Ep. 6 Levinas and James: A Pragmatic Phenomenology with Megan Craig

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.

Show Notes

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)

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)

Damn the Absolute!

A podcast about our relationship to ideas. Doing our damnedest to not block the path of inquiry.

One thought on “Ep. 6 Levinas and James: A Pragmatic Phenomenology with Megan Craig

  • Do you REALLY want to know what is right and what is wrong in our society? I put the emphasis in particular, with regard to creating a more equal society, but without the socialist claim for sharing goods and money (which simply does not work in practice). And the grabbing alternative called capitalism is no better. However, there is a middle way between capitalism and communism and its about time we began to seriously study it.

    However, the gaining of good knowledge about our society is not so easy to see, and in what is called Georgism–a philosophy and practice of sharing and equalizing opportunities (and not goods), has not been properly understood. The trouble in putting any new idea of this kind, is not with the idea itself, but unfortunately with how ignorant most people are of the basic facts about what comprises our social system, where it must be fitted in. Indeed most people imagine that this subject of macroeconomics is so complicated that it cannot be properly understood, and all that the governments can do is obey their politically biased and intuitive motivated leaders.

    It is my claim that before arriving at any policy for change and improvement, we need to better understand of what our social system actually consists and about HOW IT WORKS. The way macroeconomics is usually taught makes the subject more complicated and regards it as being pluralistic, with no clear way of getting a full knowledge about it. Often there is a political influence too, depending on where the teaching is taking place.

    The scientific logically based knowledge that I wish to share is not political in any way. As a retired engineer it is derived from introducing sensible axioms, good assumptions, exact definitions, and logical analyses. After many years of my research and writing, it is now available for free in my 310 page e-book “Consequential Macroeconomics”. As an idealist who believes that science should be commonly shared, I wish to offer this information to anyone who is concerned in eventually finding proper information about ourselves and eventually about the right thing (to return to how I began this short explanation). Only through a formal logical and properly provided explanation do we stand a chance of knowing in true scientific terms, which way to turn in making our society a better place. I repeat, this is non-political but true scientific, in a way that was previously called a pseudo-science.

    Write to me at chesterdh@hotmail.com for a free e-copy of this book (which is also in soft-cover on Amazon etc.), and I will gladly send you a copy.

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