Tuesday, October 11

Paul Ricoeur as Another: How a Great Philosopher Wrestled With His Younger Self


In May the philosopher Paul Ricoeur died at 92, bringing an exemplary 20th-century philosophical life to a close. Ricoeur taught at a number of esteemed universities in Europe and North America, including the Sorbonne; the University of Paris-Nanterre; the Catholic University of Louvain, in Belgium; Yale University; and the University of Montreal. In 1971 he succeeded Paul Tillich in the John Nuveen chair in philosophical theology at the University of Chicago, a post he held until 1991.

Ricoeur was remarkably prolific. He produced more than 30 books and more than 500 articles. In his final years he was justly showered with accolades. In 2000 Ricoeur garnered the prestigious Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy. Other recipients have included Karl Popper (1992), Willard van Orman Quine (1996), and Jürgen Habermas (2004). In December 2004, just a few months before his death, the Library of Congress awarded Ricoeur the John W. Kluge Prize, colloquially known as the "Nobel Prize for humanists."

Unlike many philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant, who never left his native Königsberg in East Prussia, Ricoeur led an eventful life. His mother died when he was only 6 months old. Two years later, in 1915, Ricoeur was orphaned when his father perished in World War I. Raised by his paternal grandparents, as a war orphan, Ricoeur became a "pupille de la nation," meaning the French government paid for his education.

During the 1930s — W.H. Auden's "low, dishonest decade" — Ricoeur, who hailed from a devout Protestant lineage, moved to Paris, where he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne. In the City of Light he made the acquaintance of the Catholic existentialist Gabriel Marcel — an encounter that would reshape Ricoeur's intellectual path. Marcel had convened a subsequently legendary Friday-evening study group and invited Ricoeur to attend. At the time, Marcel's passion was the existential theology of Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, and Karl Jaspers. Their approach rejected Neo-Thomism's comforting epistemological certainties — the idea that one could rationally deduce truths concerning God's nature by examining His creation. The antinomianism of existential theology replaced dogma and emphasized: (1) the risky nature of belief as a "leap of faith"; and (2) the personal and subjective nature of the encounter between the individual and the Almighty, an encounter that, to quote Kierkegaard, was suffused with "fear and trembling."

During the 1930s Ricoeur was also attracted to Emmanuel Mounier's "personalism": a movement among Catholic intellectuals that scorned the sterile rationalism — the legacy of Descartes, the Enlightenment, and 19th-century positivism — then prevalent among French universities in favor of a religiously tinged and at times mystical humanism. While still in his mid-20s, Ricoeur published some of his first philosophy articles in Mounier's celebrated journal Esprit.

Upon finishing at the Sorbonne, the young philosopher passed his agrégation (the equivalent of a master's degree), which permitted him to teach at a provincial lycée. Yet, once again, fate had a cruel twist in store. In 1939 Ricoeur was mobilized as an officer. A year later his unit suffered a humiliating rout following the Wehrmacht's June 1940 breakthrough in the Ardennes. Ricoeur surrendered and spent the ensuing five years in a somewhat permissive prisoner-of-war camp for officers in Pomerania. However, he and his fellow officer-intellectuals (among them, the phenomenologist Mikel Dufrenne) put their time in the camp to good use. Ricoeur steeped himself in the philosophy of Jaspers and Edmund Husserl, the father of phenomenology; wrote much of his doctoral thesis (later published as The Voluntary and the Involuntary); and translated Husserl's Ideas I — in the book's margins, no less, since paper was in short supply!

Ricoeur's recognition in his native France came belatedly. His philosophical temperament — we might label it "hermeneutic humanism" — had been honed during the interwar years. During the 1960s, however, the algorithmic postulates of structuralism were all the rage. That discourse openly flaunted an antihumanist sensibility, as in Foucault's infamous proclamation concerning the "death of man" in The Order of Things. Nor was Ricoeur favorably disposed toward the radical chic of gauchisme ("leftism") as practiced by the Maoists and related groups. In fact, it was in the aftermath of a storied run-in with Maoist activists at the University of Paris-Nanterre that Ricoeur abandoned the deanship he had recently accepted in favor of a post in Belgium.

