About face: Altered states of subjectivity in Levinas

Meredith Gunning, Fordham University


This dissertation traces the development of the notion of subjectivity in the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas offers a unique and surprising account of subjectivity which contravenes some of the predominant trends in mid and late twentieth-century philosophy. Unlike many thinkers who attempt to destructure subjectivity, Levinas's writings offer a positive strain by suggesting that subjectivity involves responsibility toward the neighbor. Although Levinas criticizes the belief in selfsame identity, he does not announce the by now well-worn slogan 'death of man' or the 'death of the subject'. A human being can gain a genuine sense of inwardness and personal integrity, but not through the power of the cogito or the purported synthesizing activity of the transcendental ego. According to Levinas, a person becomes a subject when he or she is ethically responsible to and for the Other. While many scholars read Levinas's philosophy as developing along a continuum, this study shows that there is a significant shift in Levinas's treatment of subjectivity between the appearance of his two major works, Totality and Infinity (1961) and Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence (1974). In the earlier work Levinas forges a complicated drama of human subjectivity---a drama which unfolds with surprising subplots. Interiority is not treated as a vainglorious illusion, a chimera to be surmounted by an ineluctable and rational dialectic. A rich phenomenology of personal selfhood is developed through happenings such as enjoyment, dwelling and labor. In the latter work little space is devoted to the encounter with the face which purportedly rouses the subject from drunken egoistic slumber to the sober and difficult project of attentively living for the other. Levinas no longer emphasizes the production of interiority, so important in Totality and Infinity. Instead, he sharply and persistently assaults inwardness, seemingly out of a distrust that such an islet of subjectivity might enable the "I" covetously to steal from or betray the Other. Persecution, recurrence, substitution replace the themes that dominated the earlier work. This study suggests that by 1974, Levinas's writings compose a different tune vis-à-vis subjectivity, which simply cannot be interpreted as but minor variations of the same theme.

Subject Area


Recommended Citation

Gunning, Meredith, "About face: Altered states of subjectivity in Levinas" (2006). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3216912.