Feast upon the Word Blog

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Ricoeur’s “The Bible and Imagination” (Part 1)

Posted by Robert C. on November 13, 2007

In Paul Ricoeur’s article “The Bible and Imagination” (from the anthology Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination), Ricoeur talks about the role that imagination plays in reading and interpreting the Bible. Ricoeur admits that coupling the word imagination with the Bible might seem strange—after all, he asks, isn’t the Bible “a closed book, one whose meaning is fixed forever and therefore the enemy of any radically original creation of meaning” (p. 144)? Ricoeur argues against this fixed-meaning approach to the Bible. Instead, he says, “I would like to consider the act of reading as a dynamic activity that is not confined to repeating significations fixed forever, but which takes place as a prolonging of the itineraries of meaning opened up by the work of interpretation” (p. 145).

The word itineraries in this quote is important. This comes from the Latin roots iter and itiner- meaning “a journey, way, road,” and I believe it is the dynamic aspect of this word that Ricoeur is drawing on. That is, when we read a text, we are bringing something that was written in the past into the present. If we do not make this journey from the past to the present, or from the present to the past, then there is a real sense in which the text—or at least the meaning of the text—remains dead to us. This, then, is the space that Ricoeur points to in which imagination plays a vital role in the interpretation of scripture.

For Ricoeur, imagination consists of (1) “a rule-governed form of invention” (it is this reference to rules that limits the otherwise free-for-all scope of imagination), and (2) “the power of redescribing reality” (p. 144). Ricoeur draws on H. Richard Neibuhr’s The Meaning of Revelation to emphasize this redefining role of imag-ination:

The special occasion to which we appeal in the Christian Church is called Jesus Christ, in whom we see the righteousness of God, his power and wisdom. But from that special occasion we also derive the concepts which make possible the elucidation of all the events in our history. Revelation means this intelligible event which makes all other events intelligible. [Ricoeur p. 146, Neibuhr p. 69]

Christ, then, is an image, or paradigm, through which “all the occasions of personal and common life become intelligible (Ricoeur p. 147, Neibuhr p. 80). I think a good way to think about what Ricoeur seems to be getting at is to think about partaking of the sacrament: during the sacrament, we typically think about Christ—his life, his suffering, his love, etc.—and perhaps we might think about, as Alma puts it, whether or not we have “received his image in [our] countenances” (Alma 5:14, 19). This movement or transference of His image onto or into our own countenance is, I think, largely what Ricoeur is getting at with his use of the term “imagination.” If we try to study the scriptures in merely an academic, or historical-critical way, without ever involving ourselves, and hence our own imagination, in the process of interpretation, then the meaning of text remains effectively lifeless for us. We must allow ourselves to somehow be moved by the text, to change the way we view our lives—or, as Ricoeur puts it, “in drawing on the semiotics of texts . . . the notion of intertextuality . . . dynamizes the text, makes meaning move, and gives rise to extensions and transgressions . . . insofar as it makes the text work” (p. 148).

Well, that’s a whirlwind sketch of Ricoeur’s introduction of this paper, and all the time I have for writing this post. In a later post—hopefully after some discussion of these preliminary issues—I’ll sketch the way in which Ricoeur fleshes out this argument by analyzing parables, or narratives embedded in narratives, as Ricoeur characterizes them.

19 Responses to “Ricoeur’s “The Bible and Imagination” (Part 1)”

  1. Clark said

    What Ricouer calls imagination is much more limited than how we typically use the term. It’s much closer to what Peirce calls abduction – roughly the human ability to guess in an informed way that is surprisingly able to get right answers.

  2. Robert C. said

    Thanks Clark, I think you’re right that Ricoeur’s drawing on a somewhat technical use of the term which I’m simply ignorant of. However, in this particular essay it seems he’s drawing on a somewhat broader use of the term that Neibuhr uses—or did you also have Neibuhr and/or this essay by Ricoeur specifically in mind with your comment? When I get time, I’ll try to quote in more length the passage where he quotes Neibuhr’s use of the term.

  3. Joe Spencer said

    I’m getting around to this, Robert… tomorrow?

  4. Clark said

    Well standard caveats apply. It’s been some time since I last read Ricouer. (Indeed its unfortunately been some months since I last had time to closely read philosophy) That warning in place let me acknowledge that I may simply be reading (or recalling) Ricoeur through the lens of an almost Eco like view of semiotics. Lest I be accused perhaps making Ricoeur too much into Peirce let me defend this reading.

    For Ricoeur imagination is key since it is only through imagination that historic events (the past) can be grasped. That is to see the American Revolution, for example, as the American Revolution (that is put it in a narrative) we have to use imagination. This imagination is what enables something to be contextualized and given meaning.

