To Intend the Field.

For reasons that I find it hard to clarify even to myself (I think I was intrigued by a mention in Gary Saul Morson), I am slowly and painfully making my way through Paul Ricœur’s Time and Narrative, Vol. 1 (a translation by Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer of Temps et Récit). It is my least favorite sort of academic writing, chock-full of words like “emplotment” and “aporia” (“The notion of distentio animi, coupled with that of intentio, is only slowly and painfully sifted out from the major aporia with which Augustine is struggling”) and presupposing familiarity with a bunch of philosophers and other academics, but I am getting useful nuggets (I am very interested in time and narrative), so I persevere, and now I have gotten close to the halfway point and have found something I have to complain about in public (as opposed to the usual muttering to myself). In the introduction to Part II, the text in front of me says:

To reconstruct the indirect connections of history to narrative is finally to bring to light the intentionality of the historian’s thought by which history continues obliquely to intend the field of human action and its basic temporality.

Try as I might, I could make nothing of “to intend the field of human action and its basic temporality,” so I managed to locate the original French, which reads:

Reconstruire les liens indirects de l’histoire au récit, c’est finalement porter au jour l’intentionnalité de la pensée historienne par laquelle l’histoire continue de viser obliquement le champ de l’action humaine et sa temporalité de base.

I don’t know why McLaughlin and Pellauer didn’t reproduce the italics, but never mind that: why the devil did they render viser ‘to aim at’ by “intend”? It’s true that that English verb has a sense (OED III.8.a.) “To direct the mind or attention; to pay heed; to exert the mind, devote attention, apply oneself assiduously,” but it is labeled Obsolete and has not been used since 1589. Is this some piece of philosophical jargon even the OED is unfamiliar with, or were the translators puckishly determined to make an already difficult text even harder to understand? (I note also that, in an apparent attempt to obey the absurd dictum about not splitting infinitives, they have rendered “continue de viser obliquement” as “continues obliquely to intend,” which will inevitably mislead the reader into taking the adverb with “continues.” And people wonder why I rant about peevers!)


  1. That use of intend is quite rare even in anglophone philosophy. It is not used in the relevant sense at all, for example, in the long Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article “Intentionality“, in which intens* occurs ~30 times and intent* ~280 times. Intend is used 3 times at the article “Intensional transitive verbs”, but not once in the relevant sense. Same story at “Intensional Logic”.

    As an anglophone philosopher (far from a specialist in the relevant fields), I “get” intend as a translation of viser, but I don’t think I’d perpetrate it myself.

    One looser and more creative rendering of the passage cited:

    In effect, to reconstruct indirect connections between history and narrative is to shed light on the intentionality of thought in the practice of history, with its continual focus on the field of human action and its fundamental temporality.

    Heh. Maybe.

  2. Thanks for the confirmation of both the fact of usage and the appropriateness of my repulsion.

  3. David Marjanović says

    It’s also telling that the original has helpful italics to mark the topic and partition the long sentence. That made the text too easy, so it couldn’t be kept in the translation.

    I’m currently reading a book, in English, by a historian, and… it’s the first major text I’ve seen where infinitives aren’t split. I’m really not used to this from the natural sciences and find it clunky to read at times.

  4. Better:

    In effect, reconstructing indirect connections between history and narrative sheds light on the intentionality of thought in the practice of history, whose focus is always at least obliquely on the field of human action – in all its fundamental temporality.

    With many tweaks possible, and advisable. We’d need to see the context.

  5. David Marjanović says

    I’m really not used to this from the natural sciences

    Heh. I just opened the latest paper in my field. It came out two days ago in the *inhale* Earth and Environmental Science Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh *exhale*, the authors are based in London and Bristol, and yup, right there on the second page is “to digitally prepare” and “to clearly discern”. Hacking infinitives to pieces since the middle of the Carboniferous.

  6. We’d need to see the context.

    Well, here’s the preceding paragraph:

    Ma thèse est donc également éloignée de deux autres : celle qui conclurait du recul de l’histoire narrative à la négation de tout lien entre histoire et récit et ferait du temps historique une construction sans appui dans le temps du récit et dans le temps de l’action, et celle qui établirait entre histoire et récit un rapport aussi direct que celui par exemple de l’espèce au genre et une continuité directement lisible entre le temps de l’action et le temps historique. Ma thèse repose sur l’assertion d’un lien indirect de dérivation par lequel le savoir historique procède de la compréhension narrative sans rien perdre de son ambition scientifique. En ce sens elle n’est pas une thèse du juste milieu.

    And here’s the sentence that follows:

    A la faveur de cette visée oblique, l’historiographie vient s’inscrire dans le grand cercle mimétique que nous avons parcouru dans la première partie de ce travail.

  7. In the context of phenomenology, an “intention” is the way a subject has access to some kind of content (“thinking of an apple”, “imagining an apple”, “desiring an apple”, etc). A content is always present to a subject through a particular intentional relation. Phenomenologists think these intentional relations have their own structure, and often phenomenology is about investigating intentional relations while abstracting away from whatever particular content they aim at.

    Not being familiar with this text, perhaps “intend” has been used to highlight that Ricoeur is here concerned with the structure of the intentional relation rather than the specific content: something like, trying to see if taking something to be “historical” forces it to have a certain conceptual structure.

    This is discussed a bit in “3. Consciousness and Intentionality in Phenomenology” here:

  8. The wily adverb is crouched, waiting for an opportunity. Soon, an unsuspecting infinitive approaches…

  9. G: Thanks very much for that context! I’m very aware that as a complete ignoramus when it comes to philosophy, I need all the help I can get.

  10. as a complete ignoramus when it comes to philosophy,

    As a BA Hons in Philosophy[**], I admire your patience and persistence. I’d have given up long ago.

    [**] Although arguably the mainstream (in UK) Epistemology/Ontology/Philosophical Logic I studied should count as just a different field vs this European word-mashing.

  11. LH:

    Ah, in that case:

    So my thesis is poised at an equal distance from two others. One, noting the retreat of narrative history, would deny any link between history and its exposition and view historical time as a fabrication that lacks support from either expository time or the time of the action. The other would fix between history and its exposition a direct relationship like that of species and genus, and a perspicuous continuity between “action time” and “historical time”. My thesis presupposes a link, but one that is indirect and derivative: by which historical knowledge emerges from narrative understanding without any loss of scientific ambition. It is not, therefore, a “golden mean” thesis.

    Ultimately, reconstructing indirect connections between history and its exposition sheds light on intentionality of thought in the practice of history – with its maintenance of an oblique focus on the field of human action, in all its fundamental temporality.

    Thanks to this obliquity of aim, historiography finds itself inscribed in the great mimetic circle that we traversed in the first part of this work.

    (I interpret as well as translate, of course.)

  12. And very helpful interpretative translation it is, too — many thanks!

  13. John Cowan says

    the great mimetic circle

    To be sure, some great circles are very small indeed. Consider the loci on the Earth’s surface where one may walk a kilometer westward and wind up in the same place.

  14. PlasticPaddy says

    I suppose you are joking, but there is no great circle where this is possible, you seem to be talking about constant latitude circles near one of the poles. These are distinct from great circles, which have the same diameter as the Earth.

  15. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    But, but… they larnt me that those aren’t great circles. All the circles of equal longitude are great circles (or for the nitpickers, each line of equal longitude is a pole-to-pole half of a great circle), but the only great circle of equal latitude is the equator.

    Greatly mimetic circles, though.

  16. John Cowan says

    /æ/, shows why I shouldn’t post at such an hour, even if I think I’m awake.

  17. La vida es sueño.

  18. I remember being happy when I learned, in third or fourth grade, that there were more particular words than “line of latitude” and “line of longitude”: parallel and meridian, respectively. However, I was surprised that I had never noticed that the two kinds were structural different, with the meridians all converging at the poles but the parallels remaining constant distances apart. (This corresponds to the fact that the length elements in the Riemannian metric in the latitudinal and longitudinal directions are different, dθ and sin θ ; the sin θ in the longitudinal metric component represents exactly the fact that lines of constant ϕ get closer together as sin θ approaches zero at the poles.)

    And, of course, I later learned that it is the meridians, as great circles, that are the natural generalization of straight lines in spherical geometry. The parallels are not geodesics of the manifold, and so neither family is a satisfactory generalization of Euclidean parallel lines There are no parallel lines at all on a surface of constant positive curvature. Moreover, the fact that any two lines on a sphere intersect at exactly two (antipodal) points caused logical problems in the formal development of spherical geometry. Lobachevsky, Bolyai, and Gauss discovered axiomatic hyperbolic geometry by giving up the Parallel Postulate. However, although the qualitative properties of great circles were well known in the nineteenth century, to describe them as generalizations of Euclidean straight lines also requires giving up the Line Postulate (Two points determine a unique line). Identifying the antipodal points on the sphere gets around this, but while the resulting projective plane is in many ways better behaved than the sphere, it still runs into a problem with the implicit Euclidean assumption that any straight line may be extended to arbitrary length, something that is clearly not true of finite great circles. So (contrary to what is often said), for spaces of positive curvature, making the transition to non-Euclidean geometry requires more than just changing the angle sums of every triangle to be more than two right angles; other changes to Euclid’s assumptions are also needed

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