Transcendence and World: The Problem of Politics in Levinas

Dissertation, The Catholic University of America (2004)

The work of Emmanuel Levinas contains valuable insights for political theory. Levinas takes the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger in an ethical direction, and places responsibility for the other at the core of subjectivity. Our concrete being in the world is fundamentally social for Levinas, and conversation with the other is the privileged event whereby ontology and ethics converge. Levinas is insistent that our relations with others always exceed knowledge and the exercise of power, and develops a notion of temporality that is based on fecundity and the possibility of sacrifice for the other. Politics therefore can never be justified by a theory, but instead must be rooted in the encounter with the other person as other, which means being open to the interruption where the call to a higher responsibility takes place. ;However, for other components of Levinas's thought politics is a problem. After exploring Levinas's prescient early philosophy, its origins in phenomenology and the influence of Henri Bergson and Franz Rosenzweig, the present study elaborates on the tension between Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being, his two great works, and argues that the opposition of ontology to ethics in the latter book and the late philosophy generally looses a positive role for ethical action. Ethics becomes a pure interruption, without the move to situate it within the larger context of dialogue and community, as was the case in Totality and Infinity. This poses a danger for political theory as it risks reducing politics to a necessary evil, a paradigm which would in fact inhibit rather than promote an ethical political practice. This reading of Levinas draws on the resources of phenomenology, particularly Max Scheler and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, as well as the important commentaries of Jacques Derrida, which are particularly helpful in bringing to light the trajectory of Levinas's thought. The examination concludes with a reflection on the role of Levinas as a Jewish thinker, in which his confessional writings overcome the excessive formulations of his late philosophy and locate politics within a concrete ethical vision that is essentially religious
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