Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Book Report: Alterity & Transcendence

This collection of writings by the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas furthers his attempt to restore the centrality of ethical relations to phenomenology. Specifically, Levinas discovers the ethics behind ontology in the face of the Other. The encounter with the Other forces us to acknowledge the primacy of the transcendent, infinite and alterior, which removes us from the closed totality of Being that Levinas felt, rightly I think, Western philosophy had traditionally been obsessed with.

Levinas studied under Husserl and Heidegger, and most of his work shows the influence, and negative-influence of these two men. There is something tragic in this early relationship to two of the most brilliant philosophers of the twentieth century, the dual father figures; one of whom, Heidegger, would deliver the Judas Kiss to his brilliant colleague. Levinas remarked that it was hard to forgive Heidegger, and we can see in his work an attempt to get beyond Heidegger's central obsession with Being. The Other is, by nature, beyond the subjectivity of Being and our responsibility to the Other unsettles our nascent subjectivity.

What he is doing in these essays is startlingly humane. Ethics suffer in Western thought from perhaps the 1700s onward. Humanity, for good or ill, finds itself cut loose from the great chain of being and gradually looses its embedded status in traditional ethical or social systems, turning instead to political structures. Levinas realizes that the state is a terrible replacement for conviviality; the social goes towards the Other as such, while the political goes towards the Other as type. One simply can't have a deep personal relationship with "France", or "the German nation" or "the American spirit". His fear is that, ulitimately the political may be in eternal opposition to the social, an understandable fear considering the fact that Levinas spent the war years in a prison camp while several members of his family were exterminated. What Levinas realizes is that philosophy, or what he calls ontology, has no answer to totalitarianism. Even the categorical imperative has been called into question. It is no surprize that Heidegger composes several volumnes about Nietzsche, or that he comes to say that the Holocaust was a tragedy, "but then so was mechanized agriculture." Metaphysics have been called into question along with everything outside of "finite forms" in a sort of return to Hellenic philosophy. Without metaphysics, without God, there is no real grounding for ethics, and so the phenomenology of the era lacks even an interest in ethics.

Levinas finds ethics, simply yet brilliantly, in a direct face-to-face confrontation with the Other. The strangeness of the Other, his inability to be reduced to I, his autonomy, produces metaphysics, and ultimately transcendence. We literally find the word of God in the face of our neighbor. We must acknowledge him as a finite being and accept the horrible truth of his death. With that, we become ethical beings. We cannot be complicit in his death, or allow it to pass in silence. He becomes teacher, and we become student. "Peace as awakening to the precariousness of the Other." This moves beyond charity, merely a sort of marketplace of decent acts, to love. For Levinas, philosophy is not simply the "love of knowledge"; but should become the knowledge of love.

This is somewhat abstract, but it is rooted in direct human experience. In this collection, Levinas points out that "saintliness" is acknowledged as a good by all men. Our belief systems seem arbitrary from the vantage-point of other cultures. But, every culture recognizes the innate goodness of committing a selfless act for another person. The recognition of saintliness as a virtue defines us as humans. Even for the soixante-huit generation, for whom "all values were 'up for grabs'" Levinas reminds us, there was never a question as to the "value of the other man". The simple truth of this is stirring. In our responsibility to the Other, we find the basis of all ethics or ethical social structures; in totalitarianism we simply find a refusal to acknowledge the face of the Other.

Levinas was a devout Jew, and yet his ethical ideas transcend any belief structures, distrust any philosophical distinctions and simply illuminate a common human desire to achieve unity with other beings. One wonders what sort of worlds would be possible if children were encouraged to spend quiet hours in contemplating the faces of others, instead of communicating over a faceless Internet. Seeing how quickly disputes flare-up in the anonymity of the psuedo-world, it makes one wonder if we adults don't need more time contemplating each other as mortal beings in the real world. And what sort of wars would we have if our leaders were responsible for nursing each other back to health in times of illness?


W. S. Cross said...

Thanks for sharing this, I'm really impressed. It's so refreshing to see ideas discussed.

Rufus said...

Oh, hey thanks! It's almost impossible to do Levinas justice, especially given the language he uses, and I really haven't. But, I'm glad some ideas came across.

Incidentally, there are some great discussions going on in your neck of the woods as well!

enowning said...

Something that has confused me about Levinas, and I've only read about him, is this notion about the "ethics behind ontology".

Is Levinas claiming that ethics is a basis or ground for ontology? That would appear to go against most philosophy since Aristotle's Metaphysics. It's hard to imagine how he can provide a basis for other forms of thinking, say the sciences, starting from ethics.

Or is he claiming that ethics is more important to humans than ontology, so don't worry about the foundations, and lets just start from (his) ethics, and elaborate philosophy from there. But still, how does he ground the sciences, or is that just not a concern for him?

Any pointers to explanations of these issues appreciated.

Rufus said...

Actually, I think you've hit on a very poor word choice of mine. Again, I lack the philosophical training to phrase these ideas clearly.

But, I think he sees this as a limitation of traditional ontology; namely its fundamental inability to go beyond being and history; a restriction of meaning to being. In this sense, the Aristotlean ontological tradition is limited, and indeed is not rooted at all in ethics.

In regards to the lived event of being, I think he agrees that it is, indeed isolated and solitary. We can never know the other as such. But, this fact forces us into a position of responsibility in regards to the other. Our experience of isolation gives us the desire to be beside the other. Because he will die, we fear that our being has displaced him in some way and necessitated his death Because he is alterior, he is beyond and even superior to us. So, in a sense, being forces us to yearn for what's beyond being. Therefore, I think he would argue ethics as rooted in the experience of being and sort of a siamese twin to ontology. But, he is definitely aware that it is not traditionally thought of as such.

Where to begin? Actually, I'm looking forward to reading the book Levinas and Buber from Duquesne University Press because I find both men interesting. But, he deals most extensively with these topics in Totality and Infinity. This webpage does a better job than I do:


Also, I think Derrida wrote quite a bit about Levinas towards the end of his life.

Again, I think "the ethics behind ontology" was just terrible wording. But, I hope these sources help.