Great Blessing of the Waters, the liturgical service that is best suited to a Ricoeurian analysis. Indeed, while one may say that a liturgy is the revelation of the body of Christ, the Church, that is formed in the coming together of worshippers, the Great Blessing of the Waters has a revelation at another level as well: it is the moment when, according to Tradition, the Trinity is revealed. Both God the Father and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove attest and witness to Jesus’ divinity. To my mind, this service can provide the occasion for an analysis of human work of attestation in the likeness of the divine self-attestation, but Butcher does not go in this direction.
Butcher’s volume is a tour de force, in which the author exhibits a wide awareness of the scholarly work in liturgical theology and Ricoeurian studies. While I believe that it leaves certain aspects not fully developed, focusing, perhaps, too much on a description of various responses to Ricoeur’s work instead of deepening the analysis of the ideas that the author proposes, it certainly emphasizes the need for an increase in dialogue between contemporary philosophical work and theological studies.
Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Orlando: Harcourt, 1987.
Lossky, Vladimir. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997.
[i] I acknowledge that, taken separately, each of these questions can be understood differently in its own right. At the same time, the use of Logos is quite liberal; I do not imply here Christ, but rather the Logos used in ancient philosophy, the one of Heraclitus, which one may not utter, but may hear behind the various particular utterings of people.
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)
The “Social Imaginaries” series from Rowman and Littlefield International aims to publish important works on this and related concepts “from theoretical, comparative, historical, and interdisciplinary perspectives” and with an “international, multi-regional and interdisciplinary scope.”[i] The present volume focuses more narrowly on thinkers its editors see as having provided the basis for philosophical discussions of productive imagination, specifically the continental tradition following Kant (vii). This focus is not meant to be exclusive but rather supportive of diversity and further original inquiries (xii). With this goal in mind, the volume indeed offers eight helpful, well-researched essays; and we may hope that this strong foundation will spark future studies meeting the more global aspirations above.
This review will outline what I see as the central arguments of each of the essays. My goals are to reveal the broader lines of their interconnected narrative and then to indicate a few potentially fruitful avenues for future research suggested by the volume.
One of the volume’s most sweeping essays is its first one, Dmitri Nikulin’s “What is Productive Imagination?” Nikulin situates the modern concept of imagination within the grand history of Western ideas, from the Greeks to German idealism. Aristotle’s imagination, defined as the capacity to have an “apparition of a thing in the absence of that thing,” plays a central role in this narrative (3). Even so, Nikulin notes that Aristotle leaves the imagination’s powers dependent on prior perceptions, and thus his view contrasts with the Kantian imagination’s potential apriority and spontaneity (4). Nevertheless, even for Kant imagination remains doubly dependent: it is bound to sensibility insofar it must offer presentations within the predefined formats of spatial and temporal intuitions; and it is bound to understanding insofar as it constructs figures or schemata within the constraints of the a priori categories (4-5). If the former constraint links Kant to Aristotle, the latter reveals some similarity to Proclus, for whom the imagination adapts the intelligible, Platonic forms to finite thinking (6). In either sense, however, Kant’s imagination, even in his aesthetics, ultimately serves to harmonize other faculties: understanding and the senses. Thus, its spontaneity is always contained by rational norms and the receptive capacities of the subject; it has no completely independent status (11).
Even so, the imagination has a strong grip over us precisely because it can actively overlook its essential dependency. Thus, Nikulin speaks of the imagination as having a “negative” power to deny its sources (14). In this respect, imagination’s supposed originality must be hedged: “imagination imagines that it produces something new” (14, my emphasis). It creates a pretention to positive creativity, even though it is really a “radical negativity” (14). This pretension appeared dangerous to Kant, whose arguments restricted even creative genius to the mere exemplification of rules; absolute creativity he reserved for the idea of God (14).[ii] As later thinkers tried increasingly to free imagination from this Kantian dependency, they steadily severed its link with experience and thus lost the vital relationship between imagination and memory (19).
Two questions come to mind in light of Nikulin’s compelling conceptual history. First, its caution against severing the link with memory is related to Nikulin’s broader point that imagination somehow renders “non-being” (i.e. what does not presently exist) present for us. In Nikulin’s account, however, “non-being” carries the significance of the past, the has-been, or the no-longer (20). In this sense, the question of the imagination’s relation to hope and to futural “non-being” could be raised. I will return to this avenue later, as it is suggested by other contributors.
Second, Nikulin’s stage-setting essay displays the broadly European focus of the volume, with few references beyond that scope. Additional avenues thus appear for research on non-European conceptions of imagination or its analogues. Likewise, within the broader canon, future research could explore the medieval adaptation of the Aristotelian phantasm, and especially its history in Islamic thought. For even the European reception of Aristotle and Proclus is heavily mediated through the Islamic tradition (e.g. al-Kindī on prophecy and dreams; Ibn Sīnā’s explicit distinction of estimation from imagination and his widespread use of imaginal thought experiments; Ibn Tufail’s use of fictional narrative; Ibn Arabi’s “nondelimited imagination”; and so on).
Kant’s importance in the history of productive imagination is of course clear as well, and Alfredo Ferrarin’s essay defends the importance of Kant’s liberation of imagination from its previous role of copying contingent events of sensibility. Imagination now “moves about idealizations and conjectures formulated in deliberately counterintuitive ways, transforms things into possibilities until we establish an invariant core, and plans experiments to verify conjectures” (33). Its emergence in philosophy is thus linked historically with the emergence of the scientific method (32). This link likewise explains why Ferrarin warns us not to confuse Kant’s scientific “productive imagination” with the truly social-ethical “practical imagination,” which is only hinted at in Kant. The practical imagination aims not at understanding objects but at instituting practical end-goals. In the latter we find no “split between independent reality and likeness” as we do in the former (38). (Ferrarin mentions cases such as the constantly reinstituted social meanings of, e.g., bank notes, temples, marriage, and traffic rules.) In general, Ferrarin emphasizes that the practical imagination enables us to grasp alternative practical possibilities; it reveals “the gap between being and possibility, fact and ideal, real and possible” (38). Thus, imagination is necessary for a social critique capable of proposing new norms, in the sense Ernst Bloch and Castoriadis recognized (39). Ferrarin’s essay is thus essential for understanding the way the term “imaginary” is often used in critical theory and practical philosophy and how these development differ from Kant’s scientific imagination. That said, Ferrarin does suggest that Kant’s aesthetics—and other contributors concur regarding other aspects of later Kant—offers hints of the practical imaginary (45).
Moving the narrative from Kant to German romanticism, Laura S. Carugati argues that we move there from an “ontogonic” to a “cosmogonic” use of imagination (52). In other words, for figures like Novalis, Schleiermacher, and Schlegel, imagination provides the basic framework or “horizon” for the experience of objects, rather than merely prefiguring the particular objects we perceive. In Schlegel, this shift liberates the imagination from the aforementioned Kantian norms; and hence Carugati highlights Schlegel’s claim that “because imagination won’t let itself be linked to the world of things […], it can function in a free and independent manner, according to its own laws” (54). Similarly, in Novalis, “to romanticize” becomes an active, imaginal engagement aiming to unite the poles of the various Kantian dualisms (55). The resultant synthesis, known as “art,” is not a mere product or thing but rather a life-structuring “event” (57). Arts, as engagements in imagination, do not merely imitate or reproduce but rather “discover or institute an ordering principle that shapes the original chaos into a romanticized world” (57). In a sense, then, even the Kantian divide between human productivity and divine creativity gets mediated here; art and reality become indistinguishable.
We may note at this point the helpful coherency of the volume’s narrative as it places each figure in conversation with contemporaries and predecessors. This historically informed narrative is again supported by Angelica Nuzzo’s compelling contribution on German idealism. She defends the centrality of productive imagination not only in Fichte and Schelling (where it plays an explicitly important role) but also in Hegel, where the textual evidence for its centrality is much less prevalent. Nuzzo claims that “Hegelian spirit is informed by the Kantian notion of productivity proper to the imagination of the genius,” albeit in a way that gets “extended beyond the aesthetic realm, and thereby deeply transformed” (73). Imagination moves from a merely subjective role into an absolute role as “self-actualizing conceptuality” (77).
Nuzzo’s argument could be reconstructed into four steps. First, Kant’s third Critique suggests that imagination is schöpferisch (and perhaps not merely exhibitive of aesthetic ideas); it creates “another nature” from the given nature of the senses (74). Second, Fichte notices and radicalizes this creativity, such that imagination produces even the “material for representation” (74). And this productivity, Nuzzo argues, is equated by Fichte with Geist. Third, Schelling renders the imagination productive not only of representation but also of the actuality of things themselves, thus giving it the absolute role Kant had reserved for intellectual intuition (71). Finally, fourth, Hegel appropriates but reworks and reverses this “absolute” productive imagination. Certainly, on the one hand, Nuzzo acknowledges that the Encyclopedia subordinates imagination to a merely subjective moment of spirit (76). But this subordination does not stop Hegel, she argues, from adopting exactly the productivity highlighted by the preceding idealists’ account of imagination. Thus, on the other hand, the Phenomenology and Logic, she argues, adapt this very productivity to the role of a self-producing absolute, with the caveat that, contra Schelling, its truth is now said to be revealed only in the end of its development. For Hegel, “no absolute identity, absolute indifference, or absolute creation out of nothing […] can be placed as the beginning-origin of an immanent discursive process” (77). Instead, for Hegel, “the logical determination process is immanently and successively articulated toward ever more complex determinations up to the ‘absolute idea’ that makes the end” (78).
While Nuzzo’s thesis might sound extra-textual, it is in fact very closely defended with links between Hegel’s texts and those of Kant and Fichte. And if we remember that she aims merely to show that “some fundamental characters of the productive imagination […] become constitutive traits of Hegel’s own notion of Geist” (77, my emphasis), then we should be, I believe, persuaded, despite the relative non-centrality of the vocabulary of “productive imagination” in Hegel. Nuzzo’s contribution is likewise essential to this volume insofar as it defends a narrative leading into Hegel that can help clarify our persistent suspicion that there are Hegel-like traces in later concepts often referred to under the broad label of “social imaginary.”
The conversation within German thought continues with Rudolph A. Makkreel’s essay on Dilthey. Whereas Kant’s aesthetic imagination helps us shift from narrow, personal experiences of pleasure to universal judgments of taste, Dilthey similarly thinks that imagination can broaden us and test “how local commonalities relate to universally accepted truths” (92). This broadening occurs partly through what Dilthey calls the “typifying imagination.” Artists, for example, can “articulate” felt connections pervasive in an era by exemplifying them into figures, characters, or events (87). Whereas thinking produces concepts, imagination “produces types” (95). And whereas the historian’s imagination merely fills in gaps and supplies coherency, the artist’s has more freedom (e.g. in fiction, painting, etc.). With artworks, we experience their “typicality” not when we understand something generic about them (like norms) nor when we look at particular, material qualities. Rather, for Dilthey, the typicality of an artwork its “distinctive style.” For example: “The style of a Cézanne painting cannot be intuitively defined by the visible lines and colors […]. Style is an inner form that can only be imaginatively captured by following out the intense interplay of the angular and curved shapes that Cézanne projects into our medial horizon of vision” (96).
With respect to this “inner form,” important for Makkreel is Dilthey’s shift from an earlier view arguing that it is discovered through personal introspection, to a later, non-psychologistic, and more contextualized view that the “feelings of a composer like Beethoven are musical from the start and exist in a tonal world” (99). That is, we must be conversant with a broader system of perspectives and facts (as seen “from without”) in order to understand ourselves or others (101). In this sense, Dilthey accepts the Hegelian concept of objective spirit, with the qualification that his rendition of spirit is nothing that “submerges individuals and regulates human interaction in the overall course of world history” but rather is a “locally definable ‘medium of commonalities’ that nurtures each of us ‘from earliest childhood’” (101). The best way to think about such local “artistic medial contexts” is to consider particular examples: “Beethoven cannot but think of Haydn and Mozart when composing a quartet while also striving to chart his own path” (102). Grasping these larger constellations of sense requires tapping into an imagination that “goes beyond reality in such a way as to illuminate it” (85).
This point about the imagination’s power to “go beyond reality” opens up some important avenues for research on additional figures whose inquiries emphasize similar functions. We might think of Feuerbach’s imagination, with its power to alienate us through negating our dependency and this-worldly finitude. This critical route would of course lead into discussions of Marx and Freud but also through Husserl into Sartre’s early works, which contain, as in Dilthey, more positive valences regarding this “going beyond.” In Sartre, for example, beauty is said to be “a value that can only ever be applied to the imaginary and that carries the nihilation of the world in its essential structure.”[iii] Using the very example of Beethoven, he argues that “the performance of the Seventh Symphony […] can be manifested only through analogons that are dated and that unfurl in our time. But in order to grasp it on these analogons, it is necessary to operate the imaging reduction, which is to say, apprehend precisely the real sounds as analogons.”[iv] Sartre thus engages with two themes central to this volume, namely imagination’s link to non-being and, as in Dilthey (and later in Ricoeur), its helpful role in revealing the world through an “as”-structure.
Next, breaking the train of German thought is Nicolas de Warren’s essay on Flaubert’s diagnosis of human self-deception (as interpreted by Jules de Gaultier). The essay proposes a valuable distinction between productive imagination and creative, novelistic imagination (106). With the productive side we imagine ourselves as something other than what we are and thus become self-deceptive. The creative side, by contrast, which is manifest in the novelist’s art, allows us to perceive the self-deception without falling prey to it. The artist’s perception “becomes a truthful mirror of the world by virtue of the imagination’s power of magnification, or modification, which renders visible what remains otherwise invisible” (113). The novelist shares in a kind of “pure perception,” i.e. an “absorption” in the world rather than a scientific “possession” of an object (113). This pure perception generates the novel almost as a by-product and allows an adult to learn that she falsely “pursues a notion of herself for which neither she nor the world affords” (123). Such false images are not merely epistemically worrisome, as de Warren clarifies, since they also impact the world of our desires, as when a person “makes the world around her boring in order to despise the world even more so as to serve as propellant for an even more vengeful and intense abandonment to the imaginary” (129).
De Warren’s essay brings to mind two avenues. First, his essay links self-deception to productive imagination’s power to deny what we are. Flaubert’s characters are shown to succumb “to the universal fiction of striving to be what one is not, and not being what one desires to be” (107). That said, other contributors raise the prospect of finding positive value in imagination’s penchant for proposing non-extant alternatives, i.e. ones worth striving for. Hence, de Warren’s essay raises the question: Could there be a good version of “striving to be what one is not, and not being what one desires to be”?
Second, de Warren’s essay could perhaps be read as an alternative account of what René Girard refers to as Flaubert’s “novelistic truth.”[v] Certainly, Girard’s and de Warren’s readings agree that “truthful forms of fiction” helpfully reveal the dangers of self-deceit and self-imposed insatiability (110). But a difference may reside in whether we think the novelist’s deliverance from self-deception stems from what de Warren emphasizes or what Girard claims. De Warren emphasizes that deliverance is achieved through the novelist’s share in pure perception, or an engagement with the world prior to and free from socially-influenced self-images. On this reading, the problem behind self-deception is that the “spontaneity of an individual’s self-shaping personality” has become “reduced to a condition of mimetic inertness” in our society (112). Self-deception consists in a person concealing from herself the fact that “she is the author of her own fate” (124). By contrast, on Girard’s reading, Flaubert unmasks precisely as self-deceit one’s belief that one is the unmediated, pre-social author of desires, i.e. desires that would be valid simply because they are one’s own. Under the sway of such a belief one fails to see that one’s desires are always mediated through imitation of others’ desires. The novel offers deliverance in that it allows us to see through the vanity of the “romantic lie” and to critically recognize our own interdependency. Hence, if I understand them correctly, these readings not only differ but pull in opposite directions. I should state that I am not unsympathetic per se to either reading of Flaubert; rather, it is the prospect of a dialogue that strikes me as a fruitful avenue to pursue.
As for an important dialogue that is explored in this volume, Saulius Geniusas reviews the Cassirer-Heidegger encounter at Davos. Geniusas frames the debate as hinging only overtly on divergent interpretations of imagination in Kant. On Cassirer’s reading, the productive imagination is formed and contextualized by its share in an independent understanding and reason; for Heidegger, reason is formed and contextualized by the finitely situated productive imagination (138). But the deeper issue between them, argues Geniusas (agreeing with Peter E. Gordon), concerns their basically divergent philosophies, including their views on moral freedom. Cassirer thinks imagination’s share in reason allows it spontaneity and the power to step back from any finite dwelling. Fundamentally “homeless,” we can use our imaginations to “trespass the boundaries of […] merely natural existence and enter into the domain culture,” where we construct an infinite variety of cultural modes of existence (140). For Heidegger, by contrast, the productive imagination defines our existential-temporal mode of receptivity to a world and thus marks us—in both our knowledge and action—as essentially finite. Cassirer, Heidegger thinks, lacks a fundamental ontology of the supposedly fully spontaneous being who “enters into” cultural constellations; he suggests Cassirer’s view would merely define humanity through studies of different cultural—and merely ontic—contexts (139). Cassirer would thus (re)create “the ‘They’ world and the deeper forgetfulness of one’s ontological roots” (140). In response, Cassirer thinks Heidegger’s basic mistake is to refuse the independence of reason, as a source of imagination’s freedom, from finite imagination and intuition. This refusal, argues Cassirer, implies the impossibility of genuine moral autonomy or the universality of ethics in Kant’s sense (147).
