June 7th, 2015: Guest lecture by Dennis Beach OSB "The Subject's Tragic Responsibility: Between Heidegger and Lévinas"


On June 17th of 2015 Dennis Beach – who is a Professor for Philosophy at Saint John's University in Minnesota – held a lecture titled “The Subject's Tragic Responsibility: Between Heidegger and Lévinas”. His lecture responded to an intellectual phenomenon of our time: In his opinion the connection between positivist scientism and a popular understanding of postmodern philosophy has not only led to suspicion with respect to the traditional concept of subjectivity, but also to the reduction of man to a machine supposed to share the total absence of inner life with the figure of the zombie. Beach confronted the one-sided elimination of the subject with his examination of Heidegger and Lévinas and connected both through the thought of a tragic subject brought face to face with an inescapable ambiguity.

This ambiguity, one of the leading motifs of the lecture, at first presented itself in the contiguity of danger and rescue thought of by Heidegger (through Hölderlin). Beach understood the role of the subject as it is conceived of by Heidegger as that of a tyrant who is being tyrannised at the same time. For whilst man as a subject subdues the essent (Seiendes) through tyrannic doings, he remains subjected to the Geschick of the be-ing (Sein) as Enframing (Ge-Stell) in the midst of this dangerous situation, by which he stays attuned to the be-ing as unconcealment. Man, who has appointed himself as lord of the be-ing, experiences in everything nothing more than the objectification of himself, whereas the encounter with his true self remains denied to him. Therein he resembles the remote-controlled zombie who, as a walking dead man, lacks an inner living self. It is only the capacity of man to let (lassen) himself be called into question that breaks open this all commissioning (bestellend) and challenging subjectivity and that only then opens up the sight of the tragic ambiguity of danger and rescue.

In an inescapable double-bind situation Beach found the main human feature in the Antique tragedy, whereof he gave two examples: Antigone, who inevitably finds herself caught between divine and human law, and Oedipus as the solver of the riddle, who becomes his own unsolvable enigma. In all that the figure of Oedipus emerged for Beach as the culmination point of tragic ambiguity illustrating his understanding of Heidegger's conception of the subject.

Following Lévinas, Beach finally asks himself whether in this tragic situation man can be thought of according to a revised concept of ethical subjectivity. With Lévinas subjectivity was considered as responsibility towards the Other whose face calls the self into question, even anterior to any interrogation regarding the being, and interrupts it. In the ethical obligation to become the representative of the Other, the self remains unwarrantable and is irrefutably held to account with regards to the Other previous to any deliberate action. This other ethical subjectivity also revealed itself as tragic, since the responsibility for the Other is never achieved but increased with every step. Ultimately the subject thought of as based on ethical responsibility represents an alternative to Heidegger's critique of the subject as well as to its naïve elimination for Beach.

Text by Daniel Kuran