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French Thought


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Memory, History, Forgetting by Paul Ricoeur, translated by Kathleen Blamey, David Pellauer (University of Chicago Press) The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s monumental effort to wed "poetics" (here understood as having wide-ranging application to all creative acts, including those of knowledge) to the structures of intentional consciousness has preoccupied him for approximately forty years. His voyage from eidetics through empirics to the hermeneutics of text and discourse has been variously documented. The shift from static epistemological categories to a participatory ontological mode of consciousness and action is inherent in this development. Though Ricoeur's struggle to define the workings of the imagination as representation hardly a yet fully articulated, the theme has given rise to his more recent reflections upon narrative knowledges and ethics and has permeated his work virtually from its inception.

Originally, one could say that Ricoeur sought, within the bounds of a self-confessed post-Hegelian Kantian framework, to locate  the seat of human knowing and imagination in those structures of inten­tional consciousness that allow symbolic forms to be incorporated within a traditional epistemological framework.

Ricoeur’s explorations of symbolic material, showed him that hermeneutics, as traditionally understood in its role of interpretation, was at a methodological impasse between the approaches of explanation and understanding and that the process itself could be reductive in its ap­plication. From this latter perspective, hermeneutics did not automatically encourage an undistorted interpretation of human experience and its resultant modes of expression (be they words or symbols) but rather could reinforce the viewpoint of the inquirer. In response, Ricoeur undertook an optimistic search for a hermeneutical method that would be both heuristic and corrective and would acknowledge a more humane knowledge and imagination.

As he came to appreciate the dynamic qualities of imaginative productivity and the flexibility of his appreciation of the hermeneutical circle and the phenomenological epoche, Ricoeur moved away from an explicit Kantian treatment of the productive imagination, particularly the conservative reworking of the topic in the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason. This inadequacy prompted Ricoeur to search for a more congenial epistemology that celebrates the more explicitly autonomous, innate dimensions of creative knowing and imagination.

In The Rule of Metaphor and in various articles, Ricoeur mapped out a proposed agenda for his own solutions to limitation of the Kantian understanding of reason and imagination and the self-reification of uncritical hermeneutical inquiry. This reframing of epistemological, ethical and imaginal issues has been at the core of his later writings.

The groundwork in these writings for a creative imagination that finds its most efficacious idiom in a dynamic hermeneutics.

Ricoeur's revision of the role of imagination entails a reconstitution of the hermeneutical task. To arrive at this revised understanding of  human knowing and imagination, Ricoeur adroitly weaves together several strands of thought that permit him to focus on metaphor  and by extension narrative as paradigmatic for exemplifying the creative dynamics of  of human knowing and imagination. This vision of hermeneutics as part of a wider spectrum of creative acts of knowledge by which we understand ourselves in the active realm of Being within a spectrum of a "poetics of experience." This imaginative experience has the power not only to generate meaning but ultimately to change the world—that is, the world of experience, as we live and understand it. Ricoeur's method is not without a hermeneutic of suspicion that strives to eliminate historical and personal distortions of symbols that have resulted in misguided theological declarations, as a closure to the open-endedness of historical reflection.

In Memory, History, Forgetting we have Ri­coeur seeking the reciprocal relationship between remembering and forgetting, that shows how it affects both the perception of historical experience and the production of historical narrative. Such practical questions as why major historical events as the Holocaust come to occupy the forefront of the collective consciousness, while other profound moments such as the Armenian genocide, the McCarthy era, and France's role in North Africa stand distantly and dimly behind? Is it possible that history "overly remembers" some events at the expense of others? Memory, History, Forgetting is divided into three major sections. Ricoeur first takes a phenomenological approach to memory and mnemonic devices, extending his work on the imagination. The underlying question here is how a memory of present can be of something absent, the past. The second section addresses recent work of historians by reopening the question of the nature and truth of historical knowledge. Ricoeur explores whether historians, who can write a history of memory, can truly break with all dependence on memory, including memories that resist representation. Here Ricoeur opens up his epistemology as developed in his three volume Time and Narrative to offer a cultural and social extension to imaginative human knowledge. The third and final section, Ricoeur invokes a creative vision of the human limits to experience and knowing in a thoughtful consideration of the inevitability of forgetting as a provision for the prospect of remembering, and whether there can be something like happy forgetting as comparable to happy memory. This current work provides a deeper picture how Ricoeur constructs the self as having a catalytic effect, and provoking the depiction and aiding, through imaginative representations, the appropriation of new ways of being in the world. It is in cultural dialectic of memory and forgetfulness that  renewed ways of being in and of the world is brought to our attention and becomes the substance of out acting as moral agents. This world, for Ricoeur, is grounded ultimately within a Christian vista of promise and hope. So it is that imagination can deepen our appreciation of the mysteries of faith. Ironically, imagination is, in some form, the agent of revelation. But while Ricoeur's interdependent model allows imagination free play in the fields of ontological exploration, it does not give imagination the last word. For Ricoeur, any augmentation in knowledge results from an interaction of the imagination with reflective and critical modes of knowing, prior to any final incor­poration into our present worldview.

