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VIOLENCE, CRUELTY, AND LANGUAGE IN LEVINAS AND RORTY

Brad Elliott Stone


University of Memphis
October 1999
*THIS IS A DRAFT* For full paper contact me at bstone@memphis.edu
One could say that this project is one of heteronomy. Although many will
disagree with the idea of placing Levinas and Rorty on the same side of the
autonomy/heteronomy debate, I argue that both thinkers oer us a concept of
heteronomy that has social, political, and moral eiciency. I seek to show how
Levinas's concept of "radical responsibility" can serve as the ideal form of
what Rorty calls "solidarity," and how in so doing it oers a way in which both
thinkers can be used together to analyze liberal thinking. Both thinkers ght
against closed-mindedness, which on the surface appears as freedom but
actually only yields violence and cruelty.
1. Autonomy: Violence, Naivety and Dogmatism
What else is this freedom but the thinking being's refusal to be alienated in
the adherence, the preserving of his nature, his identity, the feat of remaining
the same despite the unknown lands into which thought seems to lead?
Perceived in this way, philosophy would be engaged in reducing to the same
all that is opposed to it as other. It would be moving toward auto-nomy, a
stage in which nothing irreducible would limit thought any longer, in which,
consequently, thought, non-limited, would be free.
Autonomy, the reduction of otherness to the same, produces what Levinas
calls "freedom." The autonomous person feels that she does not have to
change or consider the points of view of other people. She feels free due to
not being disturbed by otherness. However, there is a bit of irony here, for
autonomy leads to naivety and dogmatism, which although appear as freedom
on one hand and appear as the opposite of freedom on the other.
The freedom of naivety is that the autonomous being does not know any
better; she thinks that her world view is appropriate to describe the world.
The freedom of dogmatism is that the autonomous being circularly argues
what she was taught, therefore, unlike the naive person, clearly knows what is
going on but instead chooses the easy path of not engaging into new
discourse. The irony of both of these "freedoms" is that they are not free at
all: autonomy leads to totality, but openness to otherness leads to innity. This
innity has a price, the loss of autonomous freedom, but the reward is true
openness which transcends the issue of freedom itself.
2. "Common Sense": Cruelty, Prejudice and Relativism
Those who speak the old language and have no wish to change, those who

regard it as a hallmark of rationality or morality to speak just that language,


will regard as altogether irrational the appeal of the new metaphors -- the new
language games which the radicals, the youth, or the avant-garde are playing .
. . conversely, from the point of view of those who are trying to use the new
language, to literalize the new metaphors, those who cling to the old language
will be viewed as irrational -- as victims of passion, prejudice, superstition, the
dead hand of the past, and so on.
In this metaphor presented by Rorty, the autonomous being is like the
conservative elders in a changing society. The autonomous being, in all of her
freedom, does not seek to change her ways; her way is suicient for her. She
often deems alternative views as being rebellious and irrational. However,
Rorty notes, those of the alternative view call her irrational, too, for she is
being "old-fashioned" or prejudiced. This shows that although the autonomous
being is free in her own eyes, she herself is bound by a world view. Rorty
argues that the autonomous being fails to recognize her contingency, the
status that her world view is hers and others have other views.
The solution for the autonomous being is that she will usually appeal to
"common sense." Common sense for Rorty means that one argues circularly
from the beliefs and traditions in which she is raised. The other solution is
conservatism, which falls back on the phrase, "This is how it's always been
done." These refusals to change, or allow others to penetrate, creates a false
reality for the autonomous being.
Another result of autonomy in this sense, the failure to face one's contingency
is prejudice. This vice is often hidden by social explanation. Often we hear, "I
am not sexist; I am simply following the Bible's rule about who can work in
certain jobs," or "I am not a racist, but it is a fact that blacks moving into our
neighborhood will decrease our property values." For those that simply want
others to be where they are not, a sense of relativism arises. Relativism can
be dened in two ways. The common usage is negative: we simply say "it is a
matter of perception" when it comes to ethical issues. The more dangerous
usage is the "separate but equal" ideology, "Blacks can feel oppressed as long
as they complain about it in the ghetto." They view given problems as being
merely the problems of the other. These ideas lead to cruelty in society, for
people no longer feel connected.
3. Private and Public Autonomy
As stated respectively in the previous two stages, Levinas and Rorty address
autonomy as represented in the individual person herself (Levinas) and the
individual person as a member of a given social situation (Rorty). There are
critics that claim that Levinas would count Rorty's project in Contingency,
Irony, and Solidarity as a project of autonomy. The claim is made because
Rorty can be read as supporting self-creation, which on the surface appears as
an autonomous undertaking (we see this especially in his praise of Nietzsche

in Chapter 2, "The Contingency of Selfhood").


