Time and Narrative, Volume 1

Time and Narrative, Volume 1

by Paul Ricoeur

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Time and Narrative builds on Paul Ricoeur's earlier analysis, in The Rule of Metaphor, of semantic innovation at the level of the sentence. Ricoeur here examines the creation of meaning at the textual level, with narrative rather than metaphor as the ruling concern.

Ricoeur finds a "healthy circle" between time and narrative: time is humanized


Time and Narrative builds on Paul Ricoeur's earlier analysis, in The Rule of Metaphor, of semantic innovation at the level of the sentence. Ricoeur here examines the creation of meaning at the textual level, with narrative rather than metaphor as the ruling concern.

Ricoeur finds a "healthy circle" between time and narrative: time is humanized to the extent that it portrays temporal experience. Ricoeur proposes a theoretical model of this circle using Augustine's theory of time and Aristotle's theory of plot and, further, develops an original thesis of the mimetic function of narrative. He concludes with a comprehensive survey and critique of modern discussions of historical knowledge, understanding, and writing from Aron and Mandelbaum in the late 1930s to the work of the Annales school and that of Anglophone philosophers of history of the 1960s and 1970s.

"This work, in my view, puts the whole problem of narrative, not to mention philosophy of history, on a new and higher plane of discussion."—Hayden White, History and Theory

"Superb. . . . A fine point of entrance into the work of one of the eminent thinkers of the present intellectual age."—Joseph R. Gusfield, Contemporary Sociology

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Time and Narrative Volume I

By Paul Ricoeur, Kathleen McLaughlin, David Pellauer

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1984 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-71351-9


The Aporias of the Experience of Time Book 11 of Augustine's Confessions

The major antithesis around which my reflection will revolve finds its sharpest expression toward the end of Book 11 of Augustine's Confessions. Two features of the human soul are set in opposition to one another, features which the author, with his marked taste for sonorous antithesis, coins intentio and distentio animi. It is this contrast that I shall later compare with that of muthos and peripeteia in Aristotle.

Two prior remarks have to be made. First, I begin my reading of Book 11 of the Confessions at chapter 14:17 with the question: "What, then, is time?" I am not unaware that the analysis of time is set within a meditation on the relations between eternity and time, inspired by the first verse of Genesis, in principio fecit Deus.... In this sense, to isolate the analysis of time from this meditation is to do violence to the text, in a way that is not wholly justified by my intention to situate within the same sphere of reflection the Augustinian antithesis between intentio and distentio and the Aristotelian antithesis between muthos and peripeteia. Nevertheless, a certain justification can be found for this violence in Augustine's own reasoning, which, when it is concerned with time, no longer refers to eternity except to more strongly emphasize the ontological deficiency characteristic of human time and to wrestle directly with the aporias afflicting the conception of time as such. In order to right somewhat this wrong done to Augustine's text, I shall reintroduce the meditation on eternity at a later stage in the analysis with the intention of seeking in it an intensification of the experience of time.

Second, isolated from the meditation on eternity, due to the artifice in method to which I have just admitted, the Augustinian analysis of time offers a highly interrogative and even aporetical character which none of the ancient theories of time, from Plato to Plotinus, had carried to such a degree of acuteness. Not only does Augustine, like Aristotle, always proceed on the basis of aporias handed down by the tradition, but the resolution of each aporia gives rise to new difficulties which never cease to spur on his inquiry. This style, where every advance in thinking gives rise to a new difficulty, places Augustine by turns in the camp of the skeptics, who do not know, and in that of the Platonists and Neoplatonists, who do know. Augustine is seeking (the verb quaerere, we shall see, appears repeatedly throughout the text). Perhaps one must go so far as to say that what is called the Augustinian thesis on time, and which I intentionally term a psychological thesis in order to distinguish it from that of Aristotle and even from that of Plotinus, is itself more aporetical than Augustine would admit. This, in any case, is what I shall attempt to show.

These two initial remarks have to be joined together. Inserting an analysis of time within a meditation on eternity gives the Augustinian search the peculiar tone of a "lamentation" full of hope, something which disappears in an analysis that isolates what is properly speaking the argument on time. But it is precisely in separating the analysis of time from its backdrop of eternity that its aporetical features can be brought out. Of course, this aporetical mode differs from that of the skeptics in that it does not disallow some sort of firm certitude. But it also differs from that of the Neoplatonists in that the assertive core can never be apprehended simply in itself outside of the aporias it engenders.

This aporetical character of the pure reflection on time is of the utmost importance for all that follows in the present investigation. And this is so in two respects.

First, it must be admitted that in Augustine there is no pure phenomenology of time. Perhaps there never will be one. Hence, the Augustinian "theory" of time is inseparable from the argumentative operation by which this thinker chops off, one after the other, the continually self-regenerating heads of the hydra of skepticism. As a result, there is no description without a discussion. This is why it is extremely difficult—and perhaps impossible—to isolate a phenomenological core from the mass of argumentation. The "psychological solution" attributed to Augustine is perhaps neither a "psychology" which could be isolated from the rhetoric of argumentation nor even a "solution" which could be removed once and for all from the aporetical domain.

This aporetical style, in addition, takes on a special significance in the overall strategy of the present work. A constant thesis of this book will be that speculation on time is an inconclusive rumination to which narrative activity alone can respond. Not that this activity solves the aporias through substitution. If it does resolve them, it is in a poetical and not a theoretical sense of the word. Emplotment, I shall say below, replies to the speculative aporia with a poetic making of something capable, certainly, of clarifying the aporia (this will be the primary sense of Aristotelian catharsis), but not of resolving it theoretically. In one sense Augustine himself moves toward a resolution of this sort. The fusion of argument and hymn in Part I of Book 11—which I am at first going to bracket—already leads us to understand that a poetical transfiguration alone, not only of the solution but of the question itself, will free the aporia from the meaninglessness it skirts.

The Aporia of the Being and the Nonbeing of Time

The notion of distentio animi, coupled with that of intentio, is only slowly and painfully sifted out from the major aporia with which Augustine is struggling, that of the measurement of time. This aporia itself, however, is inscribed within the circle of an aporia that is even more fundamental, that of the being or the nonbeing of time. For what can be measured is only what, in some way, exists. We may deplore the fact if we like, but the phenomenology of time emerges out of an ontological question: quid est enim tempus? ("What, then, is time?" [11 14:17].) As soon as this question is posed, all the ancient difficulties regarding the being and the nonbeing of time surge forth. But it is noteworthy that, from the start, Augustine's inquisitive style imposes itself. On the one hand, the skeptical argument leans toward non-being, while on the other hand a guarded confidence in the everyday use of language forces us to say that, in some way, which we do not yet know how to account for, time exists. The skeptical argument is well-known: time has no being since the future is not yet, the past is no longer, and the present does not remain. And yet we do speak of time as having being. We say that things to come will be, that things past were, and that things present are passing away. Even passing away is not nothing. It is remarkable that it is language usage that provisionally provides the resistance to the thesis of nonbeing. We speak of time and we speak meaningfully about it, and this shores up an assertion about the being of time. "We certainly understand what is meant by the word both when we use it ourselves and when we hear it used by others" (14:15).

However, if it is true that we speak of time in a meaningful way and in positive terms (will be, was, is), our powerlessness to explain how this comes about arises precisely from this certitude. Talk about time certainly resists the skeptical argument, but language is itself put into question by the gap between the "that" and the "how." We know by heart the cry uttered by Augustine on the threshold of his meditation: "What, then, is time? I know well enough what it is, provided that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled" (14:17). In this way the ontological paradox opposes language not only to the skeptical argument but to itself. How can the positive quality of the verbs "to have taken place," "to occur," "to be," be reconciled with the negativity of the adverbs "no longer," "not yet," "not always"? The question is thus narrowed down. How can time exist if the past is no longer, if the future is not yet, and if the present is not always?

Onto this initial paradox is grafted the central paradox from which the theme of distension will emerge. How can we measure that which does not exist? The paradox of measurement is a direct result of the paradox of the being and nonbeing of time. Here again language is a relatively sure guide. We speak of a long time and a short time and in a certain way we observe its length and take its measurement (cf. the aside in 15:19, where the soul addresses itself: "for we are gifted with the ability to feel and measure intervals [moras] of time. What is the answer to be?"). What is more, it is only of the past and of the future that we say that they are long or short. In anticipation of the "solution" of the aporia, it is indeed of the future that we say that it shortens and of the past that it lengthens. But language is limited to attesting to the fact of measuring. The how, once again, eludes him: "But how can anything which does not exist be either long or short [sed quo pacto]?" (15:18).

Augustine will at first appear to turn his back on this certainty that it is the past and the future that we measure. Later, by placing the past and the future within the present, by bringing in memory and expectation, he will be able to rescue this initial certainty from its apparent disaster by transferring onto expectation and onto memory the idea of a long future and a long past. But this certainty of language, of experience, and of action will only be recovered after it has been lost and profoundly transformed. In this regard, it is a feature of the Augustinian quest that the final response is anticipated several times in various ways that must first be submitted to criticism before their true meaning emerges. Indeed Augustine seems first to refuse a certitude based upon too weak an argument: "My Lord, my Light, does not your truth make us look foolish in this case too?" (15:18). He therefore turns first to the present. Was it not when it "was still present" that the past was long? In this question, too, something of the final response is anticipated since memory and expectation will appear as modalities of the present. But at this stage in the argument the present is still opposed to the past and the future. The idea of a threefold present has not yet dawned. This is why the solution based on the present alone has to collapse. The failure of this solution results from a refining of the notion of the present, which is no longer characterized solely by that which does not remain but by that which has no extension.

This refinement, which carries the paradox to its height, is related to a well-known skeptical argument: can a hundred years be present at once (15:19)? (The argument, as we see, is directed solely at attributing length to the present.) Only the current year is present; and in the year, the month; and in the month, the day; and in the day, the hour: "Even that one hour consists of minutes which are continually passing. The minutes which have gone by are past and any part of the hour which remains is future" (15:20).

