Ethical and Aesthetical Identity—An Approach to Paul Ricoeur's Thought

Paul Ricoeur’s philosophy of identity aims to surpass two opposing perspectives that cross the last centuries of western thought. On the one hand, the cartesian subjectivity and its private conception of identity, independent of all social conditions and only knowable by introspection; on the other hand, Nietzsche’s view that, according to Ricoeur, undermines and humiliates the subject, conceiving it as a mere linguistic or a rhetorical tool, only as a figure of speech. We know how Descartes’ cogito will inspire future philosophers, like Kant and Husserl; but we also know that Nietzsche’s anti-cogito encouraged recent philosophers, like Jacques Derrida.

Is Ricoeur’s philosophy of subjectivity a successful overcoming of these two diametrical opposing perspectives that cross the last centuries of Western thought? Should we considerer it original, and in its innovation, able to solve the conflict of interpretations on subjectivity? These are the main questions that I’ll try to give an answer.

In my opinion, Ricoeur’s view of personal identity results from the permanent dialectic between Ipse (constancy, Ipseité) and Idem (sameness, mêmeté), that is, between subject’s power to relate continuously to itself during all his life and subject’s psychological and physical traits. If, for instance, identity and Ipse were the same thing, certainly we’d agree that Ricoeur’s philosophy is different from Descartes’ cogito, because ipseity implies temporality. Accordingly, it’s not a substance, an arquê that stands against everything else that is changeable and temporal; but it’d be difficult to separate it from the kantian ‘I think’, the transcendental subject that accompanies all my representations1 and, therefore, from the Western traditional approach. In fact, if we consider, that identity and ipse were the same, this could make us think that the philosopher agrees with a mental criterion (a kind of a psychological continuity), as far as the problem of personal identity is concerned. So, to understand Ricoeur’s proposal, we should surpass Kant and with the important contribution of neurobiology (especially with Antonio Damasio’s work), able to recognize that: 1) all mental states have a physical cause; 2) but also that mental states can be about our own body and affect our physical states. Therefore, we argue with Ricoeur in favour of a mind-body dialectic unity and sustain that this dialectic is the key to find and understand personal identity.

To recognize ourselves as the same entity during a life period, we should accept the queerness of our body, the otherness inside us, assuming ourselves as embodied, incarnated. Instead of considering Ipse and identity equal concepts, Ricoeur sustains that the second is founded on the vital idem-Ipse dialectic. We can oppose this view by appealing to real dramatic experiences in which the subject refuses the process of ‘identification-with’. Situations falling in this category would be when an individual does not identify with his own body (e.g. decisions of a plastic surgery or, in a radical way, for a sexual body-change) or when he is unable to identify himself with the person he became.

However, as Ricoeur correctly points out, these existential and dramatic moments don’t denote a self dissolution, only show that: 1) they affect the subject as a whole, being equally felt in a mental and physical way, pointing again to its dynamic unity; 2) although they may not reveal a fortified and stable relation between individual and its self-sameness (Idem), it still remains a subject-ipse in search for a new self-sameness (Ipse). As Ricoeur sustains: «At these moments of extreme loss, the null reply to the question who am I? no more sends for the nullity (nakedness) of the question."2

What can then be said about this situation when a subject confronts its proper nothing? Ricoeur answers that the assertion "I am not nothing" shows a subject deprived of the self-sameness security and stability, someone who isn’t able to identify himself with his traits and his own history; someone who recognizes himself as a nothing. But subject’s self-idem loss does not really mean that he is not ‘a nothing’. When he says “I am nothing», he still remains a time-existing subject, a subject able to tell something about himself, even when if it is simply the recognition of his proper nothing. Subjectivity doesn’t disappear, since the subject is still able to pose the question and answer it, even though his answer can only be the recognition of his own emptiness. When the subject lives these dramatic moments, he also deals with the dissolution of his descriptive marks, but at the same time still keeps the power to question himself and to provide answers. The reply can be empty, but always implies somebody that gives it.3

In my opinion, Ricoeur’s thesis according to which personal identity results from ipse-idem dialectic, shows the importance of two equally important fields in identity’s rise and development - aesthetical and the ethical. When the philosopher argues that identity has a narrative dimension, when he alludes to a "creative" itself, he is not arguing that this is pure invention, without any relation with experience, lived reality. The art of the narrative is based on life itself, shares its form; that’s why each subject tries to create and articulate, in an intelligible plot, his experiences, his memories (even the most difficult and confusing), so that he can understand them, claim them as his own and to merge them in his identity. It is, in this context, that we should understand Isak Dinesen’s belief, according to which, all the pain is bearable when we make of it a story or we tell a story about it.

