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591 20 “Faith is fidelity … to the conscience” Coleridge’s Ontology Like most of those who, since late antiquity, participated in the ongoing clarification of person as an ontological idea, Coleridge emphasizes that the reality of the human being depends on an act of “recognition.” Beginning with his sharply worded, though always carefully reasoned arguments against the practice of slavery, Coleridge had understood “recognition” not merely as some abstract metaphysical injunction but, like person itself, as something woven into the very fabric of human existence. It is not something electively introduced into the empirical reality of communities and interpersonal relations but constitutive of that very reality. For even to imagine that one might not acknowledge the other as person but, instead, willfully treat him or her as a “thing” would strike us, no less than Coleridge, as inherently “dehumanizing”—not only of the other’s but also of our own self.1 Such abuses may well happen—indeed they often do—but they can never plausibly be justified as such but only by laborious schemes of circumlocution and re-description. Hence to say that recognition implies the practical acknowledgment of the other as being of equal dignity as the “I” means not so much to have advanced a neutral and formally 1. The OED credits Coleridge with the first use of “dehumanizing,” a word that appears in a notebook entry of 24 March 1808 (CN, no. 3281); see A. Taylor, Coleridge’s Defense, 13. 592 retrieving the human­contestable claim but to have grasped how the empirical, inter-subjective realm is saturated with normative values or ideas. Inasmuch as questions of community and relationality are matters of truth, not correctness, normativity signifies not in the manner of a “thou shalt” but, instead, points to the nature of the real itself and thus proves immune to some counterfactual scenario. What “recognition” of the other qua person thus denotes, and what renders it normative or “transcendent”—as opposed to some subjective “moral” choice or preference—is the intercalation of ontology and ethics. Recognition attests to the absolute givenness of community and, consequently, the incontestable reality of the good—to be conceived not as a speculative hypothesis but as an invitation, a possibility, a gift. Negatively put, community is not simply a function of technē; it can never be achieved by the conceptual and propositional logic of political argument. Nor should it be reduced to some distant utopia to be realized by the vociferous and adversarial transactionalism of liberalism ’s so-called public sphere (Jürgen Habermas’s Öffentlichkeit). For while open and earnest debate over what constitutes a just, equitable, and humane community is a crucial component of our collective flourishing, its underlying prompt is that community is not simply a “construct” (or “contract”) but something ontologically given; and human thought can (and ought to) relate to this very givenness with ever increasing articulacy. For Emmanuel Levinas, community is “produced within the general economy of being only as proceeding from the I to the other, as a face to face” (TI, 39); its core unit is the reality of the person in relation to a Thou, not an abstract political the­ orem. Opposing Heidegger’s Fundamentalontologie, Levinas insists that for us to understand the I as person “it is necessary to begin with the concrete relationship between an I and a world” (TI, 37). Though working from within different intellectual and religious genealogies than the ones traced thus far (the exception being a shared engagement with phenomenology), Levinas reaches remarkably similar conclusions to those progressively articulated by Boethius and Richard of St. Victor. First and foremost, the I or self cannot be grasped by a unilateral and self-certifying act of definition. Levinas’s objection here is not simply epistemological in nature. Thus he regards the modern ideal of “autonomy” as both epistemologically inco­ herent and, to the extent that one seeks to pursue it all the same, deeply unethical. An extreme version of that project would be Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s deduction of I and non-I in the 1794 Science of Knowledge, for it causes alterity to be “reabsorbed into my own identity as a thinker or a possessor.” In sharp contrast to such models of selfhood as proprietas and dominium, Levinas locates the essence of personhood in what he calls “metaphysical desire.” Tending “toward something else entirely, toward the absolutely other,” such desire is aimed at the realization of a potential within the desiring subject, rather than at extinguishing...


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