I was listening again to Mark's interview on Douglas Lain's Diet Soap podcast and was struck by an interesting question posed by Doug. He was talking about how ontology seemed to be the starting point for philosophy (Thales) and asked whether ontology was required for ethics and if Mark knew of any philosophical points of view where the ontological contradicted the ethical. Mark's response was to note his 'skepticism' with respect to ontology - his doubt that we can know the world 'in-itself'. It's quite reasonable to think the ultimate nature of the universe is unknowable and even science resorts to metaphors to describe the ultimate 'stuff' of the universe (he mentions string theory).
Mark goes on further to say that if you have a skeptical stance towards ontology it seems kind of problematic to base ethics on it - particularly if you think of ethics as being immediately present to human beings as opposed to ontology. Ethics is kind of 'in your face' in a way that things-in-themselves are not. You can start the ethical endeavor from someplace other than ontology - in experience perhaps. It is possible that ethics is primary: 'What should I do?' comes before 'What is there?'
This question put me in the mind of Emmanuel Levinas, who I was studying for my dissertation prior to going from fully to partially examining my life. His Wikipedia entry has a nice succinct section on this point:
[Levinas'] work is based on the ethics of the Other or, in Levinas' terms, on "ethics as first philosophy". For Levinas, the Other is not knowable and cannot be made into an object of the self, as is done by traditional metaphysics (which Lévinas called "ontology"). Lévinas prefers to think of philosophy as the "wisdom of love" rather than the love of wisdom (the literal Greek meaning of the word "philosophy"). In his view, responsibility precedes any "objective searching after truth".
Levinas derives the primacy of his ethics from the experience of the encounter with the Other. For Levinas, the irreducible relation, the epiphany, of the face-to-face, the encounter with another, is a privileged phenomenon in which the other person's proximity and distance are both strongly felt. "The Other precisely reveals himself in his alterity not in a shock negating the I, but as the primordial phenomenon of gentleness." At the same time, the revelation of the face makes a demand, this demand is before one can express, or know one's freedom, to affirm or deny. "
In short, the Other comes before any Object. There is a sense in which this view makes a category claim about Others vs. Objects - they are wholly different. This doesn't entail that one is prior to the other (and I suspect that at some point Derrida probably deconstructed that opposition). If we at least grant the distinction between the two, I read Mark's comment as saying there are practical reasons for spending our energies on ethics instead of ontology and I am sympathetic to this view. You can live your life never knowing what is-in-itself, but you will at some point in your life have to make a moral decision. It's worth giving that some thought.
Levinas' ultimately will claim that responsibility for the Other is the foundation of our Subjectivity, taking Heidegger's notion of Sorge (Care) to it's logical conclusion with respect to other Dasein. While I won't claim to understand what Levinas is really all about, listeners have probably caught on to the fact that the Ethical is of much more interest to me than ontology. Metaphysically or practically ethical questions take priority for me.
One problem with wikipedia: I seem to remember reading (maybe in Ethics and Infinity) that Levinas didn’t like to call the encounter with the Other an “experience”, I assume because experience makes it a part of myself, while the whole point of the encounter with the Other is that it reveals something that is out there, beyond me.
will listen to the interview soon, couple of quick thoughts is that this seems to be the is/ought problem again in that ontology, like science, can tell you what might be possible but not what is desirable/preferable, not sure how ethics are anymore in our faces than ontology seems to be much that is unknown/unknowable in even human to human encounters, Levinas’ description of the Other seems to be more prescriptive than descriptive, and “caring” for Heidegger doesn’t necessarily mean that one would have anything like the sorts of ethical commitments that a say Singer (or perhaps yourself) might have so not sure that Levinas is the logical extension of Heidegger, he is surely as kind of theological re-appropriation of Heidegger, but seems much closer to the other Jewish existentialists.
if you get a chance check out Eric Santner’s On Creaturely Life.
Law Ware Twitter: @law_ware says
I’m no expert on Levinas, but I did have a few classes where we studied him a bit. We had discussions about the degree to which his experiences during WW2 influenced this part of his thinking.
He saw the ramifications of when an idea becomes more important that the Other. I’m just spit-balling here (doing a jazz improv off your musing baseline), but I do wonder if those experiences helped to shape that in any way.
LW, no doubt that the horrors the Holocaust were and are telling about the tyranny of the means and reducing people to something less than human like turning them into statistics not to mention ashes or soap. But this doesn’t really provide a kind of phenomenological basis for an ought, strictly from the stand point of philo I find Levinas more convincing on topics like the un-reasonable persistence of life “il y a” and insomnia.
Seth Paskin says
@Zeke you are correct. The ‘encounter’ with the Other is an ‘irreducible relation’. ‘Experience’ of ‘objects’ requires subjectivity, which Levinas thinks is constituted by this relation to the Other.
@dmf I’m not seeing the IS/OUGHT here. Levinas isn’t deriving an obligation to others from a fact or state of affairs of being. He’s claiming that the relationship with the other is ontologically prior to any objective experience of the world. I don’t think Levinas is the logical extension of Heidegger, I think he takes the concept of “care” literally and applies it to other dasein.
