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Paul Ricoeur, memory, and the historical gaze: implications for education histories.

In the Wiblingen Monastery in Germany, a baroque sculpture known as History and Time (D. H. Herberger 1744) stands near the side entrance of the monastery's library. Produced by the eighteenth-century sculptor, D. H. Herberger, History and Time depicts the classical Greek god Kronos, who hands a book to the figure of history (whom, I shall refer to as History). On the dedicatory page of Memory, History and Forgetting, French philosopher Paul Ricoeur included a photograph of the sculpture with following inscription:

In a special place in the library of the monastery there stands a superb baroque sculpture.

It is the dual figure of history. In the foreground, Kronos, the winged god. An old man with wreathed brow: his left hand grips a large book, his right hand attempts to tear out a page. Behind and above stands history itself. The gaze is grave and searching; one foot topples a horn of plenty from which spills a cascade of gold and silver, sign of instability; the left hand checks the act of the god, while the right hand displays history's instruments: the book, the inkpot, and the stylus (Ricoeur 2004, viii).

The sculpture's depiction of Kronos bears resemblance to the classical Greek god of time and describes Kronos as "the winged god" and as "an old man with a wreathed brow." Early Orphic accounts (fifth century B.C.) first described Time as a cosmological three-headed winged-snake Chronos, who descended as a primordial god from Chaos (Kirk and Raven 1963). Later Greek myths transposed Chronos with Kronos, instead depicting Kronos as a ravenous Titan god who devoured his children to avoid an impending prophesy of his eventual overthrow by one of his children (Zeus). This unfortunate and repeated loss of her children led Kronos' wife Rhea to artfully deceive her cannibalistic husband, by secretly hiding her newborn son Zeus on the isle of Krete, and then by presenting a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes to Kronos, who instantly and obtusely devoured the baby. Eventually Zeus matured into godhood, forced Kronos his father to disgorge his devoured offspring, and dethroned his father with the assistance of his newfound siblings (Hamilton 1998). The Romans later incorporated the Greek Titan Kronos into their own parallel myths as Saturn, instead portraying him as an agricultural god, or an old man carrying a sickle (Cicero 1997; Peck 1898). Notably, the varying portrayals of Kronos in classical mythology demonstrate the unavoidable loss of time and the difficulty of preserving the past.

Accordingly, the god in the baroque statute verisimilarly consumes years and ages as he tears out pages from History's book. According to Cicero, the Roman deity Kronos (Saturn) allegorically represented the "fact that time devours the courses of the seasons, and gorges itself on the 'insatiability' of years that are past" (Cicero 1997, 2.64). Time, however, cannot fully ingest the ages, bound by two critical factors: first, by the natural, ordered cycles of the seasons; and second, by History's attempted representations of lost years. In the baroque statue, History curbs Kronos' intake by preventing him from completely removing pages from the book of recorded time, and by bringing forth, instead, his own narratives of the past by using the instruments (the book, the inkpot, and the stylus) held in his right hand. The statue deftly characterizes the challenges associated with historical representation, as depicted through the spilling of the cascade of gold and silver from History's hands--symbolizing the obvious checks and limitations of researching and writing about ages past.

In this article, I share the potential applications of Paul Ricoeur's philosophies of history, memory, and narrative to the interpretation of educational histories, and those histories' life spans: moving cyclically from early conception, to evidentiary construction, to published dissemination; and ultimately to death or immortality. My focus constitutes a philosophical discussion of the womb of history (or the process of creation) and the subsequent births (of written histories) as related to the field of education history. Notably, History and Time analogously typifies how researchers attempt through inquiry and instrumentation to recover and to represent the past's perplexities; likewise, Ricoeur's perspectives on the creation and endurance of written histories tender enabling ideologies for the analysis of secondary histories and methodologies. My purpose in this article is to consider how Paul Ricoeur's philosophy of history, embodied in his views of memory and narrative, offers a framework for the analysis of the writings conceived by education historians.

