Ricoeur, Paul

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Philosopher; author and lecturer; b. Valence, France, Feb. 27, 1913. Baptized into the Reformed community, Ricoeur's early life is bound up with the loss of both his parents, his mother six months after his birth, his father during World War I. His early philosophical education at the University of Rennes brought him into contact with the reflexive philosophy of Lachelier and Lagneau with their concern for the grounds of authentic subjectivity. This concern was to become the touchstone of his later philosophy.

At the Sorbonne for doctoral studies Ricoeur became part of the Friday sessions of Gabriel marcel, the Christian existentialist philosopher, who introduced him to the works of Edmund husserl and phenomenology. After becoming agrégé in 1935, he married his childhood friend, Yvonne Lejas, and began to teach first in Colmar, then in Lorient. Ricoeur was drafted into the army in the general mobilization and became a prisoner of war in the early stages of the Second World War. He was interned in several camps in Pomerania until 1945. There he read the works of Karl jaspers, translated in the margin Ideen I of Husserl, and taught philosophy to his fellow prisoners. The results were published in the postwar years: Karl Jaspers et la philosophie de l'existence (with Mikel Dufrenne) (1947), Gabriel Marcel et Karl Jaspers: philosophie du mystère et philosophie du paradoxe (1948), and the translation of Ideen I (1950). During the same time his interest in political philosophy led him to read Hegel. Between 1945 and 1948 he taught at Cévenol college in Chambon-sur-Lignon during which time he became known as an expert in Husserl's phenomenology [see his collection of articles in Husserl (1967)]. In 1948 he was awarded the chair of philosophy at the University of Strasbourg. While there, he defended his doctoral thesis on the phenomenology of the will [Le volontaire et l'involontaire (1950); Freedom and Nature (1966)] and contributed frequently to the periodicals Christianisme social and Esprit.

Toward Hermeneutical Phenomenology. In his doctoral dissertation Ricoeur projected his life's work. Guided by the famous Husserlian epochē, a bracketingout procedure in order to arrive at the roots of phenomena, he understood the task of such a phenomenology of the will as (1) a pure phenomenology of the will abstracted from the question of the fault (negation, evil) and transcendence [Le volontaire et l'involontaire ]; (2) a phenomenology of evil as seen through human fallibility [L'homme faillible (1960), Fallible Man (1965)] and through the myths and symbols of evil, sin, and guilt [La symbolique du mal (1960), The Symbolism of Evil (1967)]; (3) a poetics of the will: a reflection on the human self as responsible, fragile, between sameness and ipseity, as other, and as grace and gift of freedom [see Ricoeur's most recent works on textual and practical hermeneutics, temporality, narrativity, metaphor, imagination, action/passion and the self, and the Bible].

In 1956 Ricoeur accepted a position at the Sorbonne and began to live in a commune (Murs Blancs), inspired by the social mission of Christianity. Experiencing deeply the malaise of the university, he transferred in 1966 to Nanterre, briefly accepting the post of dean (196970). In the turmoil of the democratization movement at Nanterre, he was physically attacked and the leftist philosophical community was so violent in their rejection of him that he expatriated himself to the University of Louvain. Three years later, he returned to Nanterre, but he also began to commute to North America (Montreal, Yale, and especially Chicago). Philosophically these were fruitful years. He kept up a constant dialogue with the major currents of thought in the 60s and 70s such as Freudian psychoanalysis, structuralism, decon struction, and Anglo-American analytic philosophy. His own philosophical roots became more firmly established in the erstwhile reflexive philosophy (Nabert), the hermeneutical phenomenology configured out of Husserl, gadamer, and heidegger, the action theory of Habermas, and analytic philosophy. These gave rise to a number of books: De l'interprétation (1965), Freud and Philosophy (1970); La métaphore vive (1975), The Rule of Metaphor (1977); Temps et récit, volumes 13 (1983,1984,1985), Time and Narrative, volumes 13 (1984, 1985, 1988), and Soi-même comme un autre (1990), Oneself as Another (1992); Amour et justice. Liebe und Gerechtigkeit (1990); and an avalanche of articles, the most important of which are collected in Histoire et verité (1955, 1964, 1990), History and Truth (1965); Le conflit des interpétations (1969), The Conflict of Interpretations (1974); A l'école de la phénoménologie (1986); Du texte à l'action (1986), From Text to Action (1991); Lectures 1: Autour de la politique (1991); Lectures 2: La contrée de la philosophie (1992); Lectures 3: Aux frontières de la philosophie (1994); Le juste (1995); Réflexion faite (1995); Penser la Bible (with A. Lacocque) (1998), Thinking Biblically (1998).