Throughout Memory, History, Forgetting there are vigilant and solid appraisals, reinventions almost of key passages in Aristotle and Plato, Descartes and Kant, and in extensive discussions of such recent contemporary sociology of Maurice Halbwachs and the philosophical history of Pierre Nora. 

Identifying Selfhood: Imagination, Narrative, and Hermeneutics in the Thought of Paul Ricoeur by Henry Isaac Venema (McGill Studies in the History of Religions: State University of New York Press) provides the first sustained treatment of the development of Paul Ricoeur's decentered formulation of selfhood from his earliest works to his most recent. For Henry Venema, Ricoeur's affirmation that consciousness is always rooted in the signs, symbols, and texts that precede the hermeneutical project of self-recovery and discovery provides the thread that links all of Ricoeur's philosophical inquiries together. However, as Venema argues, Ricoeur's hermeneutic is caught up in the semantics of identity to such an extent that selfhood is confused and often equated with the textuality of the reflective process and is never dealt with on the intimate level of the reflexive structure of selfhood in relation to otherness. In the end, Ricoeur's formulation of alterity identifies the other within the circle of the self-same. 

Ricoeur As Another: The Ethics of Subjectivity edited by Richard A. Cohen, James L. Marsh (SUNY Series in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences: State University of New York Press) This collection of essays by internationally known Paul Ricoeur experts explores the noted philosopher's book, Oneself as Another. Ricoeur's book represents the completion of a decades-long inquiry into the self as he links his earlier studies of symbolism, hermeneutics, phenomenology, the philosophy of language, action theory, and theory of narrative to his most recent concern for ethics and the social constitution of ethical subjectivity. Cohen and Marsh's volume is divided into two parts, the first primarily involving Ricoeur's thought itself, and the second involving the relation of his thought to that of others, such as Levinas, Rawls, Habermas, Apel, Taylor, and MacIntyre. The contributors also offer detailed examinations of Ricoeur's ethical theory and its ontological implications.

Textual Narratives and a New Metaphysics by Raymond T. Shorthouse (Ashgate New Critical Thinking in Philosophy: Ashgate) Drawing extensively upon recent developments in post‑phenomenological philosophy, especially `the textual turn' exemplified by Paul Ricoeur, Jacques Derrida and Maurice Merleau‑Ponty, this book explores the role that textual narratives have in the possibility of reasonably affirming the intelligibility of the world. Shorthouse reveals how textual narratives can play a primary role in affirming rational meaning in a continuing hermeneutical process.

Offering a radical new approach to metaphysics, Shorthouse demonstrates that rational meaning is ontologically grounded in terms of a transcendental viewpoint or perspective. It is this grounding which transcends the language and the self in a hermeneutical movement towards the affirmation of rational meaning. Revealing that the critical characteristic of reading a narrative is rhythm, Shorthouse explains how each narrative has a rhythmic structure, or prose rhythm, in relation to its semantic and figurative characteristics, activity and mood. Two key questions are explored: what kind of rational unity may be affirmed which does not close or suspend reflection? and what kind of linguistic mediation may generate an extralinguistic, or transcendental element in establishing an ontological grounding for this affirmation? The response to both these questions is presented in terms of textual sonority, where Shorthouse draws upon, and develops, Maurice Merleau‑Ponty s notion of sonorous being.

Author summary: My main concern is to present a new metaphysics radically different from all traditional attempts in Western philosophy to satisfy the human desire for absolute knowledge of the Other ‑ a metaphysics which provides a grounding for rational thought in a hermeneutical process open to a horizon of rational probability. In contrast to the traditional perspective of epistemological acquisition, this is a metaphysical grounding for an appropriation of the Other's viewpoint, an appropriation whereby there may be an affirmation of self‑identity with respect to the rational meaning of that perspective. In terms of textual narratives, it is the reader's imaginative grasp of the `implied' author's viewpoint grounded in her rhythmic condition of being mediated by the prose rhythm of the narrative. This rhythmic condition of being, or Sonorous Being, is the transcendental, metaphysical source of affirmation.

In the first three chapters, I address the key question of presence in Continental philosophy. My examination of the notion of `presence' in the phenomenological and ontological philosophies of Husserl and Heidegger, with particular reference to the contrasting critical perspectives of Derrida and Ricoeur, aims to show that, in this context, the problem of `presence' is not fundamentally concerned with a question of conceptual unity with respect to the meaning of particular words, but with the relationship between the figurative characteristics of metaphor and narrative, and the semantic structures of sentence and discourse. That is, it is the reader's imaginative grasp of the figuration of the text in relation to reflection upon the narrative that must be examined in addressing the question of presence. This grasp, it will be shown, is the mediation of a grounding of the relationship in a rhythmic, sonorous condition of being. It is a relationship which Ricoeur terms a primordial dialectic, first used in his theory of metaphor, and developed in his theory of narrative between the world of the narrative in terms of its textual configuration and the self‑identity of the reader in terms of rational description and explanation. It is an attempt to show that the question of presence is not fundamentally a question of conceptual unity but the unity of the world that the reader imaginatively appropriates and inhabits, and that sonority and rhythm play a key role in this notion of unity.

To this end, my analysis in these initial chapters draws particularly upon Ricoeur's theories of metaphor and narrative in identifying, firstly, the significance of sound in relation to image and subsequently developed as prose rhythm as the key characteristic of the objective nature of the text in terms of the intrinsic structural stress patterns, and not simply the rhythms of intonation and emphasis of individual readers. I will show how metaphor and narrative may be analysed in terms of the objective textual mediatory characteristics of a figurative and semantic dialectic; the figurative being grounded in symbolic structures which mediate activity in terms of its ontological roots, sonority and rhythm being essential features of this activity.

Analogous to participating in liturgical activity with symbols playing an ontological mediatory role, the reader imaginatively participates in the active world of the text by means of the symbolic rhythmic structures of metaphor and narrative. Unity, or presence, is achieved in the rhythmic drive to inhabit the world of the text. But the movement is dialectically related to a continuing process of interpretation with respect to reflection upon the semantic structures of the text, which is a `hermeneutics of suspicion'. Therefore, the question of the possibility of affirmation through the mediation of sound and rhythm takes account of `suspicion' which cannot be suspended.

But what is the nature of this rhythm with regard to the relationship between `affirmation' and `suspicion' ? Chapters 4, 5 and 6 are devoted to the development of the notion of prose rhythm by identifying and addressing four ontological issues. The first issue is concerned with the way the reader appropriates the viewpoint, or perspective, of the world of the narrative. How does the reader imaginatively become immersed in the narrative to participate in that world? How does she grasp the unity of that world in terms of its temporality and identity? These questions are focused, in addressing the first issue, upon the relationship between ontological unity and sound. In relation to the former, my analysis draws upon Ricoeur's notion of narrative identity, and with respect to the latter I introduce the notion of prose rhythm, and give literary examples to illustrate the role of rhythm in poetry and narrative, based on a development of Maurice Merleau‑Ponty's notion of phonetic gesture as an important feature of the `lived' body. My aim is show the way in which the reader's grasp of the narrative identity is rooted in an ontological sonority which is mediated through the `lived' body. The body must be understood phenomenologically in the way it is consciously mediated at different levels, and objectively in terms of its physical materiality. In other words, ontological sonority as the fundamental characteristic of the reader's grasp of ontological unity in terms of narrative identity is mediated in the rhythmic resonance of the physical body, and phenomenologically mediated in rhythmic sound patterns.

