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It is also the moment framed by the agent's space of experience and horizon of expectation. To give expression to this complex historical present one must have a kind of discourse that can articulate both strings of actions and events and their human contexts. The kind of discourse to do this is narrative.

As the most faithful articulations of human time, narratives present the moments when agents, who are aware of their power to act, actually do so, and patients, those who are subject to being affected by actions, actually are affected. They also tell of worldly outcomes, intended or otherwise, of these interventions into processes that both antedate them and outlast them. The historical time that narrative presents, i. It is the time in which one can locate sequences of generations and the traces their lives have left behind. Furthermore, it is the time in which debts to predecessors have been incurred.

Indeed, Ricoeur holds that without at least a latent sense of indebtedness to predecessors history would be meaningless. The constitutive features of a narrative form the basis for Ricoeur to hold that personal identity, itself constituted by an idem -identity and an ipse -identity, is a narrative identity. First, narratives draw together disparate and somehow discordant elements into the concordant unity of a plot that has a temporal span.

Second, all the elements that a narrative unites are contingencies. All of them could have been different or even nonexistent. Nonetheless, as emplotted, these elements take on the guise of necessity or at least of likelihood. Taken by itself, an element of a story is of interest only if it is surprising. But when it is integrated into a plot it appears as a quasi-necessity.

Third, narratives are made up not only of actions and events but also of characters or personages. Plots relate the mutual development of a story and a character or set of characters. Every character in a story of any complexity both acts and is acted upon. Finally, a narrative's characters only rise to the status of persons—fictional or real—who can initiate action when one evaluates their doings and sufferings and imputes them to the persons as praiseworthy or otherwise. One evaluates how the person responds when confronted by another living being who is in some need that the person can address OAA, In sum, a narrative about human persons tells of both the connections that unify multiple actions over a span of time performed, in most cases, by a multiplicity of persons and the connections that link multiple viewpoints on and assessments of those actions.

We make sense of our own personal identities in much the same way as we do of the identity of characters in stories. First, in the case of stories, we come to understand the characters by way of the plot that ties together what happens to them, the aims and projects they adopt, and what they actually do. Similarly I make sense of my own identity by telling myself a story about my own life. In neither case is the identity like that of a fixed structure or substance. These identities are mobile. Second, each personage's individual identity always intersects those of other personages in the narrative.

This intersection can give rise to second-order stories, e. Similarly, the story by which I constitute my own identity shows that my life is always linked to others, not always in the way I would prefer. Hence, other persons are always constituents in my identity and vice versa. Indeed, our individual identities are incorporable into a we-identity, as for example the identity we share as fellow citizens of the United States. Third, every personage that figures in a story that is not a piece of science fiction does so as a full fledged bodily being, a being of a determinate sex and age as well as the native speaker of a particular language.

Each comes from a particular place and is the inheritor of a particular heritage. So it is with us. However cosmopolitan a person may become, he or she has a distinctive heritage that always matters.


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Finally, all narratives have ethical dimensions. As narratives that contain promises clearly exemplify, narratives present characters in such a way that evaluations of what they do or suffer are ingredient in the very meaning of these events. But narratives also call for us to evaluate their characters as such. They especially prod us to evaluate their ethical probity by considering their talents and their use of them.

Furthermore, narratives show that from the standpoint of ethics there is a kind of primacy of the other-than-self over the self. Ethically considered, the narrative unity of a life is made up of the moments of its responsiveness or failure to respond to others. The responsive self is primarily concerned not with its own condition but rather with responding faithfully and thoughtfully to others.

Thus the responsive self does not aim primarily to preserve a Kantianesque autonomy. It does not shrink from every sort of heteronomy. Rather, it lives in hope that its responsiveness to others can and will bring about a better life for all of them, a life in which they all participate with and for others OAA, Ricoeur's analysis of personal narrative identity yields four conclusions that are basic to his anthropology. They are:. In The Course of Recognition, his last book, Ricoeur returns to the topic of personal identity. Here again he develops his position through an analysis of the fundamental capabilities and vulnerabilities that are constitutive of human existence.

But here his focus is on these capabilities in their exercise and not simply in their potentiality. In their exercise these capabilities always more or less explicitly implicate at least one other person. I speak to someone. I affect someone by the doings and makings I either perform or leave undone. Every narrative I construct always involves the intersection of at least two human lives.

And every imputation that I make implies at least two persons, one of whom bears some responsibility for someone else's well being. When one focuses on the exercise of these capabilities their vulnerabilities appear more strikingly. Even though whenever I exercise one of my basic capabilities I necessarily make some reference to another person, I need not, and all too often do not, recognize him or her as someone fundmentally like me.

I may regard this other person in a multiplicity of ways other than that which makes possible the mutual recognition of the humanity we share. Properly to understand myself in and through the capabilities and vulnerabilities that constitute me I must unmask the many temptations I have to deny our mutuality. I must learn that even though you and I are irreducibly different from each other, as human beings we both have the same basic constitution.

Our common constitution demands mutual recognition.

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Nonetheless, because our vulnerabilities are never eliminated, we must constantly struggle to achieve it. This is "a struggle against the misrecognition of others at the same time that it is a struggle for recognition of oneself by others" CR, The analyses of personal identity , especially in OAA, and of mutual recognition, in CR, supply essential parts of the groundwork for Ricoeur's reflections on history, both as made and as studied.

They also undergird his contributions to the study of both ethics and politics. Throughout his career Ricoeur has worked to make sense of the past and our ongoing involvement with it. Something about the past is undoubtedly no longer accessible to us. Nonetheless, traces of the past remain. Through them we try to represent the past in the present. We do so through memory and through the writing and reading of history.

But memory is notoriously fallible and historical accounts, since they cannot represent the past just as it was, are at best only partial and are therefore subject to the charge that they misrepresent, rather than represent, the past. Ricoeur has consistently opposed any claim that historical knowledge can be or even rightly aspire to be definitive or absolute knowledge. He rejects, on the one hand, claims such as Hegel's or Marx's that there is one universal history in which all local histories are incorporated and made fully intelligible.

On the other hand, he has also resisted the positivistic notion that there are bare, unchallengeable and uninterpreted facts that are accessible either to memory or to the historian. Nonetheless, he holds that there can be objective historical knowledge that deserves to be called true. His Memory, History, Forgetting gives his fullest argument for this lifelong conviction.

Ricoeur's argument begins with an account of things purportedly remembered, for without memories there could be no history involving people. There is the individual's memory of what he or she has encountered or done or suffered. And analogously, there is a set of memories that individuals share with other members of their group. Indeed, from one perspective, this collective memory antedates individual memories. Our individual memories take shape against the backdrop of this collective memory.

Nevertheless, collective memory presupposes someone's report that he or she has witnessed something and recalled it accurately.


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  • If you don't believe me, ask someone else who was there. The task of writing history, of what Ricoeur calls the historiographical operation, is to support, correct, or refute collective memory. This operation does not deal directly with individual memory except as reported to and believed by others. It has three distinct but inseparable constituents, all of which are interpretative activities. The first constituent is the building up and use of archives that contain, in some form, e.

    The main traces are documents that record testimonies and reports about their contexts. Archival work is itself an interpretative activity. Guided by their interests, historians, librarians, etc. And questions or hypotheses framed by historians, without which archives would remain mute, lead them to detect "facts, capable of being asserted in singular, discrete propositions, most often having to do with the mentioning of dates, places, proper names, verbs that name an action or state" MHF, These are not positivistic facts.

    They do not correspond directly either to what actually occurred or to the living memory that an eye-witness might have had of them. Facts are established only through the historian's questions and thus are themselves interpretations of the archives. Because action is always interaction and therefore a mixture of doing and undergoing, there is no uniquely privileged model for historical accounts.

    The third constituent of the historiographical operation is the activity of producing a verbal representation of some part of the past in a text. This inscription is always rhetorical and therefore interpretative. Given the interpretative nature of the entire historiographical operation, historical knowledge, like medical diagnosis and prognosis, always has the character of likelihood or credibility rather than certainty. Furthermore, the historiographical operation, like memory, is always bound up with the forgotten. There is always something pertinent to a historical topic that is left aside, unnoticed, or vanished.

