Life is ‘“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.”‘[1] Paul Ricoeur saw his life as a conversation, and his was a conversation I can only dream to join…

Ricoeur was a French philosopher (aren’t they all?) who wrote over 50 books and is one of the top five most important philosophers of the 21st century. He was famous for his contribution to hermeneutic phenomenology, the philosophy of action, and narrative identity. Ricoeur’s work is dense as it provides a comprehensive use of semantics, semiotics, hermeneutics and phenomenology support for his arguments via systematic ‘detours’ of a historical chain of philosophers from Plato and Aristotle, through Augustine to Kant, Heidegger and many more. Ricoeur is concerned with politics, ethics, and capabilities, led by a desire to understand the problems of human acting, suffering, and social justice. He states his “ethical intention” to be: ‘aiming at the “good life” with and for others, in just institutions.’[2] A major theme of Ricoeur’s work is a philosophical and anthropological enquiry into the idea of a “capable human being” — the “self” as an agent who is responsible for his or her actions, within the contextual constraints that come from the intrinsic connection between the self and other (including the people, culture and environment to which we are born). Ricoeur tends to see dichotomies as dialectics, and a pattern can be observed whereby his books end with a new aporia, a dead end.

His obituary on the right (that I took last year when visiting the University of Chicago), reads:

“He saw the butchery of the Second World War and asked: Out of a culture that has high ideals and high morals, how do you explain this problem of evil? Schewiker said. The search for an answer led Dr. Ricoeur to examine the symbolism of evil, in society and in literature, and the role that it plays in distorting one’s will to do good, Schewiker said. From there, Dr. Ricoeur examined the nature of symbols, delving into how narrative, dialogue and the use of metaphors combined to create new meaning. That method of interpreting texts, called hermeneutics, was but one of several disciplines, including biblical interpretation, structuralism, deconstruction and psychoanalysis, mastered by Dr. Ricoeur, Browning said. Dr. Ricoeur is most widely known for his work in phenomenology, the study of how a person’s reality is shapedby his or her perception of world events.” Antonio Olivo, Obituary: Paul Ricoeur 92.

“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.”[1]

“Justice and love summarize, in my mind, the man Ricoeur.” said Andre Lacocque.[1] That’s some conversation. To Justice and Love!

[1] The University of Chicago News Office 23 May 2005:  University of Chicago philosopher Paul Ricoeur, 1913-2005

[2] Ricoeur, Paul (1992). Oneself as Another. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, Ltd. p. 172.