Philosopher Ricoeur advocated humane values in face of injustice
Philosopher Paul Ricoeur, who taught at the University for 20 years and was one of the leading philosophers of the 20th century, died Friday, May 20, in his sleep in Chatenay-Malabry, France. He was 92.
“Paul Ricoeur was a thinker of astonishing range yet real depth and complete integrity,” said Richard Rosengarten, Dean of the Divinity School and a former student of Ricoeur’s. “One sensed in both the person and his writings both the patience to engage complex thought on its terms, and the tenacious insistence that it be relevant to our most pressing human concerns—about time, eternity, death, suffering, forgiveness.”
Ricoeur, the John Nuveen Professor Emeritus in the Divinity School, taught at the University from 1971 until his retirement in 1991. Perhaps best known for his contributions to the field of phenomenology, the study of how a person’s reality is shaped by their perception of the events of the world, the French philosopher was the author of more than 20 books and hundreds of articles.
He also was the winner of numerous awards and honors, including most recently the John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Human Sciences, an honor sometimes called “the Nobel Prize for the humanities” that carries with it the same monetary award of $1 million. The Library of Congress’ lifetime achievement award was presented to Ricoeur and American religious historian Jaroslav Pelikan at a December 2004 ceremony at the Library of Congress.
“We lose today more than a philosopher,” French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said in a statement. “The entire European humanist tradition is mourning one of its most talented spokesmen.”
French President Jacques Chirac told the BBC that Ricoeur was a man who “never stopped proclaiming with determination the need for dialogue and the respect of others.”
Born in the town of Valence, Ricoeur was orphaned at an early age. But he was able to attend school and eventually studied philosophy at the Sorbonne where he began his long career of writing, often on themes of Christian socialism and pacifism.
Serving in the French army during World War II, Ricoeur was taken captive and held from 1941 to 1945 in a German prison camp. While a prisoner, he read German philosophy extensively and, along with other fellow intellectuals, was allowed to form a “university” in the camp.
“He was an extremely important philosopher, but more than that, he was a real advocate for humane values in the face of the terrors of inhumane evil and injustice,” recalled William Schweiker, Professor of Theological Ethics in the Divinity School. Schweiker studied with Ricoeur and also wrote and edited several books on his work.
“The most important thing about him is that he was an ardent advocate for human dignity and our capabilities as moral beings,” Schweiker said. “He insisted on the glory and turmoil of human life found in our capacities for action and responsibility, while also examining the source and force of our fallibility and our faults.”
After the war, Ricoeur taught at Strasbourg in France and later at the Sorbonne. In 1967, he went to teach, and later served as dean, at the new university at Nanterre. After several years of political unrest at Nanterre, Ricoeur resigned and soon became a visiting professor at Chicago.
In 1971, Ricoeur was named the John Nuveen Chair in Chicago’s Divinity School, a position held only once before by renowned theologian Paul Tillich. While at the Divinity School, he wrote extensively, publishing a number of important books, including The Living Metaphor (1975), Time and Narrative (three volumes, 1983 to 1985), and Oneself as Another (1990).
Upon his return in 1991 to France, Ricoeur continued to write crucial studies, extending his concerns into new fields: justice and law (The Just, 1995), neuroscience (What Makes Us Think, 1998), and the study of time (On Memory, History and Forgetting, 2000).
David Tracy, the Andrew Thomas Greeley & Grace McNichols Greeley Distinguished Service Professor in the Divinity School, and a former colleague of Ricoeur’s, recalled a seminar the two had taught on the German philosopher Martin Heidegger.
“Ricoeur said that he could not agree with Heidegger’s analysis on the highly individual character of death,” Tracy said. Ricoeur said he saw “life as a conversation that has gone on for centuries,” that one comes in and one tries to hear others both dead and living, and eventually may add to the conversation. “But there comes a time to leave the conversation, and the conversation will go on. And that’s how I think of my death.”
“I’ll never forget that,” Tracy said, though the class was taught more than 15 years ago. “It captures him perfectly—both his humility and his mind.”