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Postmodern Apologetics?—4: Ricoeur and A God of Poetry and Superabundance


This is the fourth post in a twelve-part series for Spectrum’s 2013 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of Postmodern Apologetics? by Christina M. Gschwandtner. The reading schedule is here as are the firstsecond, and third posts. 

Kant, in his writings on religion and art, uses the term “Schwärmerei” to denote “fanaticism.”  But, contrary to our general, pejorative use of the term, Kant specifies two sorts of fanaticism he would have us avoid. The first, obvious sense is an excess of passion and desire that causes us to step into a mysticism of non-communicable thoughts. The second, however, is a rationality that would reduce all mystery to a brand of Gnosticism; it would reduce “evil” to “bad” or “God” to “Being.” This distinction is significant to understanding this chapter because Ricoeur remains profoundly Kantian when it comes to his philosophical hermeneutics. His borrowing of Kant’s phrase “the symbol gives to thought” directs most of the elements present in Gschwandtner’s chapter, and I’ll use it here as a bridge to her explanation of Ricoeur’s possible value for apologetics.

In the third Critique, Kant discusses the manner in which a lily symbolizes “goodness.” The lily is not itself the essence of “goodness” nor can it perform good acts. Rather, the lily symbolizes something beyond itself that is not in itself directly observable or representable, like a Platonic ‘essence.’ When taken as more than its literal meaning, the lily can be interpreted as standing in for something other than itself. As a symbol, the lily metaphorically makes possible to us more meanings than just that of a ‘white flower.’ In Ricoeur’s terms, the lily as symbol is plurivocalin its meanings; it could mean ‘flower,’ or ‘goodness,’ or ‘purity,’ etc.  The meaning of the symbol in any usage is not determined by the lily standing alone and apart from everything else. Instead, as Gschwandtner notes, the symbol exists primarily in the “fullness of language” (88). This fullness of language is the site of the event of the symbol’s being meaningful—determining and being determined by the context in which it appears. All symbols (and language could be considered a kind of symbol) are always capable of coming to have more than one meaning. It would be a kind of Schwärmerei to insist that a given symbol have only one possible meaning. Whether in service to a scientistic worldview, or a dogmatic religion, or an orthodox philosophy, such reductionism performs a kind of violence to the symbol. This reduction has been the dream of Western “white mythology,” to paraphrase Derrida, who was a student of Ricoeur’s.[i]

Ricoeur’s view on symbols and language is a general translation and extension of the Heideggerian hermeneutic project. For Heidegger, as we are “always already” in a meaningful context, philosophy cannot assume a critical stance that is detached from the ways in which we can interpret that context. Philosophy must be hermeneutical, or it cannot understand itself. One of the distinct marks of Ricoeur’s hermeneutic approach, though, is his insistence that all varieties of discourse are capable of unfolding symbols meaningfully, even if incompletely. Ricoeur affirms the conjunction of calculative and meditative thinking, which we have learned is a disjunction for Heidegger. This does not mean that thinking is merely an exercise of collecting eclectic facts but a thoughtful examination of symbols that can occur through a variety of interpretive methods. And, most importantly, these different methods are not irreconcilable from a philosophical standpoint.  Behind all of these methods is concrete human life that makes symbols possible in the first place. However, this plurivocality of human life makes it exceedingly difficult for that life to recognize itself. Regaining this recognition is the target Ricoeur calls the “second naïveté.”  As Gschwandtner explains, “In this way, the symbols are again filled with meaning for us, even if we cannot simply go back to the original innocence that made no distinction between myth and history” (86-87).

For example, in religious language, sin appears symbolized as a “stain,” which commonly refers to a non-representable act against God. But, in closely reading Freud (as well as Nietzsche and Marx), Ricoeur discovers an alternate methodology for explaining such symbols that is no less rigorous in its reading. This leads Ricoeur to distinguish between two types of methodologies based on their appropriation of the symbol in question. These are the hermeneutics of suspicion, based in an attempt to interpret the origin(s) of the symbol, and the hermeneutics of recovery, based in an effort to revitalize the living meaning of the symbol. So “sin” means both an action against God and a manifestation of our own aggression against the self (to follow Freud). Another example is referring to God as “Father.” Is this the expression of a narcissistic and infantile wish or the expression of our wonder at being born into a world overflowing with meaning? Ricoeur holds that both suspicion and recovery yield truth, according to their own criteria. To begin grasping the many senses of the symbols that surround us, we need both a critical demystification of their content anda creative re-appropriation of their as-yet-unrevealed meanings. Philosophically, with respect to the symbols of the sacred, we are bound to this two pronged approach if we are to avoid both sorts of Schwärmerei Kant warns us against.

After the moments of suspicion and recovery comes the moment of poesis. Gschwandtner repeatedly refers to this as “poetry,” and this isn’t a bad translation. But Ricoeur’s poesisalso has a broader sense, that of the creation of new meaning as it emerges out of critique. Conviction is the hope that drives recovery, but genuine poesisis the unfolding of new significance to the symbol. And this poesisis not guaranteed but is the hoped-for revelation of the unity that underlies our fragmented and plurivocal practices and discourses. Ricoeur likens this hermeneutical work to that of Moses, who was able to exercise a (at times severe) critique of his people because he possessed the conviction of the meaningfulness of the destiny of the Jews but, nevertheless, was not able to enter the Promised Land. Here we refer again to the “second naïveté” that would invoke symbols of the sacred in a meaningful, yet non-ideological way. But this is not stumbled upon accidently or dogmatically received; it arrives, hopefully and possibly, as the rational reconstruction and reconciliation of all the interpretations that are currently in conflict.

Although we can debate the purity of Ricoeur’s distinction between his philosophical and Biblical texts, his position regarding the truth of religious texts and practices remains fairly constant and consistent. To be genuinely lived and understood, religious symbols must be lived within the conflict of various interpretations over their meanings. The possible unification of discursive truth over our meaningful symbols – a second naïveté – is not a childish or willful naïveté. The irreducible polyphony of interpretations is not the death of religious text or practice, but is, on the contrary, its life. To remove these symbols from the fullness of language is to adopt a false image of religion and poetry – it is Schwärmerei.


Darin McGinnis, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of philosophy at Wheeling Jesuit University. 

[i]See Derrida, “White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy,” in Margins of Philosophy.

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