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Disappointed with the French intellectual milieu

Philosophy Ethics & Politics
Forfatter: Paul Ricoeur
Forlag: Polity Press (USA)
PHILOSOPHY / A book by Paul Ricoeur on topics such as the work of art, metaphors, opinion formation and the significance of the French Revolution for Europe's culture and politics.


Paul Ricoeur (1913–2005) was a French philosopher who wrote and thought in the hermeneutic and phenomenological tradition of Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer. In addition to being a philosopher, he was also a trained theologian, and he was a skilled university teacher. He was not a Catholic – despite being French – but belonged to a Protestant minority.

Philosophy, Ethics, & Politics is a collection of conversations Ricoeur has had with various people during the years he was active. What this book bears, among other things, is a deep disappointment with the French intellectual milieu. Ricoeur at some point settled with this environment and got a position at the University of Chicago, where he taught in the years 1970-1985. Beyond this deep skepticism and confrontation with the elitist milieu that he obviously felt lacked contact with society, the book discusses topics such as the importance of metaphor for language, the creation of meaning through language and the significance of the French Revolution for European culture and politics. Although the conversations are multifaceted, the French philosopher's opinions are not always so easy to grasp. As another French philosopher once wrote: "When a book hits a head and it sounds hollow, it is not necessarily due to the book."

Imagine a work of art that has lived for centuries, hidden from man.

This is not an easy book to acquire and understand. I had to read it four times before I began to have a relationship with what was written there. The book's conversations are at times marked by an abstract and difficult-to-access language, just as prejudiced people expect it from a philosopher.

What seems to be Ricoeur's philosophical project is to connect phenomenology, with which he had made contact through the study of Maurice Merlau-Ponty, with analyzes of everyday language, perhaps with inspiration from Wittgenstein. He wanted to create a hybrid between analytical philosophy, linguistics and phenomenology. What this means is a little difficult to grasp – even for someone who is relatively well versed in philosophy.

Not everyone necessarily feels deeply excited about reading about "the problem of metaphor", or "the problem of creating a logical interpretation using the linguistic turn". I alternate between interest and irritation in my own reading of this book.

Art and works of art

In the chapter "Art, language and aesthetic hermeneutics", on the other hand, the conversation revolves around the problem of understanding what it is Universal is for something, and how it can be put into concepts. As is well known, Immanuel Kant believed that taste is something that can be discussed to the highest degree, so how can we at the same time claim that there is something that is universal? Here Ricoeur draws in the concept of "communicability", which is not to be perceived as a judgment, a rule or as the matter itself, but as "the interplay between understanding and imagination", where "the beautiful" is "the harmony between the concepts". This is an experience we can have when we start speaking the same universal language, but without necessarily agreeing with everything that is said.

Ricoeur points out in the book that the work of art is not autonomous in the sense that it can live completely enclosed in its own world, but that it must, after all, be shared with someone – which means that art arises in the face of humanity. Although the work of art is created in the face of the surroundings, it is also entitled to its own, not work-specific, but universal autonomous existence.

Another question he addresses is how the work of art exists when it is not shown to anyone: Imagine a work of art that has lived for centuries, hidden from man: Where and how does it live? Ricoeur then replies that in such a case, works of art live solely as an opportunity. Let's say, for example, Munch's Scream was not discovered until 2021. Then it would have lived as an opportunity for well over a hundred years. How would the work then have been understood? Maybe it would have been interpreted in a completely different way than it does today? It would hardly have had the opportunity to become a living work of art, but perhaps would only have been interpreted historically?

And what about a work of art that was only meant to exist without an audience, such as Samuel Peppy's diaries? Ricoeur seems to think that every work of art points to the future, and he is therefore little concerned with what has influenced the work of art through its historical process of creation. He sees the work of art as something that points forward to new works of art, new actions and new possibilities for creation. The work of art emerges as a spontaneous act of creation. The work of art therefore belongs to the future – «a spontaneous form of sociology».

Henning Næs
Henning Næss
Literary critic in MODERN TIMES.

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