@Law actually the majority of what I read of Levinas were Talmudic lectures and other essays and yes, his experiences in the war clearly shaped his thought.
sp, so you don’t read his ontology as bearing a sense of our being-obligated?
David Buchanan says
My favorite pragmatists have a version of that idea. Pirsig quotes James saying, “truth is a species of the good”. Just as health is a biological good and wealth is a social good, truth is what’s right and good intellectually. This picture demands a much broader notion of morals and ethics such that we can have these various species of goods but it does manage to put rightness in the driver’s seat. (Ontological posits, in this picture, are never treated as more than hypotheses to be tested in experience.)
One of the more interesting things to notice is the way this view dares to blur the supposed line between facts and values. On this view, facts are a species of the good, a certain kind of value. We want the facts and we think decent people ought to respect them, but even more than that we wouldn’t even pick them out and call them facts except that there is great value in doing so in the first. In some sense, facts follow from values, are produced by values. Values are the motives that send people looking for facts (not to mention nookie and gold) in the place place.
seth, you might be interested in the dialogical thinking (building in part from Wittgenstein) of John Shotter:
Seth Paskin says
Thanks dmf, looks interesting.
enjoying the interview, if I might add to the possible reading list books this is a great one:
Ethics without philosophy
Wittgenstein and the moral life
James C. Edwards
Douglas Lain says
How could there be an Other if not in relation to a self? And how can ethics be built on experience or feeling without falling into relativism or solipsism?
Douglas Lain says
Oh, and one more snotty question: How could anything (a face, an other, or anything else) be pre-ontological? What pre-ontological means is “before being” so that would have to be nothing, yeah?
Mark Linsenmayer says
Isn’t “ontological” about the STUDY of being, as opposed to “ontic,” which is about being itself? So phenomenologically, lots could come before formulating an ontology.
Douglas Lain says
Well, ethics is the study of right and wrong behavior or moral philosophy, so lots could come before that too. But what we’re asking is which study should come first I think.
Seth Paskin says
Levinas’ point is hard to grasp. I understand him to be saying that the self is constituted through obligation and only after that can it become the self that “knows” the world and can conceive of world or objects or things. Hence ‘ethics’ before ‘ontology’. Perhaps in more lay terms we could say ‘responsibility’ before ‘knowledge’.
Chris Mullen says
I don’t have much to say to this at the moment although i do want to address the OP. I just wanted to share a link on a symposium on Longing for the Other: Levinas and Metaphysical Desire by Drew M. Dalton from the the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.
Justin Boyd says
To address your first question: how could there be a ‘self’ if not in terms of an ‘other’? Quid pro quo.
Digging a bit deeper, one could read Levinas’ prioritizing of the Other as a tactical correction to the historical privileging of the individual subject. If a ‘self’ is understood in terms of an ‘other,’ solipsism becomes communal awareness, and ethical care for the self becomes ethical care for the community, etc.
I think Seth is correct in his response to your second question. Levinas is deeply Heideggarian, so for him ethics is the responsibility that one always-already finds oneself appropriated by (like Heideggarian ‘care’). So, Ethics as the study of right and wrong behavior (ethic-ology perhaps?) would be equiprimordial with ontology, but Ethics as original responsibility/relationship with the Other precedes ontology.
I am always amazed at how ethics is treated with any real seriousness in philosophical reasonings.
I surmise this comes from a human being’s need to feel right or acceptable through an internal measurement of perceived external reflections or reactions with the human need to constantly solve such problems.
One part of the brain, is seeking to prove we are worthy (safe) and the other, is constantly looking on some levels for ways in which we are not. (in order to correct them, or prevent them)
This of course, is only true for the vast majority of people. Types of
Psychopaths, Narcissists, Histrionics and a few others do not experience this dilemma in quite the same way.
Although there is a disadvantage to experiencing what the majority takes for granted, there is also advantages.
I suppose this fascination with ethics, comes from a sense of quantitative absolutism. If 99% of people feel a certain way about something, or a grouping of things, than the 1% who do not, are flawed.
Flawed in the sense that, their differences can be explained away by “unnatural” occurences. i.e. an abusive parent, or an extra chromosome!
I guess that is just more quantitative absolutism. Since it’s presupposed that without that extra chromosome the 1% would turn out just like the 99%.
I think that’s the “is” “ought” problem with ethics . It’s inherent that ethical questions are as groundless as opinions about music or which wine is best.
It’s just that some people have such an emotional pull to see ethics (and thus, their own value and the value of those they love/loved) as something undeniable to the external.
The other is the self, as much as it isn’t. And how much it is or isn’t, is a matter of taste.
I think though, perhaps that’s why ethics can be interesting. It’s more flexible. That is also inherent.
I think my stance here is, “what should i do” is fundamentally the same as “what is there”. It’s just the “I” that lends an exaggerated sense of importance to the former.