The Justice of Truth – Lecture 3

January 27, 2013

Ethics is the condition of truth and not truth ethics. Western philosophy accepts as its starting point that the first relation to the world is one of knowledge and then attempts to reconstruct society on that basis. For Levinas, on the contrary, the first relation is social in the form of the ethical relation of the self to the other who calls into question by enjoyment and possession of the world through speech.

The fundamental question for Western philosophy is how can I know the world? How can I be certain that my experience of the world is valid and I am not betrayed by appearances. There are two directions in which one might go in order to answer this question. One might say that I agree with the world or the world agrees with me. In the former, reality is given, and I seek to understand it, whereas in the later, reality is constructed and I have to seek to understand myself. In both cases truth is a matter of agreement, of wresting agreement from the anarchy of my first experiences. From Plato onwards, we might say, the general tendency of, with certain notable exceptions, philosophy is to discover the truth of the world in the self. Not that truth is subjective in any simple sense, but that the truth of the world exists in a common reason that we all share, but which we can only discover individually through our own application of this reason. Philosophy is both the discovery of this reason, and the means to achieve it.

Levinas is not doubting the truth of this truth, but whether the ascent to it could have a begun without a social relation that makes it possible but which, at the same time, is not reducible to it. The search for objective truth forgets this relation because it forgets its beginning and thinks that it has founded, like Plato’s Republic, the true society on its own rational principles which have neither beginning nor end, and in which each individual is ideally treated as equal. Such an equality is the highest principle of political theory, which is freedom.

Perhaps this concept of freedom, however, conceals a violence it is unaware of (or perhaps sometimes all too aware, since someone’s freedom might be an other’s tyranny). For the freedom of equality abolishes the difference between myself and the other that Levinas argues is the very possibility of ethics and therefore peace. Yet Levinas’s argument is not only a negative one, as we have already hinted, where a freedom that is conceived as greater than the social relation to the other, has, if left to its own devices the danger of becoming violence and war, but also a positive argument that even this freedom cannot exist without the social relation that precedes it. The politics of freedom might be necessary, but if it is not invested by the ethical relation, then it can, as history has so often taught is, become the very tyranny that it abhors. What philosophy sees as an achievement won, the equality of all, Levinas worries might lead us to forget the inequality of the relation the other, without which this equality can lead to violence (we fight wars, for example, for the sake of this freedom).

Even when we ordinarily speak about truth we talk about justification. Such a claim is usually thought about in terms of objectivity. A justified claim or judgement is a legitimate one. But we could take this justification literally. What would a justified speech be ethically? To speak justly for Levinas is first of all to respond to the presence of the other. I justify myself in front of them. This does not just mean that knowledge of the world is shared. The social condition for knowledge is not inter-subjectivity, because inter-subjectivity treats the terms in the relation as equivalent. The I and the Other are not separate from one another but unified in a ‘We’. This presupposes that the only way to think of the social relation is as a totality.

The constraint of my freedom is not worked out in advance through calculation but is the shame I feel in front of the other. If the presence of the other did not first of all call into question my enjoyment and possession of the world, then no such embarrassment would be possible, and then I would not have to justify myself. Such a constraint is not a battle of wills. It is not that other forces me to submit to their will, for this would treat the other as though they were the same as myself, and then it would be impossible to distinguish peace from war. I am only aware of my injustice because of the other not because I have arrived at it through my own self-reflection on the limits of my freedom. Such an limit comes from without and not within. It is not a limit of my power, but a limit set to my power by the other who I respond to through the demand their presence makes on me. The other is already justified. It is I who have to justify myself to them. This fact that I have to justify myself in the face of the other, Levinas call conscience and it is the very impetus to moral action.

Conscience welcomes the Other. It is the revelation of a resistance to my powers that does not counter them as a greater force, but calls in question the naïve right of my powers, my glorious spontaneity as a living being. Morality begins when freedom, instead of being justified by itself, feels itself to be arbitrary and violent. [TI 84]

We are not then, as Sartre would say, condemned to be free. Rather our freedom is ‘inverted’ in the face of the Other. I do not first of all assert my freedom and then find that it is limited by obstacles in my way (those obstacles being indifferently people and things). On the contrary, my freedom is compromised from the very beginning, or prior to the beginning if one thinks that reality begins with a self that is in charge of itself. I am already guilty before I have accepted this guilt, because its existence is not dependent on my choice. It already defines my existence (even if I refuse to acknowledge it). The original source of the freedom of the self, which is the freedom to take up one’s existence is not to be found in the relation of this self to itself, but in its relation to the other. The genesis of my freedom, therefore is in the other. Freedom again is always freedom justified and not the arbitrary will that finds after the fact that nothing goes its own way. This anteriority of the demand of the other over my apparent independence Levinas calls ‘creation’ [TI 85]. Creation is not originally a theological concept, the absurd idea that the world is created by a God from a pure act of will (such an image of God is no different from the very arbitrary will of the subject that is called into question by the presence of the other), but recognition that the self is a dependent being before it even asserts its independence and that this independence, which must be real otherwise there would be no separation, is paradoxically a dependent one.

If knowledge is critique, as Kant would assert, then it comes from the side of the other and not the self. Self-critique ends up in an infinite regression where the self-reflection of the self upon itself disappears in a hall of mirrors. Only the presence of the other can truly critique the limits of my knowledge and thus provide it with its own external foundations. It can provide such a limit because the other is not an object of my knowledge or comprehension. It is that against which knowledge itself breaks. But why wouldn’t such an limit be an appeal to irrationality and myth? We might accept that the other is the limit to knowledge but this is not the same as saying that it is the ultimate source or foundation of knowledge, unless we appear to be saying that reason has its origin in unreason which would be tantamount to giving up on the possibility of Western philosophy.

