Paul Ricoeur’s Personal Anthropology
David Arthur Walters
Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) called his philosophy the anthropology of the capable person. He propounded an ineradicable difference between persons and things. That is, the person is a substance or has a reality of its own. As for knowledge of one’s own person, or self-knowledge, “There is no self-understanding that is not mediated by signs, symbols, and texts; in the final analysis self understanding coincides with the interpretation given to those mediating terms.” Thus placing social being before individual existence, in the constitution of the human being or person, Ricoeur’s philosophy might be better squared with personalism, in contradistinction to the existentialism that was much more in vogue after the last world war, a war that destroyed faith both in reason and religion as means to world peace. Indeed, certain philosophical aspects of Ricoeur’s “capable person” remind us the late Pope John Paul’s early philosophy of the “active person.”
To wit: the voluntary (active) and involuntary (patient) aspects of the person are complementary, and it is the conflict between the two that personalizes freedom. Thus the self has two orders of causality: that of its own active will, and that of being a passive subject to external forces. The basic disproportion between the finite and the infinite, made apparent in the gap between space-time particulars and universals, makes good and evil possible via human freedom of choice. People are different but their differences are not absolute; their unity is obtained via communication, and, despite their differences, their need for recognition and self-esteem binds them together. Human speech and action display both freedom and dependence on nature. There is no freedom absent embodiment in nature that is mostly not of human creation. Events can only be understood in relation to the world.
As for the timing of events, there are two sorts of time: lived time, and cosmic time. Calendars are schedules that assign moments of lived time to cosmic time. We can make history although we are subject to a past we did not create and to a future that society presents to us as possible or necessary. Human action brings will and world together. Symbolic action – thinking and speech – and human action in general has a similar underlying logic, grammar and syntax. Action is purposive, it is for something or the other; activity is meaningful. The story or narrative of activity fashions the characters of the tale, not the other way around. We make sense of our selves by telling stories. Every story has at least two persons. That is, we make sense of ourselves only through others. We can change and encourage others to change their stories, although not all changes we desire are possible. Our ideal desires are ethical values; ethical evaluation is the most important evaluation, and is based on our responses, our responsibility to and for others. As for the good life, it depends mostly on institutions that meet our sense of social justice. Wherefore we must unmask the desire to deny our mutuality; we must realize that we have the same constitution.
Conflicts between the individual will and general will should be resolved by practical wisdom, whose mode of action is, generally speaking, the political institution. The political institution should be autonomous to the extent that it provides ample space for economic and religious institutions. Citizens should always resist efforts to subject political action to the institutional norms of the economic, technological, and religious domains, lest those institutions themselves become unduly cramped and restrictive due to lack of political space to operate. The more people involved in political activity, the better off they shall be, hence none should be excluded by poverty or racial and religious prejudices – all such efforts to exclude must be resisted. Moreover, the obstacles to cooperation – language, religion, race, military conquest – must be removed. Finally, people and states must be pardoned and cooperative efforts supported via treaties and the like.
Paul Ricouer’s personalistic emphasis on the acting person as the author of human fate places him squarely within the humanist camp of thinkers. Humanism, he wrote, coincides with the “humanities” of European culture and is coextensive with the scholarly heritage of the leisurely life that disengages itself from productive work. Technology, to the extent that it increases time for leisure, appeals to those who would thus disengage themselves.
“The man of leisure, a user and no longer a producer, does not have to solve a technical problem of adaptation but an ethical problem of mastery.” Furthermore, “Every culture tends not only to slow down the adaptation of the working man but to detach the man of leisure from the goods that a consumer economy places before him to meet his needs.” Therefore “humanism appears as the reply to the peril of the ‘objectification’ of man in work and in consuming…. The function… of the ‘humanities’… is its struggle against ‘objectification,’ through reflection and meditation…. The great rhythm of work and leisure has constrained us to enlarge considerably the horizon of the problem and to identify humanism with the collection of disinterested cultural activities which compensate man in his work and well-being.”
It is impossible to have a self or to conserve a living tradition without the faculty of memory; hence humanism resists forgetfulness of culture and cultivates the human being: “To imitate the ancients is to do as they did, that is, to create a civilization.” Wherefore humanist culture renews and recreates culture; it is the spirit of renascence creating successive humanisms. Humanism is more “practice” than “theory”, for it is “an Awakening, a Renaissance, a Reformation.” Remember, “Your activity is tied to a certain structure of history just as your existence has power over this history. Not only will you believe it, but you will verify it, for the belief of the man of culture is in his own efficaciousness belongs to the very conditions of this efficaciousness.”
The humanist renascence is first of all a critique, a reflective evaluation of lifestyles. Politically, humanism is anticlerical and refuses to apologize for its culture. Just as it refused to bend its knee to ecclesiastical attacks on scientific truths, today it refuses to genuflect to political authority.
“Humanism… is not a groundless fideism…. It affirms that in every civilization one can recover those values in motion which gave this civilization an option or consent to these values…‘crystallized’ in the fashions of life.” That is, its way of life is self-criticism, to the end of self-improvement. “The humanist thrust of a work consists in this task of elucidation, of denunciation, of correction, and of advancement which presupposes its own efficaciousness.” It is unconcerned with political effectiveness as it operates at a more fundamental level of “representations and guiding images which orient a civilization toward well-being…”
Men of culture have no good cause to feel ashamed for being so-called intellectuals. The intellectual was produced from the opposition between the free man and the slave, from “the social situation of the man of leisure faced with the slave…. True liberalism is a fundamental principle of the politics of culture…. The wager is that useless man, loquacious man, protesting man, the dreamer and the utopian is the bearer of an undeniable efficaciousness. The risk is that the man of culture, who appears to be contribution something because he says expected things, is finally an artisan of stagnation and perhaps of dissolution.” Remember, “True liberalism evokes more problems than it resolves.”
“An artist who chooses to be useful or edifying will immediately cease to be a creator. Artists, writers, and thinkers serve society best when the serve without knowing or intend to, that is, by remaining faithful to the internal problems of their art and meditation…. The literature accused of being ‘disengaged’ risks, under the cover of its very retreat, elaborating a new expectation which anticipates the man of tomorrow.”
“I see humanism, in the last instance, as a philosophy of limits…. Kant only applied to cosmology his golden rule of limiting functions of the concept of the thing-in-itself…. Man is man when he knows that he is only a man. The ancients called man a ‘mortal.’ This ‘remembrance of death’ indicated in the very name of man introduces the reference to a limit.”
Ricoeur, Paul, Political and Social Essays, Athens: Ohio University Press 1974