Biography of Paul Ricœur
This biography is parallel to the French version, but it is not a translation and differs from the French text in many places. The dates and events are, of course, the same as is the general format. The text uses the dates of publication of the French edition of Ricœur’s books, but their English titles.
The Early Years : 1913 - 39
Paul Ricœur was born on February 27, 1913 on the eve of the First World War. His father, Jules, was a school teacher in Valence, in southern France. His mother, Florentine (Favre), died shortly after his birth. Two years later, his father was killed in the Battle of the Marne. Paul and his sister Alice went to live with Jules’ parents, Louis and Marie Ricœur and his sister, Adèle in Rennes. Paul was an avid reader and excellent student, graduating from the University of Rennes at the age of 20. He was introduced to philosophy by one of his professors, Roland Dalbiez, and throughout his life felt a tension between his devout Protestant religious faith and the critique of philosophy. He always worked to keep his philosophy separate from his faith and his study of theology, although the latter provided “food for thought.”
In 1928, Paul’s grandmother died and he and his sister were cared for by his aunt, Adèle. His sister, Alice, was two years older than he and died of tuberculosis when she was in her early twenties. His paternal grandfather died in 1933, the same year as he got his License ès letters. He failed the examination for admission to the Ecole Normale Supérieure , and so Paul went to St. Brieuc in Normandy to teach in a lycée. The following year he received a scholarship to go to the Sorbonne to prepare for the agrégation, a competitive examination which gave those who were successful the right to serve as an examiner for the baccalauréat. This examination was expected of anyone wanting to move up from the lycée to the university. Paul was successful ; out of 300 who took the examination, only 10 were “received.” With that academic achievement in hand, Paul married Simone (Lejas), a friend since childhood. Paul was assigned to teach at a lycée in Colmar, a city in the Alsace region.
The next year, Paul did his year of obligatory military service, first at an officer candidate school at St. Cyr and then in the infantry barracks in Rennes, where he was commissioned a first lieutenant. In January of 1937, their first child was born, a son Jean-Paul. For the next two years, Paul taught in Lorient, a town in Brittany, where their second son, Marc, was born a year later.
During the 1930s, Paul became a pacifist and a socialist and always remained a devout Protestant. While he was studying at the Sorbonne, he was introduced to the famous Fridays at Gabriel Marcel’s, where students, professors, intellectuals would gather for several hours of lively discussion. He wrote his first articles during this period in a small revue, Terre Nouvelle, a publication for Christian revolutionaries who wanted to simultaneously follow Christ and Marx. Paul learned German during this period so he could read Husserl and Heidegger in the original.
Prisoner of War 1940-45
In 1939, France mobilized its army as the result of the declaration of war by France and Great Britain on Germany. Paul was called to the barracks of the 47th Infantry in St. Malo. The equipment was sparse and in poor condition and the training half-hearted. When the Germans invaded France in the spring of 1940, Paul and his unit were sent to the area of the Marne. His unit was overrun and they were made prisoners of war. Paul was sent to Oflag IID in Pomerania, far northeast Germany. At the beginning, there were 6,000 French officers in the camp. As time went on, many were released and when they were moved to the POW camp at Arnswald, there were about 2,000 remaining. The prisoners were permitted to rearrange their barracks so those with common interests were in the same barrack. Paul found himself in a barack with intellecturals and university professors, including Roger Ikor, Jacques Desbiez, Paul-André Lesort, Jean Chevallier, Mikel Dufrenne, and others. Paul and Mikel Dufrenne studied the writings of Karl Jaspers, and after the war they jointly published a book on his work. The intellectuals established a “university within the camp”, and the courses they gave there were later recognized by the French Ministry of Education.
Thanks to the Red Cross, Paul was able to get a copy of Edmund Husserl’s Ideen I and, short on paper, he translated it into French in the margins of the book. He was able to save the book and later would call it his “relic” of the war. Husserl’s “idetic method” was the major influence on Paul’s own major work, Freedom and Nature (1950).
