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Levinas - Final Paper

Levinas - Final Paper

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Published by rthorsta
finished version of my levinas final paper. just for shares. no citing please, not for publication, and all that good stuff.

ethics and politics in levinas. why this is a problem. how we might try to solve it. why levinas doesn't really want to solve it. what we might learn from this. and a random entrance of Nietzsche.
finished version of my levinas final paper. just for shares. no citing please, not for publication, and all that good stuff.

ethics and politics in levinas. why this is a problem. how we might try to solve it. why levinas doesn't really want to solve it. what we might learn from this. and a random entrance of Nietzsche.

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Published by: rthorsta on May 14, 2010
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08/25/2010

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Robert ThorstadEthics, Politics, and the Levinasian Subject This paper will ask how a Levinasian subject might reconcile “ethics”and “politics”. It is not clear that this a good or useful question; at least, I willaim to show that Levinas warns us against at least one way of posing thisquestion. I will show how the question for me becomes a question of whatthe Levinasian subject might take from Levinas; that is, if I believe Levinas’story of how I came to be the sort of being that I am, but I’m always alreadyin politics, what do I do now? I want to argue that Levinas gives
something
toa political subject (which, following Diane Perpich, I will call
normativity 
), butthat Levinas is also is careful
not 
to specify for her something that manymight consider a crucial piece of an ethical theory – what I will call
norms
, or,roughly, specific rules for action. Finally, I will try to understand why Levinasmight give the political subject something like a normativity, but notsomething like norms. In a sense this project is a reconciliation, because I amtrying to tell the subject who thinks she knows something about ethics butnothing about politics that she has more than she thinks she has to workwith in the political realm. But in a deep sense this project is
not 
areconciliation; I want to show at least why Levinas
cannot 
, or even
does not want to,
say nearly as much about politics as he does about ethics. In theend, I leave the question of whether this is a ‘reconciliation’ to the reader;I’m interested in what the Levinasian subject does not know, whether or notthere is a sort of reconciliation of ethics and politics.I’ll start by briefly motivating the idea that there is a split betweenethics and politics in Levinas. Many ethical theories would not split ethics and
 
2
politics; the world is where I make decisions about what I owe to others andwhere I make judgments about what others owe to me, and a perfectlysensible use of the world ‘ethical’ would refer to this class of decisions or judgments related to, for example, duties to others. This is not Levinas’sense of the word ‘ethical’. For Levinas, ethics is something that is situatedoutside of being – outside being in a sense more radical than temporalprimacy, spatial exteriority, or a difference of categories. The ethical issomething like what Levinas will sometimes call the ‘ethical breakup of being’, and what
Otherwise than Being
will call the ‘hither side of being’
1
. The ethical might be where I am always again constituted as a subject by theone-for-the-other of substitution, but it is also somewhere
2
where I neveractually find myself as a subject. The minute I start posing questions aboutmy duties to an other: ‘what do I owe to this specific other?’ I am already inthe domain of politics.Politics, for Levinas, is something like being-in-the-world (in
EE
’ssense). I am in politics when I am around not just one other, but also anotherother
3
. I didn’t get there from the Garden of Eden, but neither did I get there1 For simplicity, I will understand the ethical as that which we end up withafter
OTB
. I don’t claim that “the ethical” is a static notion for Levinas,although I do think that there is always a radical separation – at least, onceLevinas
starts
talking about the ‘ethical’, and even perhaps with ‘Eros’ in
EE
– between ethics and politics. My purpose is simple: I want to show how aLevinasian subject can come out of 
OTB
thinking that there is something likea split between ethics and politics, and not (perhaps wrongly) thinking thatshe knows what to do next.2 Of course, the ethical is not really a place.
TI
does seem to think that it is;see the language of ‘the ethical plane’. At least this sounds like a ‘place’ inspatial extension, even if it doesn’t have something like position (in
EE
’ssense). But
OTB
is clear that the ethical is not, and cannot be, a place.3
OTB
argues that the illeity of infinity is not a ‘third term’, or ‘another other’(
OTB
150). This allows Levinas to give an account of the way in which theilleity of infinity is not really the other, but neither am I in politics. I’m not
 
3
from a relationship around a third term. I got there by being face-to-face withthe other. In politics, Levinas thinks that I don’t have something like aninfinite obligation to the other, that I’m not vulnerable to the other before thepossibility of retreating into my shell, and that there is something like aweighing, measuring, and moderation of my obligations to others. I oweothers something, but not everything
4
(
OTB
153-171). Here the otherappears as a phenomenon, and looks something like an equal, likesomething that does not exceed my powers of comprehension or mastery inthe way the face, or the illeity of infinity, does. The dilemma here is simple. Levinas tells the subject a lot about ethics. The political subject can probably say a lot about how she might have cometo be the sort of subject that she is now. She might not be able to thematizethis story, and there will probably be a reduction in trying to say the sayingby which she became a being. But the political subject does seem to learnsomething about how she came to be the sort of subject that she is fromLevinas. However, it is not clear that Levinas tells this subject a lot aboutpolitics. From what I’ve said so far, the Levinasian subject knows nothingabout politics, other than that politics is where she always already is, andthat politics is
not 
equivalent to ethics. She might reasonably ask “whatnow?” I want to try to build an answer for her.sure I understand how Levinas pulls this off. See, for example, the discussionin
EE
of not just another person, but also something like a common topic of conversation as a ‘third term’ (
EE
32-33).4 In fact, in ethics, I owed the other
more
than everything.
Philosophy and the Idea of Infinity 
is good here: “This desire [here, a thought that thinksmore than it thinks] is unquenchable, not because it answers to an infinitehunger, but because it does not call for food” (
PI
56).

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