David Wood, “Some Questions for My Levinasian Friends”

The key issue David Wood explores in “Some Questions for My Levinasian Friends” is a (hidden) ontological commitment in Levinas’s work. Specifically, Wood discusses at length Levinas’s reading of Heidegger. There are also interesting threads of Wood’s essay that might appeal to a wide range of our interests as a class: the relationship between human and non-human others, the il y a, Levinas and Descartes, Levinas’s account of the state of nature, etc. Wood’s essay is on the shorter side so I’m going to leave out a lot of interesting details in order to avoid having a summary longer than the essay itself.

The basic argument is this: Levinas has a hidden ontological commitment such that ethics is not and cannot be his first (primordial) philosophy. There are four parts to this argument: (1) Levinas’s ethics rests on a fundamentally flawed ontology (2) Levinas’s relation to Heidegger reveals his own blindness to his already-prior ontological commitments (3) we must “move on” from an asymmetrical relationship to the Other (4) therefore, we must be open to another event “which the event of otherness explodes in many directions (Wood, 152).”

The question of the possibility of ethics as first philosophy rests partially on Levinas’s interpretation of Heidegger. Wood takes issue with Levinas’s actual reading of Heidegger (not just his interpretation): “Levinas claims Heidegger’s is an ontology of Being. But how does this correspond with what Heidegger himself thinks he’s doing? In Being and Time, Heidegger says he is trying to ask the question of the meaning of Being (Wood, 155).” Where this becomes more complicated is the question raised by Heidegger’s articulation of being-toward-death. It is not simply the case that we are just physically alive. We place value on our lives (the meaning of Being). So, how we understand the meaning of Being determines how we treat beings (ethically speaking). One’s capacity for a response to the other is also predicated on one’s own understanding of what it means to be human. Additionally, Wood argues that because the Other is aware of her or his own mortality, has a face, can speak, etc., suggests some hidden account of ontology. This is why, for Wood, ethics cannot be the first philosophy. We cannot separate ontology from ethics, and, if we could, ethics could not be the first philosophy (at best, it would be equiprimordial).

Wood advances the need to move away from asymmetrically configured ethical relationships (i.e., my responsibility to the Other). For Wood, true responsibility lies in a more collective response to ethical dilemmas. These could take their form in negotiations, political institutions, educational policies, developing military institutions (!), and developing methods of nonlethal intervention. “The bottom line here is that we need a different account of our ethical stance toward others for this to go ahead. That is, we need an account that abandons the purity of asymmetry. Asymmetry is an unstable and transformable structure—and includes torturer/tortured, rapist/victim, as well as the relation of forgiver to the forgiven (Wood, 162).” Additionally, Wood argues that the substitution of myself-for-the-other is usurped by the complexity of self-other relations.

The last portion of Wood’s argument concerns Levinas’s identification of the event. Levinas’s identification of the event with the other is structured such that it is something that happens to a person, rather than something the person engages in. For Wood, the structure of an event is beyond what can be encompassed by our relationship to a human other. Hence, there is a call for an event beyond the boundaries articulated by Levinas.

Finally, Wood concludes that while Levinas is correct that our face-to-face relationship with the other takes place in time, there is definitely an account of ontology at work (or, at least a type of ontology with the “ethical” as its descriptor) in this relationship. Wood believes that this is because we must first think of our obligation to the other in ontological terms (our obligation to a human, plant, animal, etc determines our relationship to that entity). Additionally, Wood insists that the ethical cannot be reserved for relations of pure asymmetry: ethical relationships must be combined with symmetrical relations (friendship, etc).

I’ll post my comments on this soon…although it would be nice respond to other’s comments instead.

~ by Desirée on April 15, 2007.

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