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

Margret Grebowicz:

Originally from Poland, Margret grew up mostly in Texas. She studied German literature, philosophy, and art history at the University of Texas at Austin, while working in record stores. She received her Ph.D. in philosophy from Emory University in 2001, having had the great privilege of studying with Jean-François Lyotard before his death. Her first job was at the University of Houston-Downtown, and during that time she authored numerous articles about various aspects of French philosophy, visual culture, feminist epistemology, and radical democracy, among other subjects, as well as translating poetry from her native Polish into English. Margret has been tenured at both UHD and Goucher College, and received two international fellowships, from the Leverhulme Trust and the Fulbright Foundation. Following a year at University of Dundee as a Leverhulme Fellow, she lived in New York City and worked as a jazz vocalist from 2010 to 2017, while simultaneously commuting to Baltimore to teach at Goucher. Margret serves on the executive committee of the International Association for Environmental Philosophy and co-direct the Transhuman Alliance for Climbing Theory. She is the author of Whale Song (2017, Bloomsbury Academic Press), The National Park to Come (2015, Stanford University Press), Why Internet Porn Matters (2013, Stanford University Press), co-author of Beyond the Cyborg: Adventures with Donna Haraway (2013, Columbia University Press), and editor of Gender after Lyotard (2007, State University of New York Press). In recent years, she has published articles about time-lapse photography and climate change, bestiality pornography, jazz, and bored dolphins. She still translates occasionally and thinks about returning to music. She still thinks and writes “with” Lyotard.