Paul Ricoeur is widely regarded as among the most important French philosophers of the twentieth century. He had contributed to most of the major philosophical movements from the 1940s to the present, including existentialism, phenomenology, hermeneutics, structuralism, critical theory, narrative theory, philosophy of religion, ethical theory, political philosophy, and philosophy of law.
Ricoeur was a prolific author of twenty-seven books and more than 500 articles as of 2004. His works tend to focus on theories of interpretation and the philosophy of human nature, examining the limits on our ability to understand the world and to know ourselves.
If there is a guiding thread that runs through Ricoeur's career it would be an attempt to develop a philosophical anthropology of human capability, in particular our capacities to act, understand, communicate, and be responsible.
|University of Rennes|
Born in 1913 in Valence, France, Ricoeur studied classics and philosophy at the University of Rennes and at the Sorbonne. After holding a number of teaching positions in provincial colleges, he was drafted into the French army in 1940.
He was soon captured and spent the next five years in a German prison camp. While in prison, Ricoeur translated Edmund Husserl's book Ideas (1913) into French and coauthored a study on Karl Jaspers with fellow inmate Mikel Dufrenne. After he was freed in 1945, Ricoeur taught at the University of Strasbourg (1948–1956), the Sorbonne (1956–1966), and the University of Paris, Nanterre (1966–1987).
In 1970 he succeeded Paul Tillich as the John Nuveen Professor of Philosophical Theology at the University of Chicago where he held a joint appointment at the School of Theology and Department of Philosophy until his retirement in 1992. Ricoeur continued to publish works on hermeneutics, moralpolitical philosophy, and theology until his death in May 2005.
Ricoeur's early works were devoted to a phenomenological study of the human will. He sought to combine the existentialist themes of Gabriel Marcel (incarnate existence) and Karl Jaspers (limit situations, such as birth, war, and death) with the methodological rigor of Husserlian phenomenology.
The result is a proposed threevolume, systematic "philosophy of the will" that includes Freedom and Nature: The Voluntary and the Involuntary (1950), Fallible Man (1960), and Symbolism of Evil (1960). These works form the core of Ricoeur's early philosophical anthropology. The third volume was to be on the "poetics of the will" but was never written.
In Freedom and Nature, Ricoeur employs the Husserlian method of eidetic analysis to the spheres of the will, affection, and volition. The goal is to describe the structures of voluntary action to uncover our fundamental possibilities of existence.
Ricoeur retains from Husserl the central insight into the intentionality of consciousness and the methodological technique of bracketing, while recognizing that phenomenology must be supplemented with non-phenomenology given the limits placed on knowledge by the body.
A phenomenology of action reveals the full extent to which consciousness is embodied and tied to involuntary functions, thus known both phenomenologically (as a subject of the will) and empirically (as an object for the will).
The experience of our own bodies is never direct and unmediated; instead we interpret the involuntary aspects of our bodies as signs or symptoms for the will. These signs are read indirectly through one's will as indications of the involuntary for the voluntary. We find consciousness in the body and the body in consciousness.
Ricoeur shows how the act of willing is both the realization of freedom and the reception of necessity. The act of willing has three moments, each inextricably related to the involuntary. The three parts are: 1) "I decide"; 2) "I move my body"; and 3) "I consent."
Each part has an object (or intentional correlate): A) the decision or project; B) the action or motion; C) the acquiescence or consent. Finally, each correlate is itself related to the different modes of the involuntary: a) motives, needs, values; b) skills, emotions, habits; c) character, unconscious, life.
There is a fundamental reciprocity of voluntary decision, choice, and action with involuntary bodily functions, which act as a vehicle for the will. The involuntary necessity of the body both limits and enables human freedom.
Yet the unity of mind and body, voluntary and involuntary, is never fully realized. Rather it is a regulative idea for understanding how humans are both free and constrained. Embodied freedom and unifying the will free from conflict is something we can only hope for but never completely realize.
A poetics of the will in the proposed third volume was to be Ricoeur's attempt to show how imaginative and creative uses of language can suggest ways to reconcile the dualism of mind and body.
After having described the eidetic structures of the will as incarnate freedom, in the second volume of the philosophy of the will Ricoeur seeks to uncover the actual conditions of existence through an "empirics of the will."
One of Ricoeur's aims is to overcome the tendency among existentialists to overvalue human transcendence and devalue human finitude. He believes that the mistake made by Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger is to equate finitude (our inevitable and necessary limitations) with guilt (an undesirable experience of limitation).
In Fallible Man, Ricoeur examines the conditions under which the will confronts its finitude and chooses evil and sin. The reason one chooses evil stems from the divided will. There is a disproportion between our finite limitations and infinite possibilities. This gap between our limited bios (our bodies, passions, and desires) and unlimited logos (our reason capable of grasping universals) renders us fragile and fallible.
The fractured will, or fault in our existence (like a geological fault), opens the way for temptation, evil, and sin. We are not evil by nature but we have the capacity to be thanks to the disproportion in our will.
Following Immanuel Kant, Ricoeur analyzes the existential significance of our fallibility in terms of imagination (the limits of knowledge), character (the limits of the will), and feeling (the limits of our emotion). The ineliminable conflict within human beings constitutes our capacity both for good and evil.
In the second volume of the empirics of the will, The Symbolism of Evil, Ricoeur continues to examine our capacity for evil by considering the various ways humans are already guilty, sinful, and fallen.
He conducts a "phenomenology of confession" that describes the way we experience the transition from fallibility to fault (from our potential for evil to actually being evil). According to Ricoeur, confession arises from three sources: defilement, sin, and guilt.
|Symbolism of Evil|
Defilement is interpreted as an objective state of impurity, sin as a social state, and guilt as a psychological interiorization of sin. Ricoeur then shows how this progressive "fallenness" is reproduced in four basic types of myth: myths of creation, myths of tragedy, myths of the fall, and myths of exile. Each type of myth is a symbolic expression of our experience of evil.
Through his analysis of myths, Ricoeur began to shift away from phenomenology to hermeneutics as he became more interested in the symbolic systems that relate us to the world and impose an indirect or interpretive approach to knowledge and self-understanding.
Symbols are double-meaning expressions with an apparent, first-order, meaning and a hidden, second-order, meaning. Symbols must be interpreted rather than merely perceived in order to be understood.
Ricoeur contends that if language is taken to be the medium for thought and experience, it is impossible to realize a prelinguistic and presuppositionless realm of consciousness. As a result, we can never have the kind of unmediated knowledge that phenomenologists have traditionally hoped to attain.
As such, the mediation of selfunderstanding by signs, symbols, and language requires an interpretive, hermeneutic philosophy. Ricoeur often speaks of the detour self-understanding must take through language. The idea of a detour as a hermeneutical technique for reading signs of experience through something else is one of Ricoeur's favorite metaphors that reappears throughout his career.
In Freud and Philosophy (1965), Ricoeur develops a hermeneutic philosophy by contrasting Husserlian phenomenology and Freudian psychoanalysis. According to Ricoeur, Sigmund Freud introduces a model for understanding the relationship between experience and desire, as well as a technique for uncovering the relation of a latent, unconscious meaning to a manifest, conscious meaning.
|illusion of a subject|
The unconscious is an interplay of language and desire that reveals and conceals, thus shaping and distorting how we understand ourselves and others. Freud removes the illusion of a subject that ostensibly is immediately transparent to itself, thereby frustrating the aim of phenomenology to describe experience faithfully.
For Ricoeur, Freud's contribution to hermeneutics is a theory of interpretation geared toward unmasking and decoding symbolic expressions. Dreams and symbols are models of the complexity of language in which meanings are both given and hidden.
This symbolic language requires an interpretation in terms of rules and law-like regularities to understand how it mediates experience. Psychoanalysis, on this account, is a hermeneutic technique for interpreting the semantics of desire, that is, the interrelations among language, experience, bodily desires, and culture.
In Freud and Philosophy, Ricoeur contrasts two opposing kinds of hermeneutics: the hermeneutics of belief and the hermeneutics of suspicion. The hermeneutics of belief is geared toward recovering and recollecting lost or forgotten meanings.
Understanding a religious symbol involves a hermeneutics of belief because to understand its full meaning one must already have the prior belief that it is sacred. The hermeneutic situation is that we must believe in order to know, yet know in order to believe.
By contrast, the hermeneutics of suspicion is geared toward unmasking, demystifying, and removing the illusions of symbols, which not only reveal but conceal meaning. Ricoeur draws on the "masters of suspicion," Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and Freud, each of whom posit a false consciousness in place of an immediate, selftransparent consciousness, and deception or delusion in place of the experience of participation.
The hermeneutics of suspicion decipher meanings hidden and distorted by literal and apparent meanings. Ricoeur argues that self-understanding involves a dialectic of belief and suspicion: We must have a clear understanding of our past that is shaped by a projection of what we hope we can become.
In The Conflict of Interpretations (1969), Ricoeur further develops a hermeneutic philosophy through his confrontation with structuralist semiotics. Like psychoanalysis, structuralist semiotics calls into question the primacy of consciousness as the privileged, self-evident home of meaning.
Ricoeur retains the insight of structuralists, such as Ferdinand de Saussure and Claude LeviStrauss, that language has objective characteristics best understood as an empirical science and that meaning is a function of a different agency than consciousness.
Yet Ricoeur maintains this aspect of language without rejecting the fundamental intentionality of consciousness and role of the individual as a bearer of meaning.
|bearer of meaning|
Language has expressive meanings that must be understood from the perspective of the first person as well as objective meanings that must be understood from the perspective of the third person. Ricoeur tries to integrate a structuralist method of objective explanation into an interpretive theory for understanding spoken and written language.
As a result of the confrontation with structuralism, Ricoeur develops a theory of language as discourse. In Interpretation Theory (1971), discourse is defined as a dialectic of event and meaning, sense and reference.
Discourse takes place as an event but has an ideal, repeatable meaning that allows what is said to be repeated, identified, and said differently. As an event, discourse is referential (about something), self-referential (said by someone), temporal (said at some moment), and communicative (said to someone).
As a meaning, discourse is both what the speaker means and what the utterance means. The dialectic of event and meaning, sense and reference constitutes written discourse as well. But where spoken discourse is addressed to someone, in a particular dialogical situation, written discourse is addressed to an indefinite number of absent readers.
The task of hermeneutics is to understand the matter of the text that is autonomous with respect to the intentions of the author, its original addressee, and the context in which it was written. The matter of the text discloses a proposed world (of real and imaginary references) one could possibly experience, inhabit, verify, criticize, and so on.
To appropriate the meaning of a text we must first let go and relinquish the illusion that subjectivity alone confers meaning. Now the text, not the symbol, is Ricoeur's model for the linguistic mediation of experience. Self-interpretation is mediated by textual interpretation; conversely, textual interpretation results in self-interpretation.
The hermeneutics of texts also applies to actions. In his article The Model of the Text as Meaningful Action (1971), Ricoeur argues that actions, like texts, are readable, with a meaning that is independent of the intentions of the actors and subject to conflicting interpretations.
In the same way that a text becomes detached from its author, an action is detached from its agent and may take on unintended meanings of its own. The meaning of an action is then open to an indefinite number of interpretations by an indefinite number of possible readers.
Ricoeur believes that if human action can be read and interpreted like written works, then the methods and practices of textual interpretation can function as a paradigm for the interpretation of action for the social sciences.
Ricoeur accepts Wilhelm Dilthey's distinction between two forms of inquiry: scientific explanation of the natural world, and historical understanding of the social world. Yet Ricoeur maintains that hermeneutics is a dialectic of explanation and understanding. Texts and actions have underlying structures to be explained as well as social meanings to be understood.
metaphor and narrative
Throughout his career Ricoeur has examined how imaginative and creative uses of language improve our ability to express ourselves and extend our understanding of the world. Symbols, myths, metaphors, and fiction can capture experience in ways that ordinary, descriptive language cannot.
Ricoeur maintains that the reference of creative language is divided or split, meaning that such writing points to aspects of the world can only be suggested and referred to indirectly. Creative language refers to such aspects of the world as if they were real and as if we could be there.
|metaphor and narrative|
In The Rule of Metaphor (1975), Ricoeur develops his thesis that the split-reference of creative discourse discloses a possible way of being in the world that remains hidden from ordinary language and first-order reference.
A metaphor is a heuristic fiction" that redescribes reality by referring to it in terms of something imaginative or fictitious, allowing us to learn something about reality from fiction. Heuristic fictions help us to perceive new relations and new connections among things, broadening our ability to express ourselves and understand ourselves.
Like all discourse, a metaphor is a communicative utterance that is produced as event, but understood as meaning. Yet, only a live metaphor is at the same time both event and meaning. A dead metaphor has lost its event character when it becomes a commonplace expression, such as, for example, to describe someone who is nervous as having butterflies in their stomach.
A live metaphor contains a metaphorical twist that produces a new, surprising meaning. The meaning results from a tension in the way something is described metaphorically and how we normally understand it to be.
In order to grasp the differences and resemblance that constitute a metaphor, we must see through the first-order, ostensive reference to the second-order, creative reference to understand how it relates the world. To understand what a metaphor means is to see that it is similar to and different from an ordinary description.
