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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