Lyotard and Levinas: the logic of obligation

Ambrose, D. (2009) Lyotard and Levinas: the logic of obligation. JAC: Rhetoric, Writing, Multiple Literacies, Politics - Special Issue on Levinas and Rhetoric, 29 (3).

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Abstract

Jean-Francois Lyotard’s inquiry into the logic of obligation, culminating in his discussion of ethical phrases in “Le Differend”, is deeply indebted to Emmanuel Levinas’s reading of that logic and his articulation of a radically new modality of ethics. Both thinkers deploy a strategy of argumentation and a rhetoric of phrases whose performative contradictions are deliberate and affirmed. Levinas is one of the major figures in the twentieth century European philosophical tradition to have produced a substantive reconfiguration of ethics based upon the idea of an asymmetrical human relation rather than upon mutual obligation. The resulting ethics, outlined in texts such as “Totality and Infinity” and “Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence”, is one of hyperbolic responsibility beyond norms and duty and outside formal rules and pragmatics. In this paper I will analyse Lyotard’s arguments concerning the logic of absolute obligation – the ‘phrases of pure prescription’ - through a detailed reading of his relatively unknown essay on Levinas entitled “Levinas’s Logic”. Lyotard’s short commentary demonstrates considerable interpretative insight and originality in its attempt to identify the different levels of language and meta-language operative, but often unstated, in Levinas’s texts. However, as Lyotard himself recognises, such analysis risks doing considerable violence to Levinas by betraying the ethical signification of his thematization. His careful analysis of Levinas’s rhetorical strategy of deliberate logical contradiction represents a sophisticated response to Jacques Derrida’s early influential commentary ‘Violence and Metaphysics’. Derrida’s commentary is marked by its critical claims regarding Levinas’s efforts to articulate a philosophical ethics in a purified rhetoric beyond the speculative reach of the Hegelian dialectic. As I demonstrate in this paper, central to Lyotard’s own interpretative efforts is an urgent recovery of Levinas’s ethics from such an allegedly reductive reading.

Item Type: Article
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > B Philosophy (General) > B0790 Modern
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BC Logic
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BJ Ethics > BJ0001 Ethics (General)
Divisions: pre Nov-2014 > Faculty of Arts and Humanities > Media
Depositing User: Dr Darren Ambrose
Date Deposited: 13 Jul 2011 09:06
Last Modified: 11 Dec 2014 14:07
URI: https://create.canterbury.ac.uk/id/eprint/9194

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Last edited: 29/06/2016 12:23:00