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Paul Ricoeur

Good to see that pain doesn’t negate Michael’s sense of humor.  I want to pay tribute to another writer whom I admire today.

I do promise to return to the topic of how the Democrats should position themselves in the upcoming elections of 2006 and 2008.  But I’m postponing that discussion to write about French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, who died on Friday at the age of 92.

I wrote, at the end of the Introduction to my first book, that “the spirit, more than the content, of Paul Ricoeur’s work, might be called [this book’s] guiding genius.” And I remained a Paul Ricoeur fan even when I disagreed with almost everything he had to say about narrative in the three volume work, Time and Narrative (1984-88), that the obituary in Le Monde highlights as his masterpiece.

I always learned a tremendous amount when I read a book by Ricoeur.  His method was always a painstakingly thorough examination of the previous luminaries who had addressed his current topic.  Hence The Rule of Metaphor (1977) is a one volume guide to the philosophy of language as well as an argument for the sentence as the site of linguistic action and metaphor as the agent of transformation. 

What particularly marks these exercises in the history of an idea is their inclusiveness.  It is not that Ricoeur had read everything; so, for that matter, had Derrida.  It was that Ricoeur, most fully of any 20th century philosopher, exuded the Hegelian conviction that every manifestation of the human spirit contained an element of the truth.  His readings of others’ work was always generous, always emphasized what he could learn from them.  But that generosity did not, in fact, rest on Hegelian foundations.  Ricoeur was not a dialectical thinker, even if a dialogical one, and he did not believe in a unifying Spirit even though he believed in a Christian God.  Ricoeur, I think, is best understood as a modern-day Aristotle, which is not surprising given his pre-World War II education in France.  But, perhaps because he was born a Protestant, Ricoeur imbibed his Aristotle without taking in very much Aquinas.  The result was a philosopher with an abiding fascination with the human and natural world.  Nothing was foreign to Ricoeur; he possessed that wide-eyed wonder that Socrates thought was the starting place for philosophy. His philosophical task, like Aristotle’s, was to organize human knowledge so that it best reflected the richness of the found (natural) and created (social) world.  Any help he could receive from any quarter was gratefully accepted.

Almost alone in the fervid atmosphere that accompanied the poststructuralist assault on humanism, Ricoeur retained his good humor and his good sense.  Even in his famous repudiation of the “hermeneutics of suspicion” (in the opening chapter of Freud and Philosophy [1975]), Ricoeur associated that aggressive hermeneutic with three figures—Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud—whom it would be absurd to attempt excluding from the intellectual heritage of every practicing humanist.  He acknowledged a varied and conflicted tradition that generated a varied and conflicted contemporary conversation—and his intention was always to bring everyone into the room and to listen to every voice in the conversation.  He never impugned the motives of his adversaries or imputed evil designs to them or questioned their right to say their piece.  All disagreements were assumed to be honest disagreements.  And I don’t know what would have counted as rendering those disagreements dishonest since Ricoeur, to the last, took each and every printed word that he read and susequently discussed utterly seriously.

Nothing disturbs me more in current intellectual work than contemptuous and peremptory dismissal, which produces a tunnel vision by justifying not paying attention to whole swathes of the intellectual landscape.  “That’s not my field” is bad enough, but “those people have nothing of worth or interest to say” is much worse.  Ricoeur showed us, again and again, another way of doing our work.  His work embodies the conviction that understanding the world is a communal enterprise.

Posted by on 05/23 at 03:02 PM
  1. A lovely memorial, John, and you’ve piqued my interest.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  05/23  at  06:45 PM
  2. Thank you.  I’ve been thinking of his work all weekend.  A beautiful and inspiring tribute.

    Posted by JL  on  05/23  at  07:42 PM
  3. Well put and very moving. Something we all need to think about beyond this sad, sad moment.

    Posted by  on  05/24  at  12:26 AM
  4. Thank you for that, John.  I particularly liked your concluding paragraph.  I’m currently at work on a book about Leo Strauss and the Straussians in American academic and political life.  In so many ways, I’m entirely out of sympathy with Strauss. And yet I, too, feel that one must categorically resist the easy temptation to act as if “those people have nothing of worth or interest to say.” Understanding cannot begin from such a place.

    It’s been a long time since I’ve read Ricoeur (way back in graduate school), though I remember thoroughly enjoying what I read.  Your tribute made me want to revisit his work.

    Posted by  on  05/24  at  08:13 AM
  5. That’s a lovely tribute.
    And we would all do well to heed your admonishment that we all lose in every field of our lives when we believe that “those people have nothing of worth or interest to say”.


    Posted by DK  on  05/24  at  09:53 AM
  6. Good points, John. I’ve been worried about the tendency toward blocking out alternate points of view, too. In the blog world, too much discussion that seems honest to me gets labeled as “trolling.” It’s a very disturbing trend.

    Posted by Charlie  on  05/24  at  11:50 AM
  7. The landscape of discussion could use more metaphor, not less.  We could all endure more imagination.

    Posted by The Heretik  on  05/24  at  12:32 PM
  8. Don’t get me wrong: I liked reading Paul Ricoeur’s work, and everything I’ve ever heard about him testifies to his honesty, integrity, intelligence, and any other scholarly virtue you’d care to come up with (or “up with which you’d care to come” for you Churchill fans—Winston, not Ward). I just think it’s a bit much to call anyone a “modern-day Aristotle.” He was a modern-day Paul Ricoeur, and that’s plenty good enough.

    Of course, I have called Deleuze “our Kant,” but that’s another story…

    Posted by  on  05/24  at  03:01 PM
  9. You wrote: “Ricoeur retained his good humor and his good sense. “

    Indeed, and at the heart of this is his resistance to exclusion, as you point out.  We are spending too much time reading between the shouting and bitter anger of those who demand we accept only their principles, only their ideas.  One of the hidden attributes of achieving the status of a senior citizen who practiced and continues to practice philosophy, is that the more i read, include, embrace, and discover, the more i find a certain humor-filled, joy in being.  Ricouer is a role-model to be emulated and deeply respect; his work and efforts need be challenged, which is something he also embraced.

    Posted by  on  05/24  at  05:27 PM
  10. "Nothing disturbs me more in current intellectual work than contemptuous and peremptory dismissal...”

    Just because I understand something, doesn’t mean I agree with it.  Unfortunately, there are those who think if they just keep talking and saying the same things over and over again again, I will eventually agree with them.  If I don’t, I get the “you don’t understand” nonsense.

    After awhile, peremptory dismissal is necessary.

    Posted by  on  05/24  at  09:54 PM
  11. I’m so sorry he’s gone; I had not heard. Ricoeur’s work on subjectivity in *Oneself as Another* is to date the clearest, richest work on the subject.

    Perhaps key to his intellectual generosity is what he has to say about enigmas in *Freud and Philosophy*--that they do not obscure understanding, but instead provoke it.

    Posted by melancholic  on  05/25  at  01:57 AM
  12. Here a big collection of articles on Ricoeur:

    Posted by Angelo  on  05/25  at  10:24 AM
  13. Nice piece on Ricoeur.  I suspect that we the eulogies we read in the future will lack the imprint of his inclusiveness.  The wisdom he exhibited while surviving a brutal European century is remarkable.

    Posted by DocMara  on  05/25  at  10:36 AM
  14. Thanks for this tribute; it’s the first I’ve heard about his death. Of the three books of his I have on my shelf, The Rule of Metaphor is the one I managed to get all the way through. When I was done, I felt as if I had completed a graduate seminar on language theory. It was such a thorough study that I felt it allowed me to delineate several blind spots in Western thinking about this subject with a high degree of confidence. Please understand, I’m not a professional theorist, and I don’t read a lot of philosophy - I’m simply a writer with a strong interest in the creative process and in the game of ideas.

    For readers of this blog wanting a good, general overview of Ricoeur’s thinking, I recommend a book of interviews: Critique and Conviction, translated by Kathleen Blamey (Columbia U.P., 1995).

    Posted by Dave  on  05/27  at  03:26 PM
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