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Paul Ricoeur


Paul Ricoeur was born on February 27, 1913 in Valence, France. Orphaned in 1915 when his mother died and his father was killed soon thereafter in the Battle of the Marne, Ricoeur was reared by his paternal grandparents and an unmarried aunt in Rennes. He studied philosophy first at the University of Rennes and then at the Sorbonne. From the earliest years of his academic life he was convinced that there is a basic, irreducible difference between persons and things. Unlike things, persons can engage in free, thoughtful action. Nonetheless, he never accepted any version of a substance dualism in the person that the Cartesian cogito or the Kantian transcendental subject would require. After succeeding in his aggregation examination, he taught at lycées and studied in Germany until the outbreak of World War II. Soon after being drafted into the French army in 1940 he was captured and spent the rest of the war in prison camps in Germany. After the war, he completed his doctorate and was appointed lecturer in the history of philosophy at the University of Strasbourg. He remained there until 1956, when he was named to the chair of general philosophy at the Sorbonne. In 1967, he joined the faculty of the new University of Paris at Nanterre, now Paris X. Except for three years spent at Louvain, he taught there until he reached the mandatory retirement age in 1980. From 1954 on, Ricoeur also taught regularly in the United States. Among the schools at which he taught were Haverford, Columbia, and Yale. In 1967 Ricoeur was named to succeed Paul Tillich as the John Nuveen professor of philosophical theology at the University of Chicago, with joint appointments in the Divinity School, the Philosophy Department, and the Committee on Social Thought. He held this position until 1992. Ricoeur's work has been translated into more than twenty languages. Among his many honorary doctorates are ones from Chicago (1967), Northwestern (1977), Columbia (1981), Göttingen (1987), and McGill (1992). He received numerous awards, among them the Dante Prize (Florence, 1988), the Karl Jaspers Prize (Heidelberg, 1989), the Leopold Lucas Prize (Tübingen, 1990), and the French Academy Grand Prize for Philosophy (1991). He was co-recipient of the John W. Kluge Prize in the Human Sciences awarded by the Kluge Center at the Library of Congress in 2004. He delivered the Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh in 1986.

 In Ricoeur's first major work, Freedom and Nature: The Voluntary and the Involuntary (1950), one finds an expression of a perennial theme central to his anthropology, namely the two-dimensional character of all constituent features of human existence. Contrary to Sartre's claim that there is radical difference between consciousness or the for-itself and materiality or the in-itself, a difference that pits the for-itself's freedom against the in-itself's sheer facticity, Ricoeur argues that the voluntary and involuntary dimensions of human existence are complementary. There is, to be sure, no seamless harmony between these two dimensions. Each person has to struggle with the tension between them and ultimately consent to our embodied lives and the world as something we do not fully create. It is our always fragile resolution of this conflict that ultimately makes our freedom genuinely our own, that gives us our distinctive identities.

Ricoeur extends his account of freedom in Fallible Man and The Symbolism of Evil, both published in 1960. In these works he addresses the question of how to account for the fact that it is possible for us to misuse our freedom, to have a bad will. In Fallible Man he argues that this possibility is grounded in a basic disproportion that characterizes the finite and the infinite dimensions of a human being. This disproportion is epitomized by the gap between bios, or one's spatiotemporally located life, and the logos, one's use of reason that can grasp universals. This disproportion shows up in every aspect of human existence. It is manifest in perception, in thought and speech, in evaluation, and in action. By reason of this disproportion, we are never wholly at one with ourselves and hence we can go wrong. We are fallible, yet evil, the misuse of our freedom, is not therefore original or necessary.

Nor does this disproportion render our existence meaningless. Rather, the very disproportion that makes us fallible and makes human evil possible is also what makes goodness, knowledge, and achievement possible. It is what distinguishes us from one another—each one of us has his or her unique spatiotemporal location—and at the same time makes it possible for us to communicate with each other, through the logos that intends to transcend such localized points of view.

Though the unity of humanity is never more than a unity founded on communication, precisely because we can communicate, the differences among us are never absolute. Furthermore, no one of us alone could be a person. Though each of us has an individual identity, our identities show that we are bound up with others: “Man is this plural and collective unity in which the unity of destination and the differences of destinies are to be understood through each other”. The kind of unity that binds people to one another even though they differ so much is found in their quest for esteem and recognition. This quest aims for genuine mutuality. It aims for a mutual esteem for the worth that each of us has by reason of both our common humanity and our individual uniqueness. This esteem positively values the disproportion constitutive of every person.

