Interview with Alison Scott-Baumann on Paul Ricoeur

For the original version of this interview, and other TCS material, go to the TCS Website

In the second of our interviews with the contributors to the Special Section on Paul Ricoeur (TCS 27.5), Simon Dawes interviews Alison Scott-Baumann, English Representative of Fonds Ricoeur, on Ricoeur’s translation model, and the relation between translation and tolerance.
Simon Dawes: Alison, could you tell us a little about Ricoeur and your interest in his work?
Alison Scott-Baumann: Half way through my PhD at Bristol in the late 1990s I became stuck and needed a critique of social science methods that came from outside the discipline. At that time I was a child psychologist drafted in to teach applied psychology to trainee teachers; I was interested in mentoring but finding it difficult to critique as the literature seemed rather bland and the methods seemed more descriptive than analytical. I was advised by a theologian (Professor Craig Bartholomew) to read Ricoeur’s Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences (1981) and, although I found it a tough initiation, I became very interested in Ricoeur (1913-2005) as a subtle thinker who draws on classical and Western traditions in order to question many of the ideas we take for granted. In particular it was refreshing, while stuck on methodology in my PhD, to be reminded by Ricoeur that all methods are constraining and will determine the questions we ask and therefore the type of answers we find. Thanks to his work I was able to write a provocative and successful doctoral thesis.

I also became interested in his philosophy, his dialectical approach and the reception history of his ideas, and Continuum published my book Ricoeur and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion in summer 2009 (reviewed recently at I ask myself often why he is not more widely known in Britain. One issue is that Ricoeur is quite difficult to read, and as Professor Olivier Abel pointed out recently, the difficulty of his ideas can be obscured by the technical difficulty of his writing. Secondary literature can seem more palatable. In the case of the term, ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, I argue that interpretation in secondary literature has become more widely accepted than Ricoeur’s own use of the term, which was always sparse. I demonstrate that he actually only used it up to the mid 1980s. Secondary literature tells us about the masters of suspicion, Marx, Freud and Nietzsche, but does not show the subtleties of Ricoeur’s own subtle reworking and partial acceptance of their teachings, such as his agreement that atheism is necessary. Secondary literature often also implies that this concept (the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’) is an integral part of Ricoeur’s philosophy. I believe there is a story to be told here about his development of dialectical discussion: he plays a deadly serious yet playful game that oscillates between hermeneutics (assuming both that there is meaning to be found and that it is worth seeking it) and suspicion (assuming that we should doubt the meaning that others find and that we know better). He also sees that, if we are to be suspicious of the motives and meanings of others, we must accept suspicion for ourselves and be suspicious of our own beliefs. Suspicion also needs to be proportionate to the problem at hand – this is very difficult to achieve, and I use Stanley Cavell’s work on scepticism to show Ricoeur’s concerns about the misleading feelings of omnipotence that we develop if we allow ourselves to be disproportionately suspicious (Disowning Knowledge in Seven Plays of Shakespeare, 2003). He developed a sceptical argument that, without dismissing ideas out of hand, facilitates challenge of the various premises that underpin historiography, humanities, law, linguistics, narrative, philosophy and even the modernist novel. He challenged phenomenology while at the same time being one of its major exponents, working alongside Levinas, Merleau-Ponty, Henry, Lyotard and Derrida and always remaining critical of the current dominant voice, such as existentialism or structuralism, creating his own fusion of phenomenology and hermeneutics.

SD: Are you working on a new project now?

ASB: My current project is about negation, which he discussed in many of his writings, but which is seldom picked up on. There is unresearched material in the archives that I have been invited by the Conseil Scientifique to work on in order to make them accessible for other scholars. The material demonstrates how he worked very hard for over twenty years to develop what he called a philosophy of negation, only to abandon it by the late 1960s. This takes the form of several different lecture series, modified and re-written for different audiences. Ricoeur concluded that there are many different ways of saying no and that these have their roots in at least three different and incompatible forms of negation. He saw, first, the attempt to be objective in categorising phenomena by demonstrating what they are not (this is not that). He critiqued what he saw, often, as the next step; a subjective attempt to use categorisation to argue that some things are superior to others (this is not only not that, it is therefore also better than that). Thirdly he argued for some way of transcending negation: can I be true to myself by accepting my own limitations – I am not as powerful or good as I wish to be – and also go beyond that to try and better myself or will I be living a lie anyway? He was fascinated to see whether negation is therefore a bad or a good force (or both!) and whether a double negative can really create a positive that is false or true: is it really plausible if I deny my capacity to rise above my limitations and then refuse to be confined by this knowledge? Ricoeur began with a juxtaposition between Kant and Husserl, in which Hegel then provided a robust model of negation and, in his turn, had to be subsumed within a new model that goes right back to Plato for the idea that the other person is one of the most significant problems for our understanding and often evokes negative responses: we cannot easily understand the other and yet we can only really understand ourselves through understanding other people. For Plato this posed more of an epistemological problem, for us, now, it has become an ethical issue concerning our capacity for empathy. This line of argument is very helpful for me because, alongside my philosophy, I undertake projects that I believe highlight the need for social justice: for over ten years I have worked with various groups of British Muslims, and recently conducted a review of faith leader training at the government’s invitation. I can understand the ‘othering’ that I witness daily by applying Ricoeur’s work as he describes it in Oneself as Another: I observe people creating polarisations and insisting upon measuring others against superficial, transient differences rather than looking for lasting similarities.

