Editor's Introduction: Passivity as Necessary Condition for Ethical Agency?

  • Benda Hofmeyr
Part of the Library of Ethics and Applied Philosophy book series (LOET, volume 20)

Starting with a radical passivity of the subjectivity, our analysis has come to the notion of “responsibility overflowing freedom” (whereas freedom alone should have been able to justify and limit responsibilities), an obedience prior to the reception of orders. Starting with this anarchical situation of responsibility, our analysis has, no doubt by an abuse of language, named the Good (CCP, 135).

The question concerning the ‘radical passivity’ of the ethical agent undoubtedly constitutes the proverbial 64,000 dollar question in Levinas scholarship and reception. In other words, the question concerning the radically passive ethical agent as opposed to the active autonomous agent, with the freedom to act independently without an inherent imperative or inner directive steering its actions, is the decisive issue separating supporters of Levinas from his critics. Levinas claims that taking responsibility for others in need follows from neither sympathy and compassion nor a free, rational weighing of options. Rather, ethical action is made possible by a primordial, an-archical responsibility that is pre-consciously felt as the ‘Otherwithin- the-Same’. We are passively obligated before we can actively choose to help. Levinas therefore argues that the needy other disturbs and incapacitates our customary egocentric ways, and that this ‘radical passivity’ enables us to recognize our inherent responsibility towards others in need. The present collection of essays seeks to appreciate this central conviction underpinning the entire oeuvre of Levinas and to provide its readers with a sturdy framework for conceptualization, problematization and in-depth analysis. In addition, it offers us a much needed critical revaluation of key issues in Levinas’s thought which are, more often than not, uncritically assimilated or taken as a matter of fact.


Ethical Action Ethical Agency Continental Philosophy Radical Passivity Inherent Responsibility 
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© Springer Science + Business Media B.V 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Benda Hofmeyr
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of PretoriaSouth Africa

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