This, the last book written by the great French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, is an amazing achievement. Readers be warned: this is no easy romp through historiography or memory studies. It is a deeply philosophical meditation on the meaning of history and historicism as an act of remembering, an act of inscribing time, a way of participating in Being, and a way of negotiating competing claims for justice and acts of witnessing. Typical of Ricoeur's argumentation, the book sets out competing definitions (representation vs. recollection, explanation vs. understanding, phantasm and eikon, mneme vs. anamnesis, habit vs. memory, evocation vs. search, retention or primary memory vs. reproduction or secondary memory, reflexivity vs. worldliness, etc.). It does not resolve these oppositions, but painstakingly shows the aporias centralized in the opposition of terms and posits a tentative ethical response. Ricoeur is too smart to posit easy solutions to some of the most profound questions of human existence--mainly, what is history and how can it provide any foundations for knowledge and ethical action in the world? The erudition of this text is massive; Ricoeur references hundreds of theorists and philosophers from Plato to Foucault, from ontology to cognitive science. Predictably for those of us who have grown to respect the humanity of Ricoeur's position, the writing is never arrogant, never one-sided, always on the side of humane negotiation, life, human flourishing. In contrast to politicized polemics of academic historicist theory, this book recognizes, articulates, and teaches one about the almost overwhelming complexity of history as an idea, as a form of memory, and as evidence for witnessing and justice. In contrast to easy but hip pronouncements about the end of history, history as just another form of fiction, and history as "always political"--all implying that history is a tainted vehicle of ideological coercion that we can somehow do without--Ricoeur asks what else we *have* to connect our recollections of meaningful events to any kind of social action and collective sense of being.
If you want an education in some of the major positions in historiography, this book will give it to you, but it is no survey. It is a philosophical work, one that attempts to convey both the difficulty of the question and the necessary tenuousness of any real, ethical solution. Graduate students should be made to read this book if only to teach them what intellectual thought should look like--thought that works its way slowly and carefully through ideas instead of zooming through sources in order to construct a macrocosmic but sexy "new idea."
The incredible care with which analysis is conducted in each of this book's sections makes it impossible to summarize it meaningfully. Ricoeur wants to connect memory, history, and social remembrance in such a way that they avoid the easy, and often dangerous, sidetracks of commemoration or historicism as mere explanation. He wants a humanized history based in lived memory that can be used to create common ground between people as well as viable evidence in the negotiation of justice claims. Whether he gets this is debatable, but the attempt is honorable.