Transcendence in the Age of Hermeneutical Reason: On Paul Ricoeur’s Poetics of the Will

Randolph Dible November 3, 2012 Society for Ricoeur Studies, 2012 Conference, Rochester, NY.

Forewords Paul Ricoeur wrote the “Foreword” to Stephan Strasser’s Phenomenology of Feeling: An Essay on the Phenomena of the Heart, David E. Wood’s 1977 translation of Strasser’s 1956 Das Gemut. David E. Wood chose to translate the German Gemut as “heart,” rather than the more etymologically appropriate “mood,” Ricoeur tells us, after noteworthy linguistic studies of the semantic fields, following Strasser’s own semantic studies. I must quote the final paragraph of this Foreword at length:

Furthermore, he has Pascal on his side who had already named “coeur” (heart) what Stephen Strasser was to designate as Gemut. If one day the heart could have been opposed to reason it was not because it is irrational-- according to Pascal, the heart even apprehends first principles-- but because it does not proceed by means of analysis and argument, rising as it does from the depths of life toward the absolute pole in a single movement. Nor was it because everything in the heart is confused-- its levels are easily distinguished. If the world of feelings is infinite and overflows every systematic taxonomy, nevertheless it allows what Stephan Strasser calls a phenomenological

typology. In this way, the heart has its reasons. They are the reasons which, in the final analysis, justify the enterprise of a phenomenology and an anthropology founded upon the circulation between all the affective levels and the bond which holds Bios and Logos together.

I shall thus begin my summoning of the “spiritedness,” the thumos, of the young Ricoeur at the core of his body of work, at the heart of the project: the will. In the Foreword to Domenico Jervolino’s 1990 The Cogito and Hermeneutics, Ricoeur commends Jervolino’s recognition of Ricoeur’s choice of “I will” over and above “I think” (Jervolino 1990 xii). As he says in Symbolism of Evil, “...the Cogito is within being and not vice versa” (SE 356).

The Philosophy of the Will

Ricoeur took from Husserl the method of eidetic reduction of phenomena to pure description of essences, bracketing the existential fact and elaborating the essential idea or meaning. The first volume of the Philosophy of the Will, Le Volontaire et l’involontarie (Freedom and Nature: The Voluntary and the Involuntary,) appeared in 1950, and was an application of this method to the phenomena of the will in order to discover its fundamental possibilities. In it, Ricoeur proceeds through pure description of eidetic regions: decision and motivation, hesitation and choice, acting and moving, performed skills, emotion and habit, effort, ability, and knowledge, and finally the phenomena of consent in its contrast to three forms of the absolute involuntary of character (the personality), the unconscious, and life itself. “ character is the finished shape

of my freedom; my unconscious its formless material; my life-situation the foundation which does not build, that is to say, its contingency.” In each case, the voluntary and the involuntary aspects of the will can only be understood through their reciprocity. Through this description of the reciprocity of the fundamental possibilities of the “I will” over the “I think,” Ricoeur transposes the epistemological dualism of freedom and nature into a “‘dramatic duality’ of the voluntary and the involuntary under the regulative idea of a merely human freedom, that is to say, a freedom not creative but motivated, achieved, and situated by its body” (Ricoeur, “The Unity of the Voluntary and the Involuntary as a Limiting Idea”). The image and counterpart of this motivated, incarnate, and contingent freedom is the idea of a creative freedom, “a gracious freedom,” he says, “whose bodily spontaneity would be allied with the initiative which moves it without resistance. The athlete and the dancer perhaps sometimes give me a vision of it and a longing for it” (FN 485). But this is already to mention the Poetics of the Will. The eidetics of the will only offers the neutral and “undifferentiated keyboard upon which the guilty as well as the innocent man might play” (FM xli). It is a “mediation between the well-known positions of dualism and monism” (Schilpp and Hahn 12), echoing Maine de Biran’s “homo simplex in vitalitate, duplex in humanitate.”

