Ethics at the Limit of Reason: Ricoeur and Deconstruction

By Bourgeois, Patrick | Philosophy Today, January 1, 1997 | Go to article overview

Ethics at the Limit of Reason: Ricoeur and Deconstruction


Bourgeois, Patrick, Philosophy Today


The manner in which deconstruction has recently articulated itself as a philosophy of limit opens discussion as to the broader question of the nature and extent of any philosophy today at the limit of reason. Turning to this broader context and repeating this celebrated Kantian theme allows a contrast between deconstruction and other possibilities of philosophy today at the limit, thereby revealing the sense in which deconstruction can be considered a philosophy of limit. It is my working hypothesis that the philosophy of Paul Ricoeur, precisely as a philosophy at the limit,' offering itself in a relation to the tradition different from that of deconstruction, provides a rich and positive account of alterity, and at once takes account of the positive elements of deconstruction.2 This will be shown by ( 1 ) reflecting on the very basis of the commitment of these two forms of philosophy to sense and meaning, (2) by comparing these two differing developments of philosophy as attentive to its limit, and (3) by taking into consideration extensions beyond this limit initiated by Kant and brought to culmination by Ricoeur. It is precisely the tension between limit and extension, so fundamental to Ricoeur's philosophy, that allows his recent ethics, cast against this backdrop, to take place within the polarity between ethical foundations and the moral principle of obligation.

And it is in the context of such an ethico-moral philosophy that we must attempt to confront the challenge from deconstruction. If such a challenge is to be accepted in its extreme formulation, the question must be posed regarding the sense in which any ethical philosophy can be considered worthwhile, since it would seem that to deconstruct ethics or to engage it in a deconstructive or "clotural reading" involves a fundamental style of thinking at odds with such a project. Indeed, even the philosophy of Ricoeur is submitted to this sweep of deconstruction.

Let us turn now briefly to explore the notion of limit.

I do not pretend to treat exhaustively the problem of philosophy at its limit, end, closure or interruption, but merely to shed light on the problem by turning briefly to reflect further on this notion of limit, showing how the positions of Ricoeur and deconstruction fit into that context, thus contrasting these two recent efforts toward ethics or against ethics.4 In focusing on philosophy at the limit, we can bring together and correlate two distinct senses of limit, one emerging from Kant's transcendental idealism, the other from Peirce's view of secondness within interaction. Here we follow the lead of Drucilla Cornell's account.5 The designation of deconstruction as a philosophy of limit in the first sense is somewhat an extrapolation of the Kantian sense of limit.6 Drucilla Cornell's recasting of this designation has the positive effect of exposing the "quasitranscendental conditions" establishing a system as a system, showing that this very establishment implies a "beyond" which is excluded. The system and any determination of meaning allow closure and exclusion at the expense of openness. Hence, deconstruction as a philosophy of limit at the end of metaphysics challenges us to be open to the excluded, thus affording us a "golden opportunity" rather than a crises of termination.' Cornell renders deconstruction as a philosophy of limit that is open to the beyond, to unimagined possibilities, and hence as a call for a radical transformation of the present. This can perhaps be seen to be the other side of the closure. Deconstruction, then, questions traditional philosophy's ability to get at the "beyond" in its discourse, i.e., in its saying of what cannot be Said.

The second sense of deconstruction as a philosophy of limit attempts to incorporate C. S. Peirce's notion of secondness in his own opposition to Hegelian idealism. As Cornell says, by secondness Peirce indicates "the materiality that persists beyond any attempt to conceptualize it.

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