The Charioteer

"The charioteer of the human soul drives a pair of steeds, and one of the horses is beautiful, good, and formed of such elements, whereas the makeup of the other one is quite the opposite." -Phaedrus

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Location: Duquesne University, United States

A Blog For All and None. Consider it my narrative history of ideas. A place primarily to share and obtain feedback to my thoughts through my graduate career in philosophy. For philosophy is simply "thoughts that have been thought out."

Thursday, December 21, 2006

"Criticizing Consciousness: The Question of the Finite Subject in Hegel and Ricoeur"

[This is the beginning of the paper I wrote this semester for Tom Rockmore's course, "Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit." There are tentative plans to submit the paper for the 2nd Annual North American Society for Philosophical Hermeneutics conference at Villanova University, Philly, Sept. 2007. View the entire article.]

§I. Introduction

Hegel was not, strictly speaking, a hermeneutic thinker;[1] Nevertheless, it has been proposed that a resemblance can be detected between some fundamental Hegelian themes and those of the hermeneutic tradition in philosophy. The most familiar of these is how Hegel departs from Kant’s and Fichte’s transcendental philosophy, and manages to ground the subject in a temporally and historically structured framework. Perhaps, then, Hegel is to Kant, within the context of nineteenth century idealism, what Heidegger will later be to Husserl’s transcendental turn, in twentieth century phenomenology. And it is precisely upon Heidegger’s Being and Time whereby hermeneutics takes a phenomenological and ontological turn, and also whereby some phenomenologists take a hermeneutic turn. Paul Ricoeur, who I will here place in dialogue with Hegel, is the most important hermeneutic phenomenologist to delineate the anthropological or ontological implications of hermeneutics by his quest to break down the primacy of the subject and render it radically finite.

Perhaps, then, there is this ontological similarity between Hegel and the hermeneutic approach, which necessarily gives to the subject its essential characteristic as finite. However, the concept of finitude is just as much an epistemological claim as it is an ontological one, and it is precisely on the level of epistemology, I think, where Hegel and Ricoeur diverge. Hegel, on the one hand, cannot base a theory of knowledge in consciousness, and so must do so only within self-consciousness; thus, “It is true that consciousness of an ‘other’, of an object in general, is itself necessarily self-consciousness, a reflectedness-into-itself….”[2]

Ricoeur, on the other hand, takes an opposite, approach. Placing himself deeply within the phenomenological tradition and utilizing Husserl’s concept of intentionality, Ricoeur emphasizes instead how the very “meaning of consciousness lies outside of itself”[3] and is therefore not simply reflexive. He writes, “…no consciousness is self-consciousness before being consciousness of something towards which it surpasses itself.”[4] The dichotomy here rests on the double problematic of intentionality and the primacy of self-consciousness, namely, whether self-consciousness is always already there, before consciousness, to the extent of negating intentionality, or whether self-consciousness is found precisely in our intentional relationship with the world. The further, and more important question, then is how might these epistemological differences between Hegel and Ricoeur determine their respective conceptions of the subject as finite.

I do not propose a complete and impassable distanciation between Hegel and Ricoeur, for the two cohabitate in many similar themes. However, I am concerned here primarily with their divergence. Both attempt to criticize consciousness, but ultimately, I think, in very different ways. So, may paper will proceed as follows: I will first explore the claim that Hegel’s subject is essentially a finite one, and will then offer a theory of my own concerning this claim through an interpretation of Hegel’s discussion of consciousness. Secondly, I will compare how Hegel’s conception of consciousness compares with Ricoeur’s, especially with respect to the notion of intentionality. And third, I will conclude in noticing how their different theories of consciousness culminate in one (Hegel) abandoning the notion of the finite subject, due to his primacy of self-consciousness, and the other (Ricoeur) remaining at the level of finitude through his development of a “hermeneutics of the self.”

[1] Tom Rockmore, “Hegel and the Hermeneutics of German Idealism,” International Journal of Philosophical Studies 3 (1995): 111-31. Particularly the line, “Hegel never explicitly reflected on problems of interpretation.”

[2] G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), §164.

[3] Paul Ricoeur, “Phenomenology and Hermeneutics,” in Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Action and Interpretation, ed. and trans. John B. Thompson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 112.

[4] Ricoeur, “Phenomenology and Hermeneutics,” 115.


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