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Paul Ricoeur and Narrative Identity

Why we are our story

by Guest Blogger Seamus Barker PhD Candidate (Medical Humanities)
Centre for Values, Ethics, and the Law in Medicine (VELiM)
Faculty of Medicine
The University of Sydney

French philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) developed an account of narrative and narrative identity that has been highly influential. A philosopher keenly engaged with hermeneutical, phenomenological, psychoanalytic and existential traditions, his ideas continue to resonate in a wide range of contexts, including anywhere where narrative and narrative versions of psychology are theorized.

Ricoeur argued against essentialist versions of the human subject, such as that of the rational, isolated Cartesian cogito, but also against postmodern versions of a radically de-centred non-subject – determined by discourse (Foucault), or language (Derrida).

Instead, Ricoeur argues for a version of the human subject in which personal identity is not fully stable or self-transparent, but is also not incoherent or self-alienated. The human subject, since the “linguistic turn” in philosophy, has been understood to have access to itself (and the world) only as mediated by language. For Ricoeur, this self-relationship is essentially one of active interpretation, rather than fully autonomous self-authoring.

This hermeneutical phenomenological human subject emerges, for Ricoeur, essentially through narrative. “Narrative” means more than simply a story here; narrative refers to the way that humans experience time, in terms of the way we understand our future potentialities, as well as the way we mentally organize our sense of the past.

More specifically, the past, for Ricoeur, demands narrativisation. Humans tend to carry out “emplotment” – as we draw together disparate past events into a meaningful whole, by establishing causal and meaningful connections between them. These attributions of causation, where other human subjects are involved, necessarily entail implications of moral responsibility, and so the narrative self is ineluctably established in a moral universe. For Ricoeur this retrospective figuration of events into a meaningful unity occurs from the end-point of the story (the present moment, for the individual). In this way, earlier events and their meanings are fitted into a pattern which is only seen by the later perspective. Ricoeur acknowledges that this narrative logic can lead to specious attributions of causality and purpose (teleological thinking), although this is not a necessary outcome of narrative emplotment.

The future, too, exists in terms of an “inchoate narrativity” – it is always grasped as a set of potential narratives in which we might take part. Just as, for Martin Heidegger, our understanding, or verstehen, intuitively discloses the world to us, in terms of a future-orientated sense of the plurality of potentialities for action that lie before us, for Ricoeur this pre-understanding is always given through a “semantics of action”, that is, an always meaning-rich sense of possible choices, actions and their consequences, as they might integrate into our broader structures of meaning.

Interesting tensions exist between Ricoeur’s version of the human subject and that of fellow French philosopher (and psychoanalyst) Jacques Lacan. Riceour very usefully describes how narratives, or even a single narrative identity, can readily exist in the Imaginary, the mode in which identifications – such as those formed with one’s parents or one’s own image in the mirror – are made, which accrete to form the ego.

Despite this potential for the individual to identify with a narrative, such as a hero or princess story, and thus partially constitute a sense of self that is illusory, Ricoeur holds on to the sense that the subject can, however, meaningfully incorporate existing narratives into their own, through interpretation and emplotment, and through this activity open up new – and real – potentialities for the subject’s being in the world.

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