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

Jacques Derrida

Emmanuel Levinas

In my previous project I looked at some of the key philosophical issues around Christian Origins. The conclusion was that a Moral Influence interpretation of the Cross can counter a Penal Substitution one. The two key sections were about Luke-Acts with Ehrman and Goicoeceha. We read:

LUKE (Ehrman)

  • And it is striking to note that the verses, as familiar as they are, do not represent Luke’s own understanding of the death of Jesus.  For it is a striking feature of Luke’s portrayal of Jesus death — this may sound strange at first — that he never, anywhere else, indicates that the death itself is what brings salvation from sin.  Nowhere in Luke’s entire two volume work (Luke and Acts), is Jesus’ death said to be “for you.”  And in fact, on the two occasions in which Luke’s source Mark indicates that it was by Jesus’ death that salvation came (Mark 10:4515:39), Luke changed the wording of the text (or eliminated it).  Luke, in other words, has a different understanding of the way Jesus death leads to salvation from Mark (and from Paul, and other early Christian writers). It is easy to see Luke’s own distinctive view by considering what he has to say in the book of Acts, where the apostles give a number of speeches in order to convert others to the faith.  What is striking is that in none of these instances (look, e.g., in chapters 3, 4, 13), do the apostles indicate that Jesus’ death brings atonement for sins.  It is not that Jesus’ death is unimportant.  It’s extremely important for Luke.  But not as an atonement.  Instead, Jesus death is what makes people realize their guilt before God (since he died even though he was innocent).  Once people recognize their guilt, they turn to God in repentance, and then he forgives their sins. Jesus’ death for Luke, in other words, drives people to repentance, and it is this repentance that brings salvation (Ehrman)

ACTS (Goicoechea)

  • As they were stoning him, Stephen said “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and said out loud, “Lord do not hold this sin against them.”
  • Paul had always believed in the Jewish double command of love: Love the Lord, your God, with your whole heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself. (Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18) What happened when he experienced Jesus’ love in Stephen is that Paul’s understanding of “neighbor” began to change. The Jew thought that his neighbor was his fellow Jew. But Stephen loved each and every person as his neighbor and he especially loved his enemies and his persecutors (Goicoechea 76). Paul’s conversion took him to a new solution to the problem of suffering which he saw in Stephen and in Jesus who showed that a passionate and graceful suffering for others was a way of loving that could reveal the worth of all suffering. Just as Stephen had lovingly suffered for Paul so now Paul spent his life suffering for others to teach them its worth. (Goicoechea).

So, we see that we move beyond the Jewish ethics of loving widow, orphan, and stranger more than myself, to also loving enemy as more important than myself. Given this context, let’s do a general overview of Derrida’s ethics, one of the most famous and cryptic philosophers, and one of the founding fathers of postmodernism. I’ll be following Goicoechea’s presentation.

Derrida’s thought is closely related to Levinas, so we will treat the 2 together. In Levinas’s Totality and Infinity, Levinas argues:

  • My world is a totality and I try to control every aspect of it. I might even explain it to myself and others with a philosophical theory that gives an account of its beginning, its process, and its purpose. Each person‘s religious worldview could let him or her order everything in a totality that again makes sense of all the parts. But, according to Levinas, the face of the other can call me out of my totality into an infinity of responsibility of care for others...Levinas sees ethics in the West as a self-realization ethics in which I will be virtuous in order than I might be happy but he sees Judaism as having an ethics that looks out for the good of the other and especially for the needs of widows, orphans, and aliens who look to me for help.

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) (p. 47). Pickwick Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

So, with the early Levinas we have an ethics of the downtrodden, but we are not yet at an ethics of loving your enemy more than yourself. Still, this is wisdom of love, rather than love of wisdom, distinguishing Hebraic ethics from Hellenic ethics:

  • In Totality and Infinity Levinas’s main point is that Jewish ethics is based upon a belief in a bond of responsibility between all members of the family of man and I should be responsible to the face of others especially widows, orphans, and aliens. Levinas moves from the image of widows, orphans, and aliens to that of the suffering servant who reveals the glory of God by suffering for others with love. I can enjoy each thing within my world and the peace of this enjoyment is the first form of my egoism, which is a movement by which my self-centered life is a being for-itself. But then the face of the other can look at me and make a demand upon me and I can become responsible to the other. If I in my totality welcome the other I discover that they can make infinite demands upon me and thus infinity invades my world by making more claims than I can imagine. In my world I can enjoy others but if I respond to the call of the other and become responsible to him or her my responsibility is not a pleasure but a pain and an affliction in which I welcome my neighbor so that he is more important than myself. Welcoming the other’s infinite demands becomes more important to me than the totality of my own world. In a footnote he says that the “you” is the “you” of majesty in contrast to the “thou” of intimacy so that widows, orphans, aliens, and any one whose face pleads with need is my lord and master and thus they have a special height and majesty (49).

It is in this ethic of caring for the other more than myself that we are going to see the “me voici,” “here I am.” Goicoechea comments:

  • On pages 68 and 69 of Totality and Infinity Levinas says that he does not have the ridiculous pretension of “correcting” Buber, but he is critical of the mutuality of the I-Thou relation and thereby thinks of our responsibility called forth by the face of the other as a “me voici” relation rather than an “I-Thou” relation in order to give the other that height of being more important than myself. For Levinas the I is the subject of my totality that is nourished by enjoyment and will kill for a crust of bread in preferring self. The me of the “me voici,” the “here is me” at your service, is the me of the … responsible self who will give the bread out of my mouth to the other (50).

So this is a general idea of what the early Levinas is doing. We will see how Derrida critiques Totality and Infinity which then invites Levinas to move beyond this to his later Otherwise Than Being Or Beyond Essence.