From: On Interpretation

Paul Ricoeur


There is no self-understanding that is not mediated by signs, symbols, and texts; in the last resort understanding coincides with the interpretation given to these mediating terms. In passing from one to the other, hermeneutics gradually frees itself from the idealism with which Husserl had tried to identify phenomenology. Let us now follow the stages of this emancipation.

Mediation by signs: that is to say, it is language that is the primary condition of all human experience. Perception is articulated, desire is articulated; this is something that Hegel had already shown in the Phenomenology of Mind. Freud drew another consequence from this, namely, that there is no emotional experience so deeply buried, so concealed or so distorted that it cannot be brought up to the clarity of language and so revealed in its own proper sense, thanks to desire’s access to the sphere of language. Psychoanalysis, as a talk-cure, is based on this very hypothesis, that of the primary proximity between desire and speech. And since speech is heard before it is uttered, the shortest path from the self to itself lies in the speech of the other, which leads me across the open space of signs.

Mediation by symbols: by this term I mean those expressions carrying a double sense which traditional cultures have grafted onto the naming of the “elements” of the cosmos (fire, water, wind, earth, etc.), of its “dimensions” (height and depth, etc.). These double-sense expressions are themselves hierarchically ordered into the most universal symbols; then those that belong to one particular culture; and, finally, those that are the creation of a particular thinker, even of just one work. In this last case, the symbol merges into living metaphor. However, there is, on the other hand, perhaps no symbolic creation that is not in the final analysis rooted in the common symbolical ground of humanity. I myself once sketched out a “symbolism of evil” based entirely on this mediating role of certain double-sense expressions - such as stain, fall, deviation - in reflections on ill will. At that time, I even went so far as to reduce hermeneutics to the interpretation of symbols, that is to say, to the making explicit of the second - and often hidden - sense of these double-sense expressions.

Today this definition of hermeneutics in terms of symbolic interpretation appears to me too narrow. And this for two reasons, which will lead us from mediation by symbols to mediation by texts. First of all I came to realize that no symbolism, whether traditional or private, can display its resources of multiple meaning (plurivocitive) outside appropriate contexts, that is to say, within the framework of an entire text, of a poem, for example. Next, the same symbolism can give rise to competitive - even diametrically opposed -interpretations, depending on whether the interpretation aims at reducing the symbolism to its literal basis, to its unconscious sources or its social motivations, or at amplifying it in accordance with its highest power of multiple meaning. In the one case, hermeneutics aims at demystifying a symbolism by unmasking the unavowed forces that are concealed within it; in the other case, it aims at a re-collection of meaning in its richest, its most elevated, most spiritual diversity. But this conflict of interpretations is also to be found at the level of texts.

It follows that hermeneutics can no longer be defined simply in terms of the interpretation of symbols. Nevertheless, this definition should be preserved at least as a stage separating the very general recognition of the linguistic character of experience and the more technical definition of hermeneutics in terms of textual interpretation. What is more, this intermediary definition helps to dissipate the illusion of an intuitive self-knowledge by forcing self-understanding to take the roundabout path of the whole treasury of symbols transmitted by the cultures within which we have come, at one and the same time, into both existence and speech.

Finally, mediation by texts: at first sight this mediation seems more limited than the mediation by signs and by symbols, which can be simply oral and even nonverbal. Mediation by texts seems to restrict the sphere of interpretation to writing and literature to the detriment of oral cultures. This is true. But what the definition loses in extension, it gains in intensity. Indeed, writing opens up new and original resources for discourse. Thanks to writing, discourse acquires a threefold semantic autonomy: in relation to the speaker’s intention, to its reception by its original audience, and to the economic, social, and cultural circumstances of its production. It is in this sense that writing tears itself free of the limits of face-to-face dialogue and becomes the condition for discourse itself becoming-text. It is to hermeneutics that falls the task of exploring the implications of this becoming-text for the work of interpretation.

The most important consequence of all this is that an end is put once and for all to the Cartesian and Fichtean - and to an extent Husserlian - ideal of the subject’s transparence to itself. To understand oneself is to understand oneself as one confronts the text and to receive from it the conditions for a self other than that which first undertakes the reading. Neither of the two subjectivities, neither that of the author nor that of the reader, is thus primary in the sense of an originary presence of the self to itself.

Once it is freed from the primacy of subjectivity, what may be the first task of hermeneutics? It is, in my opinion, to seek in the text itself, on the one hand, the internal dynamic that governs the structuring of the work and, on the other hand, the power that the work possesses to project itself outside itself and to give birth to a world that would truly be the "thing" referred to by the text. This internal dynamic and external projection constitute what I call the work of the text. It is the task of hermeneutics to reconstruct this twofold work.

We can look back on the path that has led us from the first presupposition, that of philosophy as reflexivity, by way of the second, that of philosophy as phenomenology, right up to the third, that of the mediation first by signs, then by symbols, and, finally, by texts.

