The publication of Paul Ricœur’s La mémoire, l’histoire, et l’oubli in 2000 prompted Le Monde to declare him to be ‘one of France’s great contemporary philosophers’. Ricoeur is best known for his largely hermeneutic treatment of the interrelationship of time, a narrative, and human identity which lead him to construct an ethical notion of narrative identity that privileges agency. This key concept of narrative identity, with its emphasis on the configuration of an identity that persists over time, seems apposite to the theory and practice of autobiography.
Indeed, and for understandable reasons, a number of literary critics have either applied Ricœur’s work to autobiography and autobiographical fiction or incorporated his theory of narrative identity in their survey of autobiographical theory. That Ricœur’s notion of narrative identity is being applied to autobiography is not surprising, what is surprising is that autobiography only appears on the margins of Ricœur’s work.
Given that his concept of identity would appear to have its generic home within autobiography, Ricœur’s near silence invites inquiry. This article sets out to give an account of narrative identity and argues that Ricœur’s work is driven as much by the concern that processes of signification can undo the subject as it is by the desire to formulate a theory of identity. In effect, autobiography, far from affirming narrative identity, challenges the presuppositions that underpin Ricœur’s phenomenological-hermeneutic approach to identity and time.
Ricœur’s concept of narrative identity was first formulated in volume three of Time and Narrative. Put simply, narrative identity is a response to the question of how identity can bespeak both change and permanence. Through a theory of narrative Ricoeur seeks to respond to the question who? and to the issues of change and permanence.
He begins by dividing identity into two categories idem and ipse. Idem refers to a notion of identity based on Sameness whereas ipse, described as Selfhood, can incorporate change within a recognizable entity. In Time and Narrative, ipse is analogous to narrative identity and involves the telling and reading of a life story, whether factual or fictional, such that the figure of identity that emerges offers new insight into the self
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