The metaphysics of affectivity and ethical responsibility

Anthony Francis Beavers, Marquette University


In this dissertation, I seek to establish, in the style of Levinas, an affective foundation for ethics that is rooted in real persons who exist beyond my interpretation of them. In this way, I hope to show that emotions cannot be tossed aside in ethical matters as "merely subjective." The term "ethics" ordinarily refers to our dealing with other people who are taken to be real, autonomous beings that exist independently of our interpretation of them. If so, and if ideas are interpretations, then access to other people must be available outside of ideas. In this work, I argue that such access can be found on the level of feelings and affectivity. Chapter One offers a short critique of Descartes' Meditations, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, and Husserl's phenomenology to show that their theories reduce the whole world to ideas and, thus, are unable to account for access to others as independently real. Chapter Two discusses Descartes' later works and Hume's "affective empiricism" to establish affectivity as a component of "knowing" what is beyond ideas. Affectivity serves ideas in the process of knowing by confirming the extra-mental existence of what is represented in ideas. In other words, affectivity has a metaphysical import that ideas, by themselves, do not have. Chapter Three examines Levinas, who goes beyond Descartes and Hume by claiming that affective contact with an other person is already ethical. For him, this contact commands the self to respond to the other, thus giving rise to ethical responsibility. Chapter Four discusses Levinas' notion of responsibility by examining the particular characteristics of the command to responsibility which is issued from the face-to-face encounter with an other person. While Levinas shows how I am responsible to and for the others, he does not show that the other is essentially responsible to and for me. This lack of ethical reciprocity presents problems for developing a normative ethics. Hence, in Chapter Five I make some suggestions for revising Levinas' position in order to establish such responsibility.

Recommended Citation

Beavers, Anthony Francis, "The metaphysics of affectivity and ethical responsibility" (1990). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9101411.