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Not Human Enough: Levinas and a Call for New (Old) Humanism
Jönköping University, School of Education and Communication, HLK, School Based Research, Media, Literature and Language Didactics. University of Gothenburg, Sweden.
2013 (English)In: An Insatiable Dialectic: Essays on Critique, Modernity, and Humanism / [ed] Roberto Cantú, Cal State University, LA, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013, p. 104-120Chapter in book (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

The humanity of man, Levinas argues in Humanism of the Other, is not defined by rationality or subjectivism of freedom, it is found instead in absolute humility and subjection of my freedom to the vulnerability of others. Indeed, for Levinas, the subject itself is constituted as singular or unique by an assignation of responsibility it cannot escape. The fact that no one can respond to the distress of others in my stead is what so imperially consigns me to my idenitity.

 

The critique of humanism that is implicit in Levinas does not testify so much to its failure as to the hypocrisy of the humanist projects based on reason, integrity, autonomy and the dignity of the subject, its naive rights of freedom and self-assertion often appropriated by the discourses of exploitation and used as a shameless pretext for virile imperialism and colonial aggression. Instead, for Levians, humanism has not risen to the true height of its ideals, of what it means to be human. It is the status and the menaing of this ideal that this paper will question. For to be human is to be called to goodness such that the other counts more than myself. Freedom of the subject, ‘is not the source of all right and meaning,’ as Levians writes in Ethics and Infinity. It is rather the possibility of self-sacrifice and being for the other. Being called to goodness is being sobered up to a responsibility that for Levians is manifested as the-one-for-the-other, even as ‘substitution unto death.’ To be human is to call into question the prejudice of my freedom and my self-righteousness. It is to discover onself in passivity. The other person’s vulnerability, his mortality, comes as the effraction of my being, of my rights, and exposes the injustice of my selfish will. True humanness seems, in fact, to demand more than my capacity. I am thus never responsible enough, I am never human enough. The presence of the other person, the unabated pathos of his need and vulnerability, revelas me to my own shame, to a kind of self-effacement and absolute discretion of my own presence. There is a supplication to a freedom that precedes mine and to respond to it is to be human.

 

This paper will point towards a certain insufficiency of humanism and the inheritance of its concept in the context of Levinas’s writing as an expression a post-Enlightenment critique both of the notions of freedom and autonomy that are put in question in the responsibility for the other but also in terms of its pre-critical naivité about ‘the human nature’ and the metaphysics of the unified subject. Self-relation is broken in Levinas by infinite incumbent responsibilities that devolve on the subject like an insolvent debt one can never settle in good conscience. The self with all its resources is in a permanent deficit.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013. p. 104-120
Keywords [en]
Humanism, Levinas, ethics, responsibility, the other
Keywords [sv]
Humanism, Levinas, etik, ansvar, den andre
National Category
General Literature Studies
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:hj:diva-20293ISBN: 9781443852920 (print)OAI: oai:DiVA.org:hj-20293DiVA, id: diva2:589720
Available from: 2013-01-18 Created: 2013-01-18 Last updated: 2015-07-01Bibliographically approved

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