How to Read Ricoeur: A Guide Through Ricoeur’s Key Texts

Alison Scott-Baumann

We asked Alison Scott-Baumann (English representative and member of the Conseil Scientifique of Fonds Ricoeur) to offer us an introductory guide through Ricoeur’s bibliography. Here is an annotated list of Ricoeur’s key texts (as well as a couple of recommended secondary ones).

For those who don’t know his work and don’t necessarily wish to delve into his (over thirty) significant texts, I recommend Critique and Conviction, a book length conversation with two colleagues about the twentieth century. For those who wish to study him in some depth and want a way in, the essays Conflict of Interpretations and the essay collection From Text to Action are excellent for showing the breadth and depth of his work from the 1960s to the 1980s. For those who already know his work well I recommend regular visits to the Fonds Ricoeur website, because that displays unknown or hard to find material by Ricoeur. In the ‘key text’ section here I indicate the specialist interests such as history, the law or translation for example. It is definitely better to read him in the original French. However, he is difficult to read and also there are many translators of his work; each translator has a different style. I sometimes read the French and the English version side by side.


Here is a brief, annotated list of key texts by Ricoeur that I hope will be useful, although in this short form I cannot do full justice to his ideas. I am drawing, in summary, on my 2009 book, Ricoeur and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion (Continuum International Publishing), and my preference for his early and middle work may be evident, although his late work is highly significant. In each case I have noted the French publication date, followed by the first publication in English:

Philosophy of the Will 1

The Voluntary and the Involuntary: Freedom and Nature 1950/1966. Here the individual struggles alone to try and make sense of how to exist and how to try and behave well using Husserl’s phenomenology (later, the human is more of a social agent in e.g. History and Truth). As a contemporary of Sartre, Ricoeur tried to develop an existential phenomenology that was less grim than he perceived Sartre’s view of life to be (he lectured on Sartre and worked on his ideas repeatedly  e.g. in Husserl 1967, see below).

Philosophy of the Will 2

Finitude and Culpability: Fallible Man 1960/1965. It is impossible to be at ease with oneself, nor to be fully conscious of oneself. However it’s necessary to try, by using language carefully and using phenomenological attempts to reflect thoughtfully upon one’s perceptions. The analysis in Fallible Man is very Kantian, yet less deterministic, emphasizing our potential to hurt others yet also our capacity to try and avoid that.

Finitude and Culpability: Symbolism of Evil 1960/ 1967 Here we move from the potential for doing wrong, to the confrontation between us and the symbols that we create and animate with our actual capacity to do wrong. This marks the start of his immersion in hermeneutics: by analysing symbolism he shows the need to actively seek meaning using hermeneutics, rather than the phenomenological approach he used earlier, in which he attempted to focus very deeply on the self as subject

NB He summarises these three books (Philosophy of the Will 1 and 2) in the first essay of the book called The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of his work (1978), edited by Reagan and Stewart.

History and Truth 1955/1965. Here the individual is more a social agent who seeks to understand their own point of view in a social context and must therefore take account of the social implications of visions of truth like those of Hegel and then reject them. The person is both subject and object of their own existence. He also begins to look here at the idea of the accepted truths that historians create and then rely upon, possibly without enough criticality. He returns to this theme twenty years later in Time and Narrative and forty years later in Memory, History, Forgetting.

Husserl. An Analysis of his Phenomenology English 1967, essays published separately in French 1949-1957. Phenomenology shows us how we seek to understand the objects in our world, and then realize that we are the source of the interpretation and we are thus bound up with the world. Here we have his analysis of existential phenomenology and its three components; Merleau-Ponty’s lived body, freedom as negation of the past (a war torn history of collaboration and suspicion for the French and the Germans) and Sartre’s fear of the other person. 

Freud and Philosophy: an Essay on Interpretation 1965/1970 In order to get to grips with the ways in which we hurt others and ourselves because of our desires, Ricoeur chooses to develop work on Freud. Freud provides a sort of ‘linguistic turn’ for Ricoeur and an opportunity to focus on the objects of our longing. If we let Marx, Freud and Nietzsche pop the inflated balloon of our ego, then what remains of meaning if we become the deflated objects of our own narcissistic desire? For Ricoeur, the importance of Freud’s psychoanalysis rests partly in his analysis of suspicion, scepticism and deceit as normal manifestations of human thought.  

The Conflict of Interpretations: Essays in Hermeneutics 1969/1974 This is a companion to the Freud book, with added emphasis on Hegel: Freud conducts an archaeological dig back into the unconscious mind of the child within the adult and Hegel develops an idealised picture of the human mind as a forward thinking force that creates an ever better world. Ricoeur challenges both Freud’s realism and Hegel’s idealism and also shows us how useful this backwards and forwards movement is for exercising a healthy suspicion about our own thinking, our desires and our motivation. Kant also plays a part by offering hope, while always also being a limiting figure for Ricoeur; another backward and forward movement, between hope and limits, which became characteristic of Ricoeur’s dialectical thinking. 

Political and Social Essays, 1974, essays published separately in French 1956-1973. Overlooked and under-estimated, containing such essays as ‘Violence and Language’; instead of taking Barthes’ line that language is fascist, he argues that language is often violent and should be faced as such, rather than the complacent argument that violence and language are opposed and never cross over into each other’s realm.

Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning 1976 English only. Ricoeur investigates structuralist techniques for analysing written text. He argues that structuralist approaches are necessary but not sufficient: necessary because structuralism reduces narrative into its component parts, yet not sufficient because it ignores context (which includes the person). 

