Early in life we learn rules for moral conduct. We are taught which actions are right and which ones are wrong. Eventually we’re able to grasp principles and closed systems that allege to hold in place the reasons for why any particular action has moral value. In philosophical terms, this might look like John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian happiness principle: an action is right insofar as it maximizes utility or pleasure for the greatest number of people. It might resemble Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative: to act only according to a maxim whereby you can will at the same time that it should become a universal law.
There is an assurance and comfort in having this sort of written in stone approach to morality. A moral reality that is unchanged, universal, enclosed in the structure of the universe. We just have to discover it, reason our way to it, and once we pen it to paper, we have moral laws we can always fall back on. This reliability and simplicity has its appeal, but what if closed moral systems are incomplete, wrongheaded? What if ethical living arises from a more ambiguous and ineffable place? What if we were instead to understand that the moral life is embedded in face-to-face interactions, that ethics is derived from a place of radical subjectivity and infinite responsibility to “the Other”?
Emmanuel Levinas is a twentieth-century French philosopher who rejected rules-based notions of morality. Informed by phenomenologists like Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, Levinas champions a subjective approach to the ethical life that demands a constant vigilance and moral responsiveness from us. The “face” is interruptive and constantly calling after us for attention. Levinas suggests an immense obligation to others that seems inexhaustible, a moral demand we’ll never be able to satisfy.
Jeffrey Howard speaks with Megan Craig, a multi-media artist and associate professor of philosophy at Stony Brook University. In her book, Levinas and James: Toward a Pragmatic Phenomenology (2010), she offers us an overview of Levinas’ ethics by positioning him alongside the pragmatist philosopher William James. She does this not only to introduce Americans to an otherwise opaque and challenging continental philosopher but as a way of revealing the more practical or pragmatic elements of his ethics.
She wants us to consider what might be a more creative and vitalizing approach to ethical living, a perspective that prioritizes lived experience over moral abstractions and detached laws.
Levinas and James: Toward a Pragmatic Phenomenology by Megan Craig (2010)
Existence and Existents by Emmanuel Levinas (1978)
Ethics and Infinity by Emmanuel Levinas (1985)
Otherwise Than Being, or Beyond Essence by Emmanuel Levinas (1974)
Totality and Infinity by Emmanuel Levinas (1969)
Essays in Radical Empiricism by William James (1906)
The Meaning of Truth by William James (1909)
“The Power of One Idea” by Jeffrey Howard (2020)
Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking by William James (1907)
A Pluralistic Universe by William James (1908)
Being and Time by Martin Heidegger (1927)
Creative Evolution by Henri Bergson (1911)
Time and Free Will by Henri Bergson (1889)
The Writing of the Disaster by Maurice Blanchot (1980)
Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman (1985)
Altered Reading: Levinas and Literature by Jill Robbins (1999)
The Principles of Psychology by William James (1890)
“Being with Others: Levinas and Ethics of Autism” by Megan Craig (2017)
“Learning to Live with Derrida and Levinas” by Megan Craig (2018)