    Yet for Peirce this is precisely the role that abduction plays. We take a sign and in understanding it we place it is a setting where it has meaning. Yet this meaning is temporary. Ideally we should continue to inquiry (which for Peirce much more than perhaps Ricoeur – although perhaps that’s unfair) entails empirical testing. This is what James calls the cash value of an idea. That is what does an idea do. But for an idea to do anything it has to be placed within the realm of our understand. We do this instinctively so we usually aren’t aware of doing it. Just as in a Ricoeurean sense we exercise imagination whether we’re necessarily aware of it.

    Since for Ricoeur (following Heidegger) we are always already in a world our function is roughly to bring into this world the objects we encounter. Thus for instance in encountering a paint brush I bring it into meaning by bringing into the world of painting. (To give but one example) In Peircean terms I’ve made a guess which is not just a random guess but which is a special kind of guess that is apt to be right simply because of the kind of beings we are. For Peirce he probably wouldn’t talk about a world the way Heidegger does. But he will talk about the practical implications of holding an idea as something. These practical implications are the kinds of tests we’d engage in to see if our idea was right. Thus if I hypothesize an object as a paint brush I can try painting with it, I can try cleaning it, I can try asking painters about it, I can look in books about painting, and so forth.

    What I’m getting at is that imagination for Ricoeur is key to separating out what one might call the closed text from the open text. Imagination ends up being on the very boundary between the two. We don’t have a fully open text. That is we can not say anything goes. (Thus the kind of laissez faire hermeneutics that bad “post-modernism” aspires to is rejected) Yet neither can we say it is a purely closed text. That is we face a kind of underdetermination. Meaning is not fixed forever by a pre-established, complete, simply finite, and immutable rules. We have rules, but they are much more complex than some suggest. This is not like doing a simple geometry proof.

  5. Clark said

    To get back to the topic, I think this notion of imaginative play as Peircean abduction is very useful in a Mormon context. The scriptures don’t have a fixed meaning but can be endlessly queried. Yet we do not control the interpretation. (The way a free wheeling relativist might assert) As the Bible says, the scriptures are not of private interpretation. I don’t get to control it. Yet in interrogating the scriptures I am brought into a state where the spirit can work through me to bring to light (to en-world) ideas that were hidden to me.

    Thus, for instance, Joseph Smith in reading James is brought to the point where he can ask God which brings about the First Vision. He most likely understood well before that time that we could ask God. Yet it was brought to him in a fashion tied up in practices and understanding that it was not brought to before. Events became intelligible in a fashion they simply were not before that point. In the same way that reading about painting and acting on that and actually taking up the paint brush are different kinds of intelligibility.

    So I think I’m still adopting a very wide ranging view. When Ricoeur talks about intertextuality we can see Joseph Smith doing this. A certain class of texts (say his conflicts and questions with the clerics of the time) is brought in contact with an other (James) and something new occurs. A new event of understanding.

    While we see this as profound in the example of say Joseph Smith the fact is that this process is typically at work. I don’t want to say it is always at work since I think what we end up with is roughly the distinction between the authentic and inauthentic in the middle period of Heidegger.

  6. douglas Hunter said

    The idea of imagination figures prominently in the work of Walter Brueggemann both in terms of how we conceptualize and understand scriptural concepts and as a characteristic of the believer and community. I’m certain that he is aware of / influenced by Neibuhr’s ideas about it.

    In any case I think the idea of imagination has special significance for us as mormons, Robert your ref. to Alma is a great case in point. I also think that imagination or at least a creative act of reading is required when engaging stories such as the flood or the tower of Bable. Isn’t the meaning and purpose of such stories directly related to our ability to imagine them and the ways in which we do so?

  7. Robert C. said

    Clark, these are very helpful comments. I’ll respond more carefully when I have more time (probably not for a couple days).

    Douglas, thanks for bringing up Brueggemann. I’ve really enjoyed the first couple chapters of his Old Testament Theology, and I’m anxious to read more of his work, esp. on imagination (his Texts Under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination is in my to-read stack of books…).

  8. douglas Hunter said

    I found texts under negotiation to be problematic in its theoretical discussion but better on the application side, when he discusses funding the post modern imagination.

  9. Robert C. said

    Douglas (or anyone else), is there something else by Brueggemann that you would recommend more strongly than Texts Under Negotiation? Perhaps The Prophetic Imagination?

  10. cherylem said

    Robert and all,
    I’ve been preoccupied the last little bit, but I want to just let you know how much I appreciate this post. Thanks for taking the time to write this, and for others of you that have commented further.