Distinctive Traits. First among the distinctive traits of Ricoeur's philosophy must be mentioned his respectful dialogue with conflicting philosophies. Ricoeur believes strongly in the dialectic process of truth. Truth, he believes, is not immediately available. It can be searched out in terms of the traces found in the writings of those who have most intensely struggled with the question of truth. Conflicting philosophies are probed not to execute a coup de grâce, but to exploit their sometimes unspoken, constructive potential. His philosophy forges its own path in debate with the foremost philosophers of the second half of the 20th century: Heidegger, Husserl, Lévinas, Sartre, Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Althusser, Gadamer, Habermas, Derrida, and Davidson.

Second, interpreters of Ricoeur have found it difficult to uncover a unifying theme. Ricoeur has compared himself to an intellectual bricoleur, answering questions left unanswered by his previous writings or occasioned by the themes of congresses and symposia. This so-called tinkering with a wide range of topics has led commentators to understand Ricoeur through such themes as the hermeneutical method, the imagination, the subject, language, ethics, literary theory, meaningful action. However, aided by Oneself as Another, it is possible to trace an underlying trajectory of a practical philosophy. From his earliest project of a philosophy of the will, Ricoeur has consistently sought, however great the detours, to outline the possibilities of authentic subjectivity. This search for a practical philosophy led him originally from phenomenology to hermeneutics and later from primacy of language to primacy of action. Although subscribing to an intense suspicion of the deceptive claims of rationality and despite the current privileging of negation and nothing, Ricoeur upholds the possibility of the affirmation of life, the desire and effort of human existing, and the human projection of truth, happiness, and pleasure. His is a philosophical witness to Augustinian hope. This renewed practical philosophy is at core an ethical venture: the search for the good life lived in just institutions with and for others. In Oneself as Another this leads to a hermeneutics of the self: a search for what remains after the demise of the Cartesian self-constituting ego and of the proclaimed death of the self by deconstructionism in the 20th century.

A third trait is Ricoeur's disavowal of any attempt to totalize. He renounces Hegel's great narrative of the final synthesis. In his early writings he fulminates against the violent totalizations of state and church. Human knowing and action in history are only mediately available and demand the endless detours by way of its signs and traces. For Ricoeur philosophy is hermeneutical. Its epistemology and ontology are attestations of belief and conviction in the truthfulness of the self. Its politics is a politics of fragility. Its religious witness is a testimony to the "available believable" in the face of the ravages of evil and suffering in the 20th century. This capacity to engage the current intellectual climate with suspicion but without skepticism may well be Ricoeur's enduring attraction.

Ricoeur's prodigious activity and his brilliant engagement of the philosophical debate gained for him the recognition in France as one of the foremost contemporary philosophers. Elsewhere, particularly in North America, Ricoeur steadily increased his influence particularly among theologians and literary critics.

See Also: hermeneutics.

Bibliography: p. anderson, Ricoeur and Kant: Philosophy of the Will (Atlanta 1993). s. h. clark, Paul Ricoeur (London 1990). b. dauenhaeur, Paul Ricoeur: The Promise and Risks of Politics (Lanham, Md. 1998). f. dosse, Paul Ricoeur: Le sens d'une vie (Paris 1997). d. jervelina, The Cogito and Hermeneutics: The Question of the Subject in Ricoeur (Dordrecht 1990). d. e. klemm and w. schweiker, eds., Meanings in Texts and Actions: Questioning Ricoeur (Charlottesville 1993). o. mongin, Paul Ricoeur (Paris 1994). j. putti, Theology as Hermeneutics: Paul Ricoeur's Theory of Text Interpretation and Method in Theology (San Francisco 1994). j. van den hengel, The Home of Meaning: The Hermeneutics of the Subject of Paul Ricoeur (Lanham 1982). k. j. vanhoozer, Biblical Narrative in the Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur (Cambridge 1990). f. d. vansina, Paul Ricoeur: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography (19351984) (Leuven 1985).

[j. van den hengel]