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Aspects of Alterity

Levinas, Marcel, and the Contemporary Debate

Brian Treanor

Publication Year: 2006

Every other is truly other, but no other is wholly other.This is the claim that Aspects of Alterity defends. Taking up the question of otherness that so fascinates contemporary continental philosophy, this book asks what it means for something or someone to be other than the self. Levinas and those influenced by him point out that the philosophical tradition of the West has generally favored the self at the expense of the other. Such a self-centered perspective never encounters the other qua other, however. In response, postmodern thought insists on the absolute otherness of the other, epitomized by the deconstructive claim every other is wholly other.But absolute otherness generates problems and aporias of its own. This has led some thinkers to reevaluate the notion of relative otherness in light of the postmodern critique, arguing for a chiastic account that does justice to both the alterity and the similitude of the other. These latter two positions-absolute otherness and a rehabilitated account of relative otherness-are the main contenders in the contemporary debate.The philosophies of Emmanuel Levinas and Gabriel Marcel provide the point of embarkation for coming to understand the two positions on this question. Levinas and Marcel were contemporaries whose philosophies exhibit remarkably similar concern for the other but nevertheless remain fundamentally incompatible. Thus, these two thinkers provide a striking illustration of both the proximity of and the unbridgeable gap between two accounts of otherness.Aspects of Alterity delves into this debate, first in order understand the issues at stake in these two positions and second to determine which description better accounts for the experience of encountering the other.After a thorough assessment and critique of otherness in Levinas's and Marcel's work, including a discussion of the relationship of ethical alterity to theological assumptions, Aspects of Alterity traces the transmission and development of these two conceptions of otherness. Levinas's version of otherness can be seen in the work of Jacques Derrida and John D. Caputo, while Marcel's understanding of otherness influences the work of Paul Ricoeur and Richard Kearney.Ultimately, Aspects of Alterity makes a case for a hermeneutic account of otherness. Otherness itself is not absolute, but is a chiasm of alterity and similitude. Properly articulated, such an account is capable of addressing the legitimate ethical and epistemological concerns that lead thinkers to construe otherness in absolute terms, but without the absolute aporiasthat accompany such a characterization.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Title Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. xi-xii

I wish to thank the professors who helped to inspire, shape, and encourage my own enthusiasm for philosophy. The faculty members of California State University, Long Beach, and Boston College were uniformly helpful and supportive, especially Daniel Guerrie`re, Richard Cobb-Stevens, and Jacques Taminiaux. Richard Kearney has, in...

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1. The Question of Otherness

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pp. 1-10

We are told that our postmodern age is characterized by the breakdown of Grand (or ‘‘Master’’) Narratives, the overarching systems that allow us to make sense of the world as a unified whole, as a cosmos rather than a chaos. In his famous report on knowledge, Jean-Francois Lyotard asserts that ‘‘incredulity toward...

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2. Emmanuel Levinas

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pp. 11-51

These passages, both alluded to by Levinas in various places, underscore the impetus of his thought, which argues that ethical responsibility is more fundamental than ontology, inverting twenty-five hundred years of philosophy by showing that ‘‘man’s relation to the other is prior to his ontological relation to himself (egology) or to the...

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3. Gabriel Marcel

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pp. 52-91

Just as the previous chapter sketched an outline of Levinas’s thought, this chapter will summarize some of the significant elements in Marcel’s diverse and unsystematic work. The format will follow that of the previous chapter: a general summary, followed by a description of intersubjectivity and alterity, and a final focus on love...

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4. Transcendental Philosophy

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pp. 92-121

The preceding chapters should illustrate both that Marcel and Levinas philosophize in an exceedingly similar, though by no means identical, manner and that there are several significant details on which they are in diametric opposition. Building on these propaedeutic chapters, we must address these points of convergence and...

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5. Concrete Philosophy

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pp. 122-149

The previous chapter examined Levinas’s transcendental critique, assessed its applicability to Marcel’s work, and offered some hypothetical Marcelian responses. This critique argued for the transcendental priority of the infinite over being—that is, the priority of the Infinite as the condition for the possibility of truth, subjectivity...

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6. The Other and God

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pp. 150-195

The preceding chapters have portrayed Emmanuel Levinas and Gabriel Marcel as two philosophers who share a similar vocation, although it is a vocation that manifests itself in dissimilar—even contradictory—ways in their respective philosophies. This shared vocation reveals itself in the emphasis, common to both...

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7. The Nature of Otherness

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pp. 196-270

The title of this work promises more than a confrontation between the philosophies of Emmanuel Levinas and Gabriel Marcel, and the time has come to make good on that promise. The comparison of Levinas and Marcel has, to be sure, been interesting in terms of addressing the perplexing incompatibility of two philosophers who are...


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pp. 271-338

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 339-348


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pp. 349-358

Perspectives in Continental Philosophy

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pp. 359-361

E-ISBN-13: 9780823247455
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823226849
Print-ISBN-10: 0823226840

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2006