Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

By David Reynolds

With news (or rumours) of a Blade Runner sequel on the not-too-distant horizon, I’ve been revisiting the first film. Let me say, I’m a fan of both the theatrical version as well as the director’s cut of the film, but my thoughts here reflect on the director’s vision of the film. The essay that follows is a revised take on a presentation I delivered for a class with Chris Lockett at Memorial University back in 2006.

Blade Runner

Being post-human is a complicated matter. What does it mean to be post-human, anyway? One cannot consider this matter without first contemplating what it means to be human. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner confronts these questions and portrays the post-human condition as one consisting of degradation and the search for identity.

A brief synopsis of Blade Runner is helpful in considering the post-human condition. (NOTE: Spoilers aplenty ahead, of course.) The film, directed by Scott, was released in 1982 and stars Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Darryl Hannah, and Sean Young. Based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the story is set in a cyberpunk-stylized future where androids, called Replicants, are used as slave labour for dangerous jobs on other planets. The protagonist, Rick Deckard, is an ex-blade runner, a member of a special police unit who had orders to kill any trespassing Replicant. He is forced by police to track down and kill, or “retire,” four trespassing Replicants on Earth: Roy Batty, Pris, Leon Kowalski, and Zhora. These rogue Replicants have returned to Earth to find their maker. Through encounters with various Replicant designers, Roy and Pris come close to finding the answers they seek. However, when Roy finally confronts Eldon Tyrell, the essential creator of the Nexus 6 Replicants, he has no answers to satisfy Roy and only reaffirms that his death is both inevitable and immanent. Meanwhile, Deckard has dispatched the other three Replicants, and he has fallen in love with another Replicant, Rachael. During the climactic confrontation between Roy and Deckard, Roy reveals his insights of self-awareness and reflection before he dies. The film closes as Deckard reunites with Rachael, but before they flee to the north he receives a mysterious origami unicorn from Gaff, his police liason.


Next, before considering the post-human condition, we ought to reflect upon what it means to be human. This is not a simple matter, however, and it has preoccupied philosophers’ thoughts for thousands of years. Protagoras is famous for claiming that “Man is the measure of all things.” Socrates half-heartedly defined humankind as “featherless bipeds.” When Plato pronounced Socrates’ definition of man in his Academy, he was highly praised for the insight. However, Diogenes the Cynic quickly plucked a chicken and, bringing it to the Academy, said, “This is Plato’s man.” After this incident the caveat “with broad flat nails” was added to Socrates’ definition. Aristotle’s description of man is more serious. He proposes that humans are “communal animals.” As such, Aristotle emphasizes humanity’s social nature. During the Enlightenment period, Immanuel Kant posits, “Man is distinguished above all animals by his self-consciousness, by which he is a ‘rational animal.'” Here, Kant asserts humanity’s faculty of reason is our defining characteristic. In the 19th century, Karl Marx defined man as a “labouring animal.” Marx continues to categorize humanity as animals, like Aristotle and Kant, but he claims our distinguishing essence is the struggle within class structures. Furthermore, Christianity holds that humans are God’s creation and made in His image, while Charles Darwin argues that we have descended from millennia of evolution from amoebas. According to some of the strictest medical and legal criteria for humanity, people in vegetative states or those with severe mental illnesses may not qualify as humans whereas monkeys would. Effectively, the more vague the criteria for humanity, the more inclusive the group becomes. However, with more rigorous criteria the boundaries of humanity become more exclusive, to the extent that some people are not considered human. It is clear that what constitutes humanity is a matter of debate. Nevertheless, ideas such as those above help us contextualize the issue.

In this light, consider the post-human. Broadly speaking, post-humans are those who have somehow gone beyond being human, whether that is through evolution or augmentation. So, where can the distinction be drawn between humans and post-humans? People undergo organ transplants and cosmetic surgery all the time. Despite these modifications they remain human. A prosthetic leg is a mechanical replacement for a biological leg – it may look and function quite similar to an organic leg – yet these people remain human. Ponder this: is a blind woman’s cane an extension of her body? Are the cars we drive part of who we are? What about voice boxes? phones? computers? the Internet? Science fiction deals with cyborgs, humans with technological modifications, quite frequently. But, aren’t there people living today, all around us, who resemble such a description?