When Levinas says that Western philosophy perceives reality in one way and prioritises thematisation, I do not think he means by that that we should give up philosophy, thought, or reason. The limits of philosophy are not philosophy’s limits which, like Kant’s famous island are always surrounded by the fog of superstition and enthusiasm for the unknowable, but there are the limits to philosophy. Philosophy itself has its non-philosophical source in the relation to the presence of the other. This relation is not mystical or mythical, but one of speech. It is speech first of all that makes philosophy possible, but the concrete experience of conversation is not itself reducible to a philosophical theme.[1]

Here we must make a distinction between what is said in speech and the act of speaking itself. It is not in what the other says to me that I have to justify myself, for what is said is common to each of us. It is the very impersonal reason that philosophy seeks to justify itself without recourse to the other. Yet what is said is only possible because someone speaks. The sign always refers back to a signified, to an idea or a concept. Such a signified always belongs to a systems of ‘signifieds’ and thus forms a totality of meaning. The other in speech, however, is not first of all a sign, because if that is all they were then the other and the same would be equivalent. They would be signs that belong to the same totality. The transcendence of the other is not what they say or what is said about them, but the saying itself that attaches itself to the word that is spoken. This for Levinas is the primary meaning of discourse. The speaker is present in the words they speak. It is to this presence that I respond. It is in this presence, or revelation to distinguish it from Heidegger’s disclosure, that I am called into question and must justify my freedom. In speech, therefore, the speakers, as opposed to what is said, are not at the same level. I speak in response to the other. The priority of the appeal of the Other to me is the measure of my responsibility in the ethical sense. My subjectivity is first of all responsibility and this responsibility, as a social relation, is the very condition of knowledge. For if knowledge is what is said, the ideas and concepts we use in order to understand the world and to share it in common both theoretically and practically, then there is no knowledge without the speakers and this speech is already curved towards the other. I must speak because the other address me. The priority of the presence of the other in speech Levinas calls ‘teaching.’[2]

The opposite of such a presence would be the ‘evil genius’ of Descartes’ Meditations. Such a description, however, is not the authentic portrayal of the other, but how reality would appear without teaching. A silent world is one in which I can find no certainty because the appearance of things is ambiguous and equivocal. Nothing seems as it is and the world is one of fear and terror. If the other were not present in the words they speak, then truth would not be a possibility. The world is first of all offered to me in the sincerity of the other’s speech and then it is subsequently thematised and theorised. Without this sincerity, I would never be able to trust the world and would, like the famous cogito, be stranded between the world of dreams and reality.

The objectivity and usefulness of things comes from within language that is the relation to the other, language as a social relation first of all, and not a description of reality that comes second. The truth of statements, therefore, is dependent of the statement of truth, which is not something said, but the orientation of speech: the one responding to the other. This orientation is even prior to Heidegger’s reformulation of truth as disclosure in Being and Time, where the truth of propositions is dependent on a disclosure of the world to me. Speech has nothing at all to do with the visible. I do see the other and then respond to them. They do not make themselves manifest to me. I respond to them in the straightforwardness of their appeal to me. I am made responsible to them in this infinite demand which transcends any possible idea or concept that I might have of them, and even goes beyond their disclosure as being within the network of habits and decisions that make up my everyday world. I am not with others, if we mean by ‘with’ side by side with them. The other calls into question my enjoyment and possession of the world. They are not an extra item to be added alongside. The locus of truth is society and not being.

Work Cited

Cohen, J., 2005. Interrupting Auschwitz Art, Religion & Philosophy, New York; London: Continuum.


[1] This is the positive meaning of Plato for Levinas, beyond the metaphysics of the theory of forms. Philosophy begins in conversation and it is not possible without it.

[2] There is an important issue here that throughout Totality and Infinity, Levinas describes the ethical relation in terms of speech, where the other is present in the words they speak. One might argue, however, that such a description undermines the difference between the self and the other, since the self too must be present in the words that they speak. For the issues of speech and writing in Levinas’s work see Cohen’s, ‘Absolute Insomnia: Interrupting Religion, or Levinas’, in Interrupting Auschwitz: Art, Religion, Philosophy (2005, pp.71–106).


Psychism – Lecture 2

January 24, 2013

The preface of Totality and Infinity puts forward the possibility of peace as an alternative to war. Such a peace is only possible if ontology is not the last word. But what could possibly be other than ontology? As soon as we speak about reality, about the human situation, do we not have to do so ontologically? Does not Western philosophy teach us that being is the ultimate question? For Levinas, at least, there is one concrete situation that exceeds ontology and that is the face to face relation to the other. The other is not a being, but first of all summons me to responsibility in speech. Not only is the relation to the other not an ontological one, but what we think of as ontology has it source in this prior relation.

The relation to the other not only requires that we rethink what we mean by the other. It also means that we have to reconsider what we understand by the self. For if the other is no longer a being, an object or thing, but a certain relation to me, then I too, from my own side, ethically speaking, just ‘am’ this relation to the other. This relation to the other Levinas calls ‘psychism’. If we look at the relation of the self to other, from a third person’s perspective, then it is true that they are equivalent. But this is precisely to reduce these terms to equivalents within a totality. When we change this perspective and no longer look at it from the outside but from within the relation itself, a relation of an interiority to an exteriority, a ‘I’ to a ‘You’, then these terms are not equivalent, since the first and second person are not the same as the third person. We address each other from within the relation. I respond to you and you address me.

If this relation is a response of the I to the you, then this means that the other has a certain priority in Levinas. It is the other that breaks with the anonymity of being first of all, and not the self. As Levinas writes in the conclusion to this section ‘Separation and Discourse’, ‘It is not the insufficiency of the I that prevents totalisation, but the Infinity of the Other’ [TI 80]. But this does not mean that the I is sacrificed to or swallowed up the other, otherwise we would be right back to the totality we are trying to avoid. The I too must have an existence that responds to the demand of the other is speech and this existence must be singular. I respond for myself. No one else can respond for me. If I did not have my own existence, then they would be nothing to respond to the other’s demand. It would be an empty gesture.

