Remembering Paul Ricoeur: 1913-2005

By Ulin, Robert C. | Anthropological Quarterly, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Remembering Paul Ricoeur: 1913-2005


Ulin, Robert C., Anthropological Quarterly


The deaths of Michel Foucault in 1984, Pierre Bourdieu in 2002, Jacques Derrida in 2004, and now Paul Ricoeur on May 20,2005 virtually mark the passing of a generation of French intellectuals who have been enormously influential in numerous academic disciplines world-wide including anthropology.1 In fact, what is most noteworthy of the above four, and a testimony to their originality and intellects, is the difficulty of typifying their publications and research in terms of any one discipline. All of them have made recognized-albeit sometimes contentious-contributions to history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, comparative religion, literary criticism and cultural studies to name just a few.

Although Ricoeur shares with his French colleagues a pronounced emphasis on discourse that ostensibly challenges Western philosophy's long-term privileging of the knowing-subject as an epistemological given, his work departs notably from the post-structuralism of Foucault, Bourdieu and Derrida through building upon and imaginatively extending the traditional concerns of phenomenology and hermeneutics with constituted meaning and interpretation being primary. That is, Ricoeur's work focused on and elaborated issues of "lived-experience," "conflicting interpretations" and "intersubjective meaning" with, however, assumptions of social reciprocity or mutual interactions. Consequently, he tended to overlook power and domination as addressed through post-structural concepts such as panopticon, cultural capital, and deconstruction. While Ricoeur's influence on anthropology is enduring through copious publications on symbolism, metaphors and the interpretive process more generally, I argue that his emphasis on phenomenology, "local meanings and life worlds," positions his work, in comparison to his post-structural colleagues, as perceptively less central to contemporary anthropology's intense engagement with deconstructing the illusions of "bounded culture" and pursuing the circuits of power associated with transnationalism and globalization.

It is, in my estimation, Ricoeur's 1971 article, "The Model of the Text: Meaningful Action Considered as a Text," that is best known and most germane to anthropology.2 This essay is largely consistent with the themes of interpretation, thick description and culture raised by Clifford Geertz in his Interpretation of Cultures. While Geertz draws inspiration from a number of sources, especially RyIe, Weber and Parsons, he (1973:19), in fact, acknowledges his debt to Ricoeur's analogy between a text and social action. Geertz's influence in anthropology, certainly throughout the 1970s and 1980s has encouraged many anthropologists interested in interpretation theory to read Ricoeur in the original. Moreover, the interest in Ricoeur was no doubt furthered by the popularity of Paul Rabinow's Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco that is, likewise, heavily invested in phenomenology and hermeneutics.

It should be noted, however, that Ricoeur was not the first philosopher or theoretician to introduce hermeneutics to anthropology. Wilhelm Dilthey, in the early part of the twentieth century, proposed that the human and natural sciences had distinct objects of knowledge in society and nature and that therefore each of these sciences should develop methods that were specific to their object of knowledge. While Dilthey believed that nature was governed by laws that were not man-made, society and human cultural products more generally were governed by human motives and intentions. Moreover, the object of knowledge in the human sciences was also a "co-subject." Dilthey's strategy for the human sciences was to develop contextual criteria, if you will a historicist perspective that would assist the researcher in grasping the intentions and motives of human actors. This point of view was largely adopted by Evans-Pritchard (1937) in arguing against Lévy-Bruhl's (1965) contention that indigenous peoples have a "prelogical mentality. …

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