In Blade Runner, the Replicants are effectively post-human. The Nexus 6 Replicants are described as “[beings] virtually identical to humans… and at least equal in intelligence to the genetic engineers who created them.” Later, Bryant describes the Replicants to Deckard as follows:

They were designed to copy human beings in every way, except their emotions. The designers reckoned that after a few years they might develop their own emotional responses… well, hate, love, fear, anger, envy… so they built in a fail safe… [a] four-year lifespan.

The Replicants are created to emulate human physiology and rationality. If left at this stage, we may still consider them machines, like organic computers. They are not, generally, created with prescribed emotions, but they may develop emotional responses on their own, through experience – acting and reacting to stimuli in the world. When Rachael – a rare model of Replicant who was conditioned with a lifetime of memories, experiences, and emotions – takes the Voight-Kampff test she undergoes about a hundred questions before Deckard can determine a result. This reflects the difficulty in determining the line between human and Replicant. It is at this stage that the line between human and post-human is most definitely distorted. As the Replicants’ rationality is fused with emotion they become cognizant of philosophy and poetry. They display a keen sense of insightful self-reflection. This is also evident when Pris’ trick for Sebastian, a befriended Replicant designer, is to quote Rene Descartes’ indubitable certainty, “I think, Sebastian, therefore I am.” The Replicants do not appear to merely repeat philosophy like this as, say, a parrot would. Rather, they seem to genuinely understand and reflect upon it. This is a feat we tend to believe is beyond the realm of possibility for machines.

Regardless of their degrees of humanity, the post-human life of the Replicants in Blade Runner is not all sunshine and lollipops. Theirs is an oppressed existence. They are considered to be far beneath human concerns, and they have fewer rights than any animal. Pamela Anderson does not appear in any advertisements to help save the Replicants. Their reason for being is to be expendable slave labourers. Once some of the Replicants gained an insight into the nature of their existence as mere slaves, they react like any other oppressed group would – they rise against their oppressors. The four rogue Replicants that return to Earth are in search of answers from their creators. Their questions are the same as any of us would ask, given the chance.

As the protagonist, Deckard, hunts down his prey, we view the narrative through his lens. If our sympathy for the Replicants has not been nurtured earlier in the film, it certainly grows at the film’s climax, when Deckard himself is forced to confront the Replicants’ humanity. Since Roy reveals his insight to Deckard before dying, when he could have killed the blade runner, we must accept that the Replicants’ plight is not dissimilar to our own. Finally, it is important to note that Deckard, too, is revealed to be a Replicant at the end of the film. Clues troughout the film allude to this, such as the collection of pictures as well as Rachael’s questions about mistakenly killing humans and taking the Voight-Kampf test himself. However, it is Graff’s origami unicorn which reveals with certainty that Deckard is a Replicant. How else would Gaff know about Deckard’s dreams the same way Deckard knew Rachael’s memories? Since Deckard is revealed to be a Replicant it shifts his own perspective out of the human realm of reason, but the audience is led to believe his perspective was human up until this revelation. This further blurs the line between humans and post-humans.

The origami unicorn

In closing, being post-human is very much like being human. The distinction between the two is ambiguous at its best. The plight faced by Replicants is indicative of human ignorance and arrogance. Blade Runner portrays humanity as considering themselves the owners of the Replicants, as if they are no more than property. Nevertheless, these beings are intelligent, conscious, and self-aware. They ought to be treated ethically and equally, whether they are “human” or not.


Scott, Ridley. Blade Runner The Director’s Cut. Warner Bros. Pictures: Burbank, California, 2006. DVD.

Blade Runner

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By David Reynolds

Oscar Wilde was a writer. It can be put no other way for he did not merely dabble in the art of writing short stories, novels, poems, and plays, he mastered the art. The Importance of Being Earnest is arguably Wilde’s theatric masterpiece. While maintaining the play’s comedic elements, Wilde succeeds in weaving deeper themes into the plot as well. Amongst the play’s most significant themes is Wilde’s inquiry into the nature of responsibility, hypocrisy, and the double life. Sam Raimi‘s film Spider-Man 2 also considers similar questions, and he acknowledges this connection to the play by portraying Mary Jane Watson as Cecily on stage in the film. This essay expands on the connection between Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Raimi’s Spider-Man 2.

