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Ricœur and French Skepticism
If we want to situate Ricœur in relation to what we can call the French school of phenomenology, as a way of asking what it is that characterizes French thought today, we are allowed to say that Ricœur to the end was someone who defended the philosophical order, the philosophical genre, from the properly philosophical usage of that mode of questioning we know as sceptein. But he follows the perhaps somewhat unexpected path of what turns out to be a quite particular kind of skepticism — one that oddly enough brings Ricœur close to a thinker like Stanley Cavell. To show this, I want to lay out a veritable amphibology of skepticism, one which can serve as a useful guide because of its own equivocal, unclear, and ambiguous status. There are, to be sure, different figures of skepticism which stand in opposition to one another in the complex weave that makes up a broad conflict of interpretations. Ricœur’s hermeneutics is a good entry point into this, for we find him there arguing not only with Gadamer and Habermas, but also with a good portion of what phenomenology became for the French school, as well as with the structuralist turn that characterized the human sciences in France during the 1960s and 70s. To put it briefly, it is as if on both sides Ricœur said “let’s not exaggerate.”
The Hermeneutic Gap
Let me begin from the most classic, most well-known aspect of Ricœur’s thought. What did he do with hermeneutics before moving beyond it? His hermeneutics seems to be stretched in two different directions. On the one hand, there is a question of thinking about trust, something that brings him close to Gadamer. The faculty of understanding, of recognizing what gives itself, implies the capacity to say “yes, that’s it,” it really is. On the other hand, there is the question of giving room to suspicion, something that comes to him from the critical tradition and the great masters of suspicion up to and including Habermas. The faculty of pointing out misunderstandings, differences, distances that are often distortions, presupposes the power to say no, “it’s not like that.”
Critical hermeneutics then teaches us to live with the conflict of interpretations, to turn the search for a hermeneutics of agreement and quasi-oral understanding, under the thrust of a current question, toward rule-governed variations of past, possible interpretations of that question. Here the phenomenological technique of using eidetic variation gets inverted. This is why, against Heidegger, and even though we have to think in terms of an interpreted self, we ought not to exaggerate and too quickly “ontologize” hermeneutics. An ontology is only given in and through this distance, this gap, these disagreements. We do not have on one side ontological belonging and on the other methodological distance. Distance too is ontological. And belonging too is methodological.
In this way the skeptical gap gets introduced straight away into hermeneutics ; it is constitutive of hermeneutics : the gap of misunderstanding, of differing opinions about interpretations ; the gap of generations, which opens between them an irremediable dissymmetry in interpretation. To remove this double gap would be to remove what makes something a question for hermeneutics. For what constantly renews the work of interpretation is both our argumentative enthusiasm that maintains the gaps among points of view in the conversation and our capacity to inherit, that is, to reopen in the texts and traces of the past, interpretations that had not yet been given, ones that themselves open new ways of relating to the world.
Skepticism and Phenomenological Cynicism
Let us now switch back to the side of phenomenology. Ricœur, as already stated, is certainly an eminent representative of French phenomenology. I do not have time here to discuss every French phenomenologist. I myself was a student of Michel Henry and Emmanuel Levinas, and relatively close to Jean-François Lyotard. Still, it is true that Ricœur is one of the authors in this tradition who has been much discussed, if only because of the hermeneutical turn he introduced into it.
I want to take as an example his relationship to Levinas, in order to indicate the major points where they differed and also to honor Levinas. The argument about the constitution of responsibility between the self and the other is the best known of these points, one where we can say that Levinas put the accent on dissymmetry and the priority of the other, whereas Ricœur privileged the reciprocity between the other and the self.
This is why he tries to pluralize the self (on the basis of the pragmatic postures of the I, the you, and the he or she, but also in terms of the different figures of narrative and the promise) so as to make the self capable of receiving the injunction of an alterity that is itself pluralized. We may well think here of the play of metacategories in Plato’s Sophist. And this is where we get the final quip when at the end of Oneself as Another, after having demonstrated the polysemy and even the dispersion to be found in our experience of alterity, Ricœur ends in a tone of Socratic irony by saying :
He concludes therefore that Levinas opposes a solipsistic self, closed-in on itself, to a radically exterior other, who is totally other, in a hyperbolic, excessive fashion. He points again to this hyperbolic language in his reading of Levinas’s Otherwise than Being where he refers to the sophist Cratylus as presented by Plato. My hypothesis is that Ricœur here takes up again Plato’s argument against one of the sides of sophism, one that returns again in the Cynics, as when Antisthenes, for example, says that we never speak of the same thing.
This is why at the end of Oneself as Another I see an echo from Ricœur’s earlier History and Truth. For Levinas, as for Sartre, being is at best stagnation, sedimentation, from which we need to uproot ourselves, unglue ourselves, free ourselves. But what Ricœur himself wants us to do is to regain a notion of being that would be an act rather than a form, an active affirmation. Whence the extraordinary closing words of this text from History and Truth :
It is because we have a flat, univocal conception of being that we need a nothingness, or an absolute other. This is why in Oneself as Another, Ricœur had to show that the other is also in the same.
By accepting to take our stand amid an interweaving of different genres, such that there is no absolute or impregnable position, hence by accepting the zigzagging and the interweaving of different points of view, we are able to resist the “cynical” injunction to give up a common language for a private language, one wherein no one can ever join me. Another argument between Levinas and Ricœur, an apparently minor one, is eloquent in this regard. It has to do with what Levinas, speaking of “revelation in the Jewish tradition,” calls the preeminence of the prescriptive. Ricœur, on the contrary, insists on the irreductible plurality of biblical genres through which a hermeneutic of the idea of revelation takes place. For there is also a narrative genre into which the prescriptive is woven, as well as the prophetic, hymnic, and wisdom genres to consider. Throughout this conversation with Levinas, it seems to me that Ricœur resisted what has been called the theological turn in French phenomenology, first of all because he always resisted a certain skeptical turn to phenomenology ; I mean a skepticism of a “cynical” style if I can again refer back to the arguments in Athens in Plato’s day. And I think we can apply this same analysis to Derrida and to all those who “exaggerate” differences of opinion, even differance.
Pyrrhonist Skepticism and Eleatic Structuralism
We have started to catch sight of what phenomenology became for the French school. Let us now examine the structuralist turn in the human sciences, particularly the exciting discussion between Levi-Strauss and Ricœur. Let us begin with what is essential : the anthropologist was willing to recognize himself in the formulas that the philosopher proposed to characterize him, that of a “Kantianism without a transcendental subject” and that of “an extreme form of agnosticism” which Levi-Strauss acknowledged “corresponds well to a radical Pyrrhonism which probably represents the final state of my thought.”
There was an argument therefore about that Kantianism “without a transcendental subject” that he saw in Levi-Strauss, such that for Levi-Strauss, the rules governing unconscious structures were so strict that we always follow them, even if we don’t know it—and they are all the more efficacious when we are unaware of them. Science consists exactly in knowing this. It is this view from nowhere that allows Levi-Strauss to apply a single method to anthropology. However, Ricœur was skeptical in this regard about a discourse allegedly without a subject, which all too quickly could turn unverifiable and irresponsible :
This is why we have to apply the qualification of a “radical Pyrrhonism” to define Levi-Strauss’s quasi-Parmenidean postulate that “human beings always think rightly.”
We can say “quasi” Parmenidean because it is a postulate with great heuristic and descriptive power, since we can only think and speak correctly, and there is no need for us to know the rules or consciously to adhere to them in order to put them to work. This allows for an egalitarian permutation of terms, a kind of radical and universal interchangeability, in which there are no longer any others. The problem is that this kind of Pyrrhonian skepticism wipes out any possibility of a gap between our discourse and what there is. There are no more lies, and no more fiction. No errors or mistakes, but also no imagination or anything to wish for. No history, and no difference in points of view. No relationship to reality that would be anything other than a combinatorics of what is already there. This is what accounts for the “conservative” tendency of Pyrrhonism.
Now, it seems to me that this debate was already that of Plato with Gorgias, who took shelter behind Parmenides, in the Sophist. In order to trap the sophist, one has to show that we can say something that is false, and therefore talk or think about what is not (see Sophist 240d sq.). This is what Plato called parricide for he had to refute Parmenides in order to get out of the nihilistic Eleatic philosophy in which everything comes down to being the same.
