THE LEVINAS READER
Edited & Introduction by Seán Hand
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by Seán Hand
"We are all responsible for everyone else — but I am more responsible than all the others". This remark, spoken by Alyosha Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov, is one Levinas is fond of quoting. It is a neat indication of the nature of a thought that, in the words of Jacques Derrida, "can make us tremble". Its challenge is an excessive one: a mode of being and saying where I am endlessly obligated to the Other, a multiplicity in being which refuses totalization and takes form instead as fraternity and discourse, an ethical relation which forever precedes and exceeds the egoism and tyranny of ontology.
It is not surprising that the remark is taken from Dostoyevsky. Emmanuel Levinas was born in Lithuania in 1906 of Jewish parents. His earliest memories include the news of the death of Tolstoy, and the tricentennial celebrations of the house of Romanov. The First World War, which uprooted the family, and the 1917 revolution, merge in his memories with his father's bookshop in Kovno. A particular confluence of the old and the new was therefore much in evidence. Judaism had been developed to a high spiritual point in Lithuania, and in the eighteenth century had produced arguably the last Talmudist of genius, the Gaon of Vilna. At the same time, Levinas's parents belonged to a generation that saw their future in the Russian language and culture. Levinas's earliest reading therefore involved not only the Hebrew Bible, but the great Russians : Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. It was the preoccupations of these Russian writers that led Levinas in 1923 to Strasbourg (the closest French city to Lithuania) in order to study philosophy under such teachers as Charles Blondel and Maurice Pradines. At this time the writings of Bergson were making a strong impact among the students, and Levinas has always insisted on the importance of Bergson's theory of duration. He quickly made friends with Maurice Blanchot, who introduced him to the work of Proust and Valery. In 1928-9, Levinas then attended a series of lectures given in Freiburg by Husserl on phenomenological psychology and .the constitution of intersubjectivity. It was at this time that he began to write his dissertation on Husserl's theory of intuition. He also discovered Heidegger's Being and Time, and attended the famous 1929 encounter between Heidegger and Cassirer at Davos, which for Levinas marked "the end of a certain humanism". In the thirties, he took French nationality, married and worked in the administrative section of the Alliance Israelite Universelle. At the outbreak of war, Levinas was mobilized as an interpreter of Russian and German. He was quickly made a prisoner of war, reading Hegel, Proust and Rousseau in between periods of forced labour. Levinas's book, Existence and Existents, with its description of anonymous existence, and the states of insomnia, sleep, horror, vertigo, appetite, fatigue and indolence, was begun in captivity. After the war he returned to Paris to become the director of the Ecole Normale Israélite Orientale and at the Collège philosophique, founded by Jean Wahl, he gave a series of papers which were to become Time and the Other. Since 1957 he has contributed to the annual Talmud Colloquium of French Jewish intellectuals. His 1961 doctoral thesis earned him an appointment at the University of Poitiers. This was followed by a move to Paris-Nanterre in 1967 and to the Sorbonne in 1973.
These biographical details delineate the major influences on the work of Levinas, a work which progressively analyses the alterity of existence in Existence and Existents; subjectivity, time and eros in Time and the Other; ethics as first philosophy in Totality and Infinity; the importance of language in Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence; and the question of God in De Dieu qui vient à l'idée.
The most important of these influences is undoubtedly phenomenology. Husserlian phenomenology involves the methodical analysis of lived experience from which can be derived the necessary and universal truths of all experience. Human experience is no longer seen as pure cogito, but as always tending towards something in the real world. Rather than proceed by abstract deduction, or dialectic, the phenomenological method enables consciousness to become reflexive, to recognize the intentionality that allows an object to emerge as meaningful. The lack of presuppositions in such a method reveals the relation between logical judgement and perceptual experience. Truth and meaning are shown to be generated.
Heidegger builds on Husserl's phenomenology while rejecting some of its central features. The notion of phenomenology is retained in Being and Time though the idea that one can isolate and so examine the purely conscious status of objects is rejected. The growing importance of the ego in Husserl, which leads him in Cartesian Meditations to redefine phenomenology as an 'egology' is rejected, though the notion of a transcendental constitution is still held . Heidegger shifts attention from the existence of beings to our very understanding of Being. Existential moods are now seen as the ontological ways in which we come to understand our being-in-the-world. Dasein is thus first of all an intrinsic part of the world, though it becomes ontological through its primary and unique concern with its own identity. It is through this concern that it relates to other Daseins and objects. The time necessary to such self-awareness is obviously most crucially perceived in the advent of one's own death. The fact of dying for and by ourselves is what gives the self authenticity, making it a "being-toward-death".
