Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The Responsive "I": Levinas's Derivative Argument

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The Responsive "I": Levinas's Derivative Argument

Article excerpt

Emmanuel Levinas, considered the premier voice of ethics in the twentieth century, continues to manifest significant and continuing impact on twenty-first century postmodern scholarship providing a challenging communicative argument that displaces the privileged view of "agency" in the study of ethics. Agency assumes that an autonomous individual acts upon human life through self-generated volition. Levinas begins by countering the assumption about the primacy of self-willed agency, detailing a phenomenological alternative--responsiveness to the Other. The "I" finds identity in response to the Other.

Understanding the self as derivative rather than originative moves concern for the Other and the historical situation into privileged territory. The "I" or self emerges as a by-product, a responsive derivative construction. Levinas's ethics begins with answering the call of responsibility from the face of the Other, attentive to the call of the Other that shapes the identity of the "I" as a by-product. The uniqueness of Levinas's argument is akin to Marx's turning Hegel upside down. Levinas reframes the self from a willful agent to a responsive creation, moving from a traditional focus on autonomy and independent agency to interhuman responsive action responsible for the Other (Arnett, "A Dialogic Ethic 'Between' Buber and Levinas: A Responsive Ethical 'I'").

Levinas argues that ethics is first philosophy, turning upside down conventional assumptions about willfulness and beginning origins of the self. Levinas posits a phenomenological alternative to conventional self-construction, leaving us with alternative assumptions about responsiveness and the construction of the "I." His argument for communicative consideration is the origin of the self, which he begins with the Other, not self-will.

Jacques Derrida, profoundly influenced by Levinas, cited Levinas's close friend Maurice Blanchot on the importance of Levinas's voice:

However, we must not despair of philosophy. In Emmanuel Levinas's book [Totality and Infinity]--where, it seems to me, philosophy in our time has never spoken in a more sober manner, putting back into question, as we must our way of thinking and even our facile reverence for ontology--we are called upon to become responsible for what philosophy essentially is, by welcoming, in all the radiance and infinite exigency proper to it, the idea of the Other, that is to say the relation with autrui. It is as though there were here a new departure in philosophy and a leap that it, and we ourselves were urged to accomplish. (Blanchot qtd. in Derrida, Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas 8-9)

For postmodern scholars, Levinas repositioned philosophy and the study of ethics--moving metaphysical theoretical discussion to attentiveness to phenomenological reality. The reality Levinas envisioned was phenomenological, not metaphysical. Ethics for Levinas is a phenomenological reality--one attends to the Other, not out of theoretical dictum, but from the call of a phenomenological reality witnessed as a trace in the face of the Other.

This essay frames Levinas's argument--the responsive construction of the self--and its application to the study of communication and rhetorical studies, offering communicative insights that "interpret otherwise" than conventional Western assumptions about the self. This essay engages books on Levinas in order of difficulty of engagement with attention to increasing complexity of Levinas's project. To that end, this essay begins with two books "about" Levinas (Manning's Interpreting Otherwise than Heidegger and Derrida's Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas), moving to a transcript of a radio interview with Levinas (Ethics and Infinity), ending with two major works of Levinas (Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence and Totality and Infinity).

This essay outlines Levinas's counter-argument concerning the privileged position of the self in Western culture, underscoring major ideas that shape his work and offering entrance into Levinas's thought from invitational to more demanding primary reading. …

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