The trace as answer and as question

Logo du Fonds Ricoeur

I would like, in this essay on trace and archive in Paul Ricœur’s works, to start with the very questions the construction of the Fonds Ricœur has put to us. The philosopher bequeathed his own study-library and entrusted his archives to the library of the Faculty of protestant Theology in Paris, in where he had taught in the sixties. The creation of the Fonds Ricœur answered this generous donation, opening to the public a documentary space of great patrimonial quality, establishing a number of partnerships around a small research center, and building up an international network interested in common questions of our time. Many questions arose as things went on : around the name to be given to the whole undertaking, modestly centered on its aspect of “donation of documents”, around the risk of building up a mausoleum ; about classification of the books, or about the way of doing with the manuscripts and the way of opening the lot to the public ; about the risk of shutting Ricœur up in a purely academic world, or, on the contrary, of letting his work to be manipulated in any ways (and notably to be dragged on the religious level), not considering his philosophical rigor.

In the extent that we wish to exhibit in that space a philosopher’s workshop where apprentices might get to learn some of his major gestures, it appeared to us as a precious move to balance and correct mutually a vision of Ricœur where he stands in the history of philosophy, with his work finally answering the questions of his time, and a more anachronic vision where Ricœur’s thought authorizes other questions that pursue the diverse dialogues he initiates.

As a matter of fact, on one hand the philosopher never ceased to make us alive to the history of questions, to the sequence of generations[1], to our historical condition, and this sensibility is at the heart of his critical hermeneutics. As he already said in a text from the fifties : “It is even a rare gift to be able to make the historical past come closer to us, while at the same time restoring historical distance, or, in other words, while establishing in the reader’s mind a consciousness of remoteness and temporal depth.”[2] So that, ordering the working libraries, and according to what he had ordered himself, we first organised, with blue labels, a long itinerary through history of philosophy, starting with Greek philosophy, plus patristic contributions, classical French works, the great German tradition and finally, phenomenology and hermeneutics, but also Anglo-saxon philosophy, al that chronologically distributed.

Plan of Fonds Ricœur

Picture of the library of Fonds Ricoeur


The inside organization thus appears like the growing circle of a tree : one of the circles is available for exhibition displaying the reading disposition which accompanies each time the writing of a work: the varied readings which prepare La métaphore vive, for instance, or La mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli : for the time of this little exhibition, they are set in their order of appearance in the book.

But on the other hand we had to keep in mind the philosopher’s gesture by which he makes works from various epochs contemporary, makes them dialogue in a circularity made lively through the very question he is working at. For young researchers, too often submerged into a mass of virtual information, the matter is to learn how to organize the circularity of their reading around one questioning which determines the choice of an horizon. Historical condition must not occult philosophical condition, this live and anachronic interrogation which disturbs the order of established questions. There again, Ricœur was writing in a text from the fifties : “a great philosopher is above all one who upsets the anterior problematic, who recasts the principal questions in accordance with a new design”[3]. And more recently : “Every book lies open on my desk; there isn’t one that is older than another. One of Plato’s dialogues is there for me. Everything being inscribed in time, it is not touched in the same way by time as was the Greek economy; it can be decontextualized and recontextualized. This open-ended capacity for contextualization and recontextualization is what makes it a classic. The classics of thought are the works that, for myself and others, resist the ordeal of changing. They are always offered to reading. I believe in this kind of odd contemporaneity, of a kind of dialogue with the dead yet carried out with the living.”[4] And he not only makes different philosophical traditions dialogue, but he never stops opening Philosophy to conversation with human sciences, juridical and political thought, with other literary and poetics sources which are more foreign to it (the Greek Tragics, the books of the Bible, etc). This also, we did stage, with labels of various colours (orange, green, yellow).