When the Russian front neared the POW camp, the prisoners were permitted to leave and were led west to Belgium. Paul and some of his comrades went east instead. They had a two-week respite on a farm, hidden in the barn, before they were again captured by the Germans and put into a prison in Stettin. The city itself, including the prison, was bombed by the Allies and Paul was sure that he would die there. Instead, they were liberated by the Russians and put on a train to the west and finally reunited with their colleagues who had walked the whole distance. Finally, the British freed all of the POWs and they were repatriated. Paul met Simone in Paris, and saw for the first time his daughter, Noëlle, who was born during his first year of captivity.
College Cevanol in Le Chambon : 1945 - 48
Paul was exhausted from his ordeals and needed time to get reunited with his family. He was offered a position as a teacher at a small college in Chambon-sur-Lignon. The college was supported by the Quakers which had a strong influence in the town, located in the Massif Central. This town, and the Pastor Trocmé, became famous after the war for their heroic work in saving hundreds of Jewish children from the round-ups by the Vichy police and the German SS. He taught there for three years. During this period, Paul and Simon’s son, Oliver, was born. Paul used the time to work on his first major work, Freedom and Nature and the translation of Ideen I. It was here that he met some American Quakers who later invited him to Haverford College in Pennsylvania, his first trip to the United States.
The intellectual climate in France at this time was dominated by the atheistic existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre. His was a tragic view of man, barely escaped from “nothingness” and condemned to live a lonely struggle against becoming an object. Against this view, Ricoeur adopted an existentialism influenced by Gabriel Marcel, Soren Kierkegaard, and Karl Jaspers. His view was of a man, filled with the desire to exist, who lived between freedom and determinism, establishing his freedom by his choices and consenting to the inevitable. Themes announced and worked out in this first book established the thread of “philosophical anthropology” which one finds winding through all of his work and all of the periods of his life.
In 1948, Ricoeur was called to succeed Jean Hyppolite as Maître de conferences in the history of philosophy at the University of Strasbourg. This began an eight year period of intense philosophical activity and they were, in the words of his wife, Simone, “the happiest days of their lives.” Their last son, Etienne, was born and the whole family including his aunt, Adèle, lived together in a large house. His articles were on major figures in the history of philosophy, he finished his translation of Ideen I, and his first major work, Freedom and Nature (Le volontaire et l’involontaire) which, in 1950 he would submit for his Doctorate of the State. Many of his articles during this period were on politics and the relation between the individual and the state. Paul was a regular contributor to the journals Esprit and Christianism social. 1956 was an especially discouraging period on the world scene : the Russian army crushed the revolution in Hungary, the French and British invaded Egypt, and France was sliding into a war with the FLN in Algeria.
With the publication of Ricoeur’s translation of Husserl’s seminal book, Ideen I, he was busy introducing Husserl to the French philosophical milieu. He began work on the second volume of his envisioned three-volume work on The Philosophy of the Will. The second volume consists of two separate studies, Fallible Man and The Symbolism of Evil. In the first volume, which was a phenomenological study of willing, or the dialectic between freedom and determinism, he set aside the question of evil and the question of Transcendence or God. The latter was to be the topic of the third volume that, in fact, was never published.
Fallible Man asks the question, “how does evil get into the world, into human experience?”. The answer he offers is the “disproportion” between man’s unlimited possibilities and constraints or obstacles to expressing his freedom. This “fragility” creates an opening for evil to be one of the choices open to man. In The Symbolism of Evil, he looks at the language of sin or evil and the archetype myths of the entry of evil into the world, such as the Platonic myth of the earthly body dragging the pure spirit down to the human world. Others are the Adamic myth of the Garden of Eden, or the battle of the Titans, or the primordial struggle of good versus evil. Paul was an outstanding teacher of the history of philosophy and published a prodigious number of articles.
The Sorbonne : 1957-64
Paul had attained the rank of professor and in 1955 was a candidate for a post at the Sorbonne. Jean Guitton was selected instead, but the next year he was called to succeed Raymond Bayer in the chair of General Philosophy. Shortly thereafter, he received a second honor, an invitation to own an apartment at Les Murs blancs, the estate originally bought by Emanuel Mounier just before the Second World War. Mounier’s idea was to have a Christian, socialist community of like minded intellectuals, each living in his own apartment, but sharing the large, walled park and garden. Paul and his family took what had been the orangerie or winter garden in the 1899 building, a large apartment with floor to ceiling windows facing the park. Above the Ricoeurs was Henri Marrou, the famous historian, and his wife. In the main building, constructed in 1836 were Mounier’s widow, Paulette, Paul and Simone Fraisse, he a professor of psychology and she a professor of classics, and Jean-Marie Domenach, long-time editor of Esprit.
