The Priority of Affirmation in the Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur

Article excerpt

Students of Paul Ricoeur have noticed that one recurring feature of his philosophy is an emphasis on affirmation. Olivier Abel, for instance, states that one cannot truly comprehend Ricoeur's philosophy without recognizing the priority that he places on the affirmative mode.1 In a similar vein, T. M. Van Leeuwen observes that the central intuition of Ricoeur's philosophy is the "philosophical reiteration of the pre-philosophical experience that existence and being are ultimately meaningful."2 Likewise, in his study of Ricoeur's interpretation of biblical narrative, Kevin Vanhoozer proposes that Ricoeur's philosophy can best be characterized as a "passion for the possible."3

This interpretation is certainly well attested in the writings of Ricoeur himself. Two examples, one from an early essay and another from a more recent work, will make my point. In his 1955 essay, "Negativity and Primary Affirmation," Ricoeur states that he intends to pursue a philosophy of the "primacy of being and existing."4 The emphasis on the priority of being over nothingness characterizes his entire philosophical style, "a style of 'yes' and not a style of `no,' and perhaps even a style characterized by joy and not by anguish."5 One interesting outcome of Ricoeur's emphasis on affirmation is his "extraordinary generosity" toward other positions that he interrogates.6 His openness stems from his conviction that the community of philosophers participates in the truth. "Truth," writes Ricoeur, "is the being-in-common of philosophers."7 Because of this hope, Ricoeur is generous in his affirmation of the other's point of view.

My second example comes from the recent study, Oneself as Another.8In this work, Ricoeur makes reference to the concept of attestation. The concept of attestation is introduced at the beginning of Oneself as Another when Ricoeur addresses the problem of the cogito.9 He observes that within the history of modern philosophy there have appeared two dominant models of the cogito.10 The first model refers to the positing of the cogito, which began with Descartes' attempt to establish the cogitoon a final and ultimate foundation.11 This, of course, led to various attempts to either complete the Cartesian project or to put it into question. The criticism made against the cogito constitutes the second model concerning the status of the cogito. This tradition eventually led to what Ricoeur calls "the shattered cogito," with Nietzsche being the best representative of this tradition. The consequence of the shattering of the cogito is that the self's being-in-the world is rendered problematic. Thus, we hear of phrases such as "death of the subject" and the like. Though it is beyond the scope of this essay to delineate the various positions concerning the debate on the self, one way of looking at the issue is to say that the outcome of these debates has led to a crisis of confidence for the self. Anthony Thiselton, for example, remarks that the postmodern critique of the self has led to the "shattering of innocent confidence in the capacity of the self to control its own destiny."12 Hence, as a result of the devastating critique of the cogito, the self is placed in a position that can best be described as incapable. The self is rendered incapable of speech, action, narration, and moral imputation.13 It is against this picture, or better yet, as an alternative to this picture, that Ricoeur presents the concept of attestation. According to Ricoeur, attestation is "the assurance-the credence and the trust-of existing in the mode of selfhood."14 One cannot help but notice that this definition places the accent on the affirmative pole instead of emphasizing some other modality such as suspicion.

This does not mean of course that suspicion has no role to play in Ricoeur's thought.

In addition to developing a hermeneutic that aims at the restoration and recovery of meaning, he has also developed a hermeneutic of suspicion. …