Friday, October 18, 2013

What is Care? From Phenomenology to Feminism

If we are to care for future generations, what exactly do we mean by care?

Philosophically speaking, there are two main traditions of thought that tackle care. One is phenomenological, and more specifically Heideggerian. The other is feminist ethics, and its critique of Kantian traditions in ethics and liberal-democratic traditions in political philosophy. Historically speaking, the first centres on Heidegger's discussion in Being and Time of care as Sorge, the existential attitude which defines all human being as concerned with its future. Heidegger's concept appears to draw on Spinoza's notion of conatus, the endeavour of an entity to persist in its own being, and thereby reaches back to the Aristotelian concept of the formal cause, that which it is to be a given entity.

Circles of Care
Circles of Care, from
This phenomenological tradition is linked with feminist thought via Nel Noddings' work, which cites Martin Buber alongside Heidegger (in whom she finds ackinowledgement that caring is ‘the ultimate reality of human life’ (Noddings 2005, 15) in developing a concept of care which is concern for the other, rather than for the self. Noddings views an attitude of ‘engrossment’ as basic to human being. Prior to self-concern, and particularly to a Heideggerian concern for one's own death, the essence of caring is represented as an intuitive, pre-conscious mode of disclosing through which the other appears to the self in the position of a vulnerable subject in need of care. Others are not detached and experienced in the form of objects, but as having specific needs and vulnerabilities that stand forth against a background of its possible futures, its potentialities.  This attitude, for Noddings, both makes possible any enduring emotional attachment to the other, as well as any subsequent response to his or her apprehended needs. But it also has moral significance.

What is important about engrossment is that it does not simply place self and other into a kind of phenomenological relation that tells us what kind of being, at bottom, the other is for us. It also constitutes an ethical relation, as engrossment has a normative component: care is knowledge of the other that brings with it a certain responsibility for this other's vulnerabilities. This responsibility may last for a fixed period of time or may endure indefinitely.  The close relationship between knowledge and ethics is this event of disclosure has been associated by others with a non-intentional, immediate form of experience which underlies the possibility of both ethical life and, more radically, being human as such (Bauman 1993, pp. 87–8). Noddings continues in this vein by stating, for example, that the core of caring is a ‘nonrational’ responsiveness to the other (Noddings, 1984, p. 61). ‘Non-rational’ implies both that no rational ground can be given for the self-investment involved in caring, and that there is no conceptual mediation in the intuition, no act of interpretation.  In answer to the question ‘why do you care about X?’, there is ultimately no answer. One does or does not. One could point to concrete familial or other relationships as the proper arena of care, and then locate a reason to care in biology, social norms, specific instances of personal affection and so on, but in Noddings’ account it is engrossment that is the existential basis of such relationships as humanly meaningful ones, and not vice versa. However, if no answer can be expected to being questioned as to why one cares about X, then the obvious next question to be ventured is ‘why then should I care about X?’

To answer this question, one has to explore the links between Noddings' concept of care and a parallel tradition of 20th century ethical thought with links to the neo-Kantian tradition exemplified by phenomenology. Three important thinkers within this tradition are Emmanuel Levinas, Simone Weil, and Knud Ejler Løgstrup.

Levinas, like Noddings, makes the relation to another moral subject existentially prior to our self-relation, our self-directed conatus. For Levinas, face-to-face encounters with other human beings, whether intimates or strangers, are also impersonal encounters with the Other as a phenomenological horizon of our experience, as the Other for whom we exist as an actual moral subject who can either harm or aid them. The gaze of the other, her face regarding us, contains the transcendental condition of our experience of ourselves as human, and embodies an infinite existential demand which calls on us to ensure that no harm is done to the (impersonal) Other, and to be ready to account for what we do and have done to this other. Levinas thus posits a primordial ethical experience as the condition under which humans experience themselves as human, a fundamental non-reciprocal responsibility to recognise the Other’s vulnerability through our words, thoughts and deeds (Levinas 1980, 200). 
Simone Weil too finds the condition of ethical relationship not in the self, but in a demand the source of which lies in the other, while being at the same time impersonal:
there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him. It is this above all that is sacred in every human being. (Weil, 1962, p. 315) 

Similarly, the Danish philosopher Knud Ejler Løgstrup describes a fundamental demand imposed on us by the existence of others, one that creates the conditions of our own life, and without which it could not be genuinely human: ‘[o]ur life is so constituted that it cannot be lived except as one person lays him or herself open to another person and puts her or himself into that person’s hands either by showing or claiming trust’ (Løgstrup, 1997, p. 18); a demand exists because of the ’very fact that a person belongs to the world in which the other person has his or her life, and therefore holds something of that person’s life in his or her hands’ (p. 22).

