Thursday, 1 July 2010

The Nature and Basis of 'Infinite Responsibility' in Levinas' Ethics

This is one of my recent MA Essays, on Levinas' theory of Infinite Ethical Responsibility.

Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) was one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th Century.

Levinas's main concern as a philosopher was Ethics, morality, the way we should act towards and treat one another.  He developed a radical philosophy of love and compassion, based on an overwhelming respect for the importance of the unique value of each human individual.

Levinas' philosophy was profoundly shaped by the reality of the 2nd World War, his internment for 4 years in a Prisoner of War camp and the murder of his entire family in the Holocaust in his native lithuania.  A different man may have surrendered to despair, about the world, humanity or God, but Levinas came out of the experience of the prison camp and the murder of his people with a profoundly optimistic, almost idealistic ethical philosophy.

Against the horror of the vast collectivist machine that sought to eradicate whole peoples, purely on the basis of their race, with total disregard for their lives as individuals, Levinas reacted by building a philosophy that placed the  individual and the encounter of one individual with another as the core moment, the core judgement on which all other thought and philosophy depended.  Levinas put his entire career at the service of  building a philosophical structure that guaranteed the importance, place and dignity of the unique human individual against all attempts to make him or her a disposable means to the larger ends of a group, system or purpose. 

For Levinas, the encounter with another individual was the event against which all other events paled into insignificance.  In the encounter with another person Levinas described the appearance of infinity, of height and majesty, of a thing that could never be fully comprehended.  He described the realisation of an infinite duty to that other individual, based on the infinity within him, that captures you and leaves enthralled by the other person.  He openly talked about building a wisdom of love instead of a philosophy, the love of wisdom. 

 In a century marked by atrocities, collectivist ideologies that judged people by the colour of their skin or their class, and a popular philosophical contempt for the ability and choice of the individual, Levinas stood consistently for the worth and value of individual humanity and created a unique phenomenologically based ethics and critique of the destructive tendencies of human civilisation and thought.        


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