CONCLUSION, General Interest Postmodern Philosophy: Introduction To Derrida/Levinas On Ethics / Religion (part 3/3)


General Interest Postmodern Philosophy: Introduction To Derrida/Levinas On Ethics / Religion (part 1)

General Interest Postmodern Philosophy: Introduction To Derrida/Levinas On Ethics / Religion (part 2)

Now, the conclusion,

What I tried to do with this introduction was present the theologically charged postmodernism of Derrida and Levinas with the hope we can ignore the theological element to see there is genuine philosophy here. For postmodern thinkers beginning with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, there is going to be something in Jesus rethinking the Hebrew tradition, augmenting it, that is going to bring about the possibility of a new ethics (eg, adultery is not just the act, but even a lustful eye).  So, there is not just going to be bearing it when an enemy slaps you, but turning the other cheek so he can slap that one too.  Jesus thus distinguished what he is doing from the Hebraic and gentile ethical traditions when he redefines love of neighbor as:

  • 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the gentiles do the same?

The idea is there is something in asking God to forgive your persecutor rather than cursing them that will inspire the enemy to rethink their terrible ways, like the centurion at the cross for Jesus, or Stephen for Paul in Acts.  This transformational power of the excess of undeserved evil is precisely what opened God’s eyes to what he was doing to Job: “3 The Lord said to the accuser (Satan), “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason. (Job 2:3)”

There is going to be something in an ethics from Socrates to Derrida that will acknowledge the aporia, the idea that we hover over the abyss of indecidability.  Derrida gives the example of the hedgehog who is crossing the road because of the other, and hears a car barreling down on him.  Since rolling into a ball has always protected him from danger in the past, he calculates that this is also the best option now.  So, he rolls into a ball and gets squished by the car, whereas if he just kept walking he would be fine.  Ethical decisions are like this, in that we try to maximize benefit and reduce violence with our decisions, but due to unintended consequences we may unintentionally cause more harm than if we’d done nothing at all.  Goicoechea comments:

  • When Derrida thinks about Levinas’s ethics he appreciates the infinity of things so much that he is skeptical about totality. We may think we know a totality but we never really can.  In following the Socratic aporetic ethics Derrida begins to deconstruct Levinas’s non-skeptical logic of exclusive opposites. As Derrida develops his aporetic ethics in which deconstruction is justice he opts for a metaphysics of excess and a logic of mixed opposites. (57-8)

It is because Levinas never comes to appreciate in Kierkegaard’s Works of Love the idea of loving the other more than yourself that he never full makes the postmodern turn that Derrida does – that does not primarily will one’s own salvation but others.  Goicoechea comments:

  • Derrida would see Levinas as an advocate of pure giving which is impossible because there is always a return for any gift I give. The asymmetrical relation between me and widows, orphans and  aliens is such that for Levinas I expect nothing in return but Derrida argues that there will be all kinds of unexpected returns. As a Jew I might feel happy and proud that I take care of the poor and do not participate in a caste system helping the rich. Levinas took such criticism to heart and in Otherwise Than Being he made the asymmetry even greater with his suffering servant. When I offer my cheek to the smitter I suffer so much in my giving it is hard to say that I receive some gift in return. (68)

But how do we reconcile altruism with self-love? 

  • In Second Isaiah there are four Suffering Servant poetic pieces that Mark in the first Synoptic Gospel applies to Jesus. Levinas’ philosophy has the same structure as Mark’s Gospel. First in Galilee Jesus goes about caring for widows, orphans, and aliens. Then he goes up to Jerusalem and Mark shows him as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah who offers himself even for those killing him. The early Levinas takes responsibility for widows, orphans, and aliens. The later Levinas portrays the hostage being persecuted for others. (69)  This obligation, which is one of Jewish justice, has to do with my being a host and a hostage for every other even if his face is not calling me because there is a nearness to every human that obligates us to become our brother’s keeper and lover. This is what the wisdom of love can teach me as it serves love. This wisdom of love originates in the responsibility of one for the other. This is what makes Levinas postmodern in that he goes beyond the social contract theories that originate in a war of all against all.  When the face of the other calls me I should respond with caring love. But when the third then appears looking at us I see that I am responsible for him and all others as well and being a host for any other makes me a hostage to all near me in proximity (70).

So, this is not a self-realization ethics of virtue being practiced in order for us to be happy, but rather for the other to be happy.  The material needs of my neighbor are my spiritual needs.  We are the suffering servant whose neighbor’s guilt and pain is not only his, but ours.  In their view of themselves as the suffering servant the Jews came to see themselves as persecuted by other, which then allowed them to see themselves as persecuted for others.

  • As a witness the face of the other will bring me to humility with its infinity that is so high and weighted with such a holy worth. As a witness I do admit even before any theology that the other is so wonderfully glorious that I can spend my life as a  suffering servant trying to aid others as they call for my aid. Once the third comes and sees me doing this and begins to respond to my witness the justice of all this can be called into question and so philosophy can begin (73)
  • Luther declared that “I stand alone before God.” And the social contract theories off Hobbes and Locke assume that there is no natural bond between all persons so we have to produce a conventional bond. For the modernist every man and every state is an island and none of us are part of the main as each region has its religion. Derrida does write about persons as he writes about Patochka almost as if he is saying that within Judaism there is not an idea of person as you find it rooted in the trinity in Christianity. But still for Derrida the Jewish people do form a community and hesed and ahava which call for a responsibility of duty love and felt love for all Jewish persons and especially the needy. So Derrida is a postmodernist in his emphasis on ethics (275)

The problem for Jesus with Derrida isn’t Jesus’s ethics, but the fact that Jesus was a person who those ethics were attached to, and hence resulted in endless violence and war because they claim they to be the only way.  Derrida argued for a Jewish ethics grounded in hesed and ahava.  Goicoechea concludes:

  • In the last chapter of The Gift of Death in the chapter entitled “Every Other is Wholly Other” Derrida discusses the passages from The Sermon on the Mount which have to do with giving. But when thou doest alms; let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: that thine alms may be in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. (Matt. 6:1–4)  Jesus the Messiah preached a pure giving in which his people should love their enemy and give without expecting any return. (285)

Many Jews did not believe in a heavenly reward as Christ promised and retained and eye for an eye view of justice.  Love of enemies resulted in happiness in heaven, so in this way Christian agape moves beyond Jewish hesed and ahava.  The ideal then is to pray for those who oppose you and wish you harm.  If we get the wisdom of love we will be able to love everyone as Holy: which means my responsibility for you and the justice between all of us.  Jesus completed Jewish hesed and ahava by teaching a salvation that touched all (Luke 3:6).  This thinking is very indebted to Kant who showed my responsibility to others is older than my freedom.  As we see when we contrast with animals and certain mentally challenged individuals, I am attached to all my actions as being morally responsible for them.  If the dog chews up the couch we don’t take moral offence because the dog doesn’t know any better.

If we look beyond the theology and superstition, I think we can find some genuine philosophical insight here!


Goicoechea, David L.. Agape and Hesed-Ahava: With Levinas-Derrida and Matthew at Mt. Angel and St. Thomas (A Doxology of Reconciliation) (PES / Postmodern Ethics Book 7). Pickwick Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.