Paul Ricoeur

Philosopher of sceptical pluralism
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The Independent Online

The philosopher Paul Ricoeur was the last of the dazzling group of French intellectuals who came to prominence after the Liberation in 1944 which included Raymond Aron, Claude Bourdet, Emmanuel Mounier, Joseph Rovan and Jean-Paul Sartre. Ricoeur had many intellectual interests, but is best known for his contribution to hermeneutics, a branch of philosophy concerned with human understanding and the interpretation of texts, including the Bible, and more recently including speech, performances, works of art and even events.

Jean Paul Gustave Ricoeur, philosopher: born Valence, France 27 February 1913; married 1935 Simone Lejas (five children); died Châtenay-Malabry, France 20 May 2005.

The philosopher Paul Ricoeur was the last of the dazzling group of French intellectuals who came to prominence after the Liberation in 1944 which included Raymond Aron, Claude Bourdet, Emmanuel Mounier, Joseph Rovan and Jean-Paul Sartre. Ricoeur had many intellectual interests, but is best known for his contribution to hermeneutics, a branch of philosophy concerned with human understanding and the interpretation of texts, including the Bible, and more recently including speech, performances, works of art and even events.

The circumstances of Ricoeur's childhood played a decisive role in the development of his intellectual interests. He was born in Valence, south-eastern France, his parents devout members of the Protestant minority. His father, a lycée teacher, was killed in the First World War, in 1915, when Ricoeur was only two years old. His mother had predeceased her husband. Thus Paul was brought up in Rennes by grandparents and an aunt with the help of a small war orphan's allowance. The Bible was the most important book in the house, which raised for Paul Ricoeur the questions, "Why is there more than one Bible?" and "Why are there so many interpretations?" His father's death also led Ricoeur to question the causes of conflict and the fates of individuals within those conflicts.

Before winning a scholarship to the Sorbonne in 1934, he studied philosophy at Rennes University. Ricoeur then embarked on a career as a schoolteacher. On a visit to Germany, he had got to know the anti-Nazi theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Called up at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, he spent most of the war years as a prisoner in Germany and used this time to deepen his knowledge of German philosophy, notably Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl.

After the war Ricoeur worked for the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in Paris, before teaching at a lycée for three years. He was then appointed Lecturer in the History of Philosophy at the University of Strasbourg. He remained there until 1956, facing some suspicion because of his interest in Germany. It was during this time that he got to know Karl Jaspers, in Heidelberg, whose ideas he sought to explain in Gabriel Marcel et Karl Jaspers: philosophie du mystère et philosophie du paradoxe ("Gabriel Marcel and Karl Jaspers: philosophy of mystery and philosophy of paradox", 1948). There followed, in 1950, Le Volontaire et l'involontaire (translated in 1966 as Freedom and Nature: the voluntary and the involuntary).

Ricoeur was active in the main socialist party, the SFIO, and got involved with the controversies surrounding German rearmament, which he opposed, and German reunification, which he supported. He opposed Stalinism and Utopianism but supported the democratic state and international co-operation. He had a long record of opposition to wars, from the French campaign in Algeria in the 1950s to the Bosnian war in the 1990s. In 1956, he took the chair of general philosophy at the Sorbonne but, although his lectures on Husserl, Freud and Nietzsche were well attended, he felt little reward for his efforts. His Histoire et vérité (1955, translated as History and Truth in 1965), gained little attention. In L'Homme faillible, (1960: Fallible Man, 1965) and La Symbolique du mal (1960: The Symbolism of Evil, 1967) he addressed the question of how it is possible for us to go wrong, to have a bad will. There followed De l'Interprétation: essai sur Freud (1965: Freud and Philosophy, 1970).

In 1967, Ricoeur joined the faculty of the new University of Paris at Nanterre, now Paris X. As Dean of the School of Letters the following year, he tried to impart his sceptical pluralism to a new generation of would-be revolutionary students, only to be rewarded with verbal and physical abuse, and felt forced to resign as dean in 1970.

From 1954 on, Ricoeur also taught regularly in the United States - at Haverford, Columbia, Yale. From 1970 to 1992 he was Professor of Philosophical Theology at the University of Chicago. He became one of the few thinkers equally at home with the French, German, and English-language intellectual scenes.

The results were two of Ricoeur's most important and enduring works: La Métaphore vive (1975: The Rule of Metaphor, 1977) and the three-volume Temps et récit (1983-85: Time and Narrative, 1984-88). Building on the discussion of narrative identity, as well as his continuing interest in the self, Ricoeur presented the Gifford Lectures, which resulted in the important work Soi-même comme un autre (1990: Oneself as Another, 1992). His last major work, La Mémoire, l'histoire, l'oubli (2000: Memory, History and Forgetting, 2004) was concerned with the problems of history and mourning.

Last year, with the US historian Jaroslav Pelikan, Ricoeur shared the $1m Kluge prize, set up in 2003 to honour achievement in fields not covered by the Nobel prizes. He also received the Grand Prix de Philosophie from the Académie Française.

David Childs

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