Peter Parker get ready to see Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest

A brief synopsis of the film may be helpful for the unfamiliar. The tale of Spider-Man originated from the mind of comic book legend Stan Lee. Peter Parker’s background is explained at the beginning of every Spider-Man comic (loosely) as follows:

Bitten by an irradiated spider, which granted him incredible abilities, Peter Parker learned the all-important lesson, that with great power there must also come great responsibility. And so he became the amazing Spider-Man.

This part of Spider-Man’s canon is essentially unaltered in Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, and the origin story is handled in the first film of his trilogy (naturally). Spider-Man 2 is still significant, however, as it shows the hero struggle, persevere, and grow. Aside from the superhero activity throughout the film, Parker is down on is luck: he loses his job as a pizza delivery boy; his freelance photography for The Daily Bugle is no longer sufficient to cover his bills; J. Jonah Jameson has twisted Parker’s photos of Spider-Man in order to portray the hero as a masked menace; Parker’s best friend, Harry Osborn, distrusts and resents him for protecting Spider-Man’s identity; he regularly misses classes at Empire State University and he risks failing; and, Parker sees his love interest, Mary Jane Watson, accept the marriage proposal of John Jameson, son of J. Jonah Jameson and the first astronaut to play football on the moon. Nevertheless, Parker resolves that he must still fulfill his responsibilities as a superhero despite the declining quality of his personal life. Further, insofar as being a superhero goes, Parker has always guarded his true identity as a secret in order to protect those he loves. Considering such conflicts Parker must contend with in the film, it is clear that when his love interest plays Cecily in a production of Wilde’s play it is meant to emphasize the comedic absurdity of Parker’s own double life.

Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane as Cecily

The first of Wilde’s scenes to appear in Spider-Man 2 is Act Three’s question of whether Cecily and Gwendolen can forgive the false pretenses of Algernon and Jack. As a parallel to Spider-Man’s tale, this scene represents Mary Jane’s own question of forgiving Peter about withholding the truth that he is Spider-Man. In Wilde’s play, however, the matter is sillier and more fickle. Both Cecily and Gwendolen are so caught up in the Christian names of their lovers that it is more a question of forgiving them for not being Ernests than forgiving them their double lives. Wilde’s women display a spoiled sense of entitlement but act like giddy pre-teens. For instance, Gwendolen claims that they should not be the first to speak to the men, but then she immediately speaks to Jack (Wilde 3.15-18). Gwendolen also claims that “in matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing” (Wilde 3.28-29), and that “there are principles at stake that one cannot surrender” Wilde 3.43-44). Cecily goes along with Gwendolen’s ideology quite implicitly, and the girls’ sense of moral responsibility is genuinely fickle and silly. Neither are the men as dutiful as they ought to be. Jack disapproves of Algernon’s moral character, saying “I suspect him of being untruthful” (Wilde 3.216-217). Jack’s claim here is exemplary of the men’s hypocrisy throughout the play – both having led double lives, lying to the women they love, and degrading the other’s moral character whenever it suits their needs. By including such a scene from Wilde’s play in the film, Raimi accentuates the double lives of both Peter and Mary Jane – one wears the mask of a superhero while the other wears the costume of an actress, both of which are duplicitous.

Peter and Mary Jane

The second scene from The Importance of Being Earnest to appear in Spider-Man 2 is taken from earlier in the play when Cecily and Algernon discuss the double life and hypocrisy. This likely appears later in the film such that the question of forgiveness can arise in the movie narrative before ever knowing if those duped will discover the truth. The manner of discussion in this scene, however, is quite playful and absurd. Cecily expresses that if Algernon, as the evil cousin Ernest, was not wicked and rather good, then she would disapprove of his hypocrisy (Wilde 2.119-122). Cecily would sooner frown upon hypocrisy than smile upon good character. Now, while Mary Jane Watson is somewhat materialistic in the Spider-Man comics and films, it seems she would nonetheless recognize that sincerely good character is more worthy of praise than begrudging someone their hypocrisy of merely appearing wicked. In the film, this juxtaposition helps establish a sense of suspense for the audience, hinting that she may not forgive the hero for keeping secrets.

