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Monday, May 23, 2005

Paul Ricoeur

Good to see that pain doesn’t negate Michael’s sense of humor.  I want to pay tribute to another writer whom I admire today.

I do promise to return to the topic of how the Democrats should position themselves in the upcoming elections of 2006 and 2008.  But I’m postponing that discussion to write about French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, who died on Friday at the age of 92.

I wrote, at the end of the Introduction to my first book, that “the spirit, more than the content, of Paul Ricoeur’s work, might be called [this book’s] guiding genius.” And I remained a Paul Ricoeur fan even when I disagreed with almost everything he had to say about narrative in the three volume work, Time and Narrative (1984-88), that the obituary in Le Monde highlights as his masterpiece.

I always learned a tremendous amount when I read a book by Ricoeur.  His method was always a painstakingly thorough examination of the previous luminaries who had addressed his current topic.  Hence The Rule of Metaphor (1977) is a one volume guide to the philosophy of language as well as an argument for the sentence as the site of linguistic action and metaphor as the agent of transformation. 

What particularly marks these exercises in the history of an idea is their inclusiveness.  It is not that Ricoeur had read everything; so, for that matter, had Derrida.  It was that Ricoeur, most fully of any 20th century philosopher, exuded the Hegelian conviction that every manifestation of the human spirit contained an element of the truth.  His readings of others’ work was always generous, always emphasized what he could learn from them.  But that generosity did not, in fact, rest on Hegelian foundations.  Ricoeur was not a dialectical thinker, even if a dialogical one, and he did not believe in a unifying Spirit even though he believed in a Christian God.  Ricoeur, I think, is best understood as a modern-day Aristotle, which is not surprising given his pre-World War II education in France.  But, perhaps because he was born a Protestant, Ricoeur imbibed his Aristotle without taking in very much Aquinas.  The result was a philosopher with an abiding fascination with the human and natural world.  Nothing was foreign to Ricoeur; he possessed that wide-eyed wonder that Socrates thought was the starting place for philosophy. His philosophical task, like Aristotle’s, was to organize human knowledge so that it best reflected the richness of the found (natural) and created (social) world.  Any help he could receive from any quarter was gratefully accepted.

Almost alone in the fervid atmosphere that accompanied the poststructuralist assault on humanism, Ricoeur retained his good humor and his good sense.  Even in his famous repudiation of the “hermeneutics of suspicion” (in the opening chapter of Freud and Philosophy [1975]), Ricoeur associated that aggressive hermeneutic with three figures—Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud—whom it would be absurd to attempt excluding from the intellectual heritage of every practicing humanist.  He acknowledged a varied and conflicted tradition that generated a varied and conflicted contemporary conversation—and his intention was always to bring everyone into the room and to listen to every voice in the conversation.  He never impugned the motives of his adversaries or imputed evil designs to them or questioned their right to say their piece.  All disagreements were assumed to be honest disagreements.  And I don’t know what would have counted as rendering those disagreements dishonest since Ricoeur, to the last, took each and every printed word that he read and susequently discussed utterly seriously.

Nothing disturbs me more in current intellectual work than contemptuous and peremptory dismissal, which produces a tunnel vision by justifying not paying attention to whole swathes of the intellectual landscape.  “That’s not my field” is bad enough, but “those people have nothing of worth or interest to say” is much worse.  Ricoeur showed us, again and again, another way of doing our work.  His work embodies the conviction that understanding the world is a communal enterprise.

Posted by John McGowan on 05/23 at 03:02 PM
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