That both terms in their relation keep their distance or absolve themselves from the relation even though they are in the relation, Levinas calls separation. It is separation that prevents the ethical relation being a correlation of terms. But what is the separated subject? It means that the self too has its own existence outside of any totality of system. It has an inner life, an interiority, that cannot be subsumed in any history. Levinas first speaks about this in terms of death and here, as in the rest of this first part of Totality and Infinity, he very much has Heidegger in mind. Death is not just a future event which I fear might happen to me, it is also the agony of dying where the subject, vainly and hopelessly perhaps, struggles to continue its life. This life it attempts to hold onto against death is not just anyone’s life but its own. This life is precisely missed in the perspective of history where death is just the countless numbers of those who have died. It is only because each of us has our own time that our lives are not swallowed up by such indifference.

The singularity and irreducibility of each one of our lives, which I try to hold onto even in dying, Levinas calls enjoyment. I first of all enjoy my life before I reflect upon it. This is why psychism, the individuality of the self, is not thought but sensibility. As soon as one begins with concepts then individuality is lost. The multiple ceases to be multiple but becomes one within the unity of concepts. This is even the case if we try and describe any such quality that would define individuality. Any such difference in the end would belong to some genus and thus would still belong to a totality. The irreducibility of the individual is an event. It is produced in the fact of living, in ‘economic existence’, as Levinas will call it, and not in the ability of the self to reflect and name itself. Self-consciousness is first of all dependent on a life, and not life on self-consciousness to animate it.

Enjoyment is not opposed to the transcendence of the other, otherwise the relation between them would be one of negation which is the very opposite of transcendence, since both terms would belong to the same system. Transcendence, on the contrary, describes a movement beyond oneself without return, which Levinas describes, as we have seen, as metaphysical desire. This movement comes from the side of the other and not the self. In other words my possession of the world in enjoyment has to be called into question by the presence of the other in speech, and it is this that Levinas call ethics, and which is beyond the ontology of war justified in history and politics.

This presence Levinas describes as an experience of truth, but what he means by truth is something very different from what philosophy thinks of as truth. It thinks of truth as the coincidence of the knower and the known, but the ethical relation, as the idea of the infinite, is the disjunction of the knower and the known. The other is more than any idea that I can have them. This isn’t just a formal relation, but a concrete experience. Such an experience is the everyday occurrence of speech. When thinking about speech, I think that what matters is what is said rather than the saying of it. What is said is the conjunction of the knower and the known. The words we use express in a common reason that exists between us and which we share so that we can be understood. But the very fact of speaking is not the same as what is said. Speaking is the relation of the other to the self. Speech, first of all, for Levinas, is the address the other makes to me and which I can respond or refuse, interpellation and the vocative, before denotation. Such an experience of truth is what Levinas calls ‘justice,’ which he opposes to rhetoric, what is said, as opposed to the saying. Without this first experience of truth, truth as knowledge or objectivity would not be possible. There is only a ‘said’ because first of all we speak. Only because I first of all respond to the other can we share a world in which ‘collecting facts’ makes sense. Signification is first of all not meaning, but the giving of meaning, responding to the address of the other in speech. This presence (which Levinas calls ‘revelation’ so as to contrast it to Heidegger’s ‘disclosure’) in speech is more fundamental than concepts and intuitions, and even more primary than the disclosure and intelligibility that makes them possible. This presence of the other is not something, some form or image, for this is how things present themselves to me. Rather the presence of the other is the way in which they attend the words they speak. Revelation for Levinas has nothing at all to do with visibility. It is purely linguistic. ‘The eye,’ Levinas writes, ‘breaks through the mask – the language of the eyes, impossible to dissemble. The eye does not shine; it speaks’ [TI 66].

In speaking to the other, in responding to their interpellation, I do not use concepts. In defining the other, I am no longer responding to them. I am viewing them, as it were, as though I were looking at the relation from the outside, as when one imagines a room from above, rather than directly face-to-face. Even for Plato, perhaps, such a direct relation is inconceivable, because he thinks of my relation to the other as mediated by ideas. In the end this becomes a relation only to myself. The dialogue becomes the monologue of the soul contemplating the forms. Yet if the other interrupts the idea I have of them and this is the possibility of discourse, then knowledge and objectivity cannot be first, but must be second, founded rather than founding.

What would it mean to say that two speakers do not first of all share a common knowledge that would be true to all? It is not because they each have a secret word, or private language that they each remain unknown to me. A private language is impossible even in eroticism. Rather it is the orientation in speech that differentiates them and holds them apart whilst relating to another and which cannot be grasped from the outside by a third point of view. The other is not comprehended or understood through a concept that is shared but is responded to in the speech. Freedom is not first of all a political property of an individual, for such a freedom would be the same for everyone and equivalent. Freedom is the concrete experience of separation. The freedom of the other is that they are not only not the same as me, but other than me. This is the difference between the other and my possessions. They disappear, as Heidegger described in Being and Time, in their use, as they become part of the network of my world, but the other, as other, is not part of, but ‘a-part’ from my world. It calls into question my contented possession of the world and in this way disruptes my very being from beyond being.

Such a call to responsibility follows the peculiar logic of Descartes’ argument for the proof for the existence of God in the Meditations. Even though the cogito comes first in the order of the argument, it is second in the order of explanation. For without the idea of the infinite, the cogito has no ultimate foundation. What is posterior is there anterior. Concretely this means that the calling into question of my world in the presence of the other has already taken place prior even to the accomplishment of my world. My place in the sun is already a usurpation whose forgetting is the basis of my enjoyment and possessions. The direct appeal of the face of the other in speech, a nudity which is more forceful than my astonishment at the sight of the world, and more disturbing than the nakedness of flesh, reminds me what I would have forgotten in my enjoyment of the world.