However, we can’t forget that personal identity, sustained by Ricoeur, is unstable and changeable, that doesn’t cease of constantly being made; that’s the reason why it will always remain a mystery for the subject itself. Moreover, because it’s built in history and time, there will always be (latent) plots for disclosing. Thus one understands the meaning of Ricoeur’s sentence, according to which, it is for the entire life that we look for our identity. This is one of the central marks of his philosophy of identity: more important than reviewing itself in his static and closed plots (which, by the way, it’s an impossible task, given that many of them are conflicting), it's his unchangeable power of self-hermeneutic that allows him to organize, in a unified and intelligible whole, the diversity of plots that he goes carrying out during all one life. This does not mean, again, that all plots that we tell about us (our profound values and ideals, our beliefs and most important commitments) effectively show our deeper identity. As Ricoeur clarifies, it depends on each one of us to make the selective plot (since it is reflexive) of what "we understood and we loved" in our life.4 It is, in this way, that we become “writers and readers of our proper life", reclaiming a Marcel Proust’s sentence in Le Temps Retrouvé.

In this way, when Ricoeur says that identity can only be established in a narrative way (which shouldn’t be understood as a simple addition of all plots built by us and told about us), he is rejecting the traditional approach to the personal identity problem – Idem - because this would mean thinking about it like a property, an ownership (steady, lasting) of a form of being. We know how the philosopher objects to this way of thinking. Behind self-idem, there is always a subjectivity that precedes all possible plots and it is their condition of possibility – a self-Ipse.

We can still ask: why subject’s plots about his proper life aren’t pure fiction, without relation to reality? Because plots are especially founded on the subject’s actions, and these, as we know, aren’t private, are public, in the sense that they are observed by others and open to their hermeneutics and narration. In this way, we can only understand who we really are, if we’ll be able to explain our actions and compare them inter subjectively. Like narratives told about others, also the narratives that we create about us are open to other people’s hermeneutics and correction. It’s this inter-subjective dialectic that can help us to distinguish between a true recognition of ourselves and an arbitrary and failed narrative. The Other shouldn’t be understood as excluded from identity, but as a vital part of it. According to his words: «the self implies the other in a so close way that one cannot be thought without the other.»5

Our identity is permanently being built from a dialogue with the other, 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; subjectivity is formed and uncovered not for introspection, but for a set of narratives that are told about us and by us; which means again that personal identity is built, is a result of a plural work and not a solitary production. Thus, we support that, in Ricoeur’s thought, art and identity are deeply related, in the sense that the construction and development of the last one requires imagination and creativity and it is supported by an artistic form - the narrative – with the last purpose of self-understanding and bring up new worlds.

We verified that, according to Ricoeur, the narrative concept doesn’t refers only to the great literary works of art, but also applies to all small histories of everyday life, where characters express their personal views, their certainties, their values, likes and dislikes. These principles and models of behaviour are always directly or indirectly related with subjective desires of living a good life, therefore, one of the plot’s virtues is the power to express, to tell each one’s intention of a good life. Thus it’s impossible to understand Ricoeur’s proposal if we don’t link ethics and arts (in the narrative way).

Following Aristotle’s thought, Ricoeur’s ethics emphasizes the reflection that each subject does about his goals and ultimate goods in life. In short, ethics results from the individual desire of happiness and the reflection necessarily carried through to accomplish this desire in society. Although Ricoeur identifies morality with objectivity, obligation, social rules (imposing the right way to behave),6 we should recognize its importance for social well-being, the basic laws of sociability and mutual respect. On the other hand, we cannot forget the importance of morals to the subjectivity’s constitution. Who we are deeply depends on social customs and habits. It’s from social morality that we get our deeper beliefs on good, happiness, the value of our existence. Who we are is defined, in part, by our social morality.