The tension in a living metaphor between literal and imaginative must be preserved, not overcome, to be understood. Ricoeur argues that living metaphors create new interpretations that may potentially transform the way we understand and act.
|Time and Narrative|
In his three-volume Time and Narrative (1983, 1984, and 1985), Ricoeur continues to develop the themes of semantic innovation and the ability of poetic discourse to disclose new ways to see and to be in the world.
The basic unit of a narrative is a plot, which unifies the elements of a story, including the reasons, motives, and actions of characters with events, accidents, and circumstances together into a coherent unity.
A plot synthesizes, integrates, and schematizes actions, events, and, ultimately, time into a unified whole that says something new and different than the sum of its parts. The thesis of Time and Narrative is that connection exists between the temporal character of human experience and the act of narrating a story.
Temporal experience is expressed in the form of a narrative, as a narrative is able to reflect our social reality because it expresses temporal experience.
The circularity of time and narrative is mediated by three senses of representation: mimesis1, mimesis2, and mimesis3. Mimesis1, or prefiguration, represents the aspect of the imitation of action that draws on our pre-understanding of the difference between human action and physical activity.
It has three aspects—structural, symbolic, and temporal—that form the cognitive and practical background that determines how we interpret human action. Mimesis2, or configuration, is the pivot of the analysis of the relationship between time and narrative in which actions are configured into a story by means of a plot.
|plot of a story|
An action becomes an event in relation to a plot of a story. In turn, a story is more than a succession of actions but rather the organization of events into an intelligible whole. Mimesis3, or refiguration, refers to the act of reading that changes our practical understanding according to the configuration of the story.
The act of telling and interpreting stories links narration with the practical transformation of the world. Hermeneutics for Ricoeur is now construed as the telling, writing, and understanding of fictional and nonfictional stories, in effect, linking time, narratives, and history.
In Time and Narrative, Ricoeur introduces the idea of a narrative identity. His thesis is that we understand a person's identity as we would a character in a fictional or historical narrative.
One's self-identity is constituted by means of emplotment, which configures and synthesizes diverse and multiple elements of a life into a unified whole. Just as the story of a life unfolds like a narrative, the identity of a character also unfolds in a narrative.
One's identity is constituted by the stories told about oneself, as well as the stories told by other significant figures in our lives such as parents, spouses, friends, and enemies. A personal identity is also tied to larger group identities, which, similar to a personal identity, are partly chosen, partly inherited, and constituted by the stories we tell about it.
The identity of a group, culture, or nation requires that its members are convinced of the truth and rightness of their story. To be effective, these narratives have to shape how the members understand themselves as a part of the group. Ricoeur is particularly interested by stories of founding events that establish and sustain communities, and form our individual and group identities.
ethics and politics
ethics and politics
Ricoeur is also interested in the role narratives play in moral deliberation. The ethical implications for personal or narrative identity is that an agent must maintain some kind of continuity of time in order to be accountable for one's actions. Identity is constitutive of accountability; narrative is constitutive of identity.
In addition to attributing actions to agents, narrative discourse also attributes moral obligations to agents who have the power to act and who are capable of being acted upon. Narration further mediates between description and prescription by providing a context and characters in ethical questioning.
We tell stories as a part of the thought experiments we conduct, which allow us to test moral judgments in imaginary cases. Narration thus forms not only our moral ideals but also the stories we tell of ourselves and each other that help us determine if we have achieved it. How we individually and collectively remember events is crucial to the way we hold others accountable for their actions.
The fourth set of studies in Oneself As Another (1990), following the studies on speaking, acting, and narrating, form what Ricoeur ironically calls his "little ethics," an ambitious attempt to mediate between an Aristotelian, teleological conception of the ethical aim and a Kantian, deontological conception of the moral norm.
Ricoeur's notion of practical wisdom incorporates the idea from the Aristotelian heritage that ethics is the practice of becoming a good person as a member of a political community. The good life consists in developing the virtues, habits, and practices that enable us to develop ourselves, sustain interpersonal relationships, and create a life of happiness together.
Ricoeur also incorporates the idea from the Kantian heritage that morality is defined by the obligation to respect universal moral norms. In this tradition, moral actions must be motivated solely out of duty to the moral law.
Morality consists in obeying moral laws that are binding on everyone, respecting the dignity of other people, and acting as an autonomous member of a moral community. For Ricoeur, practical wisdom is the art of mediating the particular requirement of the ethical aim and the universal requirement of the moral norm geared toward acting appropriately and justly in order to achieve happiness with others in a good and just society.