In this respect, The Importance of Being Earnest and Spider-Man 2 display some significant similarities. Jack and Algernon both live double lives, Bunburying about town as Ernests. Peter Parker also lives a double life, saving the city as the wall-crawling, web-slinging Spider-Man. The difference between the two, though, is that Wilde’s characters choose to lead double lives as a means to escape their societal duties (Wilde 1.200-208), while Peter Parker takes on his alter-ego as a means of upholding his responsibilities. Also, when both Cecily and Gwendolen discover that their respective Ernests have lied to them they are shocked and appalled (Wilde 2.761-771), but once Mary Jane discovers that Spider-Man is really Peter Parker she is surprised, yes, but overcome with joy as well. Both tales deal with dual identities, but it is how the tales deal with responsibility that really changes what effect is produced once the truth is discovered.

Wilde has produced a truly silly comedy in The Importance of Being Earnest. Raimi has rendered a truly great film rendition of Stan Lee‘s Spider-Man. Both tales interrogate the complexities of living double lives, yet they differ greatly. Regardless, both works are thoroughly entertaining and come highly recommended.

Spider-Man and Mary Jane


Spider-Man 2. Dir. Sam Raimi. Perf. Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina. Columbia Pictures, 2004. Film.

Wilde, Oscar. “The Importance of Being Earnest.” The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays. Ed. Peter Raby. Oxford University Press: NewYork, 1995. 247-307. Print.

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Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture's Modern Myths

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So, I was scouring the Internet for different works on the philosophy of language (why? because, that’s what I’m like) and I came across a text that I had a small hand in developing. I was surprised, and it felt a little surreal to see the finished product on my computer screen.

In the summer of 2007, while I was a graduate student pursuing my Master of Philosophy in Humanities at Memorial University, I was fortunate enough to work with Dr. Arthur Sullivan on an early manuscript of Reference and Structure in the Philosophy of Language: A Defense of the Russellian Orthodoxy.

Arthur Sullivan's Reference and Structure in the Philosophy of Language

I first had Sullivan as an instructor during my undergrad for propositional logic as well as a special seminar on the philosophy of language. It was a thoroughly stimulating experience, greatly influencing my later research as a grad student. I remember writing one paper for Sullivan on language, reference, Superman, and possible worlds. I lost that paper somewhere. I really wish I hadn’t.

Anyways, I recall it was an absolute pleasure proofreading the manuscript for Sullivan. The text dealt with ideas more complex than what I had encountered during my undergrad, of course, but it was a welcome challenge for me as I had recently finished my Bachelor of Arts degree with a Double Major in Philosophy and English Language and Literature. Reading that last bit, I suppose I was well-suited for the task of proofreading and offering feedback on Sullivan’s manuscript.

In the book, Sullivan interrogates the relationship between reference and structure, two foundational concepts in the philosophy of language. Make no mistake: this is a hefty task. Reference and Structure in the Philosophy of Language demonstrates that the notion of structure can be seen as the basis of various other important points in the theory of reference. Here, he expands upon the work of Bertrand Russell, Saul Kripke, David Kaplan, and Stephen Neale, to name a few, aiming to provide a simplified, comprehensive lens through which a variety of semantic phenomena can be better understood.

I am truly honoured to be thanked in the preface for the small role I played in the book’s development. In all honesty, it is I who should thank Arthur Sullivan for giving me the opportunity to work with him on his research.

It was a fantastic experience! Thanks, Arthur!


So, Fredric Wertham was a liar. In the 1950s, Wertham nearly destroyed the comic book industry, leading an overzealous attack on the whole medium based on his claims that crime comics caused juvenile delinquency. Understand that, in his usage, crime comics referred to any comic containing a criminal act, so all of the superhero comics were included in his criticism. At the time, he managed to rally enough angry parents through his fervor to lead the Crusade Against Comics, nearly crushing the comics industry with his testimony before the United States Senate’s Judiciary Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. Recently, Carol L. Tilley, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, revealed that Wertham grossly overstated his evidence.

I am not surprised by this, really. In my book, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths, I acknowledge the bias in Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, his laughably overzealous attack on the comics medium. However laughable it may have been, the book’s publication is commonly regarded as the event signalling the end of the Golden Age of Comics.

Tilley’s findings, having scoured Wertham’s vast depository of notes at the Library of Congress, indicate the differences between his research and his testimony. In her article, “Seducing the Innocent: Fredric Wertham and the Falsifications that Helped Condemn Comics,” Tilley reveals many discrepancies, some of which paint Wertham as even more conservative and homophobic than one would have previously thought. Wertham completely misconstrued his evidence in his testimony to the Subcommittee. He did this in a number of ways, such as by combining accounts from multiple cases into a singular, more convincing case, as if the many were just one patient. At times, he would omit evidence that was inconvenient for or contrary to his argument. Furthermore, Wertham would pass off hearsay as if he witnessed the events himself. Clearly, Tilley’s paper discredits Wertham’s worth as an expert.

