Master class in the art of acting fairly

Reflections on the Just
September 21, 2007

The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur was one of the great intellectual peacemakers. In a career that lasted 60 years he produced dozens of books and hundreds of articles, but his basic method was always the same. He would identify some divisive philosophical issue, analyse it with lucidity and unobtrusive erudition, and then explain why each side was largely justified, except for its claim that the other side was wrong.

He ranged from Plato, Aristotle and Augustine to Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard and Freud, together with their modern adversaries and partisans, and it is hard to think of any great 20th-century debate that was not clarified by his tactful and self-effacing diplomacy. For Ricoeur, philosophical wisdom consisted in acceptance of paradox, and in learning to welcome the clash of interpretations as part of our complex human fate. When he died in 2005 at the age of 92, the world lost not only a great thinker, but also a kind of ideal, one-person United Nations of the mind.

Ricoeur had an abiding interest in politics, and if it was not as histrionic as that of colleagues and contemporaries such as Sartre, Lacan or de Beauvoir, it was no less tenacious or brave. He was active in a Protestant student group in the 1930s; as a prisoner of war in Germany he devoted himself to the study of German philosophy, for fear that its calm intelligence might be drowned by the clamour of self-righteous ideologies; and from 1966 to 1970 he pioneered a new departure in French higher education at the experimental University of Nanterre.

In Oneself as Another (1990), the major work of his later years, he explained the necessity of politics by associating it with an essential tension between "ethics", meaning the quest for a happy and worthy life, and "morality", meaning the obligation to obey certain universal standards of good conduct. The inherent challenge of politics, he concluded, lay in the fact that morality itself can be a source of harm, obliging us to improvise new ways of treating each other without any guide except a fallible sense of "critical solicitude".

The classic word for this skill is "justice", meaning the ability to judge inventively as opposed to following predetermined recipes. Justice , as Ricoeur saw it, involves "the art of a fair decision in situations of uncertainty and conflict, hence in the tragic setting of action". He explored the theme in a collection of essays, The Just , in 1995, and returned to it in one of his last published works, now translated as Reflections on the Just .

This book includes a range of close encounters with other theorists, notably Max Weber and Charles Taylor, together with detailed discussions of issues in "applied ethics" relating to medicine, politics and law; but the weightiest section is a series of studies of law, authority and morality which culminates, with the quiet panache that is typical of Ricoeur, in an apt but unexpected essay on the art of translation.

Ricoeur recalls that the diversity of human languages can transform the marvels of mutual communication into the terrors of utter incomprehension; but if philosophers are liable to conclude that translation is impossible, that does not prevent translators from getting on with it every day. Translation, to borrow a phrase from the American philosopher Donald Davidson, is "theoretically hard but practically easy": if you do not understand someone else's language, all you need do is learn it. But translation is also like mourning - a self-denying labour that succeeds only when it confirms the irretrievability of what has been lost. And it resembles justice as well: there can never be any formula that will guarantee getting it right, and the only valid criticism consists in suggesting definite alternatives.

The "linguistic hospitality" required of good translators corresponds to the generosity required of all of us in morality and politics. We must attend to strangeness and vulnerability in the familiar as well as the foreign, in ourselves as well as others, taking care to "preserve distance in proximity". It is an art that, even in this small gathering of late essays, Ricoeur practised to perfection.

Jonathan Rée is visiting professor of philosophy at Roehampton University.

Reflections on the Just

Author - By Paul Ricoeur
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 240
Price - £16.00
ISBN - 9780226713458
Translator - David Pellauer

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