Paul’s classes at the Sorbonne on Kant, Nietzsche, Aristotle and Husserl, as well as phenomenology and linguistic symbolism, were very popular and the large lecture halls were jammed with students. Jacques Derrida was Paul’s assistant for a time. Ricoeur began his practice of speaking at many conferences in France and abroad. In the early 1960s, he gave lectures, especially the ones at Yale University, which would later form the core of his book on Freud, Freud and Philosophy.
With the escalation of the war in Algeria, the political debate in France became intense, with large demonstrations against the French government almost daily. In 1958, the government of Guy Mollet resigned and threw France into a constitutional crisis. The parlement invited Gen. Charles De Gaulle to assume extraordinary powers and he governed as a dictator until the new constitution could be written and approved. The Algerian war was not a colonial war, it was more like a civil war. Algeria made up three administrative departments of France ; it was not a colony like Tunisia and Morrocco. Paul was an outspoken advocate for granting complete independence to Algeria and was prominent in the demonstrations. Les Murs blancs were called Les Murs rouges by opponents of the liberation of Algeria. The Ricoeur’s home was protected by students who stood watch, day and night, outside the gates. Early one morning the police arrived and searched the house and took Paul Ricoeur to a police station for deportation to a camp in central France. He was freed, at the last moment, by a former student who held a high government position.
Ricoeur’s philosophical method took a different course after his book on the Symbolism of Evil,and his phenomenology became “hermeneutic.” Hermeneutics is the interpretation of signs, symbols, artifacts, texts, and all cultural expressions. His interest in the interpretation of symbols took him to reading Freud and an interpretation of Freud’s texts on the interpretation of dreams and human action. For a time, he attended Jacques Lacan’s seminars where the latter expressed his structuralist interpretation of Freud. In 1965, Ricoeur published his Freud and Philosophy, which argued that psychoanalysis is a hermeneutic science and that if psychoanalysis is an archeology (study of the past) of the human mind, there must be an eschatology (future) as well.
This was the height of structuralism, with Claude Levi-Strauss using this method to organize the findings of anthropology, Michel Foucault in history of institutions and movements, and Lacan in psychoanalysis. In a famous exchange, Ricoeur criticizes Levi-Strauss in an article published in Esprit, followed by a dialogue where each staked out his position. This was a civil exchange between intellectuals who respected one another. Such was not the case when the followers of Jacques Lacan began their vitriolic attacks on Paul, even to the point that one of them accused Paul of plagiarism. The most common critique is that he was a religious phenomenologist, a double insult in France at the time.
Throughout the 1960s, Paul wrote articles criticizing the French university system as too bureaucratic, too rigid, stale, overflowing with students who had no contact with professors, with an outdated system of instruction and examinations. With the Sorbonne sorely taxed by the number of students from the “baby boom,” a new university was formed at an old military base in the west part of Paris, Nanterre. The idea is that they would build a campus, along the lines of the British and American universities, with residence halls, recreation facilities, and the latest in classrooms and faculty offices.
Paul, and two of his colleagues from the Sorbonne, requested to be transferred there. He thought this would be an opportunity to have greater contact with his students and the classes would be smaller. Most of his colleagues thought he was making a big mistake to leave the most prestigious university in France for the new suburban branch.
In many ways, they were right. The campus combined a Faculty of Letters and a Faculty of Law. The students in the law school were, in those days, generally on the political right and from wealthier families. The students in the humanities and social sciences were more likely to be on the left. The new university was near an immigrant slum and still had the old military installation walls, with barbed wire on the top.
