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A new kind of atheist (cont.)

In continuation of a previous (and popular) post that praised Žižek for his his superb handling of theism and philosophy I would like to reproduce a lengthy passage in The Parallax View that describes, accurately in my estimation, the challenge of being an atheist in light of contemporary critical thought. The first is a quote of a quote:

Someone asked Herr Keuner if there is a God. Herr Keuner said: I advise you to think about how your behavior would change with regard to the answer to this question. If it would not change, then we can drop the question. If it would change, then I can help you at least insofar as I can tell you: You already decided: You need a God (Bertolt Brecht, Prosa 3, p. 18, quoted in Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View, p. 97)

I think Brecht’s point is fairly straightforward: belief has no otherworldly dimension (even if it includes belief in the afterlife) but only has practical implications in this world. Žižek seems to think the same.

Brecht is right here: we are never in a position to choose directly between theism and atheism, since the choice as such is located within the field of belief. “Atheism” (in the sense of deciding not to believe in God) is a miserable pathetic stance of those who long for God but cannot find him (or who “rebel against God”…). A true atheist does not choose atheism: for him, the question itself is irrelevant….So what if the forthcoming ideological battle will be not religion versus science (or hedonism, or any other form of atheist materialism) but, cutting diagonally across this divide, the struggle against a new form of “evil” Gnostic spirituality whose forms are already discernible today in the “proto-Fascist” tendencies of Jungian psychology, some versions of Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism, and so on? (p. 97)

What Žižek means by saying atheism and theism are “located within the field of belief” is that transcendence is internal to immanence. Radical Orthodoxy makes some interesting headways by saying something like this in their panentheism, but Žižek is saying something else here. He means to say that the otherworldly and the supernatual are ultimately irrelevant even for believers because there only implications are this worldly and natural. For example, believing in God is not actually going to get you into heaven but it very likely might make you unproductive and ignorant in your daily life. Furthermore, pseudo-atheism is merely reactionary to theism and an indefensible position for being so. From an experiential perspective I would say that most crackpot-atheists become vituperative and defensive whenever God is brought up, whereas for the true atheist who is confident in the irrelevance of God this sort of extra-natural content is existentially benign to him- or herself.

So where does theology go from here? I think Ricouer’s insight, speaking on a separate but similar subject, can be applied to this situation in a healthy manner.

I must rather leave it where it is, in a place where it remains alone and perhaps out of reach, inaccessible to any form of repetition. It maintains itself in this place as my most formidable adversary, as the measure of radicality against which I must measure myself. Whatever I think and whatever I believe must be worthy of it (Conflict of Interpretations, p. 453)

I think that if theism is to survive it must pass through Žižek’s atheism. When it comes to atheism, Žižek is a respectable voice and any belief worthy of its name is going to need to go beyond his unavoidable postreligious critique. But surprisingly, what Žižek really hammers is not conservative theists or even the luke-warm-pseudo-atheists but the “proto-fascist” spiritualities that hijack the thoughtful consciousness of others. Maybe when I figure out why this is his target of choice I will add more.

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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.

The Inherent Cultural Criticism of Psychoanalysis

It is often assumed that psychoanalysis or clinical psychiatry is in the business of “curing” individuals. Their main function is to restore those who are “sick” to normalcy and reintegrate them back into society. In this sense they are in service of the state by keeping its citizens in line with preestablished standards of normalcy. But while psychology certainly does function in this capacity it also extends beyond this limited framework.

What Freud undertook, and psychoanalysis after him, was to interpret civilization and culture as a whole. In doing so he was not going beyond the limits of psychoanalysis but, on the contrary, was manifesting its ultimate intention to be a general hermeneutics of culture. In other words, psychoanalysis is not only a therapeutic branch of psychiatry but also seeks to analyze how culture makes us ill. This is particularly acute in our (post-) industrial society in which there seems to be many factors that make us sick. The analyst is not only working to interpret and change his/her patient but to also transform the world by interpreting it. What makes the viewpoint of psychoanalysis unique however is that it interprets humanity as a whole from a narrow yet rigorous topographical model of the unconscious. By doing so it touches on the essentials of existence as a result of its single pont of view. Let me explain.

Freud grasped the whole phenomenon of culture as a means to exorcise us of our internal and external conflicts. Interpreted by Ricoeur reading Freud, “Culture is indeed made up of all the procedures by which man escapes in the imaginary mode from the unresolvable situation where desires can be neither suppressed nor satisfied.” The most famous example is that culture creates gods to sublimate our suffering and substitute it with divine and hopeful illusions. Of course this does not completely provide a refuge from the cruel world but merely covers it up. This does not matter much to civilization because it has easily appropriated it for utilitarian use in taming aggressiveness and reinforcing feelings of guilt when our “anticulture” instincts manifest themselves. By “curing” us of our natural “illness” professional psychology is most decidedly in league and in service of the established order of society. This is precisely why Deleuze and Guattari are Anti-Oedipus!

The other option, as mentioned above, is to think of psychoanalysis less as a technique in therapeutics leading to a cure and more as a nontechnique that is after truth. In our technical world of domination, manipulation, and control classical psychiatry would hope to tame and direct our desires. Psychoanalysis as antitechnique on the other hand is a “public iconoclasm”, a method of veracity and not of technology. “What is at stake in analysis is access to true discourse, and that is quite different from adaptation, the tactic by which the scandal of psychoanalysis has been hastily undermined and rendered socially acceptable.” For Ricoeur, who is quoted above, psychoanalysis can do better but he can not yet see how its full consequences might be played out. He simply knows that its sociopolitical implications are lurking there—something Žižek has popularized today. At the very least for Ricoeur it belongs to the enterprise of self-knowledge and concerns the loss of humanity’s most cherished pretensions.