    Something of the past is always irretrievably gone and no actual remembering encompasses everything available for recall. Even though the historiographical operation is thoroughly interpretative, it is still possible to speak of the objectivity and truthfulness of the historian's account. This operation has its point of departure in testimony.

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    Even false testimony refers to a world in which something actually occurred, something objective. Furthermore, all testimony refers, at least implicitly, to some specific group and the social bond that supports the activity of giving and receiving testimony among its members. To the extent that historians perform the historiographical operation well they give a substitute representation of the past.

    A well made substitute is faithful to the available evidence and so deserves to be called true even though it is always amendable or reformable. In his usage, ethics deals with the domain of that which is taken to belong to a good human life. It is concerned with the overall aim of a life of action. Morality refers to the expression of this aim in terms of norms that are regarded as somehow obligatory.

    Moral norms are taken to be universal and to exercise some constraint on conduct.

    Ricoeur, Paul | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

    In standard terminology, ethics is teleologically and morality is deontologically oriented. For Ricoeur, these orientations are complementary, not incompatible. At the base of both ethical and moral reflection are two fundamental capabilities described in Ricoeur's anthropology, namely action and imputation.


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    • Persons are capable of initiating some new action and what they do is imputable to them as their own freely chosen deed. An event is not an action unless it is imputable to an agent who has a durable identity. Recognition of the imputability of action opens the way for consideration of the ethical and moral determinations of action. Ricoeur's reflections on these matters find expression in his Oneself as Another as well as in a host of essays he has published during the past twenty-five years. In brief, the position that Ricoeur develops in Oneself as Another has its point of departure in the Aristotelian view that action always aims at some good.

      For a good life, one must have associates with and for whom one acts. Furthermore, societal institutions, particularly political institutions, set the context for action and significantly affect its efficacy. For a good life, we aim to have institutions that meet our sense of justice in the obligations they impose and the privileges and opportunities they grant OAA, It is as citizens that we become human. The wish to live within just institutions signifies nothing else. The ethical aim, however, is insufficient to guide one to proper conduct. The threat of violence is ineliminable from action because to act is always to impinge upon another.

      An action does not necessarily inflict violence. But because it always affects another's capacity to act, any action may do so. Hence the actual implementation of any specific ethical aim could turn out to be violent. This danger calls into question the adequacy of both our aims and the practices, values, and institutions that our society supports. One must pass on to the imperative, to duty, to interdiction.

      Two important versions of this sieve are Kant's principle of the universalizability of any genuine moral norm and Rawls's two principles that any just allocation of goods must satisfy. By using some verson of this kind of sieve, we move to a second stage of ethical reflection, namely the stage of morality. At this stage the sense of justice operative in the first stage is transformed into the rule of justice. But neither of these versions of the sieve, nor any other proposed version, turns out to be sufficient to guide concrete conduct.

      All proposed versions are abstract and ahistorical. Each in its own fashion would always require one to give priority to some universal norm or law over concern for how a strict adherence to that norm would affect the particular persons the deed would impinge upon. For Ricoeur, it is simply ingredient in what he calls the tragedy of action that at times one can harm another precisely by observing some universal norm.

      In those cases in which respect for another person and respect for a universal law conflict, as cases of promises that would harm the promisee if kept illustrate, one needs to resort to a practical wisdom to determine what genuine solicitude for the other person would require. This practical wisdom is akin to Aristotelian phronesis. It has three distinctive features for dealing with the exigencies of particular cases, especially serious and difficult ones.

      It considers how to express this respect in the case at hand. Third, practical wisdom avoids arbitrariness. A person exercises practical wisdom by engaging in discussion with other qualified persons and by consulting the most competent advisors available. This critical solicitude is the form that practical wisdom takes in the region of interpersonal relations" OAA, , translation modified. Ultimately, critical solicitude rests on mutual recognition of one another as capable, vulnerable selves. For Ricoeur, as for Aristotle, the political institution is the most comprehensive of social institutions.

