Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Ricoeur's Hermeneutics of the Self: On the In-Between of the Involuntary and the Voluntary, and Narrative Identity

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Ricoeur's Hermeneutics of the Self: On the In-Between of the Involuntary and the Voluntary, and Narrative Identity

Article excerpt

This paper focuses on the hermeneutics of the self in Paul Ricoeur's Oneselfas Another and on the distinction between the voluntary and the involuntary in his early work. By revisiting Ricoeur's analysis, my goal is to play the devil's advocate and to raise some questions about the in-between of the voluntary and the involuntary, which seems to be often put in brackets in contemporary philosophy, even when the distinction between the voluntary and the involuntary is willingly blurred. Contemporary philosophers, including Paul Ricoeur, often insist on two opposite aspects of the self: on the one hand, they emphasize the intentional act, the deliberated action, and responsibility; on the other side of the spectrum, they also acknowledge the opacity of the self, son altérité, its alterity, its otherness. To say it right away, in spite of the richness of Ricoeur's analysis, one of the puzzles is his neglect of voluntary actions that can be concealed to us by habits. Another problem arises with the theme of narrative identity, which too often is interpreted as equating with identity, or even with the self. The danger of such interpretations is that they tend to neglect the importance of involuntary actions, bad luck and unfortunate events which can shape the story of one's life but which perse do not tell us who the self is. These questions force us to come back to Ricoeur's hermeneutics of the self and consideration of oneself as both acting and suffering.

The Opacity

Ricoeur is careful not to forget the opacity of the self. He wants to counter the idea of the self-possession of the subject. The self is not the cogito ergo sum of Descartes, since for Ricoeur the cogito is "broken,"1 but yet not forfeited as it is for the master of suspicions. In order to insist on the plurivocity of the self in contrast to the univocity of the self, he continuously insists both on the difference between sameness and selfhood, and on the otherness at the core of selfhood. Indeed, Ricoeur tells us:

The fact that otherness is not added on to selfhood from outside, as though to prevent its solipsistic drift, but that it belongs instead to the tenor of meaning and to the ontological constitution of selfhood is a feature that strongly distinguishes this third dialectic from that of selfhood and sameness, which maintains a pre-eminently disjunctive character. (OA 317)

The question that directs the course of Oneself as Another, recalled in Ricoeur's article,"Approaching the Human Person," concerns the theme of identity: "What remains identical through the course of a human life?"2 However, when Ricoeur asks about what remains the "same" in the span of a lifetime, he is more interested in the following question: what individuates that person? He is aware of the ambiguity in the French terms "identité" and "identique," and careful to avoid any amalgamation. He has recourse to the Latin pronouns ipse and idem in order to bring out an opposition, which will become a dialectic, between an identity of the self understood as idem, "sameness," and identity understood as ipse,"selfhood ( ipséité]." Selfhood and idem-identity occupy a major place in the Ricoeurian itinerary. In Oneself as Another,he adds to this opposition the notions of, on the one hand,"character," placed on the side of sameness, and, on the other hand, "self-maintenance," proper to selfhood, and paradigmatically illustrated by the "promise." Sameness and selfhood represent two different modalities of permanency in the course of time. To say it differently, it is not the character, the sameness, that helps me to answer the question, "Who am I?," but selfhood, self-maintenance, where I am faithful to who I am because you are counting on me or to say it differently in a moment of crisis: "Who am I, so inconstant, that notwithstanding you count on me?" (OA 168).

For Ricoeur, the self is primarily a self that acts. Agency is the "most remarkable category of the personal condition. …

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