To strengthen my argument, it will be helpful to pause a moment to consider the reading of Plato I am proposing here. To be sure, Ricœur is not really a very “Platonic” author. Still, in several places he proposes a quite original reading, by showing that Plato’s problem was one of language, of the search for a metalanguage that would permit a critique of sophism and of tyranny. The problem of the ideas is for Plato a problem of language. So, prodded by this sharp question, we can say that Plato aims at those ideas that lie at the origin of meanings, that serve as the basis for names : the idea is an arché. But then it is not possible to know the idea as some separate unity, and there is no accessible meta-language. We have to work with our ordinary language, and this is why we have to become “better dialecticians.” Unlike those Platonists who tended to hypostasize words, for Plato the One, the Principle or arché does not wipe out the Multiple, the Many. There is a One only in relation to the Many and vice versa.
This is why the exercise of Socratic doubt for Plato has to take place between two limits, the one based on doubt that ends in a witty quip or cynical invective, the other which is that of a Pyrrhonism that takes shelter in an impenetrable silence. It is in this sense that it seems to me that Ricœur is a defender of a philosophical genre, of the properly philosophical use of that interrogative inquiry which was sceptein in the dialectical exercises of the Academy of Plato’s direct successors up to Carneades. Ricœur writes, for example, that “Plato left us an incomplete ontology, full of many possible developments. It was Plotinus who turned it into a system. Plato only wanted to write dialogues.”
All Ricœur’s works are arranged in such a way as to create durable doubts, intriguing questions, they are meant to multiply perplexities, to augment our sense of how much uncertainty we can bear. His setting out of an unsurpassable “conflict of interpretations,” his acceptance of unsolvable ethical dilemmas, of the irreducibility of disciplines that oblige us to bring together heterogeneous approaches, all contribute to reinforce this feeling.
Furthermore, for Ricœur as for Plato, it is difficult to know where his thinking really lies. He “externalizes” every form of discourse that he is able to isolate, if possible by attributing it to someone else, to an “other.” But with this comes the question of his own “voice,” can it lie anywhere other than in the interval between and even the composing of successive readings, ones that he takes up but then abandons, no one of them being able to claim the status of the final word. A bit like the lively portraits of Protagoras or Aristophanes that Plato presents are also literary creations, Ricœur’s successive readings of Aristotle or Augustine, of Levinas and Heidegger are both wonderfully faithful to them and reconstructions of different discourses presented in such a way that Ricœur can use two opposed theses powerful enough to resist one another. I experienced this myself in finding myself opposed to Derrida on the course of pardoning at the end of Memory, History, Forgetting.
But let me turn now to French thought and I hope you will permit me to propose one general overarching question : What can the thinkers I have referred to, who cover such a large spectrum of opinion, have in common, given so many different forms of skepticism? First of all, it is a certain distrust with regard to modernity. This observation was already made by Habermas against the french tradition, who for so long has been the champion of the ideals of the Enlightenment, of modernity, of universalism, and who has become more and more conservative. It is as if, having been for so long committed to openness, to emancipation and development, this tradition is on the way to becoming the sorcerer’s apprentice that wants to break the spell that it itself has unleashed, but which has escaped its control.
A too quick caricature of this “French school” might see in it an almost melancholic thought : an anthropology of cultures that suspend time (Levi-Strauss), an archeology of knowledge against the modern will to control (Foucault), a deconstructing of Western thought by differance (Derrida), a revealing of the post-modern condition (Lyotard), a phenomenology of embodied subjectivity (Henry) or of otherness directed against the development that holds Western thinking it its grip (Levinas). In short, a France that resists globalization and no longer believes in progress. To be sure, this announced defeat of modernity can also be read and respected as a genuine thinking about decline.
In a seminal text from 1961, entitled “Planetary Civilization and National Culture,” Ricœur faced head on the question that haunted his generation. He begins from the paradox of a culture or civilization wherein we see unfolding at the same time the technical progress of modern, planetary civilization and an anthropological threat to the diversity of cultures, through a subtle destruction of what he speaks of as their “ethico-mythical core.” He proposes a profound and quite original analysis of this, one close to his argument with Claude Levi-Strauss to whom he is close here in the way he states the problem, even if he wants to take it in a quite different direction. For Ricœur, the problem is really that of a gnawing skepticism for which there are only “others.” This threat, which he said at the time was more serious than that of atomic warfare, he identifies notably with the idea of tourism, as a figure of that perpetual displacement with no end in mind that is what human exchanges have become.
