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Autour de Paul Ricœur > Philosophie morale et politique


Ricoeur's Ethics of Method


A method is always the vehicle of ethical presuppositions. And ethics truly appears when its methodology itself becomes an ethical exercice, an exercice in responsability. This text begins with the role of the "aporia" in Ricoeur's thought. It then underscores the respect brought to the questions put by others, and thus to the plurality of possible questions. Further on, Ricoeur's treatment of the "remainder", that which each method leaves at its edges, is focussed upon. Finally these various figures are interpretated in the perspective of the implicit anthropology of this ethics.

When one speaks of method and of efficacity of method, one is supposed to abstract entirely from all ethical preferences. As if the true problem were not often intermediate, mixed, in the choice and the adaptation of methods in relation to the subject to be treated : a method that is always the vehicle of ethical presuppositions. Ricoeur is too kierkegaardian, too spinozist, we might say too much a hermeneut to neglect this point. Not simply because he is the leader of the hermeneutical school in contemporary French thought, but because he has tried troughout his life to bring his own presuppositions –rather Protestant, and rather socialist (in the Latin or Romanic sense of this term, in French, Italian, and Spanish contexts)– to a level of clarity at wich they can stand as a possible and viable choice.

When we speak of ethics, our interlocutor tends to expect us to come rapidly to the point, and to declare our "values". Paul Ricoeur, for his part, delays results and takes so many detours that the interlocutor wonders suddenly if it is not the path itself, the method, wich becomes an ethical exercice, an exercice in responsability –or perhaps in "interrogativity"! Ricoeur is too socratic, too cartesian, too kantian, let us say too critical not to proceed in this way. Not simply because of his professional habits as a philosopher, but because existentially he cannot do otherwise. As Roland Barthes would say, that is his style.

Here, then, rather than concerning ourselves with the values that Ricoeur endorses, we want to examine those he practices. His way of treating subjects (and of treating other authors) may teach us more about his ethics than his writings (for instance History and Truth, From text to action, or Oneself as Another*). And inversely, this implicit ethics may help us understand how he has been able to elaborate a "critical hermeneutics" or something like a "structuralism of the event" (titles wich appear to be contradictory). In its sobriety, his implicit ethics reveals in this sense something like the soul of Ricoeur's method.

Paul Ricoeur will be eighty years old this winter, and his bibliography alone needs 300 pages! In fact, like Emmanuel Kant, he has published more in the last ten years than in his whole life. My discussion today will base itself only on quotations wich will help, in passing, to situate some of the outlines of Ricoeur's thought, functioning a bit like small pieces of a large puzzle, although I cannot hope, of course, to fill in the vast picture completely. I would like to begin with the role of the aporia, the impasse, in Ricoeur's method. I shall continue then by underscoring the respect brought to the questions posed by others, and thus to the plurality of possible questions. I shall move forward then by way of the attention Ricoeur focuses on the "remainder", on that which each method leaves at its edges. Finally, I shall regroup these different figures under the heading of an implicit anthropology which shows through in all these moves.

I. Prelude on the sense of the aporia

We will start, then, from certain limits of method. If method is path or passage, Ricoeur has passed his life in exploring the passes which make it possible to link ideological continents and theoretical fields, and in showing that "ça passe": that is, these continents and fields fit together as parts of the same world. What in each particular discourse may be totalitarian is thus reshaped, bent to fit within the real. This bending reflects the limits of all method, and these limits are encountered in impasses. Ricoeur has strongly developed this sense of the aporia. One can even say that the passages take their meaning only in relation to the impasses.

Here is an example ; Ricoeur is speaking about witness, and on the topic of the ascription or attribution to oneself of an action :

"The aporias attaching to ascription bear witness to this gap between two degrees of self–designation. As in generally the case with the most intractable aporias, these aporias of ascription do not bring a verdict of condemnation against the philosophy which discovers them. On the contrary, they should be reckoned to its credit".

