top of page

Nikolas Prassas, 'Paul Ricoeur's Poetics'

Nikolas Prassas studied English Literature at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford. He also holds a Masters degree in English Literature from the University of Oxford. His thesis examined John Ruskin's idea of beauty.

Paul Ricoeur's Poetics

The purpose of this short paper is twofold. I mean not only to offer an expository analysis of Paul Ricoeur's theory of poetry, which is a task large enough in itself, but also to demonstrate that his Poetics is the fruit of an essentially humane conception of philosophy. Thus, should this paper be successful it will have not only defined but also presented an example of a certain way of doing philosophy that I believe to be especially salutary in the current climate. I have decided to divide my exposition into two separate but related parts. In the first phase of this paper I shall attempt briefly to determine what it is we might mean by a humane philosophy. Having tentatively established what the aspirations and anxieties of the humane philosopher are, I shall then move on to Ricoeur, and in particular to a book he published in the 1970s—La Metaphore Vive, translated, curiously, into English as the Rule of Metaphor – a somewhat vitiated title I believe. This paper was, I warn, only lately dredged, and then rather frantically, from what Henry James called the 'unconscious well of cerebration'. The most I can hope for is that, whatever else it may or may not do, its two halves will at least contrive to hang together.

What then might we mean when we speak of a humane philosophy? It seems to me that those of us who want to say anything sensible on the matter will have to advert, at some point, to Professor John Cottingham. Indeed, I suspect that were his 2009 paper on Humane Philosophy not published, this very conference might never have existed. Like everyone else who concerns themselves with philosophy in the humane mode I have my obligations to Cottingham, which I will not list here. However I shall mention a thought that occurred to me as I read his exemplary paper. It seems to me that if we are fully to understand this thing called humane philosophy we must do something to discover what Kant would call its negative magnitude. In a paper from the pre-critical phase Kant tells us that certain concepts are so constituted that their true negation is not merely an absence. Humane philosophy is one such concept; it faces two negative concomitant concepts. There is a sort of philosophy from which the humane mode is absent—what we might call non-humane philosophy—and then there is another sort, which would seek to annul its contrary entirely – what we shall have to call an inhumane philosophy. It seems to me that a paper may yet need to be written on just this subject, especially if, as Professor Cottingham believes- and I think not without good reason—humane philosophy is at risk.

Departing somewhat from Cottingham I shall define humane philosophy as a certain sort of philosophical stance, one that involves a set of commitments and coordinate dispositions. The term 'stance' I borrow from Bas Van Fraassen for whom it designates the native ground of reflective commitments from which the philosopher departs in his enquiries. I shall not go into the way this ground is structured or how it might be validated, but rather I shall propose that there is one basic commitment that, it seems to me, humane philosophy must acknowledge. A humane philosophy is one that, as Ricoeur himself puts it, acknowledges a 'relative pluralism of incommensurable forms and levels of discourse' and arrogates to each discourse some degree of autonomy. In other words, for the humane philosopher there is no single discourse—be it scientific, speculative, poetic, religious—to which all other discourses can be reduced. As such, he must reject, tout court, the positivist dream of a unified science. He will be entirely indisposed to reductive formulations of the type “This is only that... This is nothing other than that...”. He must believe, to again borrow from Ricoeur, that there are a plurality of discourses that in some way are concerned with the project of bringing being to language, of making it intelligible. This is a thesis which I believe may not be too far in spirit from professor Cottingham's assertion that humane philosophy is concerned with synthesis—instead of reduction by analysis—and with the integration, by synthesis, of a complete and coherent view of the world. Such at least is how I would like us to think of humane philosophy for the remainder of this paper.

Were this thesis to be admitted, then one of the primary functions of philosophy so conceived will be to demonstrate how the various modes of discourse contribute to making being intelligible. We are thus conducted, finally, to Ricoeur's theory of poetry. In a certain mood, perhaps after having read a Derrida or some other member of Heidegger's French flock, one could quite easily convince oneself that Ricoeur was the only sane man in France during the last century. While the goaded land waxed mad, he insisted on making sense and writing perspicuously. This is perhaps because he was one of the few among his contemporaries who considered the canons and methods of analytic philosophy amenable to his work. Indeed, in the book with which we are concerned in this paper we are more likely to find Ricoeur invoking Nelson Goodman or Max Black than Badiou and the rest of that crazed coven of soixante-huitards. Perhaps the most important claim that Ricoeur makes in the course of his study of metaphor is that poetry is not a mere redundancy of language but is one of the discourses by which we come to know the world. He would doubtless have agreed with the Italian poet Eugenio Montale, who in his Nel Nostro Tempo, declares —and I think the phrase is a beautiful one—that poetry is an 'incurably semantic art' and so must necessarily have some concern for the 'identification and representation of truth'. To use the terms Ricoeur favours, we can say that poetry has both an intelligible sense and an accessible reference.

When Ricoeur speaks of reference he is, of course, using the word as Gottlob Frege did in his 1892 Paper 'Uber Sinn und Bedeutung'. For Frege 'Sense' or 'Sinn' is the meaning immanent to a statement or name. This meaning is, so to speak, entirely intra-linguistic. It is only when we move from 'Sinn' to 'Bedeutung' or 'reference' that we transcend the statement and are concerned with how it relates to an extra-linguistic reality. However, In claiming reference for a fictive discourse like poetry Ricoeur is setting himself against Frege's own position. For, according to Frege poetry is a member of the set of non-referring linguistic structures. With regards to reference there is no difference between, say, the Aeneid, taken in its totality, and the statement 'the greatest integer'. Both have some obvious manifest sense, but neither have any object or state of affairs outside of language that they denote (although I am sure there is some sophisticated sort of modal argument which might claim for both a possible referent)

And Frege is not the only opponent that Ricoeur has to contend with. By supposing that poetry can yield some true insight about reality Ricoeur opposes himself to at least three other positions of considerable historical significance. The first of these is, broadly speaking, that of the positivists. We can take Rudolf Carnap as exemplary in this instance. In his book on 'Philosophy and Logical Syntax', Carnap proposes that all linguistic usages might be reduced to two distinct functions—the representative or truth bearing, and the expressive or emotive. He tells us that there are certain forms of utterance that only involve this second expressive function. I shall quote this passage in full as it is symptomatic of the etiolated sense of life that the serious positivist must endure. Examples of these merely expressive usages are, Carnap declares 'cries like “oh, oh” or, on a higher level, lyrical verses. The aim of the lyric poem in which occur the words “sunshine” and “clouds” is not to inform us of certain meteorological facts, but to express certain feelings of the poet and excite similar feelings in us. A lyric has no assertional sense, no theoretical sense, it does not contain knowledge.' Poetry is no more than an elaborated moan, a sonorous and ringing whimper, or, as T S Eliot would say a 'piece of rhythmical grumbling'.

We find a similarly deflated or, to use a word that Ricoeur has charged with a special significance, a 'suspicious' account of poetry in Sigmund Freud's Psychoanalytic works. For Freud poetry is a sort of willed or contrived dreaming. It is the pleasure principle figured forth in language. As with our dreams, the works of the poet deliver us into a realm of fantasy. And, as Freud tells us the “motive force of fantasies [Phantasein] are unsatisfied wishes, and every single fantasy is the fulfilment of a wish, a correction of unsatisfying reality.” Not only then does the poem have no proper reference, it is one of the ways men become fugitives from the implacable force of necessity. If there is one lesson we can take from Freud's works, any such attempt to take flight from reality invariably becomes pathological and imperils the psyche of the bewitched creature.

