Monday, October 26, 2015


223. Levinas and Lacan

I contrasted Levinas, with his philosophy of the other, and Nietzsche, with his ‘will to power’, in item 63 of this blog, and in a book[i]. Like many others, I judged that Levinas went too far in his unconditional surrender to the other, being his/her ‘hostage’. Where does that leave the subject, as an agent, as responsible for its own flourishing? On the other hand, Nietzsche went overboard in his superagency, will to power, will to overcome resistance, in the urge of a flourishing life.

I countered Nietzsche with the argument that in order to flourish the self needs opposition from the other, in order to learn, to be rid of its prejudices and myopia, to achieve the highest form of freedom, including freedom from the prison of the self. And then, I countered Levinas with the argument that if I merit opposition from the other for my flourishing, then the other similarly deserves opposition from me.    

Here, enlightened by a book by Mari Rutti[ii], I consider the contrast between Levinas and Lacan (with Zizek as a follower). Both Levinas and Lacan engage in ‘philosophy of the other’, recognizing that the self is socially constituted, but morally Lacan goes in the opposite direction. Instead of surrendering to the other he wants to fight free from its imposition, and to grasp freedom outside the strictures imposed by the public symbolic order.

In the opposition between Levinas and Lacan I find myself in a position similar to that between Levinas and Nietzsche. One the one hand I find myself ethically attracted to Levinas’ commitment to the other in his/her vulnerability and suffering. On the other hand I sympathise with Nietzsche and Lacan, in their defence of agency and the flourishing of life against the terrorizing or suffocating imposition of conformance and sacrifice to the other. Again I argue that one needs to ‘let the other in’, and to some extent indeed yield to the other (in ‘passivity’, as Levinas put it), but not only for ethical reasons but also for cognitive and spiritual reasons, as a source of a flourishing life, and then also offer the other to let me in to contribute to his/her flourishing (and hence also be ‘active’).

There is nothing unusual about this. This is normal interaction: the alternation of reception and offer, active and passive.  

Here as elsewhere, like an Aristotelian I try to find a good ‘middle’ between extremes, in the same way that one needs to find a good middle between recklessness and courage, altruism and self-interest, trust and control, openness and secretiveness, aggressiveness and defensiveness, and so on. Where the proper middle is depends on circumstances. In some conditions an extreme may be called for.

This is connected with my stance concerning universals, discussed in the preceding item in this blog. They are seldom strict, and how they apply varies. Finding the proper degree, balance, depending on conditions, is a task for ‘practical wisdom’. We may be inspired by virtuosi in it, as role models. Albert Schweizer, Gandhi, Mandela, perhaps.

Is this too loose, allowing for too many escapes or loopholes? Are there no universals that apply across all contexts, unconditionally? In the preceding item I pleaded for moral universals with the widest possible scope, short of unconditional strictness. To see the limits of some principle is not to deny its force.

At this point I mobilize the distinction I made, in the preceding item, between normative and intentional universals. One needs to draw normative boundaries beyond which one is not prepared to go, as long as there are no convincing countervailing arguments or warrants. But under the wider umbrella of intentional universality one can go beyond that, to understand motives, perhaps sympathize with them, even while acting against them. In a later item I will argue how such understanding of transgression may next yield a starting point for debating and considering a shift of moral universals.

If this is on the level of individuals among each other, how about the relation between individual and collective, between ethics and the public system of justice? That is the subject for the following item. 
      



[i] Bart Nooteboom, 2012, Beyond humanism: The flourishing of life, self and other, Palgrave MacMillan.
[ii] Mari Rutti, 2015, Between Levinas and Lacan; Self, other, ethics, Bloomsbury.