Upon considering the application of Ricoeur's philosophy, I return to the question posted by Jan Masschelein and Maarten Simons (2008) in their essay, "Do Historians (of Education) Need Philosophy?" (647). Referring to Foucault, these scholars view the processes involved in historical inquiry as "practices of the mind" (via reading, studying, contemplating) and "practices of the body" (knowing oneself) (Masschelein and Simons 2008, 656). Philosophy, therefore, offers to education historians the benefits of an enlightened ethos, or an act of transformative thought: an askesis, or a philosophical "ethos of attentive study" (Masschelein and Simons 2008, 659). Notably, askesis involves more than simply understanding philosophy and its implications for history; askesis constitutes an activity, an exercise of thought, and a way of life. For historians who serve "as researchers and truth tellers" (Masschelein and Simons 2008, 648), askesis illuminates humanity's experiences, thereby creating with-in-time-ness, or what Ricoeur (2004) refers to as a shared dialogic space--a unique space shared by the historical actors and historians. In this article, I present Ricoeur's contributions as potentially useful for developing what Masschelein and Simon (2008) describe as an "enlightened ethos," particularly regarding the nature and influences of historical texts and how historians conduct their work. Accordingly, I shall outline Ricoeur's ideological framework: history as memory, history as represented (epistemology), and history as condition (ontology); and discuss probable implications for education history.


To provide a perspective regarding the salient themes of Ricoeur's work, I will open with a discussion of his life and various philosophical ideologies. Born in Valence, France in 1913, Ricoeur wrote extensively on topics such as language, history, politics, narrative, fiction, morality, religion, psychoanalysis, cognition, existentialism, and phenomenology. In 1933, Ricoeur earned his licence-es-lettres from the University of Rennes and then assumed employment as a professor of philosophy at the Lycee de Saint Brieuc (located in a small fishing town on the northern coast of Brittany). In 1934, he returned to the university at the Sorbonne in Paris to complete his baccalaureate. His high achievements as a student, such as earning second place in the highly competitive written and oral examinations (known as the agregation), earned him an appointment as a professor in France.

Ricoeur's intellectual life as a philosopher was shaped by several critical encounters. The tutelage he received from his professors at the University of Rennes granted him the courage (despite his reservations about the overwhelming nature of the subject) to pursue a career in philosophy. During his time at the Sorbonne, Ricoeur found a mentor, Gabriel Marcel, who profoundly influenced Ricoeur's professional and personal life, and who wrote about the German existential philosopher Karl Jasper (Kaplan 2003; Kearney 2004; Reagan 1998). Although the outbreak of World War II temporarily interrupted Ricoeur's teaching career, his poignant experiences serving in the war shaped his humanistic perspective on life, society, and culture, and his subsequent writings reflected an intriguing blend of pacifist, socialist, and democratic ideals. During the war for instance, Ricoeur witnessed the death of a dear friend (and captain hailing from Rennes), who was killed (while standing next to Ricoeur) by the bullet of a German sniper. This traumatic experience was preceded by the premature deaths of Ricoeur's father, sister, and grandmother, and the cumulative effective of these tragedies helped inspire Ricoeur's deep respect for life (Kearney 2004; Reagan 1998).

In June 1940, Ricoeur and his comrades were captured by the Germans, forced to march for days, transported by stock (rail) cars, and then distributed to various camps. Ricoeur spent nearly two years in Oflag IID, an imprisonment camp for French soldiers, located near Gross-Born. There he survived harsh conditions, including meager food rations, poor sanitation, and rampant disease. Although the Geneva Accords protected the French prisoners from the cruelest abuses meted out by the Germans, these protections failed to prevent a sharp population decline of 6,000 to 3,000 soldiers (occurring at Oflag IID during two years). The human rights abuses committed at a nearby Russian camp worsened the situation. The routine burial of corpses in mass graves horrified the French prisoners, who observed from a distance the constant flow of dead bodies into nearby trenches (Kearney 2004; Reagan 1998).

In May 1942, the Germans transported the French prisoners to a more comfortable camp in Arsnwald, where Ricoeur remained for another three years until his release at the end of the war. This period of servitude during World War II played a role in shaping Ricoeur's intellectual ideologies. During his imprisonment, he engaged in extensive studies in philosophy, with a particular interest in Karl Jaspers and Husserl, and even organized a philosophy school (later known as his popote) for prisoners. He taught philosophy courses (with lectures on thinkers such as Nietzsche) and issued degrees through the administration of the exit examinations approved by the French Ministry of Education. Not surprisingly, Ricoeur emerged very quickly after the war as an eminent French philosopher and writer of hermeneutics and phenomenology. He earned his doctorate-of-es-lettres in April, 1950, and his thesis received the Jean Cavailles honor of distinction, an award named for Cavilles's resistence to the Germans during the period of occupation (Kearney 2004; Reagan 1998). Eventually, Ricoeur's career included service as a philosophy professor at the universities of Strasbourg, Paris, and Chicago as well as the director (during the 1970s and 1980s in Paris) of the Center of Phenomenology and Hermeneutics in Paris (Kaplan 2003; Kearney 2004; Reagan 1998).

