Paul Ricoeur's Phenomenology of the will
Paul Ricoeur’s Phenomenology of the Will
Christopher Ryan B. Maboloc
The question of the subject
The question of the subject is central in the philosophy of Paul Ricoeur. His intellectual journey essentially responds to the mystery of being human, and this is done "through the prolonged study of the wounded subject in an effort to heal and recuperate the subject in our time." (Hengel 1982) As individuals, we are conscious human beings who struggle through life because there seems to be a disjointing between human consciousness and our incarnate existence making our effort to live well difficult and sometimes seemingly hopeless. In our being immersed into the difficult instances of human existence, we find it important to understand the meaning of active involvement in the different dimensions of life, political or social, through a phenomenological investigation of the conscious act of willing and its purpose, a purpose fully realized in human action.
Martin Heidegger's exposition of the being of man as Dasein or there-being reveals the basic question that man has - the meaning of existence. For Heidegger, man is always already thrown into the world where he realizes his potentialities and existential possibilities. Thus, man has the power-to-be in the world where he realizes his projects. Ricoeur expounds this project by discerning into the essential structures of human existence through an exposition of a philosophy of the will. Our task in this paper is to examine the woundedness of human consciousness, restoring the unity of the cogito and human incarnate existence through human action.
Historically speaking, such woundedness came with the advent of modernity. Science seems to claim an authoritative position about the nature of things, so that before anything is judged as true, it needs to be tested by the instruments of scientific research. Thus, with the emergence of the scientific era, method acted as the source of knowledge, even about man. This paved the way for the dichotomization of the subject from the object, man from the world, and the soul from the body. Here, we trace this dualism in Descartes' Meditations.
The second meditation of Descartes
For Descartes, the senses act as instruments of deception. (Cartesian Meditations, 13) He thinks that the world is hypothetical in nature. For him, before we could trust anything, it must be doubted, for the senses seem to say the opposite of what we believe. Descartes says that a person must not be misled by the judgements accorded to him by his sense faculties. And since the senses deceive, the real criterion for truth should be that which is indubitable. For Descartes, what can't be doubted is the fact that there is a person who doubts, for in the act of doubting, the existence of the one who doubts is always presupposed. He says,
I discover that thought is an attribute that really does belong to me. This alone cannot be detached from me. I am; I exist; this is certain. (CM, 18)
What is certain then is that the subject exists. But this is a solitary subject. The world is divorced from the Cartesian cogito. Consciousness is anchored on the subject and the subject alone - on the fact that "I am therefore, I exist". Descartes methodic doubt erases the existence of the world and of the other. Insofar as the world is out there, for Descartes, this could not be known. I am an entity separate from the world.
What is the implication of this? Such fact essentially destroys the unity of body and consciousness. Human experience loses the intentional unity of subject and the object which it intends. The subject loses his contact with the world it intends. It is an alienated Cogito. Erazim Kohak, in his introduction to Freedom and Nature, comments on this by asserting that "there is no consciousness unless it is a consciousness of an object and, conversely, an object presents itself as an object only for conciousness." (Kohak 1966) Phenomena refer to the presence of the things in the world in my consciousness. To be conscious is to be conscious of the world. What makes me actual is not only the fact that I think, but that "the reasons which motivate my decision, the body which I am, even the personal and historical conditions of my being are not simply external limitations imposed upon me, but rather an organ in and through which I am actual". (Ibid.) I am truly human insofar as I actually dwell in a world of meanings which I can apprehend because I possess an embodied existence. Human action always presupposes certain meanings. The cogito only becomes real by being-in-the-world. I can only move my body in relation to whatever possibilities the world presents me. I am an incarnate being. Thus, Kohak asserts that, "movement always emerges as the organ of cogito's practical incarnation". (Ibid., 20)
Man as being-in-the-world
According to Heidegger, man's being is a being-in-the-world. As such, the world exists as man's horizon and potentiality for Being. Descartes, on the one hand, sees the fundamental ontological determination of the world as extension. (Being and Time) This means that the world is only an extension of my body - it is other than me, separate from me. Being makes no sense for Descartes. For him Being itself does not accept us, therefore, it cannot be perceived. (BT, 87) But Heidegger says that in understanding the world, Being is also understood. Being is the disclosedness, the concealment of things in the world. Every disclosing is also a concealing. Man's primordial experience of being is that he is always already within the world. Man is not an object separate from the world. By being in the world, man's potentiality for Being is disclosed. Man is a thrown being, thus, man always already finds himself in a situation.