It is true that Noddings stands in sharp distinction to Levinas and Weil (and to a lesser extent to Løgstrup), insofar as she emphasizes the two-sided, transactional nature of caring (with the role of the cared-for a necessary counterpart to that of the carer). Moreover, her concept of engrossment emphasizes the constitutive role of the responsibility to respond to the other with attention and attuned sensitivity, rather than the challenge of being called to give account for oneself. Nonetheless, her concept of caring bears a fundamental similarity to these three accounts of the ethical demand. For both Løgstrup and Levinas, encounters with others lay bare an impersonal demand from which our responsibilities to real individuals flow.  It is the compulsion to respond to this demand that grants ethical meaning to our actions, just as, Noddings notes, it is the  ‘caring that gives meaning to the caretaking’ (Noddings, 1984, p. 22). For all three of these thinkers, it is the inescapable, constitutive responsibility to the other that infuses acts with meaning, not the acts or the ends for which they are performed (meeting needs, etc.).

The unique powerlessness of future generations before the power of those alive now is a well-established theme in discussions of intergenerational ethics. It might seem, then, that the emphasis on vulnerability that drives Noddings' approach might be the ideal starting point for an enquiry into future-oriented care. Yet there are significant problems here, ones which also affect the phenomenology-linked tradition that includes Weil, Levinas and Løgstrup. This tradition reflects a historically-specific experience of ethical life, at the same time as it aims to uncover a universal ground of moral experience. Speaking through it is a desire for re-connection. It opposes to the rational foundations with which the Enlightenment sought to supplant the authority of religious revelation a non-rational foundation, a new revelation of the vulnerable other whose impersonal humanity, alongside their particularity, was denied in, for example, the Holocaust and the Gulag.  
From this perspective, modernity has enforced, under the cover of its discourses of universality, a new social contract of mutual indifference (Geras 1999). While the rights of the other are publicly affirmed as a rational basis for morality and enshrined in law, they remain insufficient to safeguard the sacredness of the other against the seflish projections of the ego or the abstract, centralized plans of the modern State. Levinas’ response to this culture of indifference, in particular, is to search for an ethical foundation that can enforce a leap across the chasm from the individual to the Other. The violence of the self (and the State) that threatens to subordinate all being to its projects is to be overmatched by the violence of the Other that calls the self to heed the injunction not to kill: the imperialistic force of the hungry self is opposed to the attention solicited by the needy Other witnessed in the Judaic tradition, as Levinas reads it, opposed both to public law and the contingencies of private caring. As Gillian Rose puts it, the force of possession exerted by the ego is to be opposed by another originary force, the compulsion from the face of the Other ‘to decreate the self’ (Rose, 1993, p. 217). This does away with rationality entirely, and makes responsibility arbitrary and infinite.

Transposing the idea of a responsibility to the other based on her vulnerability to our actions into the relation between present and future people creates more problems. Ulrich Beck (2005, p. 285), has argued that any adequate ethical response to the uncertainties and ignorance that shroud from us the future consequences of our actions should treat the future as absolutely Other to the present. Yet to do this is, as Timothy Bewes (1997) has pointed out, to paralyze ourselves, to 'decreate' (in Rose's words) the present in order to preserve the future from unintended outcomes of action. Even if we can imagine ourselves into some kind of immediate relationship to as-yet non-existent future people, what kind of moral agency could this lead to, except one that restricts itself from acting at all (indulging in an inaction that could itself pose risks to future people)?

The problem with the line of thought pursued by Levinas, Weil and (perhaps to a lesser extent)  Løgstrup is that it seeks to draw responsibility out of an immediate experience, a non-rational ground. Noddings too relies on the concept of such an experience to distinguish her theory of care from other theories in normative ethics. Yet she also offers an escape route from paralysis. Not only does she make concern for futurity (embodied in the potentialities of the other) the essence of a caring disposition, the theory of care she presents is not, ultimately, dependent on the kind of punctual, existential encounter on which Levinas et al depend. Instead, Noddings makes transactional experiences of care - which have a narrative structure - the core of her descriptions of what it means to actively care for another.

In the next post, we will examine other feminist thinkers' accounts of care, linking them to these two aspects of Noddings' theory, in order to understand care as disposition, as practice, and as a way of valuing.

Bauman, Zygmunt. 1993. Postmodern Ethics. Wiley
Beck, Ulrich. (2005). Power in the global age. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Geras, Norman. 1999. The Contract of Mutual Indifference: Political Philosophy After the Holocaust. Verso.
Levinas, E. 1980. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Dordrecht: Springer
Løgstrup, Knud Ejler, 1997. The Ethical Demand. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.
Noddings, N. (2003). Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics & Moral Education. Berkeley, University of California Press.
Noddings, Nel. 2005. The Challenge To Care In Schools: An Alternative Approach To Education. Teachers College Press.
Noddings, Nel, and Paul J. Shore. 1984. Awakening the Inner Eye: Intuition in Education. New York: Columbia University.
Rose, Gillian. 1993. “Angry Angels: Simone Weil and Emmanuel Levinas.” In Judaism and Modernity: Philosophical Essays, 211–224. London: Blackwell.
Weil, Simone. 1962. “Human Personality (1943).” In Selected Essays 1934-1943, 313–39. Oxford: Oxford University Press

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