Paul Ricœur (1913-2005)

Paul Ricoeur considered himself to be a philosopher by profession and Christian in his religion. He was thought to be one of the greatest post-war French thinkers. Ricoeur lived a peaceful life, far from the limelight of the media, a man whose thinking led to positive action. Through « the conflict of interpretations », he sought a fragile balance between the wisdom of compromise and the love of one’s neighbour.

His youth and the Second World War

  • Paul Ricoeur, philosopher © La Voix Protestante

Paul was born into a protestant family, inhabitants of Valence, in 1913. Sadly, he lost both parents at an early age so he was brought up by his grand-parents.

He devoured books and was greatly interested in philosophy, which he studied at the Sorbonne. He went regularly to Gabriel Marcel’s « Friday groups » and discovered the review « Esprit », recently founded by Emmanuel Mounier in 1932. He was a radical Christian and became friendly with André Philip, who would later be elected as a deputy for the Front Populaire. Ricoeur also considered the different aspects of violence – it was clearly a subject which troubled him – and set about learning German. In 1935 he passed the competitive exam called the « agrégation » in philosophy and taught in the lycées of Saint-Brieuve, Colmar and Lorient.

In 1939 he was called up as a reserve officer, made prisoner and sent to the camps in eastern Pomerania ; his camp was situated in Arnswalde and he shared a room with seven other intellectuals. During his time at the camp, Paul Ricoeur managed to translate Ideen by Hüssel, a Jewish philosopher who had been banned by the Nazis, writing the translation in the margins of the text. All this was of course, done in secret, the book being hidden under his mattress.

From Chambon to Nanterre

  • Le Chambon-sur-Lignon © Collection particulière

At the end of World War Two, Paul Ricoeur taught for three years at the school in Chambon sur Lignon – a centre for protestant Resistance activity in the Haute-Loire – indeed here 600 Jewish children were saved from deportation.

In 1948, he went to Strasbourg, where he finished his thesis on the Will (1950) and also taught at the University. This is where he spent « eight very happy years ». His philosophical standpoint led him to defend certain key issues in society as a contributor to the review Le Christianisme Social and when he wrote in the review Esprit he specialized in the analysis of the « political paradox ».

When he was elected professor at the Sorbonne in 1958, Paul Ricoeur decided to join the community called « Murs Blancs » with his family – he had 5 children. This had been founded in Châtenay-Malabry in the suburbs of Paris, by Emmanuel Mounier in 1939 and included other writers for Esprit. Paul Ricoeur took up a position against the French government and the OAS over the war in Algeria.

From 1960 onwards, his philosophy took on a new direction : previously he had been working on phenomenology, but after this date he started to study hermeneutics, dealing with structuralism in particular and also the works of Sigmund Freud, which he commented on, thus arousing sharp criticism from althusso-lacaniens

Paul Ricoeur not only taught at the Sorbonne – he was also a professor at the Faculté de Théologie Protestante, where his unconventional research projects attracted many students.

In 1964, he founded the Department of Philosophy in the newly created Nanterre University. He prophesized « a national cataclysm » if the government should fail to carry out a major social reform in the near future.

According to him, the events of 1968 were the cultural revolution of an industrial society which did not know any longer where it was going or why.

He was elected dean of Nanterre in 1969, but he had to resign in March 1970 because there had been riots with students opposing the police, resulting in 187 of them being wounded. He left Nanterre in a bitter frame of mind, with the conviction that he had been politically manipulated.

The American « exile »

After the setback of Nanterre, Paul Ricoeur taught for 3 years in Louvain, Belgium, where the Hüssel texts were kept in their archives. In 1970, he also became professor at the University of Chicago and at the Divinity School, where the great theologian Paul Tillich had taught before him.

His work was very successful in the States and he became friendly with Mircea Eliade and Hannah Arendt.

He was not « in exile » all the time, however. He spent six months every year in Paris, where, from 1967 onwards, he presided over the « seminaire de la rue Parmentier », an international centre for philosophical research. It was during these years that some of Paul Ricoeur’s major works were published : La Métaphore Vive in 1975 and three volumes of Temps et Récit (1981-1984).

Paul Ricoeur was at last recognized in France

  • Oneself as another by Paul Ricoeur © Meromedia

From 1980 onwards, Paul Ricoeur became widely recognized in France, especially for his political ethics. He gave guidance to the Prime Minister, Michel Rocard (a protestant), over the New Caledonian issue in 1988, gave his witness on the question of contaminated blood and became a mediator in the conflict of those who possessed no official residence documents. He became well-known for his practical wisdom in many fields, even including the Institut des Haute Etudes de Justice.

Paul Ricoeur belonged to three philosophical traditions at once : reflexive French philosophy, continental European philosophy and anglo-saxon analytical philosophy. It is under the influence of these three ways of thought that he took up the question of the subject : in 1990 he published Soi-même comme les autres, a synthetic summary of the works he had previously read.

In September 2000, he published La Mémoire,histoire et l’oubli ; in this he considered the dialectical relationship between memory and history. When he called to mind the tragic disasters of the XXth century, he wrote the following in a preface to this book : « I am troubled by the sinister fact that some incidents retain too much of our attention while others are totally, wrongly, forgotten ; there is a real abuse of what is commemorated and what is forgotten. Indeed, I must confess that the idea of a policy of just memory is one of my most important themes. ».

In 2004, Paul Ricoeur published Parcours de la reconnaissance, a study of the different meanings associated with recognition, whether it be the recognition of oneself or that of other people, which leads on naturally to gratitude towards others.

In May 2005, Paul Ricoeur died in Châtenay-Malabry, after having left his library in his will to the Faculté de Théologie Protestante de Paris, thus setting up the Fonds Paul Ricoeur.


  • Books
    • ABEL Olivier, Paul Ricoeur, Michalon, Paris, 1996
    • DOSSE François, Paul Ricoeur, les sens d’une vie, La Découverte, rééd. La Découverte poche, Paris, 1997-2001
    • MONGIN Olivier, Paul Ricoeur, Seuil, rééd. Points-Seuil, Paris, 1994-2002
    • RICOEUR Paul, Philosophie de la volonté, 1950-1961
    • RICOEUR Paul, De l’interprétation : Freud et la philosophie, 1965
    • RICOEUR Paul, Le Conflit des interprétations, 1969
    • RICOEUR Paul, La métaphore vive, 1975
    • RICOEUR Paul, Soi-même comme un autre, 1990
    • RICOEUR Paul, Lectures I, II, III, 1991-1994
    • RICOEUR Paul, Critique et Conviction, 1995
    • RICOEUR Paul, La mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli, 2000
    • RICOEUR Paul, Parcours de la reconnaissance, 2003
    • RICOEUR Paul et CHANGEUX Jean-Pierre, La nature et la règle, 1998
    • RICOEUR Paul et LACOCQUE André, Penser la Bible, 1998
  • Articles
    • "Spécial Paul Ricoeur", Esprit, Paris

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