If the other is not a part of my world, then this does not mean they are mystical or mythical. Rather than explain transcendence spirituality as an escape from the world, where the self loses itself in the other, Levinas stresses the separation of the I. The I does not fuse with the other, otherwise it would lose its individuality. The stubbornness of the I, and its refusal to be hoodwinked by the divine, Levinas calls atheism. Atheism is the true meaning of monotheism, if atheism means the refusal to believe in some god who exists beyond this world. For the monotheistic religions are the rejection of myth and the tyranny of the gods. But this means that we must think religion completely differently. The other is not God, nor God the other, if we think of them both ontologically. The transcendence of God is not to found some unknown region of being through as a negation of this world, but is the ethical relation that is a concrete experience within this world, even if it disturbs and interrupts its ontological order. God only has meaning for Levinas in the demand for justice from the side of the other who speaks to me. This does not mean that one has to believe in God in order to be ethical, since a belief is always belief in something. What is first is ethics, and if religion is to have any meaning beyond ontology, then it is because of ethics and nothing else. As Levinas writes,

Metaphysics is enacted in ethical relations. Without the signification they draw from ethics theological concepts remain empty and formal frameworks. […] Everything that cannot be reduced to an interhuman relation represents not the superior from but the forever primitive form of religion. [TI 79]

Kierkegaard and Existence – Lecture One

January 18, 2013

For the first three weeks of this course on Being and Time we are going to read three philosophers as background to the text: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Husserl. We are not reading them in terms of themselves, but only to the extent that they help us to better understand Being and Time. In this way, we are doing all three a disservice, because we cannot hope to be true to their philosophy by investigating what they have written in any depth. Hopefully, at some other time perhaps, if these philosophers interest you then, you can read them for themselves rather than just for Being and Time.

We are perhaps even doing a greater injury to Kierkegaard than the other two, because he expressly saw his writing as having a higher religious purpose than simply being a philosophical treatise or worse an introduction to something called ‘existentialism’. Yet in some way this wrong done to his intentions was already committed by Heidegger. Our purpose here is to explain what influence Kierkegaard had on Being and Time, and not purely his own project. Nonetheless it is important to mark what the limitations of this interpretation are.[1]

As with most writers that have influenced Being and Time directly there is little evidence in the text itself of Kierkegaard.[2] The reasons for this are probably twofold. First of all, like every original thinker, Heidegger wanted to present his work as a radical break with the previous tradition. Being and Time is not a work of scholarship on Kierkegaard, however much Heidegger himself was influenced by this reading of Kierkegaard.[3] Secondly, I think it was important for Heidegger to differentiate his philosophy from religion, precisely because, at least in terms of its vocabulary, there is much that is in common with a religious conviction. As we have already intimated, the primary purpose of Kierkegaard’s writing is religious. His aim is to place in front of the reader the real demand of becoming a Christian. Now on the way to that it might be the case that existential themes are announced, since for Kierkegaard one cannot truly be Christian without first of all becoming a self (indeed the two are necessarily entwined for him).[4] Whereas for Heidegger, the fundamental project is the existential analysis itself. Despite these two possible reasons for the virtual disappearance of Kierkegaard’s name in Heidegger’s text, it is clear that his work present throughout.[5]

What then did Kierkegaard discover that was so important to Heidegger’s existential analysis? Kierkegaard’s fundamental insight is that the self is not a category of thought. One does not think subjectivity into being, one has to become a subject. Existence is not a category of thought but a way of being. In terms of Kierkegaard’s context, he is writing against what he saw as the predominance of Hegelian philosophy at the time, where the human individual disappears in the system that he thinks.[6] What does it mean to be a self? We might think that this is the easiest thing of all to accomplish, since we are just born a self, but Kierkegaard wants to convince us that it is the hardest task of all, and some never achieve it. What is important is that simply thinking about it will not help. You cannot define the self into existence. You have to be it. In a footnote to Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard makes the famous distinction between learning about swimming and swimming. In the end to swim one has to swim. So too, to be a self, one has to exist as a self.[7]

In speaking of self objectively, I am describing the self from the outside. I might speak of myself or another person in terms of culture, morality and science, for example. But this way of speaking is not the same as being a self from within. Precisely by speaking of oneself from the outside, as though one were nothing but this objectified self, then the decision of being a self is left out. One just is one’s culture, society, or how science objectively describes me (a member of the human species for example). In this description, what make you or you a living self disappears. You vanish in the objective descriptions themselves. This does not mean that these objective descriptions are wrong. The scientific investigation of objective existence is right in itself, but it is wrong to confuse this with the subjectivity of lived existence. There are therefore two kinds of errors. One can make a mistake at the level of an objective description (one can think, for example that human beings did not evolve from a common ape ancestor), but there is more fundamental ontological error of confusing an objective description and subjective existence.

This means that nothing objective can help you make a subjective decision. Kierkegaard’s example is the decision to become a Christian. Nothing objective could make you become a Christian as a matter of faith. No-one becomes a Christian through the proofs of the existence of God, even if these arguments were true objectively. On the contrary faith is not a matter of reason for Kierkegaard but a subjective decision and it would be an ontological error to measure the latter by the former (as though faith were irrational in relation to the rationality of reason). An ‘objective acceptance of Christianity,’ Kierkegaard writes, ‘is paganism or thoughtlessness’ (Kierkegaard 2009, p.108). What is ‘thoughtless’ here is not that one has made an objective mistake, but one has confused the subjective with the objective.

We think that what is objective is hard and what is subjective is easy. We think the objective is hard because it has to be learnt, whereas the subject is just given as a birth right. On the contrary, the opposite is the case. Anyone can learn if they want to, but to want to learn is harder than to learn (as any student knows). The first is objective and the second subjective. Not only is there a difference between the two, the objective is dependent on the subjective, and not the subjective on the objective. I learn because I want to learn. Without this first subjective decision, nothing objective would be learnt. Even if I live in a culture that treasures learning for itself, I still have to, as a subject, take this upon myself as task for myself. No-one can learn for me, I have to have this passion in order to learn. Rather than my subjectivity being given to me at birth, it is therefore something that I have to accomplish and it is an infinite task, for just when I think that I might have become myself I can lose myself again.

