Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

Paul Ricoeur


Paul Ricoeur, a French philosopher and one of the most lucid thinkers of the 20th century, died on Friday at 92. Ricoeur taught on both sides of the Atlantic: at the University of Chicago, Yale and Columbia in the late 60s and 70s. He also taught at the Sorbonne, University of Nanterre, Belgium's Louvain University, and in Geneva and Montreal. His cross-cultural career reaped many bounties, including "The Rule of Metaphor", the three volume "Time and Narrative," and "Freedom and Nature: The Voluntary and the Involuntary."

On the surface, thinkers like Ricoeur seem so remote from our lives, so far from relevance. Our prejudices, narrow perspectives, and predilections for easy answers (witness the ubiquitous "10 solutions to everything" genre) compound this problem. Being both French and in the field of philosophy, Ricoeur is doubly disadvantaged and easily dismissed. Fortunately, the accessibility of Ricoeur's work makes it easy for us to overcome these stereotypes. Indeed, looking at his work in retrospect -- just glance at his titles -- and with the gravitas of death focusing our attention, it becomes obvious just how many of his ideas have percolated into our thinking, work lives, and practices. (I can't tell you just how many times this kind of epiphany has happened to me since moving to Paris, so ignorant was I of these thinkers and their contributions.)

As the UK's Telegraph puts it, "he was chiefly preoccupied with what is arguably the greatest philosophical theme - the meaning of life." I can't think of anything else more "relevant" than that! Indeed, at a time when so many people are focusing their attention on this very question -- especially aspiring worldchangers trying to make the next step in an uncertain world -- his work is a timely resource.

Putting Ricoeur aside, more generally, I'd wager that philosophy, stripped down to its basics and perhaps rebranded in different terms, may be making a comeback after years of being lost in esoterica because our shifting context is demanding these tools at all kinds of levels. For philosophy is simply a framework and thinking discipline for surfacing assumptions and exploring important questions for the world. Unfortunately, many educational institutions and organizations have been under-investing in these skills and capabilities because they seem "too abstract" and "not practical". (These are usually code words for "too difficult" or "not going to achieve my short term agenda.") Staunch anti-secular movements also are suspicious of other ways for seeking truth and enlightenment, although religion and philosophy can be complimentary. Yet for those who feel the weight of dogma (regardless of source) is the chief problem in life, philosophical inquiry can yield powerful practical results, since the most important value creation is happening at the abstract level. Brands, biotech, business models, intellectual property are all abstractions.


The price to paid for this under-investment is starting to manifest. Countries like the US, for instance, are falling behind emerging markets like China and India which have consistently higher math scores in high school graduates. (These are not everything, but still an important indicator.) One recent explanation for this growing divergence is the widespread use of the abacus to teach math. Because it's a physical thing, this helps teach abstract reasoning but within a concrete context. This works because all humans suffer from what's called a "concrete bias." Prototyping new ideas with physical models is another way designers try to resolve this dilemma by delivering "both/and". But at a societal level, we'll also need to create the equivalent of the abacus for helping decision-makers and the public at large conceptualize in concrete terms time and space issues which globalization is driving into our daily lives -- that is, seeing the global in the local both now and in the future. With the inspiration of the abacus, what kind of tool, technique, models or simulations would you invent to achieve this? Be specific or general. I'd love to see this brainstorm.

At the personal level, many people are struggling with the question of what to do with their lives. All of the freedom in the world is not that useful if one doesn't know what to do with it. This widespread gestalt possibly explains the viral success of the Socrates Cafes and Clubs around the world, which I've written about here. We also hope Worldchanging is helping to surface more options and ideas in this respect; we aim to inspire and show people just how many things are possible outside the usual social "scripts" they have internalized about what a "career" or "job" is or should be. If we chose to, we can live "integrated lives" where what we do for a living is also meaningful, important, creative and fun. Given the proliferation of worldchanging activity going on, when entirely new technologies and sectors are being created to meet the needs of the present, there has never been a better time for making this leap.

Whether we call it "philosophy" or not, our current moment of systemic change is challenging many of our core assumptions in just about every category one can think of: governance and how we should organize ourselves; how we want to live and be individually and within groups; the problem of knowledge, information and sense-making; and the role of personal freedom and choice. These, not coincidentally, are the key questions framing philosophical thought for millenia. These ideas and techniques have a long heritage and are already here, and fortunately many people like Ricoeur have made these more accessible than ever. Let's honour this tireless thinker and teacher for his good work, even if we've never heard of him.

Bookmark and Share


Philosophy has been, since the dawn of civilizations, a tool to understand "reality" and the "sense" of life.

I fully agree with your assessment that our worldviews are crumbling in these times of "systemic societal" changes but we should remember that humans simply can't live without a shared worldview. Worldviews are the societal glue that keep societies from falling into atomization...
This should help us understanding that the foundational changes brought about by globalization + science and technology, and the interactions between them, will shape for us a radically changed worldview. Do we not ?

May I suggest as answer to your question ... "at a societal level, we'll also need to create the equivalent of the abacus for helping decision-makers and the public at large conceptualize in concrete terms time and space issues which globalization is driving into our daily lives -- that is, seeing the global in the local both now and in the future. With the inspiration of the abacus, what kind of tool, technique, models or simulations would you invent to achieve this?" ... that the future shall not be made by us, it shall impose itself on us.
Do not get me wrong, I do not mean to say that we can do nothing and that we just should wait for the future to fall on our heads. What I mean is that we have to look further than the production of tools, techniques, models or simulations... that would give us to "seeing the global in the local both now and in the future". This kind of answer it seems to me is a modernist projection on the future that is bound to miss the reality of that future.

We have to go back to the foundations of our civilizations and understand the axioms upon which they have been built. Those axioms are indeed ankered very deep inside ourself without our conscientious knowledge of the fact.
There is urgency for all of us to become conscientious that those civilizational axioms drive our thinking and our actions... and that they are at the root of radically different ways of seeing reality in the West and in the East. We need to understand and accept those differences for if we can't the principle of reality shall impose it on us in one way or another...

Modernism has been driven by the west (European ideas and actions) but with globalization late modernity has awakened a giant. Let's never forget that "late modernity" is being driven by less than 15% of the world population and imposed on all as being the absolute good, akin to a societal truth (pensee unique). The giant on its own represents more than 20% of the world population and counting the countries that adopted its civilizational axioms its sphere of influence extends to some 30% of the world population.

The economic strengthening of China is going to be accompanied by a cultural tsunami and out of that shock will be derived a "postmodern" "worldchanging" worldview that could be the answer to your question given by the principle of reality itself.

Posted by: laodan on 23 May 05

I enjoyed reading this post, thanks Nicole. I've previously thrown about the idea of a (bricks n mortar) cafe for sharing ideas & creativity, so good to read about the Socrates cafes.

If you ever have the urge to write about it, I'd love to hear your view on the relevance of the integral philosophers to WC'g efforts, eg Yasuhiko Kimura, Ken Wilber. They appear(?) to be reviving philosophy and to offer a good framework for putting things in perspective. To me it seems important to gain perspective and understanding through developing (& continually growing) your own elastic personal-world framework but ha, it's an incredible amount of work which needs deliberate thinking and sufficient depth of understanding to draw relationships, so any frameworks or insights that facilitate that are invaluable.

Posted by: Janelle on 24 May 05

To French speakers: I invite you to visit radio France culture's website. They propose lots of audio resources, dedicated to this great French philosopher. One of his points of view I like most: we humans, in terms of politics, need both horizontal social links (the ' want-to-live-together ') and vertical, i.e. power and organization. The intersection of those two needs is called democracy. It is the art of dealing with two major opposite collective dimensions.

Posted by: Lionel on 24 May 05

Here a big collection of articles on Ricoeur:

Posted by: Angelo on 25 May 05



MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg