The major theme that unites his writings is that of a philosophical anthropology. This anthropology, which Ricoeur came to call an anthropology of the “capable human being,” aims to give an account of the fundamental capabilities and vulnerabilities that human beings display in the activities that make up their lives. Though the accent is always on the possibility of understanding the self as an agent responsible for its actions, Ricoeur consistently rejects any claim that the self is immediately transparent to itself or fully master of itself. Self-knowledge only comes through our relation to the world and our life with and among others in that world.
In the course of developing his anthropology, Ricoeur made a major methodological shift. His writings prior to 1960 were in the tradition of existential phenomenology. But during the 1960s Ricoeur concluded that properly to study human reality he had to combine phenomenological description with hermeneutic interpretation. For this hermeneutic phenomenology, whatever is intelligible is accessible to us in and through language and all deployments of language call for interpretation. Accordingly, “there is no self-understanding that is not mediated by signs, symbols, and texts; in the final analysis self-understanding coincides with the interpretation given to these mediating terms” (Oneself as Another, 15, translation corrected). This hermeneutic or linguistic turn did not require him to disavow the basic results of his earlier investigations. It did, however, lead him not only to revisit them but also to see more clearly their implications.
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