It urges, then, to ask, are ethics and morals opposite? Let us remember what Ricoeur says: "It is, therefore, by convention, that I will keep the ethical term for the end of a fulfilled life, and morals term for the joint of this end with norms, distinguished at the same time for the pretension to universality and an effect of coercion [...]"7 It’s the notion of a fulfilled life – a ‘good life ' - that links ethics and morals. A good life has an intrinsic value; it is a life with a purpose, and this makes our life worthy of being lived. Like Aristotle, Ricoeur understands that such purpose is real; a goal for all lives and it is for this ultimate end that all human actions should tend.8

We see, thus, that a good life doesn’t refers to biological existence, but to the "unity of the complete man", the man’s ability to launch a retrospective look on itself and to appear unified, accordingly with his life’s project. It is, in this context, that we should understand the Socratic precept, according to which, only an examined life deserves to be lived by a man. When the philosopher pronounces these words it is clearly to support, on one hand, that neither all lives have the same value or deserved to be lived and, on the other hand, only thought turns life into a good one. A life without reflection is a life where man gives up his condition, where he renounces to what best defines his own nature. In a similar way, Ricoeur also points out the importance of a reflexive and hermeneutical disposition during life, considering that only this basic exercise allows the accomplishment of a good life; only through thinking we can continually evaluate our existential project (ultimate good) and its connections to our particular actions (relative goods). Thus, the subject’s life is a text that, in order to be understood, is important a permanent reflection about its parts and its connection with the whole, like a hermeneutic circle. Therefore, to explain the ‘text of action ' is the same as to explain ourselves, in other words, the ethical subject can’t be disconnected from the narrative one. Now, we notice how Ricoeur’s conception of identity is enriched: in the ethical level, the hermeneutical self becomes ‘self-esteem’, an expression created by the philosopher to assign the personal experience of acting, causing changes in the world and, in this way, to accept (esteem) them as his, as part of his life’s project.

However, it’s this idea of a "true life", proposed by Socrates, Aristotle and recovered by Ricoeur that allows the connexion between ethics and morals. As the philosopher shows, a good life always implies: 1) a personal satisfaction (ethical level) – because the subject is always the last judge (of the dignity and happiness degree) of his life; 2) moral merit - a life is good if it fits in the society’s moral standards, in those universal and objective models that evaluate the actions of each one, as well as the entire life, independently of the personal happiness. In short, a good life implies an individual’s (delicate) balance between living a rewarding (happy) life and fitting in a certain moral tradition. Ricoeur’s ethics is inseparable from morals: the "true life" results from the accomplishment of an ethical (subjective) existence in community.

But it will be with the concept of responsibility that Ricoeur fully justifies the ethical nature of identity. In fact, the word responsibility etymologically means the direction of an answer to give. But this reply appears, since soon, with a double sense: ‘to answer for’ and ‘to answer to’. Now, in my opinion, this double structure of responsibility will provide the true sense of identity; in other words, only the responsibility’s path makes us unique and irreplaceable. One meaning of responsibility - to answer for - points the relation f man with himself. In fact, to answer for is to answer not only for my acts and their effects, but especially for who I am. And when I already am nothing, I am still responsible for what I commit myself to do, because the binding to the given word is what remains in a subject totally deprived of sameness (Idem). By responsibility, I maintain myself as irreplaceable and, therefore, nobody can answer for me. Only I can do it (otherwise who will do it?), which leaves me with one of two choices: or I accept this responsibility or I resign the possibility to not only answer for my acts and effects, but overall for my life’s project. Being a subject is to be responsible, is to take upon oneself his existence and to answer for it, it is not to delegate this presence, this possibility of truly living in nobody.

Ricoeur understands identiy as a project developed with reference to the other, and if responsibility appears now as its condition of possibility, then this concept should be object of a new thinking. We just can’t identify with the traditional view of responsibility, because its reference is only the past. It is certain that we answer, we are equally responsible for what we did as for what we failed to do or even refused to do. But this retrospective view of responsibility isn’t enough if we want to link it with the conception of identity that we’ve came to sustain. If responsibility is, according to Ricoeur, the identity’s source, then we should take into account the man’s relation with his future.

What does it mean to be responsible then? It means to accept to be considered, in the present, as the same subject that acted in the past and that will act in the future. And it is this new conception of responsibility (which links the past, the present and the future) that defines identity. In fact, the stability of the self is only possible if the subject, being responsible, overall for itself, for his existence, is either able to accept, in the present, as much the past before which he feels indebted, as for the future he promises to carry through and to construct.9 With the concept ‘to answer for’, we understood the importance of the ethical relation of man with himself, but this does not mean that identity doesn’t imply the mediation of the Other. The act of promising (something to someone) allows us to evidence the importance of the intersubjective relation. However, it is the concept - to answer to - that really explains us how identity demands the ethical reference to the Other.