So, how do these revelations affect how I have covered Wertham in Superheroes? Ultimately, I think it has little bearing on my own arguments regarding Wertham’s work. I readily acknowledge that his argument was overzealous, and it’s not a big step to accept that he exaggerated his findings beyond what can be acceptable. I write in Superheroes that “The soundest portion of Wertham’s heated criticism is that art is a mode of communication. As we take in art as entertainment, we take in its messages constantly and the content of art’s messages may influence us.” I stand by that interpretation. My argument really only acknowledges the validity of the most basic foundation of Wertham’s position. Beyond that, his testimony has lost whatever credibility it may have clung to over the years.

Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture's Modern Myths

To say that Aristotle was a prominent philosopher would be an understatement. He studied under Plato’s tutelage, he became the tutor of Alexander the Great, and he sired syllogistic logic. Aristotle was one of the greats. Perhaps the most enduring element of his philosophical meditations has been his syllogistic logic. To facilitate a better understanding of this, it is helpful to contextualize and explain what constitutes the syllogism and scientific knowledge in Aristotle’s epistemology.

Aristotle had loved truth more than the ideas of Plato, and he deviated from those teachings. A significant difference arose as Aristotle disagreed with Plato’s theory of the Forms. While Aristotle sought to discover universals, he did not hold that universals existed separately from their particular cases; he claimed that universals consisted of the collection of particulars and there was no appeal to some abstract Form. In the Posterior Analytics, Aristotle considers the nature of the relationship between universals and particulars. It is here that he discusses the syllogism, demonstration, and scientific knowledge, and here he relates the differences between his own ideas and those of his tutor, Plato.

Aristotle asserts that our knowledge of events comes from demonstration (71b.18). He makes this claim after addressing the dilemma of Plato’s Meno – that is, if knowledge is recollection, “either a man will learn nothing or what he already knows” (71a.29). The problem with this recollection theory of knowledge, as Aristotle points out, is that it renders the notion of learning meaningless: “the strange thing would be… if he were to know [something] in that precise manner in which he was learning it” (71b.8-10). Furthermore, Aristotle will affirm that scientific knowledge is a matter of understanding the cause of an event (71b.9-12), an understanding which need not be derived from some recollective sense of knowledge.

The essence of Aristotle’s view of attaining scientific knowledge is summarized in the following passage:

What I now assert is that all events we do know by demonstration. By demonstration I mean a syllogism productive of scientific knowledge, a syllogism, that is, the grasp of which is eo ipso such knowledge. Assuming then that my thesis as to the nature of scientific knowing is correct, the premises of demonstrated knowledge must be true, primary, immediate, better known than and prior to the conclusion, which is further related to them as effect to a cause. Unless these conditions are satisfied, the basic truths will not be “appropriate” to the conclusion. (71b.18-23)

Unfortunately, this passage may be difficult for some readers to fully and accurately interpret due to the large amount of loaded terminology. Thus, an explanation of the complex terms and their relevance follows.

Aristotle argues here that we uncover scientific knowledge through his logical syllogism (71b.18-20). His syllogism is the “recognition through a middle term of a minor term as subject to a major” (71a.24-25). Accordingly, the following is a logical syllogism:

All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

The conclusion follows from the truth of the premises where “men/man” is the middle term, “Socrates” is the minor, and “mortal” is the major. The syllogism functions such that the given premises lead us to, presumably, new information in the conclusion by means of the shared middle term in the premises.

However, Aristotle asserts that there are further criteria to be fulfilled before the syllogism will yield scientific knowledge. Before the syllogism can produce scientific knowledge, Aristotle requires that the premises “must be true, primary, immediate, better known than and prior to the conclusion” (71b.21-22). With these qualifications, Aristotle’s empiricist tendencies become evident. That the premises must be true places them as affirmations regarding existence, “for that which is non-existent cannot be known” (71b25-26). The premises must be primary and immediate in so far as they require no further appeal to account for their truth (71b.27-29). This also avoids the chance of infinite regress in founding the premises. When Aristotle requires that the premises be better known than the conclusion, he means there must be a particular in the given premises – that is, particulars are examples known to our senses and this restricts our truth claims to phenomena within the sensible realm (72a.1-5). Furthermore, Aristotle places the premises as prior to the conclusion because he claims that the premises cause the conclusion, and that scientific knowledge is only made clear upon discovery of the cause (71b.29-32). These conditions are meant to empower the syllogism to yield scientific knowledge without committing a fallacy.

