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Paul Ricoeur, Being, Essence and Substance in Plato and Aristotle. Ed. Jean-Louis Schlegel. Trans. David Pellauer and John Starkey. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2013; 266 pages. ISBN 978-0-7456-6054-7.

Review by Matthew Wood, University of Ottawa

For many students of both continental and ancient philosophy, the publication of David Pellauer and John Starkey’s English translation of Paul Ricoeur’s 1953–1954 lecture course, Being, Essence and Substance in Plato and Aristotle, will be viewed as an auspicious event. The complete text of Ricoeur’s course, which was distilled from lectures given at the University of Strasbourg and then published under the title Être, essence et substance chez Platon et Aristote, is now available in English for the first time. The current volume provides Anglophone audiences with access to the early work of one of the 20th century’s most important thinkers, in a competent translation and well-annotated text.

It is hard to do justice to the subtlety and breadth of Ricoeur’s analyses in the space allotted here. Yet it is possible to indicate some ways in which the strategies he employs in reading the texts of Plato and Aristotle already prefigure concerns that underlie his works from the 1960s onward. For starters, these early readings of Plato and Aristotle already bear the traces of what he calls in Oneself as Another his “fragmentary method.” (University of Chicago Press, 1992, 297) Though the course is organized around the basic themes of Platonic and Aristotelian ontology, it is much more investigative than dogmatic in nature. Lacking an explicit, central argument, the course nevertheless has what Ricoeur calls “a long-term goal”: “to work out the ontological foundations of our Western philosophy, so as to understand its intention by way of the history of its beginning.” (1)

The course pursues this goal in two basic sections, on Plato and Aristotle respectively. The section on Plato is further divided into three parts: “‘True Being’ or the Idea”; “The Idea of Being and Non-Being”; and “Being and the ‘Divine.’” That on Aristotle consists of two parts: “Being as Being” and “Being as Substance.” Each of these parts includes a number of shorter chapters comprised of intertextual analyses devoted to specific concepts, which often raise more problems than tidy conclusions.

If this means that Ricoeur’s readings of Plato and Aristotle frequently result in aporia, it does not yet mean that they are inherently sceptical. As Ricoeur himself states, “[a]n aporia is an oriented ignorance, a charged ignorance. In this perplexity, there is something like a presentiment about what is being investigated.” (30) This understanding of aporia as an orientation that falls between ignorance and knowledge, between the question and its answer, implicitly highlights the middle-ground the course seems to aim at, between (1) an interpretation of Plato and Aristotle that denies systematic validity to their thought, and instead looks in them for the repressed traces of an ontology of finite existence; and (2) a more dogmatic reading that represents these philosophies as closed or finished conceptual systems, within which such existential concerns have little to no purchase.

Consistent with the dialectical effort to mediate these two approaches, which subtly underscores the unique response to structuralism that Ricoeur articulates almost 20 years later (see for example “Structure, Word, Event,” in The Conflict of Interpretations, Northwestern University Press, 1974, 79–96), one of the basic interpretive strategies employed throughout the course is a nuanced distinction between, on the one hand, Plato and Aristotle as existing, historical individuals who lived and wrote texts, and, on the other, the doctrinal systems that have subsequently emerged, and continue to emerge out of the interpretation of these texts (i.e., Platonism and Aristotelianism). Accordingly, Ricoeur questions whether contemplation (theoria), which some Platonic dialogues (such as the Phaedo) portray as the soul’s intuitive grasp of an immaterial essence, is for Plato anything more than “the most distant hope, linked to the double ‘cipher’ of reminiscence and death.” (28) He suggests in response that, in fact, “it is neo-Platonism that posited the idea that the soul can make itself nous and find its apotheosis in union with essence.” Ricoeur ultimately questions whether “[t]his apotheosis of the soul in the truth of essence” is “the true Platonism.” (28)

Yet the rapport subsequently outlined between Plato’s Sophist and Parmenides indicates the extent to which Ricoeur also sees the discussions enacted in Plato’s dialogues to point beyond themselves, toward a certain synoptic, yet unfinished vision of Platonism. He thus contends that the Parmenides ends with “the ruinous alternative: everything is true—nothing is true,” which it will be the task of the Sophist to resolve. (85) Above all, the way in which he understands the Sophist to resolve the final aporia of the Parmenides is significant because in explicating this resolution, which for Ricoeur remains “partial” (96), he argues for the central importance of a dialectic of “Same and Other.” (95) Within this dialectic, he moreover argues for a privileged understanding of Otherness over Sameness, which parallels the priority given to the concept of Otherness in many of his better-known works (see especially Oneself as Another, 297–356).

The second section examines in what ways Aristotle’s thought is implicitly marked by a tension between two conceptions of metaphysics: on the one hand, metaphysics as ontology, or the general science of being qua being; and on the other, metaphysics as theology, or the science of first being, which is causally prior to all others. Ricoeur ultimately isolates two possible “sequences,” each of which allows for a different rapport to be established between these two dimensions of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. According to what he calls the “chronological” sequence, which he finds confirmed in W. Jaeger’s developmental reading of Aristotle, the theological dimension of the Metaphysics (most evident in parts of Books I and XII) corresponds to an earlier time in Aristotle’s life, when he was still under the influence of “a Platonizing Urmetaphysik” (250). Conversely, the properly ontological dimension of the Metaphysics (located in parts of Books IV and V, as well as in the triptych VII, VIII and IX) reflects the mature thought of Aristotle, which is characterized by its empirical (and therefore anti-Platonic) orientation. On Jaeger’s reading, these two dimensions of Aristotelian metaphysics are necessarily incompatible insofar as one leads to a conception of “substance” (ousia) that is firmly rooted in the sensible, while the other leads to a conception of ousia that is separate from, and therefore beyond, it. The only possible explanation of their interrelation for Jaeger is a psychological or historical one, according to which Aristotle at some point changed his mind about the fundamental truth of Plato’s philosophy.

Yet in opposition to Jaeger’s purely chronological sequence, Ricoeur affirms what he calls a “logical sequence” that allows the theological and ontological dimensions of Aristotle’s Metaphysics to be bridged. (251) He thus follows Jaeger’s developmental hypothesis to a point, but also rearranges its key postulates so that, rather than starting out with a Platonizing theology and culminating in a general ontology firmly rooted in a conception of sensible substance, Ricoeur’s Aristotle rather begins with a “long detour” (196) through physical substance and ends in a theological conception of divine ousia that, despite all differences, highlights some crucial continuities between the Stagirite and his teacher.

A key concept in the section on Aristotle is that of analogy. In addition to the importance given above to the concept of Otherness in his reading of Plato’s Sophist, the role played by analogy here anticipates at least two of Ricoeur’s well-known discussions in subsequent works (see The Rule of Metaphor, University of Toronto Press, 1977, pp. 257–313; as well as Ricoeur’s comments on “the analogical unity of action” in Oneself as Another, 303). Here, with respect to the ontological dimension of Aristotle’s thought, analogy explains the relationship that allows the multiple senses of being to be ordered in relation to the primary term (ousia), without thereby being reduced to the unity of a genus: “Being means, in succession: substance, quality, quantity, relation, etc….which realize the same community by analogy through a relation to a first meaning that serves as the type for the signification.’ (185) With respect to the theological moment, Ricoeur notes similarly that the final causality of the unmoved mover is “the only way that Aristotelianism offers to account for the analogical bond that unites first substance and the other substances under the same ‘equivocal’ rubric of being.” (244)

At the same time, Ricoeur also recognizes that this analogical bond between separate and individual substances is only “sketchily indicated” in the Metaphysics, which he concludes is “a book overloaded with annexed investigations; the central line is marked by crossroads explored in all directions. All this is, if not simple, at least coherent.” (253) To the extent that he does find in such a book the intimation of a “logical,” systematic order that he opposes to Jaeger’s purely chronological one, Ricoeur’s interpretation can be seen once again to situate itself subtly between a historical and a systematic approach.

It seems possible to question whether Ricoeur’s dialectical attempts to mediate these extremes result in anything more than a continual back-and-forth between two incompatible ways of reading Plato and Aristotle. And, even if it is supposed that he does in the end succeed in going beyond mere juxtaposition, the fine line Ricoeur walks here is at times so nuanced as to be almost imperceptible. Consequently, for those who remain interested in the possibility of a fully systematic articulation of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, Ricoeur’s approach will perhaps seem anachronistic, if not arbitrary. On the other hand, those interested in a fully existentialist appropriation of ancient texts will perhaps find his concessions to the philosophical tradition to be rather conservative. Yet for those who are interested in the possibility of an entre-deux between these extremes, Ricoeur’s insights are as original as they are important.