And Ricoeur adds in a note :

"Time and Narrative, volume three, is entirely constructed on the relationship between an aporetics of temporality and the retort of a poetics of narrativity"*.

Moreover Time and narrative itself concludes with aporias. Ricoeur often devotes similar discreet praise to the aporia.

One may even ask if the aporia is not transcendental, constitutive: in the case of the critique of ideology, Ricoeur writes that it is

"impossible for an individual, and even more for a group to formulate everything, thematize everyting, pose everything as an object of thought. It is this impossibility –to which I shall return at length in criticizing the idea of total authority. Now it certainly seems that the non–transparence of our cultural codes is a necessary condition of the production of social messages"*.

From where does Ricoeur draw this sense of the aporia? I see three possible models. The first, the most eminent, is that of Husserl*. In his inquiry into the transcendental ego, into the deepest levels of phenomenology, Husserl is led in his Crisis into an impasse : the subject always already belongs to a "lebenswelt", a life–world. This impasse in the direction of the origin may be thought of as the great educator of contemporary French philosophy : Maurice Merleau–Ponty and Paul Ricoeur, of course, but also Emmanuel Lévinas and Michel Henry, Jacques Derrida, Jean–François Lyotard, Gilles Deleuze and Jean–Luc Marion, they are all haunted by this absence (differently of course). It determines what one might call the reorientation of philosophy. Ricoeur writes, for example :

"I wish in effect to lead hermeneutical reflection to the point at which it calls, by an inner aporia, for an important reorientation"*.

The second model, probably a good deal farther below the surface, is that of Nietzsche. If the will to truth is capable of destroying everything, veil after veil, to reach its goal, and if it discovers that its goal is in fact nothing but this very destruction, the sole way out of the impasse is turn around again and create : to accept that truth itself is poetic. It seems to me that the project of a "poetics of the will", announced by Ricoeur in 1950, responds to this aporia. And we have just seen the link between aporetics and poetics (in the case of temporality and narrativity).

The third model is that of Plato, whose dialogues lead to a crisis and to a sort of metanoïa, a complete reorientation of the way of seeing, a reorientation which is, says Ricoeur,

"implied in the aporetical method of a goodly number of the dialogues. It is not only a question of holding back the true answer and thus of focusing attention on the question itself, of stripping and in a sense cleansing the questionning process ; the goal is not even simply to join an ethical function to this critical function, breaking the pretentions of false and superficial philosophers by means of irony : it is a question, rather, of implanting in the soul an emptiness, a night, an impotence, an absence which are the preludes to the revelation"*.

Let us go even further : the revelation is perhaps the very absence of revelation. So it will appear, in any case, if we accept Ricoeur's claim that

"ontology is the promised land for a philosophy which begins with language and with reflection, (but) like Moses, the speaking and reflecting subject can only glimpse this land before dying"*.

The figure of Ricoeur–Moses thus comes to balance that of Ricoeur– Ulysses, navigator of all possible passages to attain Ithaca. For Ricoeur's ontological Ithaca remains an Ithaca of hope. Here is where the ethical soul of the method resides, something like an ethics of the questioning process : the synthesis does not belong to us. We are "below the dividing line", in the insurmountable conflict of interpretations.

Ii. The pluralization of questions, and the respect of other points of view

The sense of the aporia, finally, places the questioning process at the center of philosophical activity. In what way is this step an ethical one ? Let us take an example. Commenting on La métaphore vive (The rule of metaphor), Ricoeur writes in the preface that this work...

"does not seek to replace rhetoric with semantics, and semantics with hermeneutics, thus refuting one by the other ; rather, it tries to give legitimacy to each point of view within the limits of the discipline which corresponds to it, and to found the systematic linkage of points of view on the progression from the word to the sentence and from the sentence to discourse"*.

This methodological pluralization of points of view is first of all a hermeneutical postulate. One can only understand a text, a doctrine, or a theory if one understands them as responses to questions, as Gadamer sayd, and if one accepts the irreducible diversity of possible questions.

