Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Ansell-Pearson, Keith. Review of Francois Raffoul, THE ORIGINS OF RESPONSIBILITY. NDPR (January 2010).

Raffoul, François.  The Origins of Responsibility.  Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2010.

In this book François Raffoul seeks to undertake a major reconsideration of the concept of responsibility, drawing upon the rich resources offered by trajectories in continental thought, notably Nietzsche, Sartre, Heidegger, Levinas, and Derrida. His fundamental contention is that we need to think responsibility less in terms of denoting a sphere of power and control, revolving around the establishment of a sovereign subject, and more in terms of our exposure to an event that does not emanate from us but which does call us. According to Raffoul we need to think responsibility not in terms of a spontaneous initiation but rather as a response. This suggests to him that the phenomenological senses of responsibility are closer to a problematic of answerability than to one of accountability and the latter's dependence on a 'metaphysical' conception of the subject. As such, the argument represents what is now a familiar set of moves within continental philosophy, namely, dethroning the imperial claims of a philosophy of the subject and replacing this with a thinking of the event. However, the chief danger of such a move is that it runs the risk of instituting a new set of oppositions -- for example, between activity and passivity, between control and letting be, etc. -- and becomes blind to those situations where sovereign subjects might be needed in order to assume power and exercise control. I am not convinced that sovereignty can be so easily dispensed with, and in some cases in this study, Nietzsche for example (the philosopher of will to power!), the argument seems far-fetched and over-determined.

The book is highly challenging. One of the main challenges consists in Raffoul's insistence that a fundamental rethinking of the question at hand, the nature and status of responsibility, needs to take place outside of the terms of familiar debates in moral philosophy, such as that between the competing claims of free will and determinism and the identification of responsibility with the sphere of the voluntary. Instead, Raffoul favours a phenomenological approach in which the terms of major debates within ethics prove themselves to be inadequate. Furthermore, the opposition between free will and determinism remains caught up in metaphysics and is merely an 'ontical' distinction and thus an obstacle to a proper ontological inquiry (concerned with the phenomenological 'being' of responsibility). The key claim of the book, then, is that, as classically and typically understood, responsibility is wedded to a questionable metaphysics of the free and autonomous subject and we need to start to think the possibilities of a responsibility without reference to such a subject. For Raffoul, the way forward lies in opening up, with the aid of his chosen continental thinkers, the senses of the Latin 'respondere', meaning responsiveness and answerability. The focus is to switch attention away from the subject that creates ethics for itself to an examination of the nature of the ethical claims that call us. . . .

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