Ethics as First Philosophy and the Other's Ambiguity in the Dialogue of Buber and Levinas

By Kaplan, Gregory | Philosophy Today, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Ethics as First Philosophy and the Other's Ambiguity in the Dialogue of Buber and Levinas


Kaplan, Gregory, Philosophy Today


On Emmanuel Levinas' instructive readings, Martin Buber's writings sketch the ambiguity of the other whose approach presses for an ethics as first philosophy. They concur that the other, approaching on the horizon of a world I experience, amidst the objects I use, breaks through the world's horizon with a differential force that alters the same. Yet Levinas writes of Buber that although his thought "prompted me to engage in a phenomenology of sociality" which uncovers in the face of a given other an infinite command to "answer for its life," this logic demonstrates "where all ambiguity of the relation to the other lies."1 Simply put, the "alter" denotes at once a finite difference and the infinitely differentiated, an interruption of the self and a reconfiguration of the same. Due to such ambiguity a call of ethics induces the work of philosophy, or so, I show, runs a theme Buber and Levinas purport to adopt from Jewish tradition and adapt to European thought.

I contend that Levinas plumbs a Buberian line at the crux of the other who gives the self its responsibility, as though an ethically Jewish difference would incite a philosophically Greek, or, modern identity. More, the other breaking apart the identity of the same signifies an irreducible distance from the self that in turn elicits a mediated reconnection in the network of signified relations with many others who cannot be experienced or used but only answered and supplicated. So an ethics as first philosophy that proceeds from a finite other and its infinite otherness ambivalently implies the interruption of sameness and the instigation of selfhood, a situation evident in how it seems Jewish religion opposes but needs a Greek, or modern, wisdom. Not surprisingly, decades of references and allusions to Buber in Levinas' Jewish and Greek writings often achieve a distance from Buber's theses only to relate to them closely elsewhere. I suspect the contortions are less likely to result from Levinas' incautiousness, or Buber's inconsistencies, than the very ethics of alterity for which the other at once destroys and deploys the identity of a first philosophy.

The ambiguity appears in Buber's 1923 opus / and Thou which begins with a self who may adopt "two stances towards the [same] world"-I-It, "subject-object relation" and IThou, "interpersonal relation"-and reaches a conclusion of these stances' supposed reunification in another other, the "Eternal Thou." In Buberian terms the question is how the other, in breaking apart the unified subject-object relation, bears not just any meaning, a negativity broaching nihilism, but the command to bear an ethical responsibility for it or, rather, Thou, indeed, Thou who makes It possible, i.e. God.2 Buber, fretting over a distance separating selves, what he calls Vergegnung or mismeeting, treats it as a lack which gets filled by the fullness of "meeting" (Begegnung)', Levinas worries that relations filled as plenitude with content-full items of experience and use ("totality"), could absorb the distinction of separation ("infinity"), so he looks to an absence which exposes but does not remedy the self's lacking connection. For each author, one's self immersed in essence, interest, commerce, and war would aspire to cross over, transcend with the other into responsibility, glory, substitution, and peace. How, then, may one move "beyond essence" while remaining nevertheless "essential"?

Where the history of philosophy brims over with efforts to reconcile a contradiction, Levinas, following Buber, suggests one's "passing over to being's otherwise... does not resist [one's] interest" but ironically works through it. They claim a finite, relative differentiation of one from another (Levinas' "autrui," Buber's "thou") makes concrete the infinite, absolute difference of sameness from otherness (Levinas' "the most high," Buber's "eternal thou"). As to Levinas "the other is not reducible to the same" but commands it, so to Buber "the Eternal Thou can never become it" but conditions it. …

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