The Rule of Metaphor 1975/1977. This is a development of his linguistic turn, from working on Freud: the power of language to re-describe the world we live in because it destroys literal meaning. This even creates the possibility to create new possibilities, new meanings through metaphor. Metaphor also juxtaposes opposing forces and may thereby help with the Kantian wish to be a better self, as we also wish to juxtapose the opposing forces within us, in order to come to some sort of resolution. However the reader is not discussed in Metaphor. Time and Narrative continues this discussion of literary and historical models and also develops the role of the reader.
NB Ricoeur summarises The Rule of Metaphor in the essay on metaphor in the 1978 anthology edited by Reagan and Stewart, already mentioned.

Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences 1981(essays first published in French between 1970-1979). Here Ricoeur challenges the role that science offers to play as interpreter of the world, and the often overbearing character of this role. Through criticising Heidegger’s rejection of science he also makes it clear that science must be an integral part of any search for meaning. He deplores Dilthey’s dichotomy between natural science (explanation) and social science (understanding), arguing for both. He criticises and mediates between Gadamer’s insistence that we are stuck in our time and Habermas’ insistence that we must break away from our time, arguing, again, that we need both. 

Time and Narrative. 3 Volumes. 1983,1985,1985/ 1984,1985,1988 This is Ricoeur’s reckoning with Heidegger, which he found very difficult as he was very strongly influenced by Heidegger.  Time can be experienced physically and also mentally. Narrative provides some third measure of time and of meaning, by sequencing events and attributing causality through ordering events. He accuses Heidegger of taking a shortcut to meaning, by a refusal to consider the individual through narrative and for Heidegger’s preference for some sort of collective, not individual understanding.  He sees analytic philosophy and analytic history as helpful in developing a critique of narrative. Time and Narrative also contains an analysis of modernist novels, in which he demonstrates the modernist challenge to our concepts of time and the weakening bond between the reader and the author.

Lectures on Ideology and Utopia. 1986/1997. These lectures were originally given in English in Chicago and they challenge the systematic approach to Marxism of thinkers like Althusser who, Ricoeur believed, made it impossible to challenge communist atrocities like the gulags. Open discussion is impossible if ideology cannot be challenged, and this reflects the difficulties Ricoeur experienced in Paris in attempting to challenge French communism, with its Stalinist tendencies.

From Text To Action: Essays in Hermeneutics II 1986/1991. An interesting range of essays e.g. enjoying Marx, Freud and Nietzsche’s critique of religion as manifested in organisations, yet challenging the validity of such views when attempting a thorough critique of religion, which he believed should take place from within a faith base. This collection also contains the essay ‘The Model of The Text’ which argues that actions can be ‘read’ as if they were texts, and raises issues about  the reciprocal responsibilities that humans have, to try and act well and to interpret accurately. 

Oneself As Another 1990/1992. Personal narrative identity becomes very important (whereas in The Rule of Metaphor and Time and Narrative we have more focus on the individual as reader of literary and historical models). We live a life that we narrate, as is evidenced in symbol, imitation and created form, and can therefore only approach truth indirectly. This book mediates between Time and Narrative and Memory, History, Forgetting. Ricoeur sees analytic philosophy placing limits on human identity that thereby make identity seem more, not less real. 

Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative and Imagination 1995. According to Ricoeur, whose Protestant faith was of enduring importance to him, faith must be constantly renewed by new interpretations of religious texts. This is an anthology of religious writings from 1970s-1990s, including his essays on evil, on love and justice and several analyses of Kant.

Critique and Conviction 1995/1998. A readable exploration of major events in Europe and further afield that influenced his work, and a very accessible discussion of many of his ideas when applied to daily life e.g. the difference between faith and culture, his perceptions of USA compared with France and his first hand observations of politics, totalitarianism and justice in modern Europe. 

The Just 1995/2000 Ricoeur’s interest in justice gave him another arena from which to explore our capacity to understand the other person fairly. He found it impossible to reconcile the needs of the individual and the needs of the group but his attempts contributed to a major debate among top French lawyers. 

Thinking Biblically 1998/1998. Here Ricoeur explored the surplus of meaning in a religious context; interpreting religious texts must accommodate pluralism of meaning, the possibility of having to re-interpret and the risk of relativism.  Written with LeCocque, this contains textual analysis of key Biblical texts, of which one is The Song of Songs. 

Memory, History, Forgetting 2000/2004. Although not his last publication - and he had more planned - this seems to be his definitive statement on many issues, including the Second World War and a distancing from his perception of Heidegger’s views on the future as a reprise of the past. He analyses historians’ role in selecting historical evidence, which influences our understanding of what happened.  By now he and Derrida had become reconciled with each other.    

The Course of Recognition 2004/2005 If we can think less negatively about others, the negative impulse can move from denying otherness, to identifying the human in others and recognising ourselves in others.  He wondered whether he was repeating himself in this work.

On Translation 2004/2006. These three short essays were given as lectures at the end of the twentieth century. He suggests that we have a responsibility to protect meaning in another language and should try, even though we will fail, to translate accurately. We must also tolerate this inevitable failure to achieve the perfect translation by accepting that other people are different yet not inferior to us. He saw translation as a metaphor for philosophical endeavour and practiced the art himself,   as a translator from Latin and Greek and several European languages including English.

Reflections on the Just 2001/2007. This collection of essays covers the law, medicine, sociology, translation, politics and other areas in order to look at issues of personal recognition, responsibility and authority as components of just behaviour. 

There is a lot of secondary literature, mostly from America:  Blamey, Dauenhauer, Muldoon, Pellauer and many others. For a sparkling account from a French perspective of the intellectual and social setting in which Ricoeur lived and worked, I recommend François Dosse’s 1997 The History of Structuralism (transl.  D Glassman) and his comprehensive biography of Ricoeur, whom he knew well: Ricoeur. Les Sens d’une vie, second edition 2008.

Alison Scott-Baumann

TCS and B & S are published by SAGE.