A dense—and often deeply challenging read—this book of Ricoeur’s Gifford Lectures, delivered at Edinburgh in 1986, is a stimulating examination of the role of personal identity and presents a brilliant insight into Ricouer’s own views on subjectivity and the hermeneutics of the self.
According to Ricoeur, selfhood, far from referring to something concrete, discrete and fully understood, implies otherness to an unacknowledged degree. To speak of “the self” implies a relationship between the same and the other (illustrated via Ricoeur’s opening remarks on the grammar of French, German and English) which the Cartesian cogito (“I think, therefore I am”) does not include. Unlike the cogito, which functions as a statement of knowledge, the hermeneutics of the self can only lead to an attestation of truth. However, Ricoeur claims that such an attestation of belief is not inferior to knowledge, but merely expresses a different type of certainty.
The attesting of belief is a form of testimony, whereby the individual self, a verbal sign and assurance that the self believes in the truth of what it claims. From this defense of attestation Ricoeur moves on to discuss the dialectic relationship between selfhood and sameness. Sameness denotes a numerical identity, a qualitative identity or it may also denote an uninterrupted continuity. Selfhood, on the other hand, refers to the identity which belongs to one self and not another, or, more interestingly, one self as another.
According to Ricouer our narrative identity is defined by the complex interplay between sameness and selfhood. The identity of an individual within a narrative is their narrative identity and to be in possession of such an identity implies a capacity for action. Furthermore, a character in a narrative is an individual who may be re-identified as being the same. This becomes more complex as Ricoeur moves on to his discussion of responsibility. For a self to be responsible, it must be the same self which is believed to be the acting agent in any given situation, but still capable of change. Ricoeur singularly manages to turn the self into the self as other with the deliberate aim of provoking a new ethical awareness. Personal identity is inseparable from ethics (the aims of our personal behaviour) and morals (how this behaviour is carried out in the social realm.)
Ricoeur’s careful untangling of the self allows the reader to see how conception of selfhood materially impact how we treat others. Understanding oneself as another involves treating the Other when encountered in the world with empathy and respect – a new “solicitude” rather than any kind of moral solipsism whereby not only can we see ourselves as another, but we can also see the other as ourselves.