Eros as First Philosophy
This dissertation addresses and then attempts to further what could be called the “French” Phenomenological tradition and its developments of a phenomenology of eros in dialogue with—and often as a response to—older Platonic conceptions of eros. Eros, I show, had a foundational role in Plato’s ethics; becoming ethical was dependent on first having an erotic encounter with beauty. However, this connection between love and ethics has been frequently abandoned in 20th-century philosophy. I argue that this move, a side-effect of the development of a philosophy of alterity, was ultimately founded on faulty assumptions about the nature of love, as well as its connection to the good and the beautiful. For that reason, after first elucidating the concerns raised regarding an ethical eros and the reasons for the denial of love’s foundational role, I establish a definition of eros that can once again play the same role as Plato saw for it while simultaneously addressing the 20th century’s concerns about alterity and the recognition of the Other. Re-establishing this role requires arguing for three key theses: 1. Recognition of the Other is based on recognizing his or her beauty and goodness 2. Love of the Other is love of the Other as individual, not in light of some attribute 3. Love of the Other forms the basis of our entering into the ethical attitude. Combined, these theses build toward an ethical eros in two senses. First, they show that eros itself is an ethical relationship, which will be defined as an encounter with the Other structured by signification (the reasons for this definition will be made clear when I examine Levinas’ ethics). Second, the erotic encounter with one beautiful Other (which may or may not lead to a response of love) leads to the development of an ethical disposition toward all Others. In the dissertation, these theses are developed against the background of existing views about eros, in order to show their necessity, as well as to explore the reasons why they have so far been denied. Part I, “Platonic Eros,” therefore, is an in-depth reading of eros from the Platonic point of view, as seen primarily in the Symposium and Phaedrus. Part II, “Impossible Eros,” picks up on Plato’s failing to recognize the alterity of the Other and begins a critique of Plato from that point, carried out by a variety of early philosophers in the French philosophical tradition, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Lacan, and Shulamith Firestone. Part III, “Unspeakable Eros,” is a direct response to Part II, dealing primarily with Emmanuel Levinas and Jean-Luc Marion. Part IV, “Ethical Eros” is the conclusion of the dissertation, in which I argue that love can once again take on its role, assigned to it already in Plato, as the basis of ethics.