Language and Ethics

When there is such a surplus of words, does it matter what one says?


This course introduces students to what is called "the linguistic turn" in 20th Century French philosophy, with particular attention to the role of language in what it means to be a person in the world. We will begin with a close reading of Emmanuel Levinas's groundbreaking 1961 work,Totality and Infinity, and continue with important texts which followed, by Maurice Blanchot, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jacques Derrida, among others. These works, the first to offer an involved exploration of the ethical importance of language, provide tools for thinking about contemporary questions, such as: How is it that words can harm, and what is the nature of this harm? Is there a fundamental human right to speak, and if so, what is the nature of this freedom? Can animals speak? Can writing ever faithfully reflect reality? And if not, why write? What is worth writing about? Is there really a right to remain silent, and if so, what does this right tell us about the kinds of creatures humans are? 

Prerequisite: none