Reading Ricoeur


I am, again, reading Paul Ricoeur. And rather than simply nod to myself knowingly at the end of each session, I shall make some notes here to see if I can actually explain what I've read. In particular, I shall strive to recount the kernel of what I've read without simply parroting Ricoeur's phrases, which is most dissatisfying.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an article on Ricoeur which may orient you to the big picture better than the journal of my crawling through the essays one at a time.

The first essay in The Conflict of Interpretations is titled Existence and Hermeneutics.

Ricoeur desires a philosophy which can speak of all the various ways that people make sense of their worlds and speak to the conflicts which arise when different peoples make sense of the world in ways that contradict each other. That is, he wants a philosophy which can arbitrate the claims which different world views, each a philosophy in its own right, will present.

It is essential that this desired philosophy not exclude a priori any way that peoples make sense of their worlds on any grounds, because it would then be unable to speak of the excluded world views.

Ricoeur proposes hermeneutics, the art/science of interpretation, as a model for the philosophy he desires. This he defines as the art/science of interpreting texts where more than one meaning is present. He takes the project to entail a linguistic component, a reflective component, and an existential component. Linguistically the varieties of more-than-one-meaning need to be catalogued and analyzed.

Reflectively -- I fail to understand the reflective aspect of the project. The linguistic/semantic analysis, by itself, fails to rise to the level of philosophy, it reduces us to playing a language game. Reflection, self examination, recovers the act of interpreting double/multiple meanings as a personal reality.

Existentially -- I also fail to understand the existential component. The linguistic and reflective aspects are completed by placing the reflective subject into a historical existence.

The model of philosophy which Ricoeur constructs is an alternative to Heidegger's dissolution of the epistemological question in ontology. Ricoeur approves of Heidegger but seeks a less vertiginous path which might have more practical usefulness.

The basic hermeneutic framework is applied to Freud's psychoanalysis, to Hegel's phenomonology of the spirit, and to religion to recover archaeological, teleological, and eschatological varieties of making sense of the world each encompassed within the hermeneutic framework.

Now, time to go back and figure out what the reflective and existential components contain. Well, not exactly. We'll read on and see if it becomes clearer as we go on.

The major realizations of this first reading were: that Ricoeur is not being purposely obtuse, he wants to make himself understood; and that
Ricoeur does not expect to make himself completely understood all at once, his work is going to return to the same questions and themes and problematics over, and over, and over again.

2002 November 30, December 1.

I think I must allow myself to not understand some of this and not be too hard on myself. It will become clearer as I work my way through
the corpus.

Existence and Hermeneutics.

This essay lays out Ricoeur's overall goals and his plan for accomplishing them. He wishes to establish a hermeneutic philosophy as the mode of understanding and arbitrating the claims of all human endeavors.

I. Hermeneutics and Structuralism: Structure and Hermeneutics; The Problem of Double Meaning as Hermeneutic Problem and as Semantic
Problem; Structure, Word, Event

These three essays on structuralism, as a principally linguistic science, establish (judging on the basis of the first two) that Ricoeur understands structural linguistics and its limitations. The principal limit being that linguistic science can only speak about how language works as a closed system. That which people speak about using language is necessarily another question, the one which Ricoeur claims for hermeneutic philosophy.

Levi-Strauss' generalization of structural linguistics to kinship and beyond is treated as an initially valid extension of a well founded method which eventually overreached itself.

Then, if the sustenance of multiple meanings is the function of language which most intrigues Ricoeur, should one not expect that his writings will sustain multiple meanings by design? Does he intend to write unequivocally?

2002 December 11.

What is a diremption?

The first essay on Freud first establishes that the unconscious is something which becomes apparent only through a hermeneutics, and only
in a situation where another (the analyst) is present and participating in the interpretation.

Where Ricoeur then desires to establish the existence of human relations which are not entirely grounded in sexuality, he deploys Marx to define the economic relations. This is not to demolish Freud, but simply to identify the limits of psychoanalysis, and to assert that there are limits to psychoanalysis.

