My purpose in what follows is to take up the relation of hermeneutics and ethics as it emerges in a post-Heideggerian philosophical context. In terms of proper names this means giving an account of the conceptual symmetries and differences between Gadamer's philosophical hermeneutics and Emmanuel Levinas's ethical theory, which is sometimes called an ethics of al-terity or of responsibility, in order to contrast it with subject-centered theories that emphasize thinking and acting in accord with rules, principles, duties, codes, beliefs, teachings, communities, theories of the right and the good, and so on, where to be in accord with such things, however we figure them, is what justifies us, or anyhow puts us above reproach. Levinasian ethics is concerned with the claims other people have on us in advance of how right we are with respect to rules and beliefs or how in tune we are with a just and rational order of things. For Levinas, ethics is not possible from a starting point of self-interest.
Being under claims of history and tradition rather than claims of concepts and rules is central to Gadamer's thinking, which is critical of sub-jectivist accounts of human understanding in ways that coincide with Levinas's project. As Gadamer puts it, understanding is so permeated by “the historicity of existence” that it is “not suitably conceived as a consciousness of something” (GW3: 18/PH125). Better to say: understanding something comes from dwelling with it. Likewise Levinas: “Humanity … must not be first understood as consciousness” (AE132/0X683). Consciousness is always separate from its objects, impervious and indifferent to them (which is all that objectivity means). “What affects a consciousness,” Levinas says,
Foundational for both Gadamer and Levinas is Heidegger's “herme-neutics of facticity,” with its characterization of our relation to the world (and to others in it) in terms of habitation rather than intuition or representation. In Being and Time Heidegger regards our practical involvement with the things of everyday life as ontologically prior to the theoretical attitude that determines the formation of concepts and propositions (SZi49/BTi8g). How the world touches us matters as much as how we grasp it conceptually. Heidegger's idea is that the theoretical attitude, whatever its philosophical importance with respect to how knowledge is possible, is oblivious to the world we inhabit. Theory is indifferent to what is singular and irreplaceable. Whereas by contrast our being-in-the-world is a relation of concern or care (Sorge) rather than one of disinterested regard (SZigi-96/6X235-41). It is an (arguably ethical) relation of being-with and at-tunement rather than a logical relation highlighted by the prepositional attitude. “The world of Dasein,” Heidegger says, “is a with-world [Mitwelt]. Being-in is Being-with Others” (SZi 18/6X155). However we describe it, our relation to the world and to others is closer and more intimate than is suggested by any philosophical culture whose ideal is the self-certainty of an objectifying consciousness (SZi58/BTaoo-2Oi).
This proximity of the world and of others in it is a matter of central importance to both Gadamer and Levinas—but each thinks through this issue much differently from the way Heidegger introduced it. Levinas, for example, sharply criticizes Heidegger for repressing the ethical dimension of our being-in-the-world in favor of ontology, where ontology means a concern with the unity of being or totality of all that is. If Heidegger situates us in the world as inhabitants rather than disengaged punctual observers, he is nevertheless still asking the disengaged subject's question: What is our relation to the being (that is, the totality) of things? If the answer is “care,” Heidegger's interest is nevertheless in the ontological rather than ethical meaning of care, and Dasein's care is always ultimately for itself, not for others (SZ317-23/6X364-70: “Care and Selfhood”). In his analysis of dwelling and habitation in Totality and Infinity Levinas points out that “In Being and Time the home does not appear apart from a system of implements,” and there is no one in the house but me (TeIi84/TIi7o). I dwell among implements designed to domesticate the world for me, and it is one from which others have to be excluded if I am to come into my own, working out my ownmost possibilities or my destiny. To be sure, as Heidegger says, “As being-with, Dasein ‘is’ essentially for the sake of Others” (SZi23/BTi6o), but it is just this condition of being-for-others that must be overcome if the
Levinas reverses completely this interpretation of being-for-the-sake-of-others in order to replace fundamental ontology with a fundamental ethics, where the relation of one-for-the-other is no longer an ontological defect. For Levinas, it is not that I am a self aiming for freedom and authenticity but tragically find myself blocked and absorbed by a faceless otherness. On the contrary, it is the face of the other that singles me out and makes me what I am (defines what it is to be human). For Levinas, being human starts out from a position of responsibility to and for others rather than from one of consciousness and self-reflexive freedom. Being-for-others is the adventure—“the fine risk to be run” (AEigi/OTBiao)—that gives human existence its meaning and transcendence (or, more exactly, as we shall see, its meaning as transcendence).
Meanwhile Gadamer's hermeneutics starts out from section 32 of Being and Time, with its idea that interpretation is never a presuppositionless grasping of something given but always proceeds according to a forestruc-ture of prejudices (SZ150/BT191-92). The question for Gadamer is what happens to these prejudices in our encounter with whatever calls for understanding. Gadamer follows Heidegger's insistence on historicity: our understanding of texts (or of tradition, or of other people) is always local and contingent; it is always an event circumscribed and conditioned by the historical and cultural situation in which it occurs. In a word, understanding is always finite. However, this finitude entails the fact that what we try to understand is irreducible to the concepts and categories that our situation makes available to us. Tradition, for example, is always in excess of our capacity to appropriate it. So we can never understand the other purely and simply in terms of ourselves or by remaining fixed in what seem to us self-evident determinations of how things are (WM265-6g/TM28i-85). The example of the classical text shows that understanding the other always entails a critical demand for a change (in us), whether in terms of a revision of prior understanding (prejudices) or, more radically, in terms of a conversion of our habitual modes of thought and feeling to other ways of being that are opened up to us in our encounter with others (WM273-75/ TM28g-go). This means (whatever else it means) that our relation to the other is not simply one of cognition, nor is it even simply a relation of
The symmetry between Gadamerian hermeneutics and Levinasian ethics begins with the recognition of human finitude clarified in the accusative case rather than in terms of whatever might limit the nominative, declarative, or imperative sovereignty of a consciousness presiding over a domain of objects. Levinas expresses this by remarking how philosophical modernity is structured on the model of Homer's Odyssey (DEHHigi/TTO348). That is, its hero is a consciousness capable of self-reflection, a movement of departure and return that defines subjectivity as knowledge and action against opposing forces. I go out into the world in order to take it in, and if I suffer, it is in a struggle for self-possession and possession of the world as if it were my household. Likewise my every action presupposes a redemptive economy of commensurate rewards and punishments. Even gift giving is structured on the model of eventual return. Against Odysseus, however, Levinas places the figure of Abraham, who is called out of his homeland by an absolute other for the sake of a time and a world to come that he will never experience; and there is no turning back (HAH46/CPP93). It is this “departure without return” and without reward that defines the ethical subject (DEHHigi/TTO349). On the model of Abraham, the “I” is for-the-other: a pure gift outside every possibility of exchange or compensation. As Levinas puts it, “the/or of the-one-for-the-other … is a/or of total gratuity, breaking with interest” (AEi54/OTBg6). Levinasian ethics is an ethics of “radical generosity” (DEHHigi/TTO349).
For example, what happens when I encounter another person? Sartre in his famous account of the look treats this encounter as an event of cognition in which, being seen, I become another's representation, a piece of furniture in another's world of intentional objects. Levinas maps onto this encounter another model—not the Greek or philosophical model of knowing and being known but the Jewish or Biblical model of election, of being summoned out of one's house or place of security and comfort. This is the prophetic experience of being called into the wilderness, of being inspired, exposed to the world, offered as a sacrifice, turned inside out like a cloak and put under a claim that cannot be redeemed. For Levinas, the ethical subject is defined by a responsibility that is prior to any rational deliberation