11 Chapters
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5 Responsibility for Others and the Discourse of Rights

Michael L. Morgan Indiana University Press ePub

As I have shown, one of the roles played by the quasi-transcendental or structural relationship that Levinas calls the face-to-face and later calls the self’s infinite responsibility to and for each and every other person is the role of the ground of social and political critique. That is, societies, institutions, political policies, and legal systems can (and should) all be judged in terms of how adequately or how inadequately they promote and permit this responsibility (generosity toward and care) for others. Moreover, since infinite responsibility is characteristic of all human social relationships and relations and since “substitution” is the core of our selfhood, critique can be understood to be the evaluation of all of our experience in terms of what is fundamental and normatively salient about the human condition itself. Critique is about being true to oneself. In the language of Foucault, care for the other and care of oneself go hand in hand.1

Levinas emphasizes throughout his career that for him subjectivity is characterized by its initial and primary passivity, and our social relationships are grounded in heteronomy or an other-determined asymmetry. All of this is intended to distinguish Levinas’s understanding of our existence from those like Descartes to Kant, Fichte, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and beyond, on the one hand, and others such as Spinoza, Hegel, Foucault, and the French structuralists, on the other. This is one way of setting out the background for Levinas’s very unusual approach to ethics, morality, and politics. Another would be to contrast him with any form of materialism or naturalism, in which human agency is interpreted as a complex form of natural responsiveness to physical and basically causal conditions. In any case, the result of Levinas’s conviction that his conception of selfhood or agency is distinctive as normative and founded on an external demand is that his conception of how our lives are socially and politically organized must differ as well. And this difference will have implications for the precise way in which his ethical critique of politics will be realized.

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7 Teaching Prophetic Politics: Ethics and Politics in Levinas’s Talmudic Lessons

Michael L. Morgan Indiana University Press ePub

Levinas’s published writings include books, collections of essays and articles, interviews, and Talmudic lessons. Generally speaking, the best places to look for Levinas’s comments on concrete and particular situations in which ethics and politics encounter one another are his many published interviews and his twenty-four published Talmudic lessons.1 In the interviews Levinas speaks directly to an interviewer and responds to his or her questions; the informality of the setting often elicits from him examples, illustrations, and textual references and comments that are very helpful for understanding the themes of his thinking. In the Talmudic lessons Levinas selected texts to discuss that were chosen precisely because they expressed themes that Levinas associated with the announced topic of the colloquium for that given year. Often—although not always—in the course of the lesson, he refers to contemporary events or widely publicized incidents that contributed to the choice of that year’s topic. Also, the texts themselves typically include stories or legal discussions concerning particular types of conduct. Hence, both the setting for these lessons and their Talmudic focus move Levinas to make comments that, relative to the bulk of his writings, are quite concrete and particular.

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3 The Third Party: Transcendental Ethics and Realistic Politics

Michael L. Morgan Indiana University Press ePub

Suppose we take the human condition primarily to involve the self or subject, on the one hand, and the world, on the other. The philosophical project of articulating the structure of human experience would be the characterization of all the ways in which self and world are related and interrelated. If so, then there are surely going to be relations that account for the way the self is related to nonhuman constituents of the world—from sense perception, observation and analysis, belief, and knowledge to desire, various modes of appetite and aversion, and so forth. And there will also be a host of relations such as the physical ones (e.g., the subject is far from the object, near the object, to the left or right of it) and social and economic ones (e.g., the subject is the owner of the object, is the occupant of the object, is using the object, has just paid for the object). With regard to human beings in the world, too, there will be a complex set of relations and relationships—momentary or briefly continuing relations, such as the subject’s being angry with another subject, and ongoing relationships, such as the subject’s being the father or mother of the other subject or the teacher of the subject. Let us take Levinas to be aware of all of this and to include it within the broad domain of human experience, which he would take Heidegger to have called the being of Dasein, and we might call the domain of ordinary, everyday human existence. Levinas’s distinctive claim is that an account of all of these aspects or dimensions of human relatedness to the world is by and large what we think of as our existence as natural beings, but it is incomplete and inadequate to characterize the totality of human experience. Something significant is here omitted, and it is what broadly we might call, after Wilfrid Sellars, the “space of reasons” or what we might refer to as the dimension of evaluative normativity, especially moral normativity. In Otherwise Than Being, with special reference to language, Levinas calls the former aspects of our natural existence “the Said,” and he calls the dimension or aspect that brings with it or introduces into human existence this evaluative normativity and especially moral normativity “the Saying.” The latter, of course, is the descendant of the face-to-face of Levinas’s earlier writings, and it is what he has called the relation with “transcendence” and “enigma” and the relation with the infinite, the face, and so much else.1

