Eschatology and Peace – Lecture 1

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].

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