As Aristotle asserts that scientific knowledge can only be demonstrated by the account of such a rigorous syllogism (72a.25-26), he effectively restricts scientific knowledge to that which can be observed in experience; he limits our knowledge to the a posteriori. With this theory of knowledge, Aristotle continues to argue against Plato’s a priori recollection theory of knowledge later in the Posterior Analytics. He claims that the a priori recollection of knowledge requires us to have an innate possession of apprehensions more accurate than those that demonstration could provide (99b.26-28). In the light of Aristotle’s argument, this seems counterintuitive.

Aristotle’s account of empirical, scientific knowledge is appealing and appears to be quite legitimate. However, while I agree with the notion that a posteriori sense perception is crucial in scientific accounts of the world and its causes, I do not feel that the syllogism’s premises need to have Aristotle’s degree of immediacy. Arguably, neither scientist nor philosopher has ever accomplished a solid foundation for scientific knowledge. As such, it is doubtful that we could know any premise as an immediate truth. Further, science builds upon its discoveries with a significant degree of accuracy. Surely, if science were to employ the syllogism as Aristotle prescribed it, then they would need to dismiss the immediacy criterion as it would hinder scientific progress. Nevertheless, that may be nitpicking over trivial matters.

The essence of Aristotle’s syllogism and account for scientific knowledge has endured much criticism and the test of time. The ideas he fostered have flourished and evolved throughout the history of philosophy. Aristotle affected philosophy, scientific knowledge, even the way we think about the world around us in a profound manner with his ideas about the nature of knowledge and the role of logic.

The question of distinguishing right from wrong is a question that every individual will face in their lifetime, but some philosophers have taken the question beyond its face value; it has been taken beyond differentiation, and the question has extended to discerning the source of morality and even the validity of morality. Directly tied to this search for morality is epistemology. Within the realm of what can be known, empiricism also asserts itself as a crux for ethical reflection.

Essentially, empiricism holds that all knowledge must be acquired through experience, a posteriori, and cannot be acquired by reason independent of experience, a priori. Philosophers have both asserted and denied empiricism’s tie to ethics, while the consideration itself entails some connection (even if that connection is empiricism’s lack of influence on ethics). Considering this dispute between empiricism and ethics, it is vital to evaluate the claims of both perspectives. The relevance and indispensability of empiricism to ethics become apparent through an analysis of the role of empiricism in the moral philosophies of David Hume and Emmanuel Levinas.

Hume’s moral philosophy strongly appeals to a posteriori methods. In A Treatise of Human Nature Hume asserts that “The understanding exerts itself after two different ways, as it judges from demonstration or probability; as it regards the abstract relations of our ideas, or those relations of objects, of which experience only gives us information” (Hume 413). This is representative of his empiricism. He recognizes that the faculty of reason can deal with concepts through deduction and induction. That is, our reason can consider deductive and inductive validity, but the truth must originate from experience. While reason can encompass the consideration of our experiences, Hume holds that it “never influences any of our actions” (Hume 414).

The philosophical stand Hume takes on epistemology supports empiricism. This empirical perspective shapes Hume’s views on ethics. Convinced that reason cannot by itself conclude a course of action, he insists “Since morals… have an influence on the actions and affections, it follows, that they cannot be deriv’d from reason” (Hume 457). He further presents his logic on the role of reason within morality quite clearly:

Reason is the discovery of truth or falsehood. Truth or falsehood consists in an agreement or disagreement either to the real relations of ideas, or to real existence and matter of fact. Whatever, therefore, is not susceptible of this agreement or disagreement, is incapable of being true or false, and can never be an object of our reason. (Hume 458)

Hume makes a distinction here that while actions may yield praise or blame “they cannot be reasonable or unreasonable” (Hume 458).

