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  • Montaigne and the Levinasian Other
  • Zahi Zalloua

In his review blurb of Cosmopolis: the Hidden Agenda of Modernity, Richard Rorty attests to Montaigne's focal role in Stephen Toulmin's thought-provoking call to reconfigure the origins of Modernity: "By showing how different the last three centuries would have been if Montaigne, rather than Descartes, had been taken as a starting point, Toulmin helps destroy the illusion that the Cartesian quest for certainty is intrinsic to the nature of science or philosophy."1 Although Toulmin's concern with certainty is more or less an epistemological one, reflecting the author's 'postmodern' aversion to the hegemony of Cartesian thought, I wish to explore what Montaigne's alternative modernity, his pre- or early modern sensibility might mean for today's continental ethics, an ethics that is notably marked by the works of Emmanuel Levinas. While remaining keenly aware of the differences between the two figures, I will proceed by first highlighting some of Levinas' central ideas, before turning to the nature of Montaigne's own relation to alterity.

Not unlike Toulmin, Levinas finds highly problematic the Cartesian definition of philosophy, where "knowledge is always an adequation between thought and what it thinks."2 But, for Levinas, there is no movement or yearning to return to a moment prior to Descartes in Western philosophy. In fact, his understanding of Western metaphysics is strikingly monolithic, since, for him, all prior philosophies and philosophers, from Plato to Heidegger, have in one way or another thematized and reduced the other's alterity to an economy of the same. The Cartesian cogito is emblematic of this economy, in which the world, the self, and others are all potential objects of willful mastery: "'I think,'" writes Levinas, "comes down to 'I can'—to an appropriation of what is, to an exploitation of reality."3 Against the Cartesian quest for certainty and mastery, or, more generally, the reduction of philosophy to epistemology, where a preoccupation with comprehension dominates, Levinas argues for ethics as first philosophy—that is, for an ethics that "precedes all ontology" (TI 48)—placing one's relation to the other at the center of philosophical reflection.

But who is this Levinasian other? At times, Levinas' other appears to designate any marginalized figure, any excluded other. He offers his own examples: the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the Jew.4 But more generally, we could say that the other as other is anyone who resists my identification and domestication of him or her: the face of the other—the face of my neighbor, for instance—"exceed[s] the idea of the other in me" (TI 49). This [End Page 86] moment of cognitive frustration, which simultaneously brings into question my autonomy, spontaneity and self-sufficiency, is what Levinas names ethics. Reaffirming the priority of ethics over ontology, Levinas highlights the priority of sensibility (the body) over cognition (the mind): "to be exposed to sickness, suffering, death, is to be exposed to compassion,"5 he contends. Levinas effectively dethrones the authority of reason and the Kantian ideal of autonomy (rational freedom) in favor of a perpetual state of vulnerability and heteronomy where freedom occupies a secondary role to compassion. Readers of the Essais will recognize that Montaigne also makes the exposure to the other central to his ethical thinking. In "De la cruauté" (II, 11), for example, Montaigne challenges a long tradition of self-care. An emblematic figure of this philosophical culture is Seneca, for whom ethics has everything to do with a self-willed agency, with the overcoming of obstacles and attainment of self-mastery. Montaigne, for his part, lacks this obsession with the cultivation of a virtuous self; what moves Montaigne is not an idea of virtue or goodness but the actual suffering of others: "(a) je me compassionne fort tendrement des afflictions d'autruy [...] (c) Il n'est rien qui tente mes larmes que les larmes."6 In this respect, we could say that Montaigne's ethical "I" is responsive rather than originative; it is not self-generated but essentially formed through its response to the other, through its exposure to suffering and cruelty.7

Displacing the privileged status of reason in ancient and...


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