This will be his angle of attack. It is the question of skepticism with which this text ends. We can take skepticism to be a form of solipsism, an inability to get beyond oneself, and we have seen that this is what threatens phenomenology, up to and including its hyperbolic reversal in Levinas. But we can also take it as the inability to have a self, when there are only selfless others. This is why Ricœur writes here, more or less against Levi-Strauss and structuralist Pyrrhonism for which there is nothing outside of language : “in order to meet another, one must have a self.”
Ricœur does begin therefore from the assertion common to a generation of French thought, shaped by the war, by the destruction of Europe and by decolonization, that there is a plurality of civilizations in space and time, and that they are mortal. We find here the themes of Spengler’s Decline of the West which provoked Wittgenstein and more recently Stanley Cavell. His question is that of the conditions of possibility of an encounter between diverse cultures, an encounter that would not be mortal for all of them. It means breaking once and for all with the vertiginous idea of universal, total communication and with the idea of an absolute unity of humanity, but also with that of a total alterity among humanities that do not and cannot understand one another.
This is the point in this 1961 text where a skeptical questioning arises, no longer about any doubt about the possibility of understanding the other, of encountering him, of translating, but just the opposite : “So the question of confidence arises : what happens to my values when I understand those of other peoples?” The question of confidence is in fact the question of confidence in oneself, in one’s own existence, one’s own capacities to receive and to give. Ricœur goes on to say : “understanding is a formidable adventure where every cultural heritage risks sinking into a vague syncretism.” So there is a condition governing the encounter between cultures :
The task for coming generations therefore will be to get beyond the dogmatic clash of civilizations without sinking into an indifferent, skeptical relativism. “This is why we are in a kind of intermediary moment, an interregnum, where we can no longer practice the dogmatism of one unique truth, and where we are not yet capable of conquering the skepticism we have fallen into. We are in a tunnel, at the twilight of dogmatism, but on the threshold that leads to genuine dialogues.
The Question of Credibility
It seems to me important to note that this same article ends on the question of skepticism, which seems to me to be one of the guiding threads of Ricœur’s thought, up to his last great works on recognition and his book Memory, History, Forgetting. In reading this book, one may ask oneself retrospectively where Ricœur ever stopped rethinking today’s skepticism, placing at the center of his philosophical work an examination at the level of contemporary uncertainties.
To him, our civilization seemed caught up in doubt, as if everything that had been taken for granted for a long time had become vain. This crisis of legitimation stems from the fact that we no longer recognize ourselves in the form of society we now live in. Modern people, Ricœur says, “have come to detest what they loved, without having found any credible alternative to the form of society that defines their identity.” Mastering nature, growth, prosperity all come down to a kind of generalized instrumentalization, the crumbling of cultures, a loss of meaning, disaffection about both public and private life. Here skepticism at bottom touches not so much the claim to attain objectivity, to know the world and admit the unity of truth, as our faculty to accept our mutual or reciprocal duplicity, friendship or the duel of recognition. Such was the theme of Ricœur’s last book.
A kind of general incredulity is spreading, which sooner or later touches everything : How are we to have any confidence in politics, justice, history, narrative, memory, traces of the past, promises, language? History seems to be a perpetual oscillation between excessive yet related forms of dogmatism and skepticism. To any excess of certainty and assurance corresponds an excess of uncertainty, a renouncing of knowing, a defiance and suspicion that gnaws away at everything. This question of credibility and incredulity was central for Ricœur, who wrote :
To escape this dichotomy, our job will be to not separate critical questioning which recognizes distances from the affirmation that makes us see things in a new way, one never seen before. This question of confidence is bound to the frightening but unavoidable possibility, not just of lies, but of an inability to bear witness, to testify, to make oneself heard. Here is a remarkable excerpt from Memory, History, Forgetting :
We can see that rather than responding to this excess of incredulity with an excess of certitude that would be its reverse form, Ricœur digs beneath the surface of doubt itself and in this way radicalizes attestation, taking up in different ways what was said by Husserl and Wittgenstein. When Ricœur considers the hermeneutics of those he called, in a now well-known phrase, “masters of suspicion,” he does so not in order to reject suspicion, but on the contrary in order to closely associate critique and conviction.