The issue of ontological unity and narrative identity is pursued in terms of the second with respect to Merleau‑Ponty's notion of corporeal intentionality. My concern is to relate the work of Ricoeur in Time and Narrative, in which he analyses the process of grasping the world of the narrative in terms of mimetic configuration, with a corporeal understanding of intentionality; furthermore, to show that this intentionality involves a dialectic between what Merleau­Ponty calls particular and operative intentionalities. That is, with respect to reading, the attention is focused upon particular parts of the text in the process of grasping the meaning, the unity of the narrative. But this particular attention is made possible by the background of the unfolding world which the reader imaginatively inhabits but of which he is not directly conscious. These are two levels of dialectically related intentionalities. In relation to the mediatory textual characteristics of rhythm, prose rhythm is shown to be the mediation of operative intentionality with the rhythmic characteristic of the iconic focus of metaphor being the mediation of particular intentionality. The significance of the latter is the concrete nature of metaphor and, according to Ricoeur's interactive theory, its power of redescription in terms of new meaning that captures the reader's attention. Again literary examples are given to illustrate the dynamic process of corporeal intentionality.

The grasping of the narrative by the reader is a dialectical process between the reader and the world of the narrative; between self‑reflection and the temporal perspective of the narrative. In becoming immersed in the story, the reader's self‑identity is disturbed in an imaginative appropriation of the narrative identity. It is a process of habitation that disturbs the reader's state of being. Analogous to Benjamin's claim that listening to a story is being seized by the rhythm of the story, this disturbance of the reader's state of being is rhythmic in a profoundly ontological sense, and is the grounding of the primordial dialectic in Sonorous Being. For this reason, the mediation of this rhythmic sonority in the textual characteristics of the narrative is evident in the structural rhythmic texture of the poetic/narrative mode. Chapter 5 is devoted to providing this evidence in addressing the third ontological issue, which is the relationship of Sonorous Being to the primordial dialectic.

In an analysis of poetry in terms of the variety of rhythmical beat my aim is to show that, for the most part, although prose rhythm is essentially based upon stress patterns, there is not a dichotomy between these two forms. That is, they are part of a rhythmic spectrum that may be discerned in prose narratives, particularly in the relationship between metaphor as the textual focus of attention and the discursive, descriptive passages which, to a great extent, form the background in the reader's grasp of the narrative. In this sense, poetic rhythm relates to the metaphorical iconic focus, and prose rhythm to the background of the imaginative world of the text. The latter may resonate beyond the reader's conscious attention in his physical body and state of being. The rhythmic beat of the former is the dynamic of the reader's grasp of the iconic focus of unity, the grasp of the metaphor's concrete image, which vehemently generates a new meaning to provoke the reader's self-reflection. Textual rhythm is examined in a number of examples to show that the rhythmic structure of the text may be seen to mediate the ontological grounding of the primordial dialectic in the relationship between the metaphorical rhythmic beat and the stress patterns of prose rhythm. As part of this examination, I also show that textual rhythm mediates emotional states, activity and ‑significantly with respect to rhythmic anticipation ‑ the mediation of temporality.

The issue of presence forms part of my analysis of the third ontological issue in relation to appearance. The question is, how does the rhythmic texture mediate the primordial dialectic of sonorous being? How does sonorous being appear? My aim is to develop the work of Heidegger and Ricoeur with regard to the ontological notion of within‑time‑ness, with some acknowledgement of Heidegger's later seminal notion of the `rift' as the appearance of the figure. The key question is, how does Being appear without being grounded in an unquestioned transcendental subjectivity? Or rather, how can Being appear if its unity, its meaning, is not open to an horizon of continuing interpretation? Does not transcendental subjectivity inhibit such a hermeneutical process by being fundamentally unquestioned? It is my contention that Ricoeur and Heidegger have not gone far enough in addressing this key question, and that the rhythmic structure of the text in particular provides the way of doing this. It is because prose rhythm resonates at the `edge' and beyond consciousness that it evades the criticism that it is tied to transcendental subjectivity. The appearance of Sonorous Being in terms of its primordial dialectic therefore is mediated in the textual rhythmic structure.

