June 16, 2005
Remembering Paul Ricoeur
-- W. David Hall
As many of us were saddened to learn, philosopher Paul Ricoeur died of natural causes on May 20, 2005. He was 92. Ricoeur held professorships at the Sorbonne, the Catholic University at Louvain, and the University of Paris at Nanterre, where he served as dean from 1967 to 1970, and from which he retired in 1981. His accomplishments were recognized in 2004 with the Kluge Prize for lifetime achievement in philosophy, an honor he shared with Jaroslav Pelikan. Ricoeur also taught at the University of Chicago Divinity School between 1971 and 1991 as the John Nuveen Distinguished Service Professor.
I first encountered Ricoeur's ideas as a rhetoric student in college. I was immediately attracted to his work, though in retrospect I recognize that I had no idea what he was trying to do. I have devoted much of the twenty-one years since this first encounter to figuring out particular dimensions of Ricoeur's thought and what it means for the way we think after him.
As a graduate student completing a dissertation on Ricoeur's work on religious narrative at the Divinity School, I had the opportunity to meet him at a conference organized in his honor. The meeting, though brief, impressed me deeply; Ricoeur proved to be as gracious and generous a person as he was a thinker. Though of relatively diminutive physical stature, Ricoeur was an intellectual giant whose legacy remains vital, and destined to continue influencing the course of thought on religion.
Ricoeur characterized himself as a philosopher who listened carefully to religion, but his contribution to intellectual explorations extends beyond these fields of study. In these initial weeks after his death, scholars in philosophy and religion, as well as literary theory, rhetoric, psychology and psychoanalysis, political theory, cultural criticism, and cognitive science are mourning his passing and assessing the impact of that passing. Ricoeur's influence upon twentieth-century thought was considerable, and this influence extends into this present young century.
Though influential in many areas of study, Ricoeur's contributions to the study of religion are perhaps more vast than in any other field. Ricoeur is best known in the field of religion for his ideas on the function of narrative in religious discourse. In particular, he has given us great insight into the ethical and theological, not to mention liturgical, significance of biblical narrative. Earlier in his career, however, Ricoeur was better known for his thought in the philosophy of religion. This earlier thought focused on the significance of Kantian idealism, phenomenology, and hermeneutics for the study of religion and theology.
Ricoeur employed a Kantian philosophy of limits to discuss the various points of crossing between philosophy and religion. Following Kant, Ricoeur argued that philosophy comes up against an epistemological barrier beyond which it cannot go; theological speculation comes to the aid of philosophy in laying out a comprehensive world view. His grounding in phenomenology led him into numerous important dialogues with scholars in the field of the history of religions. Mircea Eliade, his colleague at the University of Chicago, was among many notable interlocutors.
One of Ricoeur's principle interests concerned the phenomenology of time consciousness -- laid out by philosopher Edmund Husserl and taken up by Martin Heidegger and others -- and what this phenomenology lends to Eliade's distinction between myth and history, among other important topics. His interest in post-romantic hermeneutics brought him to consider the interpretive character of human experience in general and religious experience in particular. Ricoeur's later work on metaphor and narrative is in many ways a natural extension of these early thoughts in phenomenology and hermeneutics. Central to his work on narrative is the manner in which narrative structures our experience of time and memory.
Over the past few weeks, I -- like many others, I suspect -- have reflected on the degree to which Ricoeur has shaped my ideas, as well as my approach to the study and teaching of religion. More than once I have commented, only half-jokingly, to colleagues and friends that I thought Ricoeur would live forever. Perhaps his own work on narrative and its importance for memory will keep him alive in the minds of those who have known him either personally or through the profundity of his ideas. Each of us has his own memories of him; hopefully we'll keep the stories in circulation.
W. David Hall is Assistant Professor of religion at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky.