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Paul Rincoeur

Paul Ricoeur

Acceptance speech of Paul Ricoeur - December 2004

Asserting Personal Capacities and Pleading for Mutual Recognition

The prize with which I have been honored by the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress and for which I extend my sincere thanks, is motivated by the humanism attributed to my life's work by these generous benefactors. The reflections that follow are devoted to examing some of the bases of this humanism.

My title is twofold: it designates, on the one hand, the capacities that a human agent attributes to himself and, on the other, the recourse to others required to give to this personal certainty a social status. The stakes shared by both poles of this duality are those of personal identity. I identify myself by my capacities, by what I can do. The individual designates himself as a capable human being--and we must add, as a suffering human being, to underscore the vulnerability of the human condition.

Capacities can be observed from outside, but they are fundamentally felt, lived in the mode of certainty. The latter is not a belief, considered a lesser degree of knowledge. It is rather a confident assurance, akin to testimony. I am speaking here of attestation: attestation relates to the self as testimony relates to an event, a meeting, an accident.

It is possible to establish a typology of basic capacities, at the intersection of the innate and the acquired. These basic powers constitute the primary foundation of humanity, in the sense of the human as opposed to the nonhuman. Change, which is an aspect of identity--that of ideas and things--reveals a dramatic aspect on the human level, which is that of a personal history entangled in the innumerable histories of our companions in existence. Personal identity is marked by a temporality that can be called constitutive. The person is his or her history. In the typological outline I am proposing, I consider in turn the capacity to say, the capacity to act, the capacity to recount, to which I add, imputability and promising. In this vast panorama of capacities affirmed and exercised by the human agent, the main accent shifts from what seems at first a morally neutral pole to an explicitly moral pole, where the capable subject attests to himself as a responsible subject. A few words about each of these capacities: By "the power to say" I mean a more specific capacity than the general gift of language expressed in the plurality of languages, each with its morphology, lexicon, syntax, and rhetoric. The power to say is the ability spontaneously to produce a reasoned discourse. In discourse someone says something to someone in accordance with common rules. "Saying something" is the sense; "about something" is the reference to the extralinguistic; "to someone" is the address, the basis of conversation. By the "power to act" I mean the capacity to produce events in society and in nature. This intervention transforms the notion of events, which are not only what occurs. It introduces human contingency, uncertainty, and unpredictibility into the course of affairs.

The "power to recount" occupies a pre-eminent place among the capacities inasmuch as events of every kind become discernable and intelligible only when recounted in stories; the age-old art of recounting stories, when applied to oneself, produces life narratives articulated in the works of historians. Emplotment marks a bifurcation in identity itself. Identity is no longer simply sameness. In self-identity, change is integrated as peripeteia. We can then speak of a narrative identity: it is that of the plot of a narrative that remains unfinished and open to the possibility of being recounted differently, and also of being recounted by others.

Imputability constitutes what is clearly a moral capacity. A human agent is held to be the genuine author of his acts, regardless of the force of organic and physical causes. Imputability, assumed by the agent, makes him responsible, capable of ascribing to himself his portion of the consequences. If harm is done to others, the way is opened to reparation and to final sanction.

Promising is possible on this basis. The subject commits himself by his word and says that he will do what he says. The promise limits the unpredictibility of the future, at the risk of betrayal. The subject must keep his promise--or break it. He thereby engages the promise of the promise, that of keeping his word, of being faithful.


At first sight these basic capacities do not imply any demand for recognition on the part of others, the certainty of being able to do something is private. To be sure. Yet each of them requires a vis-à-vis. Discourse is addressed to someone capable of responding, questioning, entering into conversation and dialogue. Action occurs in conjunction with other agents, who can help or hinder. The narrative assembles multiple protagonists within a single plot. A life story is made up of a multitude of other life stories. As for imputability, frequently raised by accusation, I am responsible before others. More narrowly, it makes the powerful responsible for the weak and the vulnerable. Finally, promising calls for a witness who receives it and records it. What is more, its end is the good of others, when it is not aiming at wrongdoing and revenge. What is missing, however, in this listing of how others are implied in the private certainty of the capacity to act, is reciprocity, mutuality, which alone allow us to speak of recognition in the strong sense.