This difference between the subjective and the objective is the basis of the first problem of Fear and Trembling (Kierkegaard 1983, pp.54–67). Objectively, the subject matter of this book is the sacrifice of Isaac, his son, by Abraham, which is told in Genesis 22. Abraham is commanded by God to sacrifice his son. He takes him up to Mount Moriah, makes an altar, binds his son, and as he raises the knife a voice commands him to stop. Everyone knows this story from the outside, but Kierkegaard, through the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio, wants us to experience the true horror of Abraham’s action from within.[8] Either he is a murderer or he is acting from faith, but if he is acting from faith then what he does makes no sense at all.

What is ethical, Kierkegaard explains, is universal and belongs to everyone and at every time. It is the ultimate telos and purpose of the ethical individual’s existence. This telos, however, is external and not internal, objective and not subjective. The individual breaks with this order by refusing to subject his will to the universal. This is what we mean by evil. An evil act is an action that breaks with the moral order as it is institutionalised in a given culture.[9] From this perspective, Abraham is a murder, and that he only stops his hand because he hears a voice would not make our judgement of him any better. But is this break with the ethical only an evil? Is there another way in which the ethical order is suspended? The paradox of faith is that the individual is higher than the universal not because the individual merely contradicts it but because the individual as individual is in relation to the absolute. The relation to the absolute is not the same as the relation to the universal, because in relation to the latter the individual is subsumed, whereas in relation to the absolute it is preserved. This cannot be understood from the outside, since from the exterior this relation can only be understand through the universal. Abraham could either be a murderer or a man of faith, but only he can know this. We can never be certain.[10]

Kierkegaard distinguishes the man of faith from the tragic hero. The tragic hero, however tragic he might be, finds recognition in the universal. The force of tragedy is the tension between the particular and the universal that finds resolution in the universal. Kierkegaard compares the Abraham’s sacrifice of his son with the Greek tragedy of Iphigenia (Kierkegaard 1983, p.57). On the surface these two stories might appear to be exactly the same. Abraham has to sacrifice his son; Agamemnon his daughter. Yet the results or outcomes of these stories are quite different. Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter for the sake of a higher purpose, the whim of the gods who will allow the winds to blow so that the Greeks can sail to Troy. It is terrible that Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter, but everyone knows that is this is the right and just thing to do. For Abraham, on the contrary, there is no result or outcome. His act is not justified by the universal, and no-one thinks that his act is legitimate. On the contrary, Kierkegaard asserts, the opposite is the case, there is no justification. Either Abraham is a murderer because he breaks the moral code, or he is man of faith, but the difference between the two is not rational. The true analogy between them would have been if Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter even though the winds had already started to pick up and there was no reason at all to carry through the terrible act.

What is the difference between the tragic  hero and Abraham? The tragic hero is still within the ethical, still within the universal. He has a higher purpose, goal or telos that in the end justifies the action however much the individual suffers, both the doer of the deed and the victim. This is the meaning of the spiritual trial or tragedy of the tragic hero. For Abraham, on the contrary there is no spiritual trial, even if he might think there is or we might do so, since he suspends the teleology of the ethical for something higher still.[11] He has a relation to something else that is not the universal, which is the absolute.[12] This relation, however, can only be subjective and not objective. It can only be recognised inwardly and not outwardly. He goes ahead with the act because as living proof of his faith in God, which is an individual subjective relation and not an objective universal one.

Abraham’s temptation, therefore is not to break the law, but to act out of duty. Not to trust in God, but to trust in the law. His temptation is not to kill his son, but the opposite, not to kill him. This struggle, unlike the tragic story, cannot be described, because what matters is internal not external. You can describe it from the outside as Kierkegaard does, but that is not the same as undergoing this trial. Because from the outside we do not whether Abraham is a murder or a man of faith. This is why from the outside his action can only appear as absurd and meaningless.

Because I cannot know whether my faith is justified or not from the outside, then I can only experience it in terms of doubt, distress and anxiety. If I could point to something outside of myself, some proof, reason definition, then I could find a stable resting place. But it is precisely these that are lacking. What has happened to contemporary Christianity, for Kierkegaard, is that it finds its certainty in the external so that it can avoid the anxiety of the internal. At least at the time when he was writing, everyone could confirm their faith by simply being a citizen but one did not have to take a stand individually in the way that Abraham had to proof his faith in the sacrifice of his son.

‘Anxiety,’ Kierkegaard writes, ‘is the dizziness of freedom’, but what is meant by ‘freedom in this remark (1980a, p.61)? It is not the freedom to want something, which Kierkegaard calls finite freedom, but infinite freedom. How do we distinguish infinite and finite freedom? One way to distinguish it is the object of freedom. The object of finite freedom is things, but the object of infinite freedom is literally nothing. It is precisely because infinite freedom has its object nothing that it is experienced as anxiety. What is this nothing about which I am anxious? It is my existence as such. Not this or that part of my existence, or even something in my existence, but my very existing itself. Faith, for Kierkegaard, is an expression of such an existence.

Here we come to the crux of Kierkegaard’s thought, existence. How are we to approach existence? If we were to describe it externally, then we would do so through categories, but is so doing we would lose its very character and what is revealed in anxiety would vanish in our labels, definitions and certainty. We want to understand existence in terms of its own being, from within and not from without. To do so, Kierkegaard argues, we have to experience it as a possibility rather than as an actuality. When we think of existence from the outside, we imagine it as an actuality. I think of myself, for example, in terms of the role I occupy. I am a student or a lecturer. But what defines these roles form the outside is that they are eminently substitutable. Anyone can be a student or a lecture, not just me. What I want to capture is the fact that is I who am a student or a lecturer. The only reason that I could be so is that these actualities were a possibility that I could choose or choose not to be. In terms of existence, therefore, possibility precedes actuality, whereas in terms of essence (objective and universal thought), it is the other way around, actuality precedes possibility. The anxiety that Kierkegaard describes as fundamental to becoming a self has to do with this possibility. For a possibility is not yet something, so to experience the possibility of possibility is to feel the anxiety of nothingness. What is it that I shall be? How to I become myself? What is my task?

