Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Theological Mentors 6: Philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005)

ricoeur_paul2I haven’t added to the series on mentors in some time, so let me correct that, now.  (Here is the index to the series.)

Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) was one of the most  brilliant and influential philosophers of the second half of the 20th C. whose thought and writings ranged widely and influenced many different fields.  Less well-known, perhaps, is that Ricoeur was also a deeply pious Christian, a lifelong member of the French Reformed Church (which dates back to Jean Cauvin [John Calvin] and the later Huguenot movement during the Reformation.

Ricoeur was born 27 Feb. 1913 in Valence, France.  His family were devout Protestants in a country whose majority is Catholic. (France adopted religious liberty and church-state separation during the Revolution of 1789 and it is today formalized as the principle of laicite since 1905.  Religion is considered far more a private matter than in the U.S. and left of center politicians seldom refer to their faith, though this is changing slightly.  The French govt. does not keep statistics on religious adherence or race or ethnicity.  In a 2003 poll, 41% of French respondents said the existence of God was “excluded,” or “unlikely.” When questioned about their religious affiliation, 62% responded Catholic, 7% Muslim, 2% Protestant, and 1% Jewish. )  His father died in 1915 in WWI.  His mother died the same year. So, from 2 onward the orphaned Ricoeur was raised in Rennes by his paternal grandparents and an Aunt, helped by a stipend he received  as a war orphan.

Perhaps aided by the family emphasis on Bible study, Ricoeur was bookish and intellectually precocious.  He received his license (equivalent to a Bachelor of Arts in the U.S.) 1933 from the University of Recennes and began studying philosophy at the University of Paris at the Sorbonnes in 1934, where he was influenced by the existentialist Gabriel Marcel.  In 1935, Ricoeur received the second highest agregation award in the nation. (This is a French civil service examination for educators.) It presaged a bright future as an academic philosopher–but WWII intervened.

Christian pacifism is rare among the Reformed (Calvinist) branch of Protestantism, but it is a stronger minority among French Reformed than elsewhere.  Ricoeur did not believe Christians should kill but France had no conscientious objector  law. (The laws for COs  in France are still not great–far more restrictive than in either the UK or the US.) So, Ricoeur was drafted into the French army.  He was almost immediately captured and spent most of WWII in a German concentration camp–where he managed to get permission to teach German philosophy to prisoners and guards. Ricoeur’s wife was pregnant with their first daughter when he was captured and he did not meet her until after repatriation.

After the war, Ricoeur taught for a few years at several lycee (the final stage of French secondary education, preparing students for university work; closer to the German gymnasium system than to U.S. or even UK high schools) before teaching at the University of Strasbourg between 1948 and 1956. (Strasbourg is the only French university with a Protestant faculty of theology and Ricoeur used his time there to become thoroughly aquainted with contemporary theology.  He kept up with major currents of theology throughout his long life, though he never pursued novelty for its own sake.  In U.S. terms, Ricoeur’s theology could be considered at the overlap of “the evangelical left” and of “Neoorthodox” theology, though he was uninterested in such labels.) In 1950, Ricoeur received his doctorate, submitting, as is the French custom, two theses: a minor thesis that was the first translation of Edmund Husserl’s Ideas into French, along with commentary, and a major thesis later  published as Le Volontaire et l’Involontaire (English translation would be roughly “Free Will and Determinism.” It was published in English as Freedom and Nature: The Voluntary and Involuntary.]

From 1956 to 1966, Ricoeur held the chair of general philosophy at the Sorbonne.  In 1967 the University of Paris was massively reorganized and Ricoeur became an administrator at the new University of Paris at Nanterre (now Paris X).   He taught there until mandatory retirement in 1980.  Beginning in 1956, Ricoeur also taught regularly in the United States in both philosophy and theology departments.  From 1970 to 1985, he taught at the University of Chicago Divinity School and continued to commute between France and the U.S. throughout his “retirement” years.

Ricoeur’s prolific writings in philosophy begin with existentialism and phenomenology.  But he, along with the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, pioneered the “hermeneutical turn” in philosophy.  This proved to have huge implications for theology and biblical studies. In fact, Ricoeur wrote numerous books on biblical studies and hermeneutics.  However,  his works on general philosophical hermeneutics made no reference to his biblical and theological works and many of his strictly philosophical students knew little or nothing of his biblical and theological works.

It was his biblical work I discovered first, especially Essays on Biblical Interpretation (1980). But I eventually discovered The Symbolism of Evil (1967, French 1960) and his other works. I am still trying to wade through his massive 3 volume Time and Narrative. 

What I have learned so far from Ricoeur is that all of reality has a narrative quality:  that is, that our existence as humans can only be described in the form of story–personal and greater stories. Unlike his one-time student, Jacques Derrida, Ricoeur never lost faith in grand meta-narratives (after all, the Christian Master Story is one he believes!). So, he is not “post-modern” in the deconstructionist sense. Yet, Ricoeur also warns against the  idea of fixed meanings. He knows that interpretations are always provisionary and conflicted. See his Conflict of Interpretations.

I know that Ricoeur shared both a theological and political outlook that, in broad brushstrokes, largely agrees with my own. Yet his  writings are so voluminous that I am not sure I have understood his entire “project,” nor how his philosophy, faith, and ethical-political outlook formed a coherent whole–although spelling out these connections was something he worked hard at during his last year. ( I have got to find time to read Onself as Another, The Just, and Thinking Biblically.)  I especially want to see if there are connections between his broad thought and his commitment to pacifism.

So, perhaps it is more accurate to say that Ricoeur is becoming a mentor as I am grasping more and more of his project.   I look forward to further insights from fellow theological  bloggers.

For help, I highly recommend Dan R. Stiver, Theology After Ricoeur:  New Directions in Hermeneutical Theology (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2001).  But as much as I admire Danny (full disclosure: a former teacher), I want to try to grasp Ricoeur on my own. I have always preferred primary sources to secondary, but when someone’s works take several pages just to LIST, a secondary source may be helpful. I recommend this one.

April 2, 2009 - Posted by | mentors, theology


  1. […] The late philosopher and French Reformed Christian Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005). […]

    Pingback by Index of Posts on Theological Mentors « Levellers | April 2, 2009

  2. […] Theological Mentors 6: Philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) « Levellers […]

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