Ricoeur's critical hermeneutics centers on the dual-fold relationship between texts and society. In the creation phase, the texts reflect ideas from existing peoples and cultures; then, after completion, their emergent ideas funnel back into the public sphere, influencing the creation of subsequent texts and ideas. Understanding both the epistemology and ontology of texts ultimately leads to intersubjective possibilities of language and theory, in particular as mediated by individuals and social groups, who join the conversations, albeit under the assumed influences of those groups' cultures and traditions (Gardner 2010; Kearney 2004). The repeated interactions of the arbitrated signs and symbols of language eventually mature into textual conversations, thereby resulting in reflective interpretations of personal and group identities. Ricoeur supports the democratic (and notably socialist) plurality of society through the liberation of humanity. As a post-structuralist, he differs from comparative philosophers, such as Foucault, because he continually emphasizes the forces of history, life, culture, and society as viable contributors to the philosophical conversation; therefore, language always espouses polysemy, or multiple meanings as orchestrated through myths, allegories, dreams, metaphors, and analogies (Kaplan 2003; Kearney 2004; Reagan 1998; Ricoeur 1981).


Ricoeur's philosophy of history centers around three thematic categories: history as memory, history as representation (epistemology), and history as condition (ontology), and each category depicts a phase in the lifespan of historical texts. In Figure 13.1, I outline those themes, and then I shall discuss each theme in detail.
Figure 13.1. Ricoeur's Framework of Historical Reconstruction

Theme                       Thematic element

History as memory           Individual
History as representation   Documentary
Epistemology)               Explanation/Understanding
History as condition        Life cycle (birth, dissemination, death)
(Ontology)                  Remembering or Forgetting

In the first phase, history operates as a form of remembering through the creation of texts (both secondary and primary)--designed to communicate the temporalities of human action and experience. Testimonies, or the recorded documents of archived memories, preserve the past by proffering critical links between lost time and the present existence; consequently, the interpretative act of translating those testimonies into comprehensible, accessible texts constitutes the nature of history itself (Ricoeur 2004, 141-176). Similar to Kant, Ricoeur views memory and imagination as deeply interconnected, thereby posing the advantages of retrospective analysis and the disadvantages of inaccurate presentation. For instance, the foibles of human intentionality and weaknesses of the mind may result in misrepresentations of blocked, controlled, or manipulated memories; therefore, historians seek--to the extent that retrieval is possible--to portray the most truthful representations of memories (Ricoeur 2004, 56-68).

Understanding the nature of historical memory illuminates variances in angled lenses of written histories: recorded history navigates between the "poles of individual and collective memory" (Ricoeur 2004, 131) through language. For instance, personal memories constitute a form of historical remembering, characterized as a time clock with an inward and outward gaze, deeply influenced by the ego, the social collectives, and the close relations. Collective memories embody the ancestors' actions and the impact of those actions on future successors:

The phenomenology of the social world, in this way, penetrates directly into the order of life in common, of living-together in which acting and suffering subjects are from the outset members of a community or a collectivity (Ricoeur 2004, 130).

As belonging (or not belonging) to particular social groups orients interpretative lenses, historical texts may serve as commemorative narratives, memorialized through rituals and physical symbols of one's actions, both celebratory and shameful (Ricoeur 2004, 86-92). Accordingly, the entrance of histories into the public sphere influences their readers' viewpoints regarding individual and collective identities through the rhetoric of representation.

Written histories may serve obligated, ethico-political ends, bound by the components of duty, justice, and guilt. Proximity, or philia according to ancient Greeks, refers to the ways in which an individual (or citizen) is "defined by his contribution to the politeia, to the life and activity of the polis," or political, public sphere (Ricoeur 2004, 131). For Ricoeur, the womb of history, or the place of the creator's initial intentionality, must be carefully considered in order to appropriately understand those histories, especially relative to how history functions as a unique, documented form of memory. Ultimately, professional historians seek to answer the critical questions of who, what, and how through objective examination of the past, as they present their findings through the vehicle of language.

History as representation (or the epistemology) embodies three phases: documentary (involving the original creation of and the later retrieval of primary sources), explanation/ understanding (consisting of the analysis of primary sources), and representation (resulting in the creation of secondary histories). I created a chart of Ricoeur's (2004, 177) tripod of historical knowledge to depict these ideas (see Figure 13.2). In the documentary phase, historians seek to decipher truth through posing questions, responding to factual traces of evidence, and examining documents of recorded testimonies. By "trace," Ricoeur (1983) means the deposits "which has [have] become the monuments and documents that bear witness to the past" (III, 119). Examination of this tripod reveals how historical knowledge rests upon recorded memories (or traces), influencing potentially the types of questions posed and examinations of evidence, reflecting an "interdependence among facts, documents, and questions" (Ricoeur 2004, 177), and answering thematic, social, or lesson-oriented questions. By investigating the past through broad or focused scales (personal, family, community, state, or global), historians may discover how the interplays of those scales impact perceptions of the past. For Ricoeur (2004), the process of posing questions, uncovering traces, and examining evidence may function as either "a remedy or a poison" (181) for writing history, potentially enhancing or limiting accurate representations of the past.


The explanation/understanding of documentary proof remains powerfully and intrinsically linked to the imagination by using evidence to envision possibilities about the past. The explanative models created by historians either seek to "relate human reality as social fact" (Ricoeur 2004, 183) or to emphasize change and "the differences or intervals affecting such change" (Ricoeur 2004, 183) over time. Through the analyses of the past, historians may create or define new ideas and may demonstrate how these ideas add to or deviate from contemporary perspectives:

With this promotion [of new objects] comes a redistribution of values of importance, of degrees of pertinence, that affects the ranking of economic, social, and political phenomenon within the scale adopted by the historical gaze in terms of micro- and macro history (Ricoeur 2004, 188).

According to Ricoeur (2004), the redistribution impacts the representation of historical concepts relative to their singularity, ordering, repeatability, and social scales. When these ideas become reconstituted into written histories, they become subject to new lenses of interpretation. Notably, the personal and collective memories of both the writer and the reader affects these lenses; therefore, Ricoeur (2004) aptly poses a pertinent thought, "Does the historian ... not mime in a creative way, the interpretive gesture by which those who make history attempt to understand themselves and their world?" (228-229). Naturally, the loss of time inevitably leads to a certain reliance on intuitive reconstruction, albeit for better or for worse; therefore, the expectations of the historian dictate the essence of the "interpretive gesture(s)," (Ricoeur 2004, 229) and in most cases, Ricoeur assumes that historians genuinely seek to honor the historical actors' true intentions.

An understanding of the history as representation (or epistemology) necessitates scrutiny into history as condition (or the ontology of historical being). Writing new histories involves the employments of rhetorical structures, often leading to the creation of new images, symbols, and meanings. By understanding the tropes--or figurative and symbolic rhetorical devices such as metaphor, irony, metonymy, and synecdoche--readers may deepen their ability to deconstruct the meaning of secondary histories. The crowning rhetorical expression of written histories becomes manifest in singular texts metaphorically "standing for" (Ricoeur 2004, 274) the historical past: first, the expectation and intentionality of the historian, and second, the resulting memories (for scholars and for readers) created by the text. In "standing for" historical ideas, the text functions as a grand metaphor of "situations, events, connections, and characters who once really existed, that is, before the narrative of them is put together" (Ricoeur 2004, 275). For Ricoeur (1981, 1984), historical metaphors (and texts) often possess polysemy: multiple meanings reflecting varying perspectives and realities (Gardner, 2010). By recasting the past in numerous ways, grand metaphors formulate disciplinary ontology, or what Ricoeur (2004) describes as the "historical condition" (284) of the topics they represent: historical conditions reflecting what it means to be human. As Ricoeur (2004) explains, "we make history, and we make histories (nous faisons l'histoire et nous faisons de l'histoire) because we are historical" (284).

