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Giving an Account of Oneself

Judith Butler

Publication Year: 2005

What does it mean to lead a moral life?In her first extended study of moral philosophy, Judith Butler offers a provocative outline for a new ethical practice-one responsive to the need for critical autonomy and grounded in a new sense of the human subject.Butler takes as her starting point one's ability to answer the questions What have I done?and What ought I to do?She shows that these question can be answered only by asking a prior question, Who is this 'I' who is under an obligation to give an account of itself and to act in certain ways?Because I find that I cannot give an account of myself without accounting for the social conditions under which I emerge, ethical reflection requires a turn to social theory.In three powerfully crafted and lucidly written chapters, Butler demonstrates how difficult it is to give an account of oneself, and how this lack of self-transparency and narratibility is crucial to an ethical understanding of the human. In brilliant dialogue with Adorno, Levinas, Foucault, and other thinkers, she eloquently argues the limits, possibilities, and dangers of contemporary ethical thought.Butler offers a critique of the moral self, arguing that the transparent, rational, and continuous ethical subject is an impossible construct that seeks to deny the specificity of what it is to be human. We can know ourselves only incompletely, and only in relation to a broader social world that has always preceded us and already shaped us in ways we cannot grasp. If inevitably we are partially opaque to ourselves, how can giving an account of ourselves define the ethical act? And doesn't an ethical system that holds us impossibly accountable for full self-knowledge and self-consistency inflict a kind of psychic violence, leading to a culture of self-beratement and cruelty? How does the turn to social theory offer us a chance to understand the specifically social character of our own unknowingness about ourselves?In this invaluable book, by recasting ethics as a project in which being ethical means becoming critical of norms under which we are asked to act, but which we can never fully choose, Butler illuminates what it means for us as fallible creaturesto create and share an ethics of vulnerability, humility, and ethical responsiveness. Judtith Butler is the Maxine Elliot Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. The most recent of her books are Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence and Undoing Gender.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Title Page

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pp. v

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pp. vii-viii

The chapters of this book were originally given as the Spinoza Lectures for the Department of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam in the spring of 2002. I am grateful to Hent de Vries for extending that generous invitation and for the opportunity to work...


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pp. ix-x

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Chapter 1: An Account of Oneself

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pp. 3-40

I would like to begin by considering how it might be possible to pose the question of moral philosophy, a question that has to do with conduct and, hence, with doing, within a contemporary social frame. To pose this question in this way is already to admit to a prior thesis, namely, that moral questions not only emerge in the...

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Chapter 2: Against Ethical Violence

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pp. 41-82

An ability to affirm what is contingent and incoherent in oneself may allow one to affirm others who may or may not ‘‘mirror’’ one’s own constitution. There is, after all, always the tacit operation of the mirror in Hegel’s concept of reciprocal recognition, since I must somehow see that the other is like me, and see that the other is...

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Chapter 3: Responsibility

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pp. 83-136

So, according to the kind of theory I have been pursuing here, what will responsibility look like? Haven’t we, by insisting on something non-narrativizable, limited the degree to which we might hold ourselves or others accountable for their actions? I want to suggest that the very meaning of responsibility must be rethought on the basis of...


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pp. 137-146


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pp. 147-149

E-ISBN-13: 9780823246779
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823225033
Print-ISBN-10: 0823225038

Page Count: 160
Publication Year: 2005