Emmanuel Levinas: Philosophy in the Face of the Other
If Emmanuel Levinas had a single credo, it was this: “Ethics as First Philosophy”! For Levinas, what’s essential about human beings—beyond our rational and practical capacities—is the fact that we find ourselves infinitely responsible in the face of the “Other.” The root of ethics is to be found in the immediate face-to-face encounter with those to whom we find ourselves responsible, prior to any reflection on or consideration of our interests or duties. Giving priority to ethics over both epistemology, on the one hand, and ontology, on the other, Levinas developed a phenomenology of intersubjective responsibility and a theory of justice based not on disinterested equity, but on the commands and summons felt in the “event of meeting the face of the Other.” But, why do we—and why should we—feel so commanded? How do we know, as Levinas himself asked, that we aren’t “duped by morality”? What are the meaning and implications—for questions of morality, epistemology, subjectivity, and even theology—of treating ethics as “First Philosophy”?
In this course, we will explore Levinas’s philosophy primarily through a close reading of his magnum opus, Totality and Infinity, with some consideration of his later work Otherwise than Being. We will examine the key concepts in Levinas’s philosophical vocabulary, including the Other, infinity, thou, ontology, and subjectivity—all the while situating Levinas’s phenomenological ethics alongside earlier phenomenologists like Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl and ethical thinkers such as Immanuel Kant. We will ask: How is our responsibility to others grounded in the “face-to-face” encounter with the “Other”—and why is it “infinite”? Why is the Other unknowable, and what does this mean for our understanding of not only ethics, but also human knowledge and truth? How is our very subjectivity formed in the encounter with the Other? And finally, what would it mean to live Levinas’s ethics of the Other—politically, socially, and interpersonally?
Course ScheduleThursday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
March 09 — March 30, 2023