Paul Ricoeur’s notion of transcendence in relation to time and narrative

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Abstract

Ricoeur’s understanding of the narrative structure of human temporality involves a dialectical notion of the transcendence of time, a notion beyond customary dichotomies between transcendence and immanence. For example, Wessel Stoker indicates that transcendence does not have to be understood only in a simplified opposition to immanence. Stoker (2012:3–23) identifies four types of transcendence, namely (1) immanent transcendence – where the absolute (God) and human beings are directly connected and where the absolute is experienced in and through mundane reality; (2) radical transcendence – where the absolute is the wholly other and thus sharply distinguished from mundane reality; (3) radical immanence – where the absolute is no longer sought outside mundane reality; and (4) transcendence as alterity – which rejects the opposition between transcendence and immanence and therefore the wholly other can appear in every other.

It is for such a complex understanding of transcendence in regard to Ricoeur’s notion of time and narrative that we argue here. More specifically, that Ricoeur’s notion of narrative temporality entails a dialectic between (1) narrativity as the condition of capturing the transcendence of timein human temporality on the one hand, and (2) the transcendence or inscrutability of time as the transcendental condition for the narrative structure of human temporality on the other hand. In other words: without narrative we would not be able to transmute the transcendence of time, i.e. what Ricoeur (1988:261) aptly calls “the totality that is made and unmade across the exchanges between coming-towards, having-been, and being present” into the sense of human temporality. But, reciprocally, if it were not for this transcendence of time criss-crossing our experience, our temporal being would not take on the narrative structure, which it does in a transcendental way. Thus the narrative function attains its full meaning only when it becomes a condition of temporal existence; in other words, narrated time is the time of our temporal being. But this “full meaning” of the narrative function, we wish to argue, hinges on this specific dialectic of the transcendence of time.

To elucidate this dialectic we first clarify Ricoeur’s understanding of time, as well as the relation between narrativity and temporality; and then, secondly, we indicate the vital link between narrative, language and time in his thought. In the last part we argue that this dialectic is embedded in the transcendental imagination and in the self-transcendence of language (e.g. as demonstrated in his appreciation for the semantic innovation of metaphor).

To summarise our argument: the fundamental thesis, the grand claim of Time and narrative, is that “time becomes human to the extent that it is articulated through a narrative mode, and narrative attains its full meaning when it becomes a condition of temporal existence” (Ricoeur 1984:52). But: it becomes clear that there is an interplay and interdependence of the transcendence of language on the one hand (when he speaks of the “articulation of time through narrative”), and on the other hand the transcendence of time (when he speaks of “narrative which attains its full meaning only as condition of the temporal”). It is a dialectic between the transcendence of language (narrativity/poetics/metaphor) and the transcendence of time (as inscrutable). For time to be understandable (human) it must be narrated, it must have gone through the operation (or narrative act) of configuration (or emplotment). This configuration is, however, also something temporal and part of the productive imagination. There is thus a circularity here, and in both instances the transcendent aspect of both – time andnarrative/language – is not overcome but rather enhanced. This need not to be a problem and it fits in well with Ricoeur’s broader hermeneutical project.

There is, however, an important aspect of Ricoeur’s dialectic between these poles that must be noticed, and that is that both these “transcendences” (of time and language) are in the last instance dependent on interpretation. Interpretation must take place for narrative time to be “articulated” and for a narrative to get its full “meaning” in time. It is here that the importance of Ricoeur’s contribution to our thinking about time lies. Time is always bound up within our words and thoughts, in our productive imagination, and as such always in language. Even with Ricoeur’s acknowledgement that within the limits of narrative, time seems to emerge victorious from the struggle (after having been held captive in the lines of the plot), he quickly adds that the mystery of time gives rise to the exigence to think more and speak differently (Ricoeur 1988:274). In his dialectical view of the mutual transcendence of time and narrative Ricoeur’s thought eclipses too simple distinctions between transcendence and immanence.

In this regard Ricoeur’s understanding of transcendence fits in with Stoker’s fourth type of transcendence (as alterity) where the opposition between transcendence and immanence is surpassed. This transcendence of time and narrative can, however, also be typified, in terms of Stoker’s typology, as a reformulation of “immanent transcendence” because it is through Ricoeur’s emphasis on metaphor and imagination that he opens up the possibility of “experiencing” the transcendent (the inscrutability of time and the self-transcendence of language) in the immanent (reality of time and language/narrative). Metaphoricity is “precisely the ‘tensive’ power of language that comes alive in the crossing of ostensible opposites – immanent-transcendence, sensible-intelligible, finite-infinite” (Kearney 2010:80).

Keywords: dialectic; narrative; Paul Ricoeur; time; transcendence

Lees die artikel in Afrikaans: Paul Ricoeur se begrip van transendensie met betrekking tot tyd en narratief

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