Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005), Christian Philosopher

This the birthday of Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005), one of the most important philosophers of the 20th Century.  His critique of structuralism (the dominant French philosophical trend of the 1960s and 1970s), his strong Christian witness in an increasingly secular society, and his pacifist witness against France’s wars in Algeria and Vietnam, all combined to lead to Ricoeur’s being ignored in his homeland throughout much of his career–even while he was being hailed for his work around the world.  A prophet is not without honor save in his own country.
Born 27 February 1913 in Valence, Drôme to a devout Protestant (French Reformed Church) family, Ricoeur was immediately a minority in Catholic France.  Ricoeur’s father died in battle in World War I and his mother had already died six months after his birth due to complications in delivery, leaving Ricoeur orphaned at the age of two!  He was raised by his paternal grandparents and an aunt in Rennes, helped by a government stipend for war orphans.  Ricoeur’s family put a premium on Bible study and this kindled in him a love of books and study altogether.  At the age of 20, Ricoeur received his licence (equivalent to a baccalaureate degree ) from the University of Rennes in 1933.  In 1934, he began studying philosophy at the Sorbonnes (the University of Paris–reorganized in the 1970s into several universities, the original University of Paris at the Sorbonnes was one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Western civilization) where he was influenced by Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973), a leading Christian existentialist.  In 1935, Ricouer was awarded the agrégation with the second highest score in the nation for philosophy.  (In France, the agrégation is a highly competitive civil service examination, completion of which allows the laureate or professeur agrégé to teach in higher education.)  He married (Simone Lejas, a childhood friend, with whom he raised five children) and began teaching at lyceé (sort of “high school plus” in America) as well as studying in Germany.

However, the Second World War interrupted Ricoeur’s promising academic career.  He was drafted to serve in the French Army in 1939.  At some point in his life, Ricoeur became a Christian pacifist.  His name is listed as a signer of several post-War statements of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) and he was a prominent member of the French chapter of IFOR known as MIR or Mouvement internationale de la RéconciliationI have been unable to find out whether Ricoeur came to such pacifist convictions before World War II or after experiencing it, but, since France does not have any mechanism for recognizing conscientious objection, Ricoeur would have been drafted even if he had religious objections to war.  Only if he were physically unfit to serve, would he have been allowed to refuse the draft. (This violation of the rights of conscience goes on still in most of the world, today.  Even in the U.S., to be counted as a conscientious objector, one must have moral objections to all wars, not just to a particular war–negating the moral force of the “just war” tradition which most claim to observe.)  Ricoeur’s army unit was captured during the German invasion of France in 1940 and he spent the next five years as a prisoner of war.

Ricoeur’s detention camp was filled with intellectuals including Mikel Dufrenne who organized classes and readings that were so rigorous that the Vichy government recognized the camp as a degree granting institution.  Ricoeur studied (especially the work of Karl Jaspers [1883-1969] and taught in the camp and later he and Dufrenne wrote a book on Jasper’s work.  He also used this time to begin translating Edmund Husserl’s Ideas I from German into French.

Upon repatriation after the war, Ricoeur met his 5 year old daughter for the first time.  For three years after the war, Ricoeur taught at a lycee, then, in 1948 he was appointed to teach the history of philosophy at the University of Strasbourg, the only French university with a Protestant faculty of theology.  He continued to teach at Strasbourg until 1956.  In 1950, Ricoeur received his doctorate (equivalent to a Ph.D.), submitting, in the French tradition, two theses or dissertations.  His “minor” thesis was the translation of Husserl’s Ideas I that he had begun as a prisoner of war, along with commentary.  His “major” thesis (on the interaction between the human will and the constraints of necessity) was published as Le Volontaire et l’Involuntaire (English translation published as Freedom and Nature: The Voluntary and the Involuntary).  This established Ricoeur as an expert in phenomenology, which was then the dominant philosophy in France.

From 1956 to 1965, Ricoeur taught at the Sorbonne in the Chair of General Philosophy, publishing some of his major early works. In 1965, he became an administrator at the University of Nanterre, in the Paris suburbs.  Nanterre was a new university, intended as an experiment in progressive education and Ricoeur hoped he could mold it to fit with his vision of free life of the mind, out of the stifling traditionalism of the Sorbonne and its overcrowded classes.  But Nanterre became a hotbed of student protest in the Spring of 1968 (when students seemed to rise up all over Europe and North America), and even though Ricoeur was a reformer and a strong critic of French imperialism, he was derided as an “old clown” and a tool of the French government.

Disenchanted with French academic life, Ricoeur taught briefly at the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium) before accepting a position at the University of Chicago in 1970.  From 1970 to 1985, Ricoeur taught in both the philosophy department and at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. During this time, Ricoeur incorporated his former work in existentialism and phenomenology into a study of hermeneutics and language, culminating in his three volume masterpiece, Time and Narrative finished in 1985.  In 1985, Ricoeur returned to France (now hailed as an intellectual superstar) and split his time between Paris and Chicago until finally “retiring” from active teaching (but not writing) in 1992.

Ricoeur’s works have been widely translated (including into Chinese and Japanese) and his thought in many different fields of philosophy (and religion) hailed in many quarters.  He has received numerous honorary doctorates (the favorite way of academic institutions of showing honor and respect to scholars and others),  and in 1986 gave the pretigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh–one of the highest honors at the intersection of theology and philosophy.  The University of Florence awarded him the Dante Prize for outstanding work in the humanities in 1988.  The University of Heidelberg awarded him the Karl Jaspers prize in philosophy in 1989.  The University of Tübingen awarded him the Leopold Lucas Prize in 199o. In 1991, Ricoeur received the French Academy Grand Prize in Philosophy.  In 2003, the Vatican awarded him the Pope Paul VI award for ecumenical advancement in Christian thought.  In 2004, he was a co-recipient of the John W. Kluge Award in the Human Sciences, awarded by the Kluge Center at the U.S. Library of Congress.

In the late 1990s and as the century turned, Ricoeur began to bring his many disparate studies (metaphor and symbol, the nature of evil, a hermeneutical anthropology, biblical studies, ethics, political and social philosophy, narrative) together in a way that allowed people to see his overarching vision, the unity of his thought (not quite a system).  It understands human beings as free and responsible, though shaped by narrative traditions, including religious traditions.  It is a vision of individual freedom and responsibility, yet of society connected for the common good.  As the many disparate strands of Ricoeur’s work have been finally woven together, his importance has become even clearer–for the fields of hermeneutics and biblical studies, ethics, political philosophy, and theology, as well as for philosophy after the “linguistic turn.”


February 27, 2010 - Posted by | biographies, pacifism, philosophers

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