Regardless of the chosen genre, Ricoeur claims that all histories contain inherent narrative structural qualities. He roots his argument in Heidegger's concept of time and historicality. Unlike calendars, narratives create an emplotment of events and characters represented through language: "Time becomes human to the extent that it is articulated through the narrative mode, and narrative attains its full meaning when it becomes a condition of temporal existence" (Ricoeur 1984, I, 52). Thus, narrative's power to humanize time palpably communicates history's societal, cultural, biographical, and thematic complexities. Accordingly, the structure of historical narrative enables the reader to examine the past in multiple ways, traveling forwards, backwards, and cyclically--simultaneously experiencing varying scales, themes, and topics; and discovering emergent and repeated patterns, deviations, and paradoxes. The historical narrative "presupposes a familiarity with terms such as agent, goal, means, circumstance, help, cooperation, conflict, success, failure, etc., on the part of its narrator and any listener" (Ricoeur 1984, I, 55). Unlike fictional narratives, the historical narrative "refigures time" (Ricoeur 1994, I, 125) by representing the existential and empirical evidence, acquired "by frequenting archives and consulting documents" (I, 126).

Written histories enact Ricoeur's hermeneutical circle of narrative and temporality: a type of mimesis reminiscent of Aristotle's concept of written poetics as imitation (or art). In historical writing, "the mediation between time and narrative" (Ricoeur 1984, 53) constitutes a three-fold mimesis: mimesisl refers to the existing symbolic and temporal structures of the past; mimesis2 denotes the emplotment of past events into narrative structures; and mimesis3 reflects how written narratives articulate thematic ideas. Ricoeur's hermeneutic circle of time and narrative also involves an application phase, representing interactions between readers and historical texts. Understanding how written histories imitate the past enables readers to embrace those texts for what they are: uniquely crafted reconstructions, reflecting interpretive lenses, dependent upon available traces, and capable of contributing to ongoing dialogues about the historicity of humanity.

The power of the historical narrative rests with a narrative's ability to create what Ricoeur terms within-time-ness (based upon Heidegger's similar idea of innerzeitigkeit), or the shared space possessed by historical actors, the historian, and present readers. To illustrate, he likens historical narratives to urban buildings, functioning as settings for major human interactions, including expressions of personal and social cultural norms (and deviations from those norms). For Ricoeur (2004), the impregnable "architectural act" (150) of narrative creation impacts the text's durability:

Narrative and construction bring about a similar kind of inscription, the one in the endurance of time, the other in the endurance of materials. Each new building is inscribed in urban space like a narrative within a setting of intertextuality (Ricoeur 2004, 150-151).

Intertextuality then constitutes interrelations between individual texts, framed within the larger body of scholarship, and interwoven with external cultural ideas. These repeated interactions occur through ongoing mediated conversations about individual texts (buildings) and cities (bodies of scholarship or collection of ideas), affecting whether or not texts (and their ideas) endure for generations. If they survive, they influence future the creation of future texts; if they die, they become forgotten, until someone chooses to rediscover and to reaffirm their place within the urban city of scholarship.

The urban spaces of intertextuality also afford readers opportunities to gaze through time, moving beyond contemporary realities into unique worlds created by historical texts. Metaphorically referring to architectural acts, Ricoeur (2004) explicates the benefits of navigating within and between texts: inside shared spaces of the historical narratives (or houses) and textual bodies (or cities), the reader, the writer, and the historical actors interact in rare ways only afforded within-time. Of this, Ricoeur (2004) shares:

It is on the scale of urbanism that we best catch site of the work of time in space. A city brings together in the same space different ages, offering to our gaze a sedimented history of tastes and cultural forms. The city gives itself to be seen and to be read (Ricoeur 2004, 150-151).

The space of within-time enables readers to view history through multiple narratives, each focusing on different aspects of the past, and communicating varying perspectives. Reading a city (of historical scholarship) enlarges our historical gaze to include polysemic understandings of numerous texts, culturally reflecting how those texts' authors depict the historical actors' realities. Notably, these repeated interactions eventually contribute to history's ontology. Thus, "it is the act of reading that accompanies the interplay of the innovation and the sedimentation of the paradigms that schematizes emplotment" (Ricoeur 1983, I, 77).

