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The Good of Recognition: Phenomenology, Ethics, and Religion in the Thought of Lévinas and Ricœur (Michael Sohn)

Sohn cover for author review

[Michael Sohn previews his new book, The Good of Recognition: Phenomenology, Ethics, and Religion in the Thought of Lévinas and Ricœur (Baylor University Press).]

The language of recognition is of such frequent use that its presence in everyday and academic discourse is striking, and yet critical examination of its meaning remains largely absent. Its frequent use is evident in the legislative acts promulgated, the public policies written, and the social struggles waged in the name of it. Its application touches upon a broad spectrum of issues ranging from multiculturalism to national sovereignty, from matters of international human rights to social movements within feminism and civil rights. It is unsurprising, then, that there has been a growing literature on the concept of recognition in recent years, as many see in it fruitful possibilities for addressing and understanding our contemporary political and social landscape. But while the concept of recognition is often used, its precise meaning remains largely unclear. My book aims to address this issue. Through a critical comparison of the thought of two contemporary French thinkers, Emmanuel Lévinas (1906-1995) and Paul Ricœur (1913-2005), I develop a concept of recognition for the purposes of clarifying its importance for a conception of good in ethics and politics. My method employs an historical approach, which excavates the philosophical and religious sources that undergird their uses of the concept of recognition, and a constructive approach, which puts their insights into critical conversation with contemporary social and political theory. The book thereby theorizes an ethics and politics of mutual recognition out of the deep resources of Jewish and Christian traditions.

The first chapter situates Lévinas and Ricœur’s reflections on recognition within the socio-political and intellectual context of their day. During a period when individuals experienced acute feelings of anonymity and estrangement within modern mass society as well as invidious forms of identification based on ethnic, racial, and religious categories, Lévinas and Ricœur offered responses to these forces amid the resurrection of Hegel studies, the emergence of existentialism and phenomenology in France, and the failure of modern liberal theology and efforts to revive religious traditions in the post-war period. The confluence of these intellectual trends provides the historical context to understand Lévinas and Ricœur’s distinct appropriations of Hegel’s concept of Anerkennung.

Chapters two and three detail Lévinas’s concept of recognition by considering in turn his philosophical and Jewish writings. Chapter two follows his critique of epistemological accounts of cognition presupposed in naturalism, which was the dominant method for the human and natural sciences up until the twentieth century, as well as his critique of phenomenology, which was Edmund Husserl’s alternative proposal for a rigorous scientific method. Whatever differences there are between these accounts of the sciences, they both narrowly reduced the scope of cognition to mere objects of knowledge. The chapter proceeds to argue that Lévinas’s distinct concept of ethical recognition can be seen as an attempt to pursue more faithfully what Husserl had initiated, that is, a rigorous science that accesses our most concrete existence. Chapter three follows a parallel structure by tracing his critique of epistemological accounts of cognition at the basis of pre-modern doctrinal sciences of Judaism as well as modern historical sciences of Judaism. Whatever differences there are between these accounts of the science of Judaism, they narrowly reduced cognition to an object of knowledge that neglected a more primordial ethical dimension. Instead, Lévinas proposes what he calls a ‘new science of Judaism,’ which retrieves classical sources that modern Judaism had neglected while enlarging its relevance beyond a historical community by employing a general phenomenology that would open up towards a certain form of moral universalism. He thereby draws from the textual sources and traditions of Judaism to re-interpret certain key Jewish doctrines within the horizon of the new science of phenomenology, while, at the same time, he re-interprets the phenomenon of recognition in specifically Jewish terms. Chapters two and three, then, form a pair as they both focus on Lévinas’s concept of recognition at the intersection of his phenomenology, ethics, and religion.

Chapters four and five detail Ricœur’s concept of recognition by considering his philosophical and Christian writings. Chapter four traces Ricœur’s philosophical reflections from his early works in existential phenomenology through his later works in ethics and politics. Even as the structure of the chapter proceeds chronologically and logically in a way that marks shifts and detours in his thought, there are common structures and themes that link his later writings on the ethics and politics of recognition to his earlier works on the existential phenomenology of recognition. Chapter five engages in the constructive task of relating his writings on Christian theology, evinced in Gerhard Ebeling’s notion of the ‘process of the Word,’ to the church’s role in instructing and institutionalizing the phenomenological, ethical, and political dimensions of recognition. Ricœur’s reflections on the nature and task of theology present a complex and sophisticated approach that retrieves a post-Enlightenment appreciation of the Christian tradition, but insists on the ongoing creative appropriation and interpretation of Christian symbols, narratives, and texts for the purposes of personal, moral, social, and institutional transformation.

The sixth and final chapter concludes by putting Lévinas and Ricœur’s insights on recognition in conversation with contemporary social and political theory. The primordial existential-phenomenological dimension of recognition, the parsing of multiple ethical modalities of recognition, and the distinct contribution that religious traditions can make to an ethics and politics of recognition are all absent in discussions in contemporary social and political theory. By concluding with reflections in phenomenology, ethics, and religion as they relate to the ‘good of recognition’, I argue that Lévinas and Ricœur not only articulated a response to the pervasive problems of non-recognition and misrecognition in their day, but also suggest how their thought can contribute to current discussions in social and political theory.

Michael Sohn is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Comparative Religion at Cleveland State University. He has authored several articles in peer-reviewed journals, including Journal of Religious Ethics, Philosophy Today, and Etudes Ricoeuriennes/ Ricoeur Studies, and he currently serves on the Board of Directors for The Society for Ricoeur Studies. This is his first book.

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