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Everything is Political, above all Love

"Giving back a 'political place' to love and free giving because in them takes place a recognition of the other of which struggle in itself is not capable"

Last update: 2018-04-10 10:35:48

Book review of Paul Ricœur, Parcours de la reconnaissance. Trois études, Stock, Paris, 2004






The volume Parcours de la reconnaissance represents the last testimony of one of the most significant philosophers of the last century. Taking as his guiding term 'reconaissance' (which means, with a play on words that one cannot render in English, both recognition of oneself and of others and gratitude), a little time before he died Ricœur managed to renew many elements of his long reflection in a way a that is so rich, so convincing and so fascinating that this is rarely to be found in texts of philosophy.



In the final approach, which is that which most clearly bears upon the political terrain as well, Ricœur considers the mutual recognition of individuals as was theorised by Hegel through the notion of the 'struggle for recognition': only by defending one's own existence at the level of ideas is it possible to achieve that leap of quality which in a state community is represented by the mutual recognition of the actors. In this way, Hegel responded to the challenge launched by Hobbes who had founded political science beginning with the assumption of a natural state of struggle of everyone against everyone else, of which the State is not the outcome but rather the antidote.



But is it inevitable for us to conceive recognition itself under the heading of struggle? Ricœur summarises his answer in the following way: 'the alternative to the idea of struggle in the process of mutual recognition must be looked for in the peaceful experiences of mutual gratitude, based upon symbolic mediations withdrawn both from the juridical order and the order of commercial exchange; the exceptional character of these experiences, far from disqualifying them, emphasises their importance and for this reason in itself assures their power of irradiation and fertilisation in the very heart of transactions marked by the seal of struggle' (p. 319).



In this perspective there comes into play, as Ricœur immediately observes, 'love' in its various declinations. But it is in the 'gift' (which Marcel Mauss introduced as a crucial site for the understanding of social relationships) that love finds its entrance to the full into the world of social relationships: the characteristic purity of agápe, which easily spills over into the utopia of an unconditional, pure and total giving, in fact is constantly seen in the experience of a gift, which threads its way through our societies, even though they are juridically and economically organised.



Recognition here not only does not eliminate asymmetry but in a certain sense is nourished by it: in the exchange of gifts each person is recognised by the other but at the same time keeps his position, his identity, and his giving initiative. All of this means giving back a 'political place' to love and free giving because in them takes place, in the final analysis, a recognition of the other of which struggle in itself is not capable. Does this mean that struggle can be eliminated in favour of giving? Ricœur is sceptical about this happy ending but nonetheless believes that struggle has a great deal to gain from giving: 'the struggle for recognition remains perhaps interminable: but at the least the experiences of effective recognition in the exchange of gifts confers on the struggle for recognition the certainty that the motivation that distinguishes it from the thirst for power and taking refuge against the fascination of violence is neither illusory nor vain (p. 355).



Ricœur knows that these issues cross over with crucial points of political life: a brief section dedicated to multiculturalism recognises that the subject of recognition has become of contemporary relevance specifically in relationships of conflict between cultural majorities and minorities (including, for example, those expressed in feminism). And yet Ricœur does want to enter the specificity of such questions in this work because they hinder a descriptive approach and force one to become a observateur engagé, something which perhaps goes beyond the borders of philosophical research.