He must therefore conclude along with the skeptics: "In fact the only time [quid ... temporis] that can be called present is an instant, if we can conceive [intelligitur] of such, that cannot be divided even into the most minute fractions.... when it is present it has no duration [spatium]" (ibid.). At a later stage of this discussion the definition of the present will be further narrowed down to the idea of the point-like instant. Augustine first gives a dramatic turn to the merciless conclusion of the argumentative machine: "As we have already seen quite clearly, the present cannot possibly have duration" (ibid.).

What is it, then, that holds firm against the onslaughts of skepticism? As always, it is experience, articulated by language and enlightened by the intelligence: "Nevertheless, O Lord, we are aware of [sentimus] periods of time. We compare [comparamus] them with one another and say that some are longer and others shorter. We even calculate [metimur] how much longer or shorter one period is than another" (16:21). The protest conveyed by sentimus, comparamus, and metimur is that of our sensory, intellectual, and pragmatic activities in relation to the measuring of time. However, this obstinacy of what must indeed be termed experience does not take us any farther as concerns the question of "how." False certainties are still mingled with genuine evidence.

We may believe we take a decisive step forward by substituting for the notion of the present that of passing, of transition, following in the wake of the earlier statement: "If we measure them by our own awareness of time, we must do so while it is passing [praetereuntia]"(ibid.). This speculative formula seems to correspond to our practical certainty. It too, however, will have to be submitted to criticism before returning, precisely, as distentio, thanks to the dialectic of the threefold present. So long as we have not formed the idea of the distended relation between expectation, memory, and attention, we do not understand what we are actually saying when we repeat for the second time: "The conclusion is that we can be aware of time and measure it only while it is passing" (ibid.). The formula is at once an anticipation of the solution and a temporary impasse. It is thus not by chance that Augustine stops just when he seems most certain: "These are tentative theories, Father, not downright assertions" (17:22). What is more, it is not due to the impetus of this passing idea that he continues to pursue his search, but by a return to the conclusion of the skeptical argument, "the present cannot possibly have duration." For, in order to pave the way for the idea that what we measure is indeed the future, understood later as expectation, and the past, understood as memory, a case must be made for the being of the past and the future which had been too quickly denied, but it must be made in a way that we are not yet capable of articulating.

In the name of what can the past and the future be accorded the right to exist in some way or other? Once again, in the name of what we say and do with regard to them. What do we say and do in this respect? We recount things which we hold as true and we predict events which occur as we foresaw them. It is therefore still language, along with the experience and the action articulated by language, that holds firm in the face of the skeptics' assault. To predict is to fore-see, and to recount is to "discern [cernere] by the mind." De Trinitate (XV 12:21) speaks in this sense of the twofold "testimony" (Meijering, p. 67) of history and of prediction. It is therefore in spite of the skeptical argument that Augustine concludes: "Therefore both the past and the future do exist [sunt ergo]" (17:22).

This declaration is not the mere repetition of the affirmation that was rejected in the first pages, namely, that the future and the past exist. The terms for past and future henceforth appear as adjectives: futura and praeterita. This nearly imperceptible shift actually opens the way for the denouement of the initial paradox concerning being and nonbeing and, as a result, also for the central paradox of measurement. We are in fact prepared to consider as existing, not the past and the future as such, but the temporal qualities that can exist in the present, without the things of which we speak, when we recount them or predict them, still existing or already existing. We therefore cannot be too attentive to Augustine's shifts in expression.

Just when he is about to reply to the ontological paradox, he pauses once more: "O Lord, my Hope, allow me to explore further [amplius quaerere]" (18:23). This is said not simply for rhetorical effect or as a pious invocation. After this pause, in fact, there follows an audacious step that will lead to the affirmation I have just mentioned, the thesis of the threefold present. This step, however, as is often the case, takes the form of a question: "If the future and the past do exist, I want to know where they are" (ibid.). We began with the question "how?" We continue by way of the question "where?" The question is not naive. It consists in seeking a location for future and past things insofar as they are recounted and predicted. All of the argumentation that follows will be contained within the boundaries of this question, and will end up by situating "within" the soul the temporal qualities implied by narration and prediction. This transition by way of the question "where?" is essential if we are correctly to understand the first response: "So wherever they are and whatever they are [future and past things], it is only by being present that they are" (ibid.). We appear to be turning our back on the earlier assertion that what we measure is only the past and the future; even more, we seem to be denying our admission that the present has no duration. But what is in question here is an entirely different present, one that has also become a plural adjective (praesentia), in line with praeterita and futura, and one capable of admitting an internal multiplicity. We also appear to have forgotten the assertion that we "measure [time] only while it is passing" (16:21). But we shall return to it later when we come back to the question of measuring.


Excerpted from Time and Narrative Volume I by Paul Ricoeur, Kathleen McLaughlin, David Pellauer. Copyright © 1984 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author

Paul Ricoeur is the John Nuveen Professor Emeritus in the Divinity School, professor of philosophy, and a member of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. He was for many years dean of the Faculty of Letters and Human Sciences at the University of Paris X (Nanterre).

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