Posted by: gcarkner | May 7, 2014

Paul Ricoeur: Une Grande Pensée


Screen Shot 2014-05-06 at 7.26.13 PMPaul Ricœur (1913–2005) was a French scholar widely recognized as one of the most distinguished philosophers of the twentieth century. In the course of his long career he wrote on a broad range of issues. He is best known for combining phenomenological description with hermeneutics. As such, his thought is within the same tradition as other major hermeneutic phenomenologists, Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer. In 2000, he was awarded the Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy for having revolutionized the methods of hermeneutic phenomenology, expanding the study of textual interpretation to include the broad yet concrete domains of mythology, biblical exegesis, psychoanalysis, theory of metaphor, and narrative theory.

The major theme that unites his writings is that of a philosophical anthropology. This anthropology, which Ricoeur came to call an anthropology of the “capable human being,” aims to give an account of the fundamental capabilities and vulnerabilities that human beings display in the activities that make up their lives. Though the accent is always on the possibility of understanding the self as an agent responsible for its actions, Ricoeur consistently rejects any claim that the self is immediately transparent to itself or fully master of itself. Self-knowledge only comes through our relation to the world and our life with and among others in that world.

In the course of developing his anthropology, Ricoeur made a major methodological shift. His writings prior to 1960 were in the tradition of existential phenomenology. But during the 1960s Ricoeur concluded that properly to study human reality he had to combine phenomenological description with hermeneutic interpretation. For this hermeneutic phenomenology, whatever is intelligible is accessible to us in and through language and all deployments of language call for interpretation. Accordingly, there is no self-understanding that is not mediated by signs, symbols, and texts; in the final analysis self-understanding coincides with the interpretation given to these mediating terms. This hermeneutic or linguistic turn did not require him to disavow the basic results of his earlier investigations. It did, however, lead him not only to revisit them but also to see more clearly their implications.

His books include a multi-volume project on the philosophy of the will: Freedom and Nature: The Voluntary and the Involuntary (1950, Eng. tr. 1966), Fallible Man (1960, Eng. tr. 1967), and The Symbolism of Evil (1960, Eng. tr. 1970); a major study of Freud: Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation (1965, Eng. tr. 1970); The Rule of Metaphor (1975, Eng. tr. 1977); Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (1976); the three-volume Time and Narrative (1983-85, Eng. tr. 1984–88); Lectures on Ideology and Utopia (1986); the published version of his Gifford lectures: Oneself as Another (1990, Eng. tr. 1992); Memory, History, Forgetting (2000, Eng. tr. 2004); and The Course of Recognition (2004, Eng. tr. 2005).

Ricœur was born in 1913 in Valence, Drôme, France to a devout Protestant family, making him a member of a religious minority in Catholic France. Ricœur, whose penchant for study was fuelled by his family’s Protestant emphasis on Bible study, was bookish and intellectually precocious. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1933 from the University of Rennes and began studying philosophy at the Sorbonne in 1934, where he was influenced by Gabriel Marcel. In 1935, he was awarded the second-highest agrégation mark in the nation for philosophy, presaging a bright future.

World War II interrupted Ricœur’s career, and he was drafted to serve in the French army in 1939. His unit was captured during the German invasion of France in 1940 and he spent the next five years as a prisoner of war. His detention camp was filled with other intellectuals such as Mikel Dufrenne, who organized readings and classes sufficiently rigorous that the camp was accredited as a degree-granting institution by the Vichy government. During this time he read Karl Jaspers, who was to have a great influence on him. He also began a translation of Edmund Husserl’s Ideas I.

Ricœur taught at the University of Strasbourg between 1948 and 1956, the only French university with a Protestant faculty of theology. In 1950, he received his doctorate, submitting (as is customary in France) two theses: a “minor” thesis translating Husserl’s Ideas I into French for the first time, with commentary, and a “major” thesis that he would later publish as Le Volontaire et l’Involontaire. Ricœur soon acquired a reputation as an expert on phenomenology, then the ascendent philosophy in France.

