From Metaphysics to Moral Philosophy

By Ricoeur, Paul | Philosophy Today, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

From Metaphysics to Moral Philosophy


Ricoeur, Paul, Philosophy Today


One hundred years after the founding of the Revue de Metaphysique et de Morale by Xavier Leon and Elie Halevy, an important question arises for the current directors ofthe journal, that of knowing whether-and in what sense they today carry on the concerns conveyed in its title. I shall undertake to respond to this question more in my own way, as editor of the journal, than as the successor to Jean Wahl, the author of his own Traite de Metaphysique. This is why I ask my readers' permission to outline the basic components of my answer by way of a second degree reflection applied to my own most recent work which involves assuming, implicitly or explicitly, a position concerning the use of the terms "metaphysics" and "moral philosophy," and their eventual interdependence.

It is necessary first of all to note that no positive commitment stems from the way the term "metaphysics" was used by the founders of the journal. A single preoccupation brought them together, that of replying to the condemnation of the metaphysical age by means of which Auguste Comte, and the positivists who followed him, announced the replacing of the gods and supernatural powers of the theological age by abstract entities. 1893, we may say, was a time when psychology and sociology, in the process of freeing themselves from the conceptual and institutional tutelage of philosophy, undertook to align the knowledge of human phenomena such as thinking, consciousness, mind, and freedom with the natural sciences. It was the irreducibility of these phenomena to positive knowledge that constituted in the eyes of our young philosophers the major premise of a moral philosophy worthy of the name. In this sense, "metaphysics" was simply equivalent to antipositivism. As for any positive connotation of the term, a wide range of possibilities lay open under the impulse of Cartesian, Leibnizian, Kantian, and post-Kantian rationalism; the two extremes of this spectrum being represented, on the one side, by the defense and illustration of.what might have been called "spiritual" experience, and on the other by the epistemology of a Couturat or a Poincare, who were associated with the journal from its very beginning. It is true that it was the former variant that served as the target of the direct contemporaries of the young journal, grouped around Theodule Ribot and the Revue philosophique, which was seventeen years older. But we must not lose sight of the other front on which our young philosophers did battle, that of the struggle against what they called "mysticism."

In this regard, a rereading of the article in the first volume of the journal by Ravaisson, entitled precisely "Metaphysics and Moral Philosophy," is quite illuminating. Recalling the analyses of his noteworthy book devoted to The Metaphysics of Aristotle, he begins his discussion with an evocation of the polysemy of the verb "to be," as proposed by Aristotle in Metaphysics E2. It is not indifferent for the passage from metaphysics to moral philosophy that from among the multiple senses of being Ravaisson chose the pair "potentiality" and "actuality." In this, he distinguished himself from Bolzano, who, when confronted by the same problematic which he too gave a central significance, privileged the categorical line opened by ousia, just as he distinguished himself-by way of anticipation-from Heidegger who was to give primacy to being as true and false.

"What therefore is being, properly speaking?" asks Ravaisson. "It is, answers Aristotle, to act [agir]. Quod enim nihil agit, nihil esse videtur, another thinker will subsequently say. Action is the good because it is the end of everything. Hence it is what precedes everything. And action is the soul. Hence the soul is the one, true substance. The body is what is potential, the soul is the act within it that is its end, and the end is also its principle" (p. 443). On this basis, the transition from metaphysics to moral philosophy is easy: "These two states of the soul that explain everything, action and potentiality, how are they known?

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