  11. Jim F. said

    Robert, this is a first-rate summary of Ricoeur’s position, and Clark’s explanation of what imagination means in this context helps make it even better. I will use this in my class next semester. Thanks.

  12. Joe Spencer said

    I hope to be getting around to this later this afternoon.

    In the meanwhile, I’ve just posted a rather lengthy critique (in two comments) of Sam Houston’s paper, mentioned by s james in the “borderline thread” (here). It might be a help to this discussion as well, since it offers a broader perspective on Ricoeur’s work.

  13. douglas Hunter said

    Robert I do think that “texts” is worth a read, I just think the first part is weak. I like Finally Comes the Poet, I also like his essay in struggling with Scripture. As well as his intro to the OT. I have not yet read Prophetic Imagination but look forward to doing so.

    I look forward to your further posts on the topic of imagination, and any thoughts you have regarding the specifics of the Mormon context.

  14. Joe Spencer said

    Well, at last I’ve had time to get around to reading the first part of Ricoeur’s paper… though I’ve managed to let it slide until Robert seems to have disappeared from the discussion (well, everyone else too!), but I have a number of thoughts.

    First, it is worth saying that when I suggested we discuss this paper, I suppose I had forgotten how remarkably rich this paper really is. Having only just read through part I of it, I’m struck by how promising Ricoeur’s (half-finished) paper is.

    Robert, thanks for the summary above. I especially appreciate your freeing up of the word “itineraries” and you discussion of the image in imagination. This makes Ricoeur’s discussion of Neibuhr so much the more accessible. And thank, Clark, for forcing me to think about all of this in terms of Peirce, whom I’ve never studied carefully but have constantly told myself I need to study.

    All that said, I’d like to draw out what seems to me to be—structurally—the most important aspect of Ricoeur’s part I.

    Ricoeur almost always begins his papers with a numerical list of his presuppositions (oh how I wish we as Latter-day Saints could begin to do something like that!). Here, the presuppositions number 4. Importantly, the fourth presupposition reinterprets the first three in a very helpful way and establishes a backwards trajectory that runs through them: Ricoeur aims only to ground and justify the third presupposition in this paper, but he sees it opening the possibility of turning to a thorough discussion of the second, and he sees that opening the possibility of turning to a discussion of the first. Part II of the paper, then, is meant to be a fleshing out of presupposition 3, with an aim to laying the groundwork for the interpretation of presuppostision 1 and 2.

    This is important, I think, for recognizing the relationship between what Ricoeur is going to do and the insights Robert has provided us with in his summary: Ricoeur is not going to discuss what Robert has in any direct way, but is instead going to take up the theme of intertextuality in an attempt to ground the possibility of discussing what Robert has. In other words, Robert’s discussion is, Ricoeur might say, yet to be grounded, yet to be given its meaning. Another way this could be said is this: what you have begun to sort out here, Robert, is as yet without bearings, though the idea is rich enough. Part II of the paper is meant to give ground, meaning, and, I think, a kind of methodology to the very ideas you’ve begun to flesh out.

    The precise methodology Ricoeur plans to employ, interestingly enough, is intertextuality. I think this paper is striking me as so much richer than I remembered precisely because of this linkage between imagination and intertextuality: it is as texts speak through each other that the image-ination is freed. What that means can only be clarified in the second part of the paper.

    And this means, I think, that we can be all the better prepared to follow the real richness of the remainder of the study if we keep an eye to (1) the forced intertextuality of the LDS scriptural position (we have so many different but obviously intertied texts); (2) the theme of typology, according to which an event imposes a governing image on previously or otherwisely written texts, thus free image-ination as Robert has described it; and (3) the stricter sense of intertextuality as it is used in, say, Kristeva’s work, where it allows us to read, for example, Freud in Oedipus, and not just, say, Christ in Isaiah.

    I’m quite excited to see what comes of this discussion of intertextuality!

  15. Robert C. said

    Thanks, Joe and Douglas, I hope to get back to this thread more carefully in the next couple days or so, sorry for being a bit MIA this week….

  16. Robert C. said

    OK, finally, to get back to some dangling threads in this thread:

    Clark 1, 4, & 5, I’m quite intrigued by this Peircean take on imagination, and I think you’re right that there are interesting and important similarities (Ricoeur cites Peirce himself on p. 150). However, my sense is that there is a very important distinction underlying Peirce’s thought and Ricoeur’s. From the SEP article you linked to above, here is a description of Peirce’s anti-foundationalist, yet inherently idealist notion of truth:

    No matter where different researchers may begin, as long as they follow the scientific method, their results will eventually converge toward the same result. (The pragmatic conception of meaning implies that two theories with exactly the same empirical content must have, despite superficial appearances, the same meaning.) This ideal point of convergence is what Peirce means by “the truth,” and “reality” is simply what is meant by “the truth.”

