Levinas and the Trauma of Responsibility: The Ethical Significance of Time

By Cynthia D. Coe | Go to book overview

4
Between Theodicy and Despair

LEVINAS’S CRITIQUE OF narrative and the conception of the narrating subject that underlies it leads him to the issue of how time is synchronized in the philosophy of history, where the process of abstraction from the singular other is most prominent. By interpreting the significance of disparate events and integrating them into a coherent account, the disciplinary approaches of history typically assume a formal conception of time, in which a linear chronology can be represented by consciousness. In other words, past events are treated as intentional objects. This synchronization of time entails generalizing from people’s experiences, selectively emphasizing certain elements of what has happened, and drawing out themes from temporally or geographically remote events. From Levinas’s perspective, the historian translates the immediacy of the face into an abstraction and so betrays it. The danger in this translation is the tendency to subordinate the singular to the totality and in so doing to neglect the suffering of the individual and the subject’s implication in that suffering. Given this concern, Levinas predictably critiques Hegel’s philosophy of history in the strongest possible terms.

The Hegel that Levinas most often addresses is the Hegel who posits a ideological unity to history, an account that dominates his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, a course that he taught five times between 1822 and 1831.1 Hegel’s understanding of time draws together ideas that characterize a Greek tradition of thought, as Levinas uses that term: the ability of consciousness to represent and understand all that is (or all that matters) and thus the identification of the self primarily with an observing, comprehending subject. Time then functions as the framework within which consciousness understands reality and itself, rather than posing a fundamental challenge to autonomy. For Hegel, the movement of time is subordinate—or becomes subordinated to—the drama of Geist, a drama that at least in principle culminates in moral, political, and epistemic fulfillment. Time itself is morally neutral, part of Nature and thus prior to moral concerns. But with this belief in perfectibility through history, the historian-philosopher generates a kind of theodicy that takes the form of an abiding belief in progressive history, in which conflict, suffering, loss, and death become necessary steps in the maturation of humanity. This presumption has remained influential far beyond the academic study of philosophy. Without such a belief in the underlying meaning of history, Hegel argues that we would be left in despair at the

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Levinas and the Trauma of Responsibility: The Ethical Significance of Time
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Introduction - Intrigues of Time ix
  • Abbreviations xxi
  • 1 - Deformalizing Time 1
  • 2 - The Traumatic Impact of Deformalized Time 19
  • 3 - The Method of an-Archeology 39
  • 4 - Between Theodicy and Despair 73
  • 5 - The Sobering Up of Oedipus 101
  • 6 - Anxieties of Incarnation 129
  • 7 - Rethinking Death on the Basis of Time 159
  • 8 - Animals and Creatures 187
  • Conclusion - Inheriting the Thought of Diachrony 219
  • Bibliography 233
  • Index 245
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