“One doesn’t always have to formalize: Nietzsche thought that if God existed, the I is impossible. That may be very convincing, if A commands B, B no longer is autonomous, doesn’t have subjectivity anymore, but when in the course of thinking, you don’t stay in the formal, when you think from the contents, a situation called heteronomy has a totally different meaning.” (own translation), E. Levinas, Entre Nous, Editions Grasset & Fasquelle, 1991, p.121.
I’ve been blogging on and off on this site called heteronomy. Truth be told I have never in that long time really though about the meaning of that word. Until recently that is, when I read Kant’s “Foundations of metaphysics of morals” and discovered the passage about autonomy and heteronomy. It made me think. There’s something appealing to autonomy; one would not want to do the good thing because there’s an external motivation to do it. Still, something is missing there. The misery of our own period of history has a lot do to with autonomy gone wild. It literally takes the Enlightenment to anti-humanist extremes. As a once avid reader of Kierkegaard I can but wonder whether the either/or isn’t in fact inescapable and whether I don’t have to switch over to the religious side after all. I seem to share all of the values although I’m fundamentally abhorred by the heteronomous part; obedience is not my thing, let alone the blind variant.
I am, like many, looking for a long time to avoid being caught on the horns of the either and the or. There has to be a way to derive a positive morality without relying on anything properly religious. It was no coincidence that I decided to read some more Levinas. It was a surprise though to find the above quote. It sums up the promise of another kind of heteronomy, one not based on higher powers but one based on everyday interaction with others. That surprise triggered this post.
I think Levinas has it more or less right. The problem is that I’m looking for something that is exactly right. I’m after all an analytical person close to analytic philosophy. Now – like in this excellent piece (by Martin Shuster) – there is a lot of activity trying to bridge the gaps between the two philosophical traditions, that’s still not exact enough for me. What I want is to derive Levinas’ anomalous heteronomy from the basic facts of language and – more specifically – from Davidson’s principle of charity.
This is what I have (and, pretty please, do help me along):