However, I reply by stating that the project in Contingency, Irony, and
Solidarity is Rorty's claim that the realm of public moral progress is only
possible when one understands the interface of the private and the public in
themselves and in the society. Although Rorty on a private level claims that
self-creation must continue and that moral obligations do not happen by
transcendence, the utopian society will have to avoid falling into xed
denitions, allowing all people to strive toward self-creation without facing the
cruelty of conservatism. Therefore, it can be said that Rorty argues against a
social-political autonomy, or a sociological reduction to the same. This will be
claried in later stages.
Also, it is important to realize that Levinas is not ruling out the role of
autonomy in terms of the self, but that in the face of the other autonomy
cannot enjoy the freedom that it nds when the autonomous being is all alone.
Norman Wirzba writes in his paper "From Maieutics to Metanoia: Levinas's
Understanding of the Philosophical Task" that "heteronomy is not the opposite
of autonomy, not even its outright rejection. We do better if we understand [it]
as the interruption, the putting into question, or the teaching of autonomy." If
this is true, then Rorty's concept of self-creation is not immediately negative
as long as it remains open to be put into question (to be explained in a later
stage).
In the model I am suggesting here, Levinas oers the critique against private
autonomy (violence) that can be viewed as the backbone (albeit slightly
compromised) of Rorty's critique of public autonomy (cruelty). Of course, the
terms "violence" and "cruelty" can be used interchangeably (e.g. "a violent
society" or "a cruel individual") only as long as the distinction of terms is kept
straight within the philosophers who use them. Later stages will show how
Rorty does not claim that individuals can privately be cruel, and that Levinas
is solely concerned with the asymmetrical private move away from autonomy.
4. Language Games, Rhetoric and Autonomy
This stage deals with Rorty and Levinas's use of language as a means to
perpetuating autonomy. The unique situation of language in this discussion is
that it can be used negatively, as this stage demonstrates, or it can be used as
the gateway to heteronomy, as stages ve and six will show. One of the
reasons why language becomes important in both autonomy and heteronomy
is that, if one were to agree with the early analytic thinkers, language plays a
critical role in thought itself, therefore autonomous thinking would be "stated"
in autonomous language. From the continental tradition's viewpoint, language
is one mean of expressing intentional states. Therefore, it does not seem too
odd to look at language as a portal to an analysis of how one views the world,
regardless of which tradition one comes from.

Rorty starts Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity by discussing the contingency


of language. Rorty claims that language serves a functional role in our lives,
which pragmatically diers from his earlier analytic tendencies that language
served as a representation of reality (cf. Wittgenstein, Nagel, Chomsky, etc.).
Since we believed that language expressed a reality, we forced the world into
a language, which is strictly autonomy, since the world does not speak. What
this leads to is rhetoric, public discourse using a given "vocabulary" (Rorty's
term for language games) which is assumed to be the standard vocabulary for
the whole group. The autonomous being feels that her vocabulary is accurate
for describing the world.
Levinas writes that rhetoric leads to injustice, for it merely seeks the
airmation of the rhetorician's desire, to persuade other to think as she does.
Rhetoric in language is an autonomous move, for it seeks to reduce other
(opposition) to the same. Levinas claims that rhetoric is a violence because it
places a category on freedom, dening freedom in such a way that it can no
longer be free, that is, able to interrupt rhetorical discourse.
The consequences of rhetoric appear many times within the history of
America. The Afrocentricity school has devoted itself specically against the
Eurocentric rhetoric that intentionally founds a racist world order. In fact, one
of the founding thinkers of the contemporary Afrocentricity school, Mole K.
Asante, wrote his rst Afrocentricist book, The Afrocentric Idea, on the
rhetorical problems that keep the separation of the races intact in American
culture. Rhetoric, when it becomes absorbed into the mainstream thought
pool of a society, can cause dogmatic or naive ideas to seem to be the norm,
hence the "hidden" discrimination that occurs in our society -- the deeply
embedded rhetoric which was born in violence and was familiarized by
common sense.
5. Moving Toward Heteronomy, Responsibility and Solidarity
The rest of the stages of this paper deal with the move toward heteronomy. I
shall begin with Levinas's concept of "chec" as found in Totality and Innity
and move on to Rorty's concept of "irony." Along with this analysis will also
come a practical attempt to resolve the rhetorical problems that lie as the
source of cruelty and violence in American society, focusing in on race, gender,
sexual orientation and economic class.
6. Levinas: The Face Speaks to Me and Questions My Freedom
. . . la critique de la spontanite, engendre par l'chec qui met en question la
place central qu'occupe le moi dans le monde, suppose donc un pouvoir de
rexion sur son propre chec et sur la totalit, un dracinement de moi
arrach soi et vivant dans l'universel . . .
Heteronomy, Levinas argues, is the interruption of my spontaneous freedom

