Hermeneutics and Philosophy of History: Ricoeur at Ninety

Article excerpt

I shall organize my presentation in terms of three assertions that relate to the topic of hermeneutics and the philosophy of history in the work of Paul Ricoeur. The first of these assertions is that the philosophy of history has been an almost constant presence in Paul Ricoeur's philosophy even if it has seldom been the primary focus of this thought. This is particularly true once he had adopted the approach of following detours suggested by his earlier work rather than the systematic goal announced as the raison d'être of the earlier Philosophy of the Will project. My second claim is that the topic of philosophy of history is in an important way latently present in much of the work produced following what we can call Ricoeur's hermeneutic turn, albeit without being explicitly foregrounded. Third, and this will be the more constructive contribution of my remarks, there is a hint of something new regarding thought about the philosophy of history in Ricoeur's recent work. This may be something he himself has not really noticed, although I know from working with him over the years that one should never assume one has seen something he hasn't at least begun to reflect on, even if he has not yet devoted any really sustained public reflection to it. Let us say therefore that my third point will be addressed to a detour Ricoeur has opened but not yet followed up on, although this is a detour that once recognized as a possible path to pursue does look worth pursuing. Whether it actually leads somewhere important is a question I shall close with.

Early Indications of Concern for the Philosophy of History

In his early collection of essays, History and Truth, Ricoeur sets out his task as twofold: to reflect upon the possibility and conditions for a philosophical history of philosophy and to seek to apply this reflection to the elaboration of what he calls a "political pedagogy" (3-4), that is, one guided by an ethical intention. Minimally, I take it this means doing something more than simply producing scholarship for its own sake about the history of philosophy, such a history must also have some application in the present. Of course, such a history must take seriously what we can call the professional historian's history, but it is further specified by a philosophical awareness whose contours are worth sketching, in that this awareness or consciousness is both cognitive and affective at the same time. It is both because it is based on a "passion for unity" where the unity in question is meant to encompass the unity of truth. As a passion, it is a regulative feeling "that all philosophies are ultimately within the same truth of being" (6), hence there is also an ontological horizon involved, even if like all horizons this one tends always to withdraw when we try to draw near to it. Still we can say that this feeling of being within truth or being can be further characterized as one of hope. This is a hope that is nourished and wagered on because of our occasional experience of the "harmony of diverse philosophical systems" (6), at the same time that we recognize that this feeling cannot be expressed by any single coherent discourse. We see here the tension of the one and the many,1 one of the defining questions that lie at the origin of all philosophy for Ricoeur. This is a tension that I believe could be shown to run through all this thought. But to stay for the moment with the problem of a philosophical history of history, the next thing that must be said is that this undertaking has to be characterized by a certain modesty. A philosopher, according to Ricoeur, has a fundamental conviction that truth is ultimately one, but also is someone who acknowledges that it is impossible to demonstrate this. The result for the practice of doing and teaching the history of philosophy-and I would generalize here to all kinds of historical research-is that while a critical perspective is required, this enterprise is also always guided by a kind of eschatological expectation that somehow it all comes together in the end. …