Certainly, as Geniusas shows, Heidegger and Cassirer attain a kind of nominal agreement on some broad issues, e.g. that productive imagination “produces the transcendental horizons of sense, the operational fields, or the modes of vision, which predetermine human experience” (150). But their basic trajectories, argues Geniusas, are in the last analysis “fundamentally different” (151). Cassirer’s view leads him to emphasize the constructive possibilities of a humanity drawing guidance from reason, while Heidegger emphasizes the need, in his own words, for a “destruction of the former foundation of Western metaphysics in reason (spirit, logos, reason)” (151). Even if Geniusas might not persuade some who see Cassirer and Heidegger as compatible, his essay does provide a clear statement of how the deeper projects of each thinker determine their overt disagreements over Kant.
In the volume’s final essay, George H. Taylor mines Paul Ricoeur’s broader corpus for a thesis on imagination moving beyond his merely explicit views. His explicit views emphasize the power of productive versus merely reproductive imagination and show how the former allows us to understand images separately from any concept of originals. This inquiry then helps us grasp how fictions can be efficacious in altering reality (159). As for Ricoeur’s more implicit views on imagination, Taylor draws on texts from the 1970s and 80s to highlight the concept of “figuration,” a term avoiding merely visual connotations and allowing Ricoeur to analyze metaphor (167). In epistemology, the concept of figuration expands on Kant’s suggestion of an ever-present, “common root” between understanding and sensibility. It implies that reality is only ever given as already saturated with “symbolic” mediation (166). “We do not see; we see as—as the icon, as the figure” (170). Similarly, Taylor finds a parallel role for figuration in Ricoeur’s view of human action: no action is just physical motion; each act always points to or modifies some extant role or another (166). These twin “as”-structures thus always mediate for us between sense and concept, or between deeds and their narration (165). Since there is thus no mode of human life without figuration’s various modes, we can never fully leave behind what Hegel calls “picture thinking” (173). All modes of thought or action occur on the backdrop of an already instituted and “readable” world (171).
In this respect, Taylor’s essay points to a question we have already raised. Several contributions caution against the dangers of denying a connection with one’s past or of losing the link between imagination and memory. Yet it is likewise true that what will arise anew for (and from) each of us tomorrow “is not” as of today but rather, if it indeed comes to be, will emerge tomorrow with an unparalleled uniqueness (at least in some stratum of its emergent reality). Does not the human tendency to overlook the newness in each historical moment (emerging in some sense from “non-being”) constitute a distinct danger, alongside that of forgetting the sedimented nature of the meanings and roles we adopt? While this volume does at times speak to this concern, it refrains—perhaps for the best—from lingering on it or on the metaphysical quandaries involved in references to non-being and creativity. On this issue, interested readers might thus benefit from a sister volume in the “Social Imaginaries,” i.e. the analysis of the Ricoeur-Castoriadis debate.[vi] Taylor, it should be mentioned, also helpfully contributed there.
Done and to be Done
As I have indicated, the merits of this volume are clear. It offers a valuable combination of introductory guidance and original theses. It contains helpful clarifications of how philosophical concepts develop through inter-philosophical dialogue but also in conversation with the arts. It likewise opens avenues for exploring the grand, metaphysical question of human creativity in history. If we approach it aware of its deliberate focus on the Kantian and continental tradition, we will see that its chapters develop a coherent “conceptual history” of a core moment in philosophy. We thus have reason to hope that it will achieve its goal of enabling broader studies on productive imagination. And as it stands, this volume’s essays—appropriate to the productivity they investigate—already instantiate one of the volumes frequent themes: human creativity arises in and with a community of contributors, both extant ones and ones hoped for.
[i] “Social Imaginaries,” Rowman & Littlefield International, last accessed: July 24, 2018: https://www.rowmaninternational.com/our-publishing/series/social-imaginaries/.
[ii] Apart from its emphasis on imagination’s mere negativity, we may note the proximity of Nikulin’s account to the thesis of Cornelius Castoriadis’ essay, “The Discovery of the Imagination” (from 1978; in World in Fragments: Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis, and the Imagination, ed. David A. Curtis, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1997). Castoriadis argues that fear of imagination’s creativity has led philosophers to attribute the truly instituting power not to us but to other beings (e.g. ancestors, gods, God, nature, etc.). Both Nikulin and Castoriadis seem to me to echo, somewhat divergently, Heidegger’s reading of Kant as having discovered but later denied the radical implications of productive imagination.
[iii] Jean-Paul Sartre, The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination, trans. Jonathan Webber, London and New York: Routledge, 2004, p. 193.
[iv] Sartre, Imaginary, 193.
[v] René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, trans. Yvonne Freccero, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1965.
[vi] See Suzi Adams (ed.), Ricoeur and Castoriadis in Discussion: On Human Creation, Historical Novelty, and the Social Imaginary, London and New York: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2017.