Paul Ricoeur: The philosopher behind Emmanuel Macron

Unthinkable: Macron studied under Ricoeur. What could it mean for his presidency?

Paul Ricoeur is one of those continental philosophers you have to read with a dictionary in one hand and a strong coffee in the other ("difficult to categorise", as one reference work gently puts it). So he's an unlikely candidate for providing the material to halt the march of populism in Europe.

Yet his most famous student Emmanuel Macron is being credited with doing just that, having secured an election victory that has calmed nerves in Brussels and Berlin after the UK's Brexit vote.

Precisely what Macron will deliver remains unclear but there’s no doubt he has been heavily influenced by Ricoeur, with whom he worked for two years before leaving academia and becoming an investment banker.

We may need to think of Macron not as a centrist but rather as some kind of radical

Ricoeur, who died in 2005, was known for his synthesising style – his search for unity between seemingly irreconcilable standpoints – and in this the moderate Macron bears a surface resemblance. There is a deeper connection in the French president’s offering of a hopeful, Euro-centric vision for his country to counterbalance the ideology of the right.


While Ricoeur generally stayed out of party politics, he understood the importance of ideology. It was to him both unhelpful and necessary; it distorted reality while also providing the impetus for social reform: “At its three levels – distortion, legitimation, symbolisation – ideology has one fundamental function: to pattern, to consolidate, to provide order to the course of action,” he wrote.

To explain further, and to try to understand whether Ricoeur and Macron really are intellectual bedfellows, "Unthinkable" sought the assistance of Dr Eileen Brennan, a specialist in French philosophy based at Dublin City University and a director of the international Society for Ricoeur Studies.

Had Ricoeur a political ideology?

Eileen Brennan: “Yes, he had. He was a socialist. As a young man, he took part in the Popular Front marches in 1936. He supported the Popular Front government’s decision to join Britain in trying to negotiate with Hitler. But he did so with a heavy heart because he felt a strong sense of international solidarity with the people of Czechoslovakia who had just been invaded by Nazi Germany.

“He was called up for military service in 1939 and saw first-hand the terrible consequences of a second policy he had supported: disarmament. His unit had no artillery and no air support, and though his men fought very bravely they eventually had to surrender.

“This experience forced him into what he would later describe as a political re-education. After that, he maintained a commitment to socialism, but reproached himself for the political positions he had taken in the past and never felt able to fully trust his own political judgment again.

“What makes Ricoeur really interesting, however, is not so much the political ideology he espoused as the account of political ideology that he developed: Ideology has an underappreciated constructive and conservative function. In the absence of ideology, individuals and communities would not be able to form an identity nor would they be able to become integrated and remain so over time.

“Ricoeur arrived at this insight thanks to Clifford Geertz’s work on the symbolic function of action.Because he held that particular view of ideology he did not share Jürgen Habermas’ conception of emancipation. As far as he was concerned, it was neither desirable nor even possible to eliminate ideology from either political discourse or political practice.

Utopian thought, as Ricoeur understood it, serves an important critical function

“He believed that political discourse and political practice contained a second ineliminable element, which had the power to challenge and correct the distorting effects of ideology. It too, utopian thought, is usually spoken of in pejorative terms. However, as Ricoeur understood it, imagining a social and political life that is much more desirable than the one we have now serves an important critical function.

“Our utopian accounts of family, government, forms of institutionalised power, etc. point to what is wrong with the current models and allow us to describe what should exist in their place.”

“But utopian thought carries its own risks, oscillating as it does between the anarchic destruction of all reliable political practices and the tyranny of a would-be superior wisdom. If it is to have legitimacy, indeed if it is to make any political sense, utopian thought must recognise its dependence on social and political life in its current form. How else could one talk about re-description and reform?

“Ricoeur was deeply conscious of the fact that this remarkable dialectic of ideology and utopia made politics inherently fragile.”

Does the presidency of Emmanuel Macron – a centrist who wants to overcome the left-right divide – show signs of being influenced by Ricoeur?

"I find it helpful, in answering this question, to think back over some of the things that have been said in Paris recently about that connection. Olivier Abel, a former director of the Fonds Ricoeur, has made some particularly interesting observations. He suggests that the first place to look for a line of influence is in Macron's political rhetoric.

"He draws our attention to Macron's very deliberate repetition of the phrase et en même temps ("and at the same time") as he announces plans to do two seemingly incompatible things such as liberalising the labour market and protecting those in the most insecure positions.

“For Abel, this rhetorical scheme sits comfortably with Macron’s Ricoeur-inspired ethics of responsibility. He says that Macron continually strives to integrate, into the process of devising political initiatives, a reflection on the way a proposed initiative will impact on vulnerable people.

“Abel uses Ricoeur’s borrowed term, ‘practical wisdom’ to capture the skill involved in this type of policy formation. And he would certainly see Macron as someone with that skill. I think that Abel is right about this.

"However, there are still a number of areas where reading Ricoeur could lead a person to find fault with Macron. Abel suggests that one of the problems with the discourse and practice that he engages in is the absence of anything like a form of utopian thought. This is certainly a reasonable criticism to make if you take Ricoeur's Ideology and Utopia as your guide. But Ricoeur says very little about utopian thought in Memory, History, Forgetting, the book that Macron edited for him. And yet, there are some interesting passages on ideology in that book.

“It describes three levels on which ideology is supposed to operate, and I think that this may be the key to answering your question. The surface level is where you find the clashing ideologies of left and right. These are going to be distortions of reality. But dig down to the deepest level and you can expect to find a non-distorting, community integrating function.

“I think that that is the level that Macron was trying to reach when he selected ministers from across the political spectrum. He wanted that action to symbolise mediation in what is now a deeply divided France. I would say that that is very Ricoeurian.

“However, if I am right about this, we may need to think of Macron not as a centrist but rather as some kind of radical, as someone who wants to get to the roots of French social and political life in order to safeguard a fragile shared identity.”


Ask a sage:

Question: Why get out of bed in the morning?

Paul Ricoeur replies: “On a cosmic scale, our lifespan is insignificant, yet this brief period when we appear in the world is the moment in which all meaningful questions arise.”