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Paul Ricoeur (Valence (Charente), February 27, 1913 – Châtenay-Malabry, May 20, 2005) was a French philosopher and anthropologist known for his attempt to combine the phenomenological description with the hermeneutic interpretation.
The first years of Ricœur were marked by two main facts. The first was that he was born into a devout Protestant family, thus becoming a member of a religious minority in Catholic France. The second, that his father died in 1915 in the First World War, when Ricœur was only two years old. As a result, he was educated by his aunt in Rennes with a small pension earmarked for his status as an orphan. Ricœur was an intellectually precocious and book-loving boy whose inclination towards study was encouraged by his Protestant family’s emphasis on Bible study. In 1933 Ricœur graduated from the University of Rennes and in 1934 he began his philosophy studies at the Sorbonne, where he was influenced by Gabriel Marcel. In 1935 he graduated in philosophy.
The Second World War interrupted Ricœur’s career: in 1939 he was mobilized to serve in the French army. His unit was captured during the German invasion of France in 1940, and he spent the next five years as a prisoner of war. In his detention camp were other intellectuals, such as Mikel Dufrenne, who organized lectures and classes of such rigor that the field was accredited by the Vichy government as an institution with the capacity to grant university degrees. During this time he read Karl Jaspers, who was to have great influence over him. He also started a translation of the Ideas of Edmund Husserl.
After the war Ricœur obtained a place at the University of Strasbourg (1948-1956), where he published prolifically. In 1950 he received his Ph.D., presenting two theses (as is customary in France): a minor thesis that was a translation and comments on Husserl’s Ideas I (for the first time in French), and a larger thesis that would later be published as Volunteer and the involuntary. As a result of his academic work, Ricœur gained a reputation as an expert in phenomenology, and became very popular in France during the postwar years.
In 1956 Ricœur got the Chair of General Philosophy at the Sorbonne. This position marked the rise of Ricœur as one of the most prominent philosophers of France. During that time he wrote Freud and philosophy as well as The Symbolism of Evil, which cemented his reputation.
From 1965 to 1970 Ricœur occupied a position at the recently founded University of Nanterre. Nanterre was an experiment in progressive education and Ricœur hoped that this would give him a chance to escape the suffocating atmosphere of the Sorbonne’s limiting tradition and create a university according to his vision. However, Nanterre became a nursery for protests during the student revolt of May ’68 and Ricœur was ridiculed as an “old clown” and a puppet of the French government.
Ricœur, in addition to his interest in Husserlian phenomenology, was a precursor to the interpretative current of the early 1970s. Hermeneutics, as he would later call it, would be Ricœur’s great tendency. It would be, then, a great influence for authors like Clifford Geertz and John B. Thompson. Together with other authors, such as Gadamer, he promoted a tension in philosophy that until now is the subject of academic discussions.
At the lowest point of his popularity and disenchanted with his life in France, in 1970 Ricœur moved to the University of Chicago, where he stayed until 1985. Thanks to this change Ricœur became familiar with American philosophy and social sciences , becoming one of the few thinkers equally comfortable with the intellectual world of French, German and English. The result were two of the most important and lasting works of Ricœur: The living metaphor and his work in three volumes Time and narration. Starting from the discussion of the narrative identity, as well as the continued interest of Ricœur in the ‘self’, he presented the Gifford lectures (The Gifford Lectures), which culminated in the important work of Himself as another.
With time and narration, he returned to France as a star intellectual. His later works were characterized by a continuing dissection of national intellectual traditions, and some of his recent writings caught the attention of the American political philosopher John Rawls.
In 1999 he received the Balzan Philosophy Prize. From 1999 to 2001, he had as an editorial assistant the young Emmanuel Macron, who worked on the bibliography and the preparatory notes of his book La Mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli, and who was a member of the editorial committee of Esprit magazine.
In 2003 he received the Paul VI Prize and the following year, on November 29, 2004, he was awarded the second John W. Kluge Prize (shared with Jaroslav Pelikan) for a lifetime of achievements in Humanities.
He died of natural causes in his sleep on May 20, 2005 at his home in Chatenay-Malabry, west of Paris, French Prime Minister Jean Pierre Raffarin said: “The European humanist tradition is in mourning for one of his most talented exponents ».
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