This presentation corresponds to the problematics I wish to introduce and it is already clear from my title. On the first versant, the work is understood as an answer to a former question. It is the trace of it : the question is invisible, it is past, and the matter is to reconstitute it to the best of our ability to seize at its nearest what it was meant to be. Inscribe trace is understood as a trace only as much as it answers[5]. On the second versant, the work shows, indicates, opens up in front of it, a world of interrogations which escapes the “dates” intentions of the author ; but they enable those who share in its vivacity to be made contemporaries. The inscribed trace may not be understood as a trace unless it is interrogating. Binding together the two versants, Ricœur wrote still : “The history of philosophy with no philosopher who asks questions is nothing more than a field of ruins, a museum or a closed library, which amounts to the same thing… The modesty of philosophical work is to know and accept that I stand in line, that my work, if it has any value, will provide others with  a vis-à-vis, a possibility of opposition or reprise, a provocation to ask a better question, to think more radically, more rigorously. The search for the truth therefore is inseparable from a doing of philosophy in common with others, which is the historical dimension of any philosophia perennis.”[6]


Manuscript of Paul Ricœur


It is rather simple hypothesis that I would like to embark in reading passages from Time and Narrative, and then Memory, History, Forgetting, where Ricœur himself deals with trace, but under two slightly offset perspectives. Our intention is to complexify that scheme, and to set trace again at the heart of a number of questions that have to do with our time. Among other items, I think of that sentiment of being invaded by a memory artificially blown up with useless matters ; I also think of an other fact, opposite and concomitant : evidences, and marks, from the past are no longer trust worthy ; the whole may be wrong. It is on both those fronts that we shall debate.


Paul Ricœur


The archive and the trace of the past

In Time and Narrative 3, Ricœur, who has just spoken of this symbolics of the absent, which our ancestors and descendants figure, sees in the trace a mixt and even a connector between physical time and lived time which heideggerian phenomenology dissociates. Trace is what every document and thus all archives presuppose. Archive are an institution which registers, saves, classifies and allows for consultation of these evidential documents of the past. Where from comes a first critique : which are the ideological choices behind the production and the selection, and intentional collection? To whom or what is this monumentalization of such or such past usefull? The trace here comes as a critical help because “any trace left by the past becomes a document for historians as soon as they know how to interrogate its remains, how to question them. In this respect, the most valuable traces are the ones that were not intended for our information (…) Such critical inquiry at this first level leads to the notion of involuntary testimony, Marc Bloch’s ‘witnesses in spite of themselves.”[7]. A second critique is produced by serial history, which tries to constitute the widest possible data banks, and endeavors so to establish causal series where from all interpretative intentions would have been eliminated. But Ricœur thinks one has to keep the significative dimension of the datum, because it is not only a matter of quantitative objectivity, but of something that has been lived by past beings.

Where from comes what he calls the paradox of the trace, which is both visible here and now as a vestige, a print, a lark, and also alludes to what came that way and is no longer here, in short which indicates passage without showing what has come trough. That is why history is a knowledge from traces : marking, passage, mark of the past[8]. It is also why trace articulates a double relation, with causality (follow up a trace in its effective marking) and signifiance (seak the lived past): the trace is an sign-effect, under the double exteriority of the physical past and of the lived past as transmitted by tradition (cf. p.331)[9].

Ricœur then takes on a tight discussion with Heidegger, to show that in a vestige that remains, some of the past that is no more, and to find in historiality itself enough to unfold a datable time, which borrows from common time, and just as well loans on it so to become together a hybrid time. Here as ever, Ricœur search s for a mixt and points in Heidegger the difficulty of going down again from pure time to ordinary time, or from historial towards historiography : “We cannot make more progress in our analysis of the trace unless we show how the operations proper to the historian’s practice, relative to monuments and documents, contribute to the forming of the notion of ‘the Dasein which has been there.’ This bringing about of the convergence of a purely phenomenological notion with historiographical procedures, all of which can be referred to the act of following or retracing a trace, can only be carried out within the framework of a historical time that is neither a fragment of a stellar time nor a simple aggrandizement of the communal dimensions of the time of personal memory; this is a hybrid time” (TN p.122).

So, on one hand trace will be datable and will allow for interpreting on space the stretching of time, and then projection into a public space which makes private durations commensurable (p.181). On the other hand “If we are willing to be guided by the trace, we must be capable of that letting-go, that abnegation that makes care about oneself efface itself before the trace of the other ” (TN p.124). That is where Ricœur meets meditation on the trace of Levinas, in L’humanisme de l’autre homme[10]. The trace here is not a sign same as another, it indicates an absence, and signifies independently from any intention to make signs. But we precisely cross again Marc Bloch’s idea of the witnesses in spite of themselves ; and we must always be able to journey back, to be able to come back from trace to common time, and to that other one, not absolute but relatives, which is historical past : “I would rather leave open the possibility that in the last analysis there is a relative Other, a historical Other; that in some way the remembered past is meaningful on the basis of an immemorial past” (TN p.125). To interpret the trace means to be compelled by what has been, preserving the debt and mourning regarding what has been, what could have been, and has not come to an end (p.227).

