Original Articles

Kierkegaard, Levinas and the Question of Escaping Metaphysics

Published in: South African Journal of Philosophy
Volume 19, issue 3, 2000 , pages: 169–187
DOI: 10.4314/sajpem.v19i3.31314
Author(s): Andrea HurstPhilosophy, Centre for Advanced Studies University of Port Elizabeth,


While Kierkegaard and Levinas may well be thought of as religious or ethical thinkers, I should not like the reader to be misled by this into assuming that this article is primarily about religion or ethics. Rather, my main concern may more properly be described as metaphysical or epistemological, for I am interested in certain styles of thinking that underlie the religious/ethical themes dealt with here. Thus, this article aims to show that in relation to traditional metaphysical styles, and to each other, the thinking of Kierkegaard and Levinas is parallel and divergent in complex ways. Both share a mistrust of modernist metaphysics, which they aim to escape by pointing to the way in which conceptions of metaphysical totalities (or systems) are breached by a destabilising infinity already internal to them. This anticipates later postmodern styles of thinking which challenge modern metaphysics, its resentment against time, and its confidence in human power to represent all that is by means of closed systems of interpretation. To the extent that they offer philosophical alternatives that accommodate the temporal, both have had highly significant contributions to make to a postmodern style of thinking that has implications not limited to religion or ethics. A study of the philosophical strategies of these two thinkers, where they seem to succeed or fall short in relation to each other and to the traditional strategies of metaphysics, should go some way toward clarification of what I believe to be the most viable style of thinking for a postmodern world. As I see it, one is confronted with three options. The first, represented by Kierkegaard’s ‘infinite resignation,’ may be associated with a Derridean style of thinking. Kierkegaard himself abandons this in favour of a style of thinking for which faith and revelation stand as metaphors. Levinas, in contrast, offers an alternative whose leitmotif is ethical responsibility. I shall try to show in the end that the first of these, which best accommodates the ‘undecidability’ of a middle ground, is the most suitable for contemporary thinkers.

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