Paul Ricoeur


Author: Karl Simms

Paul Ricoeur is one of the most important critical thinkers to emerge in the twentieth century. His unique ‘theory of reading’ or hermeneutics extends far beyond the reading of literary works to build into a theory for the reading of ‘life’. As a result of this, such works as Philosophy of the Will, The Rule of Metaphor, Time and Narrative and Oneself as Another have impacted upon the widest range of disciplines, from literary criticism and philosophy to history, religion, legal studies and politics. In this stimulating guide, Karl Simms explores Ricoeur’s most influential ideas, touching upon such concepts as good and evil, psychoanalysis, hermeneutics, metaphor, narrative, ethics, politics and justice. Crucially, he also places these ideas in context and looks at their continuing impact, in this way introducing important trends in contemporary thought. Throughout this volume, the author prepares us for our own reading of Ricoeur’s work, and this culminates in an extensively annotated guide to his major publications. Refreshingly clear and impressively comprehensive, Paul Ricoeur is the essential guide to an essential theorist. Karl Simms is Director of the English-Philosophy joint programme at the University of Liverpool and a lecturer in English Language and Literature. He is the editor of Ethics and the Subject (1997), Language and the Subject (1997) and Translating Sensitive Texts (1997).


In the 1950s Ricoeur had the ambitious aim of completing a monumental three-part Philosophy of the Will. In the event, only the first two parts, The Voluntary and the Involuntary and Finitude and Guilt, were completed (although the latter was itself subdivided into two parts, Fallible Man and The Symbolism of Evil). These early works form an important precursor to Ricoeur’s ‘hermeneutic’ philosophy, which is described in Chapters 2–7 that follow: whatever area of philosophy Ricoeur subsequently turns his attention to, he is always consistent with the ideals he was to set himself in Philosophy of the Will. Ricoeur’s early thought conceives of life as a ‘dialectic’: on the one hand, I am master of myself and choose and will courses of action (this is the ‘voluntary’), while on the other hand I am subjected to the necessity of being in the world, with all the things beyond my control which that implies, along with the necessity of my being who I am – I have a certain character along with an unconscious mind that defies my will (this being the ‘involuntary’). How we negotiate our lives between the freedom accorded us as human beings and the constraints that are imposed upon us by the fact of our being humans living in the world is, then, the departure point for Ricoeur’s philosophy. Moreover, as an overtly Christian philosopher, Ricoeur is interested in the way good and evil are replicated in, or at least show themselves in, the human dialectic between free will and necessity.


Ricoeur’s philosophy is motivated by a Christian need to explain the origins of evil in the world, and thus to answer the questions that this problem carries with it, such as Why is there evil in the world?, and Why do people commit evil deeds? His starting point in answering these questions is to investigate one of the ways in which the dialectic of life shows itself, in the conflict between the will and the ‘passions’ – our wants and needs prompted by such biological factors as hunger, sex drive, etc. In order to conduct his investigation, Ricoeur adopts the phenomenological method of the German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859–1938). However, while adopting Husserl’s methods, Ricoeur goes some way beyond his conclusions. For Ricoeur, Husserl does not really understand the passions (the involuntary), because he does not grasp that there is a reciprocal relation between mind and body – Husserl describes through the mind alone. Ricoeur, meanwhile, draws a distinction between description and understanding: passing beyond description to understanding consists in acknowledging the relation between mind and body, voluntary and involuntary. However, since there is only one will (the voluntary), but there are many (involuntary) passions, a description of the will is still the starting point for Ricoeur’s attempt to ‘synthesise’ the voluntary will with the involuntary passions, because explanation consists in proceeding from the simple to the complex. Ricoeur’s (1966: 6) description reveals, first, that to will is a type of act, seen as a triad: ‘To say “I will” means first “I decide”, second “I move my body”, third “I consent” ’. Ricoeur follows Husserl’s rule that ‘all consciousness is consciousness of something’, and by analogy claims that all willing must have an action as its object – all willing is willing to act. There are three ‘modes’, or ways, of willing: decision, movement and consent. When I decide, the object of my willing is ‘a project I form . . . to be done by me in accord with my abilities’ (Ricoeur 1966: 7). When I move my body, an action is carried out. When I consent, I acquiesce to necessity: the necessity that things are as they are, that I am alive in a biological body which has its limitations. According to Ricoeur, each of these three dimensions of willing also involves the will’s opposite, the involuntary. First, when I make a decision, it ‘stands in an original relation not only to the project which is its specific object, but also the motives which justify it’ (Ricoeur 1966: 7). In other words, I do not just do things for no reason. The reasons I have in making a decision are a form of the involuntary – Ricoeur calls them ‘motivation’. Second, in moving my body, I must recognise that my body is as much governed by involuntary motions as by willing: this does not just mean things like breathing, but also when I do things by habit – my GOOD AND EVIL will to do those things is being in some sense cheated on those occasions. And third, when I consent, I give myself over to something other than me over which I have no control, and that something is a form of necessity. There are thus three modes of the involuntary standing in relation to the three modes of the voluntary act: the decision is tempered by motivation, the movement of the body is tempered by involuntary motion, and consent is tempered by necessity. These relations then become the lever for Ricoeur to ‘reconquer’ the Cartesian cogito. In Descartes (and the same is true of Husserl), the cogito is something to be performed – it is a mental act. Its performance leads to a separation of the soul (or thinking) from the body, so that the body is then viewed so to speak from the outside, that is, from the perspective of pure thought. But for Ricoeur, because the cogito is a mental act, it is an act of the will. As such, it contains within it the relationship with willing’s other (motivation, motion and necessity) as described in his analysis of the will. In this way, Ricoeur ‘extends’ the cogito to include what Descartes and Husserl excluded from it, namely the personal body. Descartes, says Ricoeur, abstracts acts into facts. Ricoeur’s criticism of Descartes, and of his follower Husserl, is that they are philosophers of the Ego: ‘Ego cogito, ergo sum’; ‘I think therefore THE CARTESIAN COGITO The proposition ‘I think therefore I am’ is commonly referred to as the ‘Cartesian cogito’, after its inventor, the French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes (1596–1650), and its Latin formulation, cogito ergo sum. Descartes arrived at the cogito through his Method. The Method, which was an entirely novel departure in philosophy in Descartes’ day, consists in starting without any presuppositions, and looking at the world around you from the standpoint of not expecting to find anything in particular. In looking around, you then adopt a sceptical attitude, questioning whatever you perceive. Doing this, Descartes discovered that he can doubt that the world around him is the real world (a malicious demon inside his head might be deceiving him, or he might be dreaming), or he can even doubt that the world exists at all. However, the one thing Descartes cannot doubt is that he is thinking. From this he deduces that he must exist, must be an existing being in order to do the thinking he’s engaged in – hence, ‘I think therefore I am’.

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