restricted access 8. The Call to Responsibility
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8 The Call to Responsibility As a result of the preceding chapter, we can see how the category of the penultimate allows us to affirm human capability yet also discern the limits of human capability and avoid a synergistic confusion of divine and human agency. The ultimate word is pronounced from beyond the self and its immanent possibilities and capacities, but within the horizon of the penultimate the self is homo capax. We can therefore identify the capacities that Ricoeur discusses in his phenomenology of l’homme capable—speaking, acting, narrating, and assuming responsibility—as penultimate capacities. If time permitted it would be worthwhile to examine how Ricoeur’s investigations of these themes are manifest in the life of the faithful self. I will limit our analysis, however, to one aspect of Ricoeur’s ontology of the self, namely conscience, arguing that conscience should be interpreted as a penultimate capacity, both with regard to the call of faith as well as the call to ethical responsibility. In particular I focus on two of Ricoeur’s arguments regarding conscience: first, that it is an ontological presupposition of ethical responsibility; second, that it is the anthropological presupposition of justification by faith. Ricoeur’s Phenomenology of Conscience In Oneself as Another, Ricoeur develops a phenomenology of conscience that situates him between Heidegger and Levinas. The influence of Heidegger is evident in two aspects of Ricoeur’s description: First, conscience is a voice in which the self addresses itself, and this reflexive structure is integral to the self and its care for itself. Second, in conscience testimony has priority over accusation . That is, in the call of conscience the self attests, or bears witness, to its ownmost power to be, and this self-attestation is prior to the judgments of the good or bad conscience.1 Both of these features have a distinctly Heideggerian echo. According to Heidegger, ontology is more fundamental than ethics, and thus the ontological call of conscience—in which Dasein calls itself to authentic being—is prior to the call of the other. Authenticity precedes ethical responsibility and makes it possible. Here Ricoeur’s appropriation of Heidegger is altered by the critical perspective of Levinas, who shows the inadequacy of a strictly ontological (and ethically neutral) interpretation of conscience (OA 355). Levinas counters Heidegger (and Husserl) by arguing that responsibility is initiated asymmetrically by the absolute exteriority of the other. In order to keep responsibility uncompromised by ontology, Levinas leans toward an ethical radicalism that is The Call to Responsibility 143 structurally similar to theological radicalism: the election to responsibility is a creatio ex nihilo—an apocalyptic, punctual event2 that is entirely otherwise than being. The election to responsibility is otherwise than the conatus essendi and the inter-est-edness of being, beyond every horizon, capability, or intention that might prepare the way for the coming of the other (OB 86). I am elected by a prevenient call, making my responsibility prior to any voluntary decision to assume it. This call is “absolutely heteronomous” (OB 53); it does not activate any autonomous capacity for mediation or receptivity, nor does it appeal to an existing ethical potentiality, desire, need, or natural tendency. My response comes from a hyperbolic passivity—a passivity more passive than all receptivity—that is prior to every potentiality and act.3 There is no prior will to responsibility (OB 51), no voluntary decision to assume it (OB 54); it is not an act of spontaneity (OB 56) or capability (OB 89, 118). Faced by the other, I respond “despite myself” (OB 53). Ricoeur agrees with Levinas that the ego (moi) only becomes a self (soi) through the address of the other, but he has reservations about the severity of Levinas’s description. Ricoeur objects that the call cannot be completely externalized , because if the other were as radically other as Levinas suggests, the self would be unable to hear and respond to this call (OA 354–55). The call is indeed necessary to break the ego from its incurvature, but the self must possess some capacity for openness and discovery, along with a capacity for reception , discrimination, and recognition (OA 339). Thus Ricoeur asks: “Would the self be a result if it were not first a presupposition, that is, potentially capable of hearing this assignment?” He recognizes that the appeal to potentiality and capability is precisely what Levinas tries to avoid: “The slightest admission of a capacity that is one’s own, correlative to this assignment, would...


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