Paul Ricoeur

Paul Ricoeur (born 1913) was a leading exponent of hermeneutical philosophy. He developed a theory of metaphor and discourse as well as articulating a comprehensive vision of the relation of time, history, and narrative. Ricoeur's work influenced scholarship in virtually all of the human sciences.

Paul Ricoeur was born on February 27, 1913, in Valence, France, the son of Jules and Florentine Favre Ricoeur. He was married to Simone Lejas in 1935 and had five children. His education included a Licenciée‧s Lettres from the University of Rennes (1932), Agrégation de Philosophie from the Sorbonne (1935), and the Doctorat e‧s Lettres in 1950. He taught at the University of Starbourg (1948-1957) and the University of Paris-X, Nabterre, beginning in 1957; from 1971 to 1985 he was the John Nuveen Professor of the History of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. He won the Prix Cavailles in 1951 as well as the Hegel Prize for his Temps et Récit III, published in 1985. Ricoeur held numerous honorary degrees from universities around the world. In addition to his own writing he was editor of the collection Éditions du Seuil, the editor of Revue de Métaphysique et Morale, and a member of the Institut International de Philosophie.

Ricoeur's work is best understood as an interplay of three philosophical movements: reflexive philosophy, phenomenology, and hermeneutics. Reflexive philosophy reaches back to Plato, finding modern expression in Descartes' concern for the cogito, Kant's critical philosophy, and recent post-Kantian French philosophy. The central concern of this tradition is with the possibility of self-understanding. Reflexivity is the act of thought turning back on itself to grasp the unifying principle of its operation—that is, the subject or "I." Ricoeur continued the task of reflexive philosophy. His original intention was to develop a comprehensive phenomenology of the will. While not finished, this project was carried out through several works: Freedom and Nature: The Voluntary and the Involuntary (1966); Fallible Man (1965); and The Symbolism of Evil (1976). All of these works explore dimensions of human subjectivity and its world.

As a student of phenomenology, Ricoeur acknowledged that consciousness has an intentional structure; consciousness is always consciousness of something. Given this, there is no immediate self-transparency of the self to itself, even by a reflexive act. Thus the journey to self-understanding must involve, in Ricoeur's terms, a detour of interpretation. The "I think" knows itself only relative to the act of intending and the intended "sense," or what Husserl called the noema. That is, the self knows itself reflexively relative to intentional objects of consciousness which must be interpreted to disclose their import for self-understanding.

With the realization that understanding involves interpretation, Ricoeur follows Heidegger's hermeneutical turn of thought. Hermeneutical philosophy insists that the human way of being in the world is one of understanding. Humans understand themselves through the interpretation of the cultural and linguistic world in which they find themselves. Thus the journey to self-understanding is deepened yet again, since one must interpret the manifold signs, symbols, and texts which disclose the character of human life and its world. This led Ricoeur into studies of the problem of evil and the character of religious language, as well as numerous works on the philosophy of history.

Hermeneutical thinkers also argue that language is the primary condition for all experience and that linguistic forms (symbols, metaphors, texts) disclose dimensions of human beings in the world. To understand oneself, therefore, is to understand the self as it confronts a linguistic expression that discloses possibilities for existence. Ironically, then, while Ricoeur's work remains in the tradition of reflexive philosophy, he has qualified the focus on the self and any pretense to immediate self-knowledge. Self-under-standing is always hermeneutical and is reached through interpretation within the medium of language.

Crucial to all of Ricoeur's works was the development of what he called the "hermeneutical arch" of understanding detailed in his Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (1976). By this "arch" he means that interpretation begins with the pre-reflective dimensions of human life. In order to reach an understanding of our pre-reflexive being in the world it is necessary to undertake the interpretation of the texts, symbols, actions, and events that disclose the human situation. At this level of interpretation Ricoeur, as opposed to some other hermeneutical thinkers, argued for the importance of various explanatory sciences. He explored the importance of psychoanalysis (Freud and Philosophy, 1970), structural linguistics and phenomenology (The Conflict of Interpretations, 1974), theory of myth and symbol (The Symbolism of Evil, 1967), and narrative theory (Time and Narrative, 1984 [Vol. I] and 1986 [Vol. II]), all as part of the hermeneutical task. However, Ricoeur was adamant that the moment of explanation, while necessary, is not sufficient for understanding. This is because understanding is an act of appropriation by the "reader" of what the text, symbol, or event discloses about human being in the world. Explanation of the human situation complements but does not answer the task of understanding.

Ricoeur's emphasis on the interpretive shape of understanding required reflection on the power of texts, symbols, and myths to disclose something about the human and its world. Central to his interpretation theory was work on the referential power of texts through studies of metaphor (The Rule of Metaphor, 1976) and narrative (Time and Narrative). Ricoeur's semantic theory escapes easy characterization. His main contention, however, is that meaning is generated when there is a clash of literal claims at the level of the sentence or when human time and action are configured as a whole through narration. Accordingly, texts refer to the world, but do so in an indirect way: they disclose a different vision of the world as possible for the reader. Ricoeur's theory of metaphor and text has had considerable import for the study of myth, literature, and religious language.

Ricoeur's thought was the creative convergence of dominant strands in modern philosophy. By exploring the hermeneutical arch and the manifold ways in which humans try to understand themselves (psychoanalysis, storytelling, myth, and so forth) he made substantive contributions to a wide array of disciplines. Moreover, Ricoeur's philosophy of metaphor and narrative continues to influence work in all of the human sciences. There is little doubt that Ricoeur's vast corpus of thought provides keen insight for the self-understanding of our age.

Ricoeur has kept up his pace in the publication of articles, mostly on the theories of justice of John Rawls and others and on the relation between ethics and politics. In the fall of 1995, he published two shorter books, one, entitled Reflections accomplies, contains his Intellectual Autobiography, along with several articles. The other, called Justice, is a collection of his recent articles on justice and its application in the modern world. His rediscovery in France is evidenced by the numerous interviews on television and in the newspapers. He was invited by President Mitterand to attend a state dinner at the Elysee Palace in honor of President and Mrs. Clinton in June of 1994. A book about his life, Paul Ricoeur, His Life and His Work was published by the University of Chicago Press in 1996.


Further Reading on Paul Ricoeur

For resources on Ricoeur's work see his own Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, translated by John B. Thompson (Cambridge, 1981). Also see Don Ihde, Hermeneutical Phenomenology: The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur (1971) and David E. Klemm, The Hermeneutical Theory of Paul Ricoeur (1983).