There is another way of thinking possibility. It is not to be understood as lack, chance of good fortune, as when someone says on some happy day, ‘anything might be possible’. For the possibilities they are imagining, buying a new car, getting a better job, winning the lottery, are all actualities of this world, banal and common place. Rather what Kierkegaard means by the infinite is that ‘all things are equally possible’. In other words, everything is suspended in the possible before it is actualised. Not this or that possibility in my life, but my whole life has become a possibility and one that can be torn away and annihilated. In comparison, reality is easy to bear, because you have never risked your life for it. You become a part of your reality by acquiescing to it. You only become yourself, however, by rejecting it. Yet to reject reality is not replace one part of it for another. You never learn anything from existence by merely standing a little apart from it. Only when it, as pure possibility, has robbed you of all certainty do you learn anything at all. Existence only teaches me when I am stripped off my reality and not when I am absorbed in it. To experience the possible at the heart of the actual, and not the actual at the heart of the possible and to accept the impossible as the movement of existence is a matter of faith. For knowledge and reason will have already defined in advance what the possible is by the actual, rather than the actual by the possible.

No doubt for the most part, we do not live like this for who wants to face the anxiety of the possible every day? Also, Kierkegaard is certain that we live in age where what is ultimately possible is levelled down to the lowest level. We understand ourselves as others understand themselves, we think as others think, like what they like and even end up having the same opinions. We are hardly even living as individuals even though ironically we live in the age of the individual. Everything is fed to is so we do not have to face ourselves. Our lives are one distraction following another where what dominates are ‘the public’ and endless ‘chatter’(Kierkegaard 1978, pp.91–110).

There is, however, one eventuality that cuts through this banality and that is our deaths. Of course we all know that we are going to die eventually, but this death is an actuality, a fact, a death that we read about everyday online. What it isn’t is the possibility of our own deaths. The possibility of my death is not something that happens at the end of my life and which I can postpone as much as I wish. The possibility of my death is permanent and imminent. Moreover my death is something that I have to face myself. Someone else I cannot die my death. I have to do so alone. This possibility of my death shows me that my existence is fragile and temporary. All the actualities on which I have constructed my existence can be swept away by this possibility which is the impossibility of all my possibilities. If I were really to face this permanent possibility of my death would I not choose my life as an individual, rather than have someone else choose it for me?

Suppose death were so devious as to come tomorrow! Just this uncertainty, when it is to be understood and held fast by an existing individual, and hence enter into every thought, precisely because as uncertainty, it enters into everything […], so that I make it clear to myself whether, if death comes tomorrow, I am beginning upon something that is worth starting on. (Kierkegaard 2009, p.139)

If I were to die tomorrow, would I really be what I am now? It is not that this or that action or role is authentically individual or not (as though one were more authentic if one were a poet rather than a street cleaner, or Kierkegaard’s tax collector, for this again would be to confuse the inner with the outer), but whether one is authentically individual at all. Whether one really has chosen one’s life at all, and the risk, distress and anxiety this causes. Or whether one has accepted the safe and secure position, but which, from one’s death bed, one regrets as a life wasted. As Kierkegaard continues,

For me, my dying is not at all something general; maybe for the others my dying is a something in general. Neither, for myself, am I such a something in general; maybe for the others I’m a something in general. But if the task is to become subjective, then every subject will for himself become the very opposite of a something in general. (2009, p.140)

Risking one’s life, facing one’s death, being oneself, subjectivity as a task and an accomplishment, the priority of existence over essence, the internal over the external, the possible over the actual, are all themes that we shall find at the heart of Being and Time. What we will not find is any talk of God. We shall need to ask whether this absence troubles us or not. For the great difference between Kierkegaard and Heidegger is not, as Heidegger believed, that Kierkegaard lacked a sufficient ontological analysis of existence, but that for Kierkegaard to truly be a self you have to be in a relationship with God. For Heidegger, it is sufficient to be in relation to one’s own death. This is perhaps the difference between an ontological ethics and an ethical ontology.

Works Cited

Carlisle, C., 2010. Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling: a Reader’s Guide, London; New York: Continuum.

Hannay, A., 2010. Why Kierkegaard in Particular? Kierkegaard Studies Yearbook, pp.33–48.

Heidegger, M., 1962. Being and Time, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Kierkegaard, S., 2009. Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumbs, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kierkegaard, S., 1983. Fear and Trembling   Repetition, Princeton  N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Kierkegaard, S., 1980a. The Concept of Anxiety : a Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin, Princeton  N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Kierkegaard, S., 1980b. The Sickness unto Death : a Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening, Princeton  N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Kierkegaard, S., 1978. Two Ages : the Age of Revolution and the Present Age : a Literary Review, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

McCarthy, V., 2011. Martin Heidegger: Kierkegaard’s Influence Hidden and in Full View. In J. Stewart, ed. Kierkegaard and Existentialism. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., pp. 95–125.

Stewart, J., 2007. Kierkegaard’s Relations to Hegel Reconsidered, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[1] I agree with Hannay that there is no philosophy in Kierkegaard’s writings as such however they might be appropriated by philosophers as such. ‘I myself have ceased to look for such a philosophy in Kierkegaard. Whatever his private thoughts , and however much we like to ‘depth’ read the texts as an escape from nihilism, or to skim from them an early course in existentialism, that is not what Kierkegaard’s writings say on their face or even under the skin, not to me at least.’ (2010, p.46)

[2] There are only three footnotes to Kierkegaard in Being and Time. For a thorough analysis of the presence of Kierkegaard in Being and Time see Vincent McCarthy ‘Martin Heidegger: Kierkegaard’s Influence Hidden and in Full View’ (2011).

[3] This should not prevent others from finding Kierkegaard there for themselves.

[4] As Kierkegaard writes in Sickness unto Death, ‘Despair is intensified in relation to the consciousness of the self, but the self is intensified in relation to the criterion for the self, infinitely when God is the criterion. In fact the greater the conception of God, the more self there is; the more self, the greater the conception of God’ (1980b, p.80).