Paul was elected doyen, a position between dean and president by a vote of 34 to 18. Most of the younger faculty were for him and some of the professors, including some old friends, were opposed. Events on the campus spiraled out of control : youth from the slum discovered that the university campus was fair game since the old laws of “sanctuary” dating from the Middle Ages, prevented the police from coming on the campus unless invited by the doyen. Students went after each other because of their differing politics. Paul’s office files were spilled out on the floor and his curtains burned. He himself was attacked by a student who put a waste basket on his head and called him a “vieux clown” – old clown. Demonstrations which began at Nanterre quickly moved to Paris and to the university district. The famous events of ’68, a general strike and violent mass demonstrations continued until fall.
When things calmed down in Paris, the remnants of the hard-core demonstrators moved to Nanterre. The violence between students continued, as did the crimes committed by the youth from the nearby slum. When a female student was attacked, Paul realized that his administration and the unarmed guardians could no longer assure the safety of the students. He called for police intervention. This led to full-scale battles between the police and the students who were holed up in the buildings. The police fired tear gas into the buildings and the students rained down on the police desks, books, rocks, chairs, and anything they could pry loose. The nearly new university buildings were left in a shambles. The melee lasted three days and the students slipped away a few at a time. Paul, the man of peace and of social understanding, resigned in complete dispair.
He suffered another humiliation that year. He was passed over for election to the prestigious College of France. Most of the professors there were graduates of the Ecole Normale and they preferred their fellow normalian, Michel Foucault. But, even more, the new wave of structuralism had taken hold in the intellectual world in France, and Paul was seen as doing an old-fashioned phenomenology of the previous generation.
The American Years, 1970-81
Paul was so discouraged by the events at Nanterre, especially by the betrayal of some of his closest colleagues, that he took a three-year leave of absence from the French university. He first went to the University of Leuven (Belgium) and then began teaching regularly at the University of Chicago. He had received a doctorate honoris causa in 1967 and later that year taught a seminar there. He was first appointed to the John Nuveen chair to succeed Paul Tillich. Later, he became a member of the Department of Philosophy and of the Committee on Social Thought, an interdisciplinary program started for and with Hannah Arendt.
Paul was especially attracted to Chicago by Mircea Eliade, a professor of the history of religion whom Paul had known in Paris. Paul and Simone - she did not speak very much English - spent evenings, weekends, concerts, and trips with Mircea and Christinel. Andre and Claire Lacoque, originally from Belgium, were also close friends. In fact, the Ricoeurs often stayed with the Lacoques in their apartment overlooking Lake Michigan and just on the edge of the campus.
During the entire decade of the 1970s, Ricoeur gave lectures at almost all of the major universities in the United States, with multiple visits to Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and Berkeley. He received a string of honorary doctorates, from DePaul, Boston College, Duquesne, Columbia, Ohio, and from universities in Canada and in Europe. He was an invited speaker at all of the philosophical conferences and his books and books on his work poured out of the presses.
Paul would generally teach the fall and spring quarters at Chicago and teach his course at Nanterre and give his CNRS seminar in the winter quarter. His classes at Nanterre had very few students, in comparison to the crowds at the Sorbonne. He had dropped off the public scene and his students were more fascinated with Foucault and Derrida than with him. His seminar, on the other hand, was well attended by graduate students working on their doctorates and especially by young professors, both French and foreign. These were genial working seminars. Paul would usually give the first four or five sessions, and then the students would read their contributions to the class for open discussion. Many of these seminars were published as collective works.
In 1975, he published his book on metaphore, Métaphore vive, badly called The Rule of Metaphor in English. The whole point of the book is that there is no rule for creating metaphors. Paul gives a review in depth of the principal American, British, and French theories of metaphor. In the seventh chapter, he gives his own theory of metaphor. He contends that the loss of the literal meaning in a metaphor opens the linguistic reference to a new way of describing the world and our experience. In short, if a metaphor destroys the possibility of a literal meaning, it also destroys the possibility of a referent for the sentence. But this creates the new referent, a new world of the text.
This book received an excellent reception in the anglo-saxon world, but left its French readers perplexed because the American and British interpretations of metaphor were not known and because they had their own structuralist accounts of metaphor.
