New Review Essay: “The Cry of Victims and Dussel’s Philosophy – Liberation Beyond Habermas and Levinas”

The Radical Philosophy Review (RPR),  the journal of the Radical Philosophy Association, has just published my article-length review essay of Dussel’s recently translated book, Ethics of Liberation in the Age of Globalization and Exclusion. The published essay can be purchased at Radical Philosophy Review, Volume 17, Number 1 (2014): 307-312. RPR has kindly consented to my maintaining the near identical, first draft of the article at this website (see below). Full publication details on Dussel’s book are given immediately below in brackets, and then my article immediately follows.

[ Enrique Dussel. Ethics of Liberation in the Age of Globalization and Exclusion. Translated by Eduardo Mendieta, Camilo Pérez Bustillo, Yolanda Angulo, and Nelson Maldonado-Torres. Translation edited by Alejandro A. Vallega. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013. Pp. i-xxiii, 1-715. Pb: $34.95. ISBN: 970822352129. ]



A review essay by Mark Lewis Taylor

 Je pense, donc je suis is the cause of the crime
against Je danse, donc je vie.
         -F. Eboussi Boulaga, La crise du Muntu

Argentine-born philosopher of liberation, Enrique Dussel of Mexico, situates the above lines from University of Yaoundé philosopher, Fabien Eboussi Boulaga, as an epigram to his monumental, 700-plus page work, Ethics of Liberation in the Age of Globalization and Exclusion (hereafter, Ethics). The epigram points to the book’s key theoretical and ethical tension: the boundary – a multi-faceted, shifting and agonistic one – where European philosophical traditions that link being to self-determining reason (Descartes’ “I think, therefore, I am”), encounter ethical-critical thinkers from Europe (Marx, Freud, Levinas), but especially those from the global South who think and act toward a vibrantly corporeal liberation, a cognitive-affective materiality of victims’ movements (Boulaga’s “I dance, therefore I live).

Ethics, originally published in Spanish in 1998, offers a tour de force both breathtaking and conceptually rigorous. Its aim is “to provide philosophical justification for the praxis of liberation by the victims in this age of history, as the third millennium begins, with particular reference to victims excluded by the contemporary process of globalization of capitalism as a world system” (430). The still vigorous 80-year old, Dussel, writes from journeys across a variegated geopolitical terrain that includes his home nations of Argentina and Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean more broadly, but also eight student years in European philosophical centers and years of later teaching and collaboration with European thinkers (especially Emmanuel Levinas, K.O. Apel and Jürgen Habermas). Included, too, are two years in Palestine/Israel and more travel throughout Africa (since 1972) and Asia (since 1977). He also has lectured frequently throughout the United States (473n257). His publications beyond this book, the “crucial cornerstone” of his corpus (xiii), are daunting in number, and this reviewer can hardly claim expertise in all things Dussel. His work includes more than fifty books translated into multiple languages, and hundreds of essays. Among these are a 5 volume work, Toward an Ethics of Latin American Liberation, and a trilogy on Marx’s work (663). After 1998’s Spanish appearance of Ethics, Dussel remained prolific, most notably with a three-volume work, Política de la liberación (Trotta, 2007, 2009), succinctly summarized in English as Twenty Theses on Politics (Duke University Press, 2008).


The splendor of Dussel’s achievement in Ethics requires, first and foremost, an attempt at fair exposition of its content. Dussels argument develops across an architectonic of two Parts and six chapters (200 pages hold over 2500 footnotes, many being analytic gems in themselves). Part I provides a foundational analysis of the three principles of his “ethics of liberation;” Part II develops these as a critique of the “prevailing system” of globalization. I distill Dussel’s argument to be this: victims – those suffering material impoverishment, forced and premature death, lack of dignity and a host of undeserved injustices – nevertheless affirm their own lives and dignity as a community of victims in social movements (291, 348), en route to future states of feasible and viable transformation. Victims’ communities also function as the “red-light” or “social alarm” (652n3) for world society, calling out all human actors and thinkers in the prevailing system (capitalist, imperialist, racist, patriarchal). As called to by victims, these actors and thinkers in the system are “hailed,” “interpellated,” into transformative solidarity with “the community of victims” against the system. In being so hailed, both the material negation suffered by victims, and the affirmations of their material lives and dignity (affirmations both they and others make) constitute Dussel’s “material criterion of content.” This is worked out in a corresponding material principle expressed as “the obligation to produce, reproduce and develop the concrete human life of each ethical subject in community” (55).

