Cultural Hermeneutics: Essays after Unamuno and Ricoeur by Mario J. Valdés (review)
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Reviewed by
Mario J. Valdés. Cultural Hermeneutics: Essays after Unamuno and Ricoeur. University of Toronto Press. x, 206. $55.00

This book offers an unexpected comparison of the works of Miguel de Unamuno (1864–1936) and Paul Ricoeur (1913–2005). Neither thinker refers to the other in his own work, and so this comparison becomes possible only because Valdés himself has already studied each of them extensively. Consequently, this book is perhaps as much about his own intellectual journey as it is about Unamuno and Ricoeur.

Valdés's book is comprised of an introduction, three main chapters, and a conclusion. The introduction "Why Unamuno and Ricoeur?" provides a brief rationale for this work of comparison. Valdés finds common ground in the fact that "both Unamuno and Ricoeur saw language as the basis of the human being's engagement with the world." And to be more precise, it is the world-making power of language in its diversity that is explored by both thinkers.

Chapter one, "From Unamuno to Ricoeur," begins by taking up the notion of an open dialectic in Ricoeur and goes on to describe this as the basis for all of Unamuno's writings. That is to say that Unamuno does not see the possibility for synthesis between opposites but only a continuous struggle between opposing poles. This idea of an open dialectic feeds into an interpretation of Unamuno's work, The Tragic Sense of Life. Valdés understands this work to be guided by an unresolvable opposition between the intellect that insists that all living beings must die and the will that cannot accept the finality of death. Here Valdés emphasizes that Unamuno's use of literary form expresses the pathos of this experience in a way that a purely philosophical reflection, like Ricoeur's, does not.

Chapter two, "Unamuno's Hermeneutics," offers a survey and interpretation of various works by Unamuno, some minor and others better [End Page 237] known. This survey is quite helpful for readers, like myself, who do not have extensive knowledge of Unamuno's oeuvre. Noteworthy here is the reading of Unamuno's Niebla (1914), in which an interesting inversion takes place between the voice of the characters. What initially appears to be the internal monologue of a character turns out to be the product of another character who is later discovered to be its narrator. This novel, as Valdés points out, thus has interesting implications for thinking about narrative identity because it makes the boundaries between self and other porous. It thus points to the primacy of the interconnectedness of self and other in our life stories.

Chapter three, "Ricoeur's Hermeneutics of the Creative Imagination," is a rather long and winding account of Ricoeur's hermeneutics of the text. There are nonetheless some very suggestive ideas here. The first is a rather surprising contrast between two films – Casablanca and Frida –through which Valdés contrasts linear and a nonlinear modes of character development. The second is a fascinating discussion of Ricoeur's views on visual art, a topic which he rarely discussed. Valdés weaves together some common interests between Ricoeur and his contemporaries in the post-war "School of Paris" in the visual arts. In discussing visual art, Valdés offers the insightful observation that "in the hermeneutics of painting we have a phenomenon akin to photosynthesis in plants … when we look at a work of art, the viewer's perception of and reaction to the artist's figuration is a process of configuration whereby the viewer converts the artist's imagery into the viewer's own repertoire of meaningful images."

This book may disappoint readers who are in search of an answer to what a "cultural hermeneutics" is or who are looking to gain substantive connections between the two thinkers. The book does not promise or deliver anything systematic concerning the notion of a cultural hermeneutics, and the purported connections between Ricoeur and Unamuno remain quite loose and general. Yet there is still much to learn here, and I would encourage readers to approach the book as if it were a tour through a curio shop. The author shows us...