Is ethics fundamental? Questioning Levinas on irresponsibility
My title echoes Levinas' 1951 “Is ontology fundamental?” – a seminal piece that paved the way for his justly famous Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being. I suggest that the characteristically enthusiastic, uncritical reception of these works may not be due primarily to their originality and sheer intellectual brilliance, but rather to something in Levinas' position that deeply resonates with the spirit of our times and our preoccupation with the fate of “the Other.” My claim, however, is that accepting a Levinassian ethics, in which the Other has priority over the self, comes at too high a price, for it implies definitions of otherness and selfhood that fail to address precisely the problems that prompted preoccupation with otherness in the first place. I suggest that our struggles with racism, sexism, cultural bias point to frictions in (inter-)subjectivity that are inappropriately ethicized when treated, ala Levinas, simply as examples of an unwillingness to open up to the Other. In Levinas' universe, it is impossible not to hear the Other's appeal, but I argue that this view ignores the existence of a dimension of selfhood that cannot be absorbed into intersubjectivity. A metaphysical loneliness is thus implied here that our age seems unwilling to bear, preferring to cover it up with an ethics that makes us always responsible – that is, in response, connected to the Other. I develop this criticism by analyzing what I call a non-privative notion of irresponsibility whose roots are neither ethical nor ontological.
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