Paul Ricoeur drew on the entire tradition of Western philosophy to explore enduring common problems in the nature of human responsibility. Ricoeur’s philosophy tackled the fundamental question: "What makes us human"? According to Ricoeur, language was crucial—in the narrative of the historian, in the decision of the judge, in the imaginative creations of the great novelists—because “man is language.” Through the capacity of language to create and re-create, man discovered reality itself in the process of its being created. Language in the making created reality in the making. Ricoeur’s continuing reflection across the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences rejuvenated philosophical discourse and rehabilitated the Western humanistic tradition as an interconnected fabric of meaning. “What do we mean by our use of language?” “What are the ethical consequences of the ways we conceive of ourselves and others?” Ricouer undertook a continuing examination of the different ways of thinking in the pursuit of truth.
"Paul Ricoeur is a philosopher who draws on the entire tradition of western philosophy to explore and explain common problems: What is a self? How is memory used and abused? What is the nature of responsibility? He is a constant questioner - always pressing to understand the nature and limits of what constitutes our humanity."
—Librarian of Congress James H. Billington
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Paul Ricoeur believed in the duty to explain and to comprehend questions such as: "What makes us human"? Arguing against both the materialist and the idealist positions, he stressed active creative thought and its roles in memory, narrative, history, law, culture and belief. In Ricoeur's own words, his insights had to be "painfully won on the field of battle of a reflection carried to its limits."
Drawing upon both English-language analytical philosophy and 19th and 20th century European philosophy, Ricoeur pressed for language that illuminated meaning and furthered explanation and understanding. For example, how is it meaningful to assert simultaneously that "I am a different person than I was 40 years ago" and yet "I am the same person"? "In what ways different and in what ways the same"? "What is the nature of personal identity"?
According to Ricoeur, language was crucial -- in the narrative of the historian, in the decision of the judge, in the imaginative creations of the great novelists -- because "man is language." "Through the capacity of language to create and re-create, we discover reality itself in the process of being created … Language in the making creates reality in the making." We create our sense of self through language; it is our work, our promise, which ensures our identity through time, although the physical self may change significantly.
Ricoeur was born in 1913 in Valence, a small city south of Lyons. His mother died when he was 7 months old, and his father was killed in 1915 in the Battle of Marne. Ricoeur and his older sister, his only sibling, were raised by paternal grandparents who were strict Protestants. His sister, always in frail health, died in 1932 of tuberculosis at the age of 22. Ricoeur married Simone Lejas, a close friend of his sister, and they had five children. Having done obligatory military service in 1935-36, Ricoeur was mobilized in September 1939. The next year he was captured by the Germans and spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner in Pomerania. During these five years he helped create a camp "university" and worked out some of his basic philosophic ideas.
Ricoeur studied philosophy, first at the lycée in Rennes with Roland Dalbiez, a neo-Thomist who published on psychoanalysis, and then at the University of Rennes. He received a Licence-ès-Lettres in 1933. In 1934 he enrolled at the Sorbonne to study for the "agrégation." Once in Paris he began to attend the Friday gatherings held by the philosopher Gabriel Marcel, who introduced him to the philosopher Edmund Husserl. Having passed the "agrégation," Ricoeur became a professor of philosophy at the lycée in Colmar in Alsace. From 1935 to 1940, he began his prolific career as an author, arguing mostly for Christian socialism and pacifism. As the war approached, he became active in the SFIO (Section Française de l'Internationale Ouvrière) and pacifist movements under the influence of André Philip, a Protestant socialist intellectual.
In 1945 Ricoeur began his teaching career at the international Protestant College Cevenol (where he met American Quakers, who invited him to Haverford College 10 years later) and moved in 1948 to the University of Strasbourg. In 1956 he was appointed to the chair of general philosophy at the Sorbonne. For the next decade Ricoeur wrote continuously as a professional philosopher. He was also an activist, both against the French war in Algeria and as a reformer of the French university system. In 1967 he left the Sorbonne to assume the deanship of the new experimental university at Nanterre. Student and community disruption and unrest forced him to resign in 1969. He then taught for two years at Louvain in Belgium before moving to the United States, first to Yale and then to the University of Chicago. There he succeeded Paul Tillich as the John Nuveen Chair in the Divinity School and was jointly appointed to the Department of Philosophy and the Committee on Social Thought.
Ricoeur remained at the University of Chicago until 1991, writing during those years a number of key books: "The Living Metaphor" (1975); "Time and Narrative" (three volumes, 1983-1985); and "Oneself as Another" (1990), drawing upon the Gifford Lectures he delivered in 1986. Upon his return to France in 1991, Ricoeur continued to write crucial studies extending his concerns into new fields: justice and law ("The Just," 1995); neuroscience ("What Makes Us Think," 1998); and a return to the study of time ("On Memory, History, and Forgetting," 2000).
Ricoeur's reflection across the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences at a time of proliferating diversity of religious and cultural forms rejuvenated philosophical discourse for the unending work of interpreting. "What do we mean by our use of language"? "What are the ethical consequences of the ways we conceive of ourselves and others"? This continuing examination of differing ways of thinking, which Ricoeur undertook "with the humility necessary to the pursuit of truth," was honored by the award of the Kluge Prize.
Ricouer passed away on May 20, 2005.
1913, Valence, France
2005, Châtenay-Malabry, France
Lecturer, University of Strasbourg
Chair, General Philosophy, Sorbonne
Professor, University of Paris at Nanterre
John Nuveen Professor of Philosophical Theology, University of Chicago
December 8, 2004
Winners of Kluge Prize Announced
(Nov. 29, 2004)