A collection of his articles on hermeneutic themes was first published in 1969, The Conflict of Interpretations. It dealt with hermeneutics and structuralism, psychoanalysis and offered an explanation of the metamorphosis of Ricoeur’s phenomenology into hermeneutic phenomenology. There is also a section containing some of his articles on religion. In 1986, he published From Text to Action, another collection of his articles during the preceding decade which was also devoted to his articles on hermeneutics, moving from a hermeneutics of texts to that of action. His article, “The Model of the Text : Meaningful Action Considered as a Text”, had a great effect on the social sciences in the U.S., because it proposed to substitute a hermeneutic explanation of human behavior in place of the adherence to the “scientific” explanations, based on physics or statistics models. This volume also contained seminal articles on ideology and utopia and a critique of each. This decade was one of prolific writing, teaching, and lecturing in the U. S. and in Europe.
The Rediscovery in France : 1981 - 90
From the late 1970s to 1983, Ricoeur worked tirelessly on his trilogy, Time and Narrative, published in 1983, 1984, 1985. The three volumes of this work catapulted Ricoeur back on the intellectual scene in France and marked a wider audience of his work almost everywhere. His thesis is that, “time becomes human time to the extent it is organized after the manner of a narrative ; narrative, in turn, is meaningful to the extent that it portrays the features of temporal experience.” In volume one, he gives a careful reading of St. Augustine and comes up with this theory of “triple mimesis.” What he means is that before we can understand a text, we must already understand the whole nexus of terms involving action, such as motive, intention, consequences, etc. Then, we must understand the symbolic use of language to represent action, finally, we understand the temporal nature of all narratives of action. This forms the basis for his analysis of narratives of history and fiction.
He reviews the theories of history and holds out for a narrative interpretation of history rather than a positivistic one, which substitutes other social sciences such as sociology, climatology, anthropology, for history. His conclusion is that even the most positivist history is ultimately a quasi-narrative.
In volume two, he looks at theories of literary criticism and literature itself. His thesis is that all literature is temporal and that we can understand temporality only through the narratives of history and fiction. The third volume is a sweeping analysis of the philosophical theories of time and he concludes that all of them ultimately fail because they create as many aprorias as they solve. He concludes that temporality or human time can only be understood through the narratives of fiction and history.
These works received widespread attention, commentaries, and criticism. Paul and his work was again appreciated and his previous stature as a major philosopher was restored in France. One of the features of this worked which stunned readers, in France as well as elsewhere is Ricoeur’s command of the secondary literature in French, German, and English. Also, he is one of the very few who is completely at home in the Anglo-Saxon philosophical tradition as well as the Continental one.
In 1990, he published his most elegant and closely argued book, Oneself as Another. It couples everything he learned from Anglo-Saxon philosophy of action, with his own work in hermeneutics and language. He works step by step to his theory of narrative identity. He moves from description of action, to narrations of action, to prescriptions about action. Narrative identity is the “middle term.” Chapters seven, eight, and nine are what he calls his “little ethics.” Indeed, it was remarkable that in all his publications, he had not devoted a single one to ethics alone, although all of them had implications for ethics. He begins with an Aristotelian teleology : we all want to “live the good life with and for others in just institutions.” This guides our actions, but does not provide rules for deciding particular cases. So, he turns to a Kantian deontology where adherence to a rule is the standard of morality. Finally, he studies the conflict between these approaches and argues for a “practical wisdom,” the “reflective equilibrium between the ethics of argumentation and considered convictions.” He does not accept the classical conflict between teleology and deontology. A teleological view of the goal of ethics needs universal moral rules as a necessary means ; on the other hand, the application of these rules to difficult particular cases calls for an appeal to the ultimate telos of morality.
At the beginning of the ninth chapter, Paul inserts an “Interlude: Tragic Action, for Olivier again.” This book began as separate lectures given in Scotland in 1986, the famous Gifford Lectures. Paul and Simone’s son, Olivier, had helped type the texts and went to Edinburgh with them. Shortly after their return to Paris, Olivier, then 39, committed suicide. This devastated his parents and they were in complete despair. He gave away the original manuscript of the Gifford Lectures as too painful to look at. Fortunately, he gave them to a friend who made copies and returned the original to Paul. Working on this book was Paul’s “working through” his bereavement. He worked and reworked the text, leaving out two of the original lectures, and adding others. This is why it took four years from the time he gave the lectures until they were published.