This implies that man is not only conscious of a self but is conscious of a situation. Thus, we must "pass beyond self-consciousness and see consciousness as adhering to its body, to all its involuntary life and through them, to a world of action." (Freedom and Nature, 8) The world always presents itself to us as something we need to change and transform through our conscious willing. The project that Heidegger talks about in Being and Time is concretized in Ricoeur as the project of human action. There is a link therefore in Heidegger's explication of the meaning of Dasein to Ricoeur's own elucidation of the meaning of the subject. The subject is posited as the being for whom the question regarding being gives itself; this subject is posited as Dasein. (Jervolino 1966) Thus, against Descartes, the hermeneutics of the "I am" transforms and renews the philosophy of the Cogito, doing away with the illusions of the idealistic, subjectivistic, and solipsistic Cogito. (Ibid.)
The subject in Husserl's phenomenology
We must trace Ricoeur's affinity to Edmund Husserl if we are to do a phenomenology of the subject. In Husserl, the ego is always rooted in the subject. This ego is always originary and transcendental. Here, we quote Van Den Hengel,
The ego is the final justification of all objectivity. The ego is the quest for the ultimate foundation of human knowledge and activity. Thus, for
Husserl, according to Ricoeur, the height of intuition, the place where intuition is most complete, is subjectivity." (Hengel 1982)
First, a few remarks. The subject without the world is an empty truth. The Cogito as it appears in Husserlian phenomenology is at once a reprise of the Cartesian cogito. (Blamey 1995) Husserl does a reworking of the Cartesian project, "conceiving the cogito as a field of experience". (Ibid.) Consciousness is always consciousness of something other than the self. Subjectivity as the foundation of all human understanding presupposes that man is immediately conscious of himself as subject. This makes the Cogito the apodictic ground of all knowing. The world, which has become a world-for-me, "appears as meaning, as meaning for the pure ego."(Ibid.) But in Ricoeur's hermeneutical project, the foundation in the Cogito, however, does not hold ground. The criterion of an apodictic truth is broken into pieces with the emergence of language. Language as a phenomenon in man refers man not only to himself as a speaking subject but also to a world where he is related. It is "through language that we apprehend what lies before language."(Ibid.)
According to Ricoeur, for Husserl, "structural phenomenology reflects the subject by means of what may now be called the object world; in Husserl's phenomenology, the object world is primarily a perceptual one." (The Symbolism of Evil, 10) For Husserl, experience is our immediacy of a lived world where we encounter things. But Ricoeur's aim in applying structural phenomenology to the question of the subject is essentially to understand the essential possibilities in man, and "in this context it is the experience of the fault." (Ihde 1986) What Ricoeur does is an epoche or a phenomenological reduction of human willing where all naturalistic facts or biases on the human will are suspended. What is sought in the eidetics of the will is its a priori meaning. In uncovering man's essential possibilities, the meaning of human existence is shed light and given expression. But this must be done through expression where the meaning of human action is made manifest. According to Hengel,
In order to understand the meaning of willing, phenomenology seeks the essences of the lived or the structures of the experience of willing. Phenomenology seeks to uncover, therefore, the meaning of the lived. (Hengel 1982)
Human will in this sense is analyzed through its objects or intentions. These objects are "identified as the world, my body, and others." (Ibid.) The will intends an act that I am responsible for. As an "act-to-be-done-by-me" (Ibid.), it opens an aspect of my existence, and that is, I possess a character whose project depends upon my own decisions. My capacity to act and realize this project means that I have the power to be in the world. The exposition of the subject as character brings in the aspect of self-imputation, thus, it must be viewed from the level of praxis, or human action. Husserl's phenomenology dwells on the level of perception, "but there is a prior recovery of the self in the level of doing."(Ibid.) The meaning of human existence does not reside fully on the level of seeing, and so we must contemplate on the level of action where the contexts of human action are illuminated and given their ethical content. Human action exposes the meaning of human freedom. Thus, "praxis is the realm of the emergence of freedom or of the subject as free and responsible." (Ibid.)