The second volume of the Philosophy of the Will, Finitude and Guilt, is the empirics of the will. It was not completed. The extant volume two consists of Fallible Man and Symbolism of Evil, both published in 1960. In the Preface to the second volume Ricoeur tells us that he projects a third book on the concrete experience of evil in connection to disciplines such as criminology, psychopathology, legal and political philosophy. In 1964, at the second Lexington Conference

on Pure and Applied Phenomenology, Ricoeur gave a talk called “Phenomenology of Will and Action,” some of which is available in Reagan and Stewart’s anthology The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur. The third part of this talk was called “Phenomenology and Psychopathology of Will,” and it is essentially an early and condensed version of the “Analytic” of Freud and Philosophy (De L’interpretation).

Fallible Man begins with the concept of fallibility, and the fundamental disproportion or noncoincidence of man with himself: he writes, “...this ‘disproportion’ of self to self would be the ratio of fallibility” (FM 1). This “unstable ontological constitution” (ibid.) is the Platonic formulation of the soul as a melange (mixture), Cartesian paradox of the finite-infinite man (intermediate between God and nothingness, between Being and non-being), the Pascalian rhetoric of two Infinites, and Kierkegaard’s Concept of Dread. Thus begins Ricoeur’s brand of philosophical anthropology. Upon the reinstatement of the existential expansion of experience, after the eidetic reduction presented its phenomenology, the paradox of lived experience and its elusive subject overwhelms direct confrontation, necessitating a hermeneutic methodology. This switch in method is called for by the notion of fallibility’s extremity of fault, but it does not explicitly begin until Symbolism of Evil. Fallible Man adds to the skeletal structure of Freedom and Nature’s eidetics a “pathetics,” an ontologically pathological, or broken constitution, and over and above that a transcendental and practical synthesis. The pathological “melange” and rhetoric of “misery” undergoes a transcendental reflection to become, in a Kantian manner, practically subject to a philosophy of feeling, by the mediation of the heart, thumos, coeur. Fallible Man is a rich text, and from it should be extended the projected philosophical

anthropology which it actually begins, a philosophy of feeling, and perhaps even an axiology. To Fallible Man’s archetectonic of the fault (in the geological sense, Ricoeur assures us), built upon the eidetics of the will, is added the concrete myth of the “Fall” in Symbolism of Evil, which causes the “semantic shock” of the “predicative impertinence” or “bizzare predication” (terms from the later Ricoeur’s general theory of imagination in “Imagination in Discourse and in Action,” in From Text to Action) which charges the symbols of evil and the symbols of the sacred with their power. The transcendental seduction of the “drama of temptation” (SE 252) is invoked in the last sentences of Fallible Man. This is Ricoeur’s secret code for: go straight to the heart of Symbolism of Evil if you want to ride the tsunami of this earthquake to the other shore. This departure through the heart of Symbolism of Evil we shall make after a few of Ricoeur’s developments are appropriated.

Fallible Man, certain essays in Conflict of Interpretations (“The Hermeneutics of Symbols” and “The Demythization of Accusation”), Freud and Philosophy, and certain other works of his offer us conceptual tools-- specula-- with which to scope the the unwritten Poetics of the Will. One of these is the placement of human mediation (Freedom and Nature’s “merely human freedom”) between existential difference (Ricoeur’s Sehe Punkt, the “receptivity specific to sensibility”) and primary affirmation (here, as the “supra-signification of the verb,” “the spontaneity characteristic of understanding”) in Fallible Man. Placed between these two concepts is a “third term” called “pure imagination.” The semantic innovation of surplus metaphors converts the “merely human freedom” into pure objectivity, and not merely in Kant’s narrow epistemological frame, but in “the thing’s objectival character” (cf. FM 38-9), in its ontological constitution. This

objectivity of the object, Ricoeur tells us, is the true lumen naturale, with the proviso, “the transcendental imagination for which it is the correlate remains an enigma” (FM 41). Thus it is Lux Cipher!, the enigmatic light of transcendental imagination, which enlightens objectivity, when we spark, when we arc across the gap between existential difference and primary affirmation.