How and what individuals, societies, and historians choose to remember (and to forget) contributes to the ontology of history, and subsequently to the ontology of self and collectives. Accordingly, issues of modernity often dictate what is remembered and forgotten as new historians choose to value or to reject existing primary documents, lending to "survival of images" (Ricouer 2004, 428) or the "persistence of traces" (427), thereby contributing to the ontology of history by enlarging historical memories. For educational historians, those memories shape disciplinary perspectives about the nature of schools and acts of schooling. Those memories may or may not correlate with those perspectives promulgated by the media or other interested parties. As Ricoeur (2004) reiterates, historians must serve as critical judges of accepted knowledge by scrutinizing and clarifying cultural depictions of the historicity of education. In so doing, educational historians craft a body of knowledge that is dependent upon more reliable archival memories rather than on memories intended to serve the interests of individuals or the polis. Hence, educational history experiences kaleidoscopic cycles of birth, death, and resurrection--cycles fundamental to understanding how the field and its associated texts shape and alter with time: in sum, educational history ontologically possesses its own history, created and transformed through new textual constructions.


Ricoeur's philosophy of history as memory, history as representation (epistemology), and history as condition (ontology) offers an analytical framework for understanding education histories. Accordingly, I hope that this model shall deepen awareness of the methodological process of historical researching, writing, and dissemination. As Aldrich (2003) reminds us, the education historian's duty involves searching for the truth through service: to the past, by explicating former times; to the present, by shedding light on current realities and concerns; and to the future, by providing disciplinary foundations. Given the highly politicized nature of education, truth telling and perspective sharing become extremely important for enriching understandings about how people develop, think, and experience life in school (and less formal aspects of schooling). Given that educational historians often labor within colleges of education, they frequently teach modern educators about history and its implications, thereby navigating the murky waters of blurred disciplinary terrains (education and history). For educational historians, Ricoeur's analytic framework, therefore, may offer an enlightened ethos, providing a tool set for illuminating how histories come into fruition, what they stand for, how they reflect cultural and social viewpoints (of the author and the times), and how their ideas impact contemporary and future perspectives.

From a Ricoeurian perspective, histories both mirror and contribute to ongoing conversations about the past: influencing, creating, and supporting ideas within and outside of the academic community. Akin to Ricoeur's notions of texts, Ramsey (2007) explains how "histories are shaped by the cultural milieu in which they are written" (p. 348). Intellectual trends in mainstream history, the social sciences, the humanities, and the philosophies (such as post-modernism, feminism, and Marxism) also influence historical ideas. Furthermore, the porous boundaries of what constitutes educational history and who contributes to its development often lead to blurred definitions (Warren 2005). Reminiscent of Dewey's charge to connect everyday life to the experience of the child, the family, church, and other social institutions also may constitute places of education. Of this, Warren (2005) reveals how "the places of social formation" (p. 114) contribute to history by sharing how "learning in its various shapes and characters provides the key indicators and animates telling dynamics of civic life and pathology" (p. 114). The making of meaning, then, is conceived through a complex web of mediated exchanges, or by action sharing (between historical actors and historians). As Smith (2009) explains:
   One might suppose history loving moths fly toward one flame: drawn
   by an identifiable appeal of past occurrence as such. But history
   is actually represented and theorized on the basis of very
   different views of its meaningfulness--ethical, political,
   religious, metaphysical, scientific, or aesthetic (1).

Educational history loving moths do not "fly toward one flame" (Smith 2009, 1) but rather travel in varying directions, often influenced by contemporary disciplinary cultures and trends. Thus, Ricoeur invites us to consider meaning making in education: how it is conceived, for what aims, and how and for what reasons some ideas endure while others do not. By understanding our interpretive actions of the past as well as those who acted in the past, we may develop the type of enlightened ethos embodied by Ricoeur--one subject to continual renewal and transformation through ongoing, mediated experiences.


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Sherri Rae Colby

Texas A&M University-Commerce

Sherri R. Colby, College of Education, Health, and Human Services, Texas A&M University-Commerce, P.O. Box 3011, Commerce, Texas, 75429, (T) 903-886-6067, (F) 903-886-5581, Email:
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Publication:American Educational History Journal
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Date:Jan 1, 2012
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