This work on negation also gives me the opportunity to focus on his early, fascinating work such as The Voluntary and the Involuntary: Freedom and Nature, (1950 in French, 1966 in English). He adopts a matter-of-fact approach to the unconscious as a natural phenomenon at this stage and has not yet developed his thinking on Freud: he uses psychoanalysis more as a foil against which to offset phenomenology. Freedom and Nature contains a clear and powerful phenomenological approach to the human condition and Chapter III of Part III contains early thinking about negation. We see a later development of this in Negativity and Primary Affirmation, which is the last essay (first published in 1956) of the second edition of History and Truth (1964/1965). Nothing was ever discarded; he continued developing many of his early ideas and so simple developmental models do not work for analysing Ricoeur’s work.

Ricoeur is an extraordinary thinker whose work deserves to be better known and whose life was a constant struggle to live as he wrote; he stood out against fascism, he frequently challenged prevalent beliefs, such as the French state’s approach to Algeria, which he rejected as based on inappropriate and unjust colonial responses. Some of his political positions may seem contradictory, such as his refusal to incite French soldiers to desert rather than fight in an unjust war, while vociferously attacking that war. He felt it would be doubly unjust and also discusses the willingness to die for one’s comrades as an example of the subordination of the instinct of self-preservation to a higher cause. He also critiqued the French state’s particular brand of secularism, a laïcité that he found too rigid while also seeing its importance in the context of French anti-clericalism. In his own use of dialectics he saw two extreme forms of secularism as practiced by the French: abstention (no possible discussion or negotiation) and confrontation (such as he saw played out in French schools over the wearing of the hijab). He thought there should be a third secularism that, for example, would allow the wearing of the hijab in schools so as to allow Muslim girls to have the education they seek.

He adopted intellectual positions that may seem contradictory but are in fact a reflection of his determination not to allow methods of analysis to become more than practical tools by turning into ideological or intellectual structures, unless he felt they were suitable to the task at hand; he argued, for example, that literary analysis cannot be undertaken without structuralist methods, yet he steadfastly rejected the use of structuralist methods as a basis for philosophical theory. This is grounded in his conviction that language can and should be analysed, but that these structural methods of analysis then, in effect, put the reader between brackets, precluding the reader’s active interpretation by arguing that all language patterns come from within language, not form people. (This constitutes also a critique of phenomenology). During what he saw as the over-extension of structuralism, he witnessed the so-called death of the author, the subsequent resuscitation of the author and the effect of that upon the perennial challenge to find meaning.

He attempted to bring together analytic and so-called continental philosophy by playing them off against each other and demonstrating, for example, how the study of language was enriched by Wittgenstein and Austin, while also arguing for a more interpretative tradition to be allowed to co-exist with analytic thinking. I challenge the frequently held belief that he is an irenic thinker, calm, conciliatory, even dull: his work, in fact, demonstrates how violent and chaotic our thinking and our living really are. No reconciliation is possible, but we are responsible for trying to work out what these tensions consist of and how to try and act ethically.

Any frustrations? Yes! I would like him to be heard more by the philosophy world especially in Britain as he is already admired in USA; there is no shortage of retrospective studies over the last fifteen years: Steve Clark, Karl Simms and strong American commentary from , for example Dauenhauer and Muldoon, but is this work influencing mainstream philosophy? I would also have wanted Ricoeur to engage more with feminist philosophy and with Islam.

SD: What is Ricoeur’s translation model, and could you tell us more about the relationship between translation and tolerance?

ASB: Ricoeur was an experienced translator; he translated from English, French and German for many years, he was at home with other European languages , such as Italian, and he made good use of Latin and ancient Greek. He also wrote about the process of translation, describing it as taking two main forms: translation from/into another language, and translation within one’s own language. He saw these processes as vital to human relationships and he also saw translation as a metaphor for the ways in which we should behave towards other people with their puzzling capacity to be different from us. As a philosopher he also attempted to mediate between different sets of ideas and saw this as a form of translation, an ethical activity.