Here comes to a close this first line of a reading the theme of the trace, along its itinerary in Time and Narrative 3. It seems to me Ricœur tries to escape ruinous alternatives : if the trace is only a mark and the effect of a cause, it loses any signifiance regarding the past ; and one may widen as much as one will the data-base, there is no longer even a memory to rectify (fist skepticism); if trace is pure signifiance , a sign of an all Other and inaccessible fact of life, it no longer catches on the common and datable time, and soon no longer disrupts anything (second skepticism). It is there only one of the zigzag Ricœur operates, of the kind that compels him to constant to and from motions, to a regulated incertitude by which his research keeps open.


Paul Ricœur


Fragility and persistence of trace

Our first journey, founded on Time and Narrative, had to do with time, the relation opened up by trace from present to past. It allowed us to point a number of the first paradoxes of trace : a present mark, but from a past passing ; intentional evidence and involuntary clue ; answer to a lost question but a question open to contemporary interpretation. The second journey, founded upon Memory, History, Forgetting[11], will unfold these paradoxes following the distinction between mark inscribed on an exterior support and interior trace, in alive and affective memory ; it will insist on autonomisation of traces regarding eventual first intentions.

As early as the first pages of the books, Ricœur meets the theme of trace with memory and present representation of an absent thing with Plato. What tells us that our memories  are not phantasms, that the imprint did not get erased, and that we did not walk in the wrong trail of prints (Theetète 169 d sq)? After Plato, Ricœur distinguishes 1) the written trace, eventually archived which will be mentioned in Le Philèbe and Le Phèdre to be opposed to 2) memorial trace, affective, live, perseverant, psychic, “written in the soul”.

Let us start with written down traces and the first problem, confronting them. Ricœur quotes his own words when debating with the neurologist Jean-Pierre Changeux : “All traces are present to our minds. There is not a hint of something that is absent. It is necessary then to endow the trace with a semiotic dimension, so that it functions as a sign and to regard the trace as a sign-effect, a sign of the action of the seal in creating the impression… In short, a trace must therefore be conceived at once as a present effect and as the sign of its absent cause. Now, in the trace, there is no otherness, no absence, Everything is positivity and presence”[12]. And Ricœur adds : the aporia was complete from its fist formulation in the Theetete.

Let us recall that trace does not answer when questioned, or that it repeats the same thing. That is its poisoned character. Moreover, the common character of written, material, traces, even eventually cortical traces, is n that they are vulnerable ; they may be destroyed, altered, obliterated (MHO p558 and 543 sq.). But at the same time, and that is the positive versant of inscribed trace, it may be protected, sheltered, in short archived, together with others, in a documentary collection, classified in an organized found, and finally offered at the disposal of the public for consultation under certain rules (p.212). I should like to object that he new danger comes from the archival flood, the more and more gigantic volume of traces left over by everybody, every moment. One topples here from the danger of excessive obliteration of traces to the danger of excessive conservation of traces (see p.558), and it seems to me particularly dangerous in our digitalized society.

But Ricœur pays much more attention to something else : the positive character of a kind of odd inversion regarding the initial situation of dependance of written matters referring to its father-author. If “the document sleeping in the archives is not just silent, it is an orphan. The testimonies it contains are detached from the authors who ‘gave birth’ to them. They are handed over to the care of those who are competent to question them” (MHF, 169), we may say that the autonomisation of texts and written traces as related to their authors’ intentions authorizes a documentary revolution : it is the archive, the document, the trace, which come s to the help of the historian, the investigator, the judge too. In Du texte à l’action, then, another movement dawns : to interpret is to imagine a possible world displayed by the text, and it is to “act” the world, as the musician interprets his score. Hermeneutics  is then done in the space open “in front” of the text ; its autonomisation is not only detachment regarding the initial setting, but opening of a new possible setting, of new horizon of expectation. Autonomisation displays the possibility of being of the text. The truth of the text is then downstream. In “breaking with the rumor of oral evidence”, the written matter may not only answer the anterior question of which it is a trace, but it may open up in front of it an un precedented horizon of expectation. Ricœur tells it again : “Between the saying and the said of any utterance, a subtle gap opens that allows what is stated, the saying of what is said, to pursue what we can strictly speaking call a literary career” (MHF, 166). That is where his poetics, as against a certain Plato, is nearest to Derrida and his idea of supplement.

