Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Concept of Recognition in Levinas's Thought

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Concept of Recognition in Levinas's Thought

Article excerpt

concept of recognition [la reconnaissance] appears variously and repeatedly throughout Emmanuel Levinas's corpus, perhaps most strikingly in the Hegelian formula of a "struggle for recognition" and perhaps most provocatively in Levinas's distinct sense of the ethical recognition of the other.1 Despite the multiple ways in which the concept is used, there has been no sustained attention given to its meaning and significance both in relation to Levinas's own thought and in relation to the broader intellectual movements of the day. This essay attempts to address this gap by situating and thematizing the operational concept of recognition within Levinas's thought. To hone in on recognition not only firmly situates Levinas's ethics of the other in critical conversation with Hegel, with whom that concept is most associated, but I also argue that he sought to appropriate and reinterpret its meaning through the insights and oversights of Husserlian phenomenology and its reflections on the structure of cognition or knowledge [la connaissance], so as to arrive at a more primordial ethical dimension prior to the struggle for recognition.

The approach of this essay thematizes the multiple modes of recognition as it relates with the multiple modes of being and sensation operative within Levinas's thought. Being, sensation, and recognition are, I suggest, such basic and interrelated concepts that raising any one implicates the other two. To highlight the concept of recognition, then, necessarily involves and triangulates with the concepts of being and sensation. Within this configuration of key concepts, the course of this essay will proceed by considering naturalistic theory, Husserlian phenomenology, and finally Levinas's own approach. In each successive stage, there is a move toward a deeper, more concrete and primordial understanding of the phenomenon of recognition. The task of this essay then is threefold: (1) to assemble the distinct meanings of recognition for Levinas vis-àvis the concepts of being and sensation; (2) to show that one meaning - the Hegelian struggle for recognition - is grounded in a certain interpretation of Husserl on the relationship between being, cognition, and sensation; and (3) to show that recognition, in its proper ethical sense, is grounded in broadened understandings of the concepts of being and sensation, best captured in the phrase "the sensation of the infinite."

Historical Context: The Resurrection of Hegel Studies and the Emergence of Husserlian Phenomenology in France

The question of recognition emerged within the intellectual context of the French reception of Hegel in the 1930s and 40s. Jean Wahl's Le malheur de la conscience, published in 1929,2 Alexandre Koyré's translations and readings of Hegel's Jena years,3 Alexandre Kojève's famous seminars at Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes from 1 933-1 939,4 and Jean Hyppolite's translation and commentary on the Phenomenology* all contributed to the revival of Hegel's thought in France. The appreciative reception of Hegel was so complete by 1950 that Koyré, who had only two decades prior reported the relative impoverishment of Hegel studies, could now declare: "Since the publication of this report [in 1930], the situation of Hegel in the world of European philosophy and in particular French philosophy, has changed entirely: Hegelian philosophy has witnessed a veritable renaissance, or better, a resurrection."6 Levinas's early intellectual biography intersects with these towering figures in French thought. He attended Kojève's lectures on Hegel in the 1930s.7 Koyré oversaw his French translation of Husseri's Cartesianische Meditationen? And during his doctoral studies, Jean Wahl, to whom he would later dedicate Totalité et infini, would have a profound and lasting impact on Levinas's thought.9 Finally, it was Hyppolite's French translation of Hegel's Phenomenology that would be used when Levinas later taught students.10 However, it was not merely that Levinas was introduced to Hegel by these thinkers, but that they offered a compelling interpretation. …

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