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Matters of Conscience: Conscientious Subjectivity in Kierkegaard and Levinas


This dissertation is interested in phenomena of moral conscience. This story of how the idea of conscience has become bound-up with the very idea of human dignity, and the political significance of the latter idea, raises interesting questions about what I will claim is Kierkegaard's and Levinas's rejection of the politics of conscience as they understand it. One reason I am fascinated by the way conscience is invoked in the writings of Kierkegaard and Levinas is that I believe they both treat the concept differently than most of their philosophical predecessors. In the case of the Kierkegaardian writings, I believe Kierkegaard's articulations of the idea of conscience lend themselves to a "phenomenological" interpretation of conscientious subjectivity. Such an understanding of conscience should be more explicitly clear in Levinas's writings, given his patent embrace of the phenomenological method. More specifically, I will suggest that such a phenomenological interpretation of conscientious subjectivity has important consequences for the supposed relationship between conscientiousness and human dignity. It is not the Other's conscientiousness that provokes me to recognize her human dignity, rather it is my own conscientiousness, as a mode of consciousness which "welcomes the Other," that allows the Other to be present for me as worthy of respect. Nevertheless, in spite of the affinities between Levinas and Kierkegaard, in their understanding of conscientious subjectivity, I will suggest differences between them that may also reinvigorate historically important political questions about conscientiousness.

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