Book review: Freud and Philosophy by Paul Ricouer

(‘m working on finishing up the 30 or so books I’m in the middle of and posting quick reviews of them here as I do.)

Freud and Philosophy: An Essay in Interpretation, by Paul Ricouer

What a fascinating book! Paul Ricouer is perhaps my favorite philosopher. He’s a phenomenologist, which is perhaps my favorite branch of philosophy. He’s a Continental philosopher who works at being clear and precise, which is a combination I love, and he’s a Christian trying to understand how the way we interpret the world affects everything.

There are two camps in philosophy, Analytic Philosophy, and Continental Philosophy. Analytic philosophers are very precise. They define their terms precisely, put their arguments into precise form, and prove whatever they can prove. Then other philosophers pick on the argument in some minor detail and re-define terms their own way and put together another precise argument proving something slightly different from the first proof. It all feels very mathematical, and it tends to attract people whose mission in life is to clarify things. Like mathematics, though, it has the drawback that sometimes it isn’t really about what people actually wanted to know. What people actually wanted to know was too vague to express. Most philosophers in the US are analytic philosophers.

Continental philosophers are fond of pointing out all the stuff that we can’t quite put into words. They know that no one starts out their philosophizing as a blank slate, from a neutral position. They love to track down all the things that we just take for granted as we think because we couldn’t even think at all otherwise. They love to focus on the way in which we are shaped by our culture and our bodies and our human situation. They are fond of noticing how the words we use are limited and limiting, and they love finding ways to talk about things that can’t be precisely articulated. This leads many of them to write almost poetically or use wordplay. It also means, unfortunately, that some of them tend to makes things obscure almost for the sake of doing so.

Ricouer has a great interest in hermeneutics (the science of interpretation) which means in this context that he is interested in discovering how the way we interpret everything affects what we think about and express.

I believe Ricouer is the one who formed the phrase “masters of suspicion” to talk about three important philosophic figures in the 1800s, namely, Freud, Marx, and Nietsche. Each practices a “hermeneutic of suspicion”, meaning that they assume that when people make arguments for, say, the existence of God, they are doing so from hidden motives (hidden even to themselves). Therefore, rather than take their statements seriously, the proper response is to show what they really meant, or would have meant, had they known what their words were repressing.

Ricouer analyzes Freud’s hermeneutic of suspicion in the book, and tries to find a way to bring it fruitfully into tension with an opposite hermeneutic, one of faith. When a hermeneutic of suspicion is applied to almost any statement, it starts by viewing it as a mass of self-deception. It attempts to strip away all the falsehood and reduce it to the bare elements from which it sprang. The hermeneutic of suspicion eliminates as much extraneous meaning as it can. It narrows the meaning pretty radically.

Ricouer wants to combine this with a contrary approach, a hermeneutic which instead of stripping away false meaning attempts to find possibilities for as much true meaning as possible. Instead of finding out all the things a statement does not actually say, it attempts to make the statement blossom with meaning. Its aim is to use the text to “open” additional possibilities for us.

To reconcile these two opposite tendencies, Ricouer proposes to use the idea of symbols. A symbol means one thing in a way that really also means another thing. Thus symbols have a dual meaning, and point in two directions at once. Freud sees symbols everywhere – in dreams, in art, in apparently innocent everyday statements, and considers that they all point back to the instincts of the id. Ricouer wants to suggest that at the same time they point forward to the future, toward ideas bigger than ourselves, toward certain ideals and aspirations, toward faith and toward God.

Except that I’m oversimplifying. And except that I may have missed most of what Ricouer said. Seriously, trying to understand this book was one of the biggest challenges I’ve had in a long time. I loved it, and want to read more, but it assumed a philosophical background I don’t have and used terminology according to conventions with which I’m unfamilier. It even used several words I didn’t know at all (“ascesis” and “maieutic” for example)

What fun, anyway!


Would I recommend it? Not to very many people because it would just baffle them :-). Not only is it complicated, but it reaches me because so much of it is personally relevant to my own philosophy of life and faith. I don’t think that would be true for most people.

Would I reread it? Definitely. I need to read this again, because I didn’t understand all that much the first time, and it seems worth understanding. It also makes me want to read other things by Ricouer, because all his books seem connected. I think reading others will help me understand this one.

How would I rate it? High. Maybe 9 out of 10, which is good because I am not sure I ever give 10s to anything.


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