Not until the 1980s, it seems, was Ricoeur warmly embraced by his countrymen, in large measure because of the international renown his philosophy had attained. By then, the ideological tumult of the 1960s had passed. A period of introspection and moderation had set in. At long last — at this point, Ricoeur was already in his 70s — his conservative, expository, hermeneutic humanism had become timely.

Ricoeur's philosophy is difficult to classify. To call it wide-ranging would be an understatement. Jean-Paul Sartre once aptly described Ricoeur as a "phenomenologist priest," since his philosophical approach was suffused with religious motifs, as in his breakthrough books of the 1960s, The Symbolism of Evil and Fallible Man. In a 2000 interview, Ricoeur admitted that he did not possess a philosophy per se. Instead, he pursued a series of problems and themes. In Parisian intellectual circles, Ricoeur was often thought of as a passeur: someone who, while not an original thinker, helps disseminate the ideas of others, as Ricoeur did in the case of phenomenology and hermeneutics.

Still, there remain certain strong continuities in his work. Ricoeur was a resolute anti-Cartesian. His philosophy stressed that, in questions related to human experience, to search for mathematical precision or an Archimedean point, such as the Cartesian cogito ergo sum, is a false path. Instead, experience is always profoundly culturally mediated. It is first conveyed to us via myths, symbols, religious doctrines, the unconscious, and so forth. In that respect, his thought bears resemblances to that of the German neo-Kantian Ernst Cassirer's later "philosophy of symbolic forms." Accordingly, Ricoeur made these cultural forms the objects of his research. Another way of expressing the same idea would be to say that human experience is pervaded by otherness. Ricoeur explored that notion brilliantly in one of his later books, the fittingly titled Oneself as Another.

Hermeneutics emerged in the early 19th century among theologians as an approach to biblical exegesis. It claimed that, as "moderns," we were alienated from the true meaning of Scripture. As a science of interpretation, hermeneutics sought to bracket contemporary prejudices in order to recapture those meanings in their pristine originality.

Ricoeur once remarked that "hermeneutics begins when, not content to belong to the historical world considered in the mode of the transmission of tradition, we interrupt the relation of belonging in order to signify it." That observation helps explain Ricoeur's enduring preoccupation with narrative and temporality. As cultural beings, we do not live in accordance with the sterile parameters of Newtonian or cosmological time. Instead, we perpetually reinscribe lived experience semantically through the comforting balm of narrative. One might go so far as to say that narrative is a form of rationalization, an artificial projection of meaning, since it provides an element of coherence for the aleatory, or disjunctive, experiences that make up a life. Ricoeur was understandably fond of citing the novelist Isak Dinesen's remark that, "All sorrows can be borne if you can put them into a story or tell a story about them."

Whereas the merits of Ricoeur's hermeneutics are undeniable, he has also had some vociferous critics. Hermeneutics is avowedly biased toward the authority and prestige of "tradition." But how might we go about deciding which traditions to venerate and which to reject or play down? After all, in today's globalized society, few traditions can claim the unproblematic self-evidence they once possessed. Moreover, what happens when the continuum of tradition is also a continuum of domination, as is, for example, frequently the case for women in premodern societies who are entangled in webs of patriarchal prejudice? In hermeneutics, where might we obtain the normative leverage to call such oppressive conditions into question in the name of emancipation or freedom?

Ricoeur valued the "conflict of interpretations," which is also the title of his 1969 book. One can cherish a plurality of viewpoints while desiring a framework for evaluating competing perspectives. Are there certain morally objectionable orientations — biological racism, for example — that one should rule out a priori? Or are all interpretive perspectives of more or less equal worth? It is at this point, perhaps, that Ricoeur's distaste for philosophical certitude risks devolving into a feckless lack of conviction.