Attestation that has not encountered suspicion, affirmation that has not encountered critique, reconstruction that has not encountered deconstruction, agreement that has not encountered disagreement, would lack the dissensus that is the basic element of any testimony or attestation, and coextensive with it. There is no point of view that can set itself up as an absolute third person, above the problem : “The vow of impartiality must thus be considered in light of the impossibility of an absolute third party.” Doubt therefore has to accompany any credible attestation to the very end, they are inseparable. It is the soul of Ricœur’s “argumentative furor.”
It is also to doubt that we own the critical turn in hermeneutics, starting from the point where our belonging to a world indicates a distance from other historical and linguistic worlds. Yet reciprocally, doubt is what forbids critique to claim a boundless freedom :
In the details of his meticulous analyses of historical testimony, the refiguring function of narrative, and metaphorical reference, we constantly discover that approach which Jacques Bouveresse sees in Wittgenstein, which asks how both how to have confidence and how not to have it—confidence and doubt being so to speak intertwined with each other. It is as if we could not advance in terms of one without the other. A certain skepticism is unsurpassable, because the solution does not lie in some assured certitude, but in the confident acceptance of uncertain situations, of that uncanny strangeness of the everyday, in our astonishment that we should so often understand one another, without being obligated to do so but simply because we do trust in the capacity of ordinary actors, speakers, narrators.
Paru dans Il Protagora, Roma-Lecce, 2012
 “Phenomenology and Hermeneutics,” in From Text to Action, Essays in Hermeneutics II (Du texte à l'action translated by Kathleen Blamey and John B. Thompson. Evanston : Northwestern University Press, 1991) p.32–33.
 Last words of Oneself as Another (Soi-même comme un autre translated by Kathleen Blamey. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1992).
 Paul, Ricœur, “Otherwise : A Reading of Emmanuel Levinas’s Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence,” trans. Matthew Escobar, Yale French Studies no. 104 (2004) p.82–99.
 Last words of History and Truth (Histoire et vérité ; translated by Charles A. Kelbley. Evanston : Northwestern University Press, 1965).
 See the interview between Marcel Hénaff and Levi-Strauss in Esprit (2004) and the discussion between Ricœur and Levi-Strauss in the same journal in 1963.
 “Science and Ideology,” in From Text to Action, op.cit., p.257.
 Esprit (2004), p.198.
 In a course on “Being, Essence, and Substance in Plato and Aristotle,” Ricœur had taught at Strasbourg, he had said, “The problem of essence is identical with that of language, of naming” (…) The Platonic problem is a problem about grounds, about the critique of language.” Être, Essence et Substance chez Platon et Aristote (repris à Paris, Editions du Seuil, 2011).
 “But nowadays the clever ones among us (…) go straight from the one to the unlimited and omit the intermediates. It is these, however, that make all the difference as to whether we are engaged with each other in dialectical or only in eristic discourse” (Philebus 16e-17a).
 Être, essence et substance chez Platon et Aristote, op.cit. p.116.
 This composite concept strikes me as being quite original and I find it interesting that ever since 1961 Ricœur refused to separate ethics from myth, morality from stories, action from the plots within which it gets told.
 Histoire et Vérité, Paris, Seuil, 1964, p.330-331.
 Ibid., p.337.
 See Stanley Cavell, “Décliner le déclin. Wittgenstein, philosophe de la culture,” in Qu’est ce que la philosophie américaine? (Paris, Gallimard, 2009).
 Histoire et Vérité, op.cit. p.336.
 Ibid., p.172.
 Lectures I, Paris, Seuil, 1991, p.172.
 Paul Ricœur, Memory, History, Forgetting (La mémoire, l'histoire, l'oubli translated by Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer, Chicago. University of Chicago Press, 2004) p.176.
 Ibid., p.166.
 Ibid., p.314.
 “Science and Ideology,” From text to action, op.cit. p.251.