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Paul Ricoeur

1913 to 2005

Paul Ricouer, born in Valance in 1913, was best known for his work on philosophy, theology, hermeneutics and phenomenology. Intellectually precocious from a young age, he was awarded his bachelor’s degree from the University of Rennes and a Master’s in philosophy from the Sorbonne. Drafted during World War Two, he spent five years as a prisoner of war. Whilst a prisoner he organised readings and classes so rigorous that the camp was granted the power to confer degrees. During his time imprisoned, he read Karl Jaspers work and began translating the work of Husserl into French (which would later form part of his doctoral thesis.)

Ricoeur’s principal work throughout his large and extremely diverse corpus was the task of phenomenological hermeneutics, examining not just the text but also to how each individual subject relates to anything outside of itself. The purpose of investigating such an interaction is always aimed toward a greater self-understanding and understanding of the other. In short, Ricoeur’s work was a prolonged and in-depth investigation of what he termed ‘the capable human being.’

His key works include Freedom and Nature: The Voluntary and the Involuntary (1950), a sustained phenomenological investigation of the will. This first investigation bracketed the question of evil which was taken up in the Symbolism of Evil (1960), which sought to account for the existence of a bad will and the ways in which we may choose to commit evil actions. The book also argues that the inability to come to terms with evil leads to drawing upon the myths and symbols of great literature, and philosophy must learn to start thinking from this symbolic language. This leads in to perhaps his most famous work, the three-volume study Time and Narrative (1984–88) In Ricoeur’s Gifford Lectures from 1986, published as Oneself as Another (1992), Ricouer drew together his interests in ethics, phenomenology, narrative and hermeneutics to examine what it is to be a self. Ricoeur singularly manages to turn the self into the self-as-other with the deliberate aim of provoking a new kind of ethical awareness. Ricouer’s final large book, Memory, History, Forgetting (2004) drew together all the threads of his philosophical work around the issues of recognition, recollection and the use of memory. Ricoeur’s vast body of work has proven to be exceptionally influential and challenging to traditional notions of selfhood and hermeneutics, particularly in his strong ethical call for reciprocity and recognition between the self and the Other. He died in 2005 at the age of ninety-two.

  • Jon Greenaway, Manchester Metropolitan University