Ethics, Eros, or Caritas?: Levinas and Marion on Individuation of the Other

By Gschwandtner, Christina M. | Philosophy Today, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview
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Ethics, Eros, or Caritas?: Levinas and Marion on Individuation of the Other


Gschwandtner, Christina M., Philosophy Today


"It goes without saying that we owe it to Emmanuel Levinas to have ingeniously reconfigured phenomenology so as to let it finally reach the Other as saturated phenomenon."1 This is one of the few statements in which Jean-Luc Marion acknowledges Emmanuel Levinas's tremendous influence upon his work. Generally, Marion's debt to Levinas quite literally "goes without saying." In fact, his criticism of Levinas is usually much more explicit than any praise. Often one has the impression that Marion sees his own work as an attempt to surpass Levinas, to overcome him, to finish off and complete what has been left open or undeveloped in Levinas's work. At times Marion even makes such a move explicit, as when he cites himself as fourth in line after Husserl, Heidegger, and Levinas, each going further than the ones before him.2 One criticism is made particularly often by Marion and probably constitutes his most fundamental challenge to his teacher. Marion claims that Levinas's other is only a generic and universal other, not a unique and individuated one. Levinas cannot speak of the other as an individual because of his particular emphasis on ethics. Beyond Marion's specific criticism of Levinas's account of individuation, thus, is the claim that ethics is too confining and that one must move beyond ethics to love. True individuation of the other is possible only in eros (or charity) not in ethics.

My purpose in this essay is threefold: First, I lay out Marion's criticism of Levinas and his arguments supporting it. Second, I try to refute this criticism by showing that it involves a misreading of Levinas's project and several crucial passages of his work. Finally, I consider the further move of love that Marion wants Levinas to make and briefly wonder whether love is indeed the only (or even the best) mode for individuation of the other.

Individuation of the Other?

Marion's claim regarding the lack of individuation in Levinas is often made casually throughout his writings, as if he was merely stating a well-known fact about Levinas's work. Seldom does he take the pains to substantiate this rather startling criticism. Only in two articles does he explicate his argument in greater detail. The first was an early article written "in homage to Emmanuel Levinas," which was included in Marion's work Prolegomena to Charity as the chapter "The Intentionality of Love."3 A later article, "D'autrui à l'individu," somewhat more generous to Levinas in tone (though maybe not in content, as we will see shortly), was published as part of Marion's edition of Levinas's Positivité et Transcendance in conjunction with a conference on Levinas and phenomenology, which featured such speakers as Alain Renaut, Françoise Dastur, Jean Greisch, and Jean-Louis Chrétien.4 I will begin this section with a consideration of the earlier article in order to make explicit Marion's argument and then go on to examine the later article to show how Marion further substantiates and also qualifies his earlier statements. This exposition will be supplemented with some of the more general remarks in Marion's phenomenological work.

In "The Intentionality of Love," it is Marion's concern to develop a phenomenological description of love in which love is able to "transcend my lived experiences and my consciousness in order to reach pure alterity" (PC, 75). He overcomes what he calls "amorous autism"-the experience of loving which resides solely in me not in the other whom I love and constitutes anything other always as a mere object-by an account of Levinas's ethics, in which an invisible gaze is directed at me. I do not reach the other through my own consciousness, but rather by feeling another stream of consciousness directed against me that threatens to turn me into one of its objects: "I do not reach the other by means of the consciousness I have of him; he forces himself upon me by means of the unconsciousness to which he reduces my consciousness" (PC, 83).

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