Amy Daughton reflects on the hopefulness of Paul Ricoeur’s philosophy of self and other
When I tell people that I work on French philosophy, there is peculiar fixity of expression that politely settles on their faces! Yet this is philosophy that arose from Europe in response to the violence and targeted genocides of the twentieth century. These are thinkers who intended to speak to just the dangers that now surround us in the rising voice of facism and xenophobia.
I work from the ideas of Paul Ricoeur and there are two important characteristics of his work which speak sharply to the political surroundings in which we find ourselves. The first is the importance of the other, near and far, in the very constitution of the self. The second is hope.
When Ricoeur talks about the other, he is not presenting an anodyne argument about diversity. Rather his starting point is the self. The self is one who speaks and acts. She can narrate those actions and so take responsibility for her own actions – or identify the responsibility of others. This understanding of the self is a modern one – meaning that the self is understood as sovereign, able to decide freely how to understand the real events of her life.
This might sound quite isolated, even lonely! Certainly current political theological commentators get very worried about conceiving of the self as an isolated, purely reasoning individual. In fact, this self is only a starting point – a set of philosophical capacities, not a real person. The real person, of a particular time and place cannot be isolated, but is instead always already entangled in stories: about others, told by others, today and in other times and places.
At the same time, this does doom people to be hidebound by the narratives they first encounter. Instead, stories bear society’s identity: ‘its values, norms, ideals, models, and heroes, in which the person or the community recognizes itself’. This offers the necessity to claim, reject, critique that identity. Thus stories, as an encounter with the other, offer the self both the resources to understand herself and the critical prompt to articulate who she is and will be. For Ricoeur then it is always the other who summons the self to recognise her own ethical obligation.
On this foundation dialogue across faiths participates in a mutual weaving of a continuing tapestry of narratives within which selves arise and narrate their own ethical identity. We confront the other as audience, as an enriching perspective, but more significantly as another moral being, another bearer of selfhood.
For Ricoeur this is not a merely interpersonal moment, but the defining character of just institutions: religious communities, agencies, government, even cultural traditions must be cast as places of continuing moral encounter, mediating between self, other and the other further off, whom one might never meet.
In our current fearful and superficial context, this might feel like a fairy tale. Yet that’s the point of stories – to offer a transforming perspective for real life. And it is this which ultimately heralds the great theme that underlies the whole trajectory of Ricoeur’s thought: a concrete hope in what people really can build together.
Thus the untranslatable becomes the goad to translate more richly; histories of enmity become the place from which all exchange of memory should stand; politics becomes the task of responding anew to the broken promises of the past.
Rebecca Huskey has written brilliantly on the rising significance of hope for Ricoeur’s later work, shifting from the confrontation with evil and the involuntary to questions of interpretation, ethics, memory, and justice, all geared toward the ‘good life, with and for others, in just institutions’.
For me, hope becomes the banner under which we might understand all of Ricoeur’s ethical work. In many ways it is hope that offers the bridge between the neat little theory in books and the real dialogue with others: framing interfaith and intercultural dialogue as a hopeful place of possibility, not just for those involved but to continue to shape wider and more complex social relationships. This is not a certainty, but a heuristic, festive hope.