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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.