Biography  |  Bibliography  |  Articles  |  Quotes  |  Links  

Paul Ricoeur - Biography

Paul Ricoeur, was a major French philosopher who would develop further both the field of phenomenology and hermeneutics. He was born on February 27, 1913 and died on May 20, 2005. He would position himself in the same tradition as critical thinkers such as Martin Heidegger (1889 - 1976) and Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900 - 2002). Paul Ricoeur’s work would focus on the concepts of meaning, subjectivity, and the heuristic function of fiction, included in literature and history. Paul Ricoeur is most known for having brought together hermeneutic interpretations with phenomenological descriptions. According to him writing should be able to allow us to know the obscure reality of its intentions. Paul Ricoeur would find inspirations beyond philosophy proper and would be in constant dialogue all throughout his career with both the humanities as well as the social sciences. Paul Ricoeur would also be greatly interested in Christian existentialism and Protestant theology. He would count the famous philosopher and father of deconstruction Jacques Derrida (1930 - 2004) as one of his students.

Paul Ricoeur was born on February 27, 1913 in Valence a city located in the south of France. He is the son of an English teacher who would be killed during World War I. He would also lose his mother at a young age and he was raised as an orphan by his devout Protestant grandparents.

Paul Ricoeur would first become acquainted with philosophy in high school in the industrial city of Rennes in northwestern France where he had lived since the death of his father. He would study philosophy with Roland Dalbiez (1893 - 1976) played a major role in bringing Freud’s ideas to France. Paul Ricoeur would continue to study philosophy at the University of Rennes and got a degree in it at only 20 years of age. He would get second place at the 1935 philosophy agrégation (French University high-level competitive examination for the recruitment of professors and often the gateway to PhD studies).

Paul Ricoeur continued his philosophy training in Paris with the French philosopher and Christian existentialist Gabriel Marcel (1889 - 1973) in the 1930s. He discovered the writings of Edmund Husserl’s (1859 - 1938) phenomenology, Ideen 1 (Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie, 1) or in English “The main ideas for a pure phenomenology and a phenomenological philosophy, 1”.

Paul Ricoeur would devote a good deal of his critical thinking to the analysis of the subject (as in Oneself as Another, first published in French in 1990), but also of the subject’s action and its relation to time (as in Time and Narrative, first published in French in 1983). He would do so by being in a constant dialogue with psychoanalysis, linguistics, structuralism, and with social and political theories (as in Ideology and Utopia, first published in French in 1997). Paul Ricoeur would also bring back to life both biblical research such as research in exegesis, which technically speaking is the critical interpretation of scriptures (as in Thinking Biblically: Exegetical and Hermeneutical Studies, co-authored with André LaCocque, and “Lectures 3: At the frontiers of philosophy”, first published in French in 1998 and 1994 respectively).

After the war Paul Ricoeur would teach three years at the alternative and innovative Collège Cévenol (a middle school founded by Protestants) where the tradition had been that of resistance to all forms of oppression as well as promoting an education centered around non-violence and respect for others in a diverse community where political debates would be nonetheless encouraged. Paul Ricoeur would tellingly write in his 1995 autobiography:

“There my old internal debate about ‘the non-violent man and his presence in history’ would be rekindled for a long time - a debate that dated back to the discoveries I had made as a child about the injustices and lies of World War One.”

There Paul Ricoeur would be able to complete his thesis on the will that he would later publish in 1950 as part one of a trilogy entitled Philosophie de la volonté (“Philosophy of the Will”). Part one, essentially his dissertation, would be given the title Le Volontaire et l’Involontaire. In this first work two projects come together. The first one has to do with measuring the actual passivity that in fact belies the Cartesian cogito’s claim to sovereignty. The second is to bring as far as possible, in the same way as Edmund Husserl’s eidetic intuition, the pure description of the will: project, design, motivation, desire, allocation, imputation, effort, emotion, and habit. The first project calls for a meditation on the “disproportion” of oneself as a complement, which defines the ontological status of the “fallible man” (It is noteworthy that part two of the trilogy would be published in English as “Fallible Man: Philosophy of the Will”). As for the second project, it faces its own limit in the necessity of always having to try and bracket out the conditions of a will that is always somehow connected to evil. Such brackets would be lifted in his The Symbolism of Evil (first published in French in 1960, and the last part of the trilogy) as this new work will mark Paul Ricoeur’s transition from a pure phenomenology to hermeneutics. In fact, hermeneutics as a unique and complex method of interpretation would remain for him the fundamental problem until the end no matter what question he would try and tackle.

On May 17th 1968 in solidarity with the students in protest Paul Ricoeur would resign from his leadership position in the philosophy department of the experimenting and innovative newly-founded Nanterre University in Paris. On April 18th 1969 he is elected there to be Dean of the Humanities and Social Sciences. His office would be regularly invaded by protesters and he would even be insulted and attacked. It would all culminate one day with his being put a trash can on his head. After such an aggression by leftists he would step down from the position in 1970. Tired of the French intellectual and political life, he would leave France and teach at the University of Chicago and at the University of Louvain, sharing his time mostly between the US and Belgium.

From then on Paul Ricoeur would keep traveling worldwide and promote everywhere he would go a kind of philosophy in tune with contemporary issues. He would be the recipient of numerous awards such as the Hegel Prize in Stuttgart, an Académie française Prize, the Balzan Prize in 1999, the Kyoto Prize in 2000 and many more. Until his death Paul Ricoeur would be a prolific writer of internationally recognized books acknowledged for the their originality as well as their ethical and political engagement.

Today Paul Ricoeur remains for many the model intellectual, always engaged with contemporary events and always trying to come up with appropriate answers simply as a critical thinker and not as a master thinker. Historically Paul Ricoeur would find himself at the crossroads of three great philosophical traditions: existentialism, phenomenology with its opening towards hermeneutics, and with analytic philosophy. It it noteworthy that Paul Ricoeur would play an important role, a kind of a bridge, between continental philosophy and analytical philosophy, especially so when he worked in the United States.

Considered one of the greatest French thinkers of the post-war era, together with Emmanuel Levinas (1906 - 1995), Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), and Vladimir Jankélévitch (1903 - 1985), he would leave after him a considerable political philosophy oeuvre which will take time for being all translated into English. In 2000 he would publish La Mémoire, L’Histoire, l’Oubli (published in 2006 in English under the title “Memory, History, Forgetting”) which would be about the question of a just representation of the past. In 2004 he would publish his last two books, Parcours de la reconnaissance (translates loosely as “Journey of Recognition”) and Sur la traduction (“On Translation”). The former would place the important notion of recognition within its uncertainties and its complex mutualities, and yet at the heart of the social bond.

Paul Ricoeur died on May 20th 2005 at Châtenay-Malabry at 92 years of age.

Paul Ricoeur was a French Philosopher. (February 27, 1913 - May 20, 2005)