Ricoeur’s ‘testimony’ and conceptions of the university

Lythgoe, E. 2011. Paul Ricoeur: Thinker of historical testimony. Analecta Hermeneutica (3), p1-16.

At my last supervision, Ian suggested I might find Paul Ricoeur’s definition of ‘testimony’ to be relevant to my thesis on Conversation and the Idea of the University.

I think… it kind of is… and it kind of isn’t. If any of it is, it would be his writings from the 80s, where he describes testimony as a ‘natural, dialogical institution’, with a moral constituent, and reference to the future as well as the past. I guess what Ian was thinking is that my conversations with participants are going to generate a form of testimony; a ‘witnessing of’ the university. My participants may also have clear views themselves about what and how universities should be, and their testimony may be presented as evidence to support those views – either implicitly or explicitly.

The trouble is, Ricoeur changed his mind about what he means by testimony; his later works seemed to distance the prophetic or vocative aspects – the future constitutent – from the concept, and so much of this work is less obviously relevant to my thesis. My participants’ views and imaginations of the University as it is now and as it could or should be in the future are of more direct interest to me and my thesis than their personal experiences of it.

Of course, I don’t know for sure what’s going to come out of the conversations I have. It might well be that for many participants their own personal experiences will have informed their idea of the University and they feature heavily in our conversations; it’s a lot easier for me to see the relevance of the concept of ‘testimony’ in this sense. But does Ricoeur’s thinking add anything of value for me? I’m not sure.

Overall, what I got from reading Ricoeur on testimony is that it is a slippery concept, and perhaps yet another example of how we get caught up in language and tie ourselves in pointless knots. I’m reminded yet again of Huxley’s (1954, p47) call for us to learn ‘to look at the world directly’ rather than through the ‘half-opaque medium of concepts’, and Watts’ (1971) warning not to ‘confuse that system of symbols with the world itself’. That’s what psychedelics do for you I guess.

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