After determining the utter impotence of reason in its capacity to move one to act, Hume attributes one’s sentiments or feelings as the motivation for action. Thus, as our sentiments can provoke and prohibit action, it also becomes the source of morality (Hume 457). From this he exposes the source from differentiating right from wrong as “the impression arising from virtue, to be agreeable, and that proceeding from vice to be uneasy” (Hume 470). For Hume, morality is not the dictation of a priori reasoning, rather he holds that morality arises from a posteriori sentiment; the distinction between right and wrong is directly in accordance with the subjects perception of pleasure and displeasure, respectively.

The moral philosophy of Hume is founded on his epistemological explorations that appeal to the a posteriori and empiricism. Hume’s empiricism in ethics is the prototypical representation of modern empiricism in ethics. In severe contrast to this empirical perspective is the post-modern moral philosophy of Levinas. Levinas’ philosophy takes a much different approach and asserts that ethics must actually be first philosophy and is recognized a priori before any experience.

Levinas developed his moral philosophy largely as a response to previous philosophies he found contrary to his own ideas. He clarifies his position on ethics in an interview stating that his philosophy “takes off from the idea that ethics arises in the relation to the other and not straightaway by a reference to the universality of a law” (Robbins 114). It should also be made clear that, even with “the relation to the other,” Levinas is asserting an approach founded in a priori reasoning. This a priori approach he justifies in his work, Totality and Infinity, where he declares that “the notion of face… brings to us a notion of meaning prior to my Sinngebung [meaning] and thus independent of my initiative and my power” (Levinas 51).

Levinas’ understanding of the face of the other person eclipses any social label we could ascribe to the other person (Levinas 50). While the other person can be labelled as father, son, brother, carpenter, and so on, he affirms that even the culmination of all such labels could not define what is the Other. Accordingly, he postulates, “For the presence before a face, my orientation toward the Other, can lose avidity proper to the gaze only by turning into generosity, incapable of approaching the other with empty hands” (Levinas 50). His revelation here is that in order to surpass the limitations of our labels and impositions of our experience we must embrace generosity. It is the transcendence and infinity in the face of the other that requires the subject to be for-the-Other, hence it compels us to act morally.

Levinas’ philosophy is founded upon the notion that the subject is for-the-Other. This notion leads to the subject’s responsibility for the other, and Levinas explains this connection in an interview with Philippe Nemo. There, Levinas affirms that:

…without even having taken on responsibilities in his regard; his responsibility is incumbent on me. It is responsibility that goes beyond what I do. Usually, one is responsible for what one does oneself. I say, in Otherwise than Being, that responsibility is initially a for the Other. This means that I am responsible for his very responsibility. (Nemo 96)

From the infinity encountered in the face of the other, a responsibility is commanded onto the subject to act morally.

This command for morality from the face of the other does not entirely conflict with Hume’s views on sympathy. In effect, both views lead to moral action. However, the Humean account of sympathy is likely where Levinasian philosophers would strongly object. While the effects of both sympathy and responsibility lead to moral action, their foundations are quite incompatible. Towards Humean sympathy, the Levinasian would likely object on the account that “Responsibility in fact is not a simple attribute of subjectivity, as if the latter already existed in itself, before the ethical relationship” (Nemo 96). Humean sympathy arises from the subject’s experience of the other as resembling himself (Hume 318), and this reduces the other to a limitation of inaccurate labels. To derive morality from this Humean sympathy is to embrace the other as a means to an end, as something that can either be pleasurable or anti-pleasurable. The Humean would likely concede that the ethical relationship as a social interaction between individuals is very important. Hume has remarked in the Treatise that “No enjoyment equals the satisfaction we receive from the company of those we love and esteem; as the greatest of all punishments is to be oblig’d to pass our lives with those we hate or contemn” (Hume 470). The Levinasian would be foolish to let this concession pass, as here lies a justification for immorality in Hume’s moral philosophy.

It is conceivable that the sentiments of one might regard the other with displeasure, as someone hated. As here the subject views the other as the embodiment of vice, then the subject has no inclination to act towards the other in a moral manner. In Humean sympathy, if the pleasurable sentiments toward the other are minimal or nonexistent, then there is no compelling force that would require moral behaviour. That is unacceptable. That sense of morality from the sentiments is founded in a posteriori elements. It is experience that causes sentiments to arise, and trusting the sentiments to determine morality equally allows the acceptance of immorality. With the responsibility for the other resulting a priori from an encounter with the face, morality is always incumbent on me (Nemo 96). The Levinasian philosopher would argue that furthermore, “The “relation” to the other man as unique – and in this way, precisely, as absolutely other – would be, here, the first significance of the meaningful” (Robbins 114). The ethical relationship is more than the social interaction of individuals; it is the foundation for further philosophical reflection.

