Expressive Vulnerabilities: Language and the Non-Human

International Journal of Philosophical Studies 28 (5):662-676 (2020)
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Emmanuel Levinas’s work seemingly places a great emphasis on language leading some commentators towards a Kantian reading of him where moral consideration would be based on the moral patient’s capacity for reason with language functioning as a proxy for this. Although this reading is possible, a closer look at Levinas’s descriptions of language reveal that its defining characteristic is not reason but the capacity to express beyond any thematized contents we would give to the Other. This expressivity (which Levinas calls face) would confront me with their singularity, infinity, and interiority tying me to them in a relation of responsibility. And the “content” of such an expression is a vulnerability and exposure tied to their mortality which continually entreats me though I cannot take it away. It is by means of this bare expression of an exposure to death as the core of language that it will become possible for non-human mortal beings to have what Levinas calls language. This possibility, although not explicitly addressed by Levinas, is at least left open by his account of Bobby the dog as well as his agnosticism over a snake’s face.

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Joe Larios
Emory University


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