We have examined the fate of inscribed trace, grammata or written mark, imprint. It remains for us to examine the fate of affective, interior traces. What is remarkable there is that “it is a primordial attribute of affections to survive, to persist, to remain, to endure, while keeping the mark of absence and of distance” (MHF, 427). It is because we forgot that we remember, and what we thought was lost may come back to us all the nearer because distance seemed unsurmountable. “The experience princeps in this regard is recognition, that minor miracle of happy memory. An image comes back to me; and I say in my heart: that’s really him, that’s really her” (MHF, 429). Embarassement is there transformed into astonishment, if not wonder, in front of the perseverance of traces. The line that goes from Spinoza to Bergson and Deleuze is here rejoined.

The surprise, as Bergson writes in Matière et mémoire, is that « the memory conserves itself » (quoted TRIII p.563). But the surprise is also that any present is as soon as it appears its own past. As Deleuze writes : “The past is ‘contemporaneous’ with the present that it has been. If the past had to wait in order to be no longer, if it was not immediately and now that it had passed, ‘past in general,’ it could never become what it is that past. (…) The past would never be constituted, if it did not coexist with the present whose past it is”. Deleuze adds : “each present refers to itself as past”, and next page: “it is the whole, integral past; it is all our past, which coexists with each present”[13]. Where from the Bergsonian metaphor of the cone, that is to say a metaphor of the presence of the whole of the past that one may seize at a more or less contracted or dilated level.

This metaphysics of memory retort to the sadness of wearing out, of phasing out, of erosion of memory, all what Ricœur calls “announced death of memory” (MHO p.570). Something parallel is live memory to the fragility of exterior traces. But trace may become here another poison : and if the present of trace held nothing but an altogether digested past, a past rebuilt by the present ? And if that very faculty was vital? As a matter of fact, I should like to say that forgetfulness is this faculty which allows separation of the conscience, as a capacity to react to new sensations, from the unconscious, as a system of reactions to traces of anterior sensations. The incapacity to forget, which defines resentment as illness, begets incapacity to admire, to respect, to love. Deleuze here practically takes up again Nietzsche’s words : “Memory of traces is heinous in itself (…)We guess what the creature of resentment wants : she wants the other to be bad, she needs the others to be bad so that she may feel good” [14]. Thus oblivion is not only wearing out, erosion, entropia, but also the ward of just memory, a healthy, sensitive memory, a live memory[15]. Oblivion sculpts memory.

But Ricœur is here also finally much more attentive regarding the positive character of another kind of oblivion, which leaves room for the persistence of traces in a kind of inaccessible memory which he calls “oubli de reserve”, and where it is no longer a matter of available memories, but a thesaurus of “those dispositions to action, long ago named by Ravaisson under the ample vocable of the Habit” (MHO p.571). There is an oblivion that preserves, and makes memory possible. That is how “Having-been makes forgetting the immemorial resource offered to the work of forgetting” (MHF, 443).

Still in Memory, History, Forgetting, we see Ricœur working through a zig-zag, a go and come between various poisons of memory and oblivion. Now traces are in danger to be lost, to get destroyed and leave us alone in a meaningless world ; now they invade us, choke us, leaving no room for meetings, for upheaval, for what comes or is just there.

