Key Theories of Paul Ricoeur

ricoeurTwo different traditions in the study of language and philosophy come together magisterially in Paul Ricoeur’s (1913–2005) study The Rule of Metaphor (1975; trans. 1977), with Anglo-American and ‘French’ approaches thereby brought into dialogue. While there is much talk of transdisciplinary research in the humanities today, authentic examples are few and far between: with the work of Paul Ricoeur, one of the most wide-ranging transdisciplinary encounters between ‘code’ (theory) and ‘meaning’ (hermeneutics) takes place.

Interned for five years during the Second World War, Ricoeur credits his reading of Karl Jaspers, especially the three-volume Philosophy (1932), ‘for having placed my admiration for German thinking outside the reach of all the negative aspects of our surroundings and of the “terror of history” ’. During this period, Ricoeur also worked on a translation of Husserl’s Ideen I. What are the early indicators of Ricoeur’s importance to the study of literature? He suggests that his interest in Jaspers’ existential philosophy brought together the two poles of metaphysical transcendence and poetics, just as later, with the work for his study The Symbolism of Evil (1960), he argues that he had to move away from a Husserlian immediacy of the thinking subject, to one that only knows ‘itself’ indirectly through signs and narrative. The Symbolism of Evil presents the reader with Ricoeur’s first definition of hermeneutics, where ‘the symbol sets us thinking’. By this
point in his career, Ricoeur had worked as Professor of the History of Philosophy at The University of Strasbourg (1948–1956), and then as Professor of Philosophy at the Sorbonne, where he continued until 1967, co-teaching along the way a seminar in phenomenology with Jacques Derrida. A number of events and new movements in France began to affect Ricoeur much as they did all of the major thinkers of this period: the student uprisings in 1968 and the shift in intellectual thought to structuralist methodologies. All of the ‘philosophies of the subject’ including existentialism now came under attack, and there was a major shift within French theory in the reading of Heidegger’s Being and Time. Ricoeur had already moved in 1967 to the site of the initial student uprising – Nanterre – where he became Dean of the School of Letters. Ironically, this change of location was brought about by Ricoeur’s worries concerning the unbridled expansion of French higher education, and he attributes the militant student leaders with targeting Nanterre in 1968 as a ‘weak link’ in the chain of Paris universities.

Ricoeur began his own shift away from phenomenology and towards hermeneutics with his study of Freud, published in translation as Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation (1965; trans. 1970). Ricoeur describes the ‘idealist’ version of phenomenology, which

claimed a radical position of ultimate foundation, based upon an intellectual intuition immanent to consciousness . . . At the same time, this final justification contained a fundamentally ethical situation, inasmuch as the fundamental theoretical act expressed the ultimate self-responsibility of the philosophical subject.

Ricoeur’s shift to a poststructuralist hermeneutics implies a desire to maintain ethical responsibility, while being aware of the mediated  relationships between text and reader. To put this another way, the structuralist notion of the autonomously functioning differential sign had to be overcome. Moving on from the books that encompassed and explored philosophies of the will – namely Freedom and Nature: The Voluntary and the Involuntary, Fallible Man and The Symbolism of Evil – as well as the study of complex indirect consciousness in the works of Freud, Ricoeur focused more intensely on language and literature, especially with the essential rejection of the differential sign in favour of the unit of the sentence; this focus found its most profound expression in The Rule of Metaphor and the three-volume study Time and Narrative. In his ‘Intellectual Autobiography’ Ricoeur sketches out the structuralist background to his rejection of the differential sign, mentioning Saussure, Barthes, Greimas, Genette and Lévi-Strauss, as being the main players in this confining of energies to the text, or, ‘objectifying abstraction’ of semiotics, whereby ‘language was reduced to the functioning of a system of signs without any anchor in a subject’. In other words, Ricoeur rejects the Saussurian notion of signification being generated internally to the system or text in favour of signification being generated through relations to other objects and subjects. The key conceptual move is made via Benveniste’s observation that ‘the primary unit of meaning in actual language is not the lexical sign, but the sentence, which he called the “instance of discourse” ’. Ricoeur thus opposes semiotics and semantics, where the latter implies intersubjectivity and a communicative model of meaning.

