Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Can There Be a Science of Action?: Paul Ricoeur

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Can There Be a Science of Action?: Paul Ricoeur

Article excerpt

Essential to the Greek heritage of Western Culture has been its determination to be delivered from the vagaries of mere opinion through the search for certain knowledge. Greek philosophy, and Western philosophy in its wake, was at great pains to distinguish clearly between what could be known with certainty (episteme) and what could be accepted as a more or less vague opinion (doxa). This distinction between episteme and doxa, first articulated by Plato, may have rested on the popular distinction between what can be known by sight and what can be known from hearing. What I know from having seen personally is considered more secure as a knowledge than what I obtain from hearsay. Sight involves personal presence and experience whereas hearsay relies on the witness of others, on the authenticity or veracity of others. As a consequence knowledge from hearing is second-hand knowledge. I am not as personally present or engaged in what presents itself to my hearing as I am to what presents itself or is present in my seeing. The aftermath of the distinction between episteme and doxa, between certain knowledge and opinion, is to be found in the progressive refinement of the visual paradigm towards the eye of reason, and in our time in Dilthey's split between the empirical and human sciences and of C. P. Snow's distinction between the two cultures. The dominance of the "visual" paradigm in Western philosophy is shown in the preference of the epistemic over the doxic.

In this essay I want to explore the epistemic-doxic status of the knowledge of human action. I do so guided by the recent work of Paul Ricoeur particularly in his masterly Oneself as Another.2 In Oneself as Another as well as in two other major texts, Time and Narrative and From Text to Action,4 Ricoeur has elaborated a hermeneutical approach to a theory of action with a specific emphasis on its epistemological status. His position is unique inasmuch as it safeguards both an ontology of human action and an epistemology. For Ricoeur, understanding and explanation are not unbreachable opposites. There can be no understanding without explanation and no explanation without understanding. Both are required for a proper application of action to the various spheres of life where action is at stake. At issue in this essay is the type of explanation that in Ricoeur's view is available to the understanding of human action.

Before delving into Ricoeur's analysis of the epistemological status of the theory of action, it is worthwhile to paint the larger picture within which Ricoeur develops this theory of action. His venture into practical philosophy must be seen in the light of his perception of the current crisis of Western civilization. For Ricoeur, a pivotal event marks our era, which calls for a new thrust in philosophy. He identifies this event at the level of human consciousness as the shattering ofthe Cartesian cogito. Nietzsche and the Deconstructionists of this century perpetrated this "humiliation of the human subject."5 The overevaluation and exaltation of the human subject as primary certainty and ground that played such an important role in the idealist rendition of the human subject in a dominant strand of interpretation of Descartes (Kant, Fichte, and Husserl) lost its force through the critique of Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, philosophy's claim to give certitude and to ground science seemed only a rhetorical strategy, one that ended up in the illusion of a solid foundation. Ricoeur's practical philosophy is an attempt to forge a new space for the human self beyond these epochal movements of the undue exaltation of the subject by the Cartesian tradition on the one hand and the declared rhetorical emptiness of the human subject by the deconstructionists on the other hand. But with the demise of foundationalism, the purely rhetorical position is not an acceptable alternative. If foundationalism promised too much certainty, deconstructionism holds out too little. …

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