He was sufficiently erudite and broad-minded to be aware of those problems. Whether or not he dealt with them satisfactorily, however, is another matter. To his credit, later in life Ricoeur realized that his uncompromising anti-Cartesianism could prove a moral hindrance. After all, when attacks against the individual, or "subject," take on the character of an ideological crusade, as they did during the heyday of French structuralism, how is one to preserve moral integrity? As Ricoeur explains in "On the Creativity of Language" (one of the interviews contained at the end of Richard Kearney's helpful study, On Paul Ricoeur): "If one does away with the idea of a subject who is responsible for his or her words, we are no longer in a position to talk of the freedom or rights of man. To dispense with the classical notion of the subject as a transparent cogito does not mean that we have to dispense with all forms of subjectivity."

In his three-volume opus, Time and Narrative, Ricoeur focused on the question of how human experience is ordered in time. Narrative is key. It bespeaks the fact that, in order to be meaningful, experience — as lived, imagined, or remembered — must be reconfigured within a sequential frame or "emplotted." In autobiography, fiction, and history, we provide experience with an a posteriori coherence by virtue of the stories we decide to tell.

In Memory, History, Forgetting, Ricoeur returns to those themes, focusing on history. How do societies decide which events to remember and which events to forget? Who does the deciding? How does the collective remembrance of events by the general populace differ from the more formal approach of professional historians? Can remembrance hypertrophy to the point where memory becomes burdensome? How should we evaluate acts of mandatory commemoration practiced by totalitarian or authoritarian states? Has the ethical compulsion to remember certain events — the Holocaust, for example — hindered our capacity to commemorate other genocides and tragedies? Ricoeur has undoubtedly posed a series of timely and fascinating questions.

Memory, History, Forgetting is a difficult book to evaluate — not merely because it is an unwieldy 642-page tome written by an octogenarian (Ricoeur was 87 when it appeared in 2000). Like many of Ricoeur's works, it is synthetic and wide-ranging. The problem is that, at times, Ricoeur's argument is unclear.

The book's conclusion contains some luminous passages on the problem of forgiveness — an increasingly important issue as we try to move beyond the 20th century's mammoth hecatombs and charred cities. Surveying the lay of recent history, we are faced with a paradox. Acts of genocide and torture bespeak a level of cruelty that is, strictly speaking, unforgivable. Yet, of what value is the concept of forgiveness unless it pertains to the unforgivable itself? Understandably, we feel that, in trying to resolve these questions, we are confronting issues that transcend the relatively meager capacities of human understanding — a fact that might help explain the "theological vogue" that has taken root in recent years.

Yet, at other points, Memory, History, Forgetting reads like a Germanic Literatur-bericht, a sprawling review of the literature in a burgeoning scholarly field. The book discusses the views of Arendt, Aristotle, Augustine, Habermas, Hegel, Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Plato, as well as the French historians Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel, the cultural theorist Michel de Certeau, the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey, the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, the philosopher Reinhart Koselleck, and many others. Still, even if his overall intent remains fuzzy, Ricoeur's summaries usually shed light on the problems they take on.

Perusing Memory, History, Forgetting, you sense that there is something urgently personal at stake. You wonder whether Ricoeur's obsession with the past, and the difficult choices we face in deciding how to come to terms with it, represents a veiled autobiographical cri de coeur.

A clue to this covert agenda may be found in Critique and Conviction, a series of interviews that appeared in 1995. While discussing France's ignominious June 1940 military collapse, Ricoeur avows: "I think that the political positions I took in those days were mistaken and even culpable." A clue to what that culpability entails may be found two paragraphs later when he confesses that, at the time, he was attracted to "certain aspects of Pétainism."

To understand the reasons behind Ricoeur's pro-Vichy convictions, it is necessary to re-examine his political orientation during the 1930s. At the time, Ricoeur was affiliated with several left-wing, pacifist-Protestant circles. He published regularly in one of their flagship journals, Terre Nouvelle. Its cover featured a cross (unsurprisingly), but also a hammer and sickle — an embellishment that, in 1936, won the review a place of honor on the Vatican's Index Librorum Prohibitorum. To be sure, the 1930s was a politically confusing decade. For those on the left, the antifascist Popular Front government, led by the Socialist Léon Blum, seemed worthy of support. But the Socialists' refusal to come to the aid of Republican Spain in the decade's legendary antifascist political struggle rapidly led to widespread disillusionment, both with the Popular Front and with the Third Republic in general.

