Saturday, July 08, 2006


REMEMBERING PAUL RICOEUR: 1913-2005 (French Philosopher) [Political Affairs Archives]
By Thomas Riggins

The May 24 New York Times has reported the death of one of Frances’s most famous philosophers (“Paul Ricoeur, 92, Wide-Ranging French Philosopher, Is Dead” by Margalit Fox”). Many of Ricoeur’s ideas are interesting even when they clash with the Marxist philosophical outlook. We can always learn from those who don’t share our philosophical commitments.

Fox quotes Dr. C. E. Reagan who said about Ricoeur, “In the history of philosophy, he would take positions that appeared to be diametrically opposed, and he’d work to see if there was a middle ground.” In that spirit I propose to see what middle ground Marxists might be able to share with Ricoeur ( I don't think we will find too many-- but at least two come to mind: peace is better than war and democracy is a postive good)) whose philosophy, forbiddingly, is a species of “phenomenological hermeneutics.”

This is not as bad as it sounds. Phenomenology is the “science” of how we experience the world and hermeneutics is a fancy word for “interpretation.” It comes from the Greek for ”interpret” (originally used for interpreting the Bible) and ultimately from the name of the Greek God “Hermes” (Roman Mercury) who was the messenger of Zeus.

Christopher Norris (The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, ed. by Ted Honderich) wrote that Ricoeur found in his “middle ground” way of thinking a “kindred dialectic” with Marxism. Norris points out the double aspect of interpretation (it has a “positive” and “negative” moment). His interpretation of Freud is one example: the negative-- psychoanalysis looks for the past repressed information in the unconscious mind in order to find the positive-- a cure to repression and a new possibility for the future. He also sees this in Marxism: the negative-- class struggle, oppression, revolution leads to the positive-- a new society of human equality [hopefully].

G. B. Madson (The Columbia History of Western Philosophy, ed. by Richard H. Popkin) tells us that Ricoeur comes out of the tradition of the German Fascist philosopher Martin Heidegger(this sounds bad and it is bad but not as bad as it sounds). This tradition breaks with the mainstream of modern philosophy from Descartes through Russell and their contemporary followers (almost all philosophers but not professors of literature and cultural criticism).

The first part of the break is not so bad. Modern philosophers have a tendency to start with the isolated consciousness of a particular person, the ego, and then try to see how this ego can get to an external world independent of its own thinking mind. We can agree with Heidegger that human beings find themselves, “always already”, as Madson says “in a world.” Madson quotes Ricoeur: “The gesture of hermeneutics is a humble one of acknowledging the historical conditions to which all human understanding is subsumed in the reign of finitude.” No problem. We awake to find ourselves always already in a specific historical context-- e.g., I’m a French worker or a German bourgeois, etc. Let’s agree not to start with the ego. But we are going to go downhill from here.

We all agree with the historical consciousness as a starting point. We do not need Heidegger or his followers to tell us this. It is a basic core belief of Marxism already. Let us assume that I am a sugarcane cutter in 1950’s Cuba. My consciousness is determined by what Ricoeur calls its “historicality.” Madson says, “As Ricoeur characterizes it, effective historical consciousness is ‘the massive and global fact whereby consciousness, even before its awakening as such, belongs to and depends on that which affects it.” In other words, Mr. Cutter belongs to and depends upon the world dominated by Mr. Plantation Owner and overseen by Mr. President Batista (and globally Uncle Sam).

Ricoeur continues, “The action of tradition [effective history] and historical investigation are fused by a bond which no critical consciousness could dissolve without rendering the research itself nonsensical.” This leads to the conclusion, Madson says, that the Enlightenment is wrong in thinking effective history must be overcome in order to really understand the “truth.” When Ricoeur proclaims that truth is historical you begin to think he must be on to something. But wait!

We are informed that this way of thinking rejects the “correspondence theory of truth”. This is the theory accepted by Marxism. A proposition is true if it corresponds to a state of the external world. “My car is red” is true if and only if my car is red. But we find out, says Madson, that “a core tenet of philosophical hermeneutics is that genuine understanding is not representational but essentially transformative.”