Chapter 6 is a further development of the primordial dialectic with respect to the fourth ontological issue, which is the understanding of this dialectic in terms of Self and Other. Here the philosophical notion of `Other' is used to refer to narrative identity, and particularly to what Ricoeur calls the `who' of the narrative. My aim is to analyse the relationship of the reader to the viewpoint or temporal perspective of the narrative in terms of a dialectical relationship between the reader's Self, and the Other‑than‑Self of the narrative; that is, the reader's imaginative grasp and habitation of the Other's viewpoint, of a different and new meaning which may be affirmed and yet never be free from questioning. In other words, the dialectic between Self and Other in the process of habitation is a dialectic of affirmation and suspicion. To this end, my analysis draws upon the work of Ricoeur, particularly in Oneself as Another, and Emmanuel Levinas. With respect to the latter's rejection of any possibility of comprehending the Other, I take a radically different approach in showing that the fundamental metaphysical issue is not to affirm an understanding of the Other but to appropriate the perspective of the Other. The reader appropriates the viewpoint of the Other, the `who' of the narrative, and does not attempt to face the Other in an act of comprehension. It is not a question of a metaphysical foundation for epistemological acquisition of the absolute, but a metaphysical grounding for inhabiting the rational viewpoint of the Other.

In my analysis of the dialectic between Self and Other, I investigate the way in which the rhythmic structures of a text may mediate the ontological sonority of the reader's grasp and habitation of Another perspective which is seemingly incomprehensible and therefore beyond the reach of any act of affirmation. This particularly refers to tragedy and the apparently absurd perspectives which seem to defy any attempt at understanding the singularity of a particular viewpoint. An example of the latter which has occupied, among others, the thoughts of Kierkegaard and Derrida, is the Biblical narrative of Abraham's sacrifice of his son Isaac. In a detailed analysis of the text, I attempt to demonstrate how the rhythmic structures of the `Authorized Version' of the Bible may be seen to mediate a dialectic of Self and Other in terms of affirmation and suspicion. That is, the text may be shown to mediate a sonorous resonance in the act of reading whereby the reader is driven to affirm a provisional meaning which possesses a teleological dynamic, giving the reader a conviction of reasonable hope to persist in a continuing process of interpretation.

Chapters 7 and 8 focus upon two principal features of my analysis. More than anything else, the reader's grasp of the narrative and habitation of its world is a work of the imagination. It is the creative imagination which generates a hermeneutical process in which the reader is responsive to a horizon of meaning provoking self-reflection and a redescription of selfidentity. Chapter 7 is devoted to an analysis of the creative imagination by first looking at Ricoeur's reinterpretation of Kant's notion of the productive imagination in his Critique of Judgment; and to develop this notion to show that its dynamic is grounded in the `lived' body and Sonorous Being.

The theme of Chapter 8 is the second principal feature of the analysis. This relates to the issue of relationship between fantasy and reality. With respect to the role of the creative imagination, is there a way of affirming the meaning of the narrative in terms of reasonably opening the reader to new perspectives of understanding the world and himself? Is there a way of reasonably validating such meaning in contrast to the imaginative flights of fantasy? If written narratives may indeed play a key role in the quest for meaning in a world of fragmentation and dissemination, is it possible that there may be reasonable hope that such meaning may be affirmed in the historical context of unconstrained questioning and provisional explanations? Or is it inevitable that, in this sense, reasonable hope must be abandoned in favour of pragmatic conventionality? In this chapter, I analyse validation as the basis of reasonable hope in terms of Ricoeur's notion of attestation as the basis of a conviction of probability. That is, attestation analogous to juridical witness and testimony, and evaluated by practical wisdom as specified through the Aristotelian notion of phronesis. It is my aim to show that attestation and reasonable hope are fundamentally the work of the creative imagination grounded in the rhythm of hope of Sonorous Being and mediated in the dialectic between affirmation and suspicion.

Sonorous Being is a metaphor for the metaphysical source of affirmation in the reader's grasp and inhabitation of the world of the narrative. In the final chapter, I present a profile of this new metaphysics, based upon my analysis in the preceding chapters, to show that this is a transcendental grounding, mediated through the rhythmic structures of textual narratives, which generates an impulse of rational probability in relation to an horizon of unconstrained questioning.

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