In chapter seven of The Rule of Metaphor, ‘Metaphor and Reference’, Ricoeur expands significantly on the semiotics/semantics opposition, using the terminology from the philosopher Frege of ‘sense’ and ‘reference’ (Bedeutung): ‘The sense is what the proposition states; the reference or denotation is that about which the sense is stated.’ This is an opposition that deconstructionists will pull apart, but which its defenders suggest is functional in an imperfect language world, where the correspondence between sense and reference is often out of joint. From the latter perspective, it is the internal machinations of a semiotic system divorced from human beings that reaches ‘purity’. ‘Reference’, to use a term from the early Wittgenstein, can be thought of as the ‘state of affairs’, but when the literary text enters this discussion, a work that produces its own world, then the sense/reference binary appears to be suspended without the help of deconstruction. Ricoeur explains that the text is a more ‘complex entity of discourse whose characteristics do not reduce to those of the unit of discourse, or the sentence’. The connotative forces a re-reading of Frege’s opposition and takes Ricoeur back to metaphor. Metaphor, to use Mario J. Valdes’ phrase, is ‘a paradigm’, in The Rule of Metaphor, ‘for all creativity through language’. Critics such as Valdes regard the philosophy of language developed by Ricoeur in The Rule of Metaphor, as offering a sophisticated alternative to poststructuralist theories of the text. How can this be the case, given that metaphor is a rhetorical device? In The Rule of Metaphor, Ricoeur surveys the history and philosophy of metaphor in Western thought, rejecting the notion that metaphor is mere rhetorical ornament that produces nothing new, and the notion that metaphor is a transference of meaning. By introducing the notion of an ‘extra linguistic reality’ as seen above, Ricoeur argues that metaphor actually redescribes reality. The shift to a hermeneutic point of view reveals that metaphor is a ‘strategy of discourse’, as Ricoeur puts it, one which preserves and develops ‘the creative power of language, preserves and develops the heuristic power wielded by fiction’. Three main components of this theory are those of discourse, tension and mediation, where discourse is a large linguistic unit that involves a speaker, a hearer and a world, tension is at the heart of all of the theories of how metaphors work or function, and mediation is in effect what metaphor does as it produces new meaning. As Masako K. Hiraga puts it:

Ricoeur claims that metaphorical discourse itself has a reference under the condition of the suspension (epoché) of a literal reference. This metaphorical reference is the intentional direction toward the world and the reflective direction toward self. In other words, metaphorical discourse speaks of a possible world and a possible way of orienting oneself in this world, and thereby mediates man [sic] and the world, man [sic] and self, in a novel manner.

Ricoeur develops his hermeneutical approach in Time and Narrative, one of the key twentieth-century studies of narrative and philosophy. Literary theorists have focused most carefully on the third part of Ricoeur’s study (which begins in the second volume of the English translation) where he explores the ‘fictive experience of time’ and the text’s ‘transcendence within immanence’.

Ricoeur’s fundamental thesis that time cannot be directly spoken of, but must be instead mediated by the indirect discourse of narration (see his concluding remarks), is given full expression through close analysis of literary authors such as Mann, Proust and Woolf. In three corresponding literary works, Ricoeur reveals the ways in which they refigure time ‘itself’ in the experience of reading them, and as such go beyond Husserl‘s Phenomenology and Time-Consciousness and Heidegger’s Being and Time, the two works that pervade the overall study.

Ricoeur’s oeuvre can barely be contained in short summary form: across his lifetime he has explored phenomenology, ethics, evil, theology, the linguistic turn in contemporary philosophy and theory, analytical philosophy, semiotics and semantics, metaphor, narrative and temporality, and many aspects of existentialist thought not touched upon here. Ricoeur’s impact upon literary-critical thought has been immense, yet there are many aspects of his work that have fallen out of favour given the ongoing dominance of poststructuralist thought. Nonetheless, Ricoeur continues to offer a ‘semantic’ alternative to ‘semiotic’ thought, one that may eventually be perceived to be of more relevance as the ‘post-theory’ era develops.



Source: FIFTY KEY LITERARY THEORISTS by Richard J. Lane, Routledge Publication.


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