Levinas's Empiricism and James's Phenomenology

Journal of Scriptural Reasoning 11 (2) (2012)
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Genealogies in philosophy can be tricky and even a little dangerous. Lines of influence and inheritance run much more linearly on paper than in reality. I am often reminded of Robert Frost's "Mending Walls" and the attention that must be paid to what is being walled in and what is being walled out. In other words, William James and Emmanuel Levinas are not natural conversation partners. I have always read James as a fellow traveler of Edmund Husserl, and placed both in a line of thought that might share Franz Brentano and Wilhelm Dilthey as forebears. In this genealogy, Levinas appears with an asterisk, or after one. Maurice Natanson described Husserlian phenomenology as an elderly grandparent who comes down to dinner just a little bit too early, making everyone uncomfortable. Seating Levinas next to James brings to mind some similar scene. What basic premises or positions do James and Levinas share? Is Levinas a Jamesian pragmatist? Is he a radical empiricist? Does James offer an ethics that parallels or even complements Levinas's rigorous ethical phenomenology?

Author's Profile

Randy L. Friedman
State University of New York at Binghamton


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