The confessional ethic of humility: An extension of Ricoeur's philosophy of the will

Kevin Wayne Hoffman, Fordham University


In this study the author draws a religious ethic from Paul Ricoeur's early philosophical anthropology, the organizing virtue for which is humility. Although Ricoeur did in fact develop his own ethical point of view in Oneself as Another, this later work is contrasted with an earlier preoccupation with the symbolism of evil that was to inform how one interprets a fully concrete valuing and willing agent. Corresponding to the valuing and willing components of the existential subject, the symbolism of evil indicates a fundamental conflict at the heart ethical desire itself. Each of our cultural aspirations—the desire for pleasure, power, knowledge, institutional life, etc.—display both an archeological tendency and teleological aim. Human desire is both destined for good and inclined toward evil. What Ricoeur argues is that we cannot claim to preside over this conflict of interpretation, suggesting that any ethical reflection which takes the symbolism of evil seriously should incorporate an essentially humble appropriation of its own ideals. To some degree one may conceptually distinguish the destiny of ethical desire from its abuse. But this leads to a greater confusion in the practical life. At the existential level, the constitutive meaning of action cannot be wrested from the conflict of interpretation, which one is tempted to resolve through various phenomenological analyses of what it is we truly want, or would want under ideal conditions. If one makes strong claims concerning actual, historical desires and actions, and does so appealing to such phenomenologies, the result is a modernist prejudice. If one gives presidency to the hidden, accidental, and distorted aspects of the phenomena in question, the result is a postmodernist prejudice. It is precisely these that are both one-sided, ineffectual critiques, which do not do justice to the full range of ethical-religious meaning. The thesis of this study is that an ethic of humility lies beyond this chilly impasse. Such an ethic loosens our grip on claims, both triumphal and despairing, and thereby ennobles the human spirit in a way that is at odds with the rhetoric of much contemporary debate.

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Recommended Citation

Hoffman, Kevin Wayne, "The confessional ethic of humility: An extension of Ricoeur's philosophy of the will" (2000). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9964568.