Sunday, February 05, 2006

Guilty Before the Other

Here's a nice article that describes the intellectual relationships between Heidegger, Sartre and Levinas. Best of all, it lays out what Levinas was arguing much better than I did.

For Levinas, ethics derives from the claims of the Other, or l'Autrui. The centerpiece of his mature thought is the idea of the "face of the Other." In Levinas's view the face of the Other confronts us with an "infinite" moral claim, one that is anterior to all theoretical or intellectual judgments. He uses a series of dramatic metaphors--he frequently speaks of the Other's "nakedness" and "destitution"--to drive home the point that he or she stands totally at our mercy. To dramatize that our debt to the Other is essentially unsatisfiable, Levinas frequently cites an unsettling maxim from The Brothers Karamazov: "Each of us is guilty before the other for everything, and I more than any." Since, given our intrinsic limitations as finite beings, we can never entirely satisfy the Other's claims, at issue is a relationship of "infinity," or "transcendence." Theoretical reason, conversely, aims at a type of totalizing comprehension, or "closure," that Levinas belittles as "totality." It is incurably egocentric and proceeds by reducing the Other to Sameness--in Levinas's idiom, "ipseity." Thus the animating opposition of his 1961 masterwork: "Totality" versus "Infinity."

The article also gets at the questions that Heidegger's repellent Nazism forced on his intellectual heirs, as well as hinting at some of the problems I have with "poststructuralism". One of my major problems with Foucault is that he doesn't allow room for any sort of non-alienated social interactions, and so, even if we buy his critique of Enlightenment modernity (which I really don't), there's nothing we can possibly do about it. Human activities are corrupting as such. The article explains this better though:

By the 1980s the structuralist wave had fallen upon hard times. The structuralists and their "poststructural" philosophical heirs, Foucault and Derrida, had wagered everything on a withering critique of "humanism," by which they meant any theory that placed "man" at its center. In The Order of Things Foucault famously prophesied that "man" would soon be effaced like a drawing in the sand at the edge of the sea. The clear implication was that in the aftermath of man's disappearance, we would be much better off. Yet during the 1970s and '80s French intellectuals, disillusioned with communism and beguiled by Eastern European dissidence, had rediscovered "human rights." At this point it became impossible to square the circle: One could not pose as a detractor of "humanism" and simultaneously sing the praises of "the rights of man."

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