In 1956, Ricœur took up a position at the Sorbonne as the Chair of General Philosophy. This appointment signaled Ricœur’s emergence as one of France’s most prominent philosophers. While at the Sorbonne, he wrote three works that cemented his reputation: Fallible Man and The Symbolism of Evil published in 1960, and Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation published in 1965. Freud and Philosophy contains the famous assertion that Marx, Nietzsche and Freud are Masters of the School of Suspicion.

From 1965 to 1970, Ricœur was an administrator at the newly founded University of Nanterre in suburban Paris.

Disenchanted with French academic life, Ricœur taught briefly at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, before taking a position at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, where he taught from 1970 to 1985. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1971. His study culminated in The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning of Language published in 1975 and the three-volume Time and Narrative published in 1984, 1985, and 1988. Ricœur gave the Gifford Lectures in 1985/86, published in 1992 as Oneself as Another. This work built on his discussion of narrative identity and his continuing interest in the self.

Time and Narrative secured Ricœur’s return to France in 1985 as a notable intellectual. His late work was characterised by a continuing cross-cutting of national intellectual traditions; for example, some of his latest writing engaged the thought of the American political philosopher John Rawls.

In 1999, he was awarded the Balzan Prize for Philosophy, the citation being “For his capacity in bringing together all the most important themes and indications of 20th century philosophy, and re-elaborating them into an original synthesis which turns language – in particular, that which is poetic and metaphoric – into a chosen place revealing a reality that we cannot manipulate, but interpret in diverse ways, and yet all coherent. Through the use of metaphor, language draws upon that truth which makes of us that what we are, deep in the profundity of our own essence”.

On 29 November 2004, he was awarded with the second John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Human Sciences (shared with Jaroslav Pelikan).

Hermeneutic Intellectual Kevin Vanhoozer did his doctorate on the work of Paul Ricoeur: Biblical Narrative in the Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: A Study in Hermeneutics and Theology. This has heavily influenced his work in biblical hermeneutics at Wheaton College and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

In my PhD on the late modern self, I found Ricoeur’s work very helpful in grappling with the narrative dimension of the moral self, especially his distinction between idem and ipse dimensions of self. Charles Taylor shows that there is a key narrative dimension to the moral self, drawing on Ricoeur’s work.

The temporal dimension needs to be extended beyond the instantaneous moment to include past, present, and future. The self needs a narrative which allows for agency, responsibility, and hope. The self can be seen as a narrative text with a plot line. Paul Ricoeur develops this and believes in a hermeneutics of the self: “The notion of the self as a narrative text embodying narrative plot, personal agency, and future accountability offers a better account of selfhood than positivists” (P. Ricoeur, Time and Narrattive). For him, the primary characteristic of the self is its temporality. His work challenges late modern selfhood as merely a passive ‘point’ generated by economic or social forces. Ricoeur introduces the notion of “narrative identity”, an entity who acts and suffers within a framework of continuity and change through the changes and continuities of time. (P. Ricoeur, Oneself as Another. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1992).

He emphasizes continuity of accountability as the self changes over time. His notion of narrative includes the ability to project ‘possibility’ into the future and this becomes part of the temporal logic of the narrative plot. Plot has a beginning and an end, a pattern of tension and resolution, a downward and upward movement. But the identity of the ‘real self’ emerges fully only in relation to larger purposes which transcend the self. Ricoeur does not make a theological move at this point but one could eagerly offer God’s purposes and his plot line as that transcendent purpose. J. Moltmann makes such a move: “The possibilities and limits of the human situation are defined by the limits of our human location within the history of God’s life within himself in times between creation and the fulfilment of God’s Kingdom”.(Moltmann quoted by Gerkin in The Living Human Document, p.66).

 Part of Ricoeur’s aim in Oneself as Another is to reveal the limitations of empiricist and late modern accounts of the self and at the same time to stress past and future action of the larger ‘plot’ which keeps the self from occupying the place of foundation as it has in modernity. Thisleton writes: “Ricoeur’s profound achievement is to undermine equally the autonomous self which commands the centre stage in high modernity and the reduced, de-centered self of postmodernity” (A. Thisleton, Interpreting God and The Postmodern Self, pp. 77,78). Identity is also restored as the individual self realizes that it is an object of God’s agape love. There is such exciting dialogical potential in the development of personal narrative.

