Levinas and Kierkegaard: The Akedah, the Dao, and Aporetic Ethics


ERIC S. NELSON, Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Massachusetts Lowell. Specialties: Chinese philosophy, comparative philosophy, European philosophy. E-mail: eric_nelson@uml.edu


In this article, Kierkegaard's depiction of the teleological suspension of the ethical is contrasted with Levinas's articulation of the emergence of the ethical in the Akedah narrative drawing on Jewish, Christian, and Chinese philosophical and religious perspectives. The narrative of Abraham's binding of Isaac illustrates both the distance and nearness between Kierkegaard and Levinas. Both realize that the encounter with God is a traumatic one that cannot be defined, categorized, or sublimated through ordinary ethical reflection or the everyday social-moral life of a community. For Kierkegaard, the self is forced back upon itself, exposed to the otherness of its singular unfathomable source; in Levinas a traumatic exposure and delivery over to the Other occurs. It leads to an inescapable ethical responsibility more fundamental than either religious faith or theoretical cognitive knowledge. The rupture and aporia of Abraham's sacrifice appears to destroy the categories of the ethical. Yet it might suggest something other than the nihilistic or voluntaristic destruction of ethics. It indicates instead a different modality of the ethical; an aporetic and paradoxical ethics that resonates in part with classical Chinese Daoist sources such as the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi.