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Monistic Ontology and Ethics as First Philosophy

A major thread running through this work is the idea of theoretical philosophy being guided by practical philosophy. What are the philosophical and practical implications of accepting this as a legitimate approach? This question, as I have suggested in the Introduction, is impossible to answer without knowing what it is aiming at, or who or what could legitimise such an approach. These topics fall squarely into the realms of meta-philosophy, and outside the scope of this work. However, that is not all we can say, and there are certainly ways to examine the relationship between theoretical and practical philosophy that do not verge into purely meta-philosophical and questions about the purpose and limits of philosophy.

There is obviously a difference between accepting that we might be able to change the way we frame questions in theoretical philosophy to take account of issues in practical philosophy, and a thoroughgoing concept of ethics as first philosophy. A range of intermediate positions are also possible. An extra dimension is added when one considers how present the Other is for Levinas, but just as much for Hegel. Not only is one only free in the Other (as is the case for both philosophers), in a sense the human subject exists only as social being. As Bernhard Waldenfels puts it:

We are not only too late to begin by ourselves and to fulfil what Kant calls freedom of spontaneity. We are also too late to remember the command in the way we remember what has been possible for us. What Levinas suggests is a redefinition of freedom in terms of beginning oneself, but beginning elsewhere. Without this redefinition things would only be reversed in such a way that my initiative would be exchanged for that of the other whose otherness would finally be abolished itself in want of a counterpart. The passage [Otherwise than Being, p. 142] concludes with a kind of resume, presenting the face not as something or somebody we can grasp, but as a mere way or mode, i.e. as the other’s proximity.1

What Heidegger would call Mitsein is a mode of being; one does not emerge into the world fully formed, but is in one’s very being, so in sense (a) of ontology as described in the Introduction, being-with. The other is always there in the same way, we do not encounter it in terms of traditional proximity, but as part of ourselves from the beginning. This ontological (in sense (c) as outlined in the Introduction) picture is the starting-point for Levinas and the motivation behind ethics as first philosophy.

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