Chapters 1 and 2 below offer a clear illustration of Levinas's indebtedness to the phenomenology of this period. The critical position he takes up with regard to it is summarized in one of the interviews with Philippe Nemo published in Ethics and Infinity:
It is clear from the Heideggerian dramatization given to Husserl in the above quotation that the latter was guilty in Levinas's eyes of tainting his intuitionism with an objectifying "intellectualism". Levinas felt that as Husserl conceived of philosophy as a universally valid science, like geometry, this meant that philosophy occupies the same place in the metaphysical destiny of man as the exercise of the theoretical sciences . His conclusion, in The Theory of Intuition, was that in such a conception "philosophy seems as independent of the historical situation of man as any theory that tries to consider everything sub specie aeternitatis".
So in practice, Husserl's system does not admit meanings that are irreducible to representation. But for Levinas , these non-representational intentionalities are precisely the ethical encounter with another human being. It is this contestation of the ontological by the ethical that ultimately leads Levinas to disagree also with Heidegger. Even as the latter heralds the end of the metaphysics of presence, he continues to think of being as a coming-into-presence. Philosophy is still an egology in the way in which Heidegger subordinates the relation with the Other to the relation with Being. But whereas Heidegger locates signification in existence as a project, Levinas locates it in responsibility for the Other. The communication which must be established in order to enter into relation with the being of the Other means that this relation is not ontology, but rather religion, a place where knowledge cannot take precedence over sociality. This is seen above all in Levinas's view of time and death . The temporality of Heideggerian Dasein, which reaches absolute autenticity in an ecstatic being-toward-death, reveals less a sense of alterity than the area in which I come into what is absolutely and precisely mine, mineness or Jemeinigkeit, as §9 of Being and Time makes plain:
Levinas does not view death, however, in this way. Rather than see it as the ultimate test of virility and authenticity, as the proof of mineness, his ethical reaction is to view it as the other's death, in which we recognize the limits of the possible in suffering (see chapter 3 below). Levinas quotes Pascal's Pensées as an epigraph to Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence: "‘That is my place in the sun’ That is how the usurpation of the whole world began". The statement amounts to a rejection of the violence at the heart of ontology as first philosophy in the face of one's responsibility for the Other's death , an inescapable answerability which is that which makes me an individual ‘I’. This ‘I’ questions its right to be, but only given its unquestionable and primary obligation to the other. Ethical philosophy must remain the first philosophy (see chapter 5 below).
Totality and Infinity is the book which most explicitly criticizes the totalizing vision of previous philosophical systems in the West. In it Levinas rejects the synthesizing of phenomena in favour of a thought that is open to the face of the other. The term 'face' here denotes the way in which the presentation of the other to me exceeds all idea of the other in me. The proximity of this face-to-face relation cannot be subsumed into a totality; rather, it concretely produces a relation to the commandment and judgement of infinity. The face thus signifies the philosophical priority of the existent over Being. My presence before the face is therefore an epiphany. It creates an asymmetrical indebtedness on my part towards the Other's moral summons which is based not on a prior knowledge or Jemeinigkeit, but on the primacy of the other's right to exist, and on the edict: "You shall not kill". This commandment undermines the conatus essendi that bases itself on an appeal to nature. Ethics arises from the presence of infinity within the human situation, which from the beginning summons and puts me into question in a manner that recalls Descartes's remark in his third Meditation that "in some way I have in me the notion of the infinite earlier than the finite". Consequently, to be oneself is to be for the other. Levinas has summarized this fundamental point in an article entitled "Beyond Intentionality":
This "first philosophy", which bears testimony to the revelation of the Infinite, has important consequences for the nature of philosophical speech. Philosophical saying is no longer devoted to knowledge and the process of thematization culminating in self-presence. Speech is put in question since it is the locus of a face-to-face relation in which the Infinite reveals itself in its absolute difference. The primacy of the other's edict means that language is not simply enacted within a consciousness, as Levinas believes it ultimately remains in both Husserl and Heidegger, where it is still bound to the process of comprehension. For Levinas, it is language which conditions rational thought, and the primordial face to face of language constitutes reason itself. Reason lives in language, since the first signification is the infinity of the intelligence which expresses itself in the face. For Levinas, society and sigrtification precede the impersonal structures of knowledge and reason. This makes Levinas particularly open to artistic expression (see chapters 7 to 10) and to the entire nature of philosophical discourse (see chapter 11).