Mr. Cutter has been reading the Communist Manifesto and has decided that there is no correspondence between a just society and the world of Mr. Plantation Owner. He is told, “I’m sorry, but we don’t use the correspondence theory anymore.” What does it mean to say truth is transformative. Well, you read the Manifesto and it transforms you, you “appropriate” it and interpret it in your historical context-- Cuba 1950”s-- very different from Germany in 1848.

Mr. Cutter objects. He thinks the Manifesto is appropriate for any class society, that Marx and Engels had it mind to lay down general truths corresponding to the entire historical epoch of capitalism. Well then, we have missed “one of the most distinctive tenets of philosophical hermeneutics: The meaning of a text is not reducible to the meaning intended by its author.” Its meaning is now what you make of it.

Ricoeur is quoted: “The text’s career escapes the finite horizon lived by its author. What the text says now matters more than what the author meant to say, and every exegesis unfolds its procedures within the circumference of a meaning that has broken its moorings to the psychology of its author.”

This may be going too far. Original intent is important. We must first understand the text’ before we can interpret it. How to make sense of the phrase “what the text says now’? This means to Ricoeur something like “what it says to me”. But this sounds like relativism. Anyone can read Marx, etc., anyway s/he chooses. It is not relativism, says Madson. Philosophers in this school reject dogmatism and “maintain that it is never possible to demonstrate conclusively the validity of one’s interpretations, they also maintain, against all forms of relativism, that it is nevertheless always possible to argue for one’s interpretations in cogent, nonarbitrary, reasoned ways [the Enlightenment lives on!]. In other words... if our interpretations can reasonably lay claim to being true, they must adhere to certain argumentative criteria, such as coherence and comprehensiveness.”

Mr. Cutter decides that the Manifesto is both coherent and comprehensive and runs off to the mountains to join Fidel. Was he right to do so? Our philosophers, following Ricoeur, think that the purpose of interpretation, of understanding, of finding the “truth” is ultimately to better understand ourselves [the return of the ego]. They reject “objectivism” and want to suborn it to “communicative rationality.” People, Madson says, “reason together in such a way as to enable them to arrive at common agreements or understandings (however provisional) that enable them to live together peacefully, whether as members of a particular scientific discipline or as members of society.” A revolution would seem to be a breakdown of "communicative rationality." The war in Iraq would be another breakdown.

But Mr. Cutter and Mr. Plantation Owner can’t reason together. They don’t have a “human” relation-- only an exploitative economic one. What this philosophy represents is bourgeois liberalism. It represents “none other than the core values of liberal democracy.” Remember “truth” is not “objective.” It really is for these thinkers, “subjective.” Madson quotes Ricoeur: “The truth is... the lighted place in which it is possible to continue to live and think.” That really doesn’t say anything! Madson continues, “Ricoeur has asserted that “democracy is the [only] political space in which [the conflict of interpretations] can be pursued with a respect for differences”-- that is to say, with a respect for the pursuit of truth on the part of each and every individual human being. When all is said and done, the basic tenet of philosophical hermeneutics is that there is only one truth, which is the democratic process itself.”

Here is another quote from Ricoeur, from Le Monde [2004] (via BBC News):

If I had to lay out my vision of the world... I would say: given
the place where I was born, the culture I received, what I read,
what I learned (and) what I thought about, there exists for me
a result that constitutes, here and now, the best thing to do. I
call it the action that suits.

This is an interesting quote, but what does it mean? This is true for everybody, including cats and dogs. It sounds like fatalism-- my actions are the result of my past history. A strange quote from someone associated with the exitentialist movement. Why not try thinking outside the box? Anyway, who cares what Ricouer meant? I can interpretet this to suit myself as long as I am coherent and comprehensive.

Mr. Cutter was right to run off to the mountains. In this class riven world where profits come before people this was the action that suits. The thinking of Paul Ricoeur cannot lead to the liberation of humanity from the bestial reality of monopoly capitalism and imperialism. We will have to evaluate him again when we live in a classless society. R.I.P.

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

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