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Emmanuel Levinas: Reimagining Subjectivity and Ethics

Lecturer: Tiffany Plotzza

Originally Taught: Summer School 2021

With neoliberal ideology pervading the western collective consciousness, ‘human nature’ is routinely described as fundamentally egotistical. In line with this, our moral obligations to others are regularly viewed as a problem, and this is highlighted in the language of moral philosophy as the ‘problem’ of moral obligation. When we understand the human subject to be defined by an individualistic and selfish nature other people are viewed primarily as a constraint to individual freedom, and ethics becomes the task of securing the subject’s rights and interests. This approach to moral obligation dominates western moral philosophy, and when we consider the moral crisis that encapsulates this cultural moment - the global refugee impasse, apathy to the climate emergency, the rise of demagogues, insipid and structural violence against women, people of colour, and other minorities, unconversable tribalism, the widening gap between the rich and the poor - perhaps a rethinking of subjectivity is needed to enact a fresh approach to ethics. The thought of Emmanuel Levinas challenges our established ways of conceiving of subjectivity and ethics in a manner that is uncommon to traditional western moral philosophy. A contemporary of Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Levinas is often overlooked or dismissed as a ‘religious thinker’ or as a ‘moral idealist.’

This course will present Levinas’s conception of subjectivity as other constituted, and his account of ethics defined by the relation with the human other, as a means of reimagining our understanding of subjectivity and our approach to ethics. We will begin by analysing Levinas’s phenomenological descriptions of subjectivity in his two major works – Totality and Infinity and Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence – before examining the implications this has for the way we understand and address both subjectivity and the ‘problem’ of moral obligation in moral philosophy, and for how these are considered in the wider public consciousness. Finally, we will see if Levinas’s phenomenology of the subject and ethics can be practically applied to current moral dilemmas. 

The aim of the course is to not only employ Levinas’s phenomenology as a means of rethinking our common understandings of subjectivity and ethics, but to challenge the generic picture of Levinas as simply the philosopher of ‘the other’.

Lecture One: ‘A Defense of Subjectivity’

In this first lecture we briefly examine key concepts in Levinas’s first major work - Totality and Infinity - with an overview of the questions raised by its preface, before forming an understanding of Levinas’s conception of the nature of subjectivity through a close analysis of section II. Although this section is often skipped over in favour of section III and Levinas’s phenomenological account of the ‘face’, we will come to see that is it only through a careful examination of section II that we can understand Levinas’s conception of the ‘face’, or relation with the transcendent human other, introduced at the beginning of the text. The aim of this lecture is to apprehend the significance of egoism in Levinas’s phenomenology of the subject, which is often lost in the standard description of his ethics of the ‘face’.

Essential Reading:

  • Levinas, Emmanuel 1969, “Preface”, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. A Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, pp. 21-30.
  • Levinas, Emmanuel 1969, “Section II: A. Separation as Life”, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. A Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, pp. 109-121.
  •  Levinas, Emmanuel 1969, “Section II: B. Enjoyment and Representation”, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. A Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, pp. 122-142.
  • Levinas, Emmanuel 1969, “Section II: C. I and Dependence”, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. A Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, pp. 143- 151.
  • Levinas, Emmanuel 1969, “Section II: D. The Dwelling”, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. A Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, pp. 152-174.

Recommended Reading:

  • Levinas, Emmanuel 1969, “Section II: E. The World of Phenomena and Expression”, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. A Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, pp. 175-182.
  • Bernasconi, Robert 1989, “Rereading Totality and Infinity”, in C Katz with L Trout (eds.) Emmanuel Levinas: Critical Assessments of Leading Philosophers Vol. I, Routledge, London, pp. 32-44.
  • Critchley, Simon 2002, “Introduction”, in S Critchley and R Bernasconi (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Levinas, Cambridge University Press, New York, pp. 1-32.
  • Davis, Colin 1996, “Chapter 2: Same and Other: Totality and Infinity”, Levinas: An Introduction, University of Notre Dame Press, Indiana, pp. 34-62. 