The other is not a self’s mirror, but someone who has several faces or that assumes multiples "faces" in relation with subjectivity. The other is the witness of my actions, he is its judge, but above all is someone who requests and demands my presence, who counts on me, with my capacity to keep the word and, therefore, leads me to answer: "here I am". What makes me answer is an appeal, but this appeal has a specific meaning, according to Ricoeur, because it is turned into intimidation, in moral obligation, a situation from which I cannot run away. But we should ask: why is inevitable my presence in face of otherness appeals? Why are neutrality and indifference impossible? Because even if we refuse, if we “run away", or ignore who questions me, we are always deciding, taking a stand. To answer means, in this context, to act, to take a stand before an appeal directed to me. But strictly speaking, it should be understood as the reply that I give to the question "where are you?", this question placed for the other that complains my presence and that can only be: "here I am", "you can count on me". Here responsibility means to take care of the other, someone whose fragility and vulnerability convokes me and demands that my behaviour should be suited to the other’s expectation and confidence.10 The notion ‘to answer to’ shows law’s current trend in widening responsibility’s domain. Nowadays, responsibility is not limited to the relation between individuals and their effects in the world, but it also includes the relation between agent and patient, someone who causes effects and someone who suffers it. We live at a time when, according to Ricoeur, the victim is the nucleus of law’s responsibility, attending a displacement of the accent previously placed on the agent for the victim, the person who suffers the actual damage. This means that Man doesn’t already answer for itself and its acts, but also for the other. However, it is the fragility and vulnerability of the other that leads to a responsibility’s widening and renders him the source of morality.11

To retake the problematic of identity, we understand that it is the link between the two basic directions of responsibility - to answer to and to answer for - that creates the subject ethically. When deprived of character (Idem), self constancy is only possible by reference to the other: it’s my power to answer to the other who requests my aid and to take care of him, that I can confirm my presence, to answer for me and for my existence.

Ethics is not a theoretical science, rather results from a practical and hermeneutical reason, with the last purpose of helping man to find a worthy life of being lived and the paths to accomplish it. Antígone and Creon weren’t successful, but not for the reason pointed by Ricoeur at Oneself as Another: tragic and death occurred not because of their private and conflicting views of good life, but because they symbolize an ethical submission to a demonic religion, a religion that places the human beings into its service and uses their love, their passion, their hatred to re-establish justice between the mortals.

Sophocles’ complex imaginary is far away from Ricoeur’s understanding. The tragical conflict between Antigone and Creon isn’t only ethical; they don’t confront each other because they simply have limited and partial views of good life. Antigone’s tragedy should be placed in the religious domain. Only greek theology – the belief in a ‘cruel’ and ‘satanic’ God – gives us the ‘tools’ to understand Sophocles’s tragedy. As Ricoeur remembers in Lectures III "all greek gods have something satanic".12 In Antigone the conflict is tragic, since inseparable from this theology, a deity that is, at the same time, too close and too far from man.13 The tragic is connected with the "divine’s gradual personalization”, a deity that enters in the emotional and volitional man’s life as an invincible and irrational power, modifying Antigone and Creon personalities and turning them its tools. Antígone looks like an ‘insane woman without law ', but this just law’s privation means, as usually forgotten, to a divine inspiration of justice, the same inspiration that led Socrates to cut his civic chains. For a contemporary secular reader, possibly doesn’t make sense to remember that it was a belief in deity that took Socrates to dedicate his life to philosophy and that Antigone’s moral autonomy reveals a belief in laws prescribed by Zeus and Dikê. But, as argues Barrington Moore in Privacy, probably the two heroes’ autonomy wouldn’t psychologically be possible without the firm belief in powers that transcend individual mortality and to which they submit.14

