Thursday, March 12, 2009

Husserlian Themes Again

This is the first two pages of something I am working on. It is for the North American Levinas Society at U of Toronto if I can get it done in time.

The Ethical Subject in Husserl: An Ethical Interpretation of the Fifth Meditation

According to Levinas, ethics starts with the recognition of the otherness of the Other. There is something so radically different about the Other in my experience that no totality, no representation can encompass the Other so understood. The Other is not like an object of my perception couched in terms of modernist epistemology with similar talk of representations. Instead, there is something radically different about the Other As Levinas puts this point,

The Other remains infinitely transcendent, infinitely foreign; his face in which his epiphany is produced and which appeals to me breaks with the world that can be common to us...1

Even more to the point, when I represent the Other in my own understanding, there is an asymmetry between my self and the Other. I can make demands of myself that I cannot make of the Other. There is a lack of reciprocity between both the self and the Other. As Simon Critchley puts this point,
When I totalize, I conceive of the relation to the Other from some imagined point that would be outside of it and I turn myself into a theoretical spectator on the social world of which I am really part, and in which I am an agent. Viewed from the outside, intersubjectivity might appear to be a relation between equals, but from inside that relation, as it takes place at this very moment, you place an obligation on me that makes you higher than me, more than my equal.2

In other words, there is an inadequate understanding of the Other in ethical theories that ‘universalize’ or ‘totalize’ the conceptions of how one moral agent relates to another. Above, Critchley divides the problem in terms of an outer and inner perspective about totalizing ethical conceptions of the subject, the agent. In the former, equality – which I take as having moral status in a moral community – might be exemplified by Kant’s kingdom of ends. We are all rational beings and it is our capacity for rationality that grounds our moral considerations such that we all form a moral community of autonomous subjects.
Within the inner perspective, there is a problem. Within the experience of being a subject, I know myself more fully, more intimately. When I represent the viewpoint of another, the very possibility of intersubjectivity dissipates. I make claims of the Other in my representation of them. My claims of obligation reduce the Other to a logic of sameness rather than considering them in terms of their singular and concrete nature. I respect the idea of someone, not the transcendent person outside of me—not the face that escapes all representation.
In this paper, I want to overcome the inner and outer problematic of ethical subjectivity as it relates to the Other. Those in the company of Levinas are wrong. It is possible to establish the experience of the ethical subject as sharing in an equal relationship both within and without. We must establish the concrete ways in which the ethical subject relates to the Other. This requires us to explore what moral intentionality would look like, and what constitutes such moral intentionality. In order to argue this point, I turn to Husserl’s Fifth Meditation in the Cartesian Meditations.3 I argue that Husserl’s Fifth Meditation can be interpreted as offering avenues for exploring moral intentionality. In so doing, I begin to sketch an account of the ethical subject answering the worries of Levinas and his contemporary defenders.4

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