This theme of mutual recognition is developed more fully in Ricoeur's final book The Course of Recognition, where he argues that it goes beyond mere reciprocal recognition, like that found in commercial or other transactions reducible to a mere exchange of goods with no regard for who the other party involved might be.

Both our constitutive disproportion and this quest for mutual esteem are visible through the study of history which acknowledges the temporality of our existence. And such attention to history, in turn, further clarifies the nature of human freedom. For Ricoeur, there is indeed an order and structure to history. Otherwise history would be unintelligible. But history also recounts events and deeds that disrupt the prevailing order and reorder it.

In the aftermath of his “linguistic turn” Ricoeur did not abandon the basic claims of his earlier anthropology. As he had in Freedom and Nature, he continued to reject any form of substance dualism. And as he did in Fallible Man, he continued to emphasize the fragility of the human condition. But this turn led him to make major changes in his accounts of both language and action. On the one hand, he found in his conception of discourse as grounded upon the signs and symbols that make up human culture resources both for framing working hypotheses to make sense of human existence and for testing them. On the other hand, he came to conclude that his earlier work on the will was insufficient to provide the basis for an adequate philosophical anthropology. He had emphasized that the will involved an “internal” project or aim that was basically self-contained. But he came to see that one can only make sense of projects and intentions by understanding them as always connected to events in the world.

Properly conceived, action is that which brings projects and worldly events together, for action encompasses not only doing and making but also receiving and enduring. Action includes “saying inasmuch as it is a doing, ordinary action inasmuch as it is an intervention into the course of things, narration inasmuch as it is the narrative reassembling of a life stretched out in time, and finally, the capacity to impute to oneself or to others the responsibility for acting”. Hence Ricoeur concludes that his conception of action is similar to Heidegger's conception of care as the fundamental way that persons exist and inhabit the world.

The implications of Ricoeur's investigations of different forms of discourse and action come together in a particularly striking way in his discussion of what he calls the narrative unity of a person's life. Whatever else a narrative recounts, he says, it also recounts care. Indeed, in a sense narrative “only recounts Care. This is why there is nothing absurd in speaking about the narrative unity of a life, under the sign of narratives that teach us how to articulate retrospection and prospection in a narrative way”.

Construing Heidegger's care in terms of action and thereby finding care-action to be at the heart of every narrative provided Ricoeur with the basic resources for articulating the main themes of his mature anthropology. Among these themes are: (a) discourse and action, (b) selves as agents, (c) the temporality of action, (d) narrativity, identity, and time, (e) memory and history, (f) ethics, and (g) politics. Each of these themes deals with a fundamental feature of the constitutive capabilities of the capable human being.

Language contains within itself resources that allow it to be used creatively. Two important ways in which these resources come to light are (a) in the coining of metaphors and (b) in the fashioning of narratives. In The Rule of Metaphor, Ricoeur argues that is because there is a linguistic productive imagination that generates and regenerates meaning through the power of metaphoricity to state things in new ways. For him, fresh metaphors, metaphors that have not been reduced to the commonplace, reveal a new way of seeing their referents. They creatively transform language. Thus they are not merely rhetorical ornaments. They have genuine cognitive import in their own right and are untranslatable without remainder into literal language. In a similar manner, acts of narrating create new plots and characters, thereby also producing new meanings. Thus to become aware of the metaphorical and narrative resources resident in language is to see that, notwithstanding the many rules and codes that govern language usage, it is always able to be used creatively, to produce new meanings.

Four features of discourse, as distinct from language as a system, are of central importance for the analogy Ricoeur makes between texts and actions. First, a language system as conceived by structuralists is merely virtual and hence timeless, but discourse always occurs as an actual event at some particular moment of time. Second, a language system is self-contained, but discourse always refers to persons who say or write and hear or read. Third, though a language system is a necessary condition for communication inasmuch as it provides the codes for communication, it itself does not communicate. Only discourse communicates among its interlocutors. And fourth, the signs in a language system refer only to other signs in it, but discourse “refers to a world that it claims to describe, to express, or to represent”.

Action is analogous to discourse because, to make full sense of any action, one has to recognize that its meaning is distinguishable from its occurrence as a particular spatiotemporal event. Nevertheless, every genuine action is meaningful only because it is some specific person's doing at some particular moment.

To clarify the analogy further between discourse and action, Ricoeur draws on speech act theory. First, action has the structure of a locutionary act inasmuch as it has a “propositional content” that we can identify and reidentify. For example, we can recognize the activity of putting on clothes or digging in the ground whenever we encounter anyone doing them.

Second, action has “illocutionary” characteristics that closely resemble the speech acts in discourse. Each type of action has constitutive “rules,” rules that make an action a specific type of action. An obvious example of the “illocutionary” character of discourse is found in making promises. Similarly, actions of a certain sort—for example, stepping forward when volunteers are called for—can, in the appropriate context, count as a promise no less than a verbal pledge can.

Though Ricoeur does not explicitly discuss the counterpart in action of the perlocutionary act in discourse, it is easy to infer. Just as we can anticipate how people are likely to react to things that we might say or write, so we can anticipate how they would likely react to what we might do. We know that there are some deeds that people will quite likely put up with and others where they are likely not to do so.

It follows from the analogies between discourse and action that all action is in principle interaction, just as all discourse is in principle dialogical. Because of this similarity, action, like discourse, is inherently subject to interpretation and open to extended forms of discourse, including forms of critique. Like discourse, actions are “open worlds” whose meaning, which outlives their initial performance, is not fully determined by their performers and their immediate audiences. As the study of history shows, there are multiple ways that a past action remains open to interpretation. One can reasonably investigate what it meant to those who knew about it when it occurred. But one can also ask how those who came later understood and assessed it, or even what it might mean today or in a possible future.

Furthermore, just as we interpret the whole of a discourse, whether spoken or written, in the light of its several parts and any particular part in the light of the whole, similarly, we interpret a complex of actions—for example, a war—in the light of the particular actions of its participants and vice versa.

All interpretative activity, therefore, proceeds by way of a dialectic between guessing and validating. We make an educated guess about the meaning of a part and check it against the whole and vice versa. In the same way, we begin by guessing about the the meaning of the whole as determining the relative importance of the several parts. Throughout this process of guess and validation, we can come to an end when we say this is how we understand things, but there is no definitive outcome. It is always possible reasonably to relate sentences, or actions, to one another in more than one way. Hence, there is always a possible plurality and even a conflict of interpretations that must be negotiated in making sense of human discourse and action.

To validate an interpretation is not simply to verify it empirically. We validate an interpretation by vindicating it against competing interpretations. Thus validation “is an argumentative discipline more comparable to the judicial procedures of legal interpretation. It is a logic of uncertainty and qualitative probability”.

Ricoeur's conception of historical time unites two more elementary senses of time. There is cosmic time, the time of the world that unfolds as a sequence of uniform, qualitatively undifferentiated moments in which all change occurs, but in which any present is defined simply in relation to what comes before and after; these times come before this “now,” those after. Then there is lived time, the time of our lives. In lived time, the present is experienced as a lived now—indicated by our ability to say “now”—and some moments are more meaningful than others. For example, the moments of my marriage, of the birth of my child, of the death of a loved one, are more important than many other moments. Thus our elementary experiences of time confront us with a paradox: “On a cosmic scale, our life is insignificant, yet this brief period when we appear in the world is the time in which all meaningful questions arise”.

People harmonize these two conceptions of time by establishing devices, e.g., calendars, to measure time. These devices enable us to assign moments of lived time to moments of cosmic time and vice versa. A calendar, for example, “cosmologizes lived time [and] humanizes cosmic time. And it does this by making a noteworthy present coincide with an anonymous instant in the axial moment of the calendar”. The intelligibility of action depends upon the harmonization of these two kinds of time into what can properly be called historical time.