Creon’s last words recognize that it was the same divine inspiration that moved him away from justice’s path, Creon’s hybris is directed by a divine voice that voluntarily leads him to wrong actions, delays his understanding of good and just and throws him in tragic action.15 Why keeps God a so enigmatic and anti-symmetrical relation with humanity? Why Antigone becomes wise earlier and Creon always knows too late? Because greek transcendence is hostile, it doesn’t save or protect human beings, is indifferent to men’s tragic, even to the heroes.16 Greek theology is tragic: deity’s action ends when men more need its aid. It leads subjects to a direct conflict, and because they are unable to solve it, tragic end could only be prevented with the deity’s aid. This help never comes: Antigone walks alone and helpless to death.17 And Creon will not be saved to the final suffering and solitude.18 Sophocles religious imaginary reflects the doubts that humanity will deal forever: god’s belief doesn’t imply that man feels, sometimes in life, especially in difficult moments, an agony, solitude and a theological helplessness. As Ricoeur argues, in these moments, man feels a "frustration theological” that, instead of becoming atheism, becomes a tragic faith with Greeks, a faith that keeps believing and invoking this demonic transcendence.19 This is my opinion about Sophocles’s Antigone and I tried to show the reasons why I object Ricoeur’s reflexion on this tragedy. I also tried to show that other Ricoeur's works are richer enough to help us to understand Sophocle's complex imaginary.

To Ricoeur, ethics is, overall, an intention, the deep desire of being’s accomplishment, the will to live lives considered good. Therefore, the ethical man is the one who continuously questions its way of living, the ultimate goods of his life. In this 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). The end of this work of art matches with the end of individual’s life.

The eternal link between ethics and aesthetics allows us to understand how personal identity is built in Ricoeur’s philosophy: the particularity of each human being rests in its permanent capacity to reflect on himself and his life goals, placing himself as one another and examining his view of good life (ethical selfhood). 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 create / 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, possible worlds where it is worth to live.

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 and definitively undoes the mistake of an eventual similarity between Ricoeur’s view of subjectivity and the Kantian ‘I think' that accompanies all my experience and consciousness. Although both sustain the importance of the mediation to self-knowledge (remember that the ‘I think ' becomes an empty representation when is directly changed into object of knowledge), Ricoeur’s identity is not impersonal (of ‘anyone’, like the Kantian view), but open to Otherness mediation.

Ricoeur’s effort in surpassing the traditional view of subjectivity (as Descartes’ cogito), enhancing the importance of intersubjectivity for its creation and development, finds grammatical and linguistic support. The philosopher’s distinction between ‘I ' (je, ich) and ‘self’ (soi, selbst) tries to separate two basic meanings of identity confused by the philosophical tradition (idem and ipse) and to show the importance of the last over the first one. "To say self is not to say I", therefore while the ‘I ' refers to the first singular person of grammar, the 'self ' contains the reflexive power of all grammatical subjects. In this way, the significance attributed to ‘self’ has the purpose to prevent a solipsistic or a self-centred subject (which ‘I' expresses), and to show how identity and its understanding is possible, or better yet, implies the mediation of all grammatical subjects.20

Original and conciliator, thus we classify Ricoeur’s philosophy on identity. Original, because instead of accepting subject’s traditional boarding (searching an identification criterion of public recognition, whether mental or physical), the philosopher displaces the reflexion to subject’s inwardness and considers, in my opinion, ethics and aesthetics as two possible levels that, in its interconnection, offer answers (always temporary) to the question Who am I? Conciliator, because the dialectics between Ipse and Idem, self and character, already doesn’t allows us to think subjectivity as static and unchangeable, but dynamic, temporal and opened to otherness. On the other hand, although its eminently fragile and finite nature, at no moment the waste of character, leads to selfhood dissolution, what also weakens philosophies of anti-cogito. Placed between two traditional conflicting views, Ricoeur’s philosophy of subjectivity should be understood as an intermediary and mediating position between both.



Ricoeur’s Works

«Auto-compréension et Histoire», in AAVV, Paul Ricoeur. Los caminos de la Interpretación, Barcelona, Antropos, 1991

Le Juste, Paris, Éditions Esprit, 1995

Lectures 3 – Aux frontières de la philosophie, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1992

Philosophie de la volonté. Finitude et Culpabilité II.La Symbolique du Mal, Paris, Éditions Montaigne, 1960

Soi-même comme un autre, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1990

Secondary Sources

Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Pure Reason, Trans. Manuela Pinto dos Santos and Alexandre Fradique Morujão, Lisbon: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 1989

Moore, Barrington, Privacy – Studies in Social and Cultural History, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1984

Sophocles, Antigone, Trans. Maria Helena da Rocha Pereira, Lisbon, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2000


1 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Puré Reason, Trans. Manuela Pinto dos Santos e Alexandre Fradique Morujão, Lisbon, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 1989, §16, B 132


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