The critique of a naive realism for the unconscious, which is not Freud's realism, seems to be the same as the critique of any idealised system: one can describe such an object, eg the unconscious, and one can listen to and understand such a description, and one can imagine the existence of the object described, but that is the extent of its existence -- it is no more than the sensation induced by a description, which having once been brought to light can be recalled and redescribed and embellished upon.

That is to say, saying can call to life all sorts of things which have no existence outside of the saying. So we seek to do our saying in a responsible way, and to understand the taxonomy of things which we can call to life this way.

2002 December 12.

Reading now from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, I wonder at the geographical metaphors. Reinhart Koselleck speaks of "the space of experience" and "the horizon of expectation". Don Ihde begins his editor's introduction to The Conflict of Interpretations with: "The vectors and lines of force ...". How well do these folks understand this language? A "horizon" is a limit of sight, which generalizes from the planet bound circle of earth visible from a point to the ball of space time which light has traversed to reach the observer.

The encyclopedia article has its greatest interest in the later works of Ricoeur, so it dispenses with the work I'm reading in fairly short order. Interesting how the history of philosophy reduces to sound bites at the drop of a hat. One might try constructing a rap out of it.

Interesting also that the world wide web comes the closest to being a synchronic system as so many philosophers have imagined and described,
yet one must traverse it diachronically, historically, a word, a link, a page at a time. Even if one is an ultrafast computer, one still takes it in a byte at a time. And, of course, the web is the most disorganized and inconsistent synchronic system, ever, no one person could ever have described it, though I suppose Borges's labyrinthes could be taken as such a description.

Yet more confusing, the use of dimensions to identify categorically different aspects of anything. Take consciousness and materiality, for instance. Are these to be contrasted as dimensions as if one were height and the other width? They certainly do not measure in the same
units as if both were lengths. Shall we let one be time and the other length then? No, I don't think that's what is intended by dimension, either. What is meant is something that doesn't make sense to anyone who uses a technically defined concept of dimension, because the dimensions are qualitatively different.

2002 December 13.

Is there a proper set of mathematical metaphors for the philosophical distinctions which I hear Ricoeur making and claiming that others make? It is extremely frustrating for the mathematically trained to hear these specific terms bandied about arbitrarily. It might even be the aspect of philosophy that most irritates, or the aspect of any discourse which most irritates the outsider: the misuse of precise language. Now do I mean univocal when I say precise? No, I think that even where a term is multivocal, the realization that it is being used in yet another voice, an alien voice, makes the specialist cringe. It is not simply the precision, the unambiguous usage which makes for comfort in the familiar discourse -- one becomes cozy with the well known ambiguities as well, and it is the strange ambiguities that are unsettling.

So, is there a proper language, a perfect language for discussing the conflict of interpretations, a language which does not infringe on prior settlements by specific technical languages? Or must we admit that the technical languages are all squatting on portions of the common ground?

This starts to sound like the entropist manifesto, again, as do my thoughts on browsing Borders this afternoon: Finding your place in the worlds and putting the worlds in their places. Yet again thinking in terms of how our metaphors drawn from the physical, material, empirical world and our a priori transcendental knowledge of the world are to serve us when we speak of our individual and group historical worlds and the conflicts between them.

Another variety of metaphor occurs in Freud's economy of the libido. Now we're lifting an image of currency and economic exchange into the
workings of the psyche.

The essay Psychoanalysis and the Movement of Contemporary Culture makes the argument that Freud is really much more important than even his most devoted students make him out to be, and that Marx and Nietzsche share this import. The significance of the three being that they all challenged the certainty of the cogito by raising suspicions about how conscious consciousness really is to the Machiavellian intrigues of human existence. And in each case they raised these suspicions by an essentially hermeneutic interpreting of the evidence of lives. I am left incoherent by this because it's pulling me in multiple directions.

2002 December 14.

Some Ricoeur, specifically From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics, II being the successor to The Conflict of Interpretations, traveled with me to Massachusetts just before Christmas, but the trend of my reading since then has become self-motivating. I bought several books around and after christmas. In order of confirmation e-mails:

Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative (Vol. 1).

Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations.

