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Sara Fernandes
Ethical and Aesthetical Identity—An Approach to Paul Ricoeur’s Thought


In this article, I analyse Paul Ricoeur’s Oneself as another and try to answer these questions: Is Ricoeur’s philosophy of identity a successful overcoming of the two opposing perspectives that cross the last centuries of Western thought? Should we considerer it original and able to solve the conflict of interpretations on identity?

I also try to refute the reader’s common argument, according to which, personal identity and selfhood can be identified in Ricoeur’s thought. I sustain that: 1) identity results from a permanent dialectic between character (sameness, Idem) and selfhood (constancy, Ipse), that is, between subject’s power to relate continuously to himself during his life and subject’s psychological and physical traits; 2) ethics and aesthetics are the two domains where, in connection, personal identity can be built. Following Aristotle to Ricoeur, the ethical man is the one who continuously questions his way of living, the ultimate goods of his life. But the individual life’s project can only be fully understood in an aesthetical way. The Identity’s construction requires imagination and is supported by an artistic form—the narrative—with the last purpose of self-understanding and bringing up new worlds.

Thus it’s impossible to understand Ricoeur’s proposal if we don’t link ethics and arts (in the narrative way). Each man’s life should be understood as a work of art (aesthetical), which is being made from a constant re-evaluation of ultimate goods that configure his own existence, his actions and the person that he is (ethical). This self-reflection will be able to strengthen subject’s personal beliefs (ethical - idem) or to resist and maybe refuse values and principles previously accepted without examination. In this last case, nothing remains in the subject unless somebody who wishes to identify with a new character (self - idem). But in both situations, the subject should be considered as a self-creator (aesthetic ipse), because imagination is always required to create personal and social views of good life. The end of this work of art matches with the end of individual’s life.

Besides that, the creation of a personal and unique kind of life always requires, paradoxically, the Other’s mediation. This idea seems to be another distinguishing mark of Ricoeur’s philosophy: our identity is built from a space inhabited for a diversity of practical reasons, of hermeneutics in conflict; in this way, we are co-authors of our lives and not simply authors; identity is formed and uncovered not for introspection, but for a set of narratives that are told about us and by us.

Although I agree with Ricoeur about the importance of an ethical intersubjectivity, I don’t support his Sophocles’s Antigone hermeneutics in Oneself as another. I argue that the tragic conflict between Antigone and Creon isn’t only ethical, but religious. Only Greek Theology—the belief in a ‘cruel’ God—gives us the ‘tools’ to understand Sophocles’s tragedy. To sustain my thesis, I appeal to other works of Ricoeur and try to show that his philosophy is rich enough to be fair to Sophocles’ complex imaginary.

Sara Fernandes has started her PhD with a project on “Neuroethics and Personal Identity” at the Catholic University of Lisbon.  She is also a research affiliate at the Health Sciences Institute—Catholic University of Lisbon and at the Philosophy Center of the University of Lisbon (where she participated in a research project on philosophy of religion).  Her past and present research has been funded by the National Foundation for Science and Technology.

She was born in Lisbon, Portugal, in October, 1973.  She took her BA (1998) and her MPhil (2006), both in Philosophy, at the University of Lisbon (1998).  Her research has centered on Personal Identity/Contemporary Philosophy, Hermeneutics and Ethics and her M.Phil dissertation was on “Paul Ricoeur and the problem of personal identity?”  She has published in Portuguese philosophical journals (The Portuguese Philosophical Review, Philosophica, Communio), as wellas in several edited volumes.


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