    It seems to me that Ricoeur is talking, not about meaning that converges, but meaning that extends and is brought to life by the reader. So, when you talk in terms of “get[ting] right answers” (#1) or that “it is only through imagination that historic events (the past) can be grasped” (#2), or even that “we face a kind of underdetermination” in interpreting a text, this somehow strikes me presupposing a kind of absolute, convergent type of reality that undermines the kind of extension of meaning that Ricoeur seems to be getting at.

    Perhaps another way to state my objection to a Peircean reading of Ricoeur (as I understand it, which is very, very tenuous!), is that I read the word “productive” in Ricoeur’s phrase “productive imagination” more radically than I think Peirce would. That is, it seems to me that Ricoeur is thinking in terms of infinite meanings that can be produced in the reader-text encounter through the “prolonging of the itineraries of meaning opened up by the work of interpretation” (as I quoted in the post). This is, I think, what Ricoeur is hinting at when he talks about the “transition from semiotic interpretation to existential interpretation” at the very end of the article (p. 166)—something he only points to, but doesn’t develop in this article.

    I think Joe’s #14 also hints at this kind of a distinction in his linking imagination to typology, and talking in terms of an image-ination that is freed by intertextuality. This However, I really need to read more about Peirce’s “semeiotics”—I’ll try to address this more carefully when I write a follow-up post on this article (hopefully later this week…).

  17. s james said

    Thanks Joe, for reducing the reading load and getting to some of the key constructs quickly, particularly ‘intertextuality’ and the rule-governed or encoded imagination.

    I’ll be interested in the rest of your commentary, for I find some of these sections to be quite dense. I wasn’t aware that Ricouer employed semiotics, in fact it seems in my limited view to be an interesting turn, particularly the way he uses it in his project of constructing a metaphoric relation between the parables of the Wicked Husbandmen and the Sower.

    What did catch my attention were his comments on intertextuality and his theory of metaphor (p161), notably, how isolated texts ‘signify something else, something more’ as they are combined ‘within the limits of one text'(p161). and his ‘The text interprets before having been interpreted’. Here he appears to be saying that interpretation is prefigured in this intertextuality (and not in the world of the reader). Is this his bridge across the big issue of reference – referentiality?

    I didn’t realise how much of a structuralist Ricouer was,(not that there’s anything wrong with that). Though he does attempt to free himself from ‘univocal levels of discourse’ (p163,note 22).

    The semiosis of intertextuality is exploited to the point where it appears to involve the parabolization of the entire Gospel of Mark into what Ricoeur refers to as a’homologue’ of the narrative-parable (p163): the meta-narrative (‘the encompassing narrative’)’the life of the word occurs through the death of the body’ (p163).

    I’m interested in his notion that the meta-narrative ‘signifies the destiny of the one who tells the parables and whose life is told by the Gospel’ – and what he refers to as ‘the exchange between the personages of the embedded narrative and the person who tells it’. Where is that going?

    What appears to be happening is that through semiosis, (intertextuality and attendant intersignification), the embedding of the parable within the meta-narrative (‘the encompassing narrative’) intensifies the meanings (categories) of the parable – until it reaches the ‘horizon of structuration’, the point where Ricoeur says that there is ‘no longer intertextuality … that is at work … being carried beyond itself by the meaning vectors of the enigma-expressions’ (p165)

    Ricoeur connects this with the world of the Reader by saying that the function of enigma-expressions (expressions with are puzzling, or mysterious eg kingdom of God)is to configure (or reconfigure) our religious experiences; that such expressions become endowed with broader ‘referential intentionality’ while still being artifacts of the text. In actuality, it is an artifact of this kind of semiotic work on the text

    Metaphorisation through intertextuality is an interesting notion, one that contends with the analytics of critical theory which tends not to stay with its objects, focusing rather on the conditions of their production, their gaps and silences. In this case Riceuor stays with the object of analysis and works it.

    There are still some things for me to work through here before I think I could employ this kind of analysis, particularly the semiotic moves – these have to be carefully considered.

  18. Joe Spencer said

    Marvelous questions and comments, s. I’ll be getting around to reading the remainder of this during the break.

  19. […] by Robert C. on December 3, 2007 In my previous post on this article of Ricoeur’s, I tried to draw an analogy between Ricoeur’s use of the […]

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