Paul Ricoeur

It’s becoming apparent to me that I need to say a whole lot more about Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005). Ricoeur was a leading contributor to 20th century hermeneutics. His early intellectual formation centered on the Christian personalism of his mentor Gabriel Marcel and Marcel’s associate Emmanuel Mounier, founder of the personalist movement and the journal Esprit, as well as the work of the two greatest practitioners of a strongly subject-centered philosophy — Fichte (through Jean Nabert), and Husserl, whose Ideas I Ricoeur translated to French.

Later, he became increasingly concerned with language, discourse, and questions of interpretation. He eventually moved to a sort of “middle path” in regard to subjectivity (see Oneself as Another). Ricoeur’s work is clearly not an instance of the mentalism I am currently concerned to avoid. (I have myself moved toward the middle from the opposite, anti-subject-centered pole, where I started due to concerns about egoism.) In his later work, Ricoeur also engaged with analytic philosophy. While always motivated by spiritual concerns, he carefully kept his philosophy independent of religious doctrine.

Ricoeur’s unifying lifelong concern has been characterized as a sort of philosophical anthropology. Once upon a time, I would have rejected this very description, as antithetical to the important 1960s “structuralist” critique of existentialist “humanism”. In the past I was mainly aware of his criticisms of structuralism as a one-sided “Kantianism without a transcendental subject”, and mistakenly got the impression that he simply associated all “hermeneutics of suspicion” with reductionism. I disagreed with both these positions, and for too long did not bother to look further. One of my late father’s last recommendations to me was that I would probably find Ricoeur very interesting. Now I feel like he will turn out to be a major ally in cultivating the “middle path”.