A Note on Ricœur’s Early Notion of Cultural Memory


  • Suzi Adams Flinders University




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


This essay considers Paul Ricœur’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 Ricœur’s sense, appears to be embodied in the singular, albeit generalized self. Yet, in reconstructing its meaning, the essay argues that Ricœur’s articulation of cultural memory relies on an implicit collective dimension. The present essay’s hermeneutic reconstruction of Ricœur’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 Ricœur and the Assmanns.

Author Biography

Suzi Adams, Flinders University

Senior Lecturer

Sociology Department