Intersubjectivity, Responsibility, and Reason: Levinas and the "New Husserl"

By Stephen | Philosophy Today, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Intersubjectivity, Responsibility, and Reason: Levinas and the "New Husserl"


Stephen, Philosophy Today


Levinas scholars frequently seem unable to read Husserl in a charitable manner, regarding his work as merely a foil for Levinas's project, merely an example of Western philosophy's bad habits. So, for example, Husserl is accused of thinking that "the relationship with the object takes place within the subject" and of "presupposing] a merely intellectual attitude ... [neglecting] the rich variety of intentional life-emotional and practical as well as theoretical-through which we relate to things, persons and the world."1 Such readings not only raise the hackles of Husserl scholars, and rightly so, but also flatly contradict Levinas's own interpretation of Husserl inasmuch as, for example, Levinas himself actually defends Husserl against both these accusations.2 The failure among Levinas scholars to take Husserl's work seriously belies not only Levinas's own regard for Husserl's work-work that he found sufficiently inspiring to return to and engage time and again over a span of more than fifty years-but, in explaining Levinas's project by contrast to a straw man, also deprives us of resources for clarifying some important differences between the two thinkers. If we are to adequately comprehend these differences, we must attend more closely to their common ground.

In recent years, light has been shed on some of this common ground by the new interpretations of some of Husserl's central concepts and analyses that have been made possible by the ongoing publication of Husserl's research manuscripts and lectures. Because this reinterpretation provides an alternative to the standard ("old") reading of Husserl, it has been referred to as presenting the "new Husserl."3 Of particular interest for the interaction between the philosophies of Husserl and Levinas, this new interpretation has reconceptualized the nature and significance of intersubjectivity in Husserl's phenomenology. This new interpretation reveals a Husserl whose understanding of intersubjectivity was much closer to Levinas's than is usually noticed.4

Husserl's Intersubjective Transformation of Transcendental Phenomenology

In his later writings, Husserl seems, in places, to concede Levinas's persistent concern that cognition reduces what is other to the same by neutralizing the transcendence of foreign beings. Husserl acknowledges that the investigation of perceptual objects aims at "cognitive appropriation" in which "their being, their truth becomes my own" or "belongs to me as mine."5 Recognizing the neutralization of transcendence this appropriation effects, Husserl admits that the "transcendence of the perceivable thing ... is, so we may say, itself only a form of immanence."6 If we were to couple this admission with Husserl's claim from Ideas I that "[the] concept of the transcendence of something physical... is the measure of the rationality of any statements about transcendence,"7 Husserl would be guilty of the reduction of the other to the same, about which Levinas is so concerned. Physical objects would be the paradigm case of transcendence and cognition would neutralize this transcendence through appropriation. However, to make the case in this way would be to miss the development the notion of transcendence undergoes in Husserl's work. For, in his later work, it is no longer physical objects that are the paradigm case of transcendence, but other subjects. He writes: "Here we have the only transcendence which is really worth its name, and anything else that is also called transcendent, as the objective world, depends upon the transcendence of foreign subjectivity."18

The transcendence of foreign subjects, that is, others, is indicated by the fact that foreign subjects as such are inaccessible in principle. For were I to have access to the consciousness of another subject in the way in which I have access to my own, then the other's consciousness would be in principle indistinguishable from my own. The irreducible transcendence of others is thus affirmed by Husserl's repeated insistence that others are never given as such. …

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