Ricoeur on Levinas: “Self” between the “I” and its overthrow

I’ll just jump right into Oneself as Another to explain R.’s reading of Levinas, and an approach to pragmatism and political versions of phychoanalysis.

The basic thesis, explored through the many detours of ‘sematics,’ ‘action theory,’ ‘narrative temporality of the self,’ and ‘moral/ethical obligations,’ is that “the selfhood of oneself implies otherness to such an intimate degree that one cannot be thought of without the other, that instead one passes into the other, as we might say in Hegelian terms” (3). This selfhood, or just the self, is to be distinguish both from the ‘cogito’ (Descartes is paradigmatic) and the cogito’s shattering (a la Nietzsche). “The quarrel over the cogit, in which the “I is by turns in a position of strength and of weakness, seems to me the best way to being out the problematic of the self…[namely] that the hermeneutics of the self is placed at an equal distance from the apology of the cogito and from its overthrow”(4). We could say that the cogito which posits itself (its world) begins with Descartes and its modern variants, while its overthrow is exemplified in Nietzsche and his postmodern offspring.

Now, skippng about 300 pages, and landing in R.’s sustained reading of both Husserl and Levinas, we find out that they are the latest incarnations of the cogito (Husserl) and its over throw (Levinas). The gist of it is that both presuppose an asymmetrical relationship between the cogito and its other. Husserl, beginning from a phenomenological position, posits the ego, master of its world, which then must somehow account for alter egos, those ‘people’ who must be assumed to have a cogito as I do, but I can’t really prove it. Husserl finds it difficult not to be solipsistic. Now, for Levinas, he begins from the opposite pole, that of the Other. This Other breaks all the pretensions of the “I” and its knowledge and truths. The asymmetrical relationship comes from the Other to the ego, and overwhelms the ego. The problem with both views is that they absolutize the poles of Same and Other. In fact, R. claims that these perspectives are symmetrical, or mirror of each other, in that to consistently how to one position, you must also hold the other, for “The two movements do not annihilare one another to the extent that one unfold in the gnoselogical dimension of the sense, and the other in the ethical dimension of injunction”(341). The problem is that from these original asymmetrical position, it is almost impossible to account for ‘everyday’ experiences of reciprocity.

The problem for R. in both of these approaches is that they neither the realm of the Same nor the Other ought to be absolutized. Instead, we must admit that “Same” or identity is split between idem-identity and ipse-identity, which means, somewhat like Freud, the self (ipse-identity) is not the ‘cogito’ or “I” (idem-identity), and because of this, the Other is split (The Other is not identical to itself). So back to Levinas, R. claims that Levinas makes a mistake by only allowing the Other to find its trace in the face of the other person. Ricoeur wants to place the Other, not only (1) in the face of the other person, (2) but also into the divide between the self and its body/flesh (the experience of your own body is an encounter with Otherness), and (3) between the self and its conscience (Conscience as some Other voice in your head, from God, the anscestors, other people).

At the end of all this, and more so in The Course of Recognition, ch. 3, R. moves toward a Hegelian understanding of reciprocity as the constitution of selfhood, rather than an original asymmetry. So the ‘self’ is situated between the sameness of the cogito, and it shattering by the Other, where the self is always already, othered in various ways.

This turn toward Hegel has also been heralded by two other schools of thought (but in very different ways). American pragmatism has taken up Hegel’s critique of the social contract and his theories of sociality, and Continental/philosophical psychoanalysis (of the Lacanian variety, as to be distinguished from the American reception of Freud) also has taken up Hegel’s master slave dialectic (via Lacan’s appropriation of Kojeve’s reading of Hegel).

So, both of these Schools are now my playground, and I will take leave of Levinas for now. Thank you, and good night.

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