Ethics and time: Levinas between Kant and Husserl

Diacritics 32 (3/4):107-134 (2002)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Ethics and Time:Lévinas Between Kant and HusserlJoanna Hodge (bio)This article stems from the conviction that the source of the bloody barbarism of National Socialism lies not in some contingent anomaly within human reasoning, nor in some accidental ideological misunderstanding. This article expresses the conviction that this source stems from the essential possibility of elemental evil into which we can be led by logic and against which Western philosophy had not sufficiently insured itself. This possibility is inscribed within the ontology of a being concerned with being—a being, to use the Heideggerian expression, "which in its own being is concerned with that being." Such a possibility still threatens the subject correlative with being as gathering together and as dominating, that famous subject of transcendental idealism that before all else wishes to be free and thinks itself free. We must ask ourselves if liberalism is all we need to achieve the authentic dignity for the human subject. Does the subject ever arrive at the human condition prior to assuming responsibility for the other in the act of election that raises him up to this height? This election comes from a god—or God—who beholds him in the face of the other, the neighbour, the original "site" of the Revelation.—Emmanuel Lévinas, 28 March 1990, introduction to "Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism" (1934)1IntroductionThe intent of this essay is to establish the relevance of various divergent workings of time for an understanding of the difficulties distinctive of moral dilemmas and ethical doubt. It will introduce the thinking of Lévinas (1905-96) to bring into focus the differences entailed in addressing ethical contexts from various perspectives of time, whether in terms of past experience, present contingencies, or considerations of the future. It turns out to be necessary to distinguish between various conceptions of the future as well, in order to grasp the different construals of constraints on moral deliberation. A contrast may be drawn between the individualism and the collectivism, [End Page 107] respectively, of Nietzsche's and Heidegger's visions of the future;1 and between the religious determinacies of Lévinas's invocation of futurity and Derrida's more ascetic, formally indicative recasting of Lévinas's à-dieu.2 It is also the case that distinct conceptions of the past impose significant constraints on what human beings can hope to achieve in their moral efficacy. There is an important difference between the Greco-pagan past, invoked by Nietzsche and Heidegger, and the divine time of creation invoked in the opening pages of Genesis, which is the source of Lévinas's notion of an immemorial time, and which is subjected to deconstructive reading by Jacques Derrida in "The Animal Which Therefore I Am, to Be Continued" [see Derrida, "L'animal autobiographique"].I shall introduce a reading of the second part of Kant's treatise The Conflict of the Faculties (1798) [139-71], on the contest between philosophy and law, to suggest that for ethics, by contrast to concerns with aesthetics, metaphysics, and epistemology, a consideration of conceptions of futurity is especially pressing. This provides a context for responding to Lévinas's early article "Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism" (1934), to which Lévinas wrote an introduction, including my opening citation, some sixty years later.3 Lévinas is not simply engaging with the problem of evil, in relation to the now well-known moral deficiencies of Heidegger's fundamental ontology.4 He is also warning, more generally, against delusions arising from theoretical abstraction, in both absolute idealism and, indeed, in a Nietzschean ethics. His own writings, from Time and the Other (1947) on, suggest that the deficiency arises from oversimplifications [End Page 108] in the thinking of time. Taking this as a clue, the main tasks of this essay are to show that the broadly historical notion of time, which appears oriented toward the past, requires a complementary reflection on futurity, if the ethical significance of different ways of relating to the past is to emerge; and, in relation to that futurity, to show that the broadly teleological, future-directed notions of self-formation, deliberation, and genesis require supplementation...

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Joanna Hodge
Manchester Metropolitan University

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