The Archaeology of Morals: Levinas, Kant and Husserlian

The Archaeology of Morals: Towards a phenomenology of Moral Responsibility in Emmanuel Levinas, is an attempt to explore the origins of our moral rationality by phenomenologically analysing the components of responsibility and tracing its roots in the sentiments of respect and empathy as responsibility is the essential structure and constituent of subjectivity in Levinas. The central purpose of our research is to investigate the origin of the moral responsibility and to reinstate its sources and grammar. In order to explain the conceptual foundations responsibility, two significant contributions of Levinas’ predecessors are relied upon viz., the Kantian notion of respect, and the Husserlian intersubjective notion of empathy. It is therefore an inquiry into the archaeology of our moral sensibility through a phenomenology of responsibility while tracing its origin in the moral sentiment of respect and intersubjective notion of empathy. This research analyses and contextually interprets the major works of Levinas. As the Kantian concept of respect and the intersubjective notion of empathy are taken to be providing the rationale of responsibility, the research is also extended to explore the works of Kant and Husserl concerning their contribution both to explicate their interconnectedness and to highlight their relevance for Levinasian moral imaginations.

The task undertaken in this phenomenological debate is therefore, threefold: firstly, to see how the notion of respect in Kantian moral metaphysics serves as the rational foundation of responsibility in Levinas; secondly, to argue how the intersubjective concept of empathy in self-other encounter gives birth to the idea of moral responsibility that is emblematic of Levinasian moral reasoning; thirdly, to re-present this novel moral responsibility as an essential structure of subjectivity to found the grammar of morality. One of the central concerns is to explore how the epistemic function of intersubjective moral emotion of empathy can perform a normative function in responsibility whose metaphysical foundation can be traced back to the notion of respect. In other words, it is an attempt to redefine responsibility as of substitutional identification with the Other, making responsibility the spine of moral reasoning and explicit elaboration of subjectivity. The entire project is conceived in three parts spread into 8 chapters.

Kant and Levinas consists of two chapters whose intend is threefold: first by placing Kant and Levinas side by side, an attempt is made to argue that there is a possibility to stitch several important connections between these two otherwise irreconcilable and apparently antagonistic thinkers. Placing the central themes of Kantian and Levinasian precepts in pairs there emerges a common philosophical ground to understand the claims of each of them for their merit independently and to build the strategy for the further discussions by analysing the sameness and the differences of their thoughts interdependently. Secondly, Proximity and Distance: Kant and Levinas, an attempt is made to appreciate the proximity and the distance that can be discerned between these two gigantic moral philosophers of two different epochs. Levinas’ philosophy of alterity is not only compatible with Kant’s philosophy of practical reason; it complements it in the form of a phenomenological elaboration. While the phenomenological mode of presentation differs sharply from Kant’s formalism, the principle of responsibility to the other expressed by Levinas can be derived from the categorical imperative. Undoubtedly, several of the characteristics of Kantian morality are incorporated in the ethical edifice of Levinas. Thirdly, to open up a phenomenology of responsibility based on these connections to propose a novel moral archaeology in Levinas by analysing the moral relations of Self and Other in the triad of subjectivity alterity and intersubjecitivty.

Moral Relations of Self and Other 

In Levinas analyses and elaborates in four chapters the self and other relations in Levinas. It is an investigation of the crucial moral concepts of Subjectivity, Alterity and Intersubjectivity which constitute the fabric of Levinasian moral edifice. In Chapter 3, entitled Selfhood and Subjectivity in Levinas, what is argued is that the question of morality is inseparably linked to the essential human distinctiveness and that the relations of self and other are at the heart of Levinas’ moral philosophy. As the relation of self to other assumes central place in his moral edifice, the ethical character of selfhood and its intimate relation to the alterity of other person is significant. Ethics, or in other words, our responsibility to the Other, is part of our subjectivity. The fourth chapter – Otherness and Alterity in Levinas – inscribes the essential existential problematic par excellence of Levinas viz., the question of the Other. Levinas’ phenomenology of the Other rooted in the Other’s irreducible strangeness and an invitation to the most intimate and radical responsibility for the Other. Instead of reducing the Other to the Same, Levinas calls us to celebrate the infinity of the Other in his radical alterity. The fifth chapter – Intersubjectivity: The self in the Other – explores the notion of intersubjectivity in its origin, growth and subsequent development in the history of the phenomenological tradition. The purpose of this chapter is twofold: to define the concept of intersubjectivity as it evolved in the history of philosophy and to show how the moral sentiment of empathy is closely related to intersubjectivity. In the 6th chapter, entitled Levinasian Intersubjectivity: The Other-In-Me, an attempt is made to see how Levinas compliments and completes Husserlian intersubjectivity. If Husserlian intersubjectivity, in its entire structure, development and purpose was epistemic, Levinasian intersubjectivity is essentially ethical, which is nothing but a condition of both being and having the Other in me.

Towards a Phenomenology of Moral Sentiments consists of two chapters. It essays to look for the foundations and the rationality of the moral sensibility in Levinas in the twin concepts of Respect and Responsibility, and their interconnectedness. The 7th chapter – Respect as the Source of Moral Motivation – aims at analysing the moral emotions of respect as well as tracing the foundations of our moral nature in the Kantian notion of respect. The thesis that we all have a radical sensibility which invites us to an imperative of responsibility is thus forwarded; an attempt is also made to affirm that this vocation is inherent in humans and has its foundation in the Kantian notion of respect. It is Kant’s analysis of respect that provides a bridge between moral philosophy and anthropology. Levinasian moral rationality of alterity, simplifying to extreme, is the responsibility for the Other, and can be seen as a reformulation and enrichment of Kantian concept of respect. The 8th chapter, entitled A Phenomenology of Moral Responsibility, analyses phenomenologically the concept of responsibility in order to maintain how Levinas redefines responsibility both as the essential structure of subjectivity and as an imperative of alterity. Responsibility in Levinas is typically being for the other, or as the essence of subjectivity it is responsibility that individuates me as a moral subject. The subject finds its moral identity in being infinitely and asymmetrically responsible, in being elected without freedom to substitute for the other.

The entire edifice of Levinasian moral rationality is a phenomenon of relationality that operates in the matrix of sensibility. The metaphysical roots of alterity can be located in the concept of respect and the foundations of ethical experience, made manifest in the analysis of intersubjective phenomenon of empathy create the conditions of radical responsibility and finds its perfection in the face of the Other. This further reiterates the Levinasian claim: to be a subject is to be for the other, making subjectivity and alterity essentially morally intersubjective. My natural propensity to be responsible for the other has its metaphysical foundation in the idea of respect and provides the obligation that is essential for any ethic to be rationally conceivable. To say that responsibility is foundational for ethics and interpersonal relations is to say then not only that responsibility is what relates one subject to another, but it is to affirm that the meaning of the otherness of the other person is given in responsibility, and not in my interpretation of the other person. The very meaning of being an other person is ‘the one to whom I am responsible.’ The Other who makes me responsible is at the heart Levinasian moral phenomenology and responsibility becomes the arché of moral rationality.   

07 July 2022
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