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Levinas - Psychology Research and Critique


For Levinas, the self becomes ethical when the self turns from its focus on its own freedom and power to recognizing its responsibility to other people (Marcus 40). This awareness and ethical responsibility toward others is taken not merely as a normative judgment in relation to a life properly lived, but is given even greater significance as a 'primary characteristic' of human life (ibid.). Levinas actually opposes freedom to responsibility, not in that these two are competing concepts, but rather that people achieve in their own lives differing amounts of freedom and responsibility. As noted earlier, individual freedom is something like a function of the ego, whereas responsibility is ethical and concerns the Other. Levinas makes responsibility ethical when he opposes it to the self-serving strive for freedom and claims that ethics behooves us, when confronted with a choice between achieving more freedom and acting responsibly, we always ought to choose the responsible act. Indeed, there can be a competition in one's own life between achieving freedom (and this point is perhaps accentuated when note that 'freedom' can sometimes mean freedom from the Other) and taking on more and more responsibility.


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Levinas claims that the individual psyche is indeed just a presence of the Other in the 'same', that is, the mind is an arena for working out the problems the self-same mind is confronted with by the existence of the Other (Marcus 41). Ethics is responsible, for Levinas, for interrupting the 'totalizing' tendency of Enlightenment rationalism which de-mystifies and ignores the individual as an object or subject of study or even enthusiasm because the uniqueness of an individual is ignored at the same time that it is known in the limited sense that the recognized phenomena of sex, pleasure, and religion are these things that are known to rationalism and are its objects of study (ibid.). So with rationalism, Levinas feels that whatever is 'in' the individual apart from the study of known 'facts' is ignored; the whole individual is in some way reduced to the aspects of it that can be studied under the rationalist program. So Levinas feels that it is only ethics which creates a space in which the individual can be viewed as something other than the sum of his or her rationalist behaviors or thought-components. And ethics comes about as a result of the confrontation of the self with the Other; freedom or ethical action, indeed even the self do not exist except when a person exists in a community of Others. The confrontation with the Other indeed shows to oneself that one is indeed a self that is separate from the Other. The fact that the confrontation with or recognition of the Other turns a person into a 'self' is the first step toward a person's own recognition that it is in fact a separate self with its own qualities, uniqueness, etc.

Levinas Research
The self only becomes rational when surrounded with a community of other people (Marcus 43). The self is able to use rationality to set its own course exactly because, in the community within which it exists, it must be able to in order to behave ethically. As noted above, the self must make free choices to behave ethically, responsibly. The person who makes free choices to extricate herself form social relations in fact is using her (socially-mediated) freedom in an unethical way, as she is moving away from, rather than toward, responsible action within her community. Two options confront the self when presented with the problem or the 'face' of the Other; the self can either choose to behave responsibly, considering the ethical implications of the Other and acting upon them, or it may choose to behave irresponsibly by reacting to the 'face' of the Other with rejection and aggression (ibid.).

Neurotic guilt can be linked with a failure to live up to responsibility of self to the Other. Levinas is present here in the idea that responsibility to the Other is the root of freedom, and that disappointment of this responsibility to Other according to self is what forms guilt, according to Marcus. Neurotic guilt is a lesser, self defensive technique supposed to be used by people when they are not able to confront the full implications of their shirking of their moral responsibility to others (Marcus 53). Full recognition of the failure of responsibility to others is termed by Marcus to be 'genuine' guilt, and the emotional pain of realizing genuine guilt is much greater than that which comes from the tactical, smaller scale neurotic guilt (ibid.). Even the person who experiences neurotic guilt in place of genuine guilt knows on some basic psychological level that he has put his own needs and wishes forth in a way that compromised his responsibility to promoting the 'best interests' of the Other (Marcus 55). Buber also voices his view on the topic of guilt when stating that this kind of genuine guilt forces the guilty party to have heavy guilt feelings the ultimate result or aim of which is 'reconciliation' (Marcus 56).

Levinas also wrote extensively on his own concept of shame. Shame is described as a form of 'bad conscious' in which one has feelings, not too far from guilt, as a result of an act, perhaps unethical, which has been noticed by the Other and from which one can expect a reprisal or consequence of some sort (Dalton 14). This shame was used by Levinas in an attack on the late German Idealist thinking Johann Fichte who claimed that man's world was created by his own absolute ego (though his position is a bit more complex than this would make it appear). Regardless, Levinas's point with his critique of Fichte was to emphasize that shame is an emotion or feeling or state in which the shamed party exhibits 'passive' bad conscious as a result of selfish acts; that is, when the self has violated his responsibility to act ethically toward the Other, in the community of others. Shame can also result from the complex interplay of personal reputation to a self's call by the Other to act responsibly, as although shame may be wrongly or simplistically viewed as a selfish or 'narcissistic' reaction at what the self views as a sudden decline in her own reputation, it is the fact that this decline can only take place in a community of others that it has such emotional weight to bear on the self and his image, which is basically her view of her self through her self-constructed lens that simulates the Other's view of her self.

In fact this simplistic reading of Levinas's views on shame is wrong. Levinas does not focus on the kind of guilt that arises out of a personal mistake before the Other, but rather the kind of guilt that arises simply as coming into view and being examined by the Other. Here is where the passivity of shame comes into play. In fact this guilt comes about not because of normative faults in the self, but rather due to the simple facts of its existence; that is, things outside its control in view of which the self is absolutely helpless in the face to face with the Other (Dalton 15). This passivity is indeed a departure from commonsense interpretations of the concept of shame, and Levinas feels that this radical reading in some way demonstrates the latent yet always there power of the Other, against which the self is basically defenseless. It is in view of this defenselessness that dialogical thinking, dialectic, and discourse find their surplus value over monologue and other authoritative discourses. When the master or leader obtains a power asymmetry over a subject, the natural defenselessness of the leader in the face of the Other is modified and reduced, whereas that of a subject is amplified and taken advantage of.

Levinas goes on to claim that shame, unlike emotional phenomena, has a component that is exterior to the self (ibid.). The reason for this is that shame activates in the self a sort of flight from its own consciousness, to take on the viewpoint of the self-same self from the perspective of an Other consciousness that sees, dissects, judges the self without its consent. Instead of 'being the light that illuminates' the world of objects and various others, in shame the self is exactly that which is being examined under the light of the gaze of the Other (ibid.). We return to the salient fact of shame being that it is a passive process for the self who undergoes it; the consciousness of the self is negated for a time by the self-same self in order to somehow construct a version of what the self looks like in view of the Other. In other words, shame reveals that there has always-already been a force outside us which forces us to consider the view the Other has of the self. Regardless of where the self is focused, where her consciousness lies and in which egoistic pursuits she has engaged in, the basic constancy of the Other's view of the self always remains, whether the self chooses to hypothesize about it or not. Shame is the result of the understanding that the self is not in control of how it appears to Others (Dalton 16).

In the lecture was discussed the views of Alasdair Macintyre on the ancient Greek philosophers, especially Socrates and the Sophists. It was emphasized that the Sophists and Socrates emphasized the fact that they did not 'know', and they told their questioners and the subjects of their questions so (Macintyre 16). The reason that philosophy is valuable is because it allows us to stand outside the concepts that are in common parlance and to evaluate them. What we have shown above are two small ways in which Emmanuel Levinas managed to challenge our commonsense understandings of the concepts of self and shame in order to open a space for better communication and, hopefully, smarter action.

Also discussed in the lecture was the consideration that moral and ethical postulates are inexorably bound by the time and people who formulate and practice them. Indeed ethical concepts may even be used over time and transformed into quite different practices from those that originated and even continue to inspire the new, albeit altered, version (Macintyre 269). The version of the self posited by Levinas certainly makes a claim, however, to timelessness, despite its pretensions to inclusiveness and time indexing. The self that is 'of' the Other in fact is a bold statement about the self through time, not just a self of our own time, or of Levinas's time. Yet Levinas's concept of the self is also of our time in the sense that the self that Levinas portrays is airy and open to influence, indeed vulnerable to all kind of influence by the Other. Yet this openness need not degenerate into a vulnerability when dialogical communication is promoted and in use. By taking on the sensitivity and almost airy indeterminateness of the 'post-modern' self over the absolute and unchanging self give us by modern forbears, participants in communication have available a new mode of contact with one another that mostly eschews domination for a supposed mutual understanding and inter-cultural (post-cultural) understanding and outlook.

The lecture also stressed the importance of examining what a person protects, and what they promote as being the best ways to truly understand that person. Using the example of Homer's Odysseus and the metaphor of cunning, the lecture extolled the virtues of cunning over the foibles of earnestness and sincerity. When confronted with the conceptual thinking outlined above from Levinas, we might guess that a person armed with the idea that the self depends for its very existence and freedom on the Other would indeed behave very differently from somebody who thinks of the Modern era; that is to say, in terms of authority and a simple veracity.

Works Cited

Dalton, Drew. "Strange Bedfellows: A Re-examination of the Work of J.G. Fichte in Light of the Levinasian Critique." Idealistic Studies. 36.1.

Mac Intyre, A. (1966). A short history of ethics. New York, NY: Touchstone.

Marcus, Paul. Being for the Other: Emmanuel Levinas, Ethical Living and Pschoanalysis. Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2008.
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Psychology major graduate student at University of Nebraska.

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