And Yet…

I would like to conclude with a small word. Three times we met under Ricœur’s pen the idiom “and yet”. In Time and narrative 3, when he points the difference between the question of ethical alterity following Levinas, and his own question about historical past : “Levinas’ perspective, therefore, is very different from my own as regards the trace. And yet… Yet I cannot overestimate how my investigation of the role of the trace in the problematic of the role of reference in history owes to this magnificent meditation” (TN 125). In Memory, History, Forgetting, by the end of the section about archive, when he sets fragility, contestability of witness on the base of a deficit in trusting language : “What finally brings about the crisis in testimony is that its irruption clashes with the conquest made by Lorenzo Valla in The Donation of Constantine. Then it was a matter of struggling against credulity and imposture, now it is one of struggling against incredulity and the will to forget. Is this just a reversal of what is at issue? Yet even Levi writes” (MHF, 176). And still, in the section about persistence of traces in memory, when he takes up Platonician doubt : “Perhaps we have placed a foot in the wrong imprint or grabbed the wrong ring dove in the coop. Perhaps we were the victims of a false recognition, as we from afar we take a tree to be a person we know. And yet, who, by casting suspicions form outside, could shake the certainty attached to the pleasure of the sort of recognition we know in our hearts to be indubitable?” (MHF, 43).

What does that insistant expression means ? The gnawing power of doubt, and the weak but stubborn counter thrust of trust. How to trust history, narrative, memory, traces, promises, language? But how to do not trust in them[16]? This double question, which could be called Husserlian, or Wittgensteinien, or Cavellian, seems to be central in the heart of Ricœur’s thought (and notably in MHO, p.217-224). The whole work for him consists in not separating critical and dubitative which measures distances from attestation or affirmation which makes people see things as they had never been seen. This matter of trust is linked to the frightening but unavoidable question, not only of lie, but also of incapacities to witness, to be heard. It is all the more true because the witness does not come in here as a third, but as a subject who personally suffered, and who short cuts the slow elaboration from archives towards explanation and comprehension, as giving evidence is made, quasi immediately, into historical representation (MHO p.224).

Here comes a remarkable text on that topic, and precisely preceding section on archive : “What confidence in the word of others reinforces is not just the interdependence, but the shared common humanity, of the members of a community. This needs to be said in fine to compensate for the excessive accent placed on the theme of difference in many contemporary theories of the social bond. Reciprocity corrects for the unsubstitutability of actors. Reciprocal exchange consolidates the feeling of existing along with other humans — Inter homines esse, as Hannah Arendt like to put it. This ‘betweenness’ opens the field to dissensus as much as to consensus. And it is dissensus that the critique of potentially divergent testimonies will introduce on the pathway from testimony to the archive. To conclude, in the final analysis, the middle level of security of language of a society depends on the trustworthiness, hence on the biographical attestation, of each witness taken one by one. It is against this background of assumed confidence that tragically stands out the solitude of those ‘historical witnesses’ whose extraordinary experience stymies the capacity for average, ordinary understanding. But there are also witnesses who never encounter an audience capable of listening to them or hearing what they have to say” (MHF, 166). We see that instead answering this excess of incredulity with an opposite excess of credulity, Ricœur digs in doubt itself, and so doing revives the power of attestation.

For it does not matter what we do, the traces are there. Diane Arbus, talking about her photographs, wrote shortly before her death: “they are the proof that something existed and is no longer there. Like a stain. And their stillness is disconcerting. We can turn our back on them, but when we return they are still there, watching us”. When Ricœur unfolds the hermeneutics of those whom he calls, with a formule become famous, “the master of suspicion”, it is not because he wants to reject suspicion, but on the contrary to narrowly tie together critique and conviction. As if it was not possible to move forwards in one without moving forward in the other. An amount of skepticism is unsurpassable, because the solution does not lie in steady certitude, but in trustful acceptation of these uncertain situations, of this disquieting strangeness of the ordinary, in wonder that we so often come nevertheless to hear each other, without even be able to compel each other to it. Simply because we give each other credit of the capacity to move and share in  the same interrogation.


Olivier Abel
Fonds Ricoeur- IPT Paris

Paul Ricoeur

Manuscript page about Antigone


Presentation of Fonds Ricœur

Ricœur’s gift

It was difficult for Ricœur to think about after his death. The Fonds Ricoeur was not his project. But for a long time I knew that he wanted to give us the books and the papers, and we had to decide what to do with that. Our luck was that everybody, among his family, among academic scholars, among institutions, felt that he couldn’t do anything alone, and that we needed to work together.