In 1992, with Simone in failing health, Paul retired from the John Nuveen chair at Chicago and returned to France definitively. He was never to return to the U.S. He continued his lectures at universities in Europe, accepting one invitation per month.
During the summers of 1983, 1985, and 1994, he was invited by Pope Jean-Paul II to join with a small group of intellectuals for several days at the papal summer retreat at Castel Gandolfo outside Rome. The days were spent in conversation, with each person invited to give a presentation, followed by long discussions. One summer, the Pope seated Paul at one side and Emmanuel Levinas at the other. Paul was very moved by these occasions and was very happy to have been invited.
The Just and Memory, History, and Forgetting : 1990 - 2001
In the late 1980s and all through the 1990s, Paul was increasingly interested in ethics in general and in the application of ethical rules to particular cases. He contributed his thinking to some of the major issues of the period. He was called as a witness in the incident of contaminated blood which was given to many donors in France. The Minister of Health and others were indicted on criminal charges. He was outspoken on behalf of undocumented immigrants and in favor of allowing Muslim women to wear scarves in the public schools. Ricoeur said that it is never the choice between black and white or between evil and good, but rather between grey and grey. He puts the just between the legal and the good and draws on the conclusions of his “little ethics” in Oneself as Another to guide his thinking.
In the early 1990s, he was invited by Judge Antoine Garapon to give lectures and participate in discussions at the Advanced School for the Study of Justice, a school for judges. His articles from this period are published in The Just (1995) and Reflections on the Just (2001).
During this period he published his intellectual autobiography and a series of interviews entitled, Critique and Conviction. Simone, his wife of 63 years died in 1997.
During the 1990s, he became fascinated with the “tyranny of memory,” principally from the Balkan wars in ex-Yugoslavia, where most of the grievances that led people who had lived together for years to begin killing one another were 400 years old. He was looking for the connection between memory and forgetting and wondering about the role of history as a form of memory and as a form of forgetting. His book, Memory, History, Forgetting was published in 2000 and is a 600 pages magisterial book, containing a phenomenology of memory, an epistemology of the historical sciences, and a hermeneutics of forgetting. He treats each of the topics separately, but brings them together in an elaborate structure. Memory, he reminds us, has never overcome the problems of the early philosophers and is subject to being abused by being impeded or blocked, by being manipulated, or by being abusively commanded. In the end, memory depends on testimony and the only defense against false testimony is more reliable testimony. Testimony and the artifacts, documents, works of art, monuments, and other mnemonic objects form the archives. The archive is the fundamental root of history and all history depends on the archives. Forgetting is also subject to being abused, in a manner parallel to memory. Promising is a form of memory and forgiving is a form of forgetting. Near the end of this book, he considers amnesty and discusses the South African Commission on Truth and Justice which granted amnesty to those who confessed their crimes under the system of apartheid.
Writing this book was his “working through” his bereavement for Simone.
Recognition : 2001-05
For many years, Paul was fascinated with the word “recognition.” He puzzled at its many uses and their interconnections. More puzzling was that there was no philosophical theory of recognition, parallel to the many theories of cognition. In his 2004 book, Parcours de la reconnaissance, he begins by looking at the meanings given in the two great French dictionaries, the Littré and the Grand Robert. He traces the series of meanings from identification to the meanings he calls “moral,” like recognizing a child as one’s son or avowing a mistake or an act of gratitude. The dividing line between the “epistemic” and the “moral” meanings is whether the use is in the active voice, “to recognize” or the passive voice, “to be or ask to be recognized.” He moves from self-recognition to the recognition of the other, which, on the social level means seeing the other as having rights and protections. Another form of recognition of the others is identity-politics where one recognizes oneself as a member of a group, ethnic, racial, religious, national. However, one of the most important forms of recognition, political recognition, gets scant treatment. To recognize a government as legitimate or to recognize the sovereignty of a nation is at the heart of international politics. Unlike all of his other books, this one ends without a list of questions he will address in his next book. He knew this would be his last.
Paul Ricoeur died in his home on May 20, 2005.
Author of this biography is Charles Reagan who wrote Paul Ricoeur : His Life and His Work, Chicago University Press, 1996. He is Professor of Philosophy and Associate to the President at Kansas State University (Manhattan, Kansas).