A hermeneutical philosophy is a philosophy that accepts all the demands of this long detour and that gives up the dream of a total mediation, at the end of which reflection would once again amount to intellectual intuition in the transparence to itself of an absolute subject.

I can now, in conclusion, attempt to reply to the second question raised at the start of the third part of this essay. If such are the presuppositions characteristic of the tradition to which my works belong, what, in my opinion, is their place in the development of this tradition?

In order to reply to this question, I have only to relate the last definition I have just given of the task of hermeneutics to the conclusions reached at the end of the two sections of part 2.

The task of hermeneutics, we have just said, is twofold: to reconstruct the internal dynamic of the text, and to restore to the work its ability to project itself outside itself in the representation of a world that I could inhabit.

It seems to me that all of my analyses aimed at the interrelation of understanding and explanation, at the level of what I have called the "sense" of the work, are related to the first task. In my analyses of narrative as well as in those of metaphor, I am fighting on two fronts: on the one hand, I cannot accept the irrationalism of immediate understanding, conceived as an extension to the domain of texts of the empathy by which a subject puts himself in the place of a foreign consciousness in a situation of face-to-face intensity. This undue extension maintains the romantic illusion of a direct link of congeniality between the two subjectivities implied by the work, that of the author and that of the reader. However, I am equally unable to accept a rationalistic explanation that would extend to the text the structural analysis of sign systems that are characteristic not of discourse but of language as such. This equally undue extension gives rise to the positivist illusion of a textual objectivity closed in upon itself and wholly independent of the subjectivity of both author and reader. To these two one-sided attitudes, I have opposed the dialectic of understanding and explanation. By understanding I mean the ability to take up again within oneself the work of structuring that is performed by the text, and by explanation, the second-order operation grafted onto this understanding which consists in bringing to light the codes underlying this work of structuring that is carried through in company with the reader. This combat on two separate fronts against a reduction of understanding to empathy and a reduction of explanation to an abstract combinatory system, leads me to define interpretation by this very dialectic of understanding and explanation at the level of the "sense" immanent in the text. This specific manner of responding to the first task of hermeneutics offers the signal advantage, in my opinion, of preserving the dialogue between philosophy and the human sciences, a dialogue that is interrupted by the two counterfeit forms of understanding and explanation I reject. This would be my first contribution to the hermeneutical philosophy out of which I am working.

In what I have written above, I have tried to set my analyses of the “sense”, of metaphorical statements and of that of narrative plots against the background of the theory of Verstehen, limited to its epistemological usage, in the tradition of Dilthey and Max Weber. The distinction between "sense" and "reference," applied to these statements and to these plots, gives me the right to limit myself provisionally to what has thus been established by hermeneutical philosophy, which seems to me to remain unaffected by its later development in Heidegger and Gadamer, in the sense of a subordination of the epistemological to the ontological theory of Verstehen. I want neither to ignore the epistemological phase, which involves philosophy’s dialogue with the human sciences, nor to neglect this shift in the hermeneutical problematic, which henceforth emphasizes Being-in-the-world and the participatory belonging that precedes any relation of a subject to an object that confronts him.

It is against this background of the new hermeneutical ontology that I should like to set my analyses of the "reference" of metaphorical statements and narrative plots. I confess willingly that these analyses continually presuppose the conviction that discourse never exists for its own sake, for its own glory, but that in all of its uses it seeks to bring into language an experience, a way of living in and of Being-in-the-world which precedes it and which demands to be said. It is this conviction that there is always a Being-demanding-to-be-said (un etre-a-dire) that precedes our actual saying which explains my obstinacy in trying to discover in the poetic uses of language the referential mode appropriate to them and through which discourse continues to “say” Being even when it appears to have withdrawn into itself for the sake of self-celebration. This vehement insistence on preventing language from closing up on itself I have inherited from Heidegger’s Being and Time and from Gadamer’s Truth and Method. In return, however, I should like to believe that the description I propose of the reference of metaphorical and of narrative statements contributes to this ontological vehemence an analytical precision that it would otherwise lack.

On the one hand, indeed, it is what I have just called ontological vehemence in the theory of language that leads me to attempt to give an ontological dimension to the referential claim of metaphorical statements: in this way, I venture to say that to see something as . . . is to make manifest the being-as of that thing. I place the “as” in the position of the exponent of the verb “to be” and I make “being-as” the ultimate referent of the metaphorical statement. This thesis undeniably bears the imprint of post-Heideggerian ontology. But, on the other hand, the testimony to being-as . . . cannot, in my opinion, be separated from a detailed study of the referential modes of discourse and requires a properly analytical treatment of indirect reference, on the basis of the concept of “split reference” taken from Roman Jakobson. My thesis concerning the mimesis of the narrative work and my distinction between the three stages of mimesis - prefiguration, configuration, and transfiguration of the world of action by the poem - express one and the same concern to combine analytical precision with ontological testimony.