Paul Ricoeur: On Human Action and Suffering

Phenomenology and Hermeneutics

Paul Ricoeur, whose explorations of the fundamental questions about human existence made him one of the most prominent philosophers of the 20th century, died at the age of 92 on May 20, 2005, in Chatenay-Malabry, outside of Paris.

At the time of his death, Dr. Ricoeur was the John Nuveen Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School, where he had taught from 1971 until his retirement in 1991. Among his best-known works are “Freud and Philosophy” (1970), “The Rule of Metaphor” (1977), “Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences” (1981) and “Memory, History, Forgetting” (2004). Dr. Ricoeur’s most recent book, “The Course of Recognitions,” will be published posthumously in December, 2005.

Dr. Ricoeur’s work ranged over an astonishing range of human experience, including: myths and symbols; language and cognition; structuralism and psychoanalysis; religion and aesthetics; ethics and the nature of evil; theories of literature and theories of law. All of his writings were informed by his lifelong concerns about and explorations of the forces that serve as the foundation of human action and suffering. Russell Arben Fox has provided a recent thoughtful personal commentary on Ricoeur’s philosophical perspective and its reception within the academic world.

Ricouer’s studies of the perception and interpretation of reality as laden with meanings that are inevitably embedded in social context may be viewed as important parallels and contributions to the important development of contemporary dialectical social-constructivist perspectives.

John Paul Gustave Ricoeur was orphaned at an early age. His early higher education studies began at the University of Rennes and he received a doctorate from the Sorbonne in 1950.

Ricoeur served in the French Army during World War II and spent five years in a German prison camp. During his internment, he managed to continue his academic work, translating the work of the German phenomenologist Edmund Husserl into French with his tiny handwriting in the margins of Husserl’s book. The prison camp became a place of such intellectual ferver that the later Vichy regime granted it accreditation as an official degree-granting institution.

Just last year, at the age of 91, Dr. Ricoeur was awarded the John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Human Sciences. The award, which carries with it a $ 1 million prize, is considered to be the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for the humanities. Dr. Ricoeur’s acceptance speech for the Kluge prize stands as an immense monument to both the lasting acuity and humility of his great mind throughout the very last years of his long, very rich life.

Finally, Dr. Ricoeur was revered as one of our more ardent and vocally active social pacifists; thus, in addition to his scholarly contributions, Ricoeur will also be mourned for the courageous role he played in the realm of moral activism.

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