On the Coherence of
Hermeneutics and Ethics
An Essay on Gadamer and Levinas
GERALD L. BRUNS
Does not philosophy consist in treating mad ideas with wisdom? EMMANUEL LEVINAS
My purpose in what follows is to take up the relation of hermeneutics and ethics as it emerges in a post-Heideggerian philosophical context. In terms of proper names this means giving an account of the conceptual symmetries and differences between Gadamer's philosophical hermeneutics and Emmanuel Levinas's ethical theory, which is sometimes called an ethics of alterity or of responsibility, in order to contrast it with subject-centered theories that emphasize thinking and acting in accord with rules, principles, duties, codes, beliefs, teachings, communities, theories of the right and the good, and so on, where to be in accord with such things, however we figure them, is what justifies us, or anyhow puts us above reproach. Levinasian ethics is concerned with the claims other people have on us in advance of how right we are with respect to rules and beliefs or how in tune we are with a just and rational order of things. For Levinas, ethics is not possible from a starting point of self-interest. 1
Being under claims of history and tradition rather than claims of concepts and rules is central to Gadamer's thinking, which is critical of subjectivist accounts of human understanding in ways that coincide with Levinas's project. As Gadamer puts it, understanding is so permeated by “the historicity of existence” that it is “not suitably conceived as a consciousness of something” (GW3:18/PH125). Better to say: understanding something comes from dwelling with it. Likewise Levinas: “Humanity … must not be first understood as consciousness” (AE132/OTB83). Consciousness is always separate from its objects, impervious and indifferent to them (which is all that objectivity means). “What affects a consciousness, ” Levinas says,
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Publication information: Book title: Gadamer's Repercussions: Reconsidering Philosophical Hermeneutics. Contributors: Bruce Krajewski - Editor. Publisher: University of California Press. Place of publication: Berkeley, CA. Publication year: 2004. Page number: 30.
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