This mutuality is not given spontaneously; that is why it is demanded. And this demand is not without conflict or struggle. The idea of a struggle for recognition is at the heart of modern social relations. The myth of the state of nature accords to competition, to defiance, to the arrogant affirmation of solitary glory, the role of foundation and of origin. In this war of all against all, the fear of violent death would reign supreme. This pessimism concerning the ground of human nature goes hand-in-hand with praise of the absolute power of a sovereign who remains outside the contract of submission made by citizens delivered from fear. The denial of recognition is thus inscribed within the institution. An initial recourse to reciprocity can be found in a feature just as original as the war of all against all--in a natural right in which an equal respect would be recognized in all the parties to the social compact. The moral character of the social bond could then be held to be irreducible. What natural right does not recognize is the place of struggle in the conquest of equality and justice, the role of negative conduct in the motivation leading to struggle: lack of consideration, humiliation, disdain, to say nothing of violence in all its physical and psychological forms.

The struggle for recognition is pursued on several levels. It begins on the level of affective relations tied to the transmission of life, to sexuality, and to descendents. It is at its height in the intersection of the vertical relations of a genealogy and the horizontal relations of conjugality in the framework of the family.

This struggle for recognition is pursued on the juridical plane of the rights of civil society, centered on the ideas of liberty, justice, and solidarity. Rights cannot be claimed on my behalf unless they are recognized in the same way for others. This extension of individual capacities belonging to legal persons concerns not only the enumeration of their civic rights but widens the sphere of application to new categories of individuals and powers previously scorned. This extension is the occasion for conflicts stemming from exclusions due to social inequalities but also those arising from forms of discrimination inherited from the past that still afflict various minorities. Disdain and humiliation, however, infect the social bond at a level that surpasses rights; this concerns social esteem directed to personal value and to the capacity to pursue happiness in accordance with one's own conception of the good life. This struggle for esteem occurs in the context of different spheres of life: at work, the struggle to prevail, to protect one's rank in the hierarchy of authority; at home, relations of neighborhood and proximity, together with all the many encounters that make up daily life. It is always personal capacities that demand to be recognized by others.


The question then arises whether the social bond is constituted only in the struggle for recognition or whether there is not also at the origin a sort of good will tied to the resemblance of one person to another in the great human family.

We have an inkling of this in the dissatisfaction that the practice of struggle leaves in us. The demand for recognition expressed in this struggle is insatiable: when will we receive sufficient recognition? This quest involves something like a bad infinity. Yet it is also a fact that we experience actual recognition in a peaceful mode. The model is found in the ceremonial exchange of gifts in traditional societies. This ritualized exchange is not to be confused with the market exchange consisting in buying and selling in the context of a contract of exchange. The logic of the exchange of gifts is a logic of reciprocity that creates mutuality; it consists in the call to give in return contained in the act of giving. Where does this obligation come from? Certain sociologists have sought in the item exchanged a magical force that makes the gift circulate and makes it return to its starting point. I prefer to follow those who see in the exchange of gifts a recognition of each by the other, a recognition unaware of itself as such, and symbolized in the thing exchanged which becomes its pledge. This indirect recognition would be the peaceful counterpart to the struggle for recognition. In it, the mutuality of the social bond would find its expression. Not that the obligation to give back creates a dependence of the receiver with regard to the giver, but the gesture of giving would be the invitation to a similar generosity. This chain of acts of generosity is the model of a genuine experience of recognition without struggle that finds expression in all the truces of our struggles, in the armistices that, in particular, constitute the compromises issuing from negotiations between social partners.

In addition to this practice of compromise, the formation of the political bond that makes us citizens of a historical community perhaps does not stem solely from a concern with security and the defense of the particular interests of this community, but from something like a "political friendship," one that is essentially peaceful. A more visible trace of the ceremonial exchange of gifts remains in the practices of generosity that, in our societies, continue alongside market exchanges. Giving remains a common gesture that escapes the objection of calculated self-interest: it depends on the one who receives the gift to respond to the one who gives it by a similar gesture of generosity. This disinterestedness finds its public expression in holidays, in celebrations with family and friends. The festive in general is heir in our market societies to the ceremony of the gift, interrupting the market and tempering its brutality as it brings its peace into this sphere. This intertwining of struggle and celebration is perhaps the indication of an absolutely primitive relation at the source of the social bond linking the defiance of the war of all against all with the good will that arises from the encounter with the other, my fellow human being.

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