The present moment of historical time in which action takes place stands at the intersection of what Reinhart Koselleck calls the space of experience and the horizon of expectation. The space of experience is made up of past natural or cultural events that a person remembers or is influenced by in the present. It is the past now made present and thus it serves as the point of departure for a new decision or action. The horizon of expectation, on the other hand, is the unfolding of the array of projects that one can now undertake, of paths that one can now begin to explore on the basis of this space of experience. It is the future made present. The space of experience and the horizon of expectation mutually condition each other. The space of experience does not precisely determine a person's horizon of expectation. But a person who remembers only a little has a foreshortened horizon. He or she can only want something that is already rather familiar. Nonetheless, in considering a particular project, a person may be prompted to learn about some part of the past previously outside his or her space of experience.

Action, taken in the present, preserves the space of experience in a dialectical tension with the horizon of expectation. Without them, action would be impossible. But neither singly nor jointly can they fully determine action. Undoubtedly we are affected both by a past that is not of our own making and by the pictured future that our society presents. Nonetheless, through our initiatives we do make history and affect ourselves in the process of doing so.

These considerations concerning action and the historical time in which it takes place lead Ricoeur to refine his conception of personal identity. He argues that the kind of identity that a person has by virtue of his or her idem- and ipse-identities is a narrative identity.

The historical present is the time of actions, the time of the inaugurations of new sequences and arrangements of things. It is also the moment framed by the agent's space of experience and horizon of expectation. To give expression to this complex historical present one must use a kind of discourse that can articulate both strings of actions and events and their human contexts. The kind of discourse that can do this is narrative. Thus historical time becomes human time “to the extent that it is articulated through a narrative mode, and narrative attains its full significance when it becomes a condition of temporal existence.” 

As the most faithful articulations of human time, narratives present the moments when agents, who are aware of their power to act, actually do so, and patients, those who are subject to being affected by actions, actually are affected. They also tell of worldly outcomes, intended or otherwise, of those interventions into processes that both antedate them and outlast them. The historical time that narrative presents, i.e., human time as it unfolds in time, is an interpersonal, public time. It is the time in which one can locate sequences of generations and the traces their lives have left behind. Furthermore, it is the time in which debts to predecessors have been incurred. Indeed, Ricoeur holds that without at least a latent sense of such indebtedness to our predecessors history would be meaningless.

The constitutive features of any narrative form the basis for Ricoeur to hold that personal identity, itself constituted by an idem-identity and an ipse-identity, always involves a narrative identity. First, narratives draw together disparate and somehow discordant elements into the concordant unity of a plot that has a temporal span. Second, the elements and episodes that a narrative unites involve contingencies. All of them could have been different or even nonexistent. Nonetheless, as emplotted, these elements take on the guise of necessity or at least of likelihood because they are followable. Taken by itself, an element of a story is of interest only if it is surprising. But when it is integrated into a plot it appears as a quasi-necessity. Third, narratives are made up not only of actions and events but also of characters or personages. Plots relate the mutual development of a story and a character or set of characters. Every character in a story of any complexity both acts and is acted upon. Finally, a narrative's characters only rise to the status of persons—fictional or real—who can initiate action when one evaluates their doings and sufferings and imputes them to the the actors and victims as praiseworthy or otherwise. One evaluates how the person responds when confronted by another living being who is in some need that the person can address.

In sum, a narrative about human persons tells of both the connections that unify multiple actions over a span of time performed, in most cases, by a multiplicity of persons and the connections that link multiple viewpoints on and assessments of those actions. “The narrative constructs the identity of the character, what can be called his or her narrative identity, in constructing that of the story told. It is the identity of the story that makes the identity of the character”. We make sense of our own personal identities in much the same way as we do of the identity of characters in stories. First, in the case of stories, we come to understand the characters by way of the plot that ties together what happens to them, the aims and projects they adopt, and what they actually do. Similarly I make sense of my own identity by telling myself a story about my own life. In neither case is the identity like that of a fixed structure or substance. These identities are mobile. “Narrative identity takes part in the story's movement, in the dialectic between order and disorder”. Until the story is finished, the identity of each character or person remains open to revision.

Second, each personage's individual identity always intersects those of other personages in the narrative. This intersection can give rise to second-order stories, e.g., stories about families, that narrate the intertwining of multiple individual stories. Similarly, the story by which I constitute my own identity shows that my life is always linked to others, not always in the way I would prefer. Hence, other persons are always constituents in my identity and vice versa. Indeed, our individual identities are incorporable into a we-identity, as for example the identity we share as fellow citizens of the United States.

