Ernest Becker and Emmanuel Levinas: Surprising Convergences

In Daniel Liechty (ed.), Death and Denial: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Legacy of Ernest Becker. pp. 175-184 (2002)
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After a brief introduction and orientation (section I), this dialogue between Levinasian and Beckerian thought is approached along the lines of two major themes concerning consciousness which emerge in very different contexts and registers in their work (sections II and III), and one tantalizing question that is raised with great force by the dialogue (section IV). The two themes revolve around the subtle dialectical interplay that runs throughout the thought of both Levinas and Becker – the switching between internality and externality, non-rational and rational; otherness and sameness; life and death – an interplay that is summed up in the dialectic between non-reflexive and reflexive consciousness. The Beckerian and Levinasian notions of the non-reflexive consciousness (section II) relate to their respective and in many ways convergent claims about a non-rational primal human state characterized by global vulnerability, awe and guilt, especially before the face of the other. Their analyses of reflexive consciousness (section III) relate to their interpretations of the problematic ideal of the free, self-constituting and self-mastering individual, and the impetus located therein towards the repression of what is Other to the self. Finally (section IV), the question is raised as to whether (and to what extent), following Levinas, sources of compelling ethical value might be legitimately understood as emerging out of Becker’s conception of primordial human vulnerability.
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