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Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Paul Ricoeur and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion

Ricoeur and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion, by Alison Scott-Baumann, Continuum Studies in Continental Philosophy, 2009. x + 327 pages, price: £65.00.

The works of the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) have become more accessible recently thanks to reasonably priced reprints by the University of Chicago Press. His Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative and Imagination (1995, Fortress Press) brings his work firmly into the orbit of this journal. Living through the 20th century creates “an existential sadness” and yet “the supposedly empty space between the opposites we create is in fact teeming with our desires, fears, illusions and fantasies and our enormous potential to do good” (p.170). He opposed French imperial actions in Algeria, and opposed the rigid secularism in France that forbade hijab dress code for Muslim girls in schools and denied young people an education. The masters of suspicion were Marx, Freud and Nietzsche, declaring scepticism about economics, psychoanalysis and genealogy. Ricoeur wished to learn from this, but in a balanced way, since out of control scepticism is self defeating, as nothing thereafter can be meaningful. These three cannot make meaning for us: “we have to do it ourselves” (p.176). For Ricoeur, suspicion has to balance negative with positive. He used the term ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ for a while, but then hermeneutics and suspicion separately as ambiguities began to emerge. Suspicion is important because it is iconoclastic, it holds no hostages.

Scott-Baumann starts by way of introduction with Cartesian doubt. Then, in Ricoeur’s hermeneutics I, covers the archaeology of suspicion, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, the “masters of suspicion”, ending with the use and abuse of the phrase “hermeneutics of suspicion”. Its abuse by other writers led Ricoeur to stop using the phrase as it had become ambiguous, whilst still focusing on the twin ideas of hermeneutics and suspicion. In Ricoeur’s hermeneutics II, Scott-Baumann covers the theory of interpretation, linguistic analysis, methodological dialectics and philosophical anthropology. Finally Ricoeur’s hermeneutics III deals with recovery, interesting not least for linking Ricoeur’s positivity with the journalism of Robert Fisk, seeking a balance between justice and forgiveness to prevent the paralysis of negativity.

This is an important book by a writer in full control of her material and with a clear and readable writing style, on a topic that is significant for both education and religious studies. It goes to the heart of Ricoeur’s thinking, the need for suspicion so that our understanding and knowledge is not subject to other people’s honest or dishonest persuasiveness. However, if that suspicion is total, its negativity will be paralysing and we are left only with despair and absence of meaning. Ricoeur sees this as a symptom of post-modernity, and argues that the only route out of this is by giving a fair place to love and justice. That he allows religion, and Christianity in particular as it is his tradition, to be part of this mix does not make him a Christian apologist. Here too, the principle of suspicion gives him a critical edge, and his theology is far from naive. In a sense he lines up with the humanistic Frankfurt School of critical studies, but with Husserl’s assistance leaves Marxism well behind, a brick in a complex philosophical edifice but not the edifice itself. Scott-Baumann’s topic in this book is an essential introduction to Ricoeur’s thinking over a long life; but Ricoeur’s work was vast, leaving her much work still needing to be done on his wide ranging and multi-disciplinary philosophy. I look forward to further volumes. Since his philosophical writing is dense, this will help us all. I fully recommend this book. It is priced as for library purchase, and well worth ordering. For further reading, I also recommend the official Ricoeur website in French and English, http://www.fondsricoeur.fr.

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