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How We Experience Time: Paul Ricoeur on Past, Present, and Future

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That Paul Ricoeur was one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century needs little emphasis. Ricoeur wrote on many of the major themes relating to human experience, and did so extensively and methodically. A fruitful way to get a sense of his work would be to pick one of his areas of study – like the notion of time – and attempt to show why his work matters so much, not just to the sometimes rarefied circles of elite philosophers, but across the academic disciplines, and beyond that to any human being who is alive and breathing, who remembers her personal history, and seeks to make sense of her life.

Hermeneutics and phenomenology are two of the labels often associated with Ricoeur’s work. But what do they mean? The short, non-technical definitions are that phenomenology pertains to the study of the human experience of consciousness, whereas hermeneutics refers to the process by which we humans interpret all manner of symbolic expression. As a philosopher whose writing was influenced by these two methods, Ricoeur was interested in the human experience in all its forms, and in describing the ways in which the mind makes sense of broad concepts such as time, space, and history.

Paul Ricoeur
Paul Ricoeur, co-recipient of the 2004 Kluge Prize.

Let’s take the notion of time as an example. The measurement of time may well be objective, but surely the experience of it is relative. We are all allotted the same amount in a day, yet we never seem to have enough of it. You can watch the seconds and minutes ticking by on your wristwatch, should you wish to, and it’s very precise – 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes in an hour, 60 seconds in a minute. But it’s also relative and personal. Some days don’t ever seem to end, while others pass in a blink. There are additional elements that are difficult, if not impossible to pinpoint. For example, what exactly is the present moment? Is it now? Or now? Or, n-o-w? We can’t quite grasp it, because all moments are fleeting and human consciousness depends on historical awareness (I feel bloated, because I had donuts for lunch a half-hour ago), the ever present horizon of expectation (I feel bloated now, but I still look forward to bacon for breakfast tomorrow) and yet another dimension that integrates and seeks to give meaning to these time-situated reminiscences and projections (donuts and bacon are wonderful, but how will they impact my long term health and well-being?)

Ricoeur’s work deals with all of these themes – not of bacon and donuts, but of the delicate interplay among memories, projections, and interpretations. Throughout his inquiry, which ranges from Aristotle’s cosmological time, cadenced by the movement of planets, to Augustine’s notions of time, grounded in subjective memory and the experiences of conversion, which while requiring a notion of “before” and “after” are less scientific and more personal, Ricoeur emphasized the individual subject as a producer of stories. As literary critic Hayden White has put it, in Ricoeur’s conception:

History has meaning because human actions produce meanings. These meanings are continuous over the generations of human time. This continuity, in turn, is felt in the human experience of time organized as future, past, and present rather than as mere serial consecution.[1]

The idea of structural similarities between fiction and historical narrative was another of Ricoeur’s major time-related themes. While stopping short of claiming a complete convergence between these two genres of story-telling, Ricoeur did convincingly point out that because both are grounded in the individual’s experience of time and the human practice of interpretation, the historical narrative, while factually based rather than purely imaginative, cannot be construed as an objective sequence of happenings, but rather must be viewed as an observer’s subjective reconstruction, based on the prioritizing and selection of certain events over others.

Ricoeur’s curiosity about the movements of history should come as no surprise. His life (1913- 2005), spanned almost the entirety of the 20th century. Raised in a Protestant family in mostly Catholic France, his father was killed in World War I, when Ricoeur was only two years old. Later, the French Army drafted him to fight in World War II and he spent several years as a prisoner in a German camp. There was nothing strictly “theoretical” about history for Ricoeur. Historical forces change lives, yet personal decisions, he thought, also had the potential to change history.

This post is the second in a series on past recipients of the Library of Congress John W. Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity. The Kluge Prize will be bestowed again in September 2015 with an accompanying $1.5 million award. #KlugePrize.


[1] White, Hayden. “The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation.” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), p. 179.

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