I ask two major questions; first, is this model of any use to people who only know one language (how will they know how it feels to translate meaning into a different context?) and secondly can this model be opened up to include the Islamic world? I believe that the answer to both should be yes, but there are interesting issues: Ricoeur believed that one language will dominate the process of translation between two languages – balance is impossible and thus tolerance will be strained. Moreover he argued that Europeans should learn three languages, so there may in fact be no room for the monoglot to benefit. In addition, if this is translation understood as a model of tolerance, how can this extend to the language of Arabic, which is different from the Latinate languages and therefore seems ‘othered’ before we even start? Despite the presence of immigrants as integral members of British identity, there is very little teaching of non-European languages; indeed the teaching of European languages has plummeted. In order to advance the cause of tolerance, we need to apply Ricoeur’s ideas to the real world, in the education system, and develop a European vision that also incorporates the Islamic world. The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London offers a degree in Arabic with other subjects, including another language, such as Arabic and French; this excellent practice should be developed.

Britain is becoming a nation of monoglots for whom it is tempting to see all languages other than English as alien. I believe it is very important to bring languages back into the education system, and to encourage the possibilities of communicating in other languages. This is also important for Muslims, many of whom may become dependent on others for religious guidance, if they do not understand the Arabic in which the Qu’ran is written, and also perceive translations thereof as inauthentic.

SD: As the English representative of Fonds Ricoeur, could you tell us about the Foundation and their Ricoeur archive?

ASB: With Olivier Abel, the leading figure in the Ricoeur field, Ricoeur began to plan in 1997: he asked the Protestant Theological College in Paris to look after his personal library and the working collection that he built up himself, comprising lectures, seminars and preparatory work for books. In his personal archive Ricoeur had stored his own working papers starting with the lectures he attended as a young student from 1930 onwards on topics as varied as Freud, magic and British philosophy, to his last lecture in November 2004. He wished to avoid these materials being made public in ways that are inconsistent with his published oeuvre; he set up a foundation for that purpose, to be led by Olivier and a team of trusted peers, including Catherine Goldenstein, who has established an archive catalogue almost singlehandedly. There is a great deal of material in the archival collections, and most importantly Ricoeur hoped to facilitate the continuation of the dialogue he had conducted for seventy years with colleagues, students and with his books and ideas. Within the Foundation (Fonds Ricoeur), the Ricoeur Collection is being developed and managed by an editorial committee (all matters relating to copyright and publication) and a scientific committee (all matters relating to activities such as the regular seminars, conferences and the website). I have been invited to sit on the scientific council (Conseil Scientifique), which meets three times a year. The Ricoeur family is active in supporting these activities.

Photo: Catherine Goldenstein at Fonds Ricoeur

The bibliography contains all the French texts that are available at the archive in the Fonds Ricoeur in Paris. There is also a record of primary and secondary literature, created in close collaboration with Frans Vansina and his team at Leeuven. For many years Father Vansina collected all such material, and has published several successively updated versions of the full bibliography, culminating in his last version in 2008. This Sisyphean task has now been taken over by the Fonds Ricoeur, in agreement with Father Vansina and his publishers in Leeuven.

The website is well worth visiting and is updated regularly by Madame Catherine Goldenstein, the archivist ( ) . There is an English part as well as the main French section and I support the English part by translating sections. Catherine changes the virtual exhibition regularly and gems appear here that are accessible nowhere else. Catherine attempts to focus the exhibition on a current event e.g. publication of a new edition, a book or a biography – last summer, in line with national commemoration of the student riots in 1968, she marked the fortieth anniversary of May 1968 in Nanterre, the student unrest that led ultimately to grave difficulties for Ricoeur when he was Rector of Nanterre University. Every new French publication regarding Ricoeur receives an exhibition that provides support by means of relevant archival material and information about related texts. If you look in the section called Archives and then the Selection of Documents you will see all previous exhibitions.

Next time you visit the website, , do look at the archives section and the bibliography to obtain a sense of the amount of material, and look at Listening to Ricoeur for audio and video materials.

The section called Texts Online contains digitised copies of texts that contribute in some way to the existing archive and are worth drawing to people’s attention e.g. texts in French that are not easily accessible. We need English translations of these texts if they are not already available in English. This is an interesting development that can lead to increased international collaboration among scholars; for example Le dernier Wittgenstein is an unedited text that appears here on the website and nowhere else, and it also needs translation into English and digitising for archival recording. It was prepared for the website in its original French version by a Canadian scholar and his work on it led to him being contacted on the Space for Researchers by South American and Swiss researchers who were interested in finding out more about that particular text. We hope the website will be a good communication path.

The Space for Researchers provides a forum for keeping up to date with each other’s work on Ricoeur and related fields. You can also have unpublished material posted here if you wish.

