Derrida Brings Levinas to Kant: The Welcome, Ethics, and Cosmopolitical Law

By Bankovsky, Miriam | Philosophy Today, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Derrida Brings Levinas to Kant: The Welcome, Ethics, and Cosmopolitical Law


Bankovsky, Miriam, Philosophy Today


This essay explores the nature of Derrida's longstanding interest in the relation between Levinasian ethics and Kantian moral and political philosophy. As early as 1964, in his very first work devoted to Levinas, Derrida turns his mind to this relation, expressing regret that "no systematic and patient confrontation" had yet been organized by Levinas "with Kant in particular."1 Despite this lack, Derrida wants to demarcate early Levinasian ethics as "at once profoundly faithful to Kant (for 'Respect is applied only to persons' Practical Reason) and implicitly anti-Kantian," lacking "the formal element of universality, without the pure order of the law."2 Without answering his question in this early stage, Derrida asks, on one hand, how it is that Levinasian ethics manages to escape the Kantian universal underwriting morality and politics, and, on the other hand, in what respect Levinas's particularist ethics, insofar as it is presented as a universal humanism, remains close to that of Kant's.

Focusing on Derrida's "A Word of Welcome" in Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas (1996),3 I will maintain that Derrida's analysis is motivated by a more fundamental question, namely, the nature of the relation between ethics and politics. For Derrida, where Levinasian ethics appears as unconditional hospitality, Kantian politics offers conditional hospitality within the boundaries of law. Hence, Derrida brings Levinas to Kant to explore the ethics-politics relation by asking whether, in Levinas's ethics of hospitality might be discovered "a legitimating foundation . . . able to found a law and a politics, within a society, nation, State or Nation-State,"4 that is, the kind of conditional hospitality he sees in Kant.

Derrida provides two responses. Immediately, he says "no": one cannot deduce from Levinasian ethics, a law or politics in some determined situation today. There is no relation of founding and founded between an ethics or first philosophy of hospitality and a law or politics of hospitality.5

The remainder of his essay comprises his second response. Although one cannot deduce a law or politics from ethics, there is something we can say about the passage. First, the derivation of politics or law from ethics is absolutely necessary. Ethics itself requires law. Second, the derivation is irreversible: the passage is from ethics to politics and not vice versa. Further, the derivation is conditional. If politics is obligated by Levinas's ethical relation, law should be made "on the basis of an analysis that is each time unique."6 This means that we are required to think law and politics "otherwise"7 than the way in which Kant thinks law and politics where morality and justice are equated with the universality of law. Finally, where, for Levinas, there is no universality of law in the Kantian cosmopolitical sense, there is a law that Derrida wants to say holds universally, namely, that the required law be irreversibly conditional upon the ethical relation.8

This essay will examine each of these points in detail. Section one will explain in what sense law cannot be deduced from ethics, by detailing Derrida's reading of how it is that Levinasian ethics opposes the formal deduction of Kantian politics from morality. Section two will explain what Derrida thinks we can say of the ethical-political relation, and why, in finally arguing for the universality of law's conditionally derivative nature, Derrida needs to leave Levinas who, rather than emphasizing the universality of the law's hold, provides determinate content to the ethical-political, thematizing the imperative as the particular demand of a Judaic humanism, "universal" only insofar as non-Jews affirm Jewish particularism. Following this structure, this essay will elucidate not only Derrida's answer to the question of the ethical-political via Levinas and Kant, but also his critical stance in regard to both.9,10

Derrida's First Response: Politics Cannot be Deduced from Ethics

Derrida on How Levinasian Ethics Cannot Found Politics

Contained in Derrida's reading of Levinasian ethics are four propositions: (1) Ethical uprightness, and what Levinas calls "freedom," is the suffering that the "self" experiences for the suffering of the Other in the face-to-face relation. …

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