Tag Archives: Jewish ethics

Lingis on 6 Problems in Levinas

There is a new issue of the journal PhaenEx: Journal of Existential and Phenomenological Theory and Culture.  It’s a free online journal that’s been around for roughly six years, with two issues per year.  I highly recommend checking it out.  The current issue has an article by Alphonso Lingis, “Six Problems in Levinas’s Philosophy.”  I’ll give a tiny overview here.

The first problem is Levinas’s constitutive phenomenology, which Lingis claims is too idealist (i.e., “The sense of things is constituted by the subject that appropriates them”).  In contrast, Lingis promotes a more realist vision:

Our existence as conscious organisms appears to us to depend on the prior and independent existence of the earth and its geological composition, climate, and ecosystems. A sequoia, an Oryx, a starfish appear to exist with their own internal and external forms prior to and independent of my consciousness of them. We see that other species perceive what we perceive, that our sensibility and perception are similar to the sensibility and perception of other species, who perceive the things of their environments as exterior, independent of them, and as real as they are.

The second problem is that, for Levinas, recognizing the demands of the Other happens by recognizing the Other’s “vulnerability and mortality” instead recognizing “the positive plentitude of an organism.” 

When someone faces us, we see someone in whom nature has achieved something: we see hale and hearty physical heath and vigor, vibrant sensibility, beauty. We see someone who has done something with his or her life, protected and nourished, built, repaired, restored, rescued. We see someone who has cared for a sick relative, maintained a farm, been a devoted teacher, is a loyal friend. We see someone who has not achieved anything materially, but who knows that he or she is a good person, steadfast, open-minded, with a good head and a good heart, has dared to break the rules and make mistakes, has a sense of his or her worth. We see facing us someone who has suffered the worst oppressions of the social system and the worst destructions wrought by disease or nature and who has been able to endure suffering and awaits death with lucidity and courage. We see someone who has the vitality to laugh over absurdities and his or her own failures, has the strength to weep over the loss of a lover and over the death of a child in another land.

The third problem has to do with the unendingness or infinition of human needs and wants.  “Levinas had acknowledged that the needs of a living organism are finite; they end in terrestrial goods and nourishments.”  But Levinas thought humans were different from other species, such that humans have a relationship of perpetual dependency on me (the ethical subject).  Lingis disagrees, “we think that a human organism, like that of other species, is a locus of production of excess energies. Human needs and wants are intermittent and superficial (not the core reality), and satisfiable.”

The fourth problem is Levinas’s appeal to God as the alterity constitutive of the otherness of every Other.  A practical response to the Other enlists determinate resources in me and my environment, but Lingis claims that, with Levinas’s God, the demand that the Other puts on me “loses its location in the midst of the common world and its determinateness.”

The fifth problem is that Levinas considers his ethics of responding to alterity is primarily Jewish.  However, anthropological research suggests that it pervades every human community…and it’s not limited to humans.

Indeed practical response to the needs of others of one’s species is widespread across nature. Spiders, birds, and mammals risk their own lives to protect their young from predators. Bees, penguins, vultures, and antelopes share food found with others of their species. Numerous cases of individuals giving sustenance and assistance to members of other species have been documented.

The sixth problem is the political implications of Levinas’s ethics.  Lingis is concerned that, when in power, proponents of an “unrealizable ethics of absolute responsibility” end up producing “irresponsible and disproportionate state violence, and the ethics of absolute responsibility functions as ideology.”

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