Thursday, January 3, 2008

Moral selves: Politics as a crisis of meaning

(Seminar Paper, Ateneo Philosophy Symposium, Ateneo de Zamboanga, 2005)

Human existence finds at the very core of its being that it is perpetually underway to language. According to the French Philosopher Paul Ricoeur, it is through language that the responsible human subject is revealed, a subject who speaks and acts in a world that is immersed in constant conflict, a subject who continuously suffers in life but still desires to live. The human person is this never-ending desire to be.The human subject is always a mystery, and thus, he is to be understood indirectly. Human existence demands a detour through language.

Language and Structuralism

Through such, Ricoeur suggests the utilization of the overflowing creativity of language in highlighting the meaning of the self. The self, according to him, is like a text. This means that the self as an actor is like the unfolding of the text into a meaningful story. To understand oneself is to interpret oneself before this story. Thus, "the narrative story also shapes us in our existence prior to our intentional consciousness. If existence is dramatic, it is the story above all that brings its drama to language”. (Hengel 1982)The thesis above does not come forth without a challenge. French structuralism proposes a different view on language, a paradigm that essentially cuts off the connection between language and the human world.

The French structuralist Ferdinand de Saussure emphasizes that language is an autonomous object for empirical science. He distinguishes between language as code (langue) and language as speech (discour). In langue, there are only differences. (Garcia 2000) Langue is a closed system of signs differing from each other. The language of the story in this sense says nothing about reality. Human existence is rendered mute because in langue, all of language's referential function is cut off. Language as code does not express a world because "the code is the real meaning of the story. The surface features are only the dressing, the envelope for the underlying structures." (Hengel 1982) For Saussure, to understand a story is to decode it.But the assertion above seems to be problematic. Understanding language as a system of signs differing from each other does not reveal anything about the speaking subject. Thus, "in langue, one can say that no one speaks."(Garcia 2000) In this regard, it will be the duty of hermeneutics "to link language anew to the speaking subject, the concrete living person insofar as the sciences of language give privilege to systems, structures, and codes cut off from the speaking subject."(Ibid.)Language is not an objective reality. Language is that medium by which we express reality and have a world. (Ibid.) In language as discour, "speaking is the act by which language surpasses itself as sign towards the world, towards the other, and towards oneself."(Ibid) Discourse, in this regard, can be referred to as the intention of saying something, on something, to someone. (Ibid.) Discourse brings us to our actual being in the world. Language is primordially reference, not difference. It is in this sense that we speak of a detour in the beginning because language is primordially mediation. It brings us to our actual existence in time because the story of the narrative is a way of understanding ourselves as actors.The claim that language consists of signs is not an absolute truth. Language is essentially linked to a speaker who says something, the other to whom something is said, and to a community upon which people come into an agreement on things through linguistic mediation. Language, therefore, opens up the social dimension of the human subject. It is his way of expressing himself to the world. Thus, it is a mode of proclaiming our being in a situation. The narrative story then is a story of a life lived expressed in and through language.Narrative and MimesisNow that we have restored the relation between language and reality, our next task will be the elucidation of how language contributes in healing the existential malady of being human.

The human person acts and suffers. Action demands decisions, and decisions sometimes fail to consider the ramifications of our actions. Thus, we fall and reflect on our failures. The human subject listens to himself and tries to understand himself by interpreting his actions. There is no better way of interpreting what we do in life except through the creative power of the narrative.Ricoeur's narrative theory presents a way of understanding the self through the activity of emplotment or mimesis. Mimesis refers to “the active process of imitating or representing”. (Garcia 2000) The person gathers the scattered events, actions, goals, causes, and desires of his life into one meaningful story. The configuration of this story is the activity of emplotment. It is a way of imitating our actions with the hope of grasping them as a meaningful whole. Understanding these seemingly disconnected events is by means of the plot. The plot, says Ricoeur, is an imitation of action. (Ricoeur 1992)For Ricoeur, the narrative has the same referential function of the metaphor. The metaphor brings us to a world, a world that is not known through a direct description. Narration brings us to the temporal dimensions of our existence by means of the poetic power of the narrative, a detour through the text of one's life story.

Narration then illuminates human action and makes manifest its temporality. Thus, "human action is shaped by mimetic activity which unfolds in the plot” (Garcia 2000) Emplotment shows forth person.Emplotment, according to Ricoeur, has a threefold structure. The composition of the plot is grounded on a pre-understanding of the world (Mimesis1). First, there is a competence for the structural aspects of human action. Every human action has a conceptual network of motives, intentions, consequences, and goals. These features help us read human action. Every action presupposes motives, intentions and goals.Secondly, human action can be narrated because it is articulated through signs, rules, and norms. (Ricoeur 1992) There is a meaningful cultural context for every action. We act according to the dictates of these cultural norms. Thirdly, the pre-understanding of human action leads us to the temporal dimensions of human action. Human action has a historical dimension. The past is not simply past. The past is always in relation to the present and the present is always in relation to what I hope for in the future.The actual activity of configuration is the occasion of the grasping together of the heterogenous (Mimesis 2). Factors such as agents, goals, means, interactions, and circumstances are taken together to form a meaningful whole. It becomes the story of a life lived. This configuration allows the reader to follow the life story in the text. It gives the point, the thought or theme of the narrative by giving it a sense of followability which leads to a conclusion. The conclusion, in this regard, is the resolution of the problem unfolded in the plot.Finally, it is the reader who completes the text in Mimesis 3. It refers to the intersection of the world of the text and that of the reader, or as put simply by H.G. Gadamer, a "fusion of horizons". The configurating act is only completed when the horizon of the text and the reader are fused. Reading the text brings a change of character in the reader. Reading results to a cathartic effect, that is, it changes the reader by making him understand the ethical content of his actions through the narrative. As Ricoeur says, one must understand that every well told story teaches something. (Ricoeur 1991) Making a change in the reader is the purpose of any good story told.