as an autonomous being. The term "chec" here means just that: "check," as
one nds their king in a vulnerable situation with limited options as to where
to go. The freedom of movement is over; the king must either move to a safe
square or have a dierent piece block the check. Granted, human relations do
not seem to ever reach a point in which the other can truly say "checkmate,"
but the chess analogy, as far as being in "check" applies, wonderfully serves as
an illustration of what Levinas means by heteronomy. Heteronomy is not
merely the presence of the other in my life, but it interrupts my life; it cries to
me the injustice of my autonomy. The other (autrui) is that which, although to
me could be merely one more thing to be absorbed into my eld of perception,
speaks to me, and in so doing, invites me into an ethical relationship with him
or her that falls exterior to my autonomous grasp. The face of the other, the
interface for ethics in Levinas, cannot be the physical face, but that which is
irreducible ("ce qui est spciquement visage, c'est ce que ne s'y rduit pas").
Why is it that the other cannot be reduced? The egological intersubjectivist
claims that it is because of such reduction that the ego is able to identify the
other as a "fellow intentional ego" and make way for her co-existence.
However, Levinas promotes a radical intersubjectivity, claiming that the other
(autrui) is not a reducible thing; it is an enigma. It surprises my
consciousness, and just as I am about to reduce it to the same it is already
gone. In short, to use Husserlian terminology, I had a nonintentional
experience, which in itself rocks the foundation of my autonomous being as an
intentional being.
Heteronomy also brings an end to one's personal contingency, and therefore,
helps lead the autonomous being away from her dogmatic and/or naive world
view: ". . . la relation avec autrui qui met en question la brutale spontanite de
sa destine immanente . . . cette action' sur ma libert met prcisement n
la violence et la contingence et, dans ce sens aussi, instaure la Raison." The
end of contingency, that which plagues Rorty's private world, works toward a
resolution in the face of the other. Reason becomes the goal, which means the
removal of all personal rhetoric and the adherence to the other's teaching. As
Wirzba comments, what the other does best is that it "teaches distance, the
insuiciency and the injustice of autonomous life."
This leads us to a sense of guilt, not about a particular deed or action, but of
our autonomous desires. We nd ourselves as the guilty party; we are
ashamed of our autonomous desires when we are caught in the other's gaze,
an apprehending that we would never do to ourselves, therefore external to
ourselves. We repent to the other through radical responsibility and docility.
Levinas reminds us of Dostoevsky's lament of responsibility from The Brothers
Karamozov: "Nous sommes tous coupable de tout et de tous devant tous, et
moi plus que les autres."
7. Rorty: The Other Speaks to Me and Questions My Vocabulary and
Self-Creation
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The ironist [1] has radical and continuing doubts about the nal vocabulary
she currently uses, because she has been impressed by other vocabularies,
vocabularies taken as nal by people in books she has [en]countered . . . [2]
realizes that argument phrased in her present vocabulary can neither
underwrite nor dissolve these doubts . . . [3] does not think that her
vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not
herself.
I propose that the ironist is the heteronomous being in Rorty. The ironist, due
to coming across dierent vocabularies than her own, immediately has
"radical and continuing doubts" about her vocabulary, which, as stated in an
earlier stage, forms the autonomous worldview. Not only does the ironist
realize that her vocabulary is being attacked, she then realizes that she cannot
use her own vocabulary to counterattack, for she knows that she would then
be appealing to common sense. This is a prime example of what Levinas
meant by saying that the other does not hinder my powers, but my ability to
exert such power. Her entire worldview becomes shaken instantly, and the
enigmatic other has escaped again. Rorty claims that this otherness can come
not only in discourse with other people, but by reading book and magazines,
watching docudramas and movies: anything that shows the contingency of
one's world view.
This irony leads us to move toward liberalism, which has as its foundation the
idea that cruelty to others is the worst thing that we do. The ironist cannot
give an account for the existence of cruelty, cannot list the possibilities or
conditions under which cruelty happens, but must be immediately responsive
to the cry of injustice. Rorty argues that novelists like Nabakov show us how
