Adorno and Levinas: From Freedom to Peace

In this essay I attempt to sketch out the possibility of a response to the problem of the relation between ethics and politics in Emmanuel Levinas’s philosophy. Levinas’s ethics as first philosophy is revolutionary, and promising, but it leads to a gap between ethics and politics. This is a genuine problem, since depending on how one problematizes this gap and responds to it, one may end up with different, even opposing, views of Levinas’s thought, ranging from the right side of the political spectrum to its very left. In order to respond to this problem, I examine the possibility of a constructive dialogue between Levinas’s ethics and Adorno’s negative dialectics. In particular, I approach the relation between ethics and politics in Levinas from the standpoint of the question of history.

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Hegel, MacIntyre, and the (Living) Death of Moral Relativism

A recent piece in the Atlantic by Jonathan Merritt declares the “death of moral relativism.” It echoes observations made by other pundits that there seems to have been a shift in cultural attitudes concerning morality. In the United States, subjectivist, relativist, and “postmodernist” stances are said to have been replaced by robust commitments to social justice, tolerance, and inclusion. David Brooks also, for example, discusses the rise of a veritable “shame culture,” particularly evident on American college campuses and social media, ready to condemn and ostracize those who fail to acknowledge the importance of upholding these new, powerful norms of respect and recognition for the marginalized and oppressed. Indeed, the trend is so omnipresent that there has been significant backlash—critics decry the policing efforts of “social justice warriors” and the scourge of “political correctness.”

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Comparative Understandings of the Human Political Actor: An Entryway into the Critique of Totalizing, Modernist Monopolies over Ethics and Politics

Consider the Aristotelian maxim that humankind “is by nature a political animal,” whose capacity for speech, unique “among the animals[,] . . . serves to reveal the advantageous and the harmful, and hence also the just and the unjust.” If one accepts this dictum (and, crucial to this article’s line of thinking, by no means must one necessarily adhere to Aristotle’s rationalist model of “man,” nor any other universalist account of humanness), then the ceaseless question remains: what specific sort(s) of speaking, morally reasoning animal might the human be read as constituting, from within the interpretive mindset of a particular historical and civilizational milieu? Of course, this question presupposes, in a manner that may well be at odds with the anthropological premises of a universalist modern political doctrine like human rights, that, rather than exhibiting a fixed, unitary essence, the human acts as a signifier; as such, this human signifier might potentially refer to myriad worldviews, and sources and assemblages of contextualizing meaning, across which the understanding of humanness can be differently constructed and construed.

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Telos 174 (Spring 2016): Philosophy, Literature, Theory

Telos 174 (Spring 2016): Philosophy, Literature, Theory is now available for purchase in our store.

In this issue, Telos turns to a diverse set of philosophers, contemporary and classical, and questions, concerning ethics and politics on the one hand, and literature and aesthetics on the other. More often than not, those distinctions turn out to be difficult to maintain. A case in point is the opening essay, which examines how statements by Levinas have been subjected to political readings in order to impute to him positions that he did not hold. What are the ethics of intentional misreadings? In their meticulously argued analysis, Oona Eisenstadt and Claire Elise Katz demonstrate how the philosopher’s comments in a 1982 radio interview, in the immediate aftermath of the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon, have been subjected to increasing degrees of misrepresentation, culminating in false accusations that he justified the killings. These insinuations involved fabricating quotations to put words in his mouth. Eisenstadt and Katz expose the poor philology and tendentious politics implicit in such distortion.

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Self Interest, Virtue, and the Dilemma of the American Political Economy: Toward a Renewal of Ethical Care in American Civilization

This article argues that after more than two centuries, our system of justice is no longer functioning as intended by its founders. I argue that this breakdown can be ultimately traced to a philosophical dilemma at the heart of American civilization: the assumption that economic self-interest can by itself sustain ethical care for a common good. In treating economic freedom as a moral absolute, the American right has misconstrued the practical purpose of freedom and undermined justice and equality for all. In contrast to the ahistorical claim of libertarians that economic freedom should be treated as a moral value, the goal of the founders of the United States was very concrete: enabling most citizens to get basic economic needs met in peace and security. Free and open elections and a system of checks and balances would motivate the naturally more powerful to manage their own passions in ways that contributed to a common good. By contrast, in unchecked political systems that arose by the struggle for dominance among the powerful few, the de facto rulers lacked any motive to act in ways that were consistent with the interests of the average citizen. As Thrasymachus claims in Plato’s Republic, they habitually wrote laws that benefited themselves at the expense of everyone else.

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Evaluating Enlightenment: Progressive Critiques of Modernity in Rationalization and Ecology

The following paper was presented at the 2016 Telos Conference, held on January 16–17, 2016, in New York City. For additional details about this and upcoming conferences, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

What is modernity? First, a period “occasioned by a peculiarly ahistorical view of the world, which is flattened into an eternal present. The world we experience appears to exhaust all possible worlds.” Second, modernity is deeply rooted in the three Kantian principles of Enlightenment: “‘What can know?’ the question of knowledge; of the ‘What should I do?’ which is the question of ethics, and of the ‘What can I hope?'”

The Western modern project is dependent upon both Greek and Hebrew antiquity. In ancient Ionia, Thales of Miletus predicted a solar eclipse, Anaximander predicted the changing of the seasons, Theodorus invented the ruler, the carpenter’s square, and the level, and Hippocrates began accumulating medical knowledge through trial and error. These “pre-Socratic” Ionians were merchants and artisans; they worked with their hands, whereas the Athenians were engaged primarily in contemplation.

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