Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Thinking through Singularity and Universality in Levinas

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Thinking through Singularity and Universality in Levinas

Article excerpt

We are accustomed to read Levinas's philosophy as an ethical critique of phenomenology or ontology, but his work is relatively infrequently discussed in relation to the canon of moral philosophy. This is no doubt largely due to the fact that important elements of the theoretical systems that undergird these moral philosophies fall within the scope of Levinas's critique of the tradition; thus, we are confident that his view of ethics differs from the standard accounts. However, it can be very instructive to contrast Levinas's view of ethics with the more well-known alternatives in order to determine not whether his view differs, but how. Assessing this difference is crucial if we are to understand what is at stake philosophically in this critique, not only in terms of what might be gained by means of it, but also in terms of what it may put at risk. Moral philosophy has long emphasized that ethics should be principled, and that those principles should be both rational and universal. These qualities are valued because their absence, it is feared, leads to moral relativism. Levinas's philosophy challenges this received view of ethics, yet his work also suggests opposition to relativism in that it continually emphasizes an ethical responsibility that for all intents and purposes seems to be absolute. How does Levinas propose to generate an obligation of sufficient strength to combat relativism without appealing to universal principles? And is he successful?

The magnitude of this question prohibits its being directly addressed here. Instead I will discuss one aspect of Levinas's thought that has bearing on this question, namely, the critical dynamic between singularity and universality that appears as a fairly constant theme in his work. The received view is that Levinas opposes universality on the grounds that it is in the very nature of universals to comprehend particulars by assimilating them under a common concept or principle, and this comprehension strips the particular of its singularity. This concern is expressed repeatedly in Totality and Infinity in terms of a "reduction of the other to the same" through which the singularity of the Other-indeed the very alterity of the Other-goes unrecognized.1 In Otherwise than Being Levinas shifts his focus from the singularity of the Other to the singularity of the self, stressing that ethical responsibility is not universal, but is instead singular.2 This received view of Levinas's critique of universality is not, however, without its ambiguities. For instance, the following questions come to mind: is not the value of the Other's singularity expressed here as a universal, and is not the responsibility to respond to that singularity also expressed as a universal? What resources exist within Levinas's philosophy to authorize such universal expressions? This issue has been taken up in two ways in the literature. First, there are those critics who argue that, at least in Totality and Infinity, Levinas makes use of the language of ontology, and it seems implicit in this critique that this language implies a universality that Levinas is trying to overcome.3 second, others have asked in relation to Otherwise than Being what justifies Levinas's generalization of the singularity of the experience of ethical responsibility. That is, what authorizes him to make the move from realizing that he has such a responsibility to claiming that others have such a responsibility.4 My question differs from these because I am not asking about universality as a necessary and perhaps unavoidable function of indicative language, nor am I asking about universality in the sense of making generalizations from oneself to others. Instead I am interested in a type of universality that appears in the moment of ethical responsibility itself.

We must begin by clarifying what is meant by "universal," and I will focus on the aspects of necessity and generality. To demonstrate that these two aspects are typically what we have in mind when we talk about universality, consider the examples of universal principles and universal concepts. …

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