Mimesis and Time

The human experience of time is inextricably but mostly bound up with narrativity. (Hengel 1982) Every story must be understood as a story that occurs in time. Here, we must distinguish between the linear and configurative understanding of time. Linear time is seeing the series of events in a story in episodic succession. According to Hengel, "linear time is linked to the observable; it is the time that is datable". (Ibid.) But life is not a series of datable events. History is not the mere recording of successive occurrences. History or human life is rather, a happening. It is only in this sense that we can speak of a being in time. Being in time means that human existence is a “being-in-the-world”. Time is that possibility for the unfolding of human existence. Dasein, or there-being, in this sense must be interpreted as man's temporal existence.Storytelling and following a story throw us in time. (Ibid.) Narrativity manifests the development of the plot in a dimension of time emerges that is hardly linear.

The central point of Ricoeur's narrative theory is that time becomes human time when it is narrated. Here, Ricoeur makes an analysis of St. Augustine and Aristotle. What Ricoeur does is to fuse St. Augustine's analysis of time and Aristotle's analysis of emplotment because the former does an analysis of time without emplotment and the latter does an analysis of emplotment without taking into account the temporal aspects of action.St. Augustine's analysis of time as a triple present establishes a discordance between the present as past [memory], the present of the present [attention], and the present of the future [expectation]. (Reagan 1995) St. Augustine sees time as a distention of the soul (distentio anime), a slippage that goes back again and again to the threefold present, thus establishing discordance. To erase this discordance, Ricoeur appeals to Aristotle's idea of emplotment, an idea that brings concordance to what is discordant. Concordance mends discordance in the activity of constructing a plot. (Ibid.) The plot then is the means of giving a unity to the distention of the soul by giving it a temporal order.The reflection above leads the way to a temporal understanding of human action. Through emplotment human action is given its temporal unity. The scattered events of human life become one meaningful story through the activity of emplotment. It is through this that we understand the self as the unity of the discordant elements of human life.

The Subject as same and the Subject as self

The narrative reveals the meaning of human existence. Let us see how this happens by reading the Parable of the Good Samaritan.A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who also stripped and wounded him... And it so happened that a Priest went down the same way...In like manner a Levite also passed by...But a certain Samaritan being on his journey came near him and seeing him, was moved with compassion...which of these three men, in thy opinion, was a neighbor to him that fell among the thieves? (Luke 10:30-37)For Ricoeur, the parable is a unique narrative. What is surprising in the parable is that Jesus answered the question of the visitor with a question, "but a question that has become inverted by means of the corrective power of the narrative". (Ibid.) In the parable, the visitor was making a sociological inquiry concerning a certain social object, a possible sociological category susceptible to definition, observation, and explanation. (Ibid.) The neighbor, however, is not a social category with defined roles. Thus, the act of making oneself available is beyond any sociological abstraction. This is because "being a neighbor lies in making oneself a neighbor". (Ibid.) The question here becomes a demand for action. The question is thrown back to the questioner, presenting him with possibilities for being or existing.Being a neighbor or making oneself available, defies one's permanence in time. This permanence in time, according to Ricoeur, refers to the subject as being the same (idem). He calls this character. Character refers to a set of distinctive marks that permit the re-identification of the human individual as being the same. (Ricoeur 1992) A Samaritan is considered as an outcast. He is conceived as someone who has no role to portray in the society. He has no social function. But this set of characteristics enabled the Samaritan to respond positively to the surprise of the event of the encounter. Thus, the Samaritan rose above his being a non-category. And so it is in this regard that we can ascribe to the Samaritan the subject as self (ipse). The Samaritan cannot be reduced to a what. The subject who acts and is responsible for his actions is a who. The Samaritan as self is a person for others, an actor who rises above social functions. He assumes a narrative identity.Narrative identity is the integration of the subject as same and the subject as self. It is through narrative identity that we can ascribe actions to its agents. The story of the Good Samaritan is a story of a life that has an actor. Through the narrative, the Samaritan as subject is the human person who possesses the dynamism of self by being able to respond to the surprise of the encounter. The narrative is his story.