Lecture Two: ‘I am you, when I am I’

With the conception of subjectivity presented in Totality and Infinity in mind, we will perform a close analysis of Levinas’s descriptions of the nature of the subject in chapter 4 of Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence. In this chapter entitled Substitution, we are presented with a somewhat different depiction of the concept described in the earlier text. Reading through this chapter we will see how this later description of subjectivity is a continuation of Levinas’s phenomenology of the subject described in Totality and Infinity. The difference in style between the two texts means that the connection between them is often oversimplified, when in fact reading them together gives us the full picture of Levinas’s conception of subjectivity. 

Essential Reading:

  • Levinas, Emmanuel 1998, “Chapter IV: Substitution, 3. The Self”, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. A Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, pp. 109-113.
  • Levinas, Emmanuel 1998, “Chapter IV: Substitution, 4. Substitution”, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. A Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, pp. 113-118.
  • Levinas, Emmanuel 1998, “Chapter IV: Substitution, 6. “Finite Freedom””, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. A Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, pp. 121-129.

Recommended Reading:

  • Levinas, Emmanuel 1998, “Chapter III: Sensibility and Proximity, 3. Sensibility and Psyche”, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. A Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, pp. 68-72.
  • Levinas, Emmanuel 1998, “Chapter III: Sensibility and Proximity, 4. Enjoyment”, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. A Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, pp. 72-74.
  • Levinas, Emmanuel 1998, “Chapter III: Sensibility and Proximity, 5. Vulnerability and Contact”, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. A Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, pp. 75-81.
  • Davis, Colin 1996, “Chapter 3: Ethical Language: Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence”, Levinas: An Introduction, University of Notre Dame Press, Indiana, pp. 63-92.
  • Edelglass, W 2006, “Levinas on Suffering and Compassion”, Sophia, vol. 45, no. 2, pp. 43-59.
  • Bernasconi, Robert 2002, “What is the Question to Which Substitution is the Answer?”, in S Critchley and R Bernasconi (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Levinas, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 234-251.

Lecture Three: “You Shall Not Commit Murder” or the Ethics of the Face  

In this third lecture, we will examine what Levinas’s conception of subjectivity means for ethics. With his account of the other-constituted subject firmly established, we can proceed with how this conception provokes a novel approach to the problem of moral obligation. To understand what makes Levinas’s approach novel, we’ll briefly consider how the problem has been framed in the history of modern moral philosophy, and the how the connections between subjectivity and moral obligation have been traditionally understood. Against this background, we’ll closely analyse section III of Totality and Infinity to determine the nature of Levinas’s much discussed but often misunderstood ‘face-to-face’ or ethical relation, and how it operates. We will read beyond Levinas’s beautiful, yet often hyperbolic and confusing language, to clarify key phrases like the ‘alterity of the other’, ‘the face’ and ‘the epiphany’ or command of the face – “you shall not commit murder. The main aim is to disentangle Levinas’s evocative philosophical lexicon, rather than simply repeating it, to provide a clear picture of Levinas’s phenomenology of ethics.

Essential Reading:

  • Levinas, Emmanuel 1969, “Section III: B. Ethics and the Face”, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. A Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, pp. 194-209.
  • Levinas, Emmanuel 1969, “Section I: A. Metaphysics and Transcendence”, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. A Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, pp. 33-52.

Recommended Reading:

  • Levinas, Emmanuel 1969, “Section III: A. Sensibility and The Face”, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. A Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, pp. 187-193.
  • Shaw, Joshua James 2008, Emmanuel Levinas on the Priority of Ethics, Cambria Press, New York, pp. 37-52.
  • Morgan, Michael L 2011, The Cambridge Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 41-58.