"A hermeneutical philosophy is one which accepts all the demands of this long detour and renounces the dream of a total mediation, at the end of which reflection would enjoy intellectual intuition in the transparence to itself of an absolute subject"*.

The phenomenological method of "eidetic variation", by which one varies the profiles of a thing in order to seize its being or essence, is here taken up again, but reversed : far from searching for an invariable identity, it is in the variations, in the very conflict of interpretations that existence is to be interpreted. Against Heidegger –whose hermeneutics is not made to resolve the problems of literary, historical, or social criticism, but rather to "dissolve" these problems– Ricoeur writes that the coherent figure of the being which we are "is given nowhere else than in this dialectic of interpretations"*.

But it is not only an hermeneutical gesture. Moving to another register, this pluralization of methods is seen very clearly in the ethical section of Oneself as Another*. One begins there from the properly ethical aim which is that of the subject desiring his (or her) own good, human action inscribing itself in this irreducible plurality of the desirable. The method here is teleological. But diverse desires can be incompatible : the moral norms appears then to give the rule, which has as object less the attainment of the good, that the prevention of evil, a concern which obliges me to take others into account. The method there is deontological. Now, a conflict between contradictory moral imperatives of equal legitimacy can arise (although Kant refuses to aknowledge it); practical wisdom emerges in these tragic limit–situations, and it must then clear a path toward a judgment capable of taking into account the incompatible points of view. The method then is somewhat poetic.

It is necessary, then, to pass through this apprenticeship in questioning : we learn thereby to shed the exclusivity of our questions, and to divide the right to question into as many legitimacies as there are angles of attack or points of view. This wish, that no point of view should be "sacrificed" in the conflict of interpretations, is found once again in Ricoeur's political philosophy. Beyond the fundamental accord on an idea of democracy as a setting in wich conflicts are recognized and negociated, this political issue may be seen as a discret point of discord between Ricoeur and such thinker as Claude Lefort or Jürgen Habermas : for if the points of view not taken into account must be ceaselessly reintegrated into political debate, this debate must nonetheless proceed with the awareness that tere are always points of view which will escape its grap.

There is "always already" a "debt" toward others who do not – or not yet, or no longer– belong to the community, and without whom the social contract and deliberation are not complete, not fully valid, not totally "authorized"*. There are always unrepresented, and perhaps unrepresentable, points of view. This lack does not disqualify democracy, but attests its problematic, debatable, relative, and fragile character. This is why beyond democracy, there must be a more fundamental solidarity with the victims of all places and all times, with that "community of the shaken" of which Jan Patocka speaks*.

This feeling of indebtedness is probably what pushes Ricoeur to always seek to honor his predecessors. Rarely, at least in France, has a great philosopher been so concerned with giving each person his (or her) due. This is what distinguishes him from authors like Lévinas and Perelman, who write without references:

"I try to take a foothold in the philosophical tradition. I think in effect that it is one of the tasks of philosophy always to carry forward a critical recapitulation of its own heritage, even if it is a crushing task to confront giants such as Kant and Hegel"*.

Methodically, Ricoeur seeks to formulate the question to which the cited author is responding, the point of view which he (or she) introduces in the debate. This formulation has the value of approbation. Then, no less methodically, he seeks to point out the questions left hanging by the author, the problems that he (or she) raises, and it is at this point that he "leaves" the author, separating himself from him (or her) in order to move on.

Or, to put it finally in another way , as a philosopher of "reading", Ricoeur affirms that

"to understand oneself is to understand oneself before the text and to receive from it the conditions of a self, other than the 'I' which comes to reading".

Thus the reader, because he (or she) has suspended the exclusivity of his (or her) point of view, receives a subjectivity augmented by the...

"opening of new possibilities which is the work in me of the stuff (la chose) of the text"*.

In all the registers in which we exchange meaning, perspectives, readings, visions of the world and of life, theoretical debates, political conflicts, etc., one can say that it is the progressive integration of others' questions, others' points of view, which reorganizes our own questions and points of view, at each level, and without end. And this reorganization of our intelligence is at the same time the reorganization of our conduct : it is at once an ethical and a methodological progress, inseparably.

