Singularity and Responsibility: A Critical Study of Paul Ricoeur's Moral Anthropology

Date: 4 December 2015

Venue: UAntwerpen, Stadscampus, Willem Elsschotzaal - Prinsstraat 13 - 2000 Antwerpen

Time: 3:00 PM - 5:30 PM

Organization / co-organization: Faculteit Letteren en Wijsbegeerte

PhD candidate: Geoffrey Dierckxsens

Principal investigator: Prof. dr. Arthur Cools

Short description: Doctoraatsverdediging Geoffrey Dierckxsens - Faculteit Letteren en Wijsbegeerte, Departement Wijsbegeerte


This dissertation’s aim is to examine the extent to which Paul Ricoeur’s philosophy should be understood as a moral anthropology. It examines the significance of this anthropology in light of recent developments in moral psychology and moral anthropology in analytical philosophy. Theories in these fields understand moral responsibility in relation to natural moral feelings and empirical data about human action and nature in general (e.g., Vargas 2013, Sinnott-Armstrong 2014, Clarke, McKenna and Smith 2015). Ricoeur, however, argues in favor of a more comprehensive phenomenological and hermeneutical approach to our understanding of what it means to be human, and to be capable of moral responsibility (Ricoeur 1992, 169 ff., Ricoeur 2007, 105 ff.). Yet Ricoeur does not altogether discard empirical knowledge and cognitive science. Instead, he aims to bring together the explanation of empirical data and human nature on the one hand, and the understanding of the motivations of human actions on the other hand (Ricoeur 2007, 135). This dissertation explores the significance of Ricoeur’s non-reductive approach to moral anthropology in light of the growing interest in reductive and naturalistic theories of morality and responsibility. What is the significance of phenomenological-hermeneutical understanding of our lived experiences and human existence for the idea of responsibility and for moral anthropology in general? Should we do away with these experiences and conclude that they are superfluous elements for understanding responsibility and morality, which are simply expressions of human nature?

This dissertation argues that Ricoeur’s moral anthropology demonstrates in a threefold way that the singularity of our concrete lived existence is significant for understanding responsibility, and that moral anthropology should therefore not be reduced to explaining natural feelings only. In developing a critical study of Ricoeur’s moral anthropology this dissertation contends that the idea of responsibility should be understood in relation to (1.) ipseity, (2.) alterity, and (3.) narrativity. Only in being a self (i.e., ipseity) and living through concrete existence with others (i.e., alterity) and with narratives that help defining justice (i.e., narrativity), so this work aims to show, we come to understand the significance of moral actions. I argue that these three ways of understanding responsibility show how humans find common ground in their ethical and moral existence across different cultures. Whereas analytical theories of responsibility explain the causes of moral action in pointing at human nature, so this dissertation contends, those theories fail to understand its motives, which are non-empirical. The task of phenomenological hermeneutics consists then, so I aim to demonstrate in line with Ricoeur, in understanding the motives of human action, which implies interpretation of text and of the self's narrative identity: in encounters with others and in narratives we learn the reasons for being responsible.

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