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Title: The Tragic Sense of Levinas' Ethics
Author(s): COOLS, Arthur
Journal: Ethical Perspectives
Volume: 21    Issue: 3   Date: 2014   
Pages: 345-369
DOI: 10.2143/EP.21.3.3044849

Abstract :
This article examines the dimension of the tragic experience in Levinas’ ethics, a dimension that seems at odds with his claim to define justice in a new way: no longer as a relation of reciprocity between members of a community, but according to the individual and asymmetrical relation to the other. On several occasions, Levinas expresses the intention to overcome the fatality of being and to break with the totalitarian effects of the State logic by revealing the ethical meaning beyond being. His philosophy has therefore been interpreted as an ethics of transcendence, based on the reference to the idea of the Good, but which is unable to account for the tragic dimension of conflicting values and for the finitude of the subjectivity’s capabilities for doing good. In the present contribution, however, I argue that Levinas does not ignore a dimension of the tragic in the ethical relation to the other. Reconsidering the notion of the ‘there is’ (the il y a) within the relation to the other, I demonstrate how Levinas’ ethics of transcendence enables us to consider a new sense of the tragic experience, given with the responsibility for the other. I go on to examine how this sense of the tragic experience relates to Levinas’ understanding of justice. Confronting Levinas with Ricoeur’s approach to tragic action in Oneself as Another, I point to a gap between Levinas’ ethical concept of justice and the political realisation of justice, the articulation of which also reveals several major problems in Levinas’ understanding of justice.

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