Iii. The hybridization of methods, and the respect of the "remainder"

We can begin again with another metaphor, as frequently used as that of the aporia, which is that of the graft or transplant. In a volume of the journal Autrement, Ricoeur recounts his intellectual itinerary in these terms :

"This conjunction among phenomenology, linguistics, and analytical philosophy in its least logicalist aspect, provided me with resources for hybridization to which I owe a great deal"*.

This gardener's metaphor is not accidental and we find it again in the preface to The conflict of interpretations :

"My aim here is to explore the paths opened up for contemporary philosophy by what one could call the grafting of the hermeneutical problem onto the phenomenological method".

In fact , onto each subject taken up –will, evil, subject, meaning, metaphor, narrative, history, political thought or ethics, law, etc.– Ricoeur grafts several methods, convinced apparently that only a hybrid method can rise to the complexity of the subjects chosen.

Where is ethic in all of this ? Ricoeur develops, as we have noted previously, an acute sens of the limits of each of the conceptual models he employs. To such an extent, indeed, that he expands this feeling to the whole of language, for language itself must recognize its limits :

"Individualization can be roughly characterized as the inverse process from that of classification, which abolishes singularities in the service of the concept (...) It is because we speak and think by concepts that language must in some sense repair the loss which is consummated by conceptualization"*.

It is onto this loss of individual qualities required by the construction of the concept that there comes to graft itself a sort of supplement of construction, or rather of deconstruction or reconstruction : anyway someting where language lets place to a kind of concrete act. Still more exactly : it is at this point that a graft is made of those supplementary procedures intended to indicate the infinite remainder which constitutes singularity (the singularity of an individual person, of a work, of an event, and also of things).

In fact, the two operations, structuration and singularization, do not exclude one another. On the contrary, they graft themselves onto each other : "One can only individualize if one has already conceptualized". Ricoeur is very close here to the philosopher of science Gilles–Gaston Granger, who defines style as structuration of singularities and singularization of structures*. We could develop here the respect of human works as style, considering both the general structure and the meaningful singularities : that's what Ricoeur is looking for in the narrative works of history and of fiction.

Basically, any theory leaves a residue which it cannot integrate without loss or violence. The ethics of method consists in recognizing this remainder, and in letting it be without attempting to reduce it : it is a question of knowing one's limits*. And of giving play to other theories, complementary or supplementary.

Let us take an other example ; speaking of John Rawls, Ricoeur writes:

"We can announce that it is in a purely procedural conception of justice that such a formalization attains its goal. The question will be then if this reduction to procedure does not leave a residue which requires a certain return to a teleological point of view, but in the name of a demand to wich these very procedures themselves lend a voice"*.

Another example : history is one of the places in which the sense of the "remainder" must be sharpened. Offering, in the third volume of Time and Narrative a typology of history –history as reefectuation of the past in the present (example : Collingwood); history as lesson in altarity and difference (example : Michel de Certeau); history as analogue and figure (example : Hayden White)– Ricoeur writes that the passage from one to the other of these models results from the impotence of any one of them to resolve in an unilateral and exhaustive manner the enigma of representance. History always leaves a loss, and this debt toward the dead makes of the historian –as carefully as he (or she) may reconstruct and "render" history, an "insolvent debtor"*.

It is not sufficient, then, to say that the hybridization of methods is necessary to "render" the subject one treats : this hybridization is an ethics of our manner of treating our subjects*. We are supposed to make the degree of complexity and heterogeneity of a discipline proportionate to the requirements of its objects, without looking too rapidly for a clear unitary theory*. here too method is ethic.

The preface of La métaphore vive, like that of Soi–même comme un autre, had already accustomed us to this progressive widening of points of view and problematics. One could say just as well that it is a matter, at each new stage of the analysis, of the recovery of a remainder : marginal until that moment, but which now passes to the center of attention. In this ethics of method, everything which is marginal must be potentially treatable as central. For a given theoretical or discursive model, the remainder is the index of the "whole", of the totality of the experience in which this model inscribes itself. In this sense, the remainder is always more important than that which has already been taken into account*. It is this remainder which obliges us each time to complicate our methods and to reorganize the whole of our conduct.