We can recall in Gabriel Marcel the rejection of the Cartesian Cogito which he regards as a mere abstraction of the human subject. For him, human existence is a being-in-a-situation. (Gallagher 1982) The self is only real insofar as it experiences the situatedness it has in the world as an incarnate existence. My existence finds itself as being-with-others, and not as mere abstract thought. Thus, pure subjectivity is content-less subjectivity; as existing subjectivity I am not pure
subjectivity, but a being-by-participation. (Ibid.) As subject man participates in the world of beings. This participation in Ricoeur is a participation-in-action. Being-in-a-situation means being able to respond to the demands of an event through my conscious act of willing which characterizes my being human. Ricoeur expounds this theme in his phenomenological description of human subjectivity.
Ricoeur: willing, acting, consenting
In Dr. Leo Garcia's creative repetition of the Philosophy of the Will, it can be noted that the reciprocity of the body and consciousness can be summed up in the movement of the will towards deciding, acting, and consenting. We quote,
The intentional object of decision is the project. The project then is the correlate of decision, the first moment of willing. However, the project only becomes real through effective action brought about by voluntary movement. This effective action or pragma is the correlate of action, the second moment of willing. But the will still has to acquiesce to necessity which it cannot change. The detour into the voluntary makes us aware of this necessity which is the correlate of consent, the third moment of willing." (Garcia 1997)
To decide means being able to attend to the things I have to do. The project, pragma, refers to what I intend to accomplish that which needs my conscious act of doing something for the sake of something. Within the possibility of this accomplishment lies the horizon of the world, my being situated in it. Man acts in view of the possibilities that the world offers him, including the capacity to commit mistakes. Thus, "decision culminates in the determination of self by oneself: I make up my own mind, it is I who determine myself and myself whom I determine."(Stewart 1978, 5) This means that it is me who acts and that it is me who is responsible for my actions. Decision specifies in outline a future action as my own action, as an action lying within my power. (Ibid.) The act-to-be-done-by-me is realized in human action, which "realizes it in full".(Ibid.) Action is self-determination. To possess a political will simply means acting in view of what is demanded from me as a public servant. Acting for the service of others in a political institution determines the self that I am, the subject who is responsible for my constituents.
Human action essentially reveals the being of man as a situated consciousness. Man's being is concretized in human action, and man acts in view of the situation he is struggling with. The situation defines the whole horizon of human activity. Human action, in return, characterizes the person that we are. Some men may or may not be men for others, for some people only desire what their ego so demands, but what human action reflects are the qualities that we possess as persons. Ricoeur says, "in doing something, I make myself be. I am my own capacity for being". (FN, 55) Human action is always related to the project it intends to do. And this project is realized in the world, for the world exists as a playing field for the unfolding of my actions. The world is a witness to the unfolding of the subject that is me. If I sin, I sin in the world. If I feel guilty about what I do, the world looms as the background of this guilt. The body acts as my perspective where all understanding and acting begin. I am an incarnate being, an embodied soul. The body, according to Ricoeur, "is not the object of action but its organ." (FN, 212) It is through my body that I am able to transform the situations I am immersed into. The world is not a raw data of nature; it is an event for me that I am constantly involved with so that my being as man can manifest a meaningful sense. Acting then is my means of doing something for myself and for others. In social charity for instance, we don’t just give something, we share our humanity. It is
the humane way of dealing with others. It is the will's desire for the other. Charity is characterized as such by its good intentions. Human action is always defined by its motives.
Our discussions simply point out that "consciousness is not the disembodied consciousness revealed by introspection." (Garcia 1997) This puts into rest the illusions of the Cartesian Cogito. The subject is not an abstract mental entity. To be a subject does not only mean that I am a thinking individual, but that I think simply because I have to act. Thus, we must go beyond the objectification of the body and recover the massive experience of being my body as a source of motives, as a focus of abilities, or as a background of necessity. (FN, 16)
But what is this background of necessity? Ricoeur beautifully illustrates the answer to our inquiry in his analysis of consent. To consent is to make necessity my own. (Garcia 1997) To consent means to understand my finite horizons and be able to joyfully accept whatever possibilities it accords me. My body gives me my capacity for being. It is that which allows me to act. As long as man has his body, he possesses an existential capability for acting. No one is disabled. One can only be differently-abled.
