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Emmanual Levinas: Philosopher of Radical Alterity

Lecturer: Andrea Leon

Originally Taught: Summer School 2008

One of the most innovative thinkers in the second part of the 20th century is Emmanuel Lévinas. However, his philosophical impact has not been taken quite seriously yet, it has been reduced to a certain form of ethics. Another way of reading his work, which is the one we will follow in the seminar, shows that he does not only radically change the way in which humans beings can be understood, but invents a new form of philosophical thought and language, which transforms the very same terms in which we can think. When in his terms, ethics becomes first philosophy the history of western philosophical thought is flipped over and starts anew.

The seminar is meant as an introductory approach to a very difficult work. We will follow 5 different essential concepts which, insofar as they are interwoven, will allow us a glimpse the scope of this philosophy.

After a short introduction that is focused on the philosophical and biographical background, and the way in which the work emerges, we will clarify the possible signification of the two major titles of the levinasian work: Totality and Infinity. An Essay on Exteriority and Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence. This would be a good introduction to the aims of Lévinas’ Philosophy.

Radical alterity: One of the basic concepts is the idea of the other (autre, autrui), which is embodied in the concept of the Face. What does he mean with it? Why is it metaphysics, and beyond being, and is always in the infinite? Why the face creates transcendental desire? Why the face to face is an irreducible relation? We will attempt to answer those questions.

Radical subjectivity: Contrary to what is a well trodden interpretation of Levinas as obsessed with the other, we will dwell in his fundamental conception of the Same, which is as strong and developed as the idea of alterity. What does he mean with it? As the inversion of the Cartesian cogito? As radical passivity? As hostage? As an-archy? As invested freedom?

Insurmountable Relation: what is the ethical relation, how does it originate? The asymmetry of the interpersonal and the diachronical time will be faced. We will see here why ontology is a secondary form of thought. From there we deal with the core concepts of substitution and the Third.

Saying and the Said: philosophy as trying to remain in the act of saying. From a new language that exploits the inherent limits of comprehension a new form of understanding community, pluralism and justice emerges.

Recommended Readings:
Levinas, Emmanuel, Basic Philosophical Writings, ed. Adriaan T. Peperzak, Simon Critchley and Robert Bernasconi (Indiana University Press, 1996)