Iv. Anthropological post–script

In concluding, it seems to me that we can discern through these two series of remarks the lineaments of a philosophical anthropology. This will not in fact be surprising, if the manner in which we treat a subject also expresses what we think that subject is. In the first series of observations, method and the ethics of method are those of a questionning : to understand discourses in relation to the questions which precede them, but also to bring out the new questions which are born from the answers. This process is thus dominated by an anthropology of the word, of the speaking subject, participating with others in a conversation.

In the second series, wich looks at the hybridization of methods and the concern for the remainder left by structuration, the method is that of a structuration which knows that it is leaving a remainder, and of an individualization which takes up this remainder and makes of it its object and no longer its residue. This methodological style, as we can see, is dominated by an anthropology of praxis, of work, of poetic making, of work– making, of action. Now Ricoeur, it seems to me, has never ceased holding these two anthropologies together, balancing them, each one in relation to the other.

At the time of his article on "Work and Word" ("Travail et Parole", a text from 1953, reprinted in History and Truth, it was above all a question of defending the speaking subject against an excess of anthropology based on work and technique. In his most recent texts, on narration as work or on the political debate, it is a matter of defending the acting subject against the excess of an anthropology of language in which everything would be subjected to and made dependent upon argumentation, as it is a bit the case with Habermas. Thus, the two ethics of method that we have observed correspond well enough to a complete anthropology*.

These anthropological remarks would not constitute a conclusion if we did not come back finally to the sense of the aporia, since it is from that notion that we started out. In Ricoeur –contemporary in this sense of Heidegger as a reader of Kant– the transcendental aporia is found when we reach back from speech and action towards imagination, towards the schematization which is their condition of possibility, and which we know is a hidden art or a "blind spot"*. "The transcendental imagination remains an enigma". At the most, what we can say is that this enigma has to do with temporality. This aporia –in which the aporias of the thought of evil and of time converge in those of the imagination– is probably at the heart of Ricoeur's thinking. It is with this aporia as a point of departure that he turns towards a poetics of the imagination. To state this idea with the theolo

gical metaphor : human beings are in the image of God, but we have no such image ; it is precisely this empty space in our anthropoly which must be methodically preserved.


Olivier Abel

Publié dans Philosophy today Vol.37:1
(traduction par Alexander Irwin).

(merci de demander l'autorisation avant de reproduire cet article)



* History and Truth, Evanston (Ill): Northwestern University Press, 1965. From Text to Action. Hermeneutics 2, Evanston (Ill): Northwestern Uni–versity Press, 1991. (see also Herme–neutics and the Human Scien–ces. Essays on Lan–guage, Action and Interpre–tation, Cambridge : Cambri–dge University Press, 1980). Oneself as Another, Chicago : The University of Chicago Press, 1992.

* Soi–même comme un autre, Paris Seuil 1990, p.118. One could multiply the examples of significant aporias in Ricoeirs's work : "the whole of Collingwood's entreprise shatters itself on the impossibility of passing from the thought of the past as mine to the thought of the past as other" (Temps et Récit 3, Paris : Seuil 1985, p.211).

* "Sciences et Idéologie", in Du texte à l'action Paris Seuil 1986.

* It is well known that Ricoeur was the first to translate Husserl into French, using a copy of Ideen during the four years that he spent in a prison camp in Germany.

* Du texte à l'action op.cit.p.75.

* Etre,essence et substance chez Platon et Aristote, Paris : SEDES 1982.

* Le conflit des interprétations, Paris : Seuil 1969, p.28. The Con–flict of Interpretations. Essays in hermeneutics, Evanston (Ill): North–western University Press, 1974.

* La métaphore vive, Paris : Seuil, 1975, p.12. The Rule of Metaphor. Multi–Disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language, Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1977.