we ourselves can be cruel, and novelists like Wright, Dickens and Orwell show
us all the many faces of cruelty, some of which we had never previously
imagined possible.
Heteronomy, by restricting brutal freedom, leads to an opening of the self to
the other. This oers the heteronomous being a new sense of freedom: that
she will not be bound by her vocabulary in light of others. Rorty writes that
"[the ironist] will not produce a reason to care about suering. What matters
for the liberal ironist is not nding such a reason but making sure she notices
suering when it occurs. Her hope is that she will not be limited by her own
vocabulary when faced with the possibility of humiliating someone with a
quite dierent vocabulary."
Solidarity, Rorty argues, comes when we remove such egological concepts as
"the core self" that everyone should have and replace it with the enigmatic
face of suering. Freedom from the rhetorical classications of people
become apparent here. Rorty's outrage about the concentration camps is that
rhetorical descriptions like "She is a Jewess" outweighed more personal
nonrhetorical descriptions like "She, like me, is a mother of small children."
Although Rorty is not going to accept a concept of "the core self," there are
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ways to see the similarity between human experiences, and therefore the
guards at Auschwitz were cruel not because they viewed the Jews as being
non-human but that they were the wrong kind of humans. The Holocaust
shows how the idea of "core humanity" can easily be jettisoned, therefore not
as transcendentally signicant as at rst thought.
8. Conclusions: Descriptions, Rhetoric, Violence and Cruelty
I conclude these comments by saying that there have been great strides
toward civil heteronomy, undoing the tangling knots of autonomy that have
plagued the modern political world. I want to address briey some cases in
which descriptions hinder our worldview, and what can be done about it. The
basic question is this: How can we nd otherness so that I can be
interrupted? Our society has played a "it is not where I live" game for too
long; this leads to naivety and community dogmatism.
Afrocentricity, and race theory in general, have forced the birth of "White
studies," the analysis of Whiteness. In a society in which White rhetoric is the
norm, Black rhetoric is oppressed, degraded and cruelly treated. We still see
this today in American literature textbooks that exclude Black writers, saving
them for an "African-American Literature" course which Whites can optionally
avoid. However, the American project has slowly brought us to the portal of
an age in which it will seem impossible to not understand the variety of races
in America without resorting to the nonempowered to explain them. Black
rhetoric cannot be stated in White terms, and the attempt to do so has yielded
disastrous results.
Feminism has forced masculinism to review what being a man is about, and
the violence of the rhetoric that empowers them. In May and Strikwerda's
Rethinking Masculinity: Maleness in Light of Feminism we see this analysis, as
masculinity is placed under rhetorical scrutiny by the feminists who
challenged the men to think about being other as being a man. The
signicance of the book is that interruption for the exterior can indeed
strengthen the concept of the interior, but it does so in ethical resistance,
hindering the freedom of the empowered.
Queer theory challenges the sexuality of our society, forcing it to deal with
what is, probably out of all these distinctions being made here, the most
autonomous, one's own sexual preferences and desires. The homosexual
community is forcing the heterosexual constituency to put their own sexuality
(or more appropriately, their self-righteousness about sexual activity) into
question, separating biological sex from sexuality and gender roles.
Finally, class struggles, which have appeared all throughout history. It is here
where we see the most cruelty, as the wealthy nations ignore their poor, who
cry out for hope and opportunity. For example, Rorty writes that the reason
why we should be disturbed about a young black man without hope in the

intercity ghetto is not because the young black man has a "core self" that
shouldn't have to endure such indignities, but rather because an American
should not suer such indignities. We see the face of the poor all the time in
the land of hope and opportunity, yet no one does anything about it.
In conclusion, ethics and liberal political action can indeed go hand in hand.
To demonstrate this concept, I have used two thinkers that are often viewed as
being strictly ethical or strictly liberal-political. I think both deal with the
same issue, although from dierent ends of radical intersubjectivity.