With that, the Humean must begin the defence of empiricism. Hume had delved into the nature and capacity of reason quite thoroughly. His epistemology precedes his ethics, and his moral philosophy is based upon empiricism. A challenge of this nature cannot pass without severe retort.

The Humean, by questioning Levinas’ ethics, effectively questions Levinas’ entire philosophical perspective. To justify the importance of empiricism in ethics the foundation of Levinas moral theory must be refuted. One of Hume’s more recognized sayings is that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” (Hume 415), and it will be shown that Levinas’ moral philosophy is, in fact, reducible to a matter of sentiment.

In Hume’s Treatise, he makes an observation regarding other moral philosophies that he had encountered. Hume remarks that:

I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ‘tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. (Hume 469)

This observation is what has come to be known as the naturalistic fallacy, and there is much consensus regarding its validity. Essentially, it means that descriptive statements about existence, or what is the case, cannot lead to a prescriptive conclusion. For instance, consider this deductive example:

I am standing in the middle of the street.
There is a bus speeding towards me along the street.
If the bus hits me, then it will kill me.
I must move out of the path of the bus.

While it is obviously sensible to move out of the way of a speeding bus, the conclusion necessarily contains a value judgement, and value judgements are based upon our sentiments, they are not an object of reason.

The Humean response to the legitimacy of his morality incites the questioning of Levinasian morals. So the Humean applies Levinas’ supposed a priori justification for morality to the deductive test of the naturalistic fallacy. Levinas holds that “For the presence before a face, my orientation toward the Other, can lose avidity proper to the gaze only by turning into generosity, incapable of approaching the other with empty hands” (Levinas 50). This statement can be equally represented in this logically deductive structure:

The face of the other is infinite and transcendent.
To encounter the face of the other is a priori.
I encounter the face of the other.
I am obliged to be generous towards the other.

What can be said of the conclusion based on these premises? The truth of the premises themselves is questionable. Can the face of the other actually contain something infinite or transcendent? While it is unlikely that someone could generate an exhaustive description of the other, it is not contrary to conceivability. Would an encounter with the face actually be a priori? It seems self-contradictory that an encounter could occur independent of experience. Could an individual encounter anything truly infinite? Any infinite object or material seems absolutely absurd, yet we can conceive infinity as an idea. However, whether one can truly experience the idea contained in another or not, seems the territory of belief rather than reason. Regardless of the consideration of these questions, even if the premises are accepted as true, it would not entail that the sentiments of the subject would be generosity towards the other. As much as that conclusion is justifiable, on those same grounds animosity towards the infinite, transcendent other is plausible as well. Levinas commits the naturalistic fallacy at the foundation of his philosophy, and that trickles down to taint the remainder of his philosophy.

In fact, the Humean would expose that what Levinas has done at the basis of responsibility-for-the-other is place a value judgement upon his “a priori” reasoning. Values are not formed from reason alone. No, they are dependent upon our sentiments derived through our experience, through empiricism, a posteriori. Levinas’ kind sentiment obligated him to feel generous when encountering the face of the other. If his sentiment were fearful of the infinite and transcendent, then his reaction to such an encounter would consist of aversion or hostility. Further, if the infinite face of the other could be encountered by the subject a priori and devoid of sentiment, it would follow, not that the subject be obligated to generosity or responsibility but, that the subject consider the other with indifference, objectivism. To have an a priori impression of the other as indifferent would then present the other as no more than a means to an end, devoid of intrinsic value.

The role of empiricism in ethics is very significant. It is from empiricism that ethical consideration becomes possible. The a priori offers nothing to moral philosophy as it is necessarily emotionally empty. Hume said it best with “’Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger” (Hume 416). Empiricism may lead us to moral relativism, but that is still more than reason alone can offer.


Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature – 2nd Edition. Ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Duquesne
Studies Philosophical Series. Ed. Andrew G. van Melsen & Henry J. Koren.
Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969.

Nemo, Philippe. Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Emmanuel Levinas.
Trans. Richard A. Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press 1985.

Ed. Robbins, Jill. Is it righteous to be?: Interviews with Emmanuel Levinas.
California: Stanford University Press, 2001.