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  • IntroductionEthics and Interdisciplinarity in Philosophy and Literary Theory

Two questions—the first calls for information, the second for justification. What points of contact, if any, are there between the current investment in ethics in literary theory, and the elaboration of ethics in contemporary philosophy? In other words, does an interdisciplinarity exist? Second, what reasons might literary theorists have, or have they had, to be aware and take stock of developments in philosophical ethics? That is to say, what might be gained from interdisciplinary work? A third question emanates from the first two: where a cross-disciplinary engagement with philosophy has taken place, has there occurred any transformation of literary theory? I hope to show in what follows that, when we consider ethics in literary theory, no less than in philosophy, it is necessary to attend both to method within each discipline and to the nature of relations between them.

The first of my questions begs the question of what contemporary philosophy is. Literary theorists entering into ethics have tended to draw on the work of Emmanuel Lévinas, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Luce Irigaray, and more recently that of Giorgio Agamben and Alain Badiou. If the last has, in a spirit of polemic, professed to displace the "other" in the name of the "Same,"1 the dominant paradigm, when it [End Page 3] comes to ethics, remains one of alterity and difference. There are fundamental reasons why this should be the case: operating in figural language, literature, or the literary, differs from itself in response to an other. To borrow, translate, and adapt an Afrikaans term from the South African poet Breyten Breytenbach,2 literature engages in a process of andersmaak, of other-making or making-other: in making-other and, in so doing, inventing others, it makes itself other. Literature is an other-maker. It is to this activity that literary theory must attend. That is why it is natural for it to turn to ethics—not only the nexus Lévinas-Derrida and the other thinkers mentioned above, but also, for instance, to psychoanalysis: what may have begun as the teasing out of hidden meanings (the received idea is that this is what psychoanalysis and literary criticism share) has, following Lacan's "return to Freud," evolved into a consideration of the ethics of psychoanalysis in the context of reading and listening [see, for example, Felman and Laub].

Literature may be an other-maker, and reading may be exemplary in the topoi of current theory for responsibility before the other,3 but it is not clear that literary theorists have been equal to setting this responsibility to work fully when it comes to responding to philosophy. There has been relatively little attention among literary theorists to developments in disciplinary philosophy—where, in recent decades, in North America and the Anglophone world generally, the tendency in ethics has been to bring moral reflection to bear on questions in political theory. The pólis in question is, however, no longer only the nation-state; the politics that engages political thought is transnational and global. Whether or not a given thinker subscribes to the idea of world citizenship, the horizon for thought is cosmopolitan.

Philosophy

Although thinkers have continued to enter into basic questions in ethics,4 the writings of Charles Taylor, Will Kymlicka, Iris Young, Seyla Benhabib, and others attest to a shift from ethics to politics powerfully influenced by John Rawls (1921-2002)—notably in A Theory of Justice (1971) and Political Liberalism (1993)—and the ensuing criticisms of these works. As the weight of the North American debate has moved from liberal multiculturalism and minority rights [see Taylor et al.; Ackerman; Kymlicka; Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference] toward transnationality and globalization, Rawls's more recent critics have come to view his assumption of the nation-state as the basic context of analysis—even in The Law of Peoples (1999), which is devoted to international relations—as a limitation to his thinking of justice.5 These changes in emphasis are a clear sign of how the effects of globalization have begun to draw a response from political theorists.

Links between ethics and political...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6539
Print ISSN
0300-7162
Pages
pp. 3-16
Launched on MUSE
2005-02-21
Open Access
No
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