French philosopher whose influence on both sides of the Atlantic has been achieved under the aegis of university appointments at Strasbourg, the Sorbonne, Nanterre, Louvain, Toronto, and Chicago (where he was successor to Paul Tillich), and through numerous publications with broad interdisciplinary appeal. Raised in the Calvinist Huguenot tradition, his university education in France was informed by the prevailing amalgam of existentialism and phenomenology. Within a few months after the French declaration of war on Germany in 1939, he was captured and sent to a German prison camp where he remained until January 1945. There he turned his resourcefulness to the intensive study of Edmund Husserl and Karl Jaspers, a move that would influence the trajectory of his professional career.
Ricoeur is noted for attempting to work out a moderate poststructuralist hermeneutic that acknowledges the indeterminacy of meaning in texts without succumbing to such extremism, for example, as the more negative and radical deconstructionism promulgated by Jacques Derrida. As inaugurated in his seminal work Freud and Philosophy (1965) and developed in subsequent publications (such as the essays collected in Conflict of Interpretations ), this hermeneutic emphasizes the dialectical interplay of two tendencies that condition the understanding of texts: the recovery of meaning and demystification. Demystification results from practicing a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” in which readers attend critically to their own assumptions and background beliefs as these influence their understanding—and especially those that preclude a sympathetic reading of the text.
Corresponding to this dialectic is the reciprocity of relation between “the world projected by the text” and “the life-world of the reader,” at the intersection of which lies the meaning of a literary work. This meaning, in turn, represents a redescription of the world for the reader. The meaning thus distilled is not a capturing of the author's intended meaning or of the understanding of the original audience; still less is it a reflection of objective reality. It is rather a world possibility in terms of which readers may make (always provisional) sense of their own existence. This feature of Ricoeur's brand of poststructuralism illustrates his general tendency to seek to mediate between opposing forces in the realm of ideas and theory, and it accounts for much of the popularity that Ricoeur's work has enjoyed.
Religious texts and ideas have always been a foil for Ricoeur's philosophical reflections. He delivered the Gifford Lectures in 1986. Much reader-response theory in biblical hermeneutics owes its inspiration to Ricoeur's general theory and to his own application of it to biblical texts. (See, e.g., Essays on Biblical Interpretation .) Some see in Ricoeur a model for understanding what they regard as the ineluctably and radically dynamic nature of all theologizing and of all religious traditions, including Christianity.
It is possible to be too sanguine about the prospects of carrying on the great tradition of evangelicalism within the framework of Ricoeur's theory. Ricoeur's willingness to attend carefully to opposing sides of any issue is admirable, but his insistence on the possibility and desirability of reconciling radically opposed perspectives in and across every domain of inquiry harbors a prejudice against the possibility of a realistic apprehension of objective truth.