Heteronomy as condition for freedom in Levinas' and Sartre's ethics

Mylene Botbol-Baum, Marquette University


The early Sartre perceives the other as alienating, since the other forces me to responsibility and reveals escape from the other as inauthentic. To depart from ontology is to free oneself from the dilemma of escaping or being caught, i.e., of being either an autonomous subject or abiding by the law of the face, the encounter with the other that is at the center of ethics for both Sartre and Levinas. Levinas escapes this dilemma by a hypostasis (i.e., a going out of oneself) that allows the self to leave itself in order to find itself. Autonomy becomes a form of inauthenticity brought about by an injustice to the other. Ethics for Levinas redefines subjectivity as "this heteronomous responsibility in contrast to autonomous freedom." Levinas' asymmetric relation to the other more adequately frees us from a tyrannical ego that is the basis of ontology. Levinas breaks with the Husserlian tradition by replacing the transcendental ego with the notion of the face, which resists conceptualization by soliciting relationship. The assertion of the other as different and coexisting negates the reflective ego of the self, erases the need for violence, and frees one from oneself by making one responsible for the other. The specialized literature sees these differences as prohibiting dialogue between Sartre and Levinas, but no such dichotomy exits. Both authors aim at the same goal of union between ethics and politics. The dichotomy of ethics and politics in France is a drama of thought brought on by modernity, a position to overcome, not an ontological necessity. The decentering of the subject is the origin of the conflict of the modern and the postmodern. The dialogue between Sartre and Levinas shows one a way to praxis. The tradition of opposing Sartre and Levinas in terms of macro/micro ethical terms is a false problematic; a concrete ethics can emerge from a dialectical encounter of their thoughts as complementary.

Recommended Citation

Botbol-Baum, Mylene, "Heteronomy as condition for freedom in Levinas' and Sartre's ethics" (1993). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9325667.