Catherine has been working on the archives since shortly after Ricoeur’s death and she is able to guide colleagues to materials that will generate new Ricoeur scholarship. The Fonds is also setting a trend, through the website, for making available materials that are in publication but not accessible, as we see with two recent French publications on, firstly, psychoanalysis, and secondly, hermeneutics. The latter has recently been published by Seuil, 2010 (Ecrits et Conférences 2) and is supported by an online exhibition put together by Catherine.

On behalf of the Fonds Ricoeur, Olivier Abel also runs regular seminars and conferences about Ricoeur’s work and that of other thinkers at the Theological College; these are open to all and are advertised on the website.

On 28 May 2010, President Sarkozy visited the Protestant Theological College in order to formally open the refurbished College and the Ricoeur library, that will house the archives and his personal library. Here is the text of the email that I sent out to the worldwide list of Ricoeur Society members, in which I suggest that there was a complex subtext to the event:

Apart from the excitement communicated by a very thorough sniffer dog that smelt all the books, and the irony of a very lively sausage-frying, banner-waving, balloon-wielding demonstration just up the road against Sarkozy, the inauguration went very smoothly.

Olivier Abel had orchestrated the event very well, without seeming to do so, and Catherine Goldenstein had prepared a sample from the Ricoeur Archives to give a real impression of the texts that show Ricoeur and his thought. Together Olivier and Catherine were able to give the president a clear and moving ‘snapshot’ of Paul Ricoeur (all that could be done in the time!).

I was reminded of Ricoeur’s analysis of being the outsider, the Protestant in a country that, despite its laïque rhetoric, remains profoundly Catholic. For me and I believe the other members of the Conseil Scientifique, this attempt to address such ‘othering’ is what gave the occasion value, in spite of political undercurrents and the intellectual differences that are inevitable between politicians and academics: President Sarkozy made a commitment to support this religious community and this seems to be endorsed by the Minister for Higher Education and Research, who was also present and seemed genuinely interested. We hope for the realisation of such promises to legitimise and enhance the academic and intellectual excellence of the Protestant minority in France.

SD: Are there other activities?

ASB: There is plenty going on: there are over fifty academics around the world who work actively as Fonds Ricoeur correspondants to support the work of the Fonds Ricoeur. They keep communication open and activities going in spite of distance (I am the England representative and there is a full list on the website).

We have seen a burst of activity to consolidate and develop Ricoeur studies in the last five years: there is a Society for Ricoeur Studies based in America (, which has several hundred members. It holds a Ricoeur conference just before the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP) annual US conference and also runs a panel at the SPEP: enquiries to George Taylor ( We recently set up a UK-Ireland Society for Ricoeur Studies: enquiries to Dr Todd Mei, who ran a very successful international conference at Kent University last summer with representatives from over twenty countries ( In Lisbon (6-10 July 2010) the Portuguese members of the group ran a highly successful international conference (contact Gonçalo Marcelo gonç ); we aim to have one each year in Europe if possible.

In collaboration with the American group led by George Taylor, an e-journal (Ricoeur Studies Journal/ Etudes Ricoeuriennes) is being developed to be based at the University of Pittsburgh, a free journal with open access: enquiries to Scott Davidson ( ), Johann Michel ( ) or me at . It is hoped that this will become a bilingual journal or certainly include French contributions and possibly provide abstracts in both languages.

Alison Scott-Baumann is Reader Emeritus at the University of Gloucestershire, member of the Comité Scientifique of the Fonds Ricoeur in Paris and Secretary General of Kashmir Education Foundation (UK). Having been a teacher of modern languages, an educational psychologist and an Open University tutor, she has now returned with great pleasure to philosophy that she wanted to study as an undergraduate and found too obscure. She applies philosophy to real life problems, such as a project on Muslim faith leader training for the British government (2008-10). Ricoeur’s ideas are particularly useful for applying philosophy, as he creates an uneasy, provisional tension between opposing ideas and attempts some sort of resolution. Alison works closely with the French Ricoeur group based in Paris, supporting them in their development of the Ricoeur archives, and is planning to follow her 2009 book Ricoeur and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion with one on Ricoeur and negation. [email:]

Simon Dawes is Editor of the TCS Website and Editorial Assistant to Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society

To read Alison’s article ‘Ricoeur’s Translation Model as a Mutual Labour of Understanding’ and her translation of ‘Being a Stranger’ by Paul Ricoeur, as well as the rest of the Special Section on Paul Ricoeur and the other articles in the September issue of TCS (27.5), go here

To read our TCS Blog Exclusive, ‘How to Read Ricoeur: A Guide Through Ricoeur’s Key Texts’ by Alison Scott-Baumann, go here

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