welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


Ricoeur’s Negotiated Settlements

Fred Dallmayr on the conciliatory and original Paul Ricoeur, who died in May.

Yet another giant of twentieth-century philosophy has passed from the scene. On 20 May Paul Ricoeur died in his sleep in Chatenay-Malabry, France, at the age of 92. His death comes on the heels of a series of recent departures: Hans-Georg Gadamer in 2002, Jacques Derrida in 2004. Anyone who has been touched by the work of these thinkers cannot but feel a sense of great loss and deep mourning – a sense of being orphaned.

Ricoeur was born in 1913, before the outbreak of World War I. He thus belonged to that remarkable generation of French intellectuals who reached maturity during the interwar period and then came fully into their own after World War II: the group including Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Albert Camus, and Jacques Lacan, among others. On someone like me, emerging from boyhood in Germany after the war, that group of intellectuals – basically my father’s generation – exerted a profoundly formative influence. Dispelling the dark insanity of the Nazi period, they brought to us from across the Rhine a burst of light: an illumination made up of the best of French esprit, civilized moeurs, and progressive political engagement.

Among his peers, Ricoeur occupied something of a recessed place for a good many years: compared with Sartre’s more flamboyant existentialism, Ricoeur’s soberly reflective style appeared less immediately accessible and captivating. But a more careful study of his writings reveals their importance and power.

I was fortunate enough to make his acquaintance at a number of conferences, both in France and the United States (where he taught for some twenty years at the University of Chicago). At the time of his retirement from Chicago in 1991, I was asked to present a paper at a conference honoring his many years of teaching there. I focused on the “little ethics” he had outlined in one of his books – an ethics which was ‘little’ only by the modesty of its formulation but actually huge in terms of its ambition: the goal of reconciling Aristotle and Kant (something hardly anyone has ever tried to do). The guest of honor responded to my talk in vintage Ricoeur style: amiable, unpolemical, supportive. Unfortunately this was to be the last time I saw him.

In my memory, Ricoeur lives primarily as an eminent mediator and peace-maker. He was born a Protestant in a traditionally Catholic country which had turned secular and agnostic; but he was always on good terms with Catholics, members of other faiths, and agnostics. He spent his boyhood in Rennes, where he began his academic training before moving on to the Sorbonne in Paris. During his late teens he was influenced by the radical Protestant theology of Karl Barth. But when studying in Paris, something peculiar happened: he experienced what he called the “decisive philosophical shock” of his life by encountering the Catholic thought of Gabriel Marcel. What attracted him to Marcel was his concrete contextualism, his accent on ‘incarnation’ and the mystery of the body. For Ricoeur this accent called into question the entire Cartesian legacy with its mind-body bifurcation, thus inaugurating a new dawn of philosophy.

But this was not the last philosophical shock in his life.

In 1940 Ricoeur was inducted into the French army and almost instantly captured by German troops. As a result, he spent the entire war in a POW camp. Tellingly, however, this experience did not provoke hatred or ressentiment in him; rather, displaying his peaceable disposition, he spent these years studying German philosophy, from Kant and Hegel to Husserl, Heidegger, and Karl Jaspers. Among these thinkers, it was initially the individualism and liberal moralism of Jaspers which captured his imagination. But his penchant for embodied, grounded context quickly reasserted itself, conjuring a profound intellectual tension. The upshot was a book he penned during this period comparing Marcel and Jaspers – a study marvelously displaying Ricoeur’s conciliatory and irenic disposition.

After the war Ricoeur accepted an appointment in philosophy at the University of Strasbourg. German philosophy, and especially phenomenology (the focused study of phenomena), now became his passion. His academic position allowed him to delve deeply and rigorously into the work of Husserl, the founder of modern phenomenology whose famous book Ideas Ricoeur translated and published in 1950. Translation, however, was only a preamble to his own creative work. 1950 also saw the publication of the first volume of Ricoeur’s sprawling phenomenology of ‘willing’ (later translated into English as Freedom and Nature). Very much in a Husserlian spirit, the volume offered an eidetic or essential description of willing and of its intentional foundation (or ‘constitution’). Ricoeur’s fascination with Husserl continued throughout his Strasbourg years: a long string of essays finally resulting in an authoritative text on the German thinker (translated as Husserl: An Analysis of His Phenomenology).

Yet Husserl was only one strand in Ricoeur’s diverse thinking. As before, there were tensions and the need to manage them. Challenging Husserl were a number of competing perspectives: Heidegger’s ontology, Merleau-Ponty’s embodied perception, and Levinas’s heteronomous phenomenology (replacing Husserl’s ego-focus with a focus ‘from the other’). All these tensions and antagonisms surfaced powerfully after Ricoeur joined the Sorbonne in 1957. An initial manifestation was a shift in emphasis in his phenomenology of ‘willing’: namely, from an abstract or essentialist to a more contextual and existential mode of analysis – a change evident in the two sequels to the 1950 volume (sequels translated, respectively, as Fallible Man and The Symbolism of Evil).

This shift was accompanied by a resolute turn to language, especially symbolic language, and to textual interpretation (hermeneutics). In the latter field, in partial interaction with psychoanalysis, Ricoeur developed a theory of multiple readings, distinguishing between what he termed a hermeneutics of ‘retrieval’ and a hermeneutics of ‘suspicion’ as practiced chiefly by Nietzsche and Freud. (I refer here to his book De l’interpretation, translated as Freud and Philosophy.)

1968 was a turbulent year in France, marking the end of the era of ‘existentialism’ and ushering in the vogue of ‘structuralism’: with such figures as Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, and Michel Foucault in the vanguard. Having moved to the new University of Nanterre the year before, Ricoeur threw himself immediately and with vigor into the new intellectual milieu. In typical fashion, he sought not so much to demolish the structuralist fad but to point out its serious limitations. His book, translated as The Conflict of Interpretations (1969), was another milestone in the long series of Ricoeur’s negotiated settlements: this time outlining the respective strengths and weaknesses of hermeneutics, structuralism, and psychoanalysis.

Yet another challenge was waiting on the horizon: the task to bridge the gulf separating Continental and Anglo-American ‘analytical’ philosophy. Following his acceptance of a part-time appointment in Chicago in 1971, Ricoeur devoted himself to this challenge with customary open-mindedness and diligence. During these years he became a familiar figure in America, participating in numerous conferences, seminars, and workshops. These were also the years which laid the groundwork for the rich harvest of his mature thought.

His great study of metaphor in 1975 (translated as The Rule of Metaphor) demonstrated his masterly grasp of the multiple dimensions of language, from analytical to metaphorical to metaphysical. This work was followed in the 1980s by his three volume study Time and Narrative, and in the last decade of his life by his profound reflections on ‘memory, history, and forgetting’ and finally on ‘recognition’ (Parcours de la reconnaissance, 2004).

It is now time for us to ‘remember’ Ricoeur and to grant him the recognition that he so amply deserves as one of the master-thinkers of the last century. We should remember him not only as the intellectual mediator between plural, often opposed philosophical positions but as the mediator between theory and practice, thinking and doing. Throughout his life, Ricoeur was a politically engagé writer, an intellectual passionately committed to justice, peace, and democracy. His conception of democracy combined human rights and civil liberties with an emphasis on social justice and the common good for all. To this extent, he vigorously opposed any predatory or exploitative abuse of freedom (especially economic freedom turned into privilege).

He also opposed the predatory leanings of the modern nation-state. With great consistency he spoke out in support of peace and against warmongering of all sorts: against the wars in Algeria, in Vietnam, in Bosnia, and most recently Iraq. Living under the shadow of world wars, genocides, and ethnic cleansings, we are all the beneficiaries of Ricoeur’s vast legacy: a legacy of sobriety, serenity, good judgment (phronesis) and commitment to social (indeed global) justice. May we be ready to learn from his example as he himself was a perpetual learner throughout his life.

© Prof. Fred Dallmayr 2005

Fred Dallmayr teaches political philosophy at the University of Notre Dame (USA). His books include Beyond dogma and despair: toward a critical phenomenology of politics (1981), Language and politics: why does language matter to political philosophy? (1984), Critical encounters: between philosophy and politics (1987), Life-world, modernity, and critique: paths between Heidegger and the Frankfurt School (1991), Alternative visions: paths in the global village (1998), Achieving our world: toward a global and plural democracy (2001), Dialogue among civilizations (2002), and the forthcoming Small wonder: global power and its discontents (2005).

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X