Theoretical Responsibility: Levinas on Language and the Ethical Status of the Philosophical Question

By Glass, Jordan | Philosophy Today, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

Theoretical Responsibility: Levinas on Language and the Ethical Status of the Philosophical Question


Glass, Jordan, Philosophy Today


1

Ethics as first philosophy" could mean that the conscious taking up of ethical burdens is to precede theoretical inquiry, or it could mean that "ethics" is the area of inquiry with which the theoretical enterprise should commence. We can then ask: in which of these two senses is Levinas's philosophical ethics? Is it the theoretical description of ethics, or is it an attempt to take up the ethical burden in lieu of or before the theoretical-ontological proj- ect? What is the relationship between ethical life and the theoretical enterprise?

Levinas claims throughout Totality and Infinity that the ethical relationship is not one of knowing; and in his preface to Outside the Subject Levinas claims that the ethical subject precedes erudition.1 Levinas often says that ethics is something other than knowing, where "to know" would rather appear to be the task of philosophy.

However, of course, Levinas made a career and lifelong pursuit of philosophy; and in Otherwise than Being he says that it is the task of philosophy to convey the Saying, the ethical moment of language, in a Said, in the ontological dimension of language, with the least betrayal possible. Still, it is unclear whether this itself constitutes an attempt to take up the ethical burden, whether that task is ethical, or philosophical and theoretical. No more illuminating is Levinas's claim that his own philosophy is an attempt to describe the meaning of ethics rather than to prescribe an "ethical program."2

But there is good reason to think that for Levinas ethics as first philosophy is intended to say that one ought begin the theoretical enterprise with an inves- tigation of the topic "ethics." In a Talmudic lecture Levinas recounts a story in which a rabbi slights another in a trivial, forgettable way, but is never forgiven. As a wise sage-as an erudite and learned person-he should have known bet- ter than to commit even such a small infraction. Likewise, Levinas adds in an often-quoted passage, it is difficult to forgive Heidegger.3 But in what sense should Heidegger have known better than most? Why should he have been especially responsible-Heidegger who never developed an ethics? Surely as a "brilliant" (as the unforgiven Rab is described) ontologist. Thus although ethics precedes knowing such that knowing (erudition, learnedness, ontology) is either extrane- ous or contrary to ethics, we would apparently demand that Heidegger be more responsive to an ethical burden than most on the strength of his prowess in the ontological sciences.

The strange inverted case is in Levinas's quasi-ethical repudiation of Socratic maieutics and Plato's doctrine of recollection. Despite the fact that Socrates (the historical and Platonic versions, seemingly) is invested in nothing above the face- to-face relation, he is censured for holding a theoretical model of learning that suggests that in the last instance absolute truth does not come from the other but from within the subject or the same. Plato's Socrates would seem to be ethi- cally committed to the other but is yet rebuked on account of his ontology. His apparent attempt to be responsible to the other falls short for his holding certain theoretical-ontological views. This could be thought to mean that "ethics as first philosophy" means that the first task of philosophy is to work out a theory of ethical meaning.

I will inquire into the relation between ethics and ontology, or between ethical responsibility and the philosophical enterprise that will seek to articulate such an ethical burden. I will do so by way of an account of the development of Levinas's philosophy of language throughout his oeuvre, which I see as the locus of both ethics and philosophy. It is with his articulation of the Saying and the Said that Levinas is most engaged in the question of how the philosophical enterprise relates to an ethical relation to the other. In a later interview Levinas claims that "Philosophy is primarily a question of language. …

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