[5] We should be particular suspect of Heidegger’s insistence, in one footnote, that Kierkegaard was only capable of existentiell rather than existential analysis and thus any ontological understanding lacking in his work (Heidegger 1962, p.494n). If this were the case it would be difficult to explain how even his existential concepts have a remarkable kierkegaardian flavour. This is clear when one compares the pages on subjective anxiety in The Concept of Anxiety  and the description of the same phenomenon in Being and Time (Kierkegaard 1980a, pp.60–80).

[6] ‘From an abstract point of view, system and existing cannot be thought together, because systematic thought in order to think life must think of it annulled and hence not as life. Existence is the spacing that holds things apart; the systematic is the finality that joins them together’ (Kierkegaard 2009, p.100). Kierkegaard’s comments against Hegel are more aimed against Danish Hegelians and a philosophical fashion than Hegel himself. For a detailed account of Kierkegaard’s relation to Hegel see Kierkegaard’s Relations to Hegel Reconsidered (Stewart 2007).

[7] ‘In learning to go through the motions of swimming, one can be suspended from the ceiling in a harness and then presumably describe the movements, but one is not swimming’ (Kierkegaard 1983, pp.37–8).

[8] Clare Carlisle, in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, explores the significance of this pseudonym (2010, pp.24–8).

[9] There are three spheres of existence for Kierkegaard: the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious. The ethical expresses the universal (which he understands in an Hegelian sense; the aesthetic the capricious will of the individual; the religious, the relation of the will to the absolute. The important distinction is between the aesthetic and the individual. In other words, do not confuse subjective relativism with a genuine commitment to the self.

[10] This is why Kierkegaard says that from the outside one could never differentiate the knight of faith from the knight of infinite resignation. He tells the story of the knight of faith as an ordinary person who goes about his day without anyone knowing. ‘He belongs to the world; no bourgeois philistine could belong to it more’ (Kierkegaard 1983, pp.38–41).

[11] It is very important not to confuse the teleological suspension of the ethical for the sake of the absolute with subjective relativism. The latter is not a mark of commitment or courage, but precisely the opposite. Relativism is an expression of following the crowd and not a mark of authentic individualism, which is always a relation to something higher than oneself.

[12] It significant that the relation to God is to the absolute and not to the universal. In the latter God is part of reason; in the former He transcends it.

Eschatology and Peace – Lecture 1

January 13, 2013

Levinas opens Totality and Infinity with the remark that it is pretty important to know whether ‘we are not duped by morality’ [TI 21]. Why would we think there was a such possibility? The opposite of morality might be nihilism, but this is not really the object of Levinas’s question. His has more to do the current state of affairs. Do we not live in a permanent state of war? Isn’t peace itself merely a moment’s rest between wars? Do we not even fight wars for the sake of peace? Perhaps we ought not to be so naïve to think that there could be anything else than war and in war isn’t morality just, as Thrasymachus might say, the power of the stronger and the victor?

Even the history of philosophy seems to back this up. Is not philosophy itself from the very beginning in the thought of Heraclitus nothing but a meditation on this permanent state of war? The cosmos is nothing but the impersonal battle between the elements of which human destiny is but just a small part. We are all just parts of a system of which we are neither the author nor completely understand. Yet if there is no alternative to war is not existence itself at peril? For it is not only the enemy who is destroyed by war but also the friend. If there is any possibility of peace, real peace as opposed to the phony peace between wars, then there has to be another relation to the reality than war, but what could such a relation be?

Levinas calls this other peace messianic, but this is perhaps more problematic than an answer to our question, for we might be as suspicious of its religious overtones as we are of morality itself [TI 22]. He also describes this peace as eschatological. This word means, in the Christian tradition at least, the end of history when the Messiah is supposed to return. Yet I do not think that Levinas uses any of these words in a traditional religious sense.[1] Some philosophers might well as be as dismissive of this word, as they would have a morality that remains uncompromised by power, but its reference for Levinas is concrete experience that is universal. If there is a religious tradition of the eschatological then it first of all has its source in this experience rather than in any formal dogma. Moreover, for Levinas at least, eschatology has nothing at all to do with the familiar Christian idea of a revelation at the end of time when all is revealed, but a break with history within history itself.

What could possibly be such a break with or interruption of history? Surely history, in a rational sense, is seamless totality? What lies beyond history is the judgement of history itself. We should not confuse, however, this ‘beyond’, with some kind of mysterious transcendence, as though it were the gods or God Himself who were the judges or judge. Whatever Levinas will mean by ‘transcendence’ it will not be this. For we know that religion in this sense is just as much a part of war as the peace it hypocritically proclaims. Who judges history? Not me, for as such a judgement would always be complacent and self-serving. The judgement of history is the suffering of others, for even the victors cannot abolish that completely. The judgement of history is the judgement against me not for me. If I am oblivious to this suffering, then history continues as before, but it will eventually sweep me away in its wake too. The only experience that stops history is my response to the suffering of others who are more important than I myself. Levinas is not saying that I cannot ignore this suffering, for history is nothing else but this, but if it is possible to truly respond to it, then permanent war is not the only truth of reality and we are not duped by morality.

If we say that such an appeal is just a matter of faith and opinion, then we are claiming that philosophy’s view of reality is the only perspective that can be had. We might ask what kind of truth is this if it leads to the countless deaths of the innocent. Have we not the right to ask whether there is more to reality than this? If we cannot find any counter-evidence to the evidence of philosophy, then we have to accept this state of affairs. It is not a matter of throwing our arms up an bemoaning the harshness of reality. We need to ask ourselves whether we have any proof of an exception to it.

Such an alternative, Levinas argues, is the experience of the ‘face of the other’ in speech [TI 25]. Only if it is possible can there be a break with history and the reality of war. Yet, in turn, the possibility of such an experience, where I have a non-allergic relation to the other, requires that experience itself is re-thought. Is not any experience I have obviously my experience? But if it is my experience, then how can it truly be an experience of the other? Would not my experience already shape how I experienced the other, and thus prevent me from ever really experiencing them as other? It is a common place, we know, when anthropologists talk about other cultures, that we cannot really know them as they know themselves for we will always project our own values and beliefs on them. Is this not the same when we come to speak of the other? If the experience of the other that Levinas speaks of is the experience of the face, would I not always describe this face by the concepts that I already know, the colour of the skin, the shape of the eyes, the culture that it belongs to, for example?

