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The De of Levinas: Cultivating the Heart-Mind of Radical Passivity

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This essay explores the early Chinese text Guanzi to address the question of ethical responsibility in the work of Emmanuel Levinas. We begin with the premise that being responsive to the other, feeling the impossibility of renouncing ethical obligation, and experiencing the basic moral asymmetry at the heart of Levinas’s project all rely on the welcome openness of the subject that Levinas describes as the subject’s “radical passivity.” However, his emphasis on infinite responsibility, coupled with the theme of radical passivity, gives the problematic impression that ethics amounts to a never-ending to-do list for the other, and certainly this is not what Levinas means. We turn to the Guanzi, which recommends that the ethically efficacious sage-prince must cultivate a state of passive stillness and inner vacuity. Only because the sage-prince maintains this deferential heart-mind is he freely open and responsive to others. Here the sage-prince looks strikingly like a good Levinasian: He is deferential, sensitive to context, and hyper-aware of the limits of his own knowledge. The Guanzi goes on to describe specific practices the sage-prince can employ to cultivate his ethical prowess, including practices of meditation and gentle physical exercises. Taking this insight into Levinas’s context, we suggest that such practices of self-regulation are necessary to enable effective responsiveness to the other. From this perspective, responsibility is “infinite” not because I am perpetually beholden to the other’s whims, but because I am perpetually accountable for calming and clearing my own mind of the unstable emotions, selfish desires, and intellectual machinations that prevent the welcome openness of radical passivity.

10.3868/s030-004-015-0007-2
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/content/journals/10.3868/s030-004-015-0007-2
2015-01-27
2018-07-16

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