“But I have made no effort to sophisticate my early, tentative, amateur efforts to link the English and the Continental traditions, because I want them to show that to realign these traditions, after their long mutual shunning, at any rate to write witnessing the loss in that separation, has been a formative aspiration of mine from the earliest of the work I refer to here. It remains an aspiration to define and to date a place of its overcoming.” Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason, Oxford University Press 1979, p. xvii.
The least remarkable element of this quote, and why I started reading this book, is that it refers to the classical traditions. The most remarkable element of the quote, and why I will finish this book and write about it, is the emphasis on a charitable reading of other texts. I personally believe that it is that charity (of reading, of listening rather than the shortcut to charity which consists in giving money, time etc.) which has the potential to overcome all the man-made divisions which are the source of the need for the second, material, kind of charity.
A charitable reception of the other’s point of view is the basis of constructing a better – hence more shared – understanding. It simultaneously provides the motivation to share – hence improve – material stuff on beforehand instead of patching the inequality divide in a post-factum way. There will be less heroes this way but the amount of heroes a society generates is inversely proportional to the inherent charity in that society. That alone is the clearest of signs that our present society isn’t doing well. It needs heroes and it makes any other person feel average.
Feeling average is inhuman. In reading Cavell (and writing about it) it’s that very feeling of insignificance that is, in my humble opinion, deconstructed via scrutinizing the tyranny of points of view which are deemed (more, sufficiently, absolutely ) significant.
In this series of posts I will read Cavell’s “The Claim of Reason” and report on my reading. I invite you to read (with) me and contribute, as I will, your own peculiar points of view. I’ll start with some tentative, amateur observations of my own
“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):