Third, every personage that figures in a story that is not a piece of science fiction does so as a full fledged bodily being, a being of a determinate sex and age as well as the native speaker of a particular language. Each comes from a particular place and is the inheritor of a particular heritage. So it is with us. However cosmopolitan a person may become, he or she has a distinctive heritage that always matters.

Finally, all narratives have ethical dimensions. As narratives that contain promises clearly exemplify, narratives present characters in such a way that evaluations of what they do or suffer are ingredient in the very meaning of these events. But narratives also call for us to evaluate their characters as such. They especially prod us to evaluate their ethical probity by considering their talents and their use of them.

Furthermore, narratives show that from the standpoint of ethics there is a kind of primacy of the other-than-self over the self. Ethically considered, the narrative unity of a life is made up of the moments of its responsiveness or failure to respond to others. The responsive self is primarily concerned not with its own condition but rather with responding faithfully and thoughtfully to others. Thus the responsive self does not aim primarily to preserve a Kantianesque autonomy. It does not shrink from every sort of heteronomy. Rather, it lives in hope that its responsiveness to others can and will bring about a better life for all of them, a life in which they all participate with and for others.

The task of doing historical research and writing history, of what Ricoeur calls the historiographical operation, is to support, correct, and, sometimes, refute collective memory. This operation does not deal directly with individual memory except as reported to and believed by others. It has three distinct but inseparable constituents, all of which are interpretative activities.

The first constituent is the building up and use of archives that contain, in some form, (e.g., documents, artifacts), traces of the past. The main traces are documents that record testimonies and reports about their contexts. Archival work is itself an interpretative activity. Guided by their interests, historians, librarians, etc. determine which traces to preserve. And questions or hypotheses framed by historians, without which archives would remain mute, lead them to detect “facts, capable of being asserted in singular, discrete propositions, most often having to do with the mentioning of dates, places, proper names, verbs that name an action or state”. These are not positivistic facts. They do not correspond directly either to what actually occurred or to the living memory that an eye-witness might have had of them. Facts are established only through the historian's questions and thus are themselves interpretations of the archives.

The second constituent of the historiographical operation is that of explanation/understanding, the activity by which historians relate facts to one another. Ricoeur rejects the longstanding supposed dichotomy between explanation of facts in terms of “external” causes and their comprehension through reasons or intentions. Because action is always interaction and therefore a mixture of doing and undergoing, there is no uniquely privileged model for historical accounts. The historian must be attentive to the multiple meanings of “why” that are relevant to making action intelligible.

The third constituent of the historiographical operation is the activity of producing a verbal representation of some part of the past as a text. This inscription is always rhetorical and therefore interpretative. Indeed, the historiographical operation as a whole forms a kind of “circle of interpretation,” for the historian's writings themselves are candidates for being collected in archives or libraries. They provide material for subsequent explanation/understanding, and are always subject to revision, expansion, and re-writing, often in light of further subsequent events.

Given the interpretative nature of the entire historiographical operation, historical knowledge, like medical diagnosis and prognosis, always has the character of likelihood or credibility rather than certainty. It comes down to a judgment. Furthermore, the historiographical operation, like memory, is always bound up with the forgotten. There is always something pertinent to a historical topic that is left aside, unnoticed, or that has simply vanished. Something of the past is always irretrievably gone and no actual remembering encompasses everything available for recall. Ultimately, “we have nothing better than testimony and the critique of testimony to give credibility to the historian's representation of the past”.

For Ricoeur, as for Aristotle, the political institution is the most comprehensive of social institutions. It provides the social space for other institutions—e.g., religious institutions, economic institutions—and protects each of them from being encroached upon by any of the others. Thus the political institution, especially if it unites people as fellow citizens in a state, embodies the power that makes possible the full expression of all basic human capabilities. Furthermore, it seeks to give stability and durability to what its people achieve.

But political power is inherently ambivalent or paradoxical. On the one hand, this power is power-in-common, a power that springs directly from the capacity people have to join with one another in common action. Together they can do things that none could do alone . Hence there is truth in Eric Weil's definition of the state as “the organization of a historical community; organized into a state, the community is capable of making decisions.

