The Structure and Justification of Infinite Responsibility in the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas

Dissertation, The University of Chicago (1997)
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On standard accounts of responsibility, one is thought to be responsible for one's own actions or affairs. Levinas' philosophy speaks of a responsibility that goes beyond my actions and their consequences to an infinite, irrecusable, asymmetrical responsibility for the other human. In the dissertation, I present a defense of Levinasian responsibility and argue that distinctive of Levinas' thought as an ethics is the manner in which it maintains the absolute and unexceptionable character of responsibility, while simultaneously putting into question every possible ground or justification for this claim. The central chapters of the dissertation consider the connection between the formal structure of transcendence and the deformalization of this notion as responsibility. After discussing the notions of transcendence employed in the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger, I examine Levinas' criticism that transcendence in their sense remains an immanence insofar it continues to tie the conditions of intelligibility to modes of understanding and comprehension. Levinas' reconception of transcendence as a relation to exteriority and absolute alterity is then examined as it is developed first in his early writings , and then in Totality and Infinity through the tropes of the idea of infinity, metaphysical desire, and the face. The aim of these chapters is not only to elucidate in detail the conception of transcendence, but to examine why Levinas thinks that transcendence is already an ethical event. While commentators have sometimes claimed that ethics in Levinas' sense is neither normative nor descriptive, I show that the question of normativity--of how ethical claims are binding on us--is central to the problematic of responsibility, though in a way which ultimately forces us to revise our understanding of both normativity and ethics. Levinas contests the possibility of decisive evidence that would prove the truth of our ethical obligations. What I show is how the call for proof or justification always already distorts and passes over the meaning of responsibility



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Diane Perpich
Clemson University

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