Pictures of Fonds Ricœur at Protestant Divinity school, 83 bd Arago, 75014 Paris (Metro : Denfert). A very unique place for a philosopher, with strong links to other research institutions in Paris, and open for scholars from everywhere in the world.

Protestant Divinity school, 83 bd Arago, 75014 Paris

Outside of Fonds Ricœur at Protestant Divinity school

Inside of Fonds Ricœur at Protestant Divinity school


The works

The published works are finished, closed. In Fonds Ricœur, one can found all the published works, even the more occasionnal papers, and all the available translations. In his will, Ricœur instituted a  little group of people he charged to give permission and rights of publishing (Comité editorial).

The Fonds Ricœeur as an Archive, and a documentary place

Behind the works, we have Ricoeur’s libraries and papers (reading notes, courses, lectures, successive versions of papers and books, correspondence, etc). Some thing were not intended for publication (one exception : Living up to death), but open to consultation. Ricœur himself had a very uncertain relationship with his own memories.

The Fonds Ricœeur as a Center of research

Beyond all this material now in the Archive, research is under way about different themes motivated by this material. There is now an ongoing conversation between the different philosophical traditions and the human sciences, history, political science and law, literature and poetics, etc. The Conseil scientifique takes care to balance the equilibrium between these activities. On-line review : Ricoeur’s Studies.  Ricœur saw his own books as open to such discussion and offered to other readings.

The Fonds Ricœeur as  an international network : Association Paul Ricœur

Ricoeur’s works are like an inversed iceberg : the upper part is the esoteric one (academic papers and books, meant to speak to the expert reader), the submerged part is the exoteric one (public lectures or interviews, meant to speak to his contemporaries). This second part is what the Association Paul Ricœur is intended to promote, with the help of the website and of a lot of correspondents around the world. Technology plays a large part in all of this. For example digitalization of Ricoeur’s notes for his curses and readings.

Notes :

[1] I think it is significative that the section about « Archives, documents, trace » come immediately after the one about « The sequence of generations : contemporaries, predecessors, and successors », in Temps et Récit III Paris, Seuil 1985 (her quoted as TRIII)

[2]  “Objectivity and Truth,” in History and Truth, trans. Charles Kelbley (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1965), 28.

[3] “Philosophy and the Unity of Truth,” HT p.47.

[4] P. Ricœur, interview in le Magazine Littéraire, 2000 n°390.

[5] Gadamer tells how Collingwood, reconstituting the laying out of Roman walls in G.B. : « Not trap hasardely out of lucky archeological digs, but as he layed in advance the question of how such a defense organisation had reasonably to be built ». This leads him not only to see historical quest as a questionnary,, but more generally to affirm « one may not understand a proposition unless one understands it as an answer to a question » (Hans-Georg Gadamer, Das Erbe Hegels, Frankfurt am Main Suhrkamp Verlag 1979, p.49.).


[7] Time and Narrative, volume 3, trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 117.

[8] Dans sa présentation de l’historien aux archives, Ricœur reprend Marc Bloch pour estimer que « la trace est à la connaissance historique ce que l’observation est aux sciences de la nature » (MHO p.214).

[9] Dans un champ voisin, au long de plusieurs textes de la fin des années 70 et du début des années 80, l’agir humain aussi est dit à l’articulation entre le registre de la causalité et celui de la signification (cf. TA).

[10] L’humanisme de l’autre homme, Montpellier : Fata Morgana, 1972, p.57-63.

[11] La mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli, Paris : Seuil, 2000 (ici cité MHO).

[12] in La Nature et la Règle translated in What Makes Us Think? 149–50), and quoted in  Memory, History, Forgetting, trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 425–26.

[13] Gille Deuleuze, Bergsonism, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (New York: Zone Books, 1988), 59, cited MHF, 434

[14] Ibid. p.134 et 136.

[15] C’est ainsi que je terminais mes « Tables du pardon », dans le volume que j’ai dirigé aux éditions Autrement sur Le pardon, briser la dette et l’oubli, 1991.

[16] C’est aussi la résistance de C.Ginzburg à l’encontre d’une rhétorique nietzschéenne trop facilement sceptique (MHO p.218)