In Oneself As Another, Ricoeur proposes three theses with respect to ethics and morality: 1) the primacy of ethics over morality; 2) the necessity that the ethical aim be mediated by the moral norm; 3) morality must seek recourse in ethics to resolve conflicts and aporias. Ethics encompasses morality—but while it is subordinate to ethics, morality is a necessary, deontological moment of the actualization of ethics.
The final recourse to ethics (informed by morality) is a form of practical wisdom geared toward the appropriate application of universal norms in particular situations. The reason why ethics needs morality is to ensure that ethical life respects the autonomy and dignity of everyone.
The reason why morality needs ethics is twofold: 1) Without ethics morality would be empty; it is founded on and presupposes our desire to live well together with others; 2) When deontological norms produce conflicting obligation—as they inevitably do—we must refer back to the ethical aim of a particular good life in order to figure out what to do. Sometimes there is no right answer to moral problems.
If moral judgment were simply a matter of balancing the ethical aim and moral norm, there would be no room for the tragedy of action, exemplified in stories similar to that of Sophocles's Antigone. It is in these intractable situations that the art of practical wisdom helps us make decisions and act justly and appropriately in the face of tragic situations.
Ricoeur's main contribution to political philosophy is his notion of the political paradox. He maintains that, on one hand, political authority is legitimate if it comes from the rational consent of the governed; on the other hand, political practice is often coercive, even violent, which is something, in principle, to which individuals cannot consent.
The paradox of political authority is permanent. Ricoeur agrees with Hannah Arendt that it is necessary to distinguish legitimate power-in-common from illegitimate power-over, but he agrees with Max Weber that political institutions are in fact often characterized by domination.
Consequently, we should recognize that political power and political discourse always teeters at the edge of violence and illegitimacy. The political sphere is a fragile balance between authority and force, reason and tradition, ideology and utopia.
In The Just (2000) Ricoeur argues that coping with political power is an exercise in practical wisdom, a mediation of our desire to live together in communities with the requirement of justice and the rule of law.
Social justice not only requires democratic political and economic institutions that respect human rights, treat people equally, protect our liberties, and allow for full political participation, but it should aim to foster a good life for communities, emphasize the membership of citizens for whom political participation matters, and recognize the plurality of social goods and historic values that make us who we are.
Ricoeur's more recent work, Memory, History, and Forgetting (2004), examines the role memories play in our ability to represent the past and make present something that is absent. The first part is a meticulous phenomenology of memory, examining the object of memory, the act of remembering, and the nature of personal and collective memories.
The second part is an epistemology of history that examines the documentary phase of archiving eyewitnesses, the explanatory phase where historical explanations occur, and the representative phase where history takes its written or literary form.
The third part is a hermeneutics of our historical conditions that examines the limits to our historical knowledge, the existential and temporal conditions of our historical knowledge, and the role of forgetting in relation to memory and history.
The work concludes with a plea for forgiveness as the best way to remember events in order to right past wrongs and to restore social bonds. Individual and groups must learn to remember events differently if they wish to achieve recognition and potentially reconcile.
The political implications of memory involve policy considerations for the just allotment of memory to redress excesses of both memory and forgetting. Forgiveness, however, goes beyond justice and approaches the realms of charity and gift-giving.
To ask for forgiveness is to recognize that a crime may be unforgivable. Yet, Ricoeur maintains that forgiveness is the best way to remember events to permit more hopeful futures together.
In the 1950s, Ricoeur rivaled Sartre in popularity in France. By the end of the 1960s his popularity waned, along with other phenomenologists, as a new generation of intellectuals dominated the French scene.
Ricoeur spent much of the 1970s in the United States, writing in English and assimilating the work of Anglo-American philosophers. His French readers, however, were perplexed by his turn to analytic philosophy and, although his works continued to be read by theologians, his reputation suffered among philosophers.
However, with the publication of the highly acclaimed Time and Narrative in the 1980s, Ricoeur was again recognized as among France's leading intellectuals. By then he had outlived and surpassed the generation of postmodernist philosophers from the late 1960s, taking his own creative, literary turn without ever abandoning his conviction that philosophy and reason are synonymous.
Over his career, Ricoeur received honorary degrees from approximately forty universities, delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures in 1986, and was awarded numerous significant international prizes, including the 2004 John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Human Sciences. After his retirement, he resided outside of Paris and continued to publish well into his nineties.