Teleology and Deontology

Narrativity brings forth the ethical content of human action. Ricoeur elaborates a discussion on Kant’s deontology and Aristotle’s teleology, noting in the end his affinity to Aristotle’s ethics of the desire to be.Kant in his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals makes a proposal for an ethics based on duty. An action is done because it is an obligation on the part of the individual as a rational human being. The human being acts morally because he is commanded so by human rationality. For Kant, all ethical actions proceeds from a good will. All actions, to be ethical, must have the pure intention of the will. The will is autonomous because it is not governed by any other motive except doing what is good.On the one hand, Aristotelean teleology, proposes an ethics of one’s desire to be. To be is to act in order to attain the virtuous life. The virtuous life is the good life, the realization of the individual's self-fulfillment. To be ethical means to exert one's effort to exist and to exercise one's freedom to be. For Aristotle, virtue is exercised through practical action or phronesis. A good act is like a habit. Man must do good things habitually in order to be good. Every individual has this desire to be good, and he does good things in order to attain the good life. The good life for Aristotle is the happy life. Virtue and happiness then are intimately linked.

For Ricoeur, there is primacy to teleology than deontology. This is because there is first an urgency of the desire to be before one is called to act in the name of duty. In every human action, freedom comes first before necessity. Man, first and foremost, desires the realization of his very self, the actualization of a meaningful life. To be man is to make real my potentialities for existence, the possibilities of my being. To be man is to nurture my freedom, the ultimate expression of the self that I am.The narrative of life is an archive of stories that articulate the human condition, the human condition being the ground of man’s conscious effort to desire more from himself and the world. Man’s desire to be takes its ultimate form in the field of history. History manifests the finality of human action. This finality or end, it seems to me, is a search for meaning.

Narrative, History, and Meaning

Being human is primarily set within the background of a historical condition. Let us consider the relevance of the narrative to human historical existence. According to Charles Reagan, history is a kind of writing, and in this sense, it is a kind of narration. To explain for a historian means to show the unfolding of the plot, to make it understood. Events receive their intelligibility from their place in the plot, and historical events do not differ radically from the events framed by the plot. (Reagan 1995)There is an intimate link between the narrative, history and meaning.

Victor Frankl’s account of his experiences in the concentration camp, for instance, sets us up to one of the most potent source of the narrative meaning of human historical existence. Frankl writes,A man's character became involved to the point that he was caught in a mental turmoil which threatened all the values he held and threw them into doubt. Under the influence of a world which no longer recognized the value of human life and human dignity, which had made him an object to be exterminated - under this influence the personal ego finally suffered a loss of values. (Frankl 1962)By understanding the accounts from history, we come to an understanding of the importance of human values and their significance to our desire to be fully human. History has a plot, and finding the meaning of human existence in it is the ultimate goal of any emplotment. This meaning may be concealed from us, but this only shows that life is an on-going story.

The human being as an actor suffers, but in his desire to live well, the search for meaning provides the impetus for him to continually desire to be. Again we quote Frankl, who says,one should not seek for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. (Ibid.)To desire is to desire one’s self-realization. To live is to seek fulfillment. The value of human life comes from the fact that each individual is unique, hence, irreplaceable. This uniqueness also corresponds to the uniqueness of each person’s account of himself, of his story. Every person’s desire to be, therefore, is also unique to himself. The meaning of the human subject’s desire to be, however, would not be realized in the absence of social justice. The institution supports the actualization of any human undertaking, for individuality would not find its expression without the presence of others. This presence is always a historical presence.

Justice and the Institution

The human subject’s desire to be is embedded in the social dimension of human existence. The fulfillment of our desire to be ultimately resides in our social relationships. The attainment of a good life, which is the desire of every man, does not find its fullest expression on the level of personal intimacy. The beauty and preservation of private life rests on public order, hence, the birth of the institution.The proposal of Ricoeur for a narrative ethics then takes its most defining moment in its importance in the constitution of a happy life in a just society. It is the presence of the institution that makes possible the emergence of a just society. John Rawls stresses this when he said that justice is the first virtue of the institution, as truth is of systems of thoughts. (Rawls 1971) In a just society, “what matters is that everyone is provided with the basic conditions for the realization of his own aims, regardless of the absolute level of achievement that may represent”. (Daniels 1975) The reason for this is that the fundamental attitude towards persons on which justice as fairness depends is a respect for their autonomy or freedom. (Ibid) Society exists for man’s greater self-realization. Ultimately, human reason demands that justice simply means making freedom a possibility for all. Reasonable human action can only be moved by charity under the form of justice. (Ricoeur 1965) What becomes clear here is that justice governs the purpose and the existence of the institution. The institution, in this sense, exists in order to bring forth equality among individuals who belong to it. As a structure of an organized whole, it sees to it that there is an equal opportunity for the individuals who belong to it. This means giving equal chances of living a good life, equal chances of realizing our desire to be. The institution exists “for the service it renders” (Ricoeur 1965).

Justice is the only guarantee that a happy life becomes a possibility for all and the institution only finds its true worth by safeguarding the basic freedom and desire to be of the human being.