This attention to language, and the meontological subjectivity which it carries is most strongly experienced in Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence. Levinas's earlier descriptions of eros now become the basic language of the responsibility for the other, as "having-the-other-in-one's skin". In the way in which this vocabulary contests "intellectualism", it bears witness to an ethical relationship with alterity. For Levinas sees the act of saying, and the exposure, it entails, as the mark, and the very possibility, of ethical sincerity. Whereas ontology ultimately must reduce saying to the totalizing closure of the said, saying is a state of openness to the other. It is for that reason that Levinas has to speak of a state that is otherwise than Being, or being's other, since the ontological terms of philosophy in Husserl and Heidegger dissimulate and subordinate the primordial subjectivity structured as responsibility in which one finds oneself as soon as one enters language, prior to any assumption of that role. Saying is "the commitment of an approach, the one for the other, the very signifyingness of signification", prior to being a communication in which a truth is manifested. Saying therefore breaks through the noema involved in intentionality, stripping me in extreme passivity of every identical quiddity. Subjectivity is the dis-interested vulnerability of saying.
This offering of oneself is not a role that is assumed, but is a goodness that occurs despite oneself. The Biblical "Here I am!" (I Samuel, 3:4) which is offered as a responsibility for the other prior to commitment does not involve the reduction of subjectivity to consciousness. Instead it is subjectum, subjectivity as substitution and expiation for the other. The philosophical language of the book, and the book's philosophical view of language, enact a discourse in terms of "otherwise than being" that frees subjectivity from the ontic or ontological programme.
The responsibility for the other represented by "Here I am!" is therefore a sacred history rather than an epistemological one. The £Here I am!" is the place through which the Infinite enters without delivering itself up to vision. In the Jewish Revelation, the freedom of Being becomes the "difficult freedom" of the ethical "Here I am!", an open greeting based on a deferring to a towards-God, an à-Dieu. Levinas is not afraid to use the term God to designate this ethical exigency : invisible, infinite, non-thematizable and irreducible to intentionality. But God is not an absolute rule; rather, He "comes to the idea" as the absolute alterity revealed in the sacredness of the face-to-face relation. It is in this sense, as a revelation depending on an absolute ethical Law, which is never experienced as a stigma or enslavement, that the meontological subjectivity unfolded in Levinas's philosophy could be called Judaic, obedience to the Most High by way of the ethical relationship with the Other. The individual is not just Dasein; he is also the site of transcendence, responding to the unfulfillable obligation of the Revelation. Sacred history, fidelity to the commandments of the Torah, roints beyond ontology in affirming how being-for-itself is conditional on the unconditioned responsibility of being-for-the-other. Torah is anterior to being (see chapters 12 to 14 below).
This solicitation of phenomenology by sacred history is part of an anarchic signifying practice. This means Levinas can quote Psalm 82 to shake the foundations of ontology with the primordial necessity of justice, or read the inhabitants of Canaan as a comment on the Heideggerian order. But, equally, it means that the question of institutional justice and the politics of the modern state are at the heart of first philosophy as they are at the heart of the Talmud. Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence is therefore dedicated for quite fundamental reasons "to the memory of those who were closest among the six million assassinated by the National Socialists, and of the millions on millions of all confessions and all nations, victims of the same hatred of the other man, the same anti-semitism". Political self-affirmation means from the outset a responsibility for all. Levinas therefore views the state of Israel as the possibility of going beyond realpolitik and the dangers inherent in idealism towards the embodiment of a truly prophetic morality. The tension between identity and assimilation in a modern state whose monotheistic politics are those of a chosen and persecuted people is to be transcended ultimately by the original responsibility beyond any universalism, an ethically necessary politics that will mark the end of such concepts as assimilation and identity, together with the possibility of totalitarianism which they to some degree indicate and preserve (see chapters 15 to 18).
This moral combat, based on peace for the other, is one more indication of the radical challenge to thought posed by the philosophy of Levinas. In the age of Auschwitz, Levinas shows that to be or not to be is not the ultimate question: it is but a commentary on the better than being, the infinite demand of the ethical relation.
- Il testo continua nella sua presentazione antologica delle opere di Levinas, strutturando i capitoli come segue — il contenuto del CAPITOLO 12 viene riportato integralmente:
I From Existence to Ethics
- 1. The Phenomenological Theory of Being
- 2. There is: Existence without Existents
- 3. Time and the Other
- 4. Martin Buber and the Theory of Knowledge
- 5. Ethics as First Philosophy
- 6. Substitution
II Reading, Writing, Revolution, or Aesthetics, Religion, Politics
- 7. Reality and Its Shadow
- 8. The Transcendence of Words
- 9. The Servant and her Master
- 10. The other in Proust
- 11. God and Philosophy
- 13. The Pact
- 14. Prayer Without Demand
- 15. Ideology and Idealism
- 16. Difficult Freedom
- 17. Zionisms
- 18. Ethics and Politics
© First published 1989