      It provides the social space for other institutions, e. Thus the political institution, especially if it unites people as fellow citizens in a state, embodies the power that makes possible the full expression of all basic human capabilities.

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      Furthermore, it gives stability and durability to what its people achieve. But political power is inherently ambivalent or paradoxical. On the one hand, this power is power-in-common, a power that springs directly from the capacity people have to join with one another in common action. Together they can do things that none could do alone OAA, On the other hand, all politics about which we know anything involves a distinction between the ruler and the ruled.

      The ruler has domination over and can compel obedience from the ruled. Hence there is truth in Max Weber's view that political power always threatens violence. But on the other hand, power can only appear as a force that does violence, as a constraint that limits interests, limits even the vocation of individuals. The State… is a force of unconditional constraint. It is legitimate violence in history. The defining task for any defensible politics is to learn what justice calls for and to establish and protect the institutions that make justice effective.

      This is tantamount to saying that the ultimate objective of all defensible political practice is to make power-in-common prevail as far as possible over domination. But because dominations is never wholly eliminable, defensible politics is inherently fragile. Among the most important reasons for the fragility of politics is that the kind of discourse proper to political life is rhetoric, specifically what Aristotle calls deliberative or political rhetoric. Political action is primarily oriented to the future.

      But one cannot have certitude about the future, only an opinion. Rhetoric is the kind of discourse appropriate for stating and discussing opinions. As a consequence, the results of political deliberations are never beyond reasonable contestation. No proposed constitution, law, or political undertaking can be definitively justified.

      Therein lies the fragility of politics. People can become frustrated with the inability of political discourse to achieve certitude. This tempts them to embrace some doctrine or method that claims to yield incontrovertible conclusions rather than merely likely ones. For example, some people are tempted to adopt a utopian program that claims to lead to an achievable ideal society.

      Others are tempted by an ideology that claims to prescribe the true path that a political society ought to travel. And still others are tempted to embrace a method or procedure, e. Finally, there are those who are tempted to opt out of political discourse on the grounds that its results are too meager to be worthwhile.

      Those who succumb to any of these temptations at least implicitly call for the exclusion of some people from the discourse that determines political action. Those who opt out exclude themselves. Those who give in to any of the other temptations mentioned above would exclude those who do not share their approach. The ineliminable possibility- and historically, the likelihood- of such exclusions makes politics fragile. Every exclusion gives the included some domination over the excluded.

      Since the objective of responsible politics is to have power-in-common prevail as far as possible over domination, exclusions are always to be minimized. Or, more positively, the opinions of as many people as possible ought to be represented in political discourse, for doing so best promotes power-in-common.

      Political responsibility is born of the fragility of politics. The basic responsibility of citizens is twofold. It has its own proper objective and norms. Accordingly, citizens ought to resist efforts to subject political action to norms belonging to other domains, such as economics, or technology, or religion. On the other hand, citizens ought to work to have political institutions and practices promote as widespread political participation as is feasible.

      For Ricoeur, this two-fold responsibility has both a domestic and an international dimension. History shows that domestic exclusions can come from any number of sources, e. Citizens ought to oppose all such exclusions. Indeed, they ought to support the rehabilitation even of those who have excluded themselves by committing crimes. Many political problems today, e. Only international cooperation can succeed. Historically, any number of factors, e. It is incumbent on citizens to do what they can to encourage their societies to remove or at least weaken these obstacles.

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      To do so one need not promote any form of world government. Rather, citizens ought both to work through the institutions of civil society to pardon other people and states for the harms they have caused and to support treaties and pacts that all affected states can reasonably be urged to commit themselves to. In short, responsible citizens always look for ways to increase the number of people, both domestically and internationally, whose relevant opinions can be taken seriously in political deliberations. There is no set of rules that can rightly specify just how citizens ought to discharge this responsibility.

      As in personal ethics, they have to draw on a practical wisdom. Doing so is the only way to work for power-in-common to prevail over domination and to protect genuine politics from the threats to which it is always subject. Spring Edition Cite this entry. Search this Archive. This is a file in the archives of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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