Ricoeur on Plotinus: Negation and Forms of Populism
Plotinus developed a metaphorical approach to language that allowed him to offer a transcendent vision of God, a paradox that made clear how ineffably and incontrovertibly unclear God is – as is our relationship with Him. Ricoeur bridged the centuries by working intensively upon Plotinus in the 1950s-70s. He was seeking a philosophy of negation to help him understand the ways in which modern humans define themselves by lack, loss and longing and asked himself: ‘what is not-ness?’ Eventually Ricoeur abandoned his search for a philosophy of negation that would explain the negative turn in modern life, and developed a model of language and of dialectic within which the negative was embedded. By fully integrating negation into various language forms (metaphor, dialectic) he was implementing the conviction that we have to accept that the negative (that which we want to reject) is an integral part of each of us: blame cannot be attributed to others. Through his negation project Ricoeur applied existential thinking to negative theology and gave its structural strangeness a new application. Using Plotinus he ensured that opposing existential concerns can in fact be brought into discussion, when we accept the impossibility of the unity for which we long. I propose that he even created a strange kind of analogue between negative theologies and existentialist problems, adapting the powerful provisionality of Plotinus’ dialectical and metaphorical devices, to help him address modern crises. Laclau believed that these crises can be solved, and Butler and Lorey concur, all three arguing for close attention to language, rhetoric and the people’s potential. In this context we can instructively apply Ricoeur’s adaptation of Plotinus to consider the emerging patterns around the Mediterranean, which we wish to negate and really must act upon: a mounting refugee crisis, the instability created by wars and an increasingly insecure workforce. The first step for a nation to take is to be able to talk about such matters and research on university campuses suggest that this is being inhibited by government regulatory practices. Attempts to reverse this trend render the extraordinary worlds of Plotinus and Ricoeur immensely useful. Using Plotinus he ensured that opposing existential concerns can in fact be brought into discussion, when we accept the impossibility of the unity for which we long. If we contrast this with the non-dialogic, argumentative and polarised discourse of populist political parties across Europe and round Plotinus’ Mediterranean, we can see how potent it could be to re-introduce Ricoeur’s response to Plotinus into modern discourse.
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