Life enters our eyes and then reality blurs. The world around us, even the emotions that flood our brains, are subject to our interpretation, to our imagination. They distort as we evaluate them, as we work through our experiences.
The metaphysicist Paul Ricoeur focused on this theory, among connected others, revealing his expertise in the area of hermeneutic phenomenology. Hermeneutic, meaning ‘pertaining to the science of interpretation,’ is a way of looking at the essential properties of experience and consciousness that are studied through systematic reflection, or phenomenology. Ricoeur (1913-2005) was interested in identifying what defines “the self,” or as he liked to put it, “selfhood.” His conclusion, built upon the works of Aristotle and Kant, is that the self is composed of the stories we write to explain what we feel and see. In other words, “you are who you think you are.” Therefore, Ricoeur’s main question, “Who am I?,” can’t ever truly be answered, as the seeker is also the sought (Paul Ricoer, IEP).
This theory can be disheartening, the idea that a person never really understand themselves and that history can never be objective, or it can be satisfying. When I first read about the narrative description of self, something clicked. I’m one to quite obviously, at least to myself, dissect experiences and my reactions to them, trying to make sense of the world and answer Ricoeur’s second main question: “How should I live?” In my view, the narrative theory means that I don’t need to pour energy into discovering my “true” self, as such a thing can never be obtained. Instead, I should work on unifying my narrative, bringing together my thoughts and actions.
Ricoeur was famed “For his capacity in bringing together all the most important themes and indications of 20th century philosophy, and re-elaborating them into an original synthesis” (Paul Ricoeur, Wikipedia). An expert in weaving together different thoughts and fields of study, he was very interested in the paradoxical element of humans; that is, we have a place in the cause and effect world of nature while possessing the amazing quality of freedom of will. Ricoeur recognized the tensions, or fault lines, that pervade the complex human existence, and strived to map them out and identify different sources of instability. He realized that our lives are unstable, ready to shift under us when our story takes a turn, spurred on by external or internal factors.
Poetics, he believed, is the best way for humans to fulfil their need to understand their life.
Or at least that’s what I’ve garnered.