On the other hand, all politics about which we know anything involves a distinction between the ruler and the ruled. The ruler has domination over and can compel obedience from the ruled. Hence there is truth in Max Weber's view that political power always threatens violence. Paradoxically, then, no historical community can exist without a power that surpasses the play of individual interests, without a State. But on the other hand, power can only appear as a force that does violence, as a constraint that limits interests, limits even the vocation of individuals. The State … is a force of unconditional constraint. It is legitimate violence in history.

The defining task for any defensible politics is to learn what justice calls for and to establish and protect the institutions that make justice effective. This is tantamount to saying that the ultimate objective of all defensible political practice is to make power-in-common prevail as far as possible over domination. But because domination is never wholly eliminable, defensible politics are inherently fragile.

Among the most important reasons for the fragility of politics is that the kind of discourse proper to political life is rhetoric, specifically what Aristotle calls deliberative or political rhetoric. Rhetoric is distinct from both rational demonstration with its fully warranted conclusions and the sheer sophistry of clever talk designed to extort agreement from people by the use of threats or false promises.

Political action is primarily oriented to the future. But one cannot have certitude about the future, only an opinion. Rhetoric is thus the kind of discourse appropriate for stating and discussing opinions. As a consequence, the results of political deliberations are never beyond reasonable contestation. No proposed constitution, law, or political undertaking can be definitively justified. Therein lies the fragility of politics.

People can become frustrated with the inability of political discourse to achieve certitude. This tempts them to embrace some doctrine or method that claims to yield incontrovertible conclusions rather than merely likely ones. For example, some people are tempted to adopt a utopian program that claims to lead to an achievable ideal society. Others are tempted by an ideology that claims to prescribe the true path that a political society ought to travel. And still others are tempted to embrace a method or procedure—e.g., cost benefit analysis or rational choice theory—that purports to yield results that are immune to reasonable challenge. Finally, there are those who are tempted to opt out of political discourse on the grounds that its results are too meager to be worthwhile.

Those who succumb to any of these temptations at least implicitly call for the exclusion of some people from the discourse that determines political action. Those who opt out exclude themselves. Those who give in to any of the other temptations mentioned above would exclude those who do not share their approach. The ineliminable possibility— and historically, the likelihood—of such exclusions makes politics fragile. Every exclusion gives the included some domination over the excluded. Since the objective of responsible politics is to have power-in-common prevail as far as possible over domination, exclusions are always to be minimized. Or, more positively, the opinions of as many people as possible ought to be represented in political discourse, for doing so best promotes power-in-common.

Political responsibility is born of the fragility of politics. The basic responsibility of citizens is twofold. On the one hand, they ought to recognize that the political domain is relatively autonomous vis-à-vis other domains. It has its own proper objective and norms. Accordingly, citizens ought to resist efforts to subject political action to norms belonging to other domains, such as economics, or technology, or religion. On the other hand, citizens ought to work to have political institutions and practices promote as widespread political participation as is feasible.

For Ricoeur, this twofold responsibility has both a domestic and an international dimension. History shows that domestic exclusions can come from any number of sources, e.g., poverty, racial or religious prejudice, etc. Citizens ought to oppose all such exclusions. Indeed, they ought to support the rehabilitation even of those who have excluded themselves by committing crimes.

Many political problems today—e.g., how to deal with environmental degradation, the proliferation of terrible weaponry, epidemics—cannot be successfully dealt with by any particular state alone. Only international cooperation can succeed. Historically, any number of factors—e.g., language, religion, race, military conquest—have been obstacles to cooperation of this sort. It is incumbent on citizens to do what they can to encourage their societies to remove or at least weaken these obstacles. To do so one need not promote any form of world government. Rather, citizens ought both to work through the institutions of civil society to pardon other people and states for the harms they have caused and to support treaties and pacts that all affected states can reasonably be urged to commit themselves to.

In short, responsible citizens always look for ways to increase the number of people, both domestically and internationally, whose relevant opinions can be taken seriously in political deliberations. There is no set of rules that can rightly specify just how citizens ought to discharge this responsibility. As in personal ethics, they have to draw on a practical wisdom. Doing so is the only way to work for power-in-common to prevail over domination and to protect genuine politics from the threats to which it is always subject.