'By a hair's breadth': Critique, transcendence and the ethical in Adorno and Levinas

Philosophy and Social Criticism 28 (2):213-248 (2002)
Abstract
The article stages the beginning of a virtual conversation between Levinas’s ‘ethics as first philosophy’ and Adorno’s negative dialectic. Part I frames the problem: for both thinkers the task of critique depends on some access to a ‘fixed point’ for transcendence (Levinas) or a ‘standpoint removed’ from the domain of existence (Adorno). Part II traces the deep, even essential, connection both perceive between knowledge and violence, a link which brings the possibility of critique even more stringently into question. A standpoint removed must be both less and more than knowledge. Part III sketches Adorno’s response to this dilemma in the tracing of a negative dialectic, a thinking that is ‘the morality of thought’, and one that turns traditional dialectics inside-out. Negative dialectic seems to meet Levinas’s ethical criteria for critique. Part IV outlines Levinas’s response: the fixed point for critique is in the proximity and sensibility of the ethical relation that lies behind all formal alterity and therefore behind all ontology and all cognition, whether pre-dialectical, dialectical, or post-dialectical. Yet the ethical relation cannot be said except in terms virtually dependent on negative dialectic. Part V examines a potential Levinasian criticism of Adorno and a potential Adornian criticism of Levinas. The fulfillment of the ambition of each would require him to adopt the standpoint of the other. And this may be possible in that thinking along with each demands that one think not only of multiple perspectives but with them
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