Emmanuel Levinas, Entre Nous: Essays on Thinking-Of-The-Other

These were augmented, before they arrived via the cheap shipping option, by books from the public library, selected via several web forays, some deferred choices, and some browsing:

Jostein Gaarder, Sophie's world: a novel about the history of philosophy.

David Edmonds and John Eidinow, Wittgenstein's Poker: the story of a ten-minute argument between two great philosophers.

Anthony Kenny, The Oxford Illustrated History of Philosopy.

Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained.

Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct.

George Lakoff, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things

Jean-Pierre Changeux and Alain Connes, Conversations on Mind, Matter, and Mathematics.

Mark Turner, The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By.

I made another purchase from on 2/1/03 which shipped on 2/2/03:

Jean-Pierre Changeux and Paul Ricoeur, What Makes Us Think?: A Neuroscientist and a Philosopher Argue about Ethics, Human Nature, and
the Brain

Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind's Hidden Complexities.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought.

I am especially charmed by Lakoff's argument from linguistic and psychological evidence, and by Mark Turner's rendition of parts of the
same argument from a literary standpoint.

The frequent recurrence of folk theory in both authors is a very weak point, they seem able to find a folk theory for any
occasion without having any compunctions about establishing their sources. I expect to meet a good deal more folk theory in both
volumes of Lakoff and Johnson, and in Fauconnier and Turner.

The movement from categories to image schemas and metaphors seems well established, easy to follow, and quite eery to instantiate in one's
own head. But the last step is, I think, a very dubious part of the argument -- like folk theories that everyone knows, the subjective experience must be left as an exercise for the student rather than a primary demonstration. But I find myself less enthralled with the mental spaces arguments that Turner has turned to in his later chapters. I suspect they lump together more than one phenomenon and the failure to resonate represents application of an inept metaphor, perhaps.

George Lakoff discussed much of his metaphorical mathematics with Saunders Mac Lane, but the discussion never touches on Mac Lane's own
category theory, which certainly must have some metaphorical relation to these ruminations launched by research into categories.

There is another Lakoff book which I plan to order by interlibrary loan tomorrow:

George Lakoff and Rafael Nun~ez, Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being.

This is of interest because Lakoff is coming to Santa Fe to speak on the subject in August. There is a first cut on this topic, and on
Philosophy in the Flesh contained in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things.

I am thinking that I might best work out my understanding of Lakoff's ideas by finishing the introduction to Geometric Algebra in the
fashion it has already begun: desk calculator and metaphor.

2003 February 11.

I did make an interlibrary loan request for Where Mathematics Comes From, today, amidst several other lunch hour errands. They
say they will send out the request, someone will mail them a copy, and they well call me when it arrives.

I finished The Literary Mind with rather desultory scanning of the last chapter. Turner is not satisfied to simply lay out the usage of parable in language as it is, he must argue (weakly) that the conceptual tool of parable is the origin of language. I really think that the argument is in the deepest sense pointless. Why argue (weakly) where language came from? Especially when the rest of your argument gets so wobbly? The claim that language itself is structured on metaphors is quite sturdy, and so obvious that I can explain to my 7 year old daughter. The extension of this claim to more refined literary usages just doesn't feel as obvious or as well founded. Perhaps I will attempt a more reasoned critique after digesting Fauconnier and Turner.

2003 February 12.

Way behind on the notations. This last week was largely given over to getting on line for some contract work. But I still had time to get
partly through three texts. And then there were the science fiction books that I managed to slip in the weeks before.

Patrick Conty, The Genesis and Geometry of the Labyrinth. Conty is a painter who has spent 30 years researching labyrinths, and
he has a quite a bit to say about them and a distinctive way of saying it. I literally can't read it, it just spins off my mind and flies off into space each time I sit down to it. But the pictures themselves and the conjunction of images that they create are worth the price of the book.

Jane Jacobs, Cities and the Wealth of Nations. Jacobs, on the other hand, bites right in. Everything she says is on target and spins my mind up to thinking about things the way she is.

D. Eric Smith, Self Organization from Structural Refrigeration, submitted to Phys. Rev. E.

John Barnes, The Duke of Uranium.

John Barnes, A Princess of the Aerie.

Greg Egan, Teranesia.

2003 March 17.