Study Guide

Paul Ricouer

Paul Ricouer Introduction

Who's Paul Ricoeur? Why, one of the leading lights behind philosophical hermeneutics, of course.

Wait, herme-what-ics?

In a nutshell, hermeneutics is the general study of interpretation. It's the study of how people understand the meaning of texts in all kinds of genres, and it's study of what it means to interpret a text. After Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer, Ricoeur is probably the most important figure in the field. A guiding star in the dark night of understanding! Or something.

Unlike Gadamer, who was focused on developing a grand hermeneutic theory, Ricoeur brought hermeneutics into dialogue with other branches of knowledge. Early on, he tied hermeneutics to his work in phenomenology—the study of consciousness and its structures—in The Symbolism of Evil. He then turned to questions concerning the interpretation of myths and symbols, even plunging into the hermeneutic aspects of Freudian psychoanalysis in The Conflict of Interpretations. Later, Ricoeur explored how meaning is interpreted in ethics, politics, and religion in From Text to Action.

Did the dude ever sleep? Let us guess: he interpreted dreams as well.

Why is interpretation important? Well, think of it this way. In many of his essays, Ricoeur brought opposing views together for an amicable discussion. For him, conflicts between interpretations can and often do arise because each "interpreter" comes from a different place, with different premises, presuppositions, and questions. Two philosophers might both be perfectly logical and each have a solid basis for their starting premises and yet… disagree.

As a rule, Ricoeur wouldn't try to synthesize these two views, because that would overlook their irreconcilable differences. Instead, Ricoeur was all about dialogue. He wanted to see how each viewpoint could be true, from its own point of view, and how all kinds of truths could comment on each other.

Interpret Thyself

Maybe what Ricoeur is best known for is his work on the hermeneutics of self-understanding. For him, understanding yourself involves interpretation. Ricoeur says that the self—the core of who you are—isn't some fixed object you can just know; it's more like an event, something that happens and is happening in a particular situation or context.

For, Ricoeur, self-understanding (like all understanding) involves both discovery and production. It involves interpreting the story of who you are, and that story isn't yours alone; it involves symbols and metaphors and other creations of language. So, self-understanding (like all understanding) involves both discovery and production.

This can be especially hard work because you can be deceived about who you are and why you do what you do. Like a devil on your shoulder, the symbols and images that make up your self-understanding might be playing you falsely. All we have to say is: never trust a metaphor over 30.

Kind of freaky, right? Ricoeur doesn't think so. He's no skeptic; he never denies the possibility of self-understanding. Here's his advice: you can try to understand the meaning of a text (or yourself) as much as you want, by guessing and trying to validate your guesses, but you should also keep in mind that the language and imagery you use might be concealing more than they reveal.

Translation: what you take to be your true self (or what you take to be the true meaning of a text) might owe more to the creativity of language than to the reality of yourself or the text you're trying to describe. The ancient Greeks said, "Know thyself." Paul Ricoeur would add, "Interpret thyself, suspiciously."

When you get right down to it, Ricoeur's goal is to help you think outside the box. Well, sort of: Ricoeur doesn't actually think you can think outside the box, at least not completely. Everyone thinks inside a box of some kind or another; Ricoeur thinks that the aim of learning isn't to get out of boxes altogether but to become aware of the limits of your box and to make it bigger and more open.

Getting out of your box is just the beginning. The endgame is making your box better.