, Volume 35, Issue 1, pp 1-34

The ontology and temporality of conscience

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Philosophers have often posited a foundational calling voice, such that hearing its call constitutes subjects as responsive and responsible negotiators of normative claims. I give the name ldquo;transcendental conscience” to that which speaks in this founding, constitutive voice. The role of transcendental conscience is not – or not merely – to normatively bind the subject, but to constitute the possibility of the subject's being bound by any particular, contentful normative claims in the first place. I explore the ontological and temporal status of transcendental conscience, using Heidegger's account of conscience in Being and Time as my textual touchstone. I ask what performative structure the call of conscience might have that would enable it to constitute normative responsiveness, and I raise some temporal conundrums surrounding this structure. I argue that it is incoherent to attempt to give a literal, chronological account of the origin of normative grip and response. I suggest that we can best understand the founding calls of conscience, not as literal events occurring in regular time, but as events that can only show up retrospectively, as occurring in an ever-receding, unlocalizable past, and that these calls can only be figured mythically and metaphorically. Appropriating a Derridean term, I claim that the voice of transcendental conscience must be that of a lsquo;ghost,’ whose call binds us by haunting us – a haunting that is no less transcendentally necessary for its inability to be translated into a literal historical event.