Freud on Religion and Illusion

For many people Freud, together with Marx and a few others, is the scarecrow of religion. But at closer scrutiny he is more a friend than foe. Ricoeur here passes on to us the wisdom of Freud. The psychoanalyst

is neither a theologian nor an antitheologian. As an analyst he is an agnostic, i.e., incompetent. As a psychoanalyst he cannot say whether God is merely a phantasm of god, but he can help his patient surpass the infantile and neurotic forms of religious belief and decide, or recognize, whether or not his religion is only an infantile and neurotic belief whose true mainspring the psychoanalyst has discovered. If the patient’s belief does not survive this critical process, the only reason can be that it was not worthy to survive. But in that case nothing has been said either for or against faith in God. In another language I might say that, if faith must differ from religion, then religion must die in order that faith may be born

Freud is not speaking about the death of God here but overcoming the gods of humanity. For him these religions were illusions in the precise sense of the word: they were representations that did not correspond to reality. The faltering of religious commitment in the lives of college students (even at private Christian universities) mirrors this same process. There is much ado that a secular education dissuades incumbent classes from religion and that these students in turn lose their faith, but it seems more accurate to say that these students are losing a faith they never had. In other words, they are maturing and losing infantile beliefs that were never worth holding. What is often missed in these same schools (and what Freud fails to grasp as well) is the function of mythopoetic imagination (see here) in understanding and explaining existence which cannot be verified by mathematical or experimental methods. Perhaps this is why we aren’t seeing more faiths survive critical trials.

Ricoeur on Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics or the interpretive problems anyone faces when dealing with a text was common-coinage when Ricoeur wrote The Conflict of Interpretations. What he offered though was an original and rigorous analysis of the full consequences of hermeneutics extended into other fields such as psychoanalysis and religion. However, we would do well reviewing the basics of hermeneutics before preceding into how this enriches other fields. In a word, interpretation is the work of deciphering the many hidden layers of meaning immanent to a single text. This process of discovering analogous meanings contained in symbols has a long history in biblical exegesis but it was only relatively recent that this was appropriated by philospohy to apply towards more general problems. The idea is that every text has a surface meaning conditioned by an immediate and simplistic understanding. Concealed within this literal interpretation though are unsuspected stratums of significance. We might say that every text has a hidden depth of meaning. Ricoeur expresses this layering of multiple significance as polysemic, meaning, every word possesses a certain opacity and richness. Language has a surplus of meaning, overlapping interpretations that make meaning overdetermined and equivocal or polyvocal. Confusing to be sure, but the more arduous and roundabout path of unlayering a plurality of meaning is better than sticking with the narrowness of a single interpretation in Ricoeur’s estimation. The work of the hermeneut then is to explicate the multiple determination of symbols and tease out different interpretations by using a variety of frames of reference or considering the text in different contexts. For the hermeneut the real sin is to only see or promote one dimension of meaning in a reductionistic and confined way.

This mode of suspicion bears real fruits when applied to psychoanalysis. If we think of the self as a text then it follows that the subject shows and conceals layers of meaning. This was Freud’s radical vision of interpreting the dreams of his patients. (For those unfamiliar with Freud his idea was that dreams were wish fulfillments that had been censored and distorted by our consciousness to hide our true unconscious thoughts. Our most shocking wish according to him was the male’s desire to sleep with his mother and kill his father). He mistrusted the manifest content of the dream (it was distorted) and worked to uncover the real motives and latent meaning behind it all. He arrived at this hidden meaning by working backwards from the confusing dreams of his patients (the analysands) would recall. Like the hermeneutics of a text, the concealed truth was revealed by transcending the simple previous meaning therefore following a progressive interpretation of the analysand. The upshot of the abandonment of an ideal, univocal ego profoundly transformed the cogito and sparked the ongoing discipline of psychoanalysis. Because of Freud we now know to be suspicious of our consciousness. But its tricks have been unmasked and we are better because of it.

The same applies to the phenomenology of religion (Ricoeur is speaking of Christianity here). It’s not difficult to think of faith as having lower and higher dimensions. What is more disturbing for many though is the threat that once we apply a suspicious hermeneutic to faith there is no recovery of simple faith. Of course if faith does survive this chastisement it would be more informed and critical sans superstitious and pretentious ideas. Ricouer’s idea here is that by undercutting many of our “taken-for-granted presuppositions” a higher dimension of faith, one grounded more in hope than certainty, would emerge from the ashes of a fallen faith, much like a phoenix. The death of God therefore is interpreted by Ricoeur as the death of an idol. What displaces our old sedimentary conceptions of God is the God who is to come, more an icon this time than an idol. Through this progressive hermeneutic Ricoeur understands a mature faith to be open and ongoing rather than stifilingly enclosed. And rather than faith existing in spite of doubt and criticism they are strongly alloyed.

This plurality and confusion of meanings simultaneously benefits and haunts the whole of philosophy as has been briefly shown. If we read philosophy as a text (or the world for that matter) it appears that meaning is in motion. In Hegelian terms the spirit is realized in the dialectic process of history; surpassing and overcoming previous meanings but retaining traces of their existence through every stage. In this way philosophy draws us out of our infancy in the same way psychoanalysis does for the subject and phenomenology does for religion. Philosophy just happens to be more meta-critical, viewing a wide range of problems rather than narrowly focusing in on the small details. In Ricoeur’s terms “philosophy itself becomes the interpretation of interpretations.” In other words, philosophy reflects on the reflections that other disciplines have made and attempts to see larger trends, what we might name the spirit of the day.