* Du texte à l'action, op.cit. p.32. However, Ricoeur offers a critique in the same style when he denounces, on another front, what he calls the epis–temological trap: "A current argument is to say that ideology is a surface discourse which ignores its own real motivations. The argument becomes still more impressive when it opposes the unconscious character of these real motivations to the simply conscious character of the public, official motivations (...). But this elimination of subjectivity in the case of historical agents does not guarantee that the sociologist him–or her–self has attained a discourse without a subject" (ibid, p.325).

* Le Conflit des Interprétations, op.cit. p.27.

* Oneself as Another, op.cit., studies 7,8,9.

* "Pouvoir et violence", Lectures 1, Paris : Seuil 1991, p.41.

* "Jan Patocka et le nihilisme", Lectures 1 p.89.

* Du texte à l'action, op.cit. p.237. In fact Ricoeur is also quite criticist against authors like Derrida for whom philosophy is always something in the margin of others texts.

* Du texte à l'action p.31, 132.

* Autrement 1988, n_102, p.177.

* Soi–même comme un autre, op.cit. p.40.

* Gilles–Gaston Granger Essai d'une philosophie du style, Paris : Armand Colin, 1968.

* This is what Ricoeur shows in his debate with Claude Levi– Strauss: "Structuralism must be treated as an explanation which was limited at first, then extended bit by bit, following the lead of the problems themselves : the awareness of the validity of a method is never sepa–rable from the awareness of its limits. It is in order to be fair to this method, and above allin order to let myself be taught by it, that I shall seize it in its movement of extension, beginning from an indispu–tably valid kernel, rather than to consider it in its final stage, beyond a certain critical point at which, perhaps, it loses the sense of its limits" Le Conflit des interpretations, p.34.

* Soi–même comme un autre, p.265.

* Temps et Récit 3, p.204, 206, 220.

* To recognize that history is always a mixture bringing together pure procedures of veri–fiable documentation and the simple narrations by which an individual or communal subject forms an identity ; to recognize that every narrative is a mixture between a plot and other diverse elements ; to recognize that politics is a mixture involving ethical orientations toward the common good and the taking into account of economic and geographical contexts.

* Du texte à l'action, p.303.

* This approach is present throughout the whole of Ricoeur's work. it is very explicit in his brief essay on evil (Le mal, Geneva : Labor et Fides, 1986). One can think, explain, and sometimes even "justify" evil, and this is necessary if one wishes not to panic, and not to risk taking any arbitrary object for something evil. But evil remains as an enigma which no longer calls for an explanation, but instead for a response : it is necessary to act against evil, to try to reduce as much as pos–sible the evil that human beings perpetrate against one another through ignorance or malevolence, laziness or stupidity. But it is true nonethe–less that evil is felt, and that if all human violence were eliminated, there would remain the enigma of pure suffering, that suffering which exceed all explanation and all action.

* In a work which dates from 1964, and which is entitled precisely The Gesture and the Word (Le geste et la parole Paris : A.Michel, 1964), te anthropologist Leroi–Gourhan shows how at the same time the hand deta–ches itself from the ground and the mouth detaches itself from prehen–sion. It is in this separation tat a space is opened for intermediaries such as tools, words, signs, images : the world of our representations.     For it certainly appears true that our current anthropologies are ampu–tated. Our crisis is perhaps that between the "man of words", where all is language and communication without work, and the "homo faber", for whom everything is technique and work without speech. And there is here a double pretention to hegemony : that of work and of intrumental–tech–nical action over the word ; and that of language and of communica–tive action over work. But against universal instrumentalization, there exist infinite questions left to speech, and against universal communi–cation, there exist infinite singularities left to the hand. Emancipa–tion is the free play of the word and the hand, their relative autono–my, and the respect of the complete humanity to which both contribute.

* Ricoeur rehearses this idea at lenght in L'homme faillible, Paris : Aubier, 1960, p.59. Fallible Man, Chicago : Gateway Editions, 1965.