If there is to be an experience of the other as other, then there must be another way to relate to my knowledge of the world, or there must be another experience of thought. This is what Levinas means by borrowing Descartes’ concept of the idea of infinity. He is not interested in it as part of the proof of God’s existence, but its logical form. For what is significant about this concept is that it suggests the possibility that the object of the idea is greater than the idea itself. In other words, that one might have an idea of God, but this idea could never contain what God Himself is. Or you might have an experience of the other, but the other still exceeds this experience. This excess of the other over the self Levinas calls ‘hospitality’ [TI 27]. Only if I were to assert that the meaning of experience could only have its source in the subject, could I claim that no true experience of the other were possible. But what if it were possible to experience the surplus of the other over any idea that I might have of them and this precisely was the meaning of the face? Is it not a prejudice of philosophy itself to suggest that thought can only think what is already part of thought? Cannot thought be open to what is beyond thought without at the same time falling into thoughtlessness?

This is precisely, Levinas will argue, what the method of phenomenology implies when it seeks to find in the known the horizon of the unknown. The only difference between traditional phenomenology and the phenomenology of Totality and Infinity, is that the former presupposes that this horizon is only more thought, whereas the latter that it is concrete experience. To discover such hidden horizons of thought is not an empty and lazy mysticism but, as we shall see, the very meaning of metaphysics. The problem with reason is that it is not rational enough, if we mean by critique the uncovering of the hidden assumptions of thought. It is not a matter of opposing irrationality to reason, for the irrationality is the very meaning of war and violence, but being more reasonable than reason by showing that its foundation is justice and ethics.

Metaphysics has always been taken to mean the search for what is other than reality. We can read this two ways: either as flight from reality, as Kant describes Plato in the opening of the Critique of Pure Reason, or has deepening of reality.[2] Such a deepening is the desire for the other, but we should not confuse this with a lack. When I lack something, I feel a need for it. My needs, however, already constitute my reality, they are not other than it. To truly desire something is to go beyond what I myself know and possess. It can only be the desire for what is ‘absolutely other’, which is not just another item or element that completes me. The relation of desire, therefore, is one of separation and distance, rather than union or oneness. If I were to reach what I desired then I would not long desire it. It is only because it is forever out of my reach that I desire it at all. Desire, unlike need, increases the more it desires, whereas need only looks for satisfaction.

Only if what is desired it out of reach, is desire infinite. The infinity of desire comes from the side of the other rather than me. Only because there is an experience of the other is there a difference between need and desire. Otherwise, I would only need others, as I need sustenance and they would become part of me as the food I eat. The difference between my desire for others and my needs, Levinas calls the ‘height’ of the other. This height is not a dimension like any other because the other is not out of reach like the cake on the table is out of reach of the child’s hand, but because no conception I have of the other could ever totally comprehend what the other is. Such is the invisibility of the other. They escape any possible viewpoint or context that I might already have of them. You are more than the colour of your skin, the shape of your eyes, or the culture that you belong.

In the distance between the desired and desire there is the break with totality, for they do not exist at the same level. To desire someone is not to cross the distance between your desire and the one desired but to maintain it. If you were to treat them equally, then you would destroy the difference between you. Both are separate from one another, but at the same time in relation to one another. The relation does not destroy the distance or the difference between them. This is not just a formal relation but a concrete experience. The other is not other than me because I have an idea that it is ‘not me’. Rather, it really is other than me. Separation is produced. This means alterity (the distance and separation of the other) is not the same as negativity. For what is negated belongs to the same system of meaning as the negator, since we are merely opposite sides of the same coin. Rather than negative, alterity is the superlative. The other, whom I desire, is more than me, rather than not me.

Metaphysics traditionally is not thought of as the desire for the other, but for knowledge. This knowledge both transcends the other and the self as the ultimate meaning of reality. Such an understanding of metaphysics, for Levinas, reaches its culmination in Heidegger, where this meaning is interpreted as the anonymity of Being that is the basis of every being, including human beings. Here all things are equivalent. Against this dogmatism, Levinas contrasts the possibility of a critique which is open to what is beyond ontology. Such a critique he names ‘ethics’ [TI 43]. Ethics is not opposed to philosophy, but is a different philosophy. There are perhaps two philosophies. The philosophy of power, ontology and war, and the philosophy of justice, ethics and peace.[3] To only compare and contrast them is this way, however, would be to treat them as though they were equivalent, as though one could make a choice between them. On the contrary, for Levinas, ontology is only possible because of ethics. Rather than ontology being first philosophy, as Aristotle asserted, it is ethics. There are, therefore, two key arguments of Totality and Infinity. One, that the concrete experience of the face in speech interrupts the system of concepts and ideas that underpin our history and politics, and secondly, that this system has its origin in this ethical relation. Ethics is not something added to human existence, once we have defined or interpreted it, but human existence is ethical through and through.

Works Cited

Kant, I., 2007. Critique of Pure Reason 2nd ed., Palgrave Macmillan.

[1] Or it might be better to say that what he means by the word ‘religion’ is not at all traditional. For religion does not mean a belief in God but a relation to the other. ‘We propose to call “religion” the bond that is established between the same and the other without constituting a totality’ [TI 40].

[2] ‘The light dove, cleaving the air in her free flight, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that its flight would be still easier in empty space.  It was thus that Plato left the world of the senses, as setting too narrow limits to the understanding, and ventured out beyond it on the wings of the ideas, in the empty space of the understanding.’ (Kant 2007 A5/B9)

[3] Levinas is aware that at the margins of Western philosophy there is always evidence for such a different philosophy. In Totality and Infinity, he refers to the agent intellect in Aristotle and the description delirium in Plato, and of course the idea of infinity in Descartes [TI 49].