Circular Dialog In Non-Enclosed, Non-Vicious Loop

In a response to my post “Ricoeur on Hermeneutics” Matt Martin raises a brilliant point that confirms Ricoeur’s own critical thought, but one that I am still hesitant to take. His full reply can be found here, I only reproduce a small section here for immediate clarity.

The cautionary note, then, is that an over-reliance (or, worse, exclusive reliance) on philosophy and poetry as tools of continual critique to overturn preconceived notions and established thought is that both are starting from the human, and both return to the human. Consequently, both also bring with them the danger of not actually overturning anything significant. They create a hermeneutically and epistemically closed circle. We must have theology as a third partner in dialogue. I will leave aside the question whether it is the superior partner or an equal one, but theology alone brings in the voice from the “outside”–the Transcendent.

What I think Matt is saying here is that philosophy and other immanent disciplines of our global culture are limited to merely demystifying our preconceived notions about existence and cannot get out of this negating loop. Of course this is a simplification, but for the most part I agree. Nothing wrong here. Ricoeur tends to think likewise. As has been demonstrated in previous posts Ricouer supports opposing movements (unconscious/conscious, religion/faith) that are in fact inner conflicts. What I have been less clear in showing is that Ricoeur understands these conflicts to be the outline of a solution rather than an inert deadlock. In other words, the back-and-forth oscillation between a preceding system and its critique is the entire point. Let me give two examples. First, for psychoanalysis, the birth of the subject comes with the self-knowledge of how our consciousness and unconsciousness interact. The preconscious, or the superego, would be the mediating term between these two expressions of the subject, but the meaning of the subject is posited precisely with this alternation. Second, for religion, the two strategic levels of demystifying a text and recovering its meaning are coterminous. They are not oppositional functions in total but are cumulative; every semantic change builds off the previous meaning indicating an accumulation of meanings and an in increasing richness. The tradition is renewed in this sense rather than eliminated. In both of these examples there exists a circularity to the arguments, but the circle is not vicious; it’s productive. Rather than a vicious circle what Ricoeur believes he sees is a living circle of expression producing an overload of meaning. This is the kind of ceaseless mode of play and counterplay Ricoeur would like to see kept open and believes it is philosophy’s task to do so.

Since Matt is specifically interested in transcending this feedback loop I will turn my attention towards religious hope. As shown elsewhere, demythization deconstructs the literalism of myth, but frees its mythicpoetic possibilities (or “revealing power”) in doing so. This double function assumes together the negative and positive tasks of faith: destruction and instruction. Ricoeur puts it more eloquently, “the renunciation of the fable and the reconquest of the symbol.” Ricoeur actually believes that this counterplay scheme was immanent to each master of suspicion (Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and even Heidegger if we can include him). Each, in his own way, believed that only after such a “destruction” could a new foundation of meaning be exercised. When we turn to religion, as all of them did at some point and in some way, it becomes a matter of what does faith, hope, and love still mean.

Let’s use a brief thought experiment that’s common to phenomenology of religion to elaborate. Idols are a far oversimplification of the divine and conceals many aspects of the transcendent that we would miss. Icons on the other hand are similarly revealing, but unlike idols, we look through them or past them to the divine, meaning, it helps us think correctly about God without enclosing God’s nature. However, these two symbols, the true one and the counterfeit, intermingle. In fact, these symbols go both ways to the extent that they remain undifferentiated from each other at times. This is where hope comes in.

Theologically, God is the one to come, and this means for idols and icons alike that they will one day be overcome and surpassed. We get a glimpse of God, however, in the historical Christian traditions just as we do in icons. Ricoeur puts it this way, “Hidden in the present is the promise of the future.” (Unsurprisingly, he applies the same criteria to psychoanalysis. “The eschatology of consciousness is always a creative repetition of its own archaeology”). But as Kierkegaard realized, this hope is a suspension of our immanent discourses and an absurd leap into hoping for this realized promise. In this sense Matt is right in thinking that faith gives to philosophical thinking an object other than what it is capable of generating itself and is completely in line with Ricoeur’s line of thought. My deliberation in pushing this conclusion forward, however, is that I think hope in the otherworldly is just as opaque as hope in the present. Both are overdetermined and both are equivocal. I certainly need to elaborate this further for my own sake and others’, but I still need to postpone this topic until I have done more research.


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