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Remarks on Emmanuel Levinas's Contribution to Classical and “Situated” Justice

Bettina Bergo


In 1968, at the height of political unrest in Europe and North America,

in the heyday of French existentialism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis,

Emmanuel Levinas published an essay curiously opposed to

the emerging “canon” of the time, in defence of humanism. Both with

and against psychoanalysis’ and structuralism’s decentring of the subject

and the Marxist critiques of bourgeois humanism, Levinas called

for a different conception of humanism. He suggested that humanism

had never been truly humanist because metaphysics (and ethics) had

given priority to a conception of subjectivity characterized exclusively

by activity and rationality. But Levinas did not toll the death

knell of reason; rather he suggested that the rationalist subjectivity of

humanism and idealism covered over depths of our intersubjective

life. Against these, he proposed a humanism whose beginning would

not be the self-positing of the ego, but rather would lie in the peculiar

character of our sensuous vulnerability to other human beings. This

vulnerability – whose ethical implications can be elucidated by an

inquiry into the possibility of the sentiments of responsibility and

obligation – belongs to a philosophical anthropology characterized by

a certain optimism. Such an optimism is envisionable for Levinas

even in the wake of skepticism over the meaning and coherence of

ethical judgement. Thus, in the following passage Levinas summarizes

his conception of the subject and the starting point of his humanism,

using the Fichtean ego (inter alia) as its foil.

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