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The community of those who have nothing in common. Levinas, community and the self

Wednesday, 20 June, 2012 - 15:30
Campus: Brussels Humanities, Sciences & Engineering campus
Faculty: Arts and Philosophy
Emilie Van Daele
phd defence

The central theme of this work is the question of community. Traditionally community is understood as a
social network where people ‘have something in common’. Having something in common can refer to
common values or beliefs, a specific identity, a common past or a shared location. Having something in
common is seen as crucial in this traditional view. Communities have an important bonding force in our
society. They can be an antidote against isolation, fragmentation, alienation and indifference. That is why
we often speak off ‘social capital’. But sometimes these expectations run too high. The hopes and
expectations we have can turn us blind for the more negative effects that communities entail: restriction,
reduction, exclusion… .

In this work we shall question the way in which community is usually addressed and propose an
alternative concept of community. We will consider whether it is possible to preserve the social capital of
communities without referring to a shared identity or common referent that can cause exclusion and
reduction. Therefore the title of this thesis is ‘The community of those who have nothing in common’. The
possibility of this alternative community is examined through the work of Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas
offers us in his philosophical texts a redefinition of the subject and its subjectivity. One of the hypotheses
in this work is that each approach of community presupposes a specific concept of subjectivity and vice
versa. Levinas’ redefinition of subjectivity creates therefore an opening to reformulate community as we
know it.

In the first chapter we address the question of community. We analyze what is traditionally understood
under community and attempt to formulate a positive definition of the term community. This definition
allows us to outline the evolution of the term and the connotations it has. We discover that community is
not so much in decline but has changed in nature. This change in nature discerns the intrinsic and
instrumental value of community as well as its possible negative tendencies, such as reduction, restriction,
exclusion… . At the end of this chapter we offer a blueprint for the community of those who have nothing
in common taking into account both positive and negative aspects of community. This blueprint includes
four constitutive elements and is refined and tested in the following chapters where other approaches of
community are addressed.

In Chapter 2 we examine two diametrically opposed approaches of community: the approach of Alasdair
MacIntyre and that of John Rawls. For MacIntyre community takes a central place whereas for Rawls
community plays only a secondary role. Their approaches of community reveal two different concepts of
subjectivity. For MacIntyre community plays a constitutive role for the selves we are and the dignity we
receive. He speaks therefore of a situated self. Rawls presents an unencumbered self that deserves
respect regardless of his place in society or community. This tension between a situated and
unencumbered self makes it possible to introduce Levinas’ redefinition of subjectivity as a fruitful path to
be taken – a path not to overcome the tension or to make a choice between one of the offered
perspectives, but a path to deepen the concept of subjectivity.

Chapter 3 offers a comparative study between Kant and Levinas. This comparison clarifies the meaning of
situatedness and unencumberedness in Levinas’ work. To grasp the similarity and the differences
between Kant and Levinas we focus on their respective views on autonomy and heteronomy. Both
concepts play a crucial role in their approaches of the subject and clarify that Kant as well as Levinas are
looking for a subject that is able to act unencumbered, independent of its contingent situatedness.
Although both philosophers attribute a different meaning to the concepts autonomy and heteronomy they
both are looking for a similar subject: a subject without context. The situatedness of the subject seems to
play an inferior role. This is only true in the work of Kant. Levinas will reinterpret this situatedness in a
special way.

Chapter 4 and 5 elaborates on the philosophical work of Levinas and offers an interpretation of his
redefinition of the subject. Chapter 4 focuses on the early works: De l’évasion, De l'existence à l'existant
and Le temps et l'autre. Chapter 5 deals with the other two main works: Totalité et Infini and Autrement
qu’être. In our reading of Levinas we discern three different constituents of subjectivity: identity,
individuality and uniqueness. Each constituent corresponds with a specific relation: the relation to being,
the relation to the world and the relation to the other. Although we describe each relation separately they
inevitably are intertwined. We consider them as different perspectives on human subjectivity that can
reveal its different constituents. The differentiation in these relations enables us to uncover other possible
approaches of community. The bulk of the community approaches fall under the relation with the world
and thus have to do with the individuality of the subject. In these approaches commonality is seen as a
‘shared term’ – a term that also determines the individuality of the subject – or as a 'perceived'
commonality that allows the subject to reduce others to the community. Even though these types of
community have a special and important constitutive and meaningful value they contain nevertheless an
inherent dynamic that can lead to exclusion and reduction. What connects people in these forms of
community is the common term or the perceived communality. Those who don’t share this commonality
can be excluded. Those who share this commonality can be reduced to this commonality.

The community of those who have nothing in common will transcend these worldly based communities
and will reveal itself within the third relation: the relation with the other. This relation is constitutive for the
revelation of uniqueness. In the last chapter we try therefore to extend the ethical relation between the
subject and the other – that reveals the uniqueness of both – to a relationship with multiple others. The
community of those who have nothing in common criticizes the existing traditional communities but also
reveals a different way of being together. This being together where both the subject as the others reveal
themselves as unique creates a commitment that cannot be described in terms of connectedness. It is
exactly the lack of a common ground or solid connection that creates a ‘non-indifference’; a difference that
attracts those who have nothing in common and that reveals a different kind of meaning in this attraction.

In a society where the individual, self-creation, freedom and self-development is perceived as extremely
important we can ask ourselves whether this emphasis on the individual still leaves room for the revelation
of uniqueness. Levinas and the significance he lays on uniqueness offers us the possibility to escape the
all too narrow discourses about the dangers of individualism on the one hand and about the dangers of
the influence of communities on the other hand. Maybe this perspective can lead to a more balanced
debate between the advocates and the opponents of community.