Autonomy and heteronomy: Buber, Levinas, and Hegel on the social source of obligation

Matthew Simms Edgar, Fordham University


My dissertation is an explication and comparative critical analysis of the ethical theories of Levinas, Hegel, and, to a lesser degree, Buber. What unites the ethical theory of all three is a focus on concrete, intersubjective, face-to-face relations, and an attempt to uncover an ethical or normative dimension that structures such relations. Levinas departs from Hegel and Buber, however, by insisting upon the priority of an asymmetrical ethical relation to the other qua other, as opposed to a reciprocal relation of unity with the other. The dissertation focuses on the question of the relative priority of ‘identity’ and ‘difference’ in the ethical relation. As a means of properly addressing this question, I attempt to explicate the fundamentally different notions of ‘otherness’ and ‘identity’ developed by Levinas and Hegel. This detailed explication serves two purposes. First, I argue that a better understanding of what Levinas means by the otherness of the Other reveals problems in his position, problems not apparent to commentators who mistakenly stress the subjectivity of the Other, e.g., Derrida and Critchley. Second, I argue that defenders of Hegel's theory of recognition such as Robert Williams fall prey to equivocation, failing to note that the otherness accounted for by Hegel's mutual recognition differs in significant respects from Levinasian otherness. The thesis which I defend is the following: Contra Levinas, reciprocity, together with the intersubjective mediation this entails, is (a) not reducible to a violation of the other, or a merely economic relation, (b) a necessary condition for authentic listening and dialogue, and (c) not derivable from asymmetrical responsibility, even with the addition of the ‘third’. On the other hand, contra Hegel, the reciprocal ‘we’ cannot be construed as absolute, but rather must remain open to the critique of community posed by something like Levinas's Other; this admission in turn signals the need for a new theory of reciprocity. I conclude the dissertation by briefly suggesting how Buber's I-thou relation, freely adapted into a more Hegelian framework, can possibly reconcile Hegelian community with Levinasian alterity.

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Recommended Citation

Edgar, Matthew Simms, "Autonomy and heteronomy: Buber, Levinas, and Hegel on the social source of obligation" (2003). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3077251.