We are mind on the hoof and our innate emotions and particular character dispositions inform our every move. They define us in the broadest of brushstrokes.
We go through life aware of ourselves as unique entities with the power to act. We are predisposed to make sense of our world and our place in it and tend to experience life as discrete characters in a story slowly unfolding in real time.
Memory and imagination are both capable and fallible. We are only human. Our cognitive horizons are finite; we can only take in so much at a time. Existentially our awareness is confined to the fleeting moment, but we rely on recall and we anticipate. As a consequence, the past and the future always seem to be right there with us. The ipse, or narrative self, construes itself as a constantly updated distillation of past and future, rather than a succession of unexamined nows.
Our waking experience is anticipatory.
A vivid imagination allows us to mentally rehearse future possibilities. We are always primed for action, always on a forward trajectory. It seems that our predicament is to live in the subjunctive tense. Constantly we are projecting a fictive “what if?” from a highly edited “thus far.”
The identity of the self encompasses “what” and “who” elements. The empirical fact that we permanently inhabit a singular, incrementally changing, primate body, more or less answers the “what” question. The intersection of embodiment with the “who” aspect is more slippery.
Ricoeur differentiates two major meanings of identity. The first of these is, the Latin term, idem—or the genetic “sameness” of the self’s physicality—for which “permanence in time constitutes the highest order” (1992: 2). This notion is best appreciated by considering “how we see photos of ourselves at successive stages of our life.” We are struck by an “ordered series of small changes which, taken one by one, threaten resemblance without destroying it.” The second meaning of identity is the more elusive concept of ipse or “selfhood”—a constructed, dynamic “narrative identity” (1998: 246):
Unlike the abstract identity of the Same, this narrative identity, constitutive of self-constancy, can include change, mutability, within the cohesion of one lifetime.
In an earlier work Ricoeur (1981: 142-143) outlines the inherent link between identity and interpretation:
[t]he moment of ‘understanding’ corresponds dialectically to being in a situation: it is the projection of our ownmost possibilities at the very heart of the situations in which we find ourselves... what must be interpreted in a text is a proposed world which I could inhabit and wherein I could project one of my own most possibilities.
This proposed world is:
not behind the text, as a hidden intention would be, but in front of it, as that which the work unfolds, discovers, reveals. Henceforth to understand is to understand oneself in front of the text... exposing ourselves to the text and receiving from it an enlarged self.
In his philosophical writings on narrative, Ricoeur (1984: 67) stresses the importance of the Aristotelian concept of muthos or emplotment. It is emplotment which “transforms the succession of events into one meaningful whole... and which makes the story followable.”
Ricoeur’s three-stage mimesis refers specifically to the interpretation of texts but it encapsulates the essential problem of human understanding. It has profound implications for the moment of learning. According to Ricoeur (1984: 53-54), it is emplotment (or mimesis 2) which, as mediator, conducts us “from one side of the text to the other.” Mimesis 1 or the “prefigured,”—is transfigured in a “new quality of time”:
We are following therefore the destiny of a prefigured time that becomes a refigured time through the mediation of a configured time.
Emplotment “draws a configuration out of a simple succession.” Ricoeur refers to this as a “synthesis of the heterogeneous.” a phrase which echoes the working through of incommensurability thesis. Similarly emplotment’s creation of “concordant discordance” (1984: 64-66) seems to represent a temporal resolution of Gadamer’s polarity between familiarity and strangeness.
Ricoeur declares that “mimesis 2 opens the kingdom of the as if.” This “configuration” leads us to mimesis 3, or “refiguration,” which “marks the intersection of the world of the text with the world of the hearer or reader” (1984: 81).
Ricoeur, Paul (1981) Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences. Edited and translated by John B. Thompson. Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press.
Ricoeur, Paul (1984) Time and Narrative, Volume 1. Translated by Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Ricoeur, Paul (1992) Oneself as Another. Translated by Kathleen Blamey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.