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The Face and Explanation

Analytic philosophers often appeal to reason and reasons to explain ethics. By Levinasian lights, this is backward. It is not because we are already open to reason that we are ethically open to others. It is through “the welcoming of [others] that the will opens to reason.” We do not respond to others’ needs because we are reasonable; being reasonable is itself “a response to . . . a face, [who already] speaks.” The structure of reason, theoretical or practical, does not produce ethical obligation. On the contrary, “the . . . ethical [is] the . . . irreducible structure upon which all other structures rest” (TI 79).

The implications of Levinas’s project are, for reason-centered philosophy, nothing short of Copernican. For a tradition that chiefly speaks of reasons to be for the other and of being for the other because of reason, there is no more radical critique than the counter-claims that our encounter with the Other is what makes us reason-able and that the-one-for-the-other is reason. Yet after over nearly four decades in English, the impact of Levinas’s project on reason-centered philosophy has been decidedly less than Copernican. Why? [End Page 121]

A large part of the answer is this: when these philosophers ask how a claim of reason could result from the claim of ethics, they are quite properly referred to the face — only to be told the face itself is inexplicable. To the follow-up queries “But what is it? And why does it have this effect rather than another?” the questioners are referred to Levinas’s comments on what the face “is” — namely, “other-ness,” “alterity,” “vulnerability,” and “exposure to wounds and outrage.” But these references strike earnest investigators as rhapsodies or Continental catechisms: poetically rich and propositionally poor. Worse, they fail to address — much less answer — the second question. To say that the face, qua otherness, commands us is not to show how it has this effect. The former without the latter gives the perplexed no reason to suppose the vulnerability, otherness, or alterity of others produces responsibility rather than something else entirely — say, subconscious rivalry or prereflective resentment. Finally, though it is common for Levinasians to deny that any further account of the face can be given, the absence of an explanatory link between the face and its responsibility-inducing function has a formidably high cost.1 For without an account of how the face generates obligation there can be no account of how we are opened to reason by it. If we do not say how the face provokes an original ethical imperative, we cannot say how reason is ethically provoked. This means treating the face as an unsplitable explanatory atom is unacceptable by Levinas’s own lights. For that “the first rationality gleams forth in . . . the face to face” is not merely an explanatory aspiration at which Levinas gestures. It is something that, by the end of Otherwise than Being, he thinks he has shown.

But this halt to Levinas’s Copernicanism about reason is unnecessary. We can explain what the face is and how the face does what it does. We can do so within the explanatory strictures Levinas sets out, using resources Levinas himself provides. With Kantian reason and respect as a foil and orienting point, I will describe the nature of the face’s alterity and show how this alterity “becomes [ethical] proximity . . . understood as responsibility.” And I will show how responsibility — a prereflective [End Page 122] obligation to one another we accept without a reason to do so — is a responsibility to which Kantian reason is itself a perpetual response.

A quick note on method: Levinas has a vexed relationship with explanation that, in the language of the following, I have simplified. Granted: reperforming Levinas’s endless and eloquent struggles — to both say and unsay, to speak in the present about what was never present, to at once assert and evoke — is required for a full understanding of him. But my humbler goal here — or humbler meta-goal — is to defend Levinas as explainer, without ignoring these other registers in and of his work. I will...


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