My body is my openness to the world. It brings me to whatever is possible so that I can truly act as a human being. Thus, it is my freedom of movement. The possibility of evil then is there because of the freedom of human action. But the necessity of my bodily existence does not mean I am essentially bound to be sinful. Necessity implies that I am finite and so my possibilities are finite. To consent to human finitude is to accept the beauty and meaning of being truly human. The human being who suffers, grows old, and dies must not consider life a lonely journey because "freedom remains the possibility of not accepting myself, of saying no to what is negating." (Stewart 1978) To be finite is to take pride in whatever possibilities human finitude offers. To be finite does not mean we are always bound to be broken, for essentially as man we are whole. This unity means that "the world of objects is for the subject, the involuntary is for the voluntary, motives are for choice, capacities for effort, necessity for consent." (FN, 471-472; in Garcia 1997, 63) This horizon of my subjectivity finds its realization in responsible human action. It is only in responsible action that we find ourselves complete. It is in fulfillment that we find the meaning of being a person. My incarnate existence, my being with and for others, is experienced in a personal manner.
Reciprocity and the human person
As a human person, I am irreducible to any scientific explanation. B.F. Skinner's behaviorism essentially degrades the essence of what it means to be human by defining man as a being who responds to the stimuli he finds in his nearest environment. But behaving in some way, acting or respecting someone, is not a mere naturalistic reaction to a certain stimulus. A lifetime commitment to a loved one is irreducible to behavioral reflexes. Thus, "to rediscover the personal body, the naturalistic viewpoint must give way to a phenomenological viewpoint."(Ibid.) Human incarnate existence is essentially lived. My body is not an object. Thus, my body demands respect. It should not be subjected to any exploitation because it bears the mark of my being human. Respect for the human body is therefore respect for life.
The reciprocity of body and consciousness makes me truly human. This means that I have a character bearing "the very decision I make, the way I exert effort, and the way I perceive and desire." (FN, 367; Garcia, 139) My character shows me that my freedom is not an abstract but concrete freedom which is real in a particular, determinate way. (Ibid.) Thus, character makes me someone. (FN, 447) Through my character, "I am a fundamental openness to the whole range of possibilities of being human". (Garcia 1997) This explains the fact that the Cogito is not devoid of its worldly possibilities. The Cogito finds itself as incarnate in its many possibilities of
desiring, acting, and intending. The Cogito is not separated from the human experience of being-in-the-world. Jervolino summarizes our points in these words:
The link between the voluntary and the involuntary means that the will, as a capacity to decide upon and to enact a project, to take action, to consent to one's being in a situation, corresponds to the body as source of motivations, concentrate of powers and also as necessary nature, that nature which I am. In short, the body as subject. (Jervolino 1966)
Language as the subject's horizon of meaning
In his Intellectual Autobiography, Ricoeur says that he was questioning the presuppositions of Descartes and Husseri, namely "the immediateness, the transparence, and the apodicticity of the Cogito." (Hahn 1995) Human existence as subject cannot be understood if it is not expressed. Any knowledge or human value is useless if it is not communicated. The willing Cogito must find its way into self-expression. As Ricoeur says, "without the help of language experience would remain mute, obscure, and shut up in its implicit contradictions."(SE, 161) Again, we cite Jervolino:
Word has the power to change our understanding of ourselves. Word reaches us on the level of the symbolic structures of our existence, the dynamic schemes that express the way in which we understand our situation and the way in which we project ourselves into this situation. (Jervolino 1966)
Ricoeur considers the Word as his kingdom. Speech [he refers to his teaching profession], according to him, is his means of livelihood. Thus, in the context of a hermeneutic phenomenology, the object world is exchanged for a language world. The world of expression is now the object correlate which is used to reflect the subject. (Ihde 1986) All actions in this sense are to be understood linguistically. This is because there is no direct understanding of the self. "The final act, and not the first, is thus to understand oneself before the text, before the work. Discourse, text, work are the mediation by which we understand ourselves." (Garcia 1999) To know the subject is to narrate its life-story. The story constitutes the story of a life lived, the subject's life in time and its concretion in human action.
In conclusion, what we have seen is that the subject in Paul Ricoeur's philosophy is an embodied consciousness who realizes his possibilities in the world through responsible human action. Human consciousness is not an abstract reality; it also feels pain and joy. The subject is rooted in the world where he discovers relationships that concretize his being as man. It also allows him to experience the real meaning of human existence, being with and for others. The Cogito is not an alienated entity. It also expresses itself through its self-expressions. Descartes has taken for granted the fact that language is essentially social. It presupposes a community of beings sharing with each other their views about life. Human commitment to the other is expressed linguistically. Even love must be expressed in the act of saying I love you. The self can only be interpreted linguistically. There is no self-understanding without language.