Dussel makes his claim that victims’ liberating community can be a universally-grounding material reference for his ethics through a series of critical readings that subsume and then advance beyond many European intellectual traditions. These are analyzed as so many “necessary but insufficient” stages toward the material universality his book advocates. In turn, these many European traditions are themselves subsumed and transcended in light of non-European traditions (Latin American, Asian, African, Amerindian). I risk hyperbole but the Ethics’ contribution is comparable to Hegel’s rigorous and comprehensive exercise in subsumption (“sublation”); but it is also better than Hegel and his Eurocentrism (259-60), in that Dussel thinks geopolitically and philosophically, and from material victims’ points of view – learning from while sublating Hegel in longer “millennial traditions” of the global South and North (471n239).

Dussel’s material principle is only one of three “principles of co-determination” in his Ethics (104). Two others join to constitute his ethics of liberation. The second is a formal and procedural principle, that of “discourse ethics” (appropriating, but strongly criticizing Apel and Habermas). Here, the claims of the material principle are tested in communities of intersubjective exchange – of claim and counter-claim. Dussel proposes here a necessary subsumption of his own material principle: “Without the fulfillment of the basic norm of formal morality, ethical decisions [of the material principle] have no communitarian and universal ‘validity’ ” (141). Dussel, though, makes a critical move from within, but also beyond, Apel’s and Habermas’s notions of validity. He argues that intersubjective communication’s arrival at validity will depend on the more material reference provided by the claims and cry (el grito), “a roar from the pain of the victims” (557n36). If Habermas claims that “only those norms can be valid that meet (or could meet) with the approval of all affected . . (135),” Dussel insists that the “all affected” must include – and this constitutes Dussel’s “intersubjective critical validity”(334) –  especially the materially affected and threatened victims. Victims, “asymmetrically situated in the hegemonic community,” bring the “symmetry” that strengthens intersubjective discourse, by bringing the oft-excluded material content of their bodies and claims (155).

A third co-determining principle is also needed, and is, in fact, culminating. It is the criterion of feasibility (la factibilidad). It “subsumes all the principles described earlier in this volume,” and in its theorizing of what victims can actually effect strategically, it constitutes “the liberation principle” (419). Here emerges the “subject of the praxis of liberation,” i.e. “the living, needy, natural, and thus, cultural subject and in the last instance the victim, the community of victims, and those who are co-responsibly articulate with it” (385). Note: this “subject” is not only the community of victims but also those interpellated (from the prevailing system) by that community, i.e. those allied in complex “co-solidarity” with victims (334, 351).

If Dussel’s Ethics works at the periphery of globalization, it also participates in a “millennial tradition” that he claims reaches back to “Egyptian high-culture of the fourth millennium,” which opened up “a horizon of concrete ethical norms of great carnal, historical, communitarian positivity” (7). Within this tradition Ethics manifests “a new moment of reason with a claim to universality” (206), and so is an “updated version of a millennial tradition that has been trodden underfoot by the cynicism of globalizing capitalism . . .” (451). Indeed, Levinas’s désir métaphysique, taking us to the corporeal, material encounter with the victim/Other, is for Dussel also working within this millennial tradition (280).


            Ethics, so stellar in its theoretical contribution and complexity, will continue the debates that arose after its 1998 appearance in Spanish. I have my own longish list of criticisms of Dussel’s project, some aired in an earlier review of his Twenty Theses on Politics. I close what must remain here a short review with comments on just two areas of debate.

First, there is the debate about Dussel’s strong claim for his first “material principle,” grounding his Ethics in universal reference to human victims’ material needs. This universal principle “penetrates all cultures and “moves them to their self-fulfilment” as so many particular modes of life” (55). The challenging question is: what saves this material reference from a naïve realism, some version of “the naturalist fallacy” (a charge Dussel anticipates), a claim that ethics can be grounded in what Bernard Lonergan termed “taking a look” – here, taking a look at victims’ needs as purported universal ground of ethics? Philosopher James Marsh, while himself deeply appreciative of Dussel’s work, proposes that Dussel needs to see the formal discursive element (Habermas’s intersubjective communicative) as constituting his material referent. Dussel has responded to Marsh, in the second volume of his 2009 Política de la liberación (II: 382-5), claiming that only his analytic order of presentation in the 1998 Ethics gave this impression. In fact, in Politica, Dussel treats the Habermasian discourse principle first. But he reminds readers that his three principles are, as stated in Ethics “co-determinations without ‘primacies’ ” (140); thus his Ethics already acknowledged Marsh’s point about the material principle’s dependence upon the formal, discursive one.

Marsh’s critique persists, though, since the special power of Dussel’s material principle lay not simply in its being exposited firstly in the 1998 work. It was also linked conceptually by Dussel to his notion of a “reality” that is before being and thought. Dussel cited Schelling’s emphasis on material “reality” that “looms . . . as a necessary prior assumption of thinking and being,” and is “before being” (219).  The better response to Marsh’s critique, then, might be for Dussel to stand by the special power of the material principle in pointing to this “reality.” In doing so, however, this would not necessitate a realist or naturalistic naiveté. Instead, that material “reality” comes by means of intersubjective discourse (the second principle), but now as constituted by the “community of victims.”

Second, there is the question of the role of Levinas in Dussel’s Ethics. I conclude with this question not only because Levinas has long been pivotal for Dussel, but also because of Levinas’s continuing influence in current theory. Dussel signals, generally, that he is subsuming Levinas, as “necessary . . . but also insufficient” (598n552), and he also hints at “the limits” of Levinas for “philosophy of history and philosophy of politics” (270). In Ethics overall, though, Dussel is not very explicit about just what his critique is of Levinas. It has to be discerned from the entire flow of the work, and from some telling footnotes. Levinas as “necessary” is clear: he demonstrates the ultimate content of Dussel’s material ethics, which stems from the Other/victim whose corporeality prompts co-responsibility. But three insufficiencies in Levinas’s thought would seem to drive Dussel beyond certain limits in Levinas’ thought.

First, Dussel claims there is no “absolutely perfect” manifestation of le désir métaphysique (283), which animates the ethical reason Levinas discerns in “face-to-face” encounter with the Other and grants “the possibility of the critical moment” (179). Because perfection is impossible in all drives, including Levinas’ désir, humans must decide practically, and thus are thrown back onto intersubjective processes of decision, especially about strategic matters (283). Levinas’s “limits” are disclosed with this question of instrumental strategies in politics and history (270). Levinas’s essential contribution to Ethics is mostly “completed,” then, by the time that Dussel takes up his third principle, feasibility, a strategic and instrumental turn in which other thinkers and Dussel’s own formulations make the major contributions.

The second reason for moving “beyond Levinas,” concerns who the Other is in Levinas’ project. In a telling footnote, Dussel recalls asking Levinas: “And the fifteen million indigenous people killed in the conquest of Latin America, and thirteen million enslaved Africans, are they also the Other of which you speak?” Levinas reportedly “looked hard at me [Dussel] and said: “You must think about that,” and added “I look at all of you as if you were hostages.” Dussel reports that he first thought this might be “an insult,” but then soon credits Levinas with saying that Levinas had given an “immense, unmerited judgment, brimming with hope” (591n466). This hardly deals with all that is operating in Levinas’ statement, particularly its assumption that “you” [the Latin American intellectuals, like Dussel] were “hostages” to conquered and enslaved peoples in the Americas, but not the European, Levinas himself. Dussel, in earlier works of the 1970s criticized him on this point, noting that Levinas “had not suffered Europe in its [colonial] totality and that Levinas’s reference point continues to be Europe in itself.”[1] In the Ethics, I read Dussel as largely silent about Levinas’s failure here, even in the footnote quoted above. English readers not familiar with the earlier writings, may miss the full force of Dussel’s critique of Levinas.

The third reason, however, makes still clearer the reason for moving beyond this important thinker. Dussel sees a weakness in Levinas’s philosophies of history and politics (270). This lies in Levinas’s tendency to stress a singular, largely passive suffering Other who holds hostage the co-responsible subjects to the Other’s material presence (598n552). Dussel, over the course of his Ethics, especially by reading Levinas in the context of Marx, Freud and other theorists, produces a more social Other/Victim than I think one finds in Levinas. The Dusselian Other(s) are more proactive, first interpellating themselves (affectively and practically) as a community that affirms their life and dignity in the face of being negated, and so, second, interpellating others into the victims’ community, making it an “architect of liberation and organizer of a new state” (Dussel is thinking especially of Palestinians in uprising as Intifada). “The Other” in Levinas becomes the “We-Others” – “we-are-existing (nosotros-estamos-siendo) as ‘re-sistant’ reality” (299). Dussel’s “Other(s)” as a We-force becomes “a subject through militant organization.” In summary, Dussel hears the proactive voices of victims: “I interpellate you on the basis of the justice that you should have accomplished for us (nos-otros, “we-others”)!

Moving from Levinas, but beyond him onto this terrain of the We-Others as militant social movement, we come out onto the vista of Dussel’s more recent work. The Ethics of Liberation, then, well prepares readers for a world historical, geopolitical theory, which drives toward Dussel’s more recent three-volume Politics of Liberation. There, we learn of the community of victims forming popular “blocs from below,” uniting to forge the common will-to-live as forces for state and institutional transformation (Twenty Theses on Politics, 78-81).

[1] Cited from Walter Mignolo, “Dussel’s Philosophy of Liberation,” in Thinking from the Underside of History: Enrique Dussel’s Philosophy of Liberation, eds. Linda martin Alcoff and Eduardo Mendieta (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), 29.

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