“Living with Philosophy.” In Praise of Speaking: Philosophical Conversations Inspired by Adriaan Peperzak. Edited by Catriona Hanely. Baltimore, MD: Apprentice House, 2017.
Overview: Published proceedings from symposium given in honor of Adriaan Peperzak.
"A Critical Analysis of Levinas’s Account of the Face and its Contribution to Ethics"
Abstract: Levinas scholars have recently begun to examine the implications of his descriptions of the face and ethical responsibility for normative ethics. For Levinas, the face refers to the way or manner in which I encounter another human being, or Other, as a person for whom I am responsible. What is distinctive about his account of the face, but also problematic, is his claim that the face is fundamentally incomprehensible. By “incomprehensible” Levinas means that the face is not given as an object of perception and, as such, not open to comprehension. In this paper, I will argue that the incomprehensibility of the face can be understood and defended in light of the role of human embodiment and vulnerability in Levinas’s philosophy. I will begin by providing a general overview of Levinas’s account of the face (Section 1). I will then examine attempts to interpret the faces incomprehensibility as a descriptive account of how it is that we immediately encounter the Other as possessing what is often referred to as “humanity” or “personhood,” both of which designate a being with the authority to obligate us (Section 2). While I agree that this is Levinas’s intent, I will argue that this of itself does not justify the incomprehensibility thesis without further argument. What I will show is that the key to understanding the face’s incomprehensibility entails identifying how the perception of the Other as an embodied and vulnerable subject holds open two mutually exclusive possibilities of encountering the Other; that of relating to the Other in terms of fear and violence but also in terms of care and responsibility (Section 3). I will ultimately interpret the face’s incomprehensibility in terms of how the latter possibility is lived as rejecting the former possibility, despite both being conditioned by the perception of the Other as an independent, embodied, vulnerable subject.
"Sensation, Self, and Value: The Beginnings of a Levinasian Inspired Ethic "
In Totality and Infinity, Levinas claims that “sensation recovers a ‘reality’ when we see in it not the subjective counterpart of objective qualities, but an enjoyment ‘anterior’ to the crystallization of consciousness, I and non-I, into subject and object” (TI 188). In this paper, I examine Levinas’s account of sensibility as enjoyment in light of contemporary debates on the objectivity of value, specifically the view that feelings correlate to the value-properties of objects. I argue that the aspect of sensation that cannot be accounted for by way of objective experience is the way we are personally implicated in the experience of value. That is, essential to the experience of value is the experience of being called or evoked as an individual. I situate the possibility of this call in the self-reflexive structure of sensation, through which I argue that value is the way we originally relate to our own activity of living on the basis of our anticipation of enjoyment. In light of its self-reflexive structure, value will be shown to serve as the base or core of the self, such that we cannot conceive of the self independently from the experience of value.
"The Ethical Origin of Reason and the Rationality of Ethics"
The main thesis of Levinas’s ethics is that moral obligation originates in the concrete or face-to-face relation with another person. The Other, Levinas claims, is immediately encountered as an ethical command. The second main aspect of this claim is that this ethical command itself lies outside of the bounds of reason. By placing the origin of moral obligation outside of reason, Levinas runs the risk of reducing the ethical to the irrational. However, in both Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being, he emphatically denies this, suggesting rather that the ethical encounter with the Other is the basis, or “principle,” by which we come to distinguish between the rational and the irrational. “Reason,” Levinas claims, “is the one-for-the-other!” (OB 167), meaning that our ethical responsiveness to the needs of the Other in some way motivates us to assume the perspective of reason.
In this paper, I assess two closely related arguments that Levinas puts forward in defense of this claim. The first argument centers on Levinas’s view of the primacy of practical meaning, from which he argues for the primacy of ethics (Section 1). I will call this the primacy of ethics argument (PE), which I will present as a transcendental argument. The second argument concerns showing that the ethical encounter conditions the possibility of representational experience while itself having no representational content (Section 2). I will call this the non-representational argument (NR), which is a phenomenological claim. I will argue that while the PE argument holds, the NR argument on its own does not (Section 2.4). What I will claim is called for in light of the failure of the NR argument is a nuanced phenomenological account of how we encounter the Other ethically that justifies the non-representational claim.