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6 Liberalism and Democracy

Michael L. Morgan Indiana University Press ePub

When Levinas was a child, his family had to leave their home in Kovno, Lithuania, during the First World War, and after their return, he lived under the young Soviet government until he left for Strasbourg in 1924. In France he came into contact with a generation of philosophers whose political views had been shaped in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair, and he adopted in his own way the ideals of the French Revolution as they were recovered during that period. In the 1930s he was brought face-to-face with fascism and totalitarianism and the question of where philosophy stood in the encounter between Hitler’s fascism and Enlightenment liberalism. In the 1930s, he experienced the impotence of liberalism in the struggle with the forces of fascism, and yet by the 1970s and ’80s he appears to have changed his mind about liberalism and come to endorse the virtues of democracy. He experienced the struggles of French parliamentary democracy after the war and the turmoil of the 1960s, particularly 1968, and while he lived to see the fragmentation of the Soviet empire, it is clear that the horrors of Stalinism had already alienated him from any sympathy with Cold War communism. He had an ongoing dislike for American capitalism. To be sure, throughout his career, he had a complicated relationship with Marxism, at the same time appreciating its strengths and its weaknesses, and he showed strong signs of favoring some form of socialism or at least a welfare state of some kind. One of the perspectives one might take on Levinas’s ethical critique of the political is to place it in the context of his views about these various types of political system and political doctrine, and in this chapter I want to begin to provide such an account.

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1 Tears the Civil Servant Cannot See: Ethics and Politics

Michael L. Morgan Indiana University Press ePub

How does Emmanuel Levinas understand the relationship between the domain of responsibility or the ethical, on the one hand, and the domain of justice or the political, on the other? Broadly speaking, many commentators have argued that Levinas has a story to tell about this relationship that is informative, serious, and compelling; critics, however, claim that whatever Levinas has to say about the matter is unclear and unhelpful. It betrays a weakness in Levinas’s thinking and its implausibility or its irrelevance or both.

In his paper “The Possibility of an Ethical Politics: From Peace to Liturgy,” John Drabinski begins his account by noticing that at least some criticism of Levinas is leveled against the primacy of the biblical tradition and his Hebraism. This is tantamount to claiming that what prevents Levinas from developing his political thought is a one-sided attention to the primacy of the ethical for our lives and too great a dependence on the Bible, religion, and Judaism. Drabinski identifies Gillian Rose as one among several critics of this kind, and he notices too a host of passages in Levinas’s own writings that seem to take the face-to-face and responsibility as a disturbance of the political and as opposed to it.1 But, at the same time, Drabinski is surely right to point out that this criticism fails to take seriously Levinas’s frequent claims that Europe is both “the Bible and the Greeks,” ethics and politics. Any one-sided reading of Levinas that leads to anarchism or asceticism is surely mistaken.2 What Drabinski stakes out is a position between dismissing the political as secondary or derivative and privileging the political at the same level as the ethical. As he puts it, the singularity of the face and the universality of law open up a gap between the two; politics is necessary and yet opposes the ethical. The face signifies without context; the face as citizen is the political, which contextualizes the face.3

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