Debates between Ricoeur and Levinas on Ethical Subjectivity

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According to Ricoeur, the self is constituted by narratives, which configure and synthesize diverse and various elements into a cohesive entity through means of emplotment. Ricoeur refers to this as the "narrative identity" which is from through a dialectic of personal experience and impersonal circumstance, or ipse-identity (selfhood) and idem-identity (sameness). A narrative identity also establishes the notion of an enduring ethical subject to whom a moral obligation can be imputed. Since the variety of experiences of passivity attests to the inseparable of the self and the other, Ricoeur argues that the otherness is not the exterior of the self, but the interior and constitution of the self.

Although Levinas agrees with Ricoeur on the importance of otherness in shaping the ethical self, Levinas argues for the primacy of face-to-face encounter with the other which exposes the self to a responsibility toward others’ needs and demands that precedes any perception, knowledge, or narrative understanding. The encounter with the other’s face is a direct and immediate experience of the other’s alterity, an encounter with transcendence that is infinite, an epiphany that commands me to be responsible. Thus, the other is absolutely exterior to the self. The other is so radically other that cannot be captured through any representation or narrative by me. To do so would be to assimilate the other into oneself and reduce the other to a mere character in our personal story, the same as me. For Levinas, Ricoeur’s ontology implies totality, so that the other is not truly other but is ultimately the same as me.

However, Ricoeur contends that for the voice of the other to be able to command me responsibility, it must presuppose that one can hear and recognize the other's voice. Furthermore, the self must be able to discern and acknowledge the legitimacy of the commandments of others which becomes my belief. Ethics requires our ability to see ourselves as others, and others as people like me. Without the reciprocity of the dialogue, without anticipating counting on me by the other, “would I be capable of keeping my word, of maintaining myself?” (OA, 341). Levinas makes us seem to choose between the same or the other, totality or infinity. However, Ricoeur argues that the experience of the same and the other complement each other.

While Patrick Bourgeois grants that Ricoeur’s critique of Levinas is too severe, he defends Ricoeur against Levinas. Bourgeois admits that Ricoeur needs Levinas for his overall argument. Based on Levinas’ idea, Bourgeois adjusts Ricoeur’s interpretation without changing his position, through which Ricoeur’s philosophy can be thought of as a link between Levinas' exteriority and Husserl's analysis of intentionality. Richard Cohen rather maintains the Levinasian criticism of Ricoeur’s interpretation. According to Cohen, Levinasian alterity is not separated to the point of inviolability, mere passivity, as Ricoeur claims; rather the alterity of the other is the condition of possibility for any ethical hermeneutics. Respect for the other in the mutual exchange can be moral only if such a moral dimension has been brought into play through previous encounters with the other himself. My presentation will reexamine the debates between Ricoeur and Levinas on ethical subjectivity. And I would argue that while Levinas’ philosophy provides the fundamental account of our moral intuition, his ethics is actually based on the unarticulated ontology. And Ricoeur’s hermeneutical self helps us understand how our dialogical relationship with others would shape our moral self-understanding and our reflection on our moral responsibility toward others.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 14 Oct 2023
EventRicoeur in Practice: 17th Annual Society for Ricœur Studies Conference - Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto, Canada
Duration: 12 Oct 202314 Oct 2023


ConferenceRicoeur in Practice
Internet address


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