Thursday, May 21, 2015

Time and Narrative, vol. 1 by Paul Ricoeur


I recall the first time that I read a complete book by Hannah Arendt. I was on a break from college. Reading Between Past and Future, I was awed. And more often, overawed. I felt that I gained insights from her only in glimpses, reading by lightning flashes—moments of insight followed by darkness and confusion. With time—that is, with multiple readings of her works, I gained some comprehension of what she intended to convey. When a reader confronts a dense, challenging text, if you can see lightning bolts of insight, those sentences or even phrases that we feel compelled to highlight or about which we utter a silent “yes!”, then you can feel confident that what you’re reading isn’t gibberish or pretentious baloney. The challenge comes from stretching your mind, not from poor writing or garbled thinking. So with this work of Ricoeur. I’ve read Ricoeur in limited doses before, but this is my second book- length dive into his work. (I read The Symbolism of Evil some years ago. All I can recall of it was that I was impressed, but I’m now hard-pressed to recount its argument.) This book proved just as challenging and intellectually bracing. With this review, I hope that I can provide a glimpse of what Ricoeur does in this project.

In this first of three volumes on the subject of time and narrative, Ricoeur opens with a consideration of St. Augustine’s meditations on time and its three-fold nature. Memory is a key concept for Augustine, and Ricoeur considers Augustine’s scheme of the past recollected now, the now, and the now-imagined future (or memory, direct perception, and expectation). (Augustine perhaps the quintessential Trinitarian.) After laying this marker with Augustine and establishing the notion of time, he shifts to Aristotle’s Poetics to consider the Philosopher’s use of muthos (plot, story, account—narrative?). In the finale of his account of the “circle of narrative and temporality”, Ricoeur explores how time and narrative mesh through the several senses of mimesis (the representation or imitation of reality in literature and art) that he identifies. Ricoeur, by the way, makes his own three-fold division of mimesis

From this starting point, Ricoeur begins his consideration of history as a form of narrative, which provides my primary interest for reading this book. How does history deal with these issues of time and narrative? Is narrative an essential ingredient of history or an impediment to a more analytical understanding? Here I’m going to drop any pretense of summarizing Ricoeur’s argument. It’s long and complex, but I will share the course of dealing with these issues, the works of Ferdnand Braudel, Paul Veyne, Raymond Aron, Max Weber, R. G. Collingwood (far too briefly), William Dray, Carl Hempel, Arthur C. Danto, and Hayden White (among others) all receive consideration. The depth and breadth of Ricoeur’s learning is impressive. While I name-drop, Ricoeur engages.  

In the end, Ricoeur, by deeply engaging with Braudel and Hempel on various issues, preserves and celebrates the role of narrative in history without negating the value of Braudel’s long-duree or Hempel’s covering laws. 

I will not attempt further at this point because I can’t yet do full justice to the diverse and complex arguments and explorations of this book, and I’ve already started volume 2. This is just a teaser for the reader and for me. To grasp and appreciate Ricoeur will take more than a single reading, so I intend to write more about this impressive foray into history, narrative, and time.