Paul Ricoeur, dead at 92

By Bourree Lam

Paul Ricoeur, one of the leading philosophers of the 20th century, died on Friday in his home in Chatenay-Malabry, near Paris, France. He was 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.”

Professor Emeritus in the Divinity School, Ricoeur taught at Chicago’s Divinity School from 1971 until his retirement in 1991. Particularly well 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.

“Paul Ricoeur was a thinker of astonishing range yet real depth and complete integrity,” said Richard Rosengarten, the dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School and a former student of Ricoeur’s, in a University press release on May 23. “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 was also the winner of many awards and honors, including 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 a $1 million monetary prize.

According to the BBC, French President Jacques Chirac called Ricoeur a man who “never stopped proclaiming with determination the need for dialogue and the respect of others.”

An orphan, Ricoeur studied philosophy at the Sorbonne where he began his long career of writing, often on themes of Christian socialism and pacifism.

“The most important thing about him is that he was an ardent advocate for the dignity of the human person and our capabilities as moral beings,” recalled Professor William Schweiker at the Divinity School in the University press release. “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.”

In 1971, Ricoeur was named the John Nuveen Chair at the University’s Divinity School. During his years there, Ricoeur wrote prolifically, publishing a number of important books, including one of his best-known works, The Rule of Metaphor (1977).

“Ricoeur had remarkable range,” Rosengarten said, adding that he wrote on everything from narrative and Freud to hermeneutics and finitude. “He is one of the few philosophers who is a must-read for anyone in religion, regardless of their field.”

His most recent work, The Course of Recognition, will be published in December.