By ERIN ALLEN
Noted French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, who received the Library's 2004 John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Humanities and Social Sciences, died on May 20, 2005, at the age of 92, after suffering from a long illness.
In awarding the prize, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said, "Paul Ricoeur is a philosopher who draws on the entire tradition of Western philosophy to explore and explain common problems: What is self? How is memory used and abused? What is the nature of responsibility? He is a constant questioner—always pressing to understand the nature and limits of what constitutes our humanity."
Unable to attend the award ceremony in December, Ricoeur accepted the honor via a pre-recorded video. His life's work motivated by humanism, he said, "I identify myself by my capacities, by what I can do. The individual designates himself as a capable human being—and, we must add, as a suffering human being, to underscore the vulnerability of the human condition."
Ricoeur was born in 1913 in the southeastern town of Valence, France, and was raised by his Protestant grandparents. After studying at the University of Rennes and the Sorbonne, his career as a schoolteacher was cut short upon being drafted into the army during World War I. In 1940 Ricoeur's unit was captured, and he spent the ensuing five years in a detention camp in the province of Pomerania (Poland/Germany). While there, he immersed himself in the philosophy of Edmund Husserl, father of phenomenology, which is the belief that a person's reality is shaped by his or her perceptions of events in the world. This philosophy would form the basis of some of Ricoeur's most prolific work.
He later had a long record of opposition to wars from the French campaign in Algeria in the 1950s to the Bosnian war in the 1990s.
During a prestigious university career after the war, he taught at the Sorbonne, the University of Chicago, Yale and Columbia, as well as Geneva, Montreal and Belgium's Louvain University.
He wrote more than 20 books, including "The Rule of Metaphor," "Time and Narrative" and "Freedom and Nature."
Ricoeur admitted he did not possess a philosophy as such but drew upon the ideas of others. His work concerned what he called "the phenomenon of human life" and covered a wide range of contexts such as myths and symbols; language and cognition; structuralism and psychoanalysis; religion and aesthetics; ethics and the nature of evil; theories of literature and theories of law. He sought logical discourse, using language to illuminate meaning and further understanding.
"I believe in the efficacy of reflection," he said, "because I believe that a man's greatness lies in the dialectic of work and the spoken word. The word is my kingdom and I am not ashamed of it.
"Through the capacity of language to create and re-create, we discover reality itself in the process of being created … language in the making creates reality in the making."
Endowed by Library benefactor John W. Kluge, the Kluge Prize of $1 million is given for lifetime achievement in a wide range of disciplines not covered by the Nobel prizes. Other recipients have been Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski and historian Jaroslav Pelikan, who shared the 2004 prize with Ricoeur.
Erin Allen is a freelance writer in the Washington area.