During the 1930s convinced pacifists like Ricoeur were often reacting belatedly to the senseless slaughter of World War I — in which, as we have seen, Ricoeur's father met an untimely end. But here we encounter a real problem. For to identify with pacifism during the 1930s meant prostrating oneself in the face of the Nazis' malevolent political designs. Among conservatives and rightists, one frequently heard the battle cry: Mieux Hitler que Blum — "Better Hitler than Blum." Be careful what you wish for! Ironically, by virtue of their shared refusal to support the Popular Front's antifascist line, the far right and the pacifist left overlapped.

Here is what Ricoeur, the self-professed Germanophile, wrote in March 1939 in Terre Nouvelle:

"The democracies are plutocracies. ... I admit to feeling a genuine anguish in reading Hitler's speech: not that I believe his intentions are pure, but in a language [characterized by] a beautiful firmness ... he reminds the democracies of their hypocritical identification of law with the system of their interests. ... I believe that the German ideas of dynamism, of the vital energy of peoples, have more sense than our empty and hypocritical idea of law."

Ricoeur contrasts Hitler's admirable forthrightness with the Third Republic's hypocrisy. But he should have known better. After all, the Nazis never concealed their brutal, racist geopolitical aims. By 1939, in wanton defiance of international law, they had already reoccupied the Rhineland, annexed Austria, and herded vast numbers of leftists and Jews into concentration camps. In March 1939 — the very month that Ricoeur's article appeared — they ruthlessly conquered and occupied the sovereign state of Czechoslovakia. So much for the German "dynamism" singled out by Ricoeur for praise. In his later years, the philosopher was consumed with self-reproach for having countenanced the evils of Nazism. As he rues in Critique and Conviction: "So here is what I have brought about through political mistakes, through passivity, for not having understood that, in the face of Hitlerism, France should not have been disarmed."

Since Ricoeur spent the occupation years in a prisoner-of-war camp, he was spared the temptations of collaboration. Nevertheless, there does exist a written record of his pro-Vichy sentiments. In June 1941 we find him contributing to a Pétainist organ, L'Unité Française. In a text entitled "Propaganda and Culture," Ricoeur invokes the necessity of a strong state dedicated to "promoting a virile education where values of character would be on equal footing with intellectual values, where enthusiasm will no longer be sacrificed to the corrosive spirit of criticism." One finds analogous Pétainist sentiments expressed by Emmanuel Mounier in Esprit. Those who were contemptuous of the Third Republic during the 1930s assumed that the Nazis' stunning battlefield triumphs were indicative of German cultural superiority. On the basis of this wrongheaded assumption, the ideology of collaboration was born — a taint France has been trying to live down ever since.

Certainly, Ricoeur's youthful political transgressions in no way disqualify his considerable philosophical achievement. But they do raise certain questions about the ethical adequacy of hermeneutics — the mesmerizing and seductive flow of "interpretation" — an approach with which Ricoeur was enamored since the mid-1930s. For it seems difficult to reconcile hermeneutics' uncritical reverence for cultural pluralism with a ringing endorsement of the "moral point of view." In times of crisis, questions of principle must trump the inertia of "forms of life" (Wittgenstein) or tradition. Ricoeur's legacy would be even greater had he been less equivocal on that point.

Richard Wolin is a professor of history, comparative literature, and political science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His books include The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance With Fascism From Nietzsche to Postmodernism (Princeton University Press, 2004) and The Frankfurt School Revisited (forthcoming from Routledge Press).


Memory, History, Forgetting, by Paul Ricoeur, translated by Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer (University of Chicago Press, 2004)

On Paul Ricoeur: The Owl of Minerva, by Richard Kearney (Ashgate Publishing, 2004)