~Gord Carkner

Gabriel Marcel and Karl Jaspers. Philosophie du mystère et philosophie du paradoxe. Paris: Temps Présent, 1948.
Entretiens sur l’Art et la Psychanalyse (sous la direction de Andre Berge, Anne Clancier, Paul Ricoeur et Lothair Rubinstein (1964), Mouton, Paris, La Haye 1968.
Freedom and Nature: The Voluntary and the Involuntary, trans. Erazim Kohak. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1966 (1950).
History and Truth, trans. Charles A. Kelbley. Evanston: Northwestern University press. 1965 (1955).
Fallible Man, trans. Charles A. Kelbley, with an introduction by Walter J. Lowe, New York: Fordham University Press, 1986 (1960).
The Symbolism of Evil, trans. Emerson Buchanan. New York: Harper and Row, 1967 (1960).
Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, trans. Denis Savage. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970 (1965).
The Conflict of Interpretations: Essays in Hermeneutics, ed. Don Ihde, trans. Willis Domingo et al. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1974 (1969).
Political and Social Essays, ed. David Stewart and Joseph Bien, trans. Donald Stewart et al. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1974.
The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-Disciplinary Studies in the Creation of Meaning in Language, trans. Robert Czerny with Kathleen McLaughlin and John Costello, S. J., London: Routledge and Kegan Paul 1978 (1975).
Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning. Fort Worth: Texas Christian Press, 1976.
“Patocka, Philosopher and Resister”. Telos 31 (Spring 1977). New York: Telos Press.
The Philosophy of Paul Ricœur: An Anthology of his Work, ed. Charles E. Reagan and David Stewart. Boston: Beacon Press, 1978.
Essays on Biblical Interpretation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980)
Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Action and Interpretation, ed., trans. John B. Thompson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Time and Narrative (Temps et Récit), 3 vols. trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984, 1985, 1988 (1983, 1984, 1985).
Lectures on Ideology and Utopia, ed., trans. George H. Taylor. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.
From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics II, trans. Kathleen Blamey and John B. Thompson. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1991 (1986).
À l’école de la philosophie. Paris: J. Vrin, 1986.
Le mal: Un défi à la philosophie et à la théologie. Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1986.
Oneself as Another (Soi-même comme un autre), trans. Kathleen Blamey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992 (1990).
A Ricœur Reader: Reflection and Imagination, ed. Mario J. Valdes. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.
Lectures I: Autour du politique. Paris: Seuil, 1991.
Lectures II: La Contrée des philosophes. Paris: Seuil, 1992.
Lectures III: Aux frontières de la philosophie. Paris: Seuil, 1994.
The Philosophy of Paul Ricœur, ed. Lewis E. Hahn (The Library of Living Philosophers 22) (Chicago; La Salle: Open Court, 1995)
The Just, trans. David Pellauer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000 (1995).
Critique and Conviction, trans. Kathleen Blamey. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998 (1995).
Thinking Biblically, (with André LaCocque). University of Chicago Press, 1998.
La mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli. Paris: Seuil, 2000.
Le Juste II. Paris: Esprit, 2001.
Reflections on the Just, trans. David Pellauer. University of Chicago Press, 2007.
Living Up to Death, trans. David Pellauer. University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Paul Ricoeur (1913–2005)  In addition to his books, Ricoeur published more than 500 essays, many of which appear in collections in English: History and Truth (1955, Eng. tr. 1965); Husserl: An Analysis of His Phenomenology (1967); The Conflict of Interpretations: Essays in Hermeneutics (1969, Eng. tr. 1974); Political and Social Essays(1974); Essays on Biblical Interpretation (1980); Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences (1981); From Text to Action (1986, Eng. tr. 1991); Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination (1995); The Just (1995, Eng. tr. 2000); On Translation (2004, Eng. tr. 2004); and Reflections on the Just (2001, Eng. tr. 2007).

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