In the essays of The Conflict of Interpretations Ricoeur proposes that the philosopher’s task is to combine the demystification of the accusatory agency (par excellence, the Evil Infinite) with a “fundamental or originary ethics” (CI 340) which consists of another conceptual dyad rich in meaning: eros (“the desire to be”) and conatus (“the effort to exist”). The philosophers he cites as the source of these ideas are, for eros, Plato and Freud, and for conatus, Spinoza. We will keep this in mind while we pick up another dyad for our adventure toward the Poetics.

Lastly, Freud and Philosophy (De L’interpretation) ends in the dialectic of the archeology of the subject and the eschatology of the Wholly Other playing out in the heart, thumos, coeur-rejoining the discourse of Fallible Man. Here the psychoanalysis of religion has strong emphasis on demystification of accusation and a “diabolic conversion” of symbols (FP 529). The need for a “diabolic conversion” arises from the hermeneutic concern for a human tempering of symbolic power’s own dialectic of sedimentation and innovation, for he states: “‘Symbols give rise to thought,’ but they are also the birth of idols. That is why the critique of idols remains the condition of the conquest of symbols” (CI 543).

When the symbolic power of man is thus crucified, when the will enters the hermeneutic sphere between eros and conatus on the ethical plane, and between existential difference and primary affirmation on the perpendicular, ontological plane, and the enterprise is given hermeneutic concreteness or depth of levels of discourse through the dialectic of archeology and eschatology the soul of the will (volition is nolition, to paraphrase “Negativity and Primary Affirmation,” willing is nilling,) ever poised to say “no” to necessity, acts this “no” out in suicide, resurrecting the genitive power of the will. Simultaneously, when God dies, the deicision of the beyond of being allows there to be being in the first place.


In Ricoeur’s “Intellectual Autobiography,” (Schilpp and Hahn, The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur) Ricoeur refers to his early project of the third volume as “rash promises... most imprudent... I deplore it today” (11). He even goes so far as to justify the “premonition of the subsequent abandonment of this grand project” with the last words of Freedom and Nature, “willing is not creating” (14). In his reply to Domenico Jervolino’s essay in that volume, he adds that if there was a subsequent attempt, it was certainly not in the form of a Jaspersian style philosophy of transcendence, as had been announced.”

In Charles Reagan’s Paul Ricoeur: His Life and Work, in an interview with Paul Riceour, he says of his young self, “As a young philosopher, so many decades ago, I sketched out a plan for my work. This was a very foolish thing to do, to planify one’s work. It never works-- for two

reasons, at least. First because the audience has changed... The second reason why we have been foolish is the fact that I learned precise problems, works, and so on which I could not imagine existing.” In interviews in Domenico Jervolino in his 1990 The Cogito and Hermeneutics, Ricoeur says, “According to my own theory, the author is not the best interpreter of his own work... This is a problem for my readers” (122). And also: “ As for the third part of the plan, its realization is the least evident. Nevertheless, I would claim that what I have already called a poetics of the will was accomplished in other modalities, and I will give three examples.... Rule of Metaphor... Time and Narrative... “Ideology and Utopia”... lacking however in the recourse to transcendence.” Here he also tells us “No one is the master of the origin of his thoughts.” In Farhang Erfani’s Paul Ricoeur: Honoring and Continuing the Work (2011), we find Domenico Jervolino’s essay “In Search of a Poetics of the Will.” He believes that these selfadmonishments of Ricoeur’s late confessions are mere moments of modesty and attempts to moderate our jubilation. In any case, the original aim was a philosophical revelation of Biblical proportions, and it may in fact be quite fitting that the enigmatic, perhaps even scandalous end of this project is renounced and abandoned by its maker and at the same time deemed an adventure open to speculation.

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