Lecture Four: The Ethical Content of the Face… and the Trace

Continuing on from the previous discussion, we’ll delve deeper into the operation of the ethical relation, attending to some significant questions raised by the analysis undertaken in the last lecture. We’ll examine ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ interpretations of the ethical relation, and determine if the introduction of the notion of the trace in Otherwise Than Being means that the ethical relation must be devoid of ethical content. Furthermore, we’ll consider if the introduction of the trace means that the ethical relation cannot be read as a non-traditional foundation for ethics. To do so, we’ll perform a close analysis of the sections of Otherwise Than Being that attend to the concept of the trace and ‘the Saying and the Said.’ We will also examine the argument raised by prominent Levinasian scholar Diane Perpich that the ethical relation having the structure of the trace means that it cannot contain any ethical content that can tell the subject what she ought to do. The primary of goal of this lecture is to determine the ‘status’ of the ethical relation, and if it has any means of directing the subject to what she ought to do when confronted with an ethical dilemma. Introducing and analysing Levinas’s conception of discourse will provide us with a way of determining the latter.  

Essential Reading:

  • Levinas, Emmanuel 1998, “Chapter 1: Essence and Disinterest”, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. A Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, pp. 3-20.
  • Levinas, Emmanuel 1998, “C. The Said and the Saying”, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. A Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, pp. 37-38.
  • Levinas, Emmanuel 1998, “E. Proximity and Infinity”, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. A Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, pp. 93-94.

Recommended Reading:

  • Levinas, Emmanuel 1986, “The Trace of the Other”, in MC Taylor (ed.) Deconstruction in Context: Literature and Philosophy, trans. Alphonso Lingis, University of Chicago Press, Illinois, pp. 345-359.
  • Perpich, Diane 2008, “Chapter 4: Ethics: Normativity and Norms”, The Ethics of Emmanuel Levinas, Stanford University Press, Stanford, pp. 124-149.   
  • Chanter, Tina 1997, “The Betrayal of Philosophy: Emmanuel Levinas’s Otherwise Than Being”, Philosophy & Social Criticism, vol. 23, no. 6, pp. 65–79.
  • Robbins, J 1995, ‘Tracing Responsibility in Levinas’s Ethical Thought’, in AT Peperzak, (ed.), Ethics as First Philosophy: The Significance of Emmanuel Levinas for Philosophy, Literature and Religion, Routledge, New York, pp. 173-184.

Lecture Five: Moral Revolutionary or ‘Mere Nuisance’ – Levinas and Applied Ethics

In this final lecture we will attend to a common objection raised against Levinas’s ethical framework – that it can have no practical bearing on our everyday lives. For context, we will begin by briefly considering the different variations of this objection, which includes a survey of Levinas’s description of the relation between ‘ethics’ and ‘politics’ through his conception of the ‘third party’. Against this background we will determine if and how the ethical relation can direct action, examining key concepts in Levinas’s phenomenological picture - discourse and teaching. With an understanding of these concepts along with other significant features of Levinas’s framework covered in the previous lectures, like the ethical relation and other-constituted subjectivity, we will test their application to practical political and ethical issues like harmful practices in the workplace and the current impasse in the #MeToo debate. Engaging in these test cases will provide an overview of the reading of Levinas’s phenomenology of subject and ethics developed in the previous lectures, and allow us to assess his contribution to traditional moral philosophy.

Essential Reading:

  • Levinas, Emmanuel 1969, “Section III: B. Ethics and the Face, 6. The Other and the Others”, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. A Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, pp. 212-214.
  • Levinas, Emmanuel 1998, “Chapter V: 3. From Saying to the Said, or the Wisdom of Desire”, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. A Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, pp. 153-162.
  • Levinas, Emmanuel 1969, “Section I: 5. Discourse and Ethics”, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. A Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, pp. 72-77.
  • Levinas, Emmanuel 1998, “Chapter IV: 5. Communication”, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. A Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, pp. 118-121.

Recommended Reading:

  • Levinas, Emmanuel 1969, “Section I: 5. Transcendence as the Idea of Infinity”, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. A Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, pp. 48-52.
  • Bernasconi, Robert 1999, “The Third Party. Levinas on the Intersection of the Ethical and the Political”, Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, vol. 30, no.1, pp. 76-87.
  • Herzog, A 2002, ‘Is Liberalism "All We Need?: Lévinas's Politics of Surplus’, Political Theory, vol. 30, no. 2, pp. 204-227.
  • Morgan, Michael L 2016, “Chapter Five: Responsibility for Others and the Discourse of Rights”, Levinas’s Ethical Politics, Indiana University Press, Indiana, pp. 90-124.