The final position from which Ricoeur dissents is that of the post-structuralists. As we took Carnap for a representative of the positivists, so here we shall elect Tsvetzan Todorov to speak on behalf of this stance. As with the rest of the post-structuralists, Todorov proposes that poems are best understood as auto-significative or self-designating. The poem is a closed world of signs, a totality turned in on itself; and it is by this involution that it becomes endued with meaning. The reason I choose Todorov is that he has an especially beautiful metaphor for this self-enfolded discourse. In poetry, he proposes, language becomes visible by making itself opaque. Ordinary language, which brings thought to our cognition is invisible, we see through it to the world. Poetic language is so formed as to make language itself the thing we see and contemplate. Thus for Todorov the meaning of a poem is semiotic rather than semantic; it gathers its significance from the immanent play of difference between the various linguistic signs that constitute it as a system.

Ricoeur has then done something as miraculous as squaring the circle; he has discovered a commitment common to Freud, Carnap, Frege and the post-structuralists. How then does he attempt to meet the claims against reference that this odd motley are somehow shown to agree in. His first move, so to speak, is to deny that poetry refers in the same way as ordinary language or scientific statements. Instead, he suggests, we should understand poetic reference by an analogy with metaphorical reference. For metaphors are what Monroe Beardsley said them to be—'poems in miniature'. In order to show how metaphors refer let us take a simple example from Plautus' Asinaria—Man is a wolf, Homo lupus est.

In this locution we witness, to borrow Nelson Goodman's felicitous phrase, an affair between a predicate with a past—wolf—and an object that yields while protesting—man. This concurrence of predicate and subject contravenes the general canons of attribution, creating what Ricoeur calls a semantic impertinence. When we attempt a literal interpretation of the metaphor, and suppose it to be a statement of identity, the meaning abolishes itself. By this self-destruction of meaning the primary reference founders. However, Ricoeur argues, this is only the negative moment in a positive strategy. The destruction of primary reference is the condition for the semantic innovation brought about by the metaphorical twist in the language. As the semantic intelligence attempts to make sense of the metaphor it draws a new pertinence from the ruins of the literal sense. And in so doing it liberates what Ricoeur calls a second-order reference by which the world is re-described or reorganized. Thus metaphors involve what Ricoeur calls, borrowing from Roman Jakobson, a split reference.

Like metaphors the poetic work refers by similarly splitting the reference. As with metaphorical statements the language of the poem is twisted into a dense linguistic manifold. And it is this twisting of language that brings about the initial suspension of literal reference. Where the twist in the metaphorical utterances comes from impertinent attribution of labels, the poetic work is wrenched, as Simone Weil would say, at every level of composition simultaneously. This appears to abolish all reference to everyday reality, to the point where 'language seems destined to supreme dignity, as if glorifying itself at the expense of the referential function of ordinary discourse'. But, for Ricoeur, 'it is precisely insofar as poetic discourse ‘suspends’ its first-order referential function that it releases a second-order reference where the world is manifested no longer as the totality of manipulable objects but at the level of what Husserl would call the lebenswelt [life-world], as being-in-the-world.' Indeed Ricoeur goes so far as to suggest that we are only given a Welt or world and not merely an Umwelt or situation through poetry and other fictive discourses. The poem reveals or discloses a world.

Seeing as this paper is now coming up to its term, I shall try now to conclude. What I have offered is a mere adumbration of the primary contours of an extraordinarily powerful but complicated account of how poetry and reality relate. Ricoeur's poetics is certainly not without its flaws. And it has doubtless been travestied over by an incompetent interpretant. However, whether we find it satisfying or not, his account of poetry does much to abolish our inherited prejudices about the matter. Most importantly, it goes some way to explaining why it is that, as our venerable professor of poetry would say, 'reality is not the same' after a significant encounter with a perfectly achieved poem. And it is for this reason that we, who are concerned with establishing a humane idea of philosophy, should not disregard it.


This paper was originally delivered at the 2014 Humane Philosophy Project conference, Humane Philosophy and the Arts. For more information on this event go here.


Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
bottom of page