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Why is Ethics First Philosophy? Levinas in Phenomenological Context

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Abstract

This paper explores, from a phenomenological perspective, the conditions necessary for the possession of intentional content, i.e., for being intentionally directed toward the world. It argues that Levinas's concept of ethics as first philosophy makes an important contribution to this task. Intentional directedness, as understood here, is normatively structured. Levinas's ‘ethics’ can be understood as a phenomenological account of how our experience of the other subject as another subject takes place in the recognition of the normative force of a command. This supplies a condition that—as the paper shows by examining Husserl and Sartre on how our experience of the Other constitutes an ‘objective’ world—earlier phenomenologists have misunderstood, because they have treated ethical experience as ‘founded’ on a prior theory of representation (‘ontology’ in Levinas's language). Ethics is first philosophy because it is only by acknowledging the command in the ‘face’ of the Other that we can account for the sensitivity to the normative distinctions that structure intentional content. Throughout, the paper shows how Levinas's analyses, in Totality and Infinity, draw upon and develop the analyses of Husserl and Sartre.

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