The New Ricoeur Scholarship

Book Profiles:
Richard A. Cohen and James L. Marsh, eds., Ricoeur As Another: The Ethics of Subjectivity. State University of New York Press, 2002. 236 pages, xvi, index.

John Wall, William Schweiker, and W. David Hall, eds. Paul Ricoeur and Contemporary Moral Thought. Routledge, 2002  290 pages, ix, index.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Boyd Blundell
Boston College

    A  decade after the appearance of Oneself as Another in English, Ricoeur scholarship is now being taken to a new level. No fewer than eight books on Ricoeur, along with dozens of articles, have been published in the last two years, with more due to appear as Ricoeur approaches his ninetieth birthday. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Oneself is, as Charles Reagan puts it in the opening essay of the Cohen and Marsh volume, "Ricoeur's most elegantly written, clearly organized and closely argued work," and thus merits the attention from the perspective of pure philosophical scholarship. But I would suggest that something deeper is at work. Ricoeur, more than any other active philosopher, bridges gaps, performing a synthetic task in an era dominated by analytical and deconstructive projects. Ricoeur operates in the hermeneutical "between" - between analytical and continental thought, between ethics and morals, between theology and philosophy, between critique and conviction - and there is a growing appetite for carefully crafted arguments that might help us reconstruct our shattered modernity into something viable, if still wounded. With the publication of Ricoeur as Another and Paul Ricoeur and Contemporary Moral Philosophy, we have the first attempts at an appropriation of this daunting project that Ricoeur has begun.

  1. The Cohen and Marsh volume as a whole is organized, as the subtitle suggests, around responses to Ricoeur's treatment of ethics and subjectivity, and as the title suggests it engages these issues primarily as they appear in Oneself. There are eleven essays broadly divided into two sections, the first dealing with Ricoeur "in himself" and the second with Ricoeur "in relation to others." It is a credit to the editors that there is not a weak essay in the set, but rather an evenness in quality that contributes to its overall coherence. It actually turns out to be a strength that the two part division does not really work. Most notably, the essays by Langsdorf and Van den Hengel, both of which appear in the first section, spend a good deal of effort relating Ricoeur to Husserl and action theory respectively, and no essay in the first half (with the possible exception of Reagan's, which somewhat disappointingly is substantially unchanged from its original version from a decade ago) manages to entirely avoid the urge to relate Ricoeur to others. This is a strength because Ricoeur is so relentlessly in conversation with others that to try to consider Ricoeur "in himself" would be to consider someone other than the Ricoeur that appears in his texts. It is interesting to note that the common thread of the three essays that do stick closest to Ricoeur "in himself" (Reagan, Rasmussen, Ihde) is Ricoeur's theory of narrative identity.

  2. The second section begins with essays by Bourgeois and Cohen, both of whom take their cue from Ricoeur's uncharacteristically vehement criticism of Levinas in the tenth study of Oneself. Bourgeois attempts to defuse the tension by allowing that while the language Ricoeur uses (hyperbole, paroxysm) might be a little too severe, Ricoeur's passion for the protection of the primacy of solicitude (and with it ethics) over an injunction to duty accounts for the force of his criticism. Cohen, on the other hand, seems to want to exacerbate the tension, having taken far greater offense to Ricoeur's criticism than Levinas did. He begins by asserting Levinas pride of place in any discussion of subjectivity and ethics, and rather pugnaciously takes Ricoeur to task on every single reference he makes to Levinas, with Levinas coming out on top every time. The reader might benefit from having on hand the brief exchange of letters between Ricoeur and Levinas (from Cerf's Éthique et Responsabilité). The two essays which follow take up related issues in a more relaxed fashion. Crump addresses Ricoeur's position on the relative autonomy of both philosophy and theology, while Pellauer retrieves Ricoeur's earlier emphasis on fallibility to complement the emphasis on capability that runs throughout Oneself. The volume closes with Dauenhauer assessing Ricoeur's criticism of John Rawls' prioritizing of the right over the good, followed by a sort of epilogue by Marsh.

  3. The Wall, Schweiker and Hall volume springs from a conference on Ricoeur's ethics held at the University of Chicago. As it is a conference at which Ricoeur was in attendance, there is a much more respectful tone toward Ricoeur's work, but as with Ricoeur's decade in Cérisy, there is little fawning, but rather an atmosphere of collegial freedom amongst the participants to appropriate Ricoeur's insights into their own projects. It is a credit to Ricoeur and his work that he engenders so many conversation partners but so few disciples.

  4. The editors have divided the fourteen essays into three parts: "Moral Selfhood, the Good, and the Right," "Moral Meanings, Human Fallibility, and Theological Ethics," and "Moral Practice, Responsible Citizenship, and Social Justice." Such unwieldy headings, none of which refer to more than five essays, indicate that these divisions are again somewhat arbitrary, and in many ways it is better to think of the volume as a whole. The editors seem to recognize this as they correctly note that the theme of human capability, a theme that organizes Oneself, is also a theme that unites the collection. As conference proceedings, it is not surprising that there is some unevenness in quality among the essays, but the precision of the conference's theme leads to a very coherent volume.

  5. Given that Ricoeur's "little ethics" (studies 7-9 in Oneself) moves from the ethical aim to practical wisdom by way of the moral norm, it is appropriate that the volume is bookended by essays from a Kantian and an Aristotelian. Anderson offers an interesting extension and revision of her earlier work on Ricoeur's relationship with Kant, casting Ricoeur as Kant's partner in the reclamation of the oft abused term "autonomy". Nussbaum explores the limits of Ricoeur's phronesis, concentrating on Arjuna's dilemma in the Bhagavad Gita more than the more common dilemma of Antigone because she goes on to apply it to political problems in contemproary India. This essay is an excellent one to read alongside Pellauer's from the other volume, as both push the limits of Ricoeur's phronesis into areas where he has moved on to since Oneself.

  6. Ricoeur has had a long and profitable relationship with Chicago's divinity school, and it is not surprising that several essays explore the ramifications of Ricoeur's thought from a theological perspective. The best of these is Wallace's essay, which brings Ricoeur's ethics into dialogue with Levinas, centering on the issue on how the two read Scripture. As with Nussbaum, Wallace's essay can be productively read alongside the essays of Bourgeois and Cohen, adding a new dimension to the question of what separates the two great philosophers of the subject: Levinas is a Jew and Ricoeur is a Christian, and this cannot but have some effect in how they envisage the capabilities and responsibilities of the human creature. The other essays in this vein attempt in various ways to further the "Chicago School" project, part of which is to use Ricoeur as a philosophical ally in order to import theological categories into the larger philosophical conversation. It is a task for which Ricoeur has often been used but to which he is not particularly well suited; he has long been willing to risk even personal inconsistency in the name of avoiding "cryptotheology." Thus the key move that Klemm makes in his appropriation is to "remove the constriction that Ricoeur places on religious discourse," while MacCammon tries to save the metaphysical "God of Presence" (!) through the use Ricoeur's biblical reflections. Schwieker, Hall and Browning move more carefully, trying to think "beyond" where Ricoeur has left off and moving explicitly into theological reflection, a move much more compatible with Ricoeur's pattern of keeping discourses distinct. Whitehouse is the most effective, treating Ricoeur as a "guide for responsible interpretive activity."

  7. I think it is no slight to the contributors to say that the entire volume is overshadowed by Ricoeur's response. It is in fact proof of the conference's intellectual vibrancy that it provoked such a fine response from Ricoeur, and I for one am grateful. Temporarily taking on the role of a "contemporary of my successors," Ricoeur does something he so rarely does: comment in a systematic way on what he takes himself to be doing in his own work. Entitled "Ethics and Human Capability," it is a transcription of his presentation, and validates the theory that French philosophers are at their best when they are speaking. This could be an early indication that L'homme Capable is not far off.

  8. Both volumes are welcome additions to the burgeoning scholarship on Ricoeur. The Marsh and Cohen set is more about subjectivity than it is about ethics, which is to say that it sticks more firmly to the theoretical issues raised by Ricoeur's philosophy of the subject. It will thus find its ideal place as a companion piece to Oneself as Another, exploring questions raised by Ricoeur's hermeneutics of the self, and its resolute concentration on a single text (rather than a morass of secondary sources) puts the reader on a level playing field. The Chicago volume sticks more firmly to the ethical issues, and will be of interest to those in both philosophical and theological ethics. One can only hope that they fulfill their function, and facilitate the vibrant conversations that Ricoeur's work deserves.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]