Pascalian Ethics? Bergson, Levinas, Derrida

European Journal of Political Theory 9 (2):167-182 (2010)
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The ‘Pascalian’ tradition in French thought is a moral rigorism that demands practical embodiment while denying that any embodiment of its demands can ever be complete. The power of this tradition may be seen even in French political moralists of the 20th century. It is revealed in Bergson’s view that the open morality must seek practical expression through the closed society, while constantly subverting it. It is revealed in Levinas’s claim that the ‘saying’ requires to be ‘said’ but always undermines the said, so that what is explicit is ‘always wanting’. Directly, and also through the influence of Levinas, the Pascalian tradition exerts a complex influence on Derrida, in whose thoughts about the topic of justice moral rigorism transforms into an idea of radical epistemic incompleteness, or infinite deferral. ‘Pascalians’ such as Bergson, Levinas and Derrida are convinced, consequently, that the ethical can be given only sporadic or uninstitutionalized political expression; in this regard, they may be contrasted with ‘Lockeans’ who believe that political theory is at one remove from our deepest ethical or religious conclusions. In light of that contrast, the differences between Continental and Anglophone political theory may be traced to post-Reformation circumstances rather than, as is often supposed, to the Enlightenment



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