Paul Ricoeur Defends the Concept of Person

Interview with Philosopher on New Ethical Challenges

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ROME, JUNE 29, 2001 (ZENIT.org-AVVENIRE).- Philosopher Paul Ricoeur, 88, is still worried about the recognition of the human person.



"The question of the person has been in my line of speculation for the past 50 years, a question that, in recent times, has become even more urgent, needing further study," the French philosopher said.

--Q: Recently, you have talked about a new identification of the person. Can you tell us about this?

--Ricoeur: In the present massive and global society it is important to understand one another, but also, to make oneself understood. I am only a person when my request to be recognized by another has received a positive reply; therefore, one is never a person on one´s own; one is a person in a reciprocal relation. The "other" is constitutive of personalization.

--Q: What does this mean, specifically?

--It means learning how to recognize oneself, to identify ourselves also as persons to aid in the understanding that others will have of us. Let us consider an emblematic case, that of the relation with immigrants.

Foreigners from all over Africa are coming to Europe, especially from northern [Africa], the Orient and Balkan Europe. If we really want to accept them, beyond the just, necessary and priority rules to be established, we must not only seek to understand them and penetrate their mentality, their psychology, their civilization, but put into practice an authentic inversion of the communicative perspective, that is, to place ourselves in conditions of being understood, in a word, of making ourselves recognized.

Then, to accept others means to reconstruct, also in ourselves, the sense of human belonging: Without the other, on my own, I am no one, at least from the perspective of the community, and we are to the degree that our petition for recognition is accepted.

Naturally, I am not suggesting fusion, the limitation of identity, but the awareness that co-responsibility entails mutual recognition. If we place ourselves in the condition of making ourselves understood, the others will automatically be invested with the responsibility to understand us. This, naturally, is valid for the whole ambit of human, social and political coexistence.

--Q: In fact, today the topic of the person is at the heart of the philosophical debate: Everything seems to be able to be manipulated in the human person, from his physical dimension to the psychological and spiritual. Let us think of the new frontiers in genetics, and of the hypothesis of man´s ability to reproduce [himself]; let us think of the new pharmacological therapies, of the neurological field, or of those connected to the science of plastic surgery. What do you think about this?

--Ricoeur: The man of today has arrived at a threshold: He has the possibility of making fundamental modifications to his own existence, but he can also destroy himself. This is a conquest that marks an unprecedented era in history. However, we must not create excessive alarm.

The issue is to provide oneself with rules. The more man´s power increases, the more the possibilities for good and evil increase. One must not be surprised or discouraged. I do not share the pessimistic position of those who see in scientific progress and in globalization itself, the risk of irreversible catastrophes. Futurology is a relative science, based on considerations that can be expressed at present; the future is not in our hands.

Moreover, in the practical terrain, I think that the real knots that must be untied are not so much general topics, on which agreements are being reached, but on those that we could describe as intermediary, gray, in other words, frontier [issues.

Let us give an example. All are convinced that human cloning is a perspective that is radically foreign to our ethics. Arguments appear around frontier situations, for example, as regards therapeutic cloning.

The dissent between materialists and believers is born, precisely, here. The former think in the sense of existence beginning with science, the latter begin with life.

In order to resolve this type of problems, I would appeal to profound sentiments, reflect on the uniqueness of my body, on the non-repeatability of the individual, on the real irreplaceability of beings. I can improve myself, even physically, in addition to spiritually, but would I accept my replacement? My substitution, the way I am in my conscious and profound identity and unicity? This is the limit.

But, how can I arrive at solutions in this ambit? There is no other way than to broaden the debate, sensitize public opinion so that it will participate, renew the relation between criticism and conviction. The school should teach not only to know and do, but also to live among others and, above all, to be.

--Q: Therefore, the critical conscience of contemporary man is what must be primarily renewed?

--Ricoeur: Certainly. The topics of the present world are complex, often contrasting, and an a priori solution cannot be given. One must work especially in the realm of the possible, which is that of conscience and responsibility, [both] individual and social. However, to work on the human conscience means to give everyone the same instruments of learning and interpretation of the world and of life.

For this [reason], I insist on the principle of co-responsibility. As to the rest, the topics are complex because today´s society is complex, especially Western [society].

Let us take, for example, the market situation. If we want to present the question as an attempt to conciliate economic competitiveness with a new social redistribution of wealth; I think we are moving to an impasse. We must begin from afar, holding high the sense of ethics in politics and solidarity.

In essence, it is about giving renewed meaning to man´s actual way of acting -- for example, by re-evaluating the very meaning of work and also of recreation. Work is not merchandise but, above all, a human dimension. It is, in the end, the great legacy of Western culture, both of Christianity as well as of Enlightenment philosophy, Marxism, modern forms of Socialism; a legacy that must be given worth to re-evaluate the rights to work, in a real market economy.

Today everything, even free time, is a business. We must give back ethical value both to work as well as to free time, detaching ourselves from direct economic correspondence. Then, as a result, the very logic of the market economy will be able to change because it will be man himself who modifies it.