A Note on Ricoeur’s Early Notion of Cultural Memory

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This essay considers Paul Ricoeur’s early notion of cultural memory from 1956-1960. He discusses it in two texts:
“What does Humanism Mean?” and the slightly later The Symbolism of Evil. In the former, cultural memory appears as an ongoing and dynamic process of retroaction focussed on questioning and rethinking the meaning of classical antiquity for contemporary worlds, on the one hand, that is linked to an important critical aspect as a counterweight to the flattening effects of modernity, on the other. In the latter, cultural memory expands the reach of the classical heritage, and, in addition to retroaction, further modes of orientation, such as relations of depth and breadth, are delineated. At first glance, cultural memory, in Ricoeur’s sense, appears to be embodied in the singular, albeit generalized self. Yet, in reconstructing its meaning, the essay argues that Ricoeur’s articulation of cultural memory relies on an implicit collective dimension. The present essay’s hermeneutic reconstruction of Ricoeur’s notion of cultural memory comprises a preliminary step of a broader project that aims to rearticulate Jan and Aleida Assmann’s cultural memory framework along social imaginary lines. In this vein, the essay concludes with an overview of the Assmannian approach to cultural memory and considers possible bridges between Ricoeur and the Assmanns.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)112-124
Number of pages13
JournalEtudes Ricoeuriennes/Ricoeur Studies
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2019

Bibliographical note

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. CC BY-NC-ND


  • Paul Ricoeur
  • Jan and Aleida